The privilege that is masked by the hollow use of acronyms

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In this post, Dr Medhat Khattar, Deputy Programme Director of the MSc Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (CMID), reflects on the dangers of hiding behind well-meaning acronyms in our quest for teaching excellence…

What does research-informed teaching look like?”, is an interesting booklet published in 2016 by AdvanceHE (formerly Higher Education Academy). The short booklet provides description of five case studies of “research-informed teaching” from UK universities [1]. How one understands the examples in the booklet depends on the degree to which one subscribes to prevailing terminology and paradigms in pedagogy. Sure enough, the five case studies are intended as examples of research-informed teaching, but are they really what they claim to be? More pressingly, does the obsession with the terminology of the research-teaching nexus bring us closer to promoting learning in higher education?

My answer to both questions is ‘no’.

Whether it is Portsmouth’s Research Based Learning (RBL) module, Trent’s Scholarship Projects for Undergraduate Researchers (SPURS), Lincoln’s Student as Producer, Salford’s Scholarships of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), or Kingston’s traditional research projects, the underlying principle is the same. It is not so much that learning is informed by research, but rather that learning is achieved by doing, because doing implies thinking through a problem and trying to solve it.

Is it time, then, to throw into the discourse yet another acronym, LBD for Learning by Doing? Not at all. Rather, it is time to do away with acronyms and phrases that, despite their initial appeal, almost always end up with a hollow ring to them. This hollowness is the hallmark of an idleness which acronyms often affect. It is as if once an acronym or a linguistic construct is arrived at to capture a paradigm, we become satisfied by its authority, its completeness, its logic, and an almost unquestionable applicability across the board. With acronyms and maxims we become marketers of pedagogical packages rather than educators whose focus ought to be none other than how to facilitate learning and development by the students, who are individuals or “meaning-makers” in themselves.

The “transmission mode” of teaching no longer has many defenders in higher education, but it remains the presupposition of the persistent “myth” that somehow “excellent researchers within a given discipline will by implication be better teachers” (Kinchin and Hay, 2007). It is a “myth” precisely because the relationship between teaching and research as human activities is far more complex for a simplistic assumption to capture, or explain. Rather, and as Kinchin and Hay (2007) put it:

However comprehensive the teacher’s expert knowledge framework, unless it is transformed appropriately to support dialogue with the novice student, it will not help student learning and will emphasize the gap between teaching and research. It is reflection upon the transformation process, and how teachers can engage with it, which will help student learning.

To recognise, to engage with, and to be part of the “transformation process” is to be a good teacher. This is not something that one achieves by being an expert in a given discipline. Rather, it is through recognising the true nature of learning and the value of the learner that teachers embark on the “transformation process” with their students. It is – as always – hard to get away from the place of empathy in all of this. And it is empathy which makes teaching feel like a privilege, not a favour.

[1] University of Portsmouth, Nottingham Trent University, Kingston University, University of Lincoln, and University of Salford.


Kinchin, I., & Hay, D., (2007). The myth of the research‐led teacher, Teachers and Teaching, 13:1, 43-61, DOI: 10.1080/13540600601106054

Medhat Khattar

Dr Medhat Khattar is Deputy Programme Director of the MSc Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (CMID). When not teaching microbiology, Medhat explores what political theory has to offer. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy (York), and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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