Research: Sometimes a little thinking helps teachers to stay ahead: A debate among academics over the value of research to teaching has flared again as universities seek to reassess their lecturing standards. Karen Gold reports

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The Independent Online
'YOU'RE either up with the bow wave or behind with the garbage,' says Donald Grierson, professor of plant physiology at Nottingham University. 'The people at the front know where they're going; the rest are just following.'

The argument among academics over the role of research in good teaching has flared again. Sparked off by national assessment of universities' research activity and teaching quality, the debate has been fuelled by a new study that shows students, lecturers and vice-chancellors remain unconvinced of the relationship between teaching and research.

The study, carried out by London University's Institute of Education, asked lecturers, students and managers what made lecturers into good teachers. Lecturers and managers placed involvement in research low on the list, far below good presentation and enthusiasm. Students never mentioned research at all.

'There has been an academic myth that research is important for teaching,' Carl Loder, of the Institute of Education, says. 'It partly comes from a misunderstanding about the term research. People would tell us that they had to have time for research, but when we pushed them they would say they needed time to reflect, to read articles and books, to keep up with their subject. They mostly want scholarship; they didn't mean empirical research at all.'

Many academics would disagree. 'Scholarship is obviously important, but it needs to be a critical scholarship,' Ann Dowling, deputy head in charge of teaching at Cambridge University's engineering department, says. 'Only when you are actively involved in research are you able to apply the right filters. You can see the gaps in people's research because you are doing the research yourself.

'Research also teaches ways of tackling problems to which you don't know the answers. It's difficult to do that if you aren't engaged in research yourself. Engineers are constantly faced with such problems; you want to help students go about finding solutions for themselves, and that's what researchers are doing all the time,' she says.

Enthusiasm and expertise are inseparable from research, Professor Grierson says. A research-based department will have externally funded researchers who are in touch with the latest discoveries, techniques and equipment.

Active researchers also exchange ideas and findings several years before they become published knowledge, he says. Research at Nottingham University on how genetic engineering of plants could improve food production provides an example. 'In the early Seventies we and other people were involved in basic questions about how plants work. We knew that if we understood plant gene technology, it might be possible to alter plant genes to change the way the plant behaves,' he says.

'I was telling students in the mid-Seventies that it was on the cards, and by the late Seventies how it could possibly be done if certain scientific problems could be solved. It began to happen in practice in the early Eighties, and by the mid-Eighties even industry had woken up.'

Some industry managers and scientists in the mid-Eighties would have been students at Nottingham and other research-led departments during the early days of genetic engineering. They would not only be a lap ahead in the race to put new knowledge to commercial use, but also would benefit from the excitement of discovery, Professor Grierson says.

'If you took away research from university, you might notice nothing for two, three or four years. But slowly you would see people slipping off the top. You would end up teaching general courses without any peaks.'

Despite the passions aroused by the argument, there is, in fact, some common ground. Professor Grierson says that research is not necessary to teach first-year undergraduates, and that for some subjects scholarship may be more appropriate. (Albert Einstein, who did no empirical research, but can hardly be called merely a scholar, provides a ready example.)

The new universities are more likely to pursue this pragmatic line than the old, because of their involvement in research and the different subjects they teach. At Kingston University, Surrey, for example, only half the staff does research. But every lecturer is contracted to commit 20 per cent of each week to professional nonteaching activity.

'Our university's accountancy lecturers are working with large accounting firms, using computers and the latest techniques,' Robert Smith, the university's vice-chancellor, says. 'Our head of fashion works two days a fortnight for Max Mara. This is simply consultancy or professional development. These people need to be at the top of their field, but that doesn't mean they have to do research.'

According to Graham Gibbs, head of the centre for staff development at Oxford Brookes University, Oxfordshire, former polytechnics are now encouraged to enter the research race, too. Research and teaching are becoming competitors, he says. 'The rewards are higher for research, so people are discouraged from paying attention to teaching.'

He says that in the United States policy makers have become so worried by the standard of teaching in their research-dominated universities that a scheme to encourage 25 leading colleges to take teaching more seriously has been established by the Carnegie Commission. At Princeton, for example, academics have been restricted to offering only three research papers when they apply for promotion, so that there is no reason to spend large amounts of time on research.

Mr Gibbs says that if the link between research and good teaching were genuine, someone would have demonstrated it. Instead, as he travels the country advising universities, he finds plenty of anecdotes, but little evidence.

'I know of one university, in the top research rank, which was about to be audited,' he says. 'The registrar wrote to all lecturers, asking them to send in examples of the way research directly influenced their teaching. He was offered two examples, neither of which could be used.'

(Photograph omitted)

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