If we’re serious about research-led teaching, we need to tell our students what we don’t – yet – know. Enter teaching-led research!
One of the funniest moments of this academic year came when, in the final session with my fourth-year students, we talked a bit about their Bristol university experience as a whole. I chipped in some stories from my own student days, which prompted lots of questions. In the end, one of them said: “We tend to look at our teachers and think they’re all the same, so it’s nice to see that you are actually all a bit different.”
The best way to avoid being seen as a united front of identical teachocrats (I’m exaggerating of course, but I still think it was an astonishing comment, especially from a Year 4 student!) is to show that – just like our students, although perhaps in different ways – we are looking for answers in our research areas. We might take it for granted that we’re not omniscient, but we need to show in actual teaching situations what this means. Resonance Pedagogy holds that this is one of the best ways of creating meaningful learning experiences.
Given the importance of this issue, it’s something we should actively build into our course design. Physicist Wilfried Sommer explains how this can work: “When you introduce a new topic, you will obviously start with the basics, and you will be the expert. But even then, try and plant the seeds for something that can grow into a problem over the following weeks, and give your students a chance to discover it.”
This sounds quite abstract – what do you mean? “Be honest: there are things about your course topic that you don’t know. And chances are that you will find the course more meaningful if you actually learn something yourself. So put two and two together: steer your students towards a question that really does need exploring. You need to encounter the limits of your own knowledge in your teaching.”
We each need to find out what this is for ourselves, so I won’t press the point in my conversation with Professor Sommer. But is there perhaps something we should be wary of?
“I wouldn’t start with lots of neat and tidy models, because the risk is that students will then simply see the model as a container and try and fit everything into it, and they might only see the stuff that will fit into it in the first place. To me, part of the enjoyment of science is in exploration, and you can only explore when you allow for encounter first. Models are explanatory frameworks; they best come in when there is an actual need to explain something, in other words when we’re stuck. If we start from the model we won’t get stuck. And we’ll risk confusing the model for the real thing.”
The elephant in the room here is resource planning at School or department level. What Professor Sommer describes will only work if I actually have the freedom and the capacity to design my own unit. “If I inherit a module from someone else and the School says there’s no money for you to update it or tailor it to your own interests I cannot be a learner,” explains Christopher Baird, a researcher in business ethics with an interest in organisational culture. In other words, while teaching-led research will happen on the ground, our organisational context needs to help us to make it happen.
The trouble: the unit change process happens before it is necessarily clear who will be teaching a unit in the following year. Solutions are worth exploring: can the planning process be streamlined so that meetings can happen later? Can unit descriptions or even unit offerings be more flexibility designed and the amount of information provided well in advance be reduced, or a different typoe of information be offered?
All of these options boil down to whether we put the tutor at the heart of their course or give precedence to institutional standards. Situation or regulation? The question is disingenuous – it will always be both; let’s make sure it is in fact both.