Academic teaching styles need to move with the times

“Language and education have one thing in common—they are both too familiar,” said the late Professor Christopher Brumfitt in his inaugural lecture at the University of Southampton, United Kingdom, in the 1980s.

One of my favourite quotations, Brumfitt’s bold statement draws on the idea that our experiences of being educated can constrain possibilities for teaching and learning in unproductive ways.

The idea that what we do as teachers draws on our own experiences of being taught is important because, in the time since many academics were sitting in lecture halls, higher ­education contexts have changed enormously.

The students sitting before us in 2011 are very different to those who sat beside us two or more decades ago.

Institutions have changed, not least in relation to the kinds of graduates they aim to produce. Universities of technology, for example, aim to produce “work-ready” graduates with a range of skills and the ability to apply knowledge in the workplace. Universities with high research outputs and large numbers of postgraduate students, on the other hand, tend to want to produce different kinds of graduates.

Serving the African continent
In South Africa, though, what is common to many—or at least so their vision and mission statements tell us—is the aim of producing graduates who can serve the African continent and its people.

What does all this mean for teaching? Is the standard lecture, focused on getting content across and supported by the odd tutorial and “prac”, enough to produce the kinds of ­graduates we say we want to ­produce? Or is there scope for directing our teaching at producing specific kinds of graduates? I think there is.

Take the so-called research-focused universities in South Africa, for example. If we use the higher education quality committee’s definition of “quality” as “fit for purpose”, this small group of institutions, which was identified in a piece of research presented at the government’s higher education summit in April last year, needs to be able to explain the link between teaching and the research production it prizes. If its purpose is to produce research and large numbers of postgraduate students, how can teaching drive this?

Explanations of the link between teaching and research often take for granted that researchers use their research in their teaching. But the extent to which someone teaching a first-year chemistry class on the periodic table of elements can draw on cutting-edge research is questionable, to say the least. Although this explanation might work at postgraduate level, possibilities must be few at undergraduate level. But there is another way to understand the link between research and teaching. What would happen if, instead of focusing on the idea of ­getting the knowledge across, ­academics rather focused on ­teaching students to understand how it is made?

My colleagues working at foundation level at Rhodes University do this. In the science programme, for example, they make overt the values underpinning scientific method. In the humanities programme students learn how claims are always supported by evidence, how they are limited and refined. All this is done not as general “skills” but in the context of the academic disciplines themselves. The potential for developing students’ understanding of what it means to be knowledge-makers, if this were extended up the curriculum, is enormous.

Another case of crafting teaching to purpose relates to the desire, on the part of those involved in teaching vocational programmes, particularly at universities of technology and comprehensive universities, to produce graduates who can apply knowledge in the workplace.

Applied knowledge, as a number of theorists have pointed out, is not simply theory applied to practice, but is a different kind of knowledge. Significantly, it is produced by reworking theory in practice.

The importance of the reworking of theory
It is true that students on some vocational programmes do gain work experience. To what extent, however, does the teaching surrounding that work experience guide and foster the reworking of theory by getting students to reflect on what they see and do?

If we acknowledge the theorists, it would seem that it is only through this process of reworking that the applied knowledge that is so prized is produced. It seems to me there would be room here for all sorts of innovative tasks to be given to students to promote the process of reflecting on knowledge in use.

And then, of course, there is the case of producing graduates who can serve Africa—a desire that, ­admittedly, varies according to the kind of institution involved. The ­mission and vision statements of many of the rurally located, ­historically ­disadvantaged universities ­specifically ­identify the aim of ­producing graduates who can serve the poor communities that surround them. An obvious approach here is service learning, which takes students out into communities not only to provide a service, but also to learn from those communities and bring that learning back into the community. But as a doctoral student of mine, Mandy Hlengwa, is showing ably in her research, the willingness and ­ability to implement service learning is often constrained by ­institutional and disciplinary cultures and particularly by the understanding of what it means to be an ­academic teacher or, indeed, what academic teaching is.

The examples on which I have drawn here identify but a few of the ways teaching could be crafted to serve particular kinds of institutional purposes. The potential impact of this sort of thinking on the kinds of graduates who could be produced is enormous. As Brumfitt points out, however, the familiar holds sway and, as a result, many of our students experience exactly the same sort of teaching that we experienced, albeit in different contexts.

Educationalists often talk about ‘“pedagogies”. Paulo Freire gave us the “pedagogy of the oppressed”, and the people’s education movement of the 1980s drew on the idea of an “emancipatory pedagogy”. Is it time to think of “pedagogies of ­possibility” that would free us from the ­constraints of the familiar?

Professor Chrissie Boughey is dean of teaching and learning at Rhodes University. She developed the ideas expressed here in two earlier pieces: her article in the International Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning this year (vol 5.2) and in her inaugural lecture at the university in September 2009.

 

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