Scholarship of Teaching

Liveblog notes from a research-based symposium on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 23 February 2009.

John Richardson introduces.  Starting point is always Ernest Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered. Boyer’s aim was to get administrators off the professoriate’s back. First time teaching considered as an activity for scholarly inquiry – brief chapter but influential.

Sue Clegg (Leeds Met), What do we mean by ‘theory’ in debates about the scholarship of teaching and learning?

Wants to muddy the waters, and pose some questions rather than supplying answers. Focus on link and theoretical frameworks to/from your discipline-of-origin. (I’m some way from mine!)

Pat Hutchins & Mary Taylor Huber (paper in special issue of AHHE) – theory is “the elephant in the room”, question of quality, basis for legitimacy claims – not a neutral question.  Mere descriptions of practice deprecated. Theory is at the higher level in disciplines and gets you the most credit (in sociology, at least). SoTL is highly democratic (in that all academics can do it), but researching it is becoming professionalised – journals are now just as competitive as any disciplinary ones. Usually a claim for superiority for one’s own version of theory – especially the approaches to learning. Graham Gibbs “we’ve cracked the theory”, now just need to tell people; she doesn’t subscribe to that.

Theories are variable and not unitary/singular; tied to fundamental ideas about epistemology and ontology. Look to the work the theory is doing for us (which is a question that depends on what your epistemology is, of course).  The complexities of HE, students, etc, mean that it’s ‘highly unlikely any one form of theory will suffice’ because a singular theory limits the scope of our understanding.

(Tension between eclectic/multi-theoretical and depth/rigour.)

‘Trading zone’ metaphor; not judgemental relativism. ‘Approaches to learning’ lit illuminates questions but doesn’t exhaust them, people in that tradition never claim it does.  Maryellen Weimar on reading lit within disciplines – see general pattern and singularity. Though is ‘more likely to produce insomnia than enlightenment.’ But we overestimate the difficulty of talking across disciplines.

Two arguments about disciplinary epistemologies and theories of SoTL. First about limits – philosophical point. Second socio-cultural about shape of disciplines.

Limits – humanities/social science easier to draw on for accounting for messy human stuff of teaching and learning. Experimental natural sciences frustrated by this messiness, desire for evidence stronger. Methodologies and approaches ‘are designed for dealing with different sorts of stuff’, because of the nature of the things being inquired in to. In (some) natural sciences can actually achieve experimental closure – very rarely the case except trivially in the social world. So disciplinary limits to using disciplinary approaches for SoTL. More controversial because of Governmental drives for evidence-based policymaking, which usually means RCT. (Has written a lot about it.)

Shape of disciplines – tend to move, break, split, emerge. New interdisciplinary areas in C19th/C20th; C21st ecology, globalisation, indigenous knowledges – the big challenges come from outside the Academy. Particularly in SoTL, challenges come from students. Discovery science is also in deep trouble too, though. Giddens etc on Mode 1 & 2 knowledge production. SoTL should aspire to be very broad in its approach.

Theory/practice links – Donald Schön on epistemology of practice. Positivism from industrial/military complex is useless for scholars, need to reinvent. Worth re-reading, pose different questions now. Gap between hands-on doing and abstract theory – law-like explanatory frameworks (‘approaches to learning’). Knowledge is created in the concrete practice and cannot be simply disconfirmed by abstract science since its knowing depends in large part on retroduction from practical experience. Andrew Collier, opera singing example – need to know about the mechanisms of voice production, but the act of singing is a visceral knowing.  Teaching (and other scholarly practices) are like that – you know when it works. (! interesting epistemological claim, verging on mysticism)

Tacit knowledge: SoTL has a tension in applying standards (peer review, evidence) as scholarship of discovery -gaps remain which are not resolved. Tricky questions about variability of applying standards – action research, teacher research, SoTL traditions all differing.  Other professions have had to wrestle with this too. Problem of the tacit and whether and how it can be represented.

SoTL challenge to teachers is to improve through evidence – parallel with discovery science. How to give scholars who teach the same status as those who research. Evidence that practice can improve without articulation – teachers who don’t reflect can improve more; not everything has to go through the loop of reflection. Real problem here. If purpose of SoTL is to improve teaching, scholarship is not the only route. So not sure that more theory will necessarily improve practice; might not be very good theory.

Papers aren’t very good because they’re “only descriptive”, not theoretical. (Me: theory isn’t the sine qua non, but you do need analysis.) Concrete/abstract, masculine/feminine, dualisms present in the debate. We should tolerate a little theoretical promiscuity and generosity before we start theoretical turf wars. We are a very young field. Creativity will come from the gaps.


For some people, reflection doesn’t improve practice. Should we worry that it’s a distraction from trying to improve the thing you’re trying to do?   We know our students fake it – they simulate reflection. And we do it to – we give people what we want. Ask students to reflect ‘and it doesn’t have to be true’, to create space to write differently.

(Me: Socratic question of the unexamined life not being worth living – and my view that it’s more that you don’t know whether the unexamined life is worth living or not. And academia is fundamentally about knowing, so we have to examine life. Whether it makes practice better or not is in many ways immaterial.)

Genius born-or-made argument, practice at the root. (Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours to be an expert idea.)  We need to look at practice, at the tacit. Renewed interest in Craft practices. Social critique of the devaluing of craft – culturally important too.  If you ask students or colleagues, will tend to agree, but fail to articulate why. In SoTL we reward not the good teacher but the one who can talk the increasingly hegemonic language of SoTL. For some colleagues it’s not popular; not that they’re dinosaurs, but theory/practice gap.

Mick Healey, Exploring the Nature and Experience of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Breslow et al 2004 – ‘One of the key ways to engage colleagues in their development as critical and reflective teachers […] is to stimulate their intellectual curiosity’ – appeal to professionality, not ‘it’ll make you a better teacher’.

Boyer’s four scholarships – discovery, integration, teaching (in the centre), application.

Activity – scan list of statements about scholarship of teaching, and rate (from Healey M, 2003). Raises whole issue of distinction between SoTL, scholarly teaching, excellent teaching, and so on. Tried this exercise in several contexts with people who are in the field/interested. Generally not a clear consensus – but some clear trends. 90% like Martin et al (1998), 75% liked Healey 2000 a,b ad Cross &Steadman 1996. <50% on some others.

Levels of engagement in pedagogic investigation (Ashwin and Trigwell 2004 p122) – purpose, evidence process, results: 1 to inform self, 2 to inform group, 3 to inform wider audience. All are SoTL, but researchers in level 3, but lot of SoTL is at levels 1 and 2. Not totally agreed with.  Mick Healey reckons going public – coming out – is the key element. Rare to have a positive conversation about teaching, but beginning to change.

Disciplinarity – pragmatic about a discipline-based approach. (Healey 2000)  If you can talk their language, they’ll listen. So in geography, use of case studies worked well to engage colleagues. Now starts with case study/example then introduces theory, more effective that way. (!) Start where the learner is.  But Anthropology Network set up to re-capture SoTL in their field in to their language; using their methods to investigate teaching.

Institutional cultures and reward systems vary. So SoTL experienced differently.  Also varies by nation – literature cited on SoTL differenet in North America (US) vs UK/Europe/Australasia. Large initiatives in UK, FDTL, CETLs, NTFs, HE Academy.

Four ways to link teaching and research: 1 do research on learning; learning about other’s research learning to do research; get students to do research.

Diagram – based on Healey 2005 – Curriculum design and the research-teaching nexus –  Two axes: students as participants vs audience, emphasis on research content vs processes and problems. Differentiates four approaches research-tutored (Oxbridge model), research-based, research-led and research-oriented. Inclusive diagram, all teaching fits in there somewhere.

Graham Gibbs – most significant of the processes for ehanching quality is the reward for teaching excellence. (1995). Then last week’s THE, HE Academy (2009), 92% thought teaching should be important in promotion, 43% thought it was.

Another exercise – nine case studies. People’s experience of SoTL varies. University of Sydney, very top-down – Scholarship Index – distribute 2-3% topslice on basis of points score based on e.g. 10 pts (recurrent) for a qualification in university teaching; 2 points (once-off) for refereed article. Is changing behaviour. Contrast with Liverpool Hope where they got interested people together over lunch.

SoTL is contested, differently experienced. Need to be aware of that. To take SoTL seriously is needs to be recognised in the promotions/reward processes.

Carolin Kreber (Edinburgh), Conceptions of SoTL: Envisaging a ‘Critical’ scholarship of teaching and learning

We tend to think of SoTL as the scholarship of discovery in the domain of teaching and learning, and that’s problematic.

Conceptualising SoTL – a socio-cultural model would predict that different disciplines would influence this. (Huber & Morreale 1997). Often SoTL conceptualised as pedagogical research; rarely as ‘learning about teaching’ and sharing what one has learned in less traditional ways.

Talk about teaching has increased, greater visibility. The dominant agenda is the valuing of research over teaching –  the structural problem is that this is not addressed because SoTL seen principally as research.

Lee Andresen (2000) on features of ‘scholarship’ – it’s what you’d aply to any proposition in the field of research or theory.

Aristotle’s three intellectual virtues – episteme/theoria (science, formal discovery of ‘truth’), techne (craft, what makes for best practice), phronesis (ethics). (Fiona Salomon 2003) Techne vs phronesis – techne aimed at establishing effective means to chosen ends; phronesis is discerning the desirability of ends.

Episteme – techne is the action-research/practice research challenge, very hard. But maybe Phronesis help select theory from Episteme used in practice/Techne.

‘Education is at heart a moral practice’ (David Carr 2000). Six ‘universal’ standards for scholarly performance (Glassick et al 2007) – but the goals themselves need to be examined too.

SoTL model: involves content, process and premise (critical) reflection on: teaching and assessment strategies; student learning; educational goals and purposes – with the aim of identifying and validating knowldge claims in these three domains. (from transformative learning theory Mezirow 1991; Kreber and Cranton 2000) Process reflection – instrumental learning (techne), communicative learning (linked to phronesis). Premise reflection – phronesis – leads to emancipatory learning.

The scholarship of teaching is concerned not so much with doing things better (‘techne’) but with doing better things (‘phronesis’). – Lewis Elton 2005.  (Very true in new technology context.) SoTL is/should be about questioning what we’re doing.

A ‘critical perspective’ – asking ‘Why do we do the things we do, this way? Is there a need to change?’. (Barnett and Coates 2005 on scholarship of curriculum … which seems separate from SoTL, shouldn’t be).

Implication for SoTL practice: address what students learn, and why they learn – as important as how they learn.

“In a time of global turmoil, what transcendent purposes will this ideal academy serve? In a time of great wrongs, what injustices will it right?” – David Orr 1990

Crucial question: At this time, in this context, what is it that deply matters to us with regards to the role of the university in society and the education or students receive.

One might argue that what is ultimately in the interest of society (and learners) is the achievement of learners’ sene of authenticity, ad move towards greater authenticity. Students moving to find their own voice, critically engaging and making it public to engage in critical dialogue with their peers.

Authenticity and motivation: To do what is rewarded (ext); To do what is personally rewarding (int); To do what is good (int).

Being authentic is a) to get clear about what one’s own deliberations lead one to believe, and b) to honestly and fully express this in public places. (Guignon 2006). Scholarship is (should be?) like this. Many ways of going public in SoTL other than refereed journal articles and conferences. E.g. critical engagement with colleagues.

John Nixon, Melanie Walker are doing this stuff but you don’t hear about it.

(Note to self: this makes SoTL an unabashedly political question, and a moral one. Don’t know much about politics as an academic discipline beyond intersection of history, philosophy and economics.)


Doing what is in the interests of students – may require a teacher to go against the dominant culture of the department. Often as a teacher you are compromised. Is a problem; so need these more critical discussions. The postgrad teaching programmes can contribute to this.

Distinction between a good scholar and a good teacher? Value in practice and theory. Soon as talk about scholarship, not happy with scholar having all knowledge based pre/non-theoretically on experience. To qualify as scholarly/ship, must be informed by what we’ve come to understand. Often don’t look at the lit on the purpose of HE, not consulted widely, but is interesting. Also important to go public in some way; to engage in critical dialogue with peers where our knowledge can be contested. (Key point of epistemology in a general sense – James would be going on about Popper right about now.)

Challenge to us as a community to talk about the purposes of our institutions. Rather than claiming our authority from having happier students, happier administrators (more qualified students out), need to engage in a moral activity, phroenesis, which might not make them happy.  There have been periods where people have argued very hard about curriculum – e.g. impact of feminism – not taking on the institution but what we want to do with this group of students. These debates have gone on.

Contrast between access – here we have what we teach, we’ll make it possible for you to access it if you’re non-standard – and inclusive – where we reconsider what we teach to include more people, teach differently and different curriculum.  E.g. in South Africa, very sophisticated debate about this because of the situation.

Authenticity – problem where the teaching has two tiers (as in OU) – quite commonplace to have course team talking to each other and developing theories of what they’re doing, but less authenticity than perhaps those more constrained by actually meeting students and seeing how they respond (ALs). Institutional problem of authenticity for the OU.

(If SoTL is/should be about challenging curriculum … hard to have that embedded in reward processes. Resisting the co-option/appropriation of SoTL by management – e.g. points-based schemes – is bound to create resistance.)

Plenary discussion

Ongoing question – is SoTL research? For John Richardson, it’s research when I’m doing something I wouldn’t normally do. Students would know if I was doing teaching, and they’d know if I was doing something funny – e.g. giving out a questionnaire. And when it’s research, have to consider ethical dimension and standards and supervision. Distinction – what’s the purpose? SoTL it’s to enhance the teaching. Research it’s to improve understanding, may not make things better for students. Parallels with clinical research – benefit to future people. But problem with that is all about techne; equating empirical with research.  But agree that empirical research does need ethical analysis.  There is probably more unanalysed SoTL data (qualitative particularly) than can ever be analysed.

So John is not a scholar of T&L, that’s what teachers do to enhance their own practice, and university teaching and learning as a whole.

Issue with the appropriation of SoTL by university management. Tension between recognition (double-credit for SoTL journal articles) and the moral, political challenge to curricula, which isn’t going to get you recognition because you’ll ipso facto have to be taking on the institutional power.  And if scholarship of teaching is the scholarship of discovery you’ve lost a whole aspect. But done better in the US. (Cornell getting the NY Times ‘best college’ award for writing in the disciplines, overtly a teaching intervention – was Ivy League, copied elsewhere, would like that to happen in the UK elite.) Over 200 colleges signed up to CASTLE, many big ones. Conferences in the States, it’s not a badge of weakness to say you privilege teaching. Our problem (UK) is the single-source of funding (overwhelmingly government). Envy of the Liberal Arts College tradition – take teaching seriously.

Questions from Scholarship in the digital age

Someone – Use Viewlet builder – do internal training with it.

Tony Nixon, MCT – Retain boundaries in University? Case for?

VC – Much more interdisciplinarity in calls for research funding, so breaking down boundaries is happening and matches the real world. Systems thinking is key; we have the best systems thinking group in the country.

Eileen Scanlon, IET – Conflict between move to Research Excellence Framework, citations framework – versus more open view.

VC – Not sure there is a conflict. Traditional measures take a long time to change. Want OU to be at the forefront of how we do measure those things.  Have philosophy (??!) blogger getting a lot of attention and reputation. Some academics deciding not to publish in print but just go to the web: academics are pushing at it.  More traditional measures are going to see enormous changes.

Brigid Heywood, Pro-VC Research – The REF is going to use very traditional measures – publish, citation. Academics should disseminate freely – but capture peer review and impact on the disciplines as well.  That’s the ground where we can lead.  In 2010 it’ll be classic measures, but we have a part to play in the new space.  All media to be used, but show peer review and academic impact too.

Web question – Martin Weller – via Twitter – Recognise in promotions criteria?  VC – yes of course.

Josie Taylor – move to Web 2.0 as scholars isn’t just learning to use the tools, it’s a culture shift.  Many of our colleagues need to recognise the demands on them – to rethink research and course development.  Very demanding!  VC agrees.

Anne deRoeck – Sustainability questions.  Web 2.0 turns everyone in to a publisher, but not in to a reader. Lots of stuff written but not read.  And environmental impact of technology.  Technologies are very new; has to be managed to make it sustainable.  How?

VC – Technology can help – e.g. collaborate online rather than drive or fly.  

Council member – how to get employer engagement, commercial ventures etc – how can OU lead on that area?

VC – People underestimate how much employer engagement we already do. But not shrinking from expanding it. A real grip on all this will make us more reputable and desirable to employers. Our stuff will show in the workplace.  Engage over what skills they want employees/graduates to have – and ability to work with the technology, and teamwork – are big there.  Management of teams learned via games.

Steve Swinthenby – Inclusion. Scholarship of inclusion?

VC – No favours by telling students you’re too poor or socially deprived to be engaged with technology.  Was pleased with Gordon Brown about giving broadband assistance to families – will help us greatly.  Access to Learning fund will include computers, we help in the costs of broadband for students.  And they think it’s fun and they enjoy it.  We have a problem with young men falling out of education – and they love the technology.

Pro-Chancellor (Lord Haskins) – Consumer power – e.g. reading bits from a newspaper.  A dangerous trend, narrows horizons – consumers are not guided through by an editor.  The same could happen in learning: students could set the agenda.  Consumer power has gone too far in some instances.  Academics will be running after the students, instead of helping students wider [their horizons].

VC – You won’t find that – academics aren’t engaging with the technology.  Still academics’ role to do assessment, curriculum design, students want the accreditation that comes out of that, and that’s a very powerful position so it’s not going out of the window.  Need to engage people more in learning. Participatory thing is good.

Conclusion – Pro-Chancellor (Lord Haskins) – VC has been a world leader in this, people listen to her wherever she goes.