Thinking through a synthesis regarding Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Introduction

Since the publication of Scholarship Reconsidered (Boyer, 1990) the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) has become an important, if contested, vehicle for practical activity and research into teaching in higher education. As a field, SoTL has developed conceptually, and continues to offer a fertile focus for debate concerning the place of teaching within the Academy and how best to develop better, more critical pedagogic practice. One fundamental aspect of the various frameworks and philosophies which have emerged is the need for a ‘serious investment’ (Shulman, 2000:49) in reflecting on and understanding teaching and learning by those willing to enquire into, and change, pedagogic practice. In this paper, we argue that Lesson Study, a method for considering the learning challenges experienced by students and the pedagogic responses to them, offers great potential to augmenting the work of SoTL and suggest that it offers a positive framework for both more informal reflection by practitioners as well as a research tool for those wanting to pursue more in-depth and critical enquiry.

The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Arguments for the systematic interrogation of academic and professional practice are not new and can be traced back to the work of Schön (1983, 1987) on reflective practice in the 1980s. Shulman’s idea of a ‘pedagogy of substance’ (1989) and his challenge to what he calls a ‘pedagogy of solitude’ (1993) followed, both focusing on the development of a more public debate around pedagogic practice. The focus in these early perspectives was an attempt to analyse, develop and share insights into practice development. But it was the publication of Scholarship Reconsidered (Boyer, 1990) , which acted as the initial rallying call which led to the field of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. At this time SoTL was an attempt to bring a scholarly perspective to teaching and learning as a way of raising their profile within the Academy. Healy (2000: 170) argued that, following a decade of interest in this emerging field there remained questions as to how a scholarly approach to teaching might be realised,

… It is suggested that teachers in higher education institutions need to learn how to adopt a scholarly approach to teaching and how to collect and present rigorous evidence of their effectiveness as teachers.’

Healy also emphasised that SoTL should develop an emphasis regarding the student experience by considering and reporting insights into learning. Meanwhile Kreber and Cranton (2000) developed a focus on the forms of knowledge and understanding teachers should look to develop, identifying three aspects which they deemed characterised SoTL, namely:

  1. Instructional knowledge, i.e. consideration of content, what is taught.
  2. Pedagogical knowledge, i.e. how the content should be taught to foster student learning
  3. Curricular knowledge, i.e. a consideration of why elements of teaching and learning are taught in particular ways

Whilst emphasising different elements of the debate, these examples of some of the early insights into SoTL demonstrate a serious search for a meaningful framework for developing an understanding of teaching and learning within higher education. They also demonstrate an early feature of SoTL, that of a contested field searching for both meaning and application in practice.

Advocating an activity-led approach to SoTL, Trigwell and Shale (2004) developed a model which attempted to bring together critical engagement with the act and enquiry of teaching, whilst also (as with Healy (2000)) seeing student experience and learning as an imperative for research and practice, ‘a concept that links teacher knowledge and student learning.’ (524). This led Trigwell and Shale to argue that Scholarship of Teaching is based on a commitment to making clear in public discussion of teaching, how learning has been made possible (following from Trigwell et al, 2000). Consequently, they outline a practice-oriented framework which is founded on the active inclusion of learners within the process, resulting in ‘…a learning partnership, rather than an instructional relationship.’ (529). This leads to a three-part model of scholarship of teaching which involves the use and development of:

  1. Knowledge – this component of the framework outlines the nature of the knowledge base teachers bring to the act of teaching, including elements such as prior experience of disciplinary knowledge, and knowledge and conceptualisation of teaching and learning.
  2. Practice – including investigation and evaluation of teaching, reflection on practice and communication of the insights gained. Further, ‘the art of teaching at the core of this model…. is the act of academic engagement in deliberate, collaborative meaning-making with students.’ (530).
  3. Outcomes – this covers the outcomes of teacher and student collaboration, namely their learning from the process, including artefacts created through that process.

These three elements together provide the basis for scrutiny via opportunities to publicly share insights from the process. Hence, SoTL takes on a practical nature, and appears to share any characteristics of action research which has emerged as a popular methodology in HE research on pedagogy (for example, Burchell and Dyson, 2005; Greenwood, 2012). Trigwell and Shale (2004) briefly consider the importance of values in their model, including characteristics such as honesty and open-mindedness, but this does not act as the basis for a wider ethical perspective, and does not explicitly appear within their model of activity-based SoTL.

The contributions outlined above might be characterised as focusing on the activities and pedagogic perspectives which constitute a scholarly approach to teaching and learning. Consideration of the ethical and philosophic is exemplified by Kreber (2005) who develops a critical lens towards SoTL, and Skelton (2009) who emphasised the moral dimension.

Kreber (2005) argues for the place of SoTL as a process of opening up the pedagogic debate to encompass a wider perspective which considers the philosophical foundations of teaching. The importance of change in practice is emphasised, particularly with respect to emancipation and empowerment as drivers to advance and open the pedagogic act to new ways of thinking. The chance that SoTL may become a closed and narrow technist pursuit is challenged,

‘… there is a danger for scholars of teaching to pursue primarily instrumental, and perhaps interpretive or communicative rather than emancipatory, knowledge about their practice in student learning.’ (Kreber, 2005: 402)

Kreber therefore puts forward an explicit agenda which sees change and improved action as being at the core of SoTL whilst ensuring this is achieved through a wider lens of change within higher education more generally; here teaching and learning are seen as part of a wider educational agenda. She argues that a critical postmodern lens leads to 3 implications for SoTL:

  1. The need to see SoTL as ‘critical enquiry’ thereby calling into question how it is practised and by/for whom.
  2. Wider considerations including the form and content of curricula and the purpose of the University.
  3. Based on these, the question as to ‘what students learn and why.’ (402)

Skelton (2009: 109) focusing particularly on the concept of teaching excellence argues for a moral stance on teaching and learning, stating that:

‘For me “excellence” can only follow from a serious commitment to the reflexive development of a value-laden and morally defensible practice.’

This practice is defined as requiring a personal philosophy of teaching (‘ the need to develop a personal standpoint on teaching is necessary…’ (109)), and ‘the need to live out educational values in practice.’ (109), leading to teaching excellence as a moral pursuit. Further, at institutional level, this moral perspective should lead to a fostering of varied cultures of debate and practice, leading in turn to the sharing and growth of ideas and practices within a supportive environment, an alternative to looking towards sets of externally generated standards. Finally, he argues that this can only occur where teaching and research are not set against each other, but are taught together to ‘support a holistic notion of excellence.’ (111). Therefore, SoTL may begin to take on a wider and more critical character linked to the development of pedagogic practice through an activity based approach (Trigwell and Shale, 2004) whilst also being critical (Kreber, 2005) and moral (Skelton, 2009) in nature.

Questions remain over the role of SoTL in the wider Academy. McFarlane (2011) critiques SoTL as actually debasing research into teaching and argues for a greater level of theorisation, policy and practice orientated work, with research and teaching as an integrated whole. As he argues,

‘I believe that the distinction between ‘subject-based’ and ‘pedagogic’ research is entirely erroneous. What really matters is whether a piece of research is based on sound methods, has something interesting or useful to ‘say’ and has been properly peer-reviewed before publication.’ (127-128).

The discussion and debate relating to the form and focus of SoTL is therefore still alive and is keenly contested as it was over two decades ago when Boyer (1990) first considered the relationship between teaching and research. However, there are interesting aspects within the work of those discussed above which can be brought together to build a framework which brings together some interesting aspects of a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. These include a commitment to understanding and extending knowledge, to generating a practice-led perspective on teaching and learning, whilst also ensuring a moral and critical dimension.

Kreber (2013) has also extended her critical perspective on SoTL to consider the role which evidence plays in deepening and extending our understanding and practice of teaching and learning. She critiques the notion of ‘evidence-based practice’ as being too narrow as it attempts to nullify the complexity and unpredictability which is the day-to-day reality of academic practice. She argues that a ‘what works’ agenda may also tend to focus on efficiency, but not the wider aspects of why we are engaged in a particular practice. Taking Habermas’ (1971) , three knowledge-constitutive interests as a starting point, and using the work of Mezirow’s (1991) three forms of learning, Kreber creates a tripartite basis for the action of teaching;

  1. Instrumental learning – understanding and developing what is effective in teaching
  2. Communicative learning – understanding how students experience particular learning processes, i.e. how desirable we believe our strategies are
  3. Emancipatory learning – exploring assumed values, norms and traditions. As a starting point for considering alternatives.

These help in our understanding of the wider ramifications of the action of teaching, and our own learning. Kreber (2013) also argues that the pedagogic questions we ask ourselves are not necessarily answerable through a scientific reflection alone, but must also consider the moral aspects of practice. Consequently, she argues that SoTL requires us not only to ask ‘what works’, but also ‘what is to be done’ and ‘why do it’.

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning has been a contested field since its birth in the early 1990s. However, some aspects of pedagogic practice and development appear to offer a coherent framework for advancing and understanding practices and wider debates around teaching and learning in higher education. An activity based understanding such as that developed by Trigwell and Shale (2004) offers a perspective which is founded on a knowledge and understanding of pedagogic literature as a basis for the development of practice and reflection. Skelton (2009) augments this activity based perspective by emphasising the role of personal philosophies and moral imperatives in understanding and developing practices which we feel are ethically defendable. Kreber (2005, 2013) reminds us that we need to position our practice within a broader critical landscape, considering the wider ramifications of pedagogic work and the potential for emancipatory power in creating teaching and learning experiences. In addition, these practices need to be developed through a critical use of research via an ‘evidence-aware’ perspective which sees research insights as a useful starting point for further personal development, rather than as an order to follow. This leads to a multiple perspective model of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (Figure 1).

SoTL1Figure 1: Synthetic model of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

References

Boyer, E. L. (1990) Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, N.J: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Burchell, H. & Dyson, J. (2005) ‘Action Research in Higher Education: exploring ways of creating and holding the space for reflection.’ Educational Action Research, 13(2), 291-3000.

Greenwood, D.J. (2012) ‘Doing and learning action research in the neo-liberal world of contemporary higher education.’ Action Research, 10(2), 115-132.

Habermas, J. (1971) Knowledge and human interests. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Healey, M. (2000) ‘Developing the scholarship of teaching through the disciplines.’ Higher Education Research and Development, 19, 169-189.

Kreber, C. (2005) ‘Charting a Critical Course on the Scholarship of University Teaching Movement.’ Studies in Higher Education, 30(4), 389-407.

Kreber, C. (2013) ‘Empowering the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: An Arendtian and Critical Perspective.’ Studies in Higher Education, 38(6), 857-869.

Kreber, C. & Cranton, P.A. (2000) ‘Exploring the Scholarship of Teaching.’ The Journal of Higher Education, 71(4), 476-495.

Macfarlane, B. (2011) ‘Prizes, pedagogic research and teaching professors: lowering the status of teaching and learning through bifurcation.’ Teaching in Higher Education, 16(1), 127 – 130.

Mezirow, J. (1991) Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner, How professionals think in action, New York: Basic Books.

Schon, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Shulman, L. S. (1989) ‘Toward a pedagogy of substance.’ AAHE Bulletin, 8-13.

Shulman, L. S. (1993) ‘Teaching as community property: putting an end to pedagogical solitude’,

Change, 25(6), 6-7.

Skelton, A. (2009) ‘A ‘teaching excellence’ for the times we live in?’ Teaching in Higher Education, 14(1), 107-112.

Trigwell, K. and Shale, S. (2004) ‘Student learning and the scholarship of university teaching.’ Studies in Higher Education, 29, 523-536.

 

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Reflections on starting points for course development

Deciding to develop a course which is already established and well thought of is never an easy process. When the various elements which go together to form a Masters degree work well and the feedback from students is overwhelmingly positive, the temptation is to sit back and enjoy the teaching. However, as with any course there’s always that nagging feeling that somehow it could be better. One of the problems with such a position is that the greater the degree to which pre-existing material is already viewed as excellent the greater the feeling that any further change will need to develop a new perspective.

I’m currently leading a very successful Masters course which draws the vast majority of its students from an international background. Over the past three years we’ve managed to retain, or even slightly expand, numbers on the course at a time when numbers elsewhere have seen slow contraction. However, there has been debate amongst the team who teach on the course as to whether or not we should be satisfied with what appears to be an excellent course, or whether we should attempt to bring transformational change by developing the course in a way that allows for a more authentic philosophy, for both staff and students. Carolin Kreber’s (2013) fantastic book on authenticity in teaching in HE quotes Walker (2006) who argues that university pedagogies should foster,

Practical reason; Educational resilience; Knowledge and imagination; Learning dispositions; Social relations and integrity; Respect, dignity and recognition; Emotional integrity, and Bodily integrity.’

(Walker, 2006, 127, quoted in Kreber 2013, 46)  

Kreber suggests that such a curricula view is important in developing capacities which offer life choices to students, which brings an authenticity to the development and process of student learning. In addition such authenticity requires reflection and debate by teachers to discuss and develop an approach which is both authentic to students and staff. I would argue that such reflection and discussion needs to be an ongoing, iterative debate amongst staff and students – the realisation of the community of pedagogy to which Shulman (1993) eludes in his thoughts on pedagogical solitude.

Through discussion, two areas have emerged as central to our thinking about further development:

  1. Study skills. Many of our students arrive on our course direct from undergraduate study in a number of educational systems around the world. This brings with it a wide variety of experiences and expertise in the reading of research and the process of critical writing. For a number of years we have embedded supplementary sessions within the course and have attempted to give students extra support and guidance to help them make the transition to Masters level and to the expectations of the UK academic culture. We have done this with varying degrees of success. At the moment two members of the course team are undertaking collaborative research with a colleague in the English Language Teaching Unit to develop insights into this strand of the course. The opportunity to spend time discussing common issues from the different perspectives we bring to the discussion has proved immensely important in shaping and advancing our understanding concerning study skills and wider course development.
  2. Research methods. In any course development I’ve been involved in research methods always has the potential to fulfil the role of a ‘curricula outsider’. Everyone knows it’s an important part of any Masters curriculum but there is always angst about where to locate it, how to build relations between it and the other elements of the course, and even how to develop it through a coherent pedagogy. Over the past four years it is the research methods element of the course which has changed each year.

Discussions amongst the team involved in developing and delivering our Masters course have emphasised that if we are to move the course forward in a meaningful way it is in these two areas that we need to affect well considered and radical change. Reflection by the team has established some simple principles from which the basis for a way forward is beginning to emerge.

Both study skills and research methods need to be at the centre of course design rather than ring fenced specialities or support services to content. There needs to be a genuine symbiosis between all elements which sees them as mutually supportive in the holistic development of the student. Study skills become another facet of research methods, a foundation for understanding, critiquing, synthesising and writing about research. By coalescing study skills with research methods they can be repositioned to become the backbone of the course rather than just another module which sits uneasily within the curriculum wherever it is placed. As Garner et al (2009, 3-4) state:

Until research methods itself is accepted as central to students’ education in a discipline, and a passion for research and ability in teaching it is a sine qua non for research methods tutors, students are unlikely to learn how to do research well.’  

If research methods is to be central to the rest of the course, it must talk to and become embedded within all the modules on the course in a meaningful and effective way. This brings a second principle. Shulman (1993) argues for the need of a shift away from ‘pedagogical solitude’, the need for a community of pedagogy. If research methods is to be brought to the centre of course development it requires engagement and discussion by the group of academics responsible for the course. Collaborative development needs to be at the centre of any course transformation which hopes to bring research methods to the centre of student thinking and development because it is only through a cultural shift that the changed pedagogy will be practically and consistently applied.

If a major shift in course structure through collaborative development is to be successful there needs to be a clear framework for developing that course. Developing a framework is best achieved by initially engaging with past studies and insights. As outlined in the next post, the redesign of this course will be founded on the use of Design-Based Research (DBR). This approach has two main advantages. Firstly, it allows us to develop an approach of theory informed practice development (praxis). Secondly, it allows us to develop a number of small scale research projects around the processes and outcomes of change. In this way, it will hopefully become a true contribution to scholarship of teaching and learning.

Garner, M.; Wagner, C. & Kawulich, B. (2009) ‘Introduction: Towards a Pedagogical Culture in Research Methods.’ In Teaching Research Methods in the Social Sciences, Garner, M.; Wagner, C. & Kawulich, B. (eds.). Farnham: Ashgate. 1-10.

Kreber, C. (2013) Authenticity In and Through Teaching in Higher Education: The transformative potential of the scholarship of teaching. Abingdon: Routledge.  

Shulman, L.S. (1993) ‘Teaching as Community Property: Putting an End to Pedagogical Solitude.’ Change, 25 (6), 6-7. (http://www.iub.edu/~tchsotl/part4/shulman%20community%20property.pdf)

Walker, M. (2006) Higher education pedagogies: A capabilities approach. Maindenhead: Society for Research in Higher Education and Open University Press.

Some initial reflections about teaching and learning in higher education

Over the past few years, the period during which I’ve been working as a lecturer in higher education, I have been fortunate to be in a position where my research has lived in close synergy with my responsibilities for teaching and learning. Over this period I’ve had the opportunity to complete a number of small scale projects which have played an important role in developing my own practice as a teacher, and in a few cases the results I have gained from this work have reached publication. However, in the often hectic environment which is the typical experience of many in the modern UK university there is a tendency for ideas and insights to go unnoticed and unreported. Recently, however, I returned to a short paper by Shulman (1993), the title of which is ‘Teaching as Community Property’, with a subtitle ‘putting an end to pedagogical solitude’. Much of what Shulman writes in this paper has a resonance with my own experience where in the busy ‘day to day’ much of our practice as teachers is never discussed, never observed by others and is certainly rarely shared with the wider community for discussion and debate. This is not meant as a chastisement to either myself or others, but is merely the natural outcome when individuals have a number of different responsibilities in different domains.

Shulman makes the case that for teaching and learning to become a community property it first needs to be made explicit, thereby allowing interrogation, debate and discussion. Just a few years earlier Ernest Boyer (1990) had coined the term Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) building on the work of others, for example Shulman’s (1987) ‘pedagogic content knowledge‘. Since the early 1990s the scholarly approach to teaching and learning in higher education has grown apace and offers an interesting approach for making available the research and reflections of those interested in developing understanding of teaching and learning. A crucial part of SoTL is the sharing and publication of the insights gained through scholarly pursuit. It is this pursuit which has led to the development of this blog which I hope will be a positive space for reflection on issues relating to teaching and learning, as well as offering summaries, updates and reflections on the projects that I, often with colleagues, develop as we attempt to develop better teaching and learning on the postgraduate courses for which we are responsible. Some of the questions which are at the forefront of my thinking at present include:

  • what is the distinct nature of Masters level study and how can teaching and learning approaches aid in the transition from undergraduate to doctoral study?
  • at Masters level what does a research methods pedagogy consist of, and how can RM be properly integrated into the rest of the course (all too often it can become an appendage)?
  • given the diversity of international students working together on a Masters course how can provision be formed to enable and develop individuals to their full potential?
  • what methodologies can be added to those already seen as central to SoTL to extend the depth and breadth of our understanding of teaching and learning in higher education?

It is these questions, together with occasional other interests, which have led to the creation of this blog. I hope some of our work and the insights they provide might act as a useful point of contact for others who are interested in developing teaching and learning in HE. Unlike the school sector in England, which is ever more riven with politicisation and the results of marketization, HE still retains a great deal of space for experimentation, the development of original approaches and a belief in professional trust and authenticity.

References

Boyer, E. (1990) ‘Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate.’ The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (http://depts.washington.edu/gs630/Spring/Boyer.pdf)

Shulman, L. S. (1987) ‘Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform.’ Harvard Educational Review, 36 (1), 1-22. (http://gse.buffalo.edu/fas/yerrick/ubscience/UB_Science_Education_Goes_to_School/21C_Literature_files/shulman,%201987.pdf)

Shulman, L.S. (1993) ‘Teaching as Community Property: Putting an End to Pedagogical Solitude.’ Change, 25 (6), 6-7. (http://www.iub.edu/~tchsotl/part4/shulman%20community%20property.pdf)