Towards a vision for growing and sharing knowledge

Research and knowledge gathered in the field was worthless if it did not become community property – and that did not necessarily happen via journal publications.

This was among several points raised in the keynote address by Stanford University Emeritus Professor of Education Lee Shulman at the 10th annual University of KwaZulu-Natal Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Conference held in Durban, South Africa in late September.

Entitled “Between Research and Practice: Situating a scholarship of teaching and learning in the landscape of the academy”, Shulman’s address posed two related questions: what is our vision for how knowledge grows in our field, when most often research is conducted in our own institutions and settings; and how do we learn from each other given the local character of research designs?

Benefitting society

Shulman argued that working within the scholarship of teaching and learning, or SOTL, involved aggregating “points of light” on the knowledge landscape via multiple research experiences and sharing that insight for society’s benefit.

Visually depicting his argument, Shulman displayed two photographs: the first a door illuminated by a single light and the second a night-time shot of the Durban skyline. The first reflected the work of a single research project as a pinprick of light in an otherwise dark environment, while the second illustrated the effect of multiple bodies of work reflecting their knowledge about a given subject.

Although impressive in the abundance of light, the second scene still contained dark corners where it was still possible for additional research to introduce new light or knowledge.

Learning from mistakes

Shulman said teachers should not be hindered in the belief that research could only be shared via publications and that negative results should be hidden. Citing an example of doctors in training hospitals, he said case studies discussing unsuccessful approaches and procedures helped other surgeons to learn from and avoid those mistakes.

“Only then can we have illuminated landscapes with the light needed to explore the darkness beneath; they provide the space to look at the underlying theories,” Shulman said.

Discussing the capacity of scholarship in teaching and learning in higher education to improve practice, both personally and for colleagues, as well as to better understand the problems within the field, Shulman said SOTL has emerged as a widely practised genre of such research. Regardless of the language used to describe the work, it was generally agreed the conclusions rested on “evidence”, he said.

Defining 'evidence-based'

But what counts as evidence in an “unscripted” and “highly contextualised” world? he asked.

“The phrase ‘evidence-based’ rolls off the tongue trippingly… whether describing good medical practice, education design or management in business, experts insist that judgments and decisions be ‘evidence-based’,” he said.

Shulman said researchers could use their data as they wished, but should be open and honest about their research. More specifically, the research and knowledge gathered in the field was worthless if it did not become community property – and that did not necessarily happen via journal publications.

A different future

He said in the future, research would be communicated via tweets and other social media platforms and that “last year’s research may not be relevant tomorrow”. Educational outcomes and processes must be valued, evaluated and understood by students and teachers, as the scholarship of teaching and learning implied preparation for a different future.

Consequently, evidence could grow out of practical enquiries on teaching and learning in situ rather than only via empirical evidence, with SOTL being the method by which to design and teach a course. One example, he said, was watching the impact a wait-time – a forced five second pause between asking a question and allowing anyone to answer – had on teaching and learning.

Another was the act of generalising research, and thereby dismissing the whole as a failure without viewing the outcomes in-depth. One clinical trial for chemotherapy to treat a deadly brain tumour was dismissed as a failure because 90% of patients experienced no improvement. Yet, that dismissed the 10% for whom there was a marked improvement and who justified a continuation of the research.

Research in context

Shulman said that all research should be viewed in context. Merely because a physics teaching method worked at Stanford did not mean it would work in Durban, he said.

Among the “dis-eases” of the scholarship of teaching and learning, he listed amnesia (the act of learning and forgetting), fantasia (thinking we remember events or information, but misconstruing that knowledge), solitaria (keeping the knowledge to ourselves rather than making it a property of the community), inertia (teaching as if ideas and practices are inert) and nostalgia (believing everything was better when we were younger).

Ending isolation

The scholarship of teaching and learning was the mechanism by which to combat the diseases by forcing a “dis-ease” among practitioners. Such a mechanism developed and qualified programmes; refocused research into the society; created academic centres of excellence and moral responsibility; and ended isolation.

“Too often we know more about the work of a colleague a thousand miles away than the work being done by the person in the office next door,” he said.