I was chairing an appointments panel last week, and one of the questions that arose concerned the candidates’ understanding of the concept of ‘research informed teaching’. I have heard this question posed many times in recent years, and the usual response, glibly, is that it means incorporating recent research into one’s teaching material. This is surely one aspect – incorporating into lectures very recent research results that have not yet appeared in textbooks is an important preserve of research intensive universities – but I don’t believe this is the whole story.
In my previous job, I endeavoured to explain the concept of research informed teaching to my first year students by using a contrived example. I would typically ask them approximately how many books there are in the university library. Faced with a sea of blank looks I would go on to explain that I didn’t expect them to know this, but that I was interested in their approach to finding the answer. I would suggest working out the approximate number from first principles – given knowledge of the approximate dimensions of the library, the number of floors, the average width of a book and the average size of a typical shelf in the library, it is in principle possible to arrive at the approximate number of books therein.
Why go to all this trouble when one could likely find the number from the internet or to simply ask the librarian? Well, this will only provide this information for one library, whereas given fundamental data and some simple reasoning, it should be possible to determine the approximate number of books in any library. The analogy is by no means perfect of course, and there are doubtless better ones, but it hopefully illustrates a deeper concept. Research informed teaching is about understanding how knowledge is created, and how (often disparate) fundamental concepts can be brought together to solve a novel problem. As a research intensive university we are not merely passing down facts (up to the minute research findings or otherwise), we are teaching our students about the research method – the rather special inquisitive and logical train of thought leading to new information. When our students undertake a final year project they also learn about the ‘sweat and tears’ of research – the many blind alleys, the failed experiments, the fact that one success surpasses the many frustrating failures.
Did we ever come close to approximating the number of books in the university library? Not really, but that’s missing the point!