Researching teaching: the importance of SotlOctober 2016
The new director of Ako Aotearoa DR STANLEY FRIELICK discusses the evolution of research around the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) and its importance to tertiary education.
Recent developments, such as the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into new models of tertiary education and calls for New Zealand frameworks for professional standards and recognition of teaching, will place a greater emphasis on the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), in the tertiary sector.
Whether your focus is on SoTL, or the scholarship of learning and teaching (SoLT), or even the scholarship of technology-enabled learning (SoTEL), Ako Aotearoa places a high value on this kind of research. It is a critically important aspect of improving teaching, evaluating its effectiveness, aspiring to excellence, and ensuring that all learners have the best possible outcomes.
To date we have funded (and co-funded) several projects in these areas, including a major stocktake of New Zealand case studies, Neil Haigh’s subsequent publication, The Scholarship of Teaching & Learning: A Practical Introduction and Critique, and more recently, the national project Learners and mobile devices: A framework for enhanced learning and institutional change.
While it is important that we explore new developments, models and frameworks, and consider how others are contributing towards shaping future directions for the sector, it is useful to understand earlier thinking in this area.
The scholarship of teaching (SoT) movement was sparked by Ernest Boyer’s (1990) classic text Scholarship Reconsidered: The Priorities of the Professoriate. Boyer wanted to move beyond the clichéd ‘teaching versus research’ debate and put ‘scholarship’ in a wider frame of reference. In his reconsideration, scholarship meant more than engaging in original research. Academic work also involves reflection, seeking connections, making links between theory and practice, and effective communication of knowledge to students. Hence, the framing of the four scholarships – discovery, integration, application (engagement), and the scholarship of teaching.
Interestingly, a similar distinction had been made some 17 years earlier by Joseph Axelrod (1973) in The University Teacher as Artist – a fact that was either conveniently or unwittingly overlooked by Boyer. Both authors, however, had a systemic understanding of education, which included the view that teachers should necessarily also be learners. This view resonates nicely with the Māori concept of ‘ako’. Although there is no literal equivalent in English, ako refers to an educational process, at the end of which the teacher is indistinguishable from the learner.
A growing realisation that teaching was inextricably linked with learning added an ‘L’ to the acronym, and the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) soon became the default term for the process of research into one’s own teaching. In the broadest sense SoTL is the notion that teachers both inquire into and critically reflect on aspects of their practice with the intention of improving learning. It also emphasises that the findings of this process – like any other piece of research – should be public, peer-reviewed and disseminated for further uptake and development.
While SoTL is now an established area of academic activity – with professional bodies, regular conferences, and a proliferation of journals and SoTL articles in discipline-based journals on teaching – the emphasis on ‘researching teaching’ has possibly relegated ‘learning’ to the sidelines and marginalised the field itself. As Boshier and Huang (2008) noted, one way to counteract this is to foreground ‘learning’ and change the acronym to SoLT. They also argued that SoLT activities needed to be widened out from a singular focus on classroom practice in universities to include investigation into adult education, lifelong education and learning, self-directed learning, farmgate intellectuals, communities of practice, and learning communities. This is an increasing focus for Ako Aotearoa in our work with the industry training, adult and community education, and independent tertiary education sectors.
This expanded view of SoTL is now taking hold internationally. A recent report from the UK’s Higher Education Academy pointed to a new emphasis on undergraduate research and student engagement. There is a move away from the initial narrow focus on individual practice to a more strategic institutional and national policy view of SoTL that can inform the development of competence and excellence frameworks. SoTL activity is becoming collaborative, including large projects, and social media is more frequently being used for dissemination.
As we hurtle further and inevitably into the digital era, the process of research into teaching becomes critically important and therefore the fifth frame – the scholarship of technology-enabled learning (SoTEL) – is shaping the future of teaching and learning. As Cochrane & Narayan (2015) suggest, mobile devices and social media necessitate the development of new literacies for both teachers and learners. In this new form of SoTEL, teaching and learning is framed around building authentic learning communities. The role of the teacher then shifts to a designer of ecologies where communities can interact, while the role of the learner becomes that of content creator and active participant. This brings us back to ‘ako’ again, but framed in a new digital dimension.
Our role is to ensure that whatever the framework or definition of researching teaching – SoTL, SoLT or SoTEL – we work with the sector on innovative projects that keep ‘ako’ and learners firmly at the centre of everything we do.
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