Academic Challenge and intellectually Stimulating Teaching: 5. Becoming the subject specialist

Ros O’Leary & David Webster

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” Paulo Freire

We propose that we take learners backstage. That they are actors in the drama of learning, and not the audience.

As noted when we discussed Leadership, demonstrating one’s own gaps in knowledge can be interesting as a technique. Many students may see themselves are being a long way from actually being an expert, from being a, for example, a philosopher, or an economist, and balk at describing themselves as such. How could they pretend to such an appellation while their knowledge and skills are incomplete? In disrupting the idea of tutor-as-omniscient-guru, we shorten the gap between students and the ‘in the know’ scholars. We hold back the velvet curtain of scholarship, and invite them in. A technique here, is connecting them with early-career researchers, often nearer their age than the tutors, perhaps by Skype-ing in a PhD student for a Q&A, where the tutor acknowledges that they, and the discipline generally perhaps, don’t fully understand something, but someone is studying it to find out, and here is chance to talk with them. Here is a challenging situation, of a thorny topic, with confident leadership that admits its uncertainty, owns its vulnerability, and a collective sense of shared endeavour in seeking to work out who might know, and how they are finding out.

We were also struck by a colleague who joined us to contribute on this theme, at some events, who talked how his research work required him to be the expert in his field, in a team of others, who were experts in their own areas. An interdisciplinary team, he asserted, was the nature of how progress was made, and problems solved. This made us reflect on the idea if different, but disciplinarily cognate, groups of students, being tasked with PBL projects. In their team, they are the economist –and the team will look to them, just as they will later turn to the, say, engineer, in the team.

If engaging with higher education is about transforming students, and about transforming them into subject specialists, then stimulating and challenging learning should be about discovery and making new meaning in that subject. The Wabash study (2013) found that involving students throughout their study with research and engagement with contested questions, both motivated and challenged. This could take a range of forms from research-led projects, enquiry-based learning, problem- based learning to capstone projects or projects at the end of study which allow students to integrate and apply all that they have learnt.


One thought on “Academic Challenge and intellectually Stimulating Teaching: 5. Becoming the subject specialist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: