What is teaching? In general terms, I believe there are two possible answers to this question. In its simplest – yet admittedly not trivial – form, teaching is the organised transfer of information from a teacher to a student. Finding the best strategy to act on this process may seem like a novel problem to a newly starting university lecturer but, conceptually, it is a problem that mankind has in fact solved about 5000 years ago, during the bronze age, with the advent of writing. Information, especially when factual, does not require the physical co-presence of teacher and student, for it can almost always be conveyed using written words and diagrams. Especially in the Biological Sciences, a textbook is a sufficient instrument of information transfer more often than not. What we teach is factual, usually not conceptually challenging and only partly mnemonic. In general, all the factual contents we offer to first and second-year undergraduate students can be easily found on a plethora of textbooks; third years’ and postgraduate contents should be found in textbooks and in academic literature. If all the information we aim to transfer can be conveniently and efficiently read on paper, why do we even bother? Why are the students investing time and resources to pursue an activity that could be easily be replaced by accessing a library? The answer to this latter question is what I refer to as “the added value” of university teaching and it describes the second, less obvious, and most challenging definition of what teaching really means.
My teaching philosophy has evolved around this concept of added value. What is my role as teacher and how can my work and presence enrich the learning experience of the student? What can I offer than a very well written book cannot? I came to the conclusion that my added value breaks down into 4 parts:
Being able to recognise quality in information is a fundamental translational skill. University libraries are normally maintained by scholars to feature only reliable sources and therefore students learn to see the University library as a knowledge sanctuary where any source can safely be considered as “trusted”. This indubitably helps them in selecting material, but will not develop their critical sense. Being able to find and recognise trusted sources and reliable material should be a key translational skill of their degree, which they will value in their careers and also as responsible citizens. To help with this goal, I encourage them – read: I force them – to go out of their literature comfort zone. In the classroom, I focus lectures on topics that are new and developing so that they will be driven to explore primary literature and not rely on textbooks when studying and revising. Another advantage of selecting developing topics is that these are often genuinely controversial. Research that is still developing is usually prone to multiple, often contrasting, interpretations by scholars. I present students with the current views on the topic and ask them to dissect arguments in one or another direction. This develops their critical sharpness. Literature dissertations and “problem-based learning” (PBL) are also an excellent exercise for them to browse and pick literature. I dedicate half spring-term to literature dissertation in the MSc course I am currently co-directing, and I supervise PBL tutorials for the 2Yr Genes and Genomic course. Both activities are very successful.
Obviously, not all our students will become scientists but I believe they should all be trained to be. Thinking and acting according to the Galilean method is an undervalued translational skill of modern society. Also, not many other Universities in the world have a research environment as vibrant and successful as Imperial College London, and being exposed to real cutting-edge Science is certainly an important potential added value for our students. I try to bring scientific ethos in the classroom by presenting the actual experimental work behind a given discovery. In a second year module on RNA interference, I present one by one the milestone papers that created and shaped the field and I elucidate the key experiments that have led, eventually, to a Nobel prize. In the same course, I also teach about CRISPR-Cas9, presenting the controversy between the two research groups that are still fighting for the associated patent (and, most likely, for another upcoming Nobel prize). I present experiments in the way they are naturally laid out, from hypothesis to theory. I also try my best to instil a sense of criticality and a sense of “disrespect towards Aristotelian authority”. Ultimately, my goal is for students not to be afraid to contradict their teacher – as long as they can back up their claims with factual information, that is. Admittedly, this exercise does not achieve the same result with all students as it requires a particular mindset of self-confidence that not all students possess. It does, however, greatly benefit the most independent and intellectually acute ones, who show great appreciation informally and formally on SOLE.
Being able to intellectually capture the students’ curiosity is possibly the most powerful skill of a teacher. My ultimate goal is to “seed” information into my lecture and let the students develop it on their own. If they develop wonder and curiosity towards an argument, they will be more likely to master it and enjoy it. There is no secret recipe for doing this – as passion must be genuine and cannot be mimicked – but I found there are four steps that definitely help.
a) and b) are factors that largely depend on the course convenors. For instance, convenors can organise lecturers so that they are asked to lecture on topics that are close to their own research area. This is a very easy way to generate transmissible enthusiasm. For developing b), it is normally preferable to have longer contact with the same cohort of students: I would very much rather do 8 hours in the same course than 8 hours spread to a different cohort of students. c) can be achieved by intercalating the lecture with historical anecdotes, for instance about the biography of scientists behind a certain discovery or even about personal events that I lived or witnessed in my research activity, throughout my career. This teaching style will make the lecture conversational, it will generate curiosity and set a more natural discursive pace of interpersonal communication. d) is an underestimated, very powerful exercise. In fact, I think the EDU office should actually consider a new course devoted to teaching without the use of powerpoint slides. Not relying on anything but our own theatricality is the best way to gather the undivided students’ attention.
I am quite satisfied with the progress I made so far on points 1-3, and this last fourth step represents my next challenge as a teacher. When facing a cohort of 150 students, as we do with our 1st and 2nd year UG courses, we clearly deal with students of different academic abilities. For whom should we teach? What pace should we follow? Where shall we set the intellectual bar? I found that creating a right mix of “facts and passion” is a good strategy: the average student will receive all the facts; the more intellectually gifted one will then expand on those inspired by the newly found passion. However, I also believe that delivering different contents to different parallel streams is the one aspect where modern technology can really come to help. My plan for the future is to develop a series of “reverse classroom” lectures, presenting all students with prerecorded material and – possibly – with lecture notes too. The goal is to keep classroom time for passion and discussion and stream the basic factual information through video and notes.
I found my experience as a teacher so far together with the introductory courses of the EDU team gave me enough background material on the educational science. However, my goal for the future is to tackle the theoretical aspects of teaching in the same way and to the same extent as I do my research. In particular, I want to deepen my knowledge of andragogy and venture in the current literature of instructional theory.
This is something I actually had to produce for my educational training at the College. I thought it may be useful to share with the world. Apologies for the akward writing style.