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This issue of CDTL Brief is the first of a two-part Brief that features the teaching practices of the 2004/2005 Annual Teaching Excellence Award (ATEA) winners.

August 2006, Vol. 9, No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Education is not Education without Research
 
Professor T. S. Andy Hor
Department of Chemistry
 

In the NUS student feedback questionnaire given to students to assess their lecturers at the end of each semester, there is an evaluation item that invites students to evaluate whether "The teacher has helped [them] advance [their] research."

Many colleagues, especially those teaching lower-level undergraduate modules, do not pay much attention to this item on the questionnaire. The common response from these colleagues is "this is probably more relevant for graduate teaching, project work or honours-level modules."

I do not agree. In fact, I consider this evaluation item one of the key aspects of today's education. Research is not a monopoly of senior students; neither is it simply about looking for results to publish nor translating laboratory findings into new technologies. It is about having the enthusiasm to seek new knowledge and the courage to venture into the unknown. Scholars who do not have such a spirit are not scholars. Teachers who cannot nurture such scholars cannot be good teachers. A university that does not emphasise on such is not a great university.

Research is an intellectual activity that must be incorporated as part of education across all levels. One is never too young to engage in such activities. The elements of research-exploration, discovery and innovation are all essential in our quest for new knowledge.

At the primary and secondary school-level, many people often associate research with the project work students do. However, when one probes further into these projects, there is often a great deal of 'reinventing the wheels'. These students are usually just following prescribed procedures and methods to look for something that has yet to be discovered. While the projects are useful academic exercises, they do not always reflect the excitement of doing real research. In chemistry, we would call the results from such projects 'derivative chemistry' (i.e. science that is new but not novel).

Teachers need to inculcate in students, an enthusiasm for new knowledge and the courage to venture into the unknown. A decent teacher introduces and delivers the subject well, and a good teacher is able to achieve the desired learning outcomes. However, a great teacher goes beyond transmitting knowledge and processes- he/she inspires student to live for new knowledge. For example, if a teacher takes his/her teaching materials entirely from standard textbooks and uses teaching methodologies recommended by standard teaching guidebooks, he/she can probably be a proficient teacher but not a great one. To be a great teacher, he/she first need to find a way to introduce to students 'fresh-fromthe- oven' ideas not found in prescribed texts. He/she will also have to develop an intellectual atmosphere where students are excited about independent learning to inspire them to look for new ideas. Finally, he/she needs to cultivate in students an adventurous spirit to venture into 'uncharted waters'-something which very few teaching guidebooks talk about.

Research quenches one's intellectual thirst; the discovery of something novel is in itself a fulfilling exercise. Researchers are most creative, and hence most productive and the happiest when they are driven by their own curiosity; they feel free to go where they want to and do what excites them most. Thus, it is not surprising that almost every (good) researcher in science does do not need any incentive to do research. Yet, I know of many who need institutional incentives to commit to teaching. Why is it so?

Teaching according to a prescribed model and a confined syllabus reduces teaching to an obligatory activity that merely checks items off a 'to do' list. Questions on whether such teachers can teach effectively aside, they probably need a lot of incentives to teach. However, I believe that when teaching follows the basic principles of research, it can be just as effective and fulfilling. In fact, the closer teaching is to research, the less incentive one needs. When teaching follows the basic principles of research, teaching becomes effective and fulfilling. Such teaching requires the teacher to be innovative and always on a lookout for new knowledge. When the teacher's enthusiasm is rubbed off on students, they respond positively by learning actively, making teaching a pleasurable activity that needs little or no institutional incentives. At this juncture, teaching and research are inseparable and fundamentally the same.

Some colleagues may contest that it is hard to teach research topics in lower-level undergraduate modules and hence, one cannot help to advance the principles of research with these students. But I think this is where they are wrong. These colleagues have mixed up the research process with the processing skills, confused knowledge with ideas and underestimated the power of intellectual thirst. The desire to discover is fundamental to all forms of learning. Without such desire, learning will die out like a candle starved of oxygen. Teachers who cannot cultivate such a desire in their students must go back to their 'drawing board'.

When I first taught CM3212 "Transition Metal Chemistry" in Academic Year 2004/05, I did a few experiments with the class. My first experiment was to ask every student to design a new molecule and suggest a synthetic pathway for it-a typical demand for a top researcher in synthetic chemistry. I caused an uproar in class; many students never imagined they would be given such a high-level task. I journeyed with students through the processes, sharing the frustration and agony as we went along. Students could only appreciate what they had learnt at the end of the course. If this experiment sounded too challenging for students, my second one that asked the class to look for an innovation, conduct an interview with the inventor and explain the science behind the technology was even more demanding. It really stretched the students!

In this day and age where the speed of access to knowledge is limited by the processing power of computers or laptops, the determining step in staying ahead lies in one's analytical skills and knowledge processing abilities, and perhaps even more critically, the desire to seek new knowledge. Research aims to cultivate such a desire. Scholars are scholars because they have a desire for new ideas and the ability to harness their curiosity in their quest for new knowledge. Professors who are able to produce such scholars are great researchers and wonderful teachers.

 
 
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Inside this issue
Shy Teachers and Large Groups
   
Education is not Education without Research
   
Learning German Beyond the Classroom
   
My Teaching Philosophy and Approach: Connecting Teaching with the Real World
   
Desire is the Root to All Learning— Light My Fire!
   
Content Reduction vs. Independent Learning