What If We took the Collective Nature of Knowledge Seriously?

When the quality of research and teaching are measured, the focus tends to be on individual performance — this ignores their fundamentally collective character.

July 5, 2016

When the quality of research and teaching are measured in higher education, the focus tends to be on the individual performance of inspirational academics. This ignores their fundamentally collective character. In order to explore this, I first examine the nature of research and how this should inform our measures of research quality and then do the same for teaching.


When we claim to make an original contribution to knowledge, what is it that we need to show in order for this claim to be convincing? We have to show how it is related to and extends or challenges what is currently known in our disciplinary or professional area. It is then reviewed by peers within our field who assess whether our contribution to knowledge is convincing enough to be published. Thus the process of knowledge building is an essentially collective process. Our research is situated in dialogue with what has come before and is predicated on the previous work of our research community.

However, when it comes to measuring research quality this collective focus gets lost. For example, how do we define the highest quality research in the world? Usually through focusing on individuals and their number of Nobel prizes, Field medals, publications, citations, and the amount of research funding they have brought into their institutions. However, if we take account of the collective nature of knowledge then assigning ownership of this research becomes much more difficult. How much of success is owned by those who contributed to the existing body of knowledge? How much of this success is owned by those with whom they strongly disagreed and who motivated their research? How much of this success is owned by those who transformed the outcomes of their research into ideas and technologies that could be used by practitioners and policy makers? These questions highlight the ways in which the quality of research is down to the systems of research that enabled an individual to make their contribution. Thus to meaningfully measure research quality we would need to focus on those research systems, which are likely to be international and interdisciplinary in nature.


Similarly what is needed for a student to experience high quality teaching at university? If we draw upon Lee Shulman’s notion of pedagogical content knowledge, then effective teaching is about designing an environment that supports a particular group of students to develop an understanding of particular aspects of disciplinary and professional knowledge. Whilst this means that teaching is always a local achievement, it does not mean that it is an individual one.  A program team need to have considered what aspects of particular bodies of knowledge to include in their program, they need to agree how to arrange the different elements of the program into modules, this needs to be validated by institutional and professional bodies, and then taught by a number of academics, teaching assistants, and support staff. They are often supported in this by institutional centres for developing learning and teaching.  It would be wrong to see this as a process of consensus. Rather it is a process of struggle and contestation in which different views of legitimate and powerful knowledge in an area clash with each other and issues of power and prestige come to the fore. In this way teaching is always a collective process involving collective bodies of knowledge and the collective practices that lead to the production of program curricula and teaching and learning environments.

If we asked where is the best university teaching in the world, then how would we answer it? When we assess the quality of teaching, we tend to assess the performance of the individual teacher from the perspective of the students or, at best, we assess the quality of the overall program that students have engaged with. If we used this way of thinking about the best university teaching in the world then it is likely that institutional prestige would be the main determinant of our selection. This would be because we assumed that the more prestigious an institution, the higher the quality of individual academics and students they can attract and, therefore, the higher the quality of their teaching.  This is reinforced by measures of graduate salaries because employers similarly use institution prestige as a measure of teaching quality. The more collective definition of teaching discussed above highlights that students play a role in shaping the quality of their experience as does the knowledge that is focused on within the program. This suggests that measures of the quality of teaching are intrinsically linked to the particular discipline or professional area in which the teaching takes place and also reflect the students who were studying the program. Taking this into account would mean that the best teaching is that which can engage the greatest diversity of students and support them in developing a critical understanding of the knowledge in question. This would call into serious question whether such teaching is to be found at those institutions that focus on taking a narrow range of privileged students and undermine the idea that institutional prestige is a valid measure of teaching quality. 

 So what?

In all, this suggests that our current approaches to understanding the quality of both teaching and research are individualized and ignore the collective nature of disciplinary and professional knowledge. A rich understanding of the quality of teaching and research highlights how it comes from collective endeavors rather than individual projects or institutions. If we are to meaningfully assess the quality of teaching and research we need to take account of their collective nature rather than maintaining the pretense that they are simply individual achievements. 


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