Why would a real scientist ignore evidence?

Science is built on observation and evidence. And yet when scientists teach they can appear to ignore both. Years of observation and pages of evidence point to particular ways of teaching as being more effective than others. Remarkably, making students sit in silence, organised in uncomfortable rows of seats in a cold room, whilst listening passively to a monologue describing research performed by others and depicted as a million bullet points appears not to be the optimum. So why do we still observe this happening in the university of the 21st century? How do we break the cycle of bored students and uninspired teachers?

We have to think about what got the teachers into science in the first place. Most are passionate about their own branch of science, learning, researching and finding out things for themselves. So why is there a difference between teaching and research? Michael (2001) comments:

There is a remarkable difference in attitude between university staff as teachers and as researchers. As researchers we critically read the newest literature, we think of new approaches and theories, look for empirical verification and submit our work to the critique of others through rigorous peer review. The scientific attitude lies at the heart of scholarship and is accepted by everyone in the field.

 The situation seems quite different in education. As teachers we seem to have a different attitude. We do the things we do because that is the way it has been done for many years, even centuries. We hardly read the literature on education, or more appropriately, are not even aware that such literature exists. It is difficult to change things in education, because as teachers we are highly convinced that what we do is appropriate and any challenge to ones convictions is an actual challenge to ones personal integrity.

 We go into the classroom assuming that all we need bring there is our content expertise, our long years of having taught the discipline, and our dedication to doing the best job we can do. But that is not enough: we need to teach the way we do research.”

When science teachers are persuaded to make a change, it is usually an incremental change of a single factor in the classroom. After all, that is the way to be scientific – to change a single factor and measure the effect. But you cannot change teaching in this way. For example, you cannot change the teaching methods and leave the assessment the same. Teaching and assessments need to be aligned. It reminds me of the joke about changing the traffic patterns in the UK to fall in line with the rest of Europe. The plan: make all the buses and lorries drive on the right side of the road this year. If it is a success, then we’ll make the cars and bicycles drive on the right as well in the following year. Stupid, eh?

Surely a passion for the subject should also translate into a passion for teaching the subject? And yet so many university teachers appear to be disinterested in talking about (even less researching) the quality of their teaching. Nobel prize-winning physicist, Carl Wieman comments that, ” There’s an entire industry devoted to measuring how important my research is, with impact factors of papers and so on. Yet we don’t even collect data on how I am teaching.” (Mervis, 2013). Others would go further to suggest that if an academic is not an expert within the pedagogy of the discipline, then they are not an expert in the discipline – also see the post below, ‘P’ is for ‘pedagogy’.


Michael, J. (2001) The Claude Bernard distinguished lecture: In pursuit of meaningful learning. Advances in Physiology Education, 25(3): 145 – 158.

Mervis, J. (2013) Transformation is possible if a university really cares. Science, 340: 292 – 340.


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