Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

A talk to university teachers in a discipline

P. A. Addison
School of Accounting
Curtin University of Technology
The focus of higher education in the 90s has been on the quality of teaching following complaints from employers and governments that graduates are deficient in communication and interpersonal skills, and lack vision and commitment. The difficulty for universities is that they now have diverse goals, students with a wide range of entering levels, increasing numbers of international students, reduced funding and demands from the government for more accountability in the common interest. The problem for teachers is that they are working harder, have reduced conditions of employment and are pressured into research. This leaves little time for working on teaching improvement. Yet they must address the perceived discontinuities between university courses and society's expectations.

Boyer's four pillars of scholarship are discussed to provide background information for underscoring the importance of the structure of discipline knowledge. The need for teachers to understand the structure of the discipline is described as central to their ability to develop meaning for themselves and their students. It is contended that structural knowledge competence underpins their capacity to design educational experiences which result in thinking and ultimately the development of self directed individuals. Thus a second requirement for teachers is that they understand how to design learning encounters which challenge students to think.


Discontinuities between the content of university courses and society's needs have led to calls for graduates who are self directed, more reflective, and good critical and analytical thinkers with good written and oral communication skills. The neglect was unintentional. These discontinuities were fostered by external factors like consumerism, the proliferation of new knowledge and technological change. In addition, a focus by universities on resources caused them not to respond to the different nature of non academic service-oriented practice environments.

What should teachers do about these discontinuities? A little thought provides an immediate answer. Give students experience in self direction, problem solving, critical thinking and communicating. Engage them with the tools of society; have them use the technology of the period, and understand the economics and politics of the region in which they live. And have them communicate and understand the way the media influences their lives and the financial role of global business.

Educational change is a broad topic. I will not survey the problems and the possibilities of this complex subject. I will address a narrow question, 'What is the knowledge base of a good teacher? I will pursue three approaches to this question. First, I explain the four pillars of scholarship. Second, I discuss as a guide for teachers, why they should understand the structure of discipline knowledge. Finally, I point out why teachers should understand how students learn to think in a discipline.

The nature of the structure of discipline knowledge

Boyer (1990) proposes that research, teaching and learning, integration and practice constitute four pillars of scholarship. These pillars not only provide contexts within which statements can be asked and answered, but they tell when and under conditions the statements are true. Each pillar contributes to the production of knowledge and facilitates learning, as the following brief review of each pillar indicates.

The Scholarship of Research

The focus of research is the discovery of knowledge, particularly the pursuit of pure research ; knowledge for its own sake. Research of this type is indispensable and must be defended otherwise the advancement of specialised knowledge will not be sustained. It is particularly necessary to remind ourselves now of its importance given the federal government's push for research which enhances short term gains.

The Scholarship of Integration

It is not sufficient to extend the borders of knowledge. It is necessary in addition to extend specialisation through new forms of integration. Integration, a meaning developed by Von Bertalanffy (1956) in his General Systems Theory, acknowledges the remarkable parallelism in basic viewpoints and constructs. 'Parallelism...indicates a hitherto unsuspected unity of the modern world-picture, and a uniformity or isomorphy of constructs and laws in different fields' (cited in Schwab, 1978). The scholarship of integration requires a continuous effort to re integrate concepts, to identify meanings that are not obvious to disciplinarians: to synthesise, to identify new relationships between the parts and the whole and to relate the past and future to the present. It is a form of scholarship that requires synoptic analysis to uncover successful (isomorphic) constructs in other disciplines that will enable us to take advantage of new materials, theories, objects and ideas.

The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

The scholarship of teaching and learning is deeply embedded in all the forms of scholarship. But it has, in addition, three specific elements: a synoptic capacity, pedagogical content, and all that is known about how students learn (Rice & Richlin, 1993, p. 286). These elements underpin its pedagogy and inform its practice. It is the scholarship of teaching and learning that is central to this paper.

The Scholarship of Practice

There is a growing recognition that practice has led in finding solutions to pressing problems of society. There are many instances of this fact in medical practice and business-introducing new technology is one example. Notwithstanding this recognition, there is still a disturbing gap between what society values and the scholarly activities valued by universities.

The different pillars of scholarship provide answers to different types of questions and a context for deciding what types of questions are feasible in any discipline or inquiry. Each is important and each one has a place in understanding how the world works. This point impacts on teachers because teaching is both effective and normative meaning that teachers must be concerned with both the means and the ends of education. First, they must be familiar with the structure of their discipline if they are to make valid judgements and provide proper actions for imparting knowledge and for developing skills. Second, they need to understand the impact that the pillars have on learning and teaching and how they inter-relate with the purposes of education.

The importance of structure for imparting knowledge

Why should teachers understand the structure of the discipline? Because they must know the context within which teaching is taking place if they are to meet society's challenge to develop thinking, reflective graduates.

Observe the following statements:

  1. The financial statements are clearly presented.
  2. The asset is a tangible one with a visible presence and good value.
  3. Goodwill is an intangible asset with neither tangible form nor verifiability.
These three statements take the same form and are true in some sense. But 'truth' is revealed, not in the statements, but in the context: the structure of the problem, the evidence, the inferences, and the interpretations in which statements are embedded reveal the different senses in which each is true (Schwab, 1978, page 233).

Here are three more statements, in which the structure determines their meaning.

  1. We have to assume when accounting for goodwill, that goodwill has future benefits.

  2. We know that purchased goodwill is an asset and that an asset is defined in SAC 4 the aggregate as ' ... future economic benefits controlled by the entity as a result of past transactions or other past events'. In accounting for goodwill as an asset therefore we assume that factors like obsolescence, demand and other economic factors, service life expectancies of individual employees or groups of employees, expected competitors actions or potential competitors, legal and other contractual provisions, and the foreseeable life of the entity or industry have been reviewed and that the goodwill value is indeed a future benefit.

  3. The Accounting Standard AASB 1013 makes it clear that goodwill is the future benefits from identifiable assets. Identifiable assets are those assets which are capable of being both individually and specifically recognised. Identifiable net assets means identifiable assets less liabilities. We know therefore that whether or not goodwill exists has to be ascertained. To account for the existence of goodwill we assume that some measurement has taken place to satisfy auditors and directors.
The first statement has no context. It gives no indication that there is a theory or that there might be a problem with accounting for goodwill. The words' We have to assume' impress us. The second statement provides assurance that goodwill is an asset- there is a concept definition as authority-and we are satisfied that we have strong theoretical support for introducing it into the accounts. It is not until we get to the third statement that we realise that goodwill is problematic. Only then do we discover that goodwill may be tangible, intangible or negative and that we are dealing with unknowns which have multiple possibilities for distorting the financial statements.

Teachers standing outside each pillar will consciously ask what intellectual inquiry methods each one uses. The structure used in this way will help students:

Knowledge of the structure for developing a skills curriculum

Similarly, knowledge of the structure of a discipline aids teachers to determine how to develop skills in applying the principles of the discipline, in developing the skills of inquiry or interpretations of the principles of the discipline, and in using the skills of reading and interpretation. The skills of application and interpretation are familiar educational aims, whereas reading and interpretation skills are often ignored.

Applying the principles of the discipline

It is teachers' lack of structural knowledge that explains why application and inquiry skills are so restricted. Principles are reduced to rules to make them simple, few, and easily remembered. The rules are then limited to the most commonly encountered cases to make application easier. Not only is information lost in the reduction, but the short 'rules' that regulate when and how principles are to be applied are substituted for knowledge of the character and limitations of the principles. Rules tell us what to do but not why we do it 'this way'-only the structure of the discipline (Schwab, 1978, page 238) can provides the principle and tell how it was developed, what data were used, the verified and unverified points, how to apply it, and how much confidence we can place in the result.

Skills of inquiry in the discipline

The skills of interpretation have the same limitations as the skills of application. Because a discipline's structure is highly flexible it is adaptable to particular problems and situations. There is always more than one structure-always more than one way of looking at a problem. This is why summary statements or general descriptions are inappropriate; they are too sweeping to be informative in a practical way (Schwab, p 239). Moreover, there are always diverse views about problems in a discipline, and in any event a structure changes continually as it responds to particular problems and situations. Teachers therefore often use the 'inductive' teaching method rather than the 'expository' method to broaden understanding of the structure by studying instances of it. It is this inductive questioning and answering that leads to a critical understanding of discipline knowledge.

The assumption of a logical structure is not valid. This is the reason why the five-step scientific approach applied to data is often inappropriate for practice . Solutions to uncertain practical problems cannot be generated from the rules and restrictions made to defend interpretations of data. Thus, because different kinds of inquiry provide answers to different kinds of questions teachers must understand the questions to the answers they require, know the limitations of the data, and know that the answer, not another one, is the right answer to the question.

Skills of Reading and Interpretation

The skills of reading and interpretation are a necessary condition for acquiring critical understanding. The key activity in reading and interpreting therefore is to discover the meaning conveyed in 'that' (situated) structure. These skills are evident only when informative statements are embedded in the structure-a process often neglected because writers, ignorant of the structure, fail to integrate their writing. This weakness has and is having a crucial effect on learning. One only has to look at essays to understand the problem.

The skill of thinking in a discipline

The above discussion suggests that learning in a discipline is context specific. How then do teachers ensure that students engage in thinking?

The skill of thinking

A specific task for teachers is to promote self directed learning. How can this outcome be achieved? Each pillar of scholarship informs teachers how to design pedagogical encounters. A teacher standing outside each pillar will ask what methods develop the intellectual inquiry that underpins the scholarship. For example, How does a teacher plan to develop thinking in a profession? This is a complex area of educational philosophy which cannot be addressed here. I will therefore examine Dewey's (1916) view of thinking as 'experience' to introduce the idea, mindful that writers regard him as the authority (Schulman, 1987; Schwab, 1978; Resnick & Resnick, 1991; Resnick, 1994; Bruner, 1966).

Dewey's experience model of thinking

Experience and thinking

Experience is not cognitive. It is an active-passive affair. Its about 'trying' and about 'undergoing', and its about the extent to which the experience of 'trying' and 'undergoing' results in perceptions about relationships or continuities. Reflection, by contrast, is the discernment of a relation between 'doing' and the consequences. It is about perseverance, about redoing, finding the links, the connections. It is the quality of binding together cause and effect, activity and consequence. The result is that thoughts are made explicit, so that the quality of experience changes; it becomes reflective practice par excellence. Thinking is thus the intentional endeavour to discover specific connections between something being done and the consequences which result, so that the two become continuous' (Dewey, 1958, p. 145). The distinction between a trial and error approach and reflective practice is that 'thinking' becomes the experience-the experience of acting; dealing with facts and events and the relations of things.

According to Dewey, teachers' duty is to develop students ability to think-to ensure that activities are designed to engage students with thinking. This is so whether the activity is skill development or acquiring information because a 'skill' obtained without thinking... 'leaves a man at the mercy of his routine habits and of the authoritative control of others.' Schwab (1978, p 179) provides a model for progressing reflective thinking in stages. See Figure 1.

Level   Activity  The outcome  The name

5Reflection on knowledge of discoveryInvention of means and ends of discoveryMathematics
4Reflection on the conduct of discovery
Reflection on ends and means; deliberate pursuit of experience
Critical knowledge of scientific method
Knowledge organised for pursuit of further knowledge

Science, including the social

3Reflection on actions and consequencesKnowledge organised as tested ends and meansTechnics
Practical ethics
2Sensitive mastery of variable problematic situationsFlexible ways of acting in each situationFlexible habit: Artfulness
1Mastery of problematic situationsA way of acting in each such situationMere habit

Figure 1: The levels of dynamics and pragmatic intellectual
space: A model for curriculum development.

In summary, the essential conditions of reflective experience for developing thinking are:

How do good teachers plan experiences? The second attribute of good teachers is that they understand the purposes of education. As Schulman (1987, page 15) points out, teachers are expected to understand their discipline.

But the key to distinguishing the knowledge base lies at the intersection ... in the capacity of a teacher to transform the content knowledge and pedagogy he or she possesses into forms that are pedagogically powerful and yet adaptive to the variations in ability and background...[of] students.

They have to reason through an act of teaching by thinking about how the subject matter they understand can be transferred into the minds and motivations of students.

Ideas are important because they clarify and locate the question but do not define it; they cannot solve the problem. They are anticipations of possible solutions; anticipations of some continuity or connection of an activity, the consequence of which is not yet known. Testing these ideas create the experience. Thus students project, invent, use ingenuity and devise strategies to define the problem. Data arouse suggestions which forecast possible things to be done. These suggestions usually go beyond what is actually given in experience and prompt thoughts in students that are creative. This experience has an intellectual quality. Thus suggestions create a new store of knowledge for answering future problems. It is the apprehension of the idea by the student that constitutes thinking. If the information is not acted upon, then the idea is only one more fact, which may or may not be remembered.


The lack of 'relevant' experiences is a key criticism of undergraduate education. The argument is that students are too passive and not productively engaged. There is no doubt about the artificiality of much that goes on in universities-contexts lack reality, and students become habituated in answering questions and passing tests. Experience with solving authentic business problems is necessary and important for students, because it allows them to act like practitioners; it gives them experience and provides them with strategies to answer future questions. Herein lies the key. Teachers are students' source of ideas about the subject. They let them know what is essential and what is peripheral to their understanding, provide the attitudes towards the subject and enthusiasm for what is taught and what they have to learn. The teachers' job is to connect with students-to be ingenious in meeting them and attracting their interest - to be tactful in concrete situations, and to be impressive in revealing information so as to fill them with curiosity. They can do no more.


Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities for the Professoriate. Princeton, N. J.: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

De Bono, E. (1984). Critical thinking is not enough. Educational Leadership, 42, 16-17.

De Bono, E. (1977). Lateral thinking: A textbook of creativity. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan Inc.

Rice, E. & Richlin, L (1993). Broadening the concept of scholarship in the Professions. In L. Curry, J. Wergin and Associates (Eds), Educating Professionals. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Schulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1-22.

Westbury, I. & Wilkof, N. (Eds). (1978). Science, Curriculum and Liberal Education: Joseph J. Schwab. Selected Essays. Chicago. The University of Chicago Press.

Please cite as: Addison, P. A. (1999). A talk to university teachers in a discipline. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 5-11. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/addison.html

[ TL Forum 1999 Proceedings Contents ] [ TL Forums Index ]
HTML: Roger Atkinson, Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University [rjatkinson@bigpond.com]
This URL: http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/addison.html
Last revision: 24 Feb 2002. The University of Western Australia
Previous URL 8 Jan 1999 to 24 Feb 2002 http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf99/ac/addison.html