In the mad rush to obtain ever higher grades in the Research Assessment Exercise, teaching can easily be seen as a low status activity in universities. Yet the knowledge and skills involved in teaching the most able students of each generation can be formidable, and John Cowan's attempt to transmit to others his enthusiasm and expertise as a former professor of engineering education at Heriot-Watt University and of learning development at the Open University is laudable. Although many of the examples come from his own practice, the book should interest a wider readership.
The book is mainly a first-person account of the author's own ideas and reflections on teaching and learning in higher education. It is written in the style of an extended conversation, often addressing the reader as "you". Although he describes some of the associated theory, notably that of Donald Schoen on the notion of the "reflective practitioner", the teacher who analyses teaching and then allows reflection to influence practice, the book is relatively jargon free. Chapters each have user-friendly titles such as "What is involved for students in analytical reflection?" and "How can you adapt ideas from my teaching, for yours?" Most of the chapters are illustrated with detailed examples of actual teaching. While some readers may not like this recipe approach, others will probably welcome concrete examples of practice with which to compare their own ideas. Cowan describes one project where students had to take considerable responsibility for assessing their own work, risky at any time on a course leading to an externally scrutinised professional qualification. But then the author is at pains to stress the need for innovative teaching, despite the angst that sometimes accompanies novelty.
In practical fields reflection is seen by some as an unaffordable luxury. Busy people have no time to think, it is sometimes argued, so students need to learn to act decisively, as they will have to in the field one day. Yet it is often lack of a small amount of thought that leads to a large amount of aggravation. Furthermore, if universities are to be at the forefront of new developments in teaching and research, they should be one of the principal locations for reflection on and analysis of practice.
This book attempts to bridge theory and practice in a way that many university teachers will find thought provoking, provided they are willing to make the leap from the author's practice to their own discipline.
Ted Wragg is professor of education, University of Exeter.
On Becoming an Innovative University Teacher
Author - John Cowan
ISBN - 0 335 19994 1 and 1999 3
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £50.00 and £16.99
Pages - 173