Being a Teacher in Higher Education

Author(s) Knight, Peter
Publisher SRHE and Open University Press
Published 2002
Reviewed by David Andrew
London Metropolitan University
Review published 1 December 2004

Peter Knight has written an interesting contribution to the literature of teaching in higher education (HE). This book provides both some useful insights and recommendations for teachers, managers and HE institutions, and a good source of theoretical and empirical references to help readers to think more deeply about their role in the Higher education system.

The book starts with that theme, the need for a systematic analysis of HE in order to understand the position of the teacher in HE. Given my increasing aversion to the use of chaos theory and other little understood mathematical theories outside of their home discipline, I was relieved to find that the soft-systems diagrams in the first chapter were not taken too seriously and therefore did not hinder my progress. I was also slightly disconcerted by the introduction that seemed to imply that the book should have been a better book written by someone else! But these are minor points.

There is an interesting history waiting to be written of the changes and development of paradigms of learning and teaching in higher education. The history can I suspect be drawn by the history of the terms used and their order (is it Learning and Teaching or the other way round!) or by following the publication sequence of the influential texts. Paul Ramsden's 'Learning to Teaching Higher Education' (1992) is the classic which emphasises the importance of the study of student learning as its starting point. John Cowan's 'On Becoming an Innovative University Teacher' (1998) represents the reflective practitioner approach. Fry, Ketteridge and Marshall's 'Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education' (2003) is a collection of articles by different authors, indicating perhaps the growing complexity of the area, and the subject-specific chapters indicating a swing towards linking generic pedagogy to subject based practices. There are of course others texts, but those provide a sample of the alternatives to this book, which in comparison puts the teacher back in centre stage. I think this return to the lecturer is a useful development given a couple of issues highlighted in the text, such as the growing complexity and stress of the role, and the importance of the planning of learning events as well as their delivery.

Educational treatises have two main functions: the textbook function of reviewing literature and commenting on developments, and the developmental function of pushing the field in a particular direction. Peter Knight handles this tension by a structure in the early chapters of having separate sections on 'A stance', 'research' and then 'action points'. While this does have the advantage of clarity, I did find the structure became a bit repetitive. I am also not convinced that the research sections did then become disengaged from his stance, so the impression is not one of balanced reporting.

While not explicit, much of the approach taken in the book could be associated with new, and possibly postmodern approaches ranging from chaos theory to new social theories of learning. There is conflict between that stance and the modernistic representation of boxes and matrixes. The back cover says that it is not a book of tips (an implicit reference to the Tips for Teachers series) but most chapters do have offerings like a box of 'Fifty assessment techniques', or 'Ten ways to tinker with teaching'. Matrixes are also prominent even when at times the content does not fit the structure at all well.

My final concern is the treatment of the concept of the "Zone of Potential Development" (ZPD) as a 'term used to describe tasks that can be done with help' - defining the ZPD in relation to tasks seems a very strange notion; it is, rather, the gap in relation to the persons ability to perform tasks. The reference to Vygotski is there later but not when the concept is first used. That dented my confidence in the book for a while.

Peter Knight uses the work of Vygotski and the late situated-learning theorists, especially Engestrom considerably. While I welcome that content, I think that some discussion of the different approaches within that school are important. For example, in the use of Vygotski's concept of "scaffolding", Knight concentrates on the conscious, planned use of scaffolding in education rather than the informal process that can happen without intention or awareness, which represents the Engestrom approach rather than the other members of the school.

However, despite these issues, I think the book does provide a valuable contribution to the literature in the area and will be useful for lecturers in HE who want to keep in touch with current thinking in HE teaching.

Cowan, J., (1998) On Becoming an Innovative University Teacher, Buckingham: Open University Press
Fry, H., Ketteridge, S., and Marshall S., (eds) (2003) A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, London: Kogan Page
Ramsden, P., (1992) Learning to Teach in Higher Education, London: Routledge