Academic Teaching, by Maja Elmgren and Ann-Sofie Henriksson – Book Review

Lincoln Green

Image © Kobebigs

Elmgren and Henriksson’s book, translated from Swedish, provides the reader with an extremely broad overview of key concepts in the theory and practice of education.  Although directed towards teachers in Higher Education it will prove of great relevance to all those involved in post-compulsory education.  The rapid development of HE courses in Further Education colleges through a franchising arrangement or involvement in a Consortium, with new teachers required to develop higher level knowledge, skills and approaches in their students will make this book a particularly relevant vocational tool.

The broad sweep of the book’s content is for the most part rooted in research and the reader is directed towards original source material in texts and journals.  The authors acknowledge however that teachers often ignore evidence based practice, even in an environment where specialist research is a primary function of the organisation.  Those working in the sector would perhaps claim workload as a constraint against wider reading and extended professional development.  This is unfortunate as the book contains much inspirational material which the reader will wish to explore further. 

Throughout the book the authors emphasise the importance of deep learning as opposed to the surface and strategic learning which may be adopted by students faced with unrealistic tasks, difficult deadlines and inappropriate assessments.  It could be argued that for UK professionals in this sector, the impact of competitive league tables and a critical inspection regime creates a similar ethos in teachers aiming for results on the day, rather than for changes of long term educational value in their students.  Deep learning promotes epistemological change, often through the ‘cognitive conflicts’ described by the authors, equivalent to the ‘disorienting dilemmas’ of Mezirow.  The conflict is manifested when there is a dissonance between the world as previously perceived and new information.  If such dilemmas are processed and integrated, new concepts and potentially new ways of being may result.  The educator’s purpose is to nurture such changes and to support their students during this process.  Freire would argue that such learning must also change the teacher.

The impact of learning on the student, the need for student centred teaching and learning activities which promote reflection, processing of information and hence deep learning, is a focus of the book.   In Sweden there have been changes in student demographics similar to those experienced in the UK, with assumptions about prior learning, academic ability, language and communication skills no longer holding true.  The authors remain positive and suggest that such changes may act as drivers for the productive enrichment of educational strategies.  That the educational system should be a ladder which supports rising achievement rather than a sieve which captures those already capable individuals is an implicit notion within their writing.  They employ a constructivist approach in much of their work, suggesting that new learning needs to be connected with student prior knowledge and experience otherwise motivation will decline and attitudes which close down the possibilities of deep learning and which consequently inhibit epistemological change will develop.

A UK perspective on academic teaching may have emphasised the significance of student induction, the process of encouraging adaptation to a new environment and to new ways of working and thinking.  The authors do note the impact of the first formal assessments on the student’s perception of their studies.  They also provide much guidance on practical methods of fostering an inclusive environment for student discussions in which all participate.

A UK text may also have been more critical regarding the issue of ‘learning styles’, widely regarded as a contentious concept which perhaps took root as an attempt to convince Ofsted that student needs had been assessed at induction.  Coffield in particular has been critical of over-simplistic assessment tools of this type.  The authors do however note that the issue may encourage teachers to increase the variety of sensory and intellectual stimuli which they could use to promote learning.  Similarly many would criticise their comments on left/right brain dominance as ‘neuromyth’ rather than ‘neuroscience’, brain function being integrated in a highly complex and integrated manner.

Notable in the book is the international perspective consequent upon the Bologna Process and its subsequent conferences which aim to harmonise HE structures across Europe.  The impact of this process has been felt by students from the UK electing to study elsewhere, often to their financial as well as to their educational benefit.  UK students are perhaps fortunate in their first language, as English opens many educational frontiers.  References in the book are frequently published in English.

Despite the cross-borders perspective, distance learning receives little attention in the text and the phenomenon of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) with their enormous potential for altering the nature of educational structures is not addressed.  By implication, the authors note the essential nature of face-to-face dialogue between teacher and student.  The sophistication and subtlety of these interactions, their ability to generate deep learning outcomes through dialectic and resulting mutual understanding is tacit throughout the book.  If students may obtain information and access to the finest lectures on-line what role do educational organisations have apart from providing ‘gate-keeping’ facilities?  The type of tutorial guidance and informal conversations, with their capacity to elicit the transformational learning which the authors describe is perhaps the answer.

Historical as well as international perspectives are also apparent in the author’s section on rhetoric.  Classical principles are employed to good effect as guidelines for the preparation of teaching and learning materials.  The book is one to keep and to become immersed in, full of practical suggestions relevant to all stages of the educational process.  The book encompasses techniques for writing learning outcomes, for devising assessments, for managing groups, for embedding one’s own research in one’s teaching as well as providing an extensive critique of potential teaching and learning methods.  The authors acknowledge the holistic nature of education and the impact of context on application.  They consistently argue for ‘constructive alignment’ of learning outcomes, teaching and learning methods, and assessment characteristics.  Their account of the significance of collegiality and of methods for the development of high level thinking skills will provoke both interest and inspiration in the reader.

The ‘lens’ provided by this Swedish perspective on education theory and practice demonstrates implicitly an awareness of Bourdieu’s phrase, quoted by Coffield in his critique of UK government educational policies: “it is time for …. the restitution of the complexity of problems”.  In a highly complex field of work in rapidly changing times, immersing oneself in this book will encourage the teacher to enrich their practice and to bring about the transformational learning which is so critical for reflective practitioners and their students.

Academic Teaching, by Maja Elmgren and Ann-Sofie Henriksson – Book Review

[Studentlitteratur, Lund, paperback, pp. 362, RRP £45.00, ISBN 978-91-44-10101-9]

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