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Teaching for Understanding at University

Deep Approaches and Distinctive Ways of Thinking


Noel Entwistle


Universities into the 21st Century Series. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009

$20.99, 202 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0-333-96298-5 (paperback)


Reviewed by Ingeborg van Teeseling

University of Wollongong


Noel Entwistle is Professor Emeritus at the Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh and can look back on a distinguished career focussing on student learning in higher education. He has been the editor of the British Journal of Education Psychology, has an honorary doctorate from the University of Gothenburg and his publications list includes standard works like The Handbook of Educational Ideas and Practices (1990), of which he was the general editor and instigator. His latest book, Teaching for Understanding at University – Deep Approaches and Distinctive Ways of Thinking, is equally important, and will, I suspect, end up on the same bookshelf of key texts for the educational world. The book reads like Entwistle’s magnum opus; in barely two hundred pages he manages to not only “pitch” most of his ideas, but also connect these with his own history as a teacher and a researcher. And on top of all of that, he does this in a language most people, in- and outside of academia, can actually understand. This, by the way, is intentional. The book is part of a series that “is designed to fill a niche” between practical works that help educators in their practice and academic tomes that mainly focus on research [xi]. The idea being that in this manner, teachers in universities will not only be provided with methods of how to improve their performance, but also with reasons why.

In his introductory chapter, Entwistle emphasises that the [academic] world has changed, and that teachers “are facing problems for which agreed solutions can no longer be expected, and so we have to think for ourselves and adjust quickly to new conditions” [1]. What his book is offering, he writes, is “a way of thinking about how teaching affects learning” and “a range of concepts and principles that allow academics to think about pedagogic issues in a more precise way” [3]. Entwistle’s aim here is to encourage a “broad, integrative way of thinking”, a “deep understanding” in both teachers and students; not just focussed on the study topics, but on their implications for life in general as well [3]. He also sets out another principle: it is, he says, “grossly oversimplified” to blame student failure solely on students, for “being ‘dim’, ‘lazy’ or lacking interest”. Part of the “moral responsibility” of academics is to take their teaching duties seriously and offer their charges something that “can be useful throughout their life” [4-5]. 

To show how this can be done, Entwistle divides his book into roughly two parts. The first half is concerned with students; asking questions about how they learn, how teaching influences this learning and how different people pick up information in different ways. The second half focuses on teachers, looking at research into teaching, learning environments and how teachers can be more effective in what they do. In his first section, Entwistle starts with touching on the brain and how it stores information, focussing on the importance of experiences as “the raw material for forming concepts” [16]. He goes through abilities and learning styles, personalities and motivation, and something he calls “thinking dispositions” [21], to conclude that “in education, we need to invite students to discover, not just perform”, so students can arrive at what Entwistle flags as “the most important intellectual activity”: “ ‘meaning making’ ” [22]. This looking for meaning, as opposed to just “remembering the facts and details” students expect to be examined on, Entwistle calls “deep learning” [25], and it should come as no surprise that this is something he is very much in favour of. To get students to achieve this, Entwistle investigates “academic understanding” [48] and critical thinking: what it is and how different individuals, in different fields, attain it. Then, moving into the second segment of the book, he presents a mix of practical tips and arguments, and the results of academic research, to show teachers how to teach this deeper way of thinking and understanding. Here Entwistle concentrates on the difference between teaching “pragmatically”, meaning “helping students to acquire the knowledge they need to pass examinations”, and teaching in a more “reflective” way, which also takes the effects of that knowledge and the personality of the student into account [71-75]. A good university teacher, Entwistle argues, has to do more than just teach content, whatever that content may be. He or she also has a “responsibility” to be enthusiastic, recognise the student perspective, create a learning ethos and foster “generic and lifelong skills” [78]. The rest of Entwistle’s book provides academics with tools and techniques, some new, some tried and tested, to either change or improve their teaching.

Of course, Entwistle’s arguments and ideas are not new, or necessarily revolutionary. Why this book is important, though, is because it reminds teachers in universities of what their role is, or should be. They have been entrusted with nurturing the best minds of the nation and it is their job to make those blossom. To be able to do this, they have to develop themselves as well, and Entwistle offers the instruments and the rationale to help them. Also, because Entwistle places his theories in the context of thirty years of educational experience, part of what he makes us as readers think about is change. One of the issues he touches on – although too briefly, in my view – is the fact that, these days, universities are first and foremost businesses. Entwistle quotes Becher and Trowler, who state that we have moved on from the days when universities had a “collegial character”, “towards a marketised system”, a form of “ ‘academic capitalism’ in which market-like behaviours become common at both institutional and academic staff level and ‘chasing the dollar’ has become an increasingly important part of the academic’s role”. Knowledge, they stress, has become a commodity, “with learning outcomes the unit of currency” [149]. This, Entwistle says, is “unlikely to promote ‘excellence’ ”, and can be “damaging to the quality of teaching” [149-150]. There is, he argues, “a mismatch between the aims of teaching espoused by academics and the rhetoric of business plans and products coming from management” [185]. I would suggest that those of us who work in academia see this disparity every day. In most universities, teaching excellence is not nearly as valued as the ability to bring in grant money, for instance. Also, there sometimes seems to be more focus on bringing in as many students as possible than on delivering the best quality education available.

Other changes that Entwistle notes are in relation to the way the student population – and I would add, the teacher population – has transformed over the last few decades. Universities are far less homogeneous, taking in more mature students, students with disabilities, students from rural backgrounds, and especially international students. Not only do they bring “marked variations in previous educational experience”, there are, for instance, also “cultural differences” in the way students have been taught to learn, think and understand [39] before they came to university. This cannot help but have an effect on the way teachers teach these students, especially if there are language problems as well. In addition to this, teachers have to take into account that “overseas students are also having to learn how to live in a different society” [29]. Overseas students are, of course, not the only ones dealing with social challenges. Mature students often have to come to terms with the combination of work, study and family, while most young students these days are forced to work to pay for their education. At the same time, the composition of academic staff has changed as well. More university teachers work in different countries during their lifetime, and a large part of the workforce is now heavily casualised and therefore transient. With a whole industry in flux in this manner, Entwistle’s book is a good and solid reminder of what the core of this “business” is and should remain: quality teaching, student-focussed, offered by motivated academics who are being supported by their management. Not a utopian idea, but a bottom line.




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