Sunday, June 12, 2011

Review: Teaching What you Don't Know



Reviewed by:  Lori Goff, Instructional Designer, Centre for Leadership in Learning, McMaster University

In the delightful and illuminating book Teaching What You Don’t Know, Therese Huston exposes a growing trend in academia - that university professors are increasingly finding themselves in situations where they are teaching outside of their area of expertise.  Teaching outside or at the edge of one’s  understanding is  a practice that is prevalent not just with sessionals and junior faculty members, but, as Huston shows, it is a common dilemma experienced by university instructors at all stages of their careers.  While graduate education often prepares faculty members to be experts in a very specific area of their field, undergraduate courses are simultaneously becoming more interdisciplinary and expanding in breadth to provide students with a survey of a field that is rapidly advancing in knowledge.   Thus, according to Huston, undergraduate university instructors are finding more and more that they need to learn or relearn content or skills in order to teach their assigned courses well.  The practice of teaching what one doesn’t know well is often coupled with teaching students whom one doesn’t know well.  Students from the millennial generation are different than students ten or twenty years ago and they are certainly different than their instructors especially in how they learn and how they prefer to receive information.   Huston gently suggests that the sooner instructors realise that their students are very different from them, the easier and happier their teaching life will be.
Through academic research that involved over thirty interviews with faculty members combined with real-life experiences, examples, profiles and case studies, Huston addresses an issue that is seldom discussed and helps take the shame out of teaching outside of one’s understanding.  Her compassion, empathy, and commitment to providing students with the best learning experiences possible are evident in the countless practical examples and strategies she suggests to help instructors manage and thrive in situations where instructors find themselves outside of their comfort zone.  The sensible tips, appealing examples, and strategic suggestions that cover a vast array of disciplines and learning experiences can help novice and experienced instructors alike to calm their anxieties, reduce stress, and improve the quality and impact of their teaching overall.  She identifies several pedagogical advantages that the new instructor has over the seasoned expert, while urging mid- and late-career faculty members to  revitalize their passion for teaching by looking for and recognizing the new and unknown elements from every teaching assignment.  Huston’s passion and respect for students is paralleled by an equal regard for instructors who face the challenges of teaching content with which they are not completely comfortable and for teaching students whom they don’t fully know.  
Teaching What You Don’t Know is a fun, easy-to-read, and hard-to-put-down book that I would recommend to anyone who is new to university teaching or who has an interest in improving their teaching.  This book would make an excellent text to distribute to new faculty or engage in the services and programs provided by educational developers at teaching and learning centres.  

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