Posts Tagged ‘Sustainable development’

Book review: Teaching What You Don’t Know by Therese Huston

March 27, 2012

Click to find it on Amazon

Short version

Brilliant, even if you know what you’re talking about. Loads of ideas for making university teaching and learning far more enjoyable for everyone.

Long version

So, the first module that I’ve had to coordinate on my own turned out to be something that only overlaps slightly with my research area – I got the Sustainable Development module. In this respect, the title of TWYDK jumped out at me as a potentially useful resource. UPDATE (28/03/2012): when I first posted this I didn’t mention that the book is based on American universities – I am assuming that analysis and ideas equally applicable elsewhere.

I suppose I could’ve just shown the brilliant xkcd comic on this topic (see below) and called it a day but I’m not sure that the students would have appreciated that.

Joking aside, the prevalence of academics teaching at university level on subjects that they have little or no expertise is something that Huston discusses at length from the perspective of the teacher and the student. The argument that I most associated with was that for “survey courses” or “cutting edge courses” (which I hope my SD module was) the experts are many different people for different topics and these topics develop very fast. In that respect, having a module led by someone with only limited experience in the area is not much of a problem.


I decided quite early on to go down the Problem Based Learning route for my module as I’d helped teach on a module at the University of Manchester that used the PBL model and I’d seen many of the students really engage with it. Huston also recommends this as a useful method of delivery for “content novices” as the key is defining interesting and relevant questions rather than compiling hours of lecture material.

As I’m now approaching the end of my module for the first year I’ve run it, I’m glad I did it this way and definitely feel that TWYDK gave me a bit more confidence to try something beyond a standard “Module = 12 x lectures + 1 coursework + 1 exam” model. I think that most of the students have taken to it as well and I’ve jotted down more ideas from TWYDK to improve the module again next year.

More than just TWYDK

Whilst going through the book, however, I started to pick up ideas for other lectures I give on topics that I do know well. In some cases these were very simple ideas but maybe being a “content expert” means that you ignore the little tricks to try to get the students to actually “learn” in favour of just delivering all your hard-earned wisdom.

I suspect that I engaged with this book because it tackled a specific problem but, in the process of reading it, made me think about more general teaching points. This is probably where TWYDK is such a success where more textbook-like higher education manuals barely get opened (you know, like that one with the blue stripe across the middle of the cover and pristine spine 😉 that you see in most lecturers’ offices, mine included).

Things I wasn’t so keen on…

Well, most of the book is based on a series of interviews with university teachers, I think Huston says that it’s around 20 interviews, I could be wrong. Whilst this set off my anecdote vs. data alarm bells I suppose a good teaching idea is still a good teaching idea so I’m willing to let it go! And other parts of the book are based on more robust stats so that made me happy.

My only other point of concern is that the book just kind of ends. In the introduction Huston suggests dipping in and out of chapters as you need to know stuff but I found that it flowed quite well and read it cover-to-cover. The only disappointment with this is that there isn’t a chapter bringing it all together. (In fact, the final chapter is advice for administrators, which I still read and found useful as it gave me a different perspective on my contribution to the department teaching load.) Still, who am I to talk? I couldn’t be bothered to think up a decent end to this blog post.


Pages: 330
Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN-10: 0674035801