John Heywood: A Pioneer before His Time

John HeywoodDr. John Heywood has been involved in education since the 1950s. He has been a faculty member at technical colleges as well as at the Universities of Lancaster and Liverpool, and a visiting professor at Salford University in the United Kingdom. He also served as professor and head of the Department of Teacher Education at Trinity College Dublin. Dr. Heywood’s work has been particularly focused on examinations and assessment in higher education, and more generally on the theory and practice of the curriculum. Much of this work has been on engineering and technological topics, with major contributions to the development of engineering and technological studies in schools. He has more than 150 publications. He was a founding editor of the International Journal of Technology and Design Education. He is a Fellow of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), and an IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Fellow.

The profile below was authored by Todd France, University of Colorado Boulder, based on an interview with Dr. Heywood in 2014, and also includes some material from Dr. Heywood’s autobiographical article published on the IEEE History Center website:

Dr. John Heywood
Professorial Fellow Emeritus
Trinity College of Dublin

D.Litt , University of Dublin, 1976
M.A., M.Sc., Engineering Education, University of Dublin
M.Litt, Technological Education, Lancaster University, 1969
Fellow, College of Preceptors, 1963
Licentiate, College of Preceptors, 1961

From Merchant Marine to Educator

The most immediate impact on my career path, as I am sure that many of my generation also personally attest, was the Second World War. I left school at the age of 15 in 1945 and decided to train as a radio officer for the British Merchant Marines. I believed my decision to be quite clever at the time, as it exempted me from a call-up to the armed services, but it turned out to be more difficult. My friends who were called up served for two years, while I served six!

The experience prepared me well for research and development in radio and television in industry, and in 1954 I began a teaching career as an assistant lecturer at Norwood Technical College in London, where I taught elementary radio concepts to part-time students. In 1956, concurrently with my teaching work, I became director of the radio-electronics section of the British Astronomical Association and led the section’s radio observations of Sputniks I and II.

In the mid-1950s, the government decreed that technical college students should also have a basic liberal education, and after experimenting with lessons on the history of science and technology, I decided that that this liberal education needed to be broadened to the humanities and social sciences. So I enrolled in a London University degree program to better understand the fields myself and began taking courses in economics and sociology. The lecturer in sociology at the time was conducting research on technical education, and he spoke of the issue of retention. This issue afflicted technical colleges, as there was a high number of students who dropped out, particularly those studying part-time, and I decided to investigate my own teaching. Though some research was already being done in this area, it did not consider the more practical effects of a very long curriculum and possibly poor teaching, and I focused on these aspects.

The admittedly rudimentary research that I henceforth conducted illustrated some problems with the part-time students’ curriculum and provided a basis for my dissertation. Furthermore, I was able to piece together an article for Nature, and to my astonishment, they not only published it, but in an editorial it was mentioned that there was a need for much more research of this kind. Armed with this proclamation of support, I was able to obtain a senior research fellowship in higher technological education and so continued my work in educational research.

A Series of Challenges to Education Reform

When my article was published in Nature in 1960, there were very few people conducting research on engineering education at the time. Even ten years later, there were still no more than 20 of us. As you may imagine, there was a good deal of skepticism surrounding such work. My first foray into this realm of barriers was during a study on the correctness of the purported view that there was a shortage of qualified manpower in technical industries, which involved evaluating the cooperative education systems (in the UK, called “sandwich courses”) currently in place. Cooperative education —the integration of academic studies with industry experience —had yet to have a well-established and effective schedule. The most commonly utilized schedule had students attending college for six months, then working for six months, and so on for four years, but those in industry wanted a more even distribution of students throughout the year. To further complicate matters, colleges were using as many as twenty different cooperative education schedules!

When I began the study, I was naïve to the hidden agendas of the college leaders. They wanted to open colleges year-round so that students could spend more time in industry, but also so that more students could attend college. My findings, contrary to what those involved believed and much less wanted to hear, asserted that there was in fact no shortage of qualified manpower and thus no need to increase enrollment. I was even told to re-analyze my data, which did nothing more than to confirm my original results. Though my work provided a lot of useful material, it was not heeded because it was contrary to the political agenda. This was not good for one’s career!

But my career did not suffer tremendously, and in fact I became one of the first two lecturers in higher education with tenure in the U.K. The position itself, however, was met with a high level of skepticism, and this was difficult to overcome (and even today, it can be difficult to overcome). In this case, the task was made difficult because the brief was to undertake research and design on university examinations, and no one wanted me to do that! Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, I was able to produce a published text on the theory and practice of assessment in higher education.

Much of this was due to my being allowed to participate in the design, implementation and evaluation of a multiple-strategy engineering science examination for entry to university, in which I played a leading role. This work had a major influence on my thinking, as did an investigation into the work done by engineers in a firm in the industry. I began this study in 1969, and continued while I was in the industrial studies division of the faculty of engineering science at the University of Liverpool.

Because those in the engineering community involved with educational research were, and continue to be, dwarfed by those doing traditional research, I found that implementing many of my recommendations for educational improvements was extremely difficult. I learned that one’s ideas might set off a discussion and turn into something entirely unanticipated, so I began to expect unintended outcomes and hoped I would be cheered by what happened.

This challenge was evident when I was afforded the opportunity to create a curriculum for a new university in 1966. I led a group of academics and industrialists who devised a problem/project-based curriculum for engineering students studying manufacturing, but when my plans were posed to the university, they were not accepted. Our ideas were simply too radical at the time. But what’s interesting is that the instructional approaches that I was putting forth then are no longer beyond the plausibility structure. I found this to be true of a lot of my work —it was simply before its time.

Linking Theory to Practice

In the 1950s, before entering academia, I was involved in research, design, and development of radio equipment, and I think this background has forced me to maintain a practical attitude in my research. I conduct research because I hope and want to see practical improvements implemented, not simply for the discovery of knowledge. An issue in educational research is that innovative ideas —as opposed to innovative products —can be easily modified and adjusted to suit a local practitioner’s needs. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but too much mucking about with ideas can lead to muddied results. In other instances, there can be too many restrictions placed on a study so that any aim for improvement is unrealistic.

For example, on the basis of my work with the engineering science curriculum, I was tasked with creating a new examination style in another country (Ireland).  The authorities wanted me to develop the higher order thinking skills like those in Bloom’s Taxonomy.  This was also a “public examination,” taken by most pupils at the age of 15 and set and marked by the State. But I was not allowed to touch the curriculum! Certainly, the design of a system of assessment is bound to influence the curriculum in one way or another, and very often the curriculum must be changed for the assessment to work. This applies to engineering as well where, for instance, if you want to assess students’ abilities to comprehend journal articles, it is imperative that they be effectively taught how to read them and what to take away from them. To do so takes time, but in many cases, curricula are so structured that there is no room for modification. This issue faces K–12 education and post-secondary education alike, and I believe that teachers must be given the freedom to critique and improve the curriculum. This is why I support the idea that teachers be required to study the theory and practice of the curriculum.

The latter half of my career was spent as a professor in teacher education at Trinity College Dublin, not in an engineering college. There, I obliged my university students to conduct research on their own instruction, much like I did when I first became enamored with the problem of retention of part-time technological students in my younger years. During a period of just over ten years in the 1980s and ‘90s, I collected about 5,000 teaching-as-research case studies from my students, providing an enormous wealth of material that I have relied upon for my work. This has allowed me to evaluate many different teaching strategies used in classrooms. I wish I had been able to coerce engineering teachers to carry out similar case studies with their classes!

Making an Impact on Individuals

It is not for me to say what impact I have had. How can I know? I have been publishing articles, papers, and books for more than 50 years, but when I think about the contributions that I’ve made on the field of engineering education, I believe that my biggest impact has been on people. I can point to clear instances where I have influenced individuals involved with ASEE, FIE, and IEEE over the years. Even with more than 150 publications, I feel that I have accomplished less on a large scale, but the one thing that seems to have staying power is my 2005 book, Engineering Education, which has been utilized by plenty of researchers.

During the course of my career, education and engineering education have become interwoven and support one another, and some people have been kind enough to say that they liked my work. This has encouraged me to keep going. And after all these years, I am still involved in engineering education, and for that I am very grateful.

Looking Forward

Issues that we face with curriculum, teaching, and policy have stuck with me and compelled me to continue to seek out solutions for improving education. I believe that the higher education system is in a state of crisis, and that due to the requirements of assessment, many teachers are taking a “surface” approach to instruction —rote memorization is emphasized over catering to students’ individual learning styles (even in the case of many of my own students who become teachers). There must be an effort to reconcile theory and practice, and an in-depth discussion regarding the aims of higher education in general is needed. I believe that engineering education is well-suited to lead these discussions.

For those pursuing careers in engineering education, just remember to stay positive. Know that if someone does indeed acknowledge your work, you are lucky! Expect to fail, but just laugh about your failures – —things are bound to happen that you do not anticipate.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Dr. Heywood reflects on the difficulty of translating research into practice, in order to promote real transformation in education. How do your experiences in this area compare?

Photo provided by Dr. Heywood.