John Cowan: It’s Not about Teaching, It’s about Learning

John CowanJohn Cowan has been working in engineering education since the 1960s, focusing on developing engineering students’ capabilities and working internationally to help engineering educators make innovative changes in their programs.

The profile below was authored by Cheryl Allendoerfer, University of Washington, based on an interview with Dr. Cowan in 2014.

John Cowan
Emeritus Professor of Learning Development
UK Open University

B.A. (First Class Honours), Social Sciences, Open University, 1994
D.Eng. (by thesis): “Education for Capability,” Heriot-Watt University, 1987
Ph.D., Engineering Education, “The Feasibility of Resource-Based Learning in Civil Engineering Education,” Heriot-Watt University, 1975
Diploma in Adult Christian Education (with distinction), University of Edinburgh, 1974
M.Sc., “Stresses in Glued Timber Joints,” Heriot-Watt University, 1967
B.Sc. (First Class Honours), Civil Engineering, University of Edinburgh, 1952.


Individualizing Instruction

In the 1960s, I had been working as a senior structural engineering designer for several years, and then I thought I would like have a try at teaching, because I had done a little night-class tutoring and found it fulfilling. I applied for a post at Heriot-Watt University, I was appointed, and I gave myself five years. I thought, “I want to be able to teach better than the people who taught me.” At the end of five years, I wasn’t very convinced that I was really teaching as well as I wanted to. I felt that I should go back to industry, but there was a course advertised for training university teachers. I decided to enroll and give myself another chance. I went to this course, came home, and tore up all my lecture notes, having decided that I wasn’t in the business of teaching any more— I was in the business of learning. Also about that time, Carl Rogers published Freedom to Learn, and that had a powerful influence on me as well. So that was how I started off.

I realized that if I wanted my students to learn, I had to do something that wasn’t done in engineering education in the U.K. at that time. I had to individualize it. I had to shift the responsibility to them to decide what they would learn and how they would learn. During that time, I was kind of on my own, but I was finding people who had concentrated on learning in other disciplines, a fragment of this in one place and a fragment of it another. I’m a great pillager. If somebody else has had a good idea, why can I not steal it and use it? In 1975, I got my Ph.D. in engineering education, and people began to invite me to go around the U.K. to talk about individualizing engineering education. That was very useful, because out of that, I formed a network of connections.

Then I suppose I began to become a bit radical. It was unusual, in those days, to let students design their own courses and decide what they should learn. I did that even with first-year students. This didn’t go down awfully well with my conventional colleagues. I found it best to do that kind of thing silently, behind closed doors, with my students. But I was beginning now to get invitations not just from the U.K., but also from the British Council to go abroad. So I went to a number of countries abroad where people really wanted to improve engineering education. I got to work with really talented people who were prepared to try out things and take big risks.

Teaching to Develop Students’ Abilities

By the 1980s my profession needed graduate engineers who had developed the ability to be analytical and creative problem solvers, and to make judgments, and to relate to other people. We needed an education that was about developing abilities, not just knowing things. So I moved into developing abilities by training reflective practitioners. I guess I must have been one of the very first people who asked first year civil engineers to keep reflective learning journals, based on what the feminist literature told me. I just didn’t tell them it came from the feminist literature, because we were mainly men in structural engineering at that time. Reflective learning journals were very effective for me and my students, and that was a developmental stage for me, too.

Around that time, there was a Royal Society of Arts scheme in the U.K., called “Education for Capability,” and you could apply for an award if “capability” was an educational priority for you. I thought I would apply for an award, because I didn’t know of anybody who had been doing my kind of thing. They fixed a date for a visit by the panel to come and see what we’d been doing. I said, “Well, that’s all right. I’m going to be doing some work in Colombia then, but the students will all be here.” The people from the panel said, “But if you’re not there, who are going to answer our questions?” I replied, “Well, if you want to find out about student learning, you should just come and talk to my students.” They seemed to think that was a radical idea, but it was in accordance with my philosophy, which was that education is not about teaching— it’s about learning. So they came, the students were absolutely wonderful, the panel were very enthusiastic, and we got the award. That kind of thing made a big difference. What subsequently made a difference with my colleagues was when people visiting the department would say, “Wait a minute. This is where John Cowan works. I’d quite like to meet him and find out what he’s doing.” Because visitors wanted to see our Learning Unit, my colleagues started to act as if they were doing that kind of thing too, and so gradually my approach began to spread at home, too.

In 1985 or ’86 I had to spend time in hospital in Sri Lanka. You can’t just lie in hospital and do nothing, so I thought I would begin to write what in Britain is a Doctor of Engineering thesis. I wanted to write a thesis for the few people who might want to know about developments in both engineering and education. Then when I got out of the hospital and came home, I pushed myself to write a page a day. So I gained a higher doctorate in education for capability out of that, because I’d been concentrating on this business of the development of abilities, which to me, is what it’s all about in higher education in this era.

In 1987 I went to the Open University in Scotland while continuing my active engagement with engineering education through my professional body. The Open University had 13 regions in the United Kingdom, and the regional directors came from being administrators in traditional universities. They interviewed me, even though I wasn’t an administrator. At the interview, the then Vice-Chancellor of the O.U. said, “Professor Cowan, you don’t seem to appreciate that we’re looking for a manager who’ll live above the shop 350 days of the year.” And, because I’m a passionate Scot, I said frankly, “Well, I thought you were looking for someone whose primary concern would be the quality of the learning experience for the students in Scotland. But obviously you’re not, so I’m not your man.” The interview finished shortly after that. But by the time I got home, they’d phoned me and offered me the job.

Toward a Qualitative Understanding of Engineering Behavior

For years, I grappled with a major challenge in the broader context of engineering education. One of the problems in structural engineering education is that students are taught to do careful calculations rather than understand behaviour. They look at a structure, for example a bridge structure, and somebody tells them the loads being applied to it. They do calculations and they work out the force on this member and the force on that member. Now, if they get wrong answers, then they’ve got a wrong understanding of how the structure behaves. What I wanted to do was to educate engineers who could look at a structure and, without doing little calculations, could see where the highest stresses were. They could appreciate what was happening in the structure. I called that qualitative understanding of engineering behavior; in other words, understanding the nature of how a structure behaved, rather than quantitative understanding, which was mere number crunching. There was far too much in engineering education at that time which was number crunching. So, I produced materials and innovative activities and so on to promote qualitative understanding. Then, eventually, I wound up collaborating with another engineer called David Brohn. We pushed the Institution of Structural Engineers to stress that qualitative understanding of how structures behave was more important than the traditional quantitative understanding through number crunching. That’s well established now. I got an award from the structurals for that work. It was a radical change in what it is that we want engineers to learn. I wanted students to learn how structures behaved, not how to do calculations. This linked with my efforts for many years to enhance the already effective practice-based assessment for candidates. As special advisor on assessment, I was one of a team which, over the years, further enhanced an assessment scheme leading to professional status, of which my Institution is rightly very proud.

Machiavellian Tactics and Grassroots Involvement

I think what I’ve learned about making change is that I can be most effective by getting into the midst of the action, and so can actually have a real feeling for what it’s like to be in there as a learner and as a teacher; and to break up and build up my ideas from there. It worked for me, but I don’t say it’s what everyone should do, or that it’s the only way.

Bringing about changes is also about being tactical. When I went to the Open University, my deputy there, who was a classicist, gave me a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince. I don’t normally deface books, but I went through it, and I intentionally underlined quotations that would be very useful if you were talking about how to achieve educational development for engineering. I used to say that Machiavelli was a man who had educational innovation in mind, and he disguised it as a political theory. You’ve got to be Machiavellian to bring about educational change. You’ve often got to be devious. For example, we had a visiting panel that came for a site visit, and my colleagues expected them to be very dubious about me and my self-directed and self-assessed courses in design. I said to the visiting panel, “I expect this concerns you.” They said, “Oh yes, it certainly does concern us.” I said, “Would you like someone to find out what the students have learned and how well they’ve learned?” “Yes, we would,” they said. I said, “And you would like that someone to be somebody independent, who can reach a judgment that you value?” “Yes, we would,” they said, anticipating that this was something that was going to happen in the future. However, I had already secured such a judgment. I went to my briefcase, pulled out a report, and told them, “Well, it just so happens that I arranged with former members of your panel to come and examine my students.” And the judgment they produced was that the students had learnt to a high standard, conventionally and otherwise. So, that was me being Machiavellian. I was anticipating that they would have concerns, and I was ready for it. I think people who want to be innovative have got to be tactical, if they want the innovations to happen.

The Value of Practical Experience and Networking Broadly

The opening advice I would give to new engineering education scholars would be to first gain considerable experience as an engineer, not as a teacher of engineering. One of the things that the profession suffers from— more nowadays than 40 years ago— are people who have come straight through to a graduate degree and then a Ph.D., and then they start teaching and doing research, and they’ve not practiced engineering. Nowadays, the trouble is that we’ve got too many theoretical engineers around. I mean, engineering is about being practical. It’s about dealing with real problems, and dealing with real people. Until you’ve learned in the field and had the experience of dealing with people and with problems that arise in the field, you don’t really know what engineering is about.

The second advice I would offer is to get together with your students and make teaching and learning a joint activity. Become a teacher who’s got a relationship with your students, within which teaching and learning happen, and sometimes they’re teaching you and you’re learning with joy with them. And sometimes you’re teaching them, as well. That’s the vision I would have. There are a lot of people doing that now, but there weren’t too many doing that in 1967.

I would also advise new recruits to get into networks, and not necessarily in engineering. Some of the best ideas that I got came from people who taught sociology or classics or something like that. I think there are lots of places where we can pick up good ideas and good principles and values and all the rest of it, and they do indeed transfer between the disciplines, provided we’re prepared to transmute them. Also, if you’re going to have a network, you’ve got to have something to share. Basically, you need to be breaking new ground, and you need to have your new experiences to share. People like wrestling with an idea and giving you back suggestions on it. That’s an aspect of networking too.

Another thing you can do, as early as possible, is to get yourself onto a panel of people who review papers. That’s been productive staff development for me. I read and review two or three papers a week. And it’s wonderful stuff for me. First, because if these papers are going to be published, that’ll be 18 months or two years from now. So I’m 18 months or two years ahead of the field. The next thing is, if I’ve got into a journal that insists on reviews being constructive, it makes me think about what the authors could do that would make the paper deeper and maybe better. So that’s a really good professional development activity too.

Also, be aware of the kinds of things that are happening in education, not just across the disciplines, but also across the levels. Some of the most imaginative things are happening at the primary level. And we can pillage from that sector, too.

Contributions: Facilitating Change at the Grassroots

My biggest contributions have been at the grassroots. I’ve only written two books, and I’m not one of the big-name personalities, but I’ve gone into situations and worked there with teachers, with my colleagues in my own department, and in places around the world. We’ve changed things, and I’m glad to say that this has been acknowledged in a number of awards I have received. I would say that my contribution has been getting into grassroots activity and showing the people that are involved there how they can change things, how they can evaluate the changes, and how they can do without me. The most important thing is, when I go away, are they going to manage creatively on their own, without me? Are they going to go on being creative, and are they going to have stories to tell me about, “We’ve done this,” and “We’ve done that”? I see myself as a facilitator, nudging them to be the best that they can be, and then quietly bowing out and letting them be the innovative people, just as I do with students. Then I can always go to another place and work on another grassroots activity. That’s the way the people I’ve worked with would describe me, I think —and hope.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Where have you looked (or could you look) to “pillage” useful ideas from other scholars or other fields?
  • What does educating for capabilities look like in your discipline? What are some of the key capabilities that graduates should have? How can such development be effectively facilitated?
  • Does engineering education still concentrate too much on number-crunching rather than qualitatively understanding behavior?

Photos provided by Dr. Cowan.