Learner, Subject and Teacher (2)

The Components

Before looking at them in combination, however, it is useful to reflect briefly on the different attributes which the components might have within the system, and which will tend to promote different patterns. I refer to "components" or "elements" because each is considered as itself a system. Sometimes we may be talking about individual teachers and learners and specific subjects, but the focus is on their systemic properties, or on what they bring to the overall system under discussion. It may be useful, although not strictly accurate, to regard the components as "roles". The Teacher may be a team of teachers, or it may be a single person. That team may act in concert, or with constructive or destructive tension between its members. The Learner is often a group of learners, perhaps with different preferences and expectations: it is in the nature of most teaching projects that the Teacher has to adapt to what she sees as being the predominant needs of that group. Sometimes the Teacher does not respond to the real group in front of her, but to a fantasy based on previous experience.

Taking the components, then, in alphabetical order: the Learner may or may not be committed to the task, and may or may not have clear expectations about what he (or she, of course) is going to learn. He may also have been socialised into a learning role which requires him to slip by default into a certain position in the system. All the usual factors such as motivation and learning style can influence this preferred position, but there may also be contextual factors which make a difference. One of the immediate reactions to the news that undergraduates would have to pay fees under the proposals of the Dearing Report (1997), for example, was to suggest that students would come to see themselves more as "customers" of the Universities, and hence demand a teaching and learning system which conformed to their expectations and preferences. Teacher authority may be ceded by such students, but it remains in their gift: the paradox is that they may use this power to demand a more pedagogic style.

The Subject is inanimate. It is easy to see it as "given", and indeed in some of the models it is treated as such. Epistemological perspectives may show variations within different forms of Subject, but practising teachers (particularly those working within frameworks such as the British National Curriculum) tend to treat it as an objective reality. There are a number of perspectives, however, which demonstrate that this is not the case, particularly at the time of writing, the Santiago model (Maturana and Varela, 1987), joining the social constructivist tradition popularised by Berger and Luckmann (1967) in sociology, and Vygotsky’s heirs in education (Vygotsky, 1962; Daniels, 1996). Such thinking leads in the direction of cultural relativism and post-modernism (Hargreaves, 1994), and makes the Subject "essentially" contingent on the interaction and construction of the Teacher and Learner. Nevertheless, there is wide variety amongst subjects. Science is indeed a social product (Kuhn, 1970; Johnson, 1997), but for-all-practical-purposes its basic theories and data are regarded as given (Laurillard, 1993). One may argue about whether it is worth learning the laws of thermodynamics, but not what they are. Since Gödel, mathematics may not be the axiomatic system it once was, and teachers may toy with the ideas of ethnic maths, but "2+2=4" is still generally accepted as a statement of absolute, non-negotiable, truth.

At the other end of the scale, the study of literature may be regarded as far more subjective, and indeed the principles of deconstruction mean that it is difficult to rule any interpretation as "wrong". In the fine arts, there may be errors of technique, but creativity and divergence are highly valued. In between, there are disciplines which are self-evidently socially constructed, but that makes no difference to their convergent nature, such as law. You either know the statute or you do not. Languages, too, are social products, which are less static than historically-determined subjects — but if you do not express yourself "correctly", other people will not understand you. As the terminology indicates, Hudson’s (1967) construct of convergence and divergence, as applied to subject areas by Kolb (1984), is a useful tool in analysing one’s own subject area; "rigidity" and "flexibility" are similarly appropriate criteria to apply.

The concentration of the discussion on academic subjects should not obscure the ways in which the same approach can be adapted to learning computer skills, or cooking, or horse-riding. The more rigid or convergent the Subject, the more naturally it climbs up the ranking: but this is not to say that a flexible Subject cannot dominate.

Finally, the Teacher. There are two simple factors to consider in the role of the Teacher in the overall system — her (or his) personal power and her organisational or cultural authority (and proclivity for exercising either). Powerful Teachers are readily described as "charismatic", and ascend rapidly up the ranking: a more understated style may be more effective in servicing learners in other patterns. But Teachers are also functionaries and representatives of organisational structures, with varying authority to select, assess and discipline students: as we shall see below, this may set up an inherent tendency for them to climb the ranking. Nor should it be forgotten that Teachers function within and according to sets of cultural expectations, which may vary widely, as documented vividly by Hansen (1979). Alongside such factors, the personal values and preferences of the Teacher may be relatively impotent, or not."Emergence" refers to properties which are only apparent on a broad view. Molecules have no colour—but big chunks of stuff do. Sound, and even life, are meaningless terms at very low levels of analysis, but very real as you get "higher".

Apart perhaps from the inherent characteristics of the Subject, which are often neglected, there is nothing unfamiliar about this: what may be less familiar are the emergent properties of the three components in combination.

We shall look at the basic features of each of the six patterns in a moment, but the overall model gets more interesting when simple ranking is abandoned in favour of a more visual depiction. As each element changes position, its meaning changes slightly, and so to discuss them merely in terms of concepts does not do them justice. Instead, they need to be laid out physically, as a "sculpt" (Fig 1). This is where the model really comes into its own, as a visual model which can be arranged and re-arranged by members of a teaching team, or by members of a learning group, in order to externalise and clarify the assumptions they are making about the nature of a particular teaching/learning (or learning/teaching) enterprise. Laying them out in this way allows for discussion not only of the simple ordering, but also of the relative distances between the elements. Research degree supervision, for example, might conceivably have the Subject and the Learner almost overlapping, with the Teacher some way below them.

Fig 1: Sculpt of traditional STL arrangement

Laying the elements out physically also introduces another plane: if dominance is expressed vertically, something else can be explored horizontally. In the discussion which follows the horizontal dimension represents social distance, or degree of identification operating between the elements. Thus a Learner horizontally displaced from the Subject is deemed to have little identification with it, but may be primarily extrinsically motivated. So there is a difference between a simple Subject-Teacher- Learner line, and a triangular pattern in which the Learner is below the Subject, but the Teacher is off to one side. In the simple line, the Teacher is an intermediary, an interpreter of the Subject to the Learner: in the triangle, there is a clear expectation that the Learner will engage directly with the Subject, with the Teacher (for all her relative dominance over the Learner in terms of structuring the learning experience) off to one side as a facilitator. In a sense, the Teacher is not identified with, but is servicing, the Subject-Learner system. Important though this dimension is for the social dynamics of the system, space precludes its detailed exploration in the discussion which follows.

Manipulating the sculpt is fairly intuitive, but it is important to discuss what the notion of "dominance" means, in practical as well as theoretical terms. The most appropriate term is probably "hegemony" — following Gramsci’s coinage of "ideological hegemony" in which an ideological framework acquires such potency that it not only dictates the answers which can be given, but also the questions which can be asked (Gramsci, 1933). A current example is the notion of "health", which is seen to be so self-evidently desirable that it rules some questions out of court. It is meaningless to ask, "What is the value of health?" In the same way, whichever element is at the top of this diagram has the capacity to dictate the roles and terms of participation of those below it. I shall keep the term "dominance" primarily because of its greater familiarity.

You can play around with your own sculpt here.

 < 1  2  3  4  5 >

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

Search Doceo and associated sites:

Delicious Save this on Delicious        Print Click here to send to a friend    

This site is independent and self-funded. The site does not accept advertising or sponsorship (apart from what I am lumbered with on the reports from the site Search facility above), and invitations/proposals/demands will be ignored, as will SEO spam. I am not responsible for the content of any external links; any endorsement is on the basis only of my quixotic judgement. Suggestions for new pages and corrections of errors or reasonable disagreements are of course always welcome.

Back to top