Learner, Subject and Teacher (3)

So, what might be expected of the six basic patterns which can be arrived at on the basis of simple combinations?


As suggested above, this is the most common ranking, although the pattern is usually triangular, with the teacher slightly off to one side (Fig 1). There are of course some situations where the ordering is along a straight line: the clearest is probably that of conservative religious instruction, where the Subject is regarded as so holy and inviolable that the Teacherís role is analogous to (or even synonymous with) that of priest ó an intermediary whose task is to ensure that the truth is not compromised by the learnerís misunderstanding. The three elements may even be physically arranged in the order of the sculpt, the Learner not being allowed to touch the holy book or object until he (usually "he") has attained a certain level of knowledge or commitment.

More conventional curricula are not as extreme as the above example, but nevertheless the Subject remains non-negotiable, regarded as a body of knowledge which already exists, and the Teacher acquires authority from his or her access to that knowledge. The Teacherís role is thus defined by the Subject, and she only remains in the Teacher role as long as she conforms to its expectations, and mediates the knowledge to the Learner (Laurillard, 1993). The Learner is the one who is to be changed by exposure to the Subject.

"Subject", here, of course, does not necessarily simply mean mathematics or geography, or even the entirety of the National Curriculum. At the level of the school, it may embrace the whole culture into which the Learner is to be initiated, including its values, both explicit and covert. In this sense, there is some similarity to Rogersí "conformist" curriculum.

The primacy of the Subject permits and requires curriculum planning based on pre-specified objectives. The secondary position of the Teacher implies that much of process of reaching those objectives will be teacher-directed, and may well take place in a classroom. Even where nominally open-ended exercises and experiments are employed, they are managed in order to produce the "right" answer, and anomalous results are corrected (with the potential result of undermining Learnersí faith in their own findings).

If the learner is the most contingent or variable part of the system, it follows that selection procedures for courses will be governed by evidence of previous understanding of the Subject or of aptitude for it, and undertaken by Teachers.

The kind of knowledge conveyed and learned is likely to be convergent (Kolb, 1984), and the Learnerís progress assessed by ability to reproduce and apply the knowledge, or the lower reaches of Bloomís taxonomy in the cognitive domain (Bloom, 1956). Analytic, synthetic and evaluative skills involve some degree of displacement of the Subject from its dominant position within the system. Consequently, assessment is fundamentally conformist, with judgements made on the basis of the ability of the Learner to adapt to the Subject-dominated system.

Liftonís original observations emphasise the destructive potential of the pattern:

This picture seems at first sight to be falling into the same trap as Rogersí construct. The STL pattern is indeed conservative, but on reflection necessarily so. Any educational system which aspires to the transmission of the sedimented knowledge-base of a culture must operate in this mode for at least some of the time. Realistically, as Laurillard (1993) suggests, up to first degree level, Subjects do need to be mediated, but it does not preclude the temporary adoption of other models, framed always by the dominance of the Subject. Similarly, STL too may appear transiently within the framework of other models: however divergent or humanistic the overall learning enterprise may be, there will almost certainly be occasions when you have to learn to do something right, or else it will not work. Despite the contentions of post-modern theorists, egg-whites just will not stiffen if beaten in a greasy bowl, and electrical appliances become downright dangerous if the plug is wired up wrongly. Yes, you could find this out by experience and discovery (SLT), but sometimes Teacher does know best!

In practical terms, the danger of the model in our current culture is probably less that identified by Lifton, than the possibility of a "surface" or perhaps "achieving" approach to study on the part of the Learner (Marton, Hounsell and Entwistle, 1997). Not only may the close identification of the Teacher with the Subject generate undesirable dependence, but the process of learning may become synonymous with pleasing Teacher, as Holt observed long ago (Holt, 1970).


In this model, the Subject is dominant as before, but the next most significant element is the Learner, and the Teacherís role is a product of the demands of both of them (Fig. 2). This immediately seems more "democratic" to present-day Western minds, and the state to which many teachers in post-compulsory education, to whom I have introduced this model, devoutly aspire.

As before, the subject calls the tune, but the Learner has a direct relationship with it, and the task of Teacher is to "facilitate" the Learnerís engagement with the subject by providing resources and guidance as required. This is not quite "student-centred" learning, but is clearly closer to it than the previous version. It is a picture of a student engaged in "deep" learning.

Fig 2: Subject -Learner-Teacher (SLT) arrangement

In common with STL, the other Subject-dominated model, outcomes are likely to be pre-specified and the emphasis is on product rather than process: but in this case the position of the Learner gives her or him much greater discretion in the process of arriving at the outcome. Thus competence-based programmes, which value learning acquired other than in a teacher-directed setting, may well fit into this category.

But it is worth asking whose picture this pattern is, and how it is arrived at. Thomas and Harri-Augstein (1985) make the useful distinction between teacher and learner perspectives on learning, and between original and retrospective views, yielding four possibilities in all. Is the Teacherís construction of the pattern the same as that of the Learner? A common theme in discussion with teachers is that even when the Teacherís perspective conforms to this (SLT) pattern, the Learners are still likely to perceive it as STL. They do not detect a shift in the system, but rather interpret it as the failure of the Teacher to maintain the expected role in the STL pattern, or perhaps as having abdicated that role and left them to their own devices. On the original-retrospective dimension, too, even Teachers recognise that while their intentions have often been to institute the SLT pattern (which may itself be a contradiction in terms) the outcome has been a reluctant collusion with Learners who have been unprepared to step outside the STL arrangement, and thus have maintained it.

Collins (1991) has argued that the device of the learning contract ó which should theoretically allow for the specification of the roles of Learner and Teacher, and empower the Learner to take up the second position in the pattern ó has in practice been devalued into a technique which deceives all concerned into believing that the SLT pattern has been instituted, whereas in practice the old STL model remains. Hansonís (1996) research confirms what many teachers of adults know, that:

"part-time evening-only mature students demonstrate clearly instrumental attitudes towards learning. Self-direction and reflection was not part of their agenda and time and again they were critical of tutors who did not dictate notes and give handouts, and who expected them to look things up in the library and prepare work for the next session."

(Hanson, 1996: 105)

So before blithely deciding that this facilitative model is the one which applies to oneís own practice, it is necessary to ask what qualities would need to be displayed by both Learner and Teacher for it to be a reality. At the structural level, it implies that learning programmes are not selective, for instance. This is not to deny that selection may be necessary for a variety of reasons ó limited resources, in the interests of a manageable ability range within a class, and so on ó but it does draw attention to the fact that selection exalts the Teacherís judgement above that of the Learner. There is an exception to this: in professional training programmes, the major Subject component embraces also the standards of the professional body, which may impose its own selection criteria (Bines and Watson, 1992). Within the learning/teaching programme, the SLT pattern implies that the Learner can make her or his own pace, and indeed her or his own selection of the material studied (within the boundaries set down by the Subject). It also implies that the Teacher is available on demand from the Learner, and hence suggests a tutorial mode of delivery. Since most teaching takes place in groups, in which a compromise has to be established (usually by the Teacher) between the differing needs and demands of the group members, the Teacher inevitably climbs up the pattern.

Assessment again focuses on the convergent requirements of accepting and using the Subject, so although formative self-assessment may be important for the Learner, summative assessment remains under the dominance of the Subject.

It will be clear by now that this SLT pattern is rarer than many practitioners would like to think, but also that it is often not their "fault" that STL clings to its prevalence. STL derives its stability from redundancy or patterning: both the organisational role of the Teacher and her pedagogic role confer authority over the Learner. In SLT, on the other hand, the andragogic role of the Teacher may be in conflict with her organisational or managerial role, and given that the latter role plugs in to a wider and more powerful variety of other systems (timetabling, access to resources, assessment and accreditation, etc.), it tends to undermine the andragogic process. SLT is inherently less stable than STL.

Open and distance learning programmes (even conceding the proactive role taken by the Teacher as deviser of the programme) may be the only forms which truly have the potential to embed this particular pattern in a stable fashion. In other cases, the requirement is for constant vigilance.


This is the selective training pattern. When exercise participants sculpt the TSL model, it is often apparent that the Teacher and the Subject are nearly identified with each other, and the decision about whether a given teaching and learning situation is TSL or STL sometimes appears arbitrary (Fig 3). But there is an important difference. The Subject is no longer sovereign, and may have lost its integrity. The Teacher has the power to select from the Subject material and to pass on what she thinks fit.

Fig 3: Teacher-Subject-Learner (TSL)

The classification and framing of educational knowledge (Bernstein, 1971) is now so firmly undertaken at the level of educational institutions, and academic and vocational awarding bodies, that this pattern is much less common in formal educational settings than it was. Perhaps its last flowering in British academia was in the teaching of F R Leavis, who defined the canon of English Literature for his students (or perhaps "disciples" is a better word) at Cambridge in the í50s and í60s (MacKillop, 1995). The Leavisite heritage is not entirely dead in some contentious areas of study, where studentsóusually at graduate levelóchoose to study with a professor or department which clearly espouses a particular viewpoint in, say, economics or philosophy, but there is a degree of distrust of such an approach at lower academic levels.

The TSL model was more routinely the basis of the old-fashioned apprenticeship, in which the master craftsman (Teacher) embodied the Subject, and the Subject was whatever he (or sometimes she) said it was. The selection and assessment of the Learner was a matter of personal choice by the Teacher/master, subject only to the issue of his credibility among his peers. This pattern has been generalised and romanticised recently by Lave and Wenger (1991) as "situated learning", in which the Subject is seen as the creation of a "community of practice".

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

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

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