For Teacher-centred teaching

Have you ever sat in a training session while a well-meaning (and well-trained) trainer introduces the topic (after the obligatory introductions, ice-breaker and rehearsal of the ground rules, of course)?

"Right—now that we all know each other... The purpose of today's session is to introduce the new staff appraisal scheme, and to ensure that you are all familiar with it. More specifically..."

(At this point we have an animated PowerPoint [trademarks acknowledged etc.] presentation of the session objectives)

"Is that OK? Good! I thought the best way to introduce this would be to get you into small groups to consider what might be the functions of a staff appraisal scheme..."

(We now spend 15 minutes in groups of four or five coming up with our own ideas, and another 20 minutes feeding them back, and then she (or he) moves on to the next slide which tells us what we ought to have said, and gives out the handout which explains the scheme)

OK—that has disposed of 35-40 minutes of the scheduled three-hour session, or a quarter of the time allowing for the 20-minute coffee break (which always over-runs because it is one of the few opportunities one gets to collar some of one's colleagues about important things such as the breakdown of the moderation policy on the last asssessment round of the MA...)

More seriously—why bother? Given that the appraisal policy has already been decided, why not just tell us what it is? I attended this particular session a few months ago, and the trainer did it all very well. (I can't get completely out of teaching observation mode and suspend disbelief in these circumstances.)

If I had asked her, she would probably have said that it is important to get people involved and thinking about the issues before presenting the material. It is a student-centred approach.

It is also completely inappropriate.

  1. I can't remember what the policy is, but it doesn't matter very much anyway, because I can always look it up on the intranet. (I threw away the handout long ago, but filing it and consulting it would have amounted to the same thing as looking on the intranet.)
  2. The feedback from the discussion groups makes not one jot or tittle of difference to the pre-determined appraisal policy.
  3. Understanding the policy would not tax our brains over much, anyway.

* That changed for the better! Partly as a consequence of this site I was awarded a generously-funded national Teaching Fellowship and I have been to several conferences to check out this argument. It holds up! Occasionally (only occasionally, because the budget is limited*), I get to go to academic conferences. There we have an intensive diet of people reading (sometimes literally) their research papers, and taking questions afterwards if there is time. I steer clear of the "workshops" which go for the student-centred approach of the training session above. In proper sessions, people tell us what they have found out, and we quiz them about it: they are the experts, we want to evaluate their results, and it is an honest transaction.

If we know something and the students don't, why can't we just tell them what it is?

The usual argument is that it is important for the students to "engage" with the material, and the lecture, which is the principal method of "delivery"—as opposed to "consumption"—oriented teaching, simply induces passivity and even surface learning.

Yes—that is sometimes true, but usually in the acquisition of skills rather than knowledge.

Almost thirty years ago, I did some research on the sociology of religion. (It may still be available as an M.Litt. thesis at Lancaster University.) I produced an abysmally-constructed thesis which I would not have passed today, but it did contain some nuggets. One was a comparative exploration of two kinds of liturgy. The first was that of a Pentecostal assembly, which was superficially "free" and "spontaneous" in form. The second was of an Anglican evensong, which was far more structured and ritualised.

Of necessity using different research methods, which may invalidate the whole exercise, I nevertheless sought to explore what these different liturgies meant to the participants. In short, I (and Andy Walker, my co-researcher on this bit—see WALKER A G and ATHERTON J S (1971) "An Easter Pentecostal Convention: the successful management of a 'time of blessing'" Sociological Review vol 19, no 3, pp367-387.) found that "beneath the surface" of the apparently spontaneous Pentecostal liturgy was a very rigid and indeed ritualised understanding of the proceedings, while I discovered a much more personalised and reflective understanding on the part of the congregation at the Anglican evensong.

So what has that got to do with education and lectures?  A lot. Focus on what you want the students to learn, and you stifle and restrict what they might learn. Focus on what you want to say, and you permit them to take away what they want, and to make it applicable to their own situation.

In the dim and distant past, I took my first degree at the University of Sussex. Among the courses (modules) on offer was one called "the Modern European Mind". It had a lecture sequence associated with it, which, in the informed opinion of one of the tutors, would take at least five years to repeat (on the basis of three lectures a week). An underqraduate degree took three years—so there was no suggestion that anyone could learn what was being taught. Instead it was a stimulus—a testimony to the passion of the lecturers for their subjects, trusting the students to make of it what they could.

So-called "student-centred learning" is an oxymoron. It is about not trusting students to learn. It is a sophisticated manipulative game of getting them to jump through hoops of the faculty's devising.

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

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