Advance Organizers
and other approaches to structuring teaching


Models and Metaphors

Isn't it nice to find out that something you have been doing all along has a jargon name? It's like M. Jourdain in Moličre's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme who was gratified to discover that he had been speaking prose all his life.

Advance Organizers are like that: they are simply devices used in the introduction of a topic which enable learners to orient themselves to the topic, so that they can locate where any particular bit of input fits in and how it links with what they already know. (The name was coined by Ausubel.)  Ausubel's major principle — that the most important determinant of learning is what the learner already knows — calls for an image or example which directs the learner to relevant prior experience or learning (preferably of course live and significant experience) and also points forward to new material.

Go here for a more rigorous account (despite it being a wiki, it has a respectable provenance) ...and here

A few years ago I went to observe one of my students teaching on an "Access" course. (Access courses are usually year-long programmes for mature students without conventional qualifications to provide an alternative entry route to—traditionally—nursing, teaching or social work. They are one of the few unequivocal Good Things in the UK education system.)

My student was covering (I use the term advisedly) the psychology of language acquisition. She had a group of about fifteen students, all women, aged at a guess from mid-twenties to mid-forties. For the first hour she gave a very competent, well-structured lesson on behavioural and cognitive perspectives on language acquisition. She asked questions and got OK answers, but it was all "out there" stuff. There was a short comfort break, during which the students had clearly been conferring...

When they re-convened, the tutor (my student) checked in with a "OK, is all that clear?" question. She was faced with a barrage of raised hands and urgent questions. "My daughter didn't speak until she was...", "My grandson can say hundreds of words at...", "My son has married a girl from India, how will that affect their children's language development?" And so it went on.

At the end of the session, she was very apologetic. "I'm sorry! The second half did not go at all as planned!" No, I agreed. It went much better. It connected. These were mature women with children of their own (and in some cases grandchildren). They had all, to a woman, followed the linguistic development of their children with an avid concentration which would have put Skinner, Piaget and Chomsky (not that he did that much empirical work) to shame. Why had she not started from there?

To be fair, she lacked the confidence that she could handle what she would get. And she was not sure that she could explain to the tutor who would take over from her in two weeks for the next part of the module why the students might not have "covered the syllabus". But consider the resource and the motivation she might have harnessed following Ausubel's principle.

Common examples are:

Is this "dumbing-down"? Is it compromising the academic integrity and purity of your teaching?

Yes, OK, it may be at one level. But;

  • Pragmatically, it is no good having academically pure "teaching" if the students don't learn as much (or fewer students learn much), and;
  • More important, students are not just "learners" (which is one reason why I object to this current jargon which seems to have infected the FE but interestingly not yet the HE sector). They are complex people, who may be engaged and intrigued at several different levels. "Engaging" them requires that you recognise this. You have a lot in common with them, as well as formal differences in the classroom. They might have watched the same TV as you last night (some of them might even have listened to Radio 4, although I admit that I am lucky in finding some)... Relate to their experience. It is arrogant not to. (I know about academic arrogance; been there, done that!)


Advance organizers on their own are not particularly effective as teaching devices, according to Hattie's meta-analysis, but then as far as I am concerned they are only "openers" to a session, and they involve little effort, so they are worth using.

There are some parallels between advance organizers and the emerging research on threshold concepts.

Scaffolding and the ZPD

Bruner has another model of similar status, that of "scaffolding". Although applied principally to a description of the way in which we naturally teach young children, it also comes readily to mind in taking anyone through new material or skills. The teacher provides the external structure (the scaffold) within which the learner can build their building. This includes engaging the learner's interest, demonstrating, progressing from the simple to the complex, encouraging practice, providing feedback, and so on.

Vygotsky's wonderfully named "Zone of Proximal Development"

(Apart from that, a casual reference to Vygotsky and the ZPD [always use the initials] is bound to impress if you are trying to bluff your way with educationalists — it just does not impress the students!)
has elements of the same process. This points out that learners can achieve more with help and guidance than they can left to themselves. Such an observation is commonplace in assessing the capabilities of people with learning disabilities, where achievement is categorised as "can do alone", "can do with guidance", "can do with physical assistance", and so on.

However, there is more to it than that: judging how it is reasonable to "stretch" learners requires complex assessment. Too little and they don't get anywhere and get bored: too much and the task is overwhelming and they are almost sure to fail.

Models and Metaphors

Similarly fairly intuitive, as a way of structuring new ideas is the use of simplified models, metaphors and analogies:

See also: tools/tools.htm

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

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

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

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