Tools for Thought

"Is an indistinct photoqraph a picture of a person at all? Is it even always an advantage to replace a blurred picture with a sharp one? Isn't the blurred one often exactly what we need?

Wittgenstein L (1953) Philosophical Investigations
(2nd ed. tr. Anscombe) Oxford; Blackwell: 71

This section consists of a few ideas which have been written up simply as ways of getting students and practitioners on courses to think slightly differently about their practice. They point to what Blumer (1954) called "sensitising concepts", which have no great pretensions to "scientific" accuracy, but may nevertheless be useful. Most of them started life in the process of discussion with experienced practitioners in various disciplines who happened temporarily to be in the role of my students. They tend to tell stories - or bring up examples, if you prefer - which test the ideas being taught. So they should. The ideas which have eventually been elaborated into these papers have started with the exhortation to "look at it this way..." Over the years, I have begun to realise that this very exercise is worthy of a little attention in its own right, not merely because it is my stock-in-trade, but also because other people do it all the time as well.

If you would like to pursue the background in more academic terms, see the papers on Frames of Reference, and the Theory of "Theory".

Ausubel, writing in the context of "reception learning" (as opposed to rote learning or discovery learning) in schools, maintains that, "the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows." (Ausubel, 1968). From this base he derives the idea of using advance organizers or familiar ideas and experiences as ways in to the new material. Such an approach fits with the kind of ideas discussed here.  I'm not entirely convinced by Ausubel's maxim in respect of adult learners, incidentally: it's not so much what the learner already knows, as what she has already learned (which includes learning about the process of learning). Nevertheless, simplified models are a useful way in to subject matter.

The linked pages provide some examples which have been developed with just these ideas in mind. Some of them are simple and even whimsical - analogies such as likening teaching to making mayonnaise, or writing an essay to baking bread, for example. Such analogies are likely to direct attention only to one aspect of the process: it is likely to be process rather than content which is emphasised, because trying to find correspondences between individual elements such as the seasoning in mayonnaise and an element of teaching is forced and phoney.

Some, however, are more elaborate and formal, such as the Skeleton and Shell model (which starts with an analogy but consciously moves beyond it) and the SubTLe (Subject, Teacher, Learner) model. The stuff on symptom and substance, and content and process is really in a fairly fluid stage.

However, they all share certain features, which I dare to suggest are common to all such efforts. They are:


The models exist simply in order to make sense of situations in which practitioners (in these cases in education or social work) find themselves.


This leads on to the next attribute: because they are pragmatic, they only have value if they work. "Work", in this context means that they help learners to make sense of something: it does not mean that they are "true", in the sense of corresponding to reality. So - if they don't work, abandon them. I had this wonderful model of the teaching or facilitating process as like a transistor, using a more powerful current to modify and amplify a weaker one: unfortunately, no-one else understood it (least of all, people who knew more about transistors than I did, who of course could see the limitations of the analogy much more clearly than the parallels). I got myself tied into knots, and moreover came over as a pretentious prat who thought he knew more about electronics than he in fact did. So, I dropped it.

Such a sensitising concept only works if it relates to what learners are already familiar with. Do not cling to it just because it works for you.


Political? Like the notion of discourse, every model is ultimately (small "p") political. It selects aspects of a situation to pay attention to: it suggests what are the major determinants of the situation, as opposed to others which are treated as trivial. It enshrines value judgements, and if elevated to a form of discourse or rhetoric itself, it can imply a political programme. If that sounds too strong, let's just say that no model of a human system can ever be neutral. Even if the values or sentiments it implicitly supports command general and consensual respect, there is always another possible model (which may sound bizarre to us) which would draw attention to other features and values. Hence every model is:


This implies that a model has a prescriptive as well as a descriptive aspect to it: it is likely to imply "oughts" and "shoulds" to its adopters. Only witting and willing practice can be any good - we ought to eliminate the other forms. The Subject-Teacher-Learner pattern is reactionary - we ought to try to be facilitators rather than authority figures. The Skeleton value-system is better than the Shell one. These programmatic elements were not intended, but the dear old "good-bad" construct imposes itself over everything, and it is sometimes necessary to persuade students - and colleagues and editors - that it is not that simple. It is easy to create caricature models of reality to support a particular viewpoint. Politicians do it all the time. But the academic value system suggests that understanding comes first, and if a model is too irredeemably programmatic, it is probably out of place in the adult education classroom.


It also strikes me that the analogies at least are parabolic.

That is, they are parables, in that they make a point by reference to something concrete with which the learner is already familiar. This not only conforms to Ausubel's original dictum, but is of course precisely the method Jesus used to get over complex notions such as the Kingdom of Heaven.

They are also parabolic in another sense: they do not hit one's understanding in a straight line, with a full-frontal assault as it were. Instead, they strike it a glancing blow and veer away again, describing a curve or trajectory.

In this section:

[Willing and/or Witting practice
[Subject Teacher Learner
[Content and Process
[Substance and Symptom
[Process and Content, Symptom and Substance
[Mayonnaise model of teaching
[Baking an essay
[Knowing and not knowing
[Frames of Reference
[Theory of theory
[Forms of Knowledge
[Equal opportunities
[Hidden curriculum
[Threshold Concepts; how do people get it
[Values, Effort and QA] 


Ausubel, D. P. (1968) Educational Psychology, A Cognitive View New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston [Back]

Blumer, H (1954) "What Is Wrong with Social Theory?" American Sociological Review 19:3-10 (reprinted on line at: (accessed 18 December 01)) [Back]

van den Hoonaard, W. C. (1997) Working with Sensitizing Concepts; Analytical field research, Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage.

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