Learner, Subject and Teacher (1)

James Atherton

Based on a paper given at the "Learning in Higher Education" conference,
University of Sheffield, 25-26 March 1999


Common constructs for describing teaching and learning in the post-compulsory sector, such as Rogers’ "conformist" and "liberation" models, are less than helpful for curriculum planning and determining teacher and learner roles. Instead, it is suggested that the relative positions of the three main components of the system; Learner, Subject and Teacher may be mapped or sculpted on two dimensions of dominance and identification. The six basic patterns which emerge are explored in relation to their implications for curriculum, teacher-learner relationships and teaching style.

Play around with the model here


Reading the literature on adult education, one could be forgiven for wondering what "learning" means. Writers in the humanistic and andragogic tradition verge on the mystical in their rhetoric of empowerment and self-discovery and transformational learning. For them, learning seems to be an end in itself, and sometimes it is hard to work out just what it is that has been learned (see Boud and Griffin, 1987, for example). Those within the vocational tradition, on the other hand, concentrate on the acquisition of pre-specified competences which are measurable and which exist "out there", independent of the learner’s understanding. Various constructs have been developed which seek to distinguish between these different forms of the teaching/learning process, such as Rogers’ "Conformist" and "Liberation" models (1986) and of course Knowles’ "pedagogy" and "andragogy" (1990). Despite disclaimers, the labels themselves indicate where the writers’ sympathies lie (as do mine, on the whole).

Nevertheless, such bi-polar constructs tend to obscure more than they reveal, and they do not provide very much in the way of guidance for the teacher who is trying to develop a curriculum, or indeed trying to decide from moment to moment in a class how to respond to a question, or whether to intervene in a discussion. They can even result in the attempted imposition of an inappropriate model on a teaching sequence, because of the ideological overtones of the labels themselves. In teacher and trainer education, and in planning educational events, moreover, discussions among participants can be vitiated by different unexplored assumptions about the task and culture of the teacher’s area or practice or of the event.

This paper will suggest an alternative and more systemic approach, which is less value-laden, and offers greater potential for deciding on priorities. Moreover, it offers a vivid device for use among members of a teaching team to make decisions about style and methods, which does not rely on sophisticated familiarity with the literature. Although not a formal research project — because the findings are more relevant dynamically for developing the reflective practice of "subjects" than for static report — the model has been used for several years in both the contexts referred to. The model is not entirely original, but builds on ideas adumbrated by Lifton (1961: 504ff.) and Axelrod (1973).

As Biggs (1993), and Prosser and Trigwell (1999) point out, a systemic approach concentrates on the relatedness of system components, where changes in one component will affect the others. As a descriptive approach systems thinking has a complex pedigree (for an accessible summary see Capra, 1997), and is to be distinguished from the systematic or prescriptive systems approach which characterises some educational technology based writing.

There are unsurprisingly several ways of conceptualising the teaching/learning system, depending on the foci of attention, but this one concentrates on the implications of the relative power and "distance" of three major components, in order to explore the culture of the system and hence the roles of the human participants. Biggs’ "3P" model, on the other hand, focuses primarily on factors influencing study strategies (Biggs, 1993), which Prosser and Trigwell (1999) extend into teaching strategies. Pask (1975) develops a very abstract and formal cybernetic model concerned with information processing as the basis of learning.

The current model starts with the blindingly obvious generalisation that the three main components of the teaching/learning system are the Learner, the Subject, and the Teacher (in alphabetical order: the terms will be capitalised for clarity throughout the discussion). There are of course others, including sponsoring institutions, other members of the learning group, and so on, but they tend to be absorbed in these three. A degree of simplification clarifies the fundamental features, without, it is submitted, doing violence to the overall picture.

In any particular case, which component is dominant? And which is the most subordinate? A moment’s thought will show that ranking them in different orders leads to quite different models of the teaching/learning process. Subject-Teacher-Learner (STL) systems (which are probably the most common) are clearly quite different from Learner-Subject-Teacher (LST) ones. There are likely to be different curriculum models, different selection procedures, different roles in face-to-face encounters, different teaching styles, different boundaries about relevance and irrelevance of material, different assessment procedures (if any) and different evaluation criteria. The model makes no judgements about which is "best", merely that each has implications which affect the teaching and learning process. It is primarily descriptive rather than prescriptive.

The two so far mentioned are not the only models. There are of course six basic rankings:

—which are explored in the following pages

A shorter version of this paper is available on the "Learning" site.

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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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