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Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

Sorry, we can’t completely escape from theory!

All this bumf is based on certain assumptions about teaching and learning. In the terms of Learning theory they are broadly constructivist, but in practice they have been adopted by successful (and some unsuccessful) teachers since the year dot, of whom 99% at least have never heard of that label. They are more or less congenial to any practitioner (as opposed to theorist) who believes that teaching is more than “take it or leave it” presentation of material.

  1. The object of teaching is that learners should change — the extent of this change however is a matter of considerable debate. Behaviourists talk about changing behaviour, cognitivists about changing minds, humanists about changing lives, critical reflectors about changing society.
  2. It is generally assumed that learners change more than teachers. But if teachers can/do not change at all, it is unlikely that they are teaching effectively (particularly when teaching adults). Mowing machines cut grass, but eventually the grass blunts the blade. This has been known for ages: one of my favourite aphorisms is from Seneca the Younger, “Homines dum docent, discunt” (Roughly: “while you teach, you learn”). Hence the name of my other site.
  3. This is because, in order to get people to change, you have to know “where they are coming from”. That means entering into a dialogue with them. Crudely, if you don’t know how someone misunderstands something, you have got little chance of correcting him effectively.
  4. So teaching is all about creating a task-centred dialogue, in which you — the teacher — understand the learner’s experience of the subject, so that you can modify it.
  5. Sometimes, if you have a class of 300, or if you are preparing resource-based learning materials, you can’t have this live dialogue, so you have to speculate about potential misunderstandings by putting yourself as best you can in the shoes of the learners: and try to offer something for everyone. But wherever possible, evidence is better than speculation.
  6. The learning frame of mind is fragile: people find it difficult to sustain. Drama depends on the willing “suspension of disbelief” on the part of the audience. If  I go to the cinema, and the film is out of focus, I can’t suspend disbelief — I am too conscious that I am watching a film. In the same way, if teaching is not performed competently, it is difficult to maintain the learning frame of mind. Note that there are all kinds of other factors which may disturb this frame of mind, which are beyond your control, but that does not absolve you from getting right those which are within your control.
  7. However, the learning frame of mind is not conscious. If you — as a learner — are conscious that “I am learning this”, you are less likely to really learn it than if you are framing the experience as “I am interested in this” or “I am practising this” or even better “I am doing this”.
  8. So the best guarantee of effective teaching is to keep your eye on the ball: concentrate on the learning and the teaching will follow. Think about the teaching and you might produce a great performance, but the main thing your students will learn is merely that you have a high opinion of yourself as a teacher.

That is enough to be going on with. I hope that these principles are embodied in the prescriptions on the rest of the site

The other side of the coin is that if everything is perfect in the cinema, I forget the film is being projected. Teaching (like film editing) is the "art which conceals art". Few people come out of a sesssion saying how good the teaching was—if they "never forget a good teacher", as the TTA would have it, it is only with the benefit of hindsight.

This is an archived copy of Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching [On-line: UK] Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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