The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

Basic Assumption: Dependence

Basic Assumption Dependence (baD) occurs when the group behaves as if it has met in order to depend on someone or something.

When a class meets, this is true. Students have indeed met in order to depend on, or receive something from, the teacher. This shared assumption is necessary for them to pay respectful attention to what the teacher is trying to teach.

basic assumption dependence (baD)

Indeed, the traditional layout of the classroom is designed for good practical reasons in such a way as to cultivate a degree of Dependence: the teacher may be on a dais, perhaps standing while the students sit and "look up" to her. Even the common-sense notion that they all have to be able to see her and the board supports the Dependence assumption.

The problem arises when it goes beyond appropriate or task-related or mature Dependence, and students act as if the teacher were the Fount of all Wisdom, and merely by being in her presence they will be filled with this wisdom. They do not have to do anything (except perhaps take down every word — and I use the word advisedly — "religiously"). In particular they do not have to think.

Before you respond, "chance would be a fine thing!" consider that it does happen — and the rapt attention on the faces of the students is very seductive for the teacher. She responds to their emotional demands and occasional sycophantic questions by lecturing and giving more and more, both in and out of class.

The problem is that the students are not really learning: certainly not at the level of developing their critical faculties, and although the teacher may be buoyed up by their dependence, she may also be drained by it.

Eventually the bubble may burst: the fantasy of the omniscient teacher can no longer be sustained, and the fall can be very destructive and very rapid. Once the Basic Assumption has switched, the teacher's credibility is compromised and the students' trust is lost, and it is difficult to re-establish a relationship of realistic dependence.

And hell hath no fury like a student scorned; their anger (particularly in this era of student consumerism) may go way beyond the rational if they bought into this collusive dependence, and were disappointed or let down.

Assessment is one of the factors which can lead to the collapse of dependence. baD cannot cope with casualties: the dependent leader is supposed to care and not to allow anyone to fall by the wayside. This is not compatible with the judgement inherent in assessment, particularly when the students will seek to show their devotion by parroting their teacher's words back at her. (Is surface learning one manifestation of excessive and unrealistic dependence?)

Teachers do have to be dependable and trustworthy, but not to the extent of leading students to deny their own capabilities and become utterly dependent. Although it happens less than it did, (as a reflection of the declining status of teachers in our society) managing dependence can be tricky.

  • You do need to create some dependence: otherwise one of the other basic assumptions will come to the fore, and although baP may have some place in teaching, it is not a sound basis for routine work.
  • So keep a certain amount of social distance from the class—even with adults—and don't try to deny the authority which comes with the teacher role.       
  • But make sure that students do not get a chance to become passive consumers, however good the product you have to offer.
  • That means being clear from the start about the ground rules and particularly what you will and will not do.

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

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

"This site is independent and self-funded, although the contribution of the Higher Education Academy to its development via the award of a National Teaching Fellowship, in 2004 has been greatly appreciated."