The Learning and Teaching System 

"Teaching" as an activity does not exist: or at least it is meaningless to think about it in isolation. There is always an interaction between the Teacher, the Learner and the Subject being taught.

 This is not a wholly banal point, because;

  • The Subject is not neutral: it imposes its own discipline. Early mathematics is linear, for example, because you have to learn to count before you can do anything else. Some other subjects allow you to sequence the curriculum with more freedom.
  • The Learner has her or his own attributes, motivation and baggage, and these may or may not "fit" with the subject and/or the teacher. The Learner is usually also part of a wider class group of other learners, which may help or hinder (or indeed be irrelevant to) the learning process.
  • The Teacher, too has her or his own values, preferred approach to learning, history of learning the Subject, and level of skill.
  • All this takes place within a Context, which may define the reasons for the teaching-learning (compulsory schooling and the National Curriculum), the desired outcome (expressive, as in "learning for its own sake" or instrumental "I need the qualification for a better job"), and the power relationship between the Teacher and the Learner(s).

This model is explored in much more detail on the Doceo site

In different situations, the balance between the three main components may be represented through three points of a triangle of varying configuration.


One basic model represents the common situation where the Subject is at the top, indicating that it determines the structure of the Teacher and Learner relationship, but the Teacher comes next — the servant of the Subject, but the master/mistress of the Learner. Very broadly speaking, this may be consistent with cognitive approaches to learning.


In another variant, on the other hand, the Teacher is clearly in the dominant position, managing the relationship between the Subject and the Learner. Socially, either the interests of the Learner or the demands of the Subject or both may be subordinated to the requirements of the Teacher: this may be the kind of situation which obtains in schools where there is a substantial issue of control, and where the selection and interpretation of the Subject matter may be in the hands of the Teacher. The relatively greater importance of compliance rather than understanding may suggest a behaviourist approach. In contrast, however, it may also be the model of apprenticeship, or of situated learning, where the “community of practice” is the Teacher


It can be contrasted with a further pattern, which is more analogous to supervision of a dissertation or thesis: the relationship between Learner and Subject is close, and the two are in a dominant position. The role of the Teacher is simply to provide a service to the Learner's work with the Subject. As you might expect, this is consistent with humanist approaches.

Clearly there are many other possible variations: it is instructive to try to map out one's own work in this way, perhaps starting by playing around with three different coins. Proximity and dominance present two basic dimensions to start with. One can look at the situation as it is, and then how you would like it to be, and try to work out what is involved in getting from one to the other!


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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