Baggage Handling

(Thanks to Lorraine Walker for the felicitous terminology)

Students are not blank slates. They have lives outside the course, and many students come to classes with a great deal of experiential baggage; and all of them have at least a carry-on caseful:

See also "Resistance to Learning"


You can ignore it: that is what most of us do, most of the time. Usually it works, with occasional hitches. If you are teaching a technical or highly academic subject, the effect of students' baggage can be negligible. It usually only shows up in requests for deferral of assessment or "mitigating circumstances" reports. It does not reach into how you teach mathematics or geology or history or law or marketing or Spanish.

You can encourage "distancing": This may be a combination of tactical, practical and psychological measures:

However, as the last suggestion shows, in some circumstances you may well be losing more than you gain.

You can embrace it: You may get obsessional questioning and discussions which generate more heat than light, you may get intense "Can I just have a word?" pleas before you reach the door after the session; but you do get engagement because the material resonates with real-world experience. It is a question of containing the baggage for benefit of all rather than trying to ignore it.

I have mainly taught on professional rather than purely academic courses, to part-time students who are doing the job at the same time as they seek a qualification in it. For them, the "baggage" is the real world, and it is what they test the theory and "book-learning" by.

See the distinction between "knowledge by acquaintance" and "knowledge about"

Practically, the only option here is to embrace their experience and to invite them to explore it, even at the cost of the purity of the theory.

I sat in recently on an "Access" course. (Access courses are alternatives to standard university-entry qualifications for mature students who have missed out earlier on.) The topic was the psychology of first-language acquisition: all the students were women in their 30s and 40s, most of whom probably had children. We had an hour of Skinner and then Chomsky and then Skinner vs. Chomsky, well-presented and structuredóbut their frustration was palpable. When it came to discussion there was a series of anecdotes about "When my Kevin was two, he used to say..." and "My Linda could say 'doggy' even before..." Why not? If the lecturer had started with this material, she would have created hooks and links which would have enabled her to plant ideas in really fertile groundóbut not necessarily in the neat order she had planned.

In 2003, I was part of a panel re-validating a degree in Youth and Community Work. One of its most impressive features was a module on "Black Perspectives", and the students we spoke to (including white students who had taken it) were full of praise for it. It had been developed out of a recognition that black students' experience before the course had often been treated simply as a "problem", but there had been little recognition of what it pointed to in socio/political terms. It was designed to contextualise and explore that baggage in the light of historical and sociological perspectives.

I am not advocating embracing baggage as a panacea.

...but acknowledgement and respect not only costs little, but also pays dividends in terms of learning. The problem is that you have to be prepared to divide your attention between the content of your teaching and continually "reading" the class, and that assumes sufficient experience to be able to take for granted the basic teaching process.

If you are not confident enough to believe that you can do both these things at the same time, make a low-key (don't make a big deal out of it) but clear statement that you can imagine that some of the session content may have a personal dimension for some students. Still, you are sure that the best way to deal with it is as a whole: if, after the session some people still have questions, they are welcome to talk to you privately. Some will, but many will be reassured simply by the offer.

What about...

All this has been fairly open, so far. What about the more clearly negative  issue of students who don't trust teachers or the system they represent?

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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