On getting it “right”

Some time ago, in an earlier version of my "Apologia", I said that my feeling on retirement would be that if I could just have one more go at teaching my courses, I could really get them right. Well, I have retired, in some sense. I still feel that way. But whatever the aspiration, I got it wrong.

It just does not work that way. Indeed, to assume that it does betrays a degree of arrogance. Every student is different. Every class is different. Every subject is different. Every teacher is different.

Teacher training courses—of which I have some experience—presume to teach as if there were a "correct" way to teach. I suppose there is, at a certain minimal level, but that level is more about avoiding getting things wrong, rather than specifying what is "right". There is often an element of:

What is “right” anyway?

Despite the language of aims and objectives, few people acknowledge that they might be contradictory:

  1. Blow the technicalities—if I can get them to understand that without double-entry book-keeping modern business just wouldn't work, so it is a revolutionary and exciting innovation, then everything else will follow.
  2. On completion of this session, students will be able to use double-entry principles to assign a simple transaction to its proper account.
  3. We won't get any complaints, and the achievement statistics will be as predicted or better.
  4. I left the classroom in one piece.

The second is easier to achieve than the first (which may be well-nigh impossible) but which are you going to take as the baseline of achievement? (See the section on evaluation.) The discourses of what constitutes a successful session are myriad and inconsistent, depending on your philosophy. The discourse of the current hegemony (in plain language—the way the bosses see it, up to the political level) may not be yours.

As for the third: if that is the one you are working to, you are burnt out (or a manager, which may be the same thing) and have lost touch with learning and teaching.

And the fourth: oh dear!

This is a slightly (?) cynical take on the situation. But the message may be—if you are consistently meeting your criterion, raise the bar! (As in high-jump, rather than pub.)

Nobody gets it right all the time

Even so; even with a consensus on what is "right"/"good practice"/"success" we get close to it and we drift off it. Why? Because learning and teaching are complex phenomena. 30 years ago, people like Gagné thought they had the recipe for "successful instruction". We are no longer so sure.

On strange attractors Analogously (I know no way to establish that this is more than an analogy) successful "learning-and-teaching" is like a "strange attractor": in other words (or just in words) it is a phenomenon which swings around its target but never quite settles there. And never will.

We have no record of occasions when people walked away from Socrates shaking their heads and wondering what on earth (or beyond) he was on about. Quintillius, Comenius, Thomas Arnold, A S Neill (and especially yours truly) did not get it "right" all the time. History is written by the victors.

It is both practically and even theoretically impossible to get it right all the time.

All you can control is your contribution to the overall system.

So learn from experience (not just from mistakes) and by the time you retire you too might have the fantasy that you have learned enough to get it right next time!

And I'm partly retiring from being retired, so who knows...?

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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