Teaching gestalts

I’m preparing for a presentation and discussion tomorrow with some doctoral students on the orchestration of lifelong learning. Having come up with the topic some time ago on a whim I’m not entirely sure what I’ll be talking about, so this is mostly an attempt to focus my thinking a little and is very much a work in progress.

In brief, the central jumping off point for this discussion is that teachers are not isolated actors but are instead are gestalts formed from

  • numerous technologies, including pedagogies, regulations, processes, techniques and tools,
  • an uncountably large number of individuals and groups and, most notably of all,
  • learners themselves.

For it to work, everything must harmonize or must make the right kinds of dischord to bring about learning. There are various things that shake out of this perpsective, not least of which being that there are many ways to organize this teaching gestalt that do not involve an educational system of the sort we are used to, and that do not involve individuals labelled as teachers. This matters because most of the learning we do throughout our lives does not take place in or result from formal education.

The teaching gestalt

Even and perhaps particularly in a traditional educational system, teachers are not just the ones that stand (metaphorically or actually) in front of classes and explicitly perform an act that we label as teaching. Teachers are also the authors, editors, illustrators, designers and publishers of textbooks, the builders of websites, the writers of articles and so on. Teachers are designers of school systems, timetablers, architects, designers and furniture builders. Teachers are makers of videos, programmers of online environments, system administrators, TV producers, designers of door handles and technicians. And, above all, learners are teachers – of themselves and of one another. In short, teaching is always a distributed role.

Unpicking this a little further, almost all learning transactions involve at least two teachers – the one with knowledge of content, process, etc, and the learner. Learning is always an active process of knowledge construction, linking, and sense-making in which we constantly reflect, reorientate, examine, and adjust our knowledge in the light of new information or new ways of seeing. We always teach ourselves at least as much as we are taught. We are not given knowledge – we make it. Another person may help to guide us, shape the directions we go, correct us when we are confused or wrong, and motivate us to go the extra mile, but we are always a teacher in this process, whether we like it or not.

In an educational context, a vast array of actors add their own contributions to the teaching whole. Some, like authors of textbooks, or creators of curricula, or other students sharing ideas and (mis)conceptions are very obviously playing a teaching role. Others are less obviously so, but they do matter. The people that made decisions about where to place a whiteboard, which tools to enable in an LMS, or what wattage of lightbulb to include in a classroom may make a huge contribution to the success of failure of a particular learning transaction. The designer of the timetable, the legislator who demanded a particular kind of content or a particular kind of behaviour, the setter of normalized tests, the curriculum designer and the person who cleaned the classroom, all play significant and sometimes crucial roles as part of the teaching gestalt. Timetables teach, LMSs teach, hallways teach. In an educational system it is the system that educates, not just the individual teacher. I particularly like the timetable example because it is a great rejoinder to those who rather naively suggest that teachers should put pedagogy first. Sure: but first you must do it only at these times, over this period, for this amount of time, in this physical or virtual place, on this subject. Whatever. Anyway, within this context, the person who is performing the explicit role of a teacher is thus just one of the teaching gestalt but, potentially, quite a special one, sometimes (but not always) second only to the learner in importance. He or she typically acts as a filter, conduit and interpreter that orchestrates this whole, that responds, gives feedback, shows caring. It’s not too surprising that we label this person differently from the rest of the gestalt.

Orchestral manoeuvring

Since we are talking about a process of orchestration, it is natural to think of music at this point, and the analogy works quite well. A teacher may be an orchestrator, adapting to a context in which many constraints and structures have already been determined by others, using the tools, techniques and technologies to play a part in the construction of knowledge that is hopefully the outcome. Some are conductors, trying to elicit harmonious learning through tight control of the process. Like the best conductors, the best teachers of this sort make use of the materials they are working with, fitting the strengths and weaknesses of the players, the acoustics of the venue, the nature of the instruments, to the demands of the piece to be played and the intended audience. Other teachers are more like arrangers, who organize the pieces and leave the playing to someone else. Some are like players in a band, maybe drummers or bassists providing a rhythm to keep learners on track, or perhaps as soloists showing virtuosity and improvisational skills that inspire the learners to new heights. Some are content to play second fiddle, bringing out the best in the soloist but always in the background. And then there are the ones who sit in a recording studio who play all the instruments themselves, sometimes even making the instruments, and arrange everything the way they want it to be arranged. Some play blues, using the same three chords and often simple technique to play an infinite and subtle range of tunes. Some play classically, sticking closely to but always interpreting a score. Some are composers. Some are jazz improvisors, modern or trad. Some go for unusual scales, exotic rhythms and peculiar blends, others prefer the folk traditions that they learned as children. The sounds that musicians make are a function of many things, including most notably the instrument itself as well as the surroundings in which it is played and the reactions of an audience. And, in most cases, there are many instruments to consider. A lot of the process of teaching is about the technologies tools and techniques, incredibly diverse, all of which have to work to a common purpose.

But whatever the tools, genres, blends and roles that teachers play, when it comes down to basics, teachers (that is to say, the players in the teaching gestalt) have to be skilled and creative, whatever and however they try to play. Above all, teaching (emerging from all the many contributors to that role) is a broad set of human practices, not a science, not just a set of techniques. It is, moreover, a creative, active and inventive practice that cannot be emptied of soul and programmed into a machine without losing the vitality and expression that makes it wonderful. This is not to suggest that machines cannot or should not be a big part of the process, however, any more than that an orchestra should try to play without instruments or a venue. Putting aside more blatant technologies like classrooms and LMSs, for better or worse, our educational systems are machines that, depending on your perspective and the aspect you are looking at, either enable or disable our ability to learn. Likewise, Google Search and Wikipedia (my two favourite e-learning technologies) have a very large and conspicuous machine element. And, of course, the creativity and inspiration can be distributed too. A bad teacher can be saved by a good textbook, for instance, and vice versa.

Why bother with teachers anyway?

It is tempting to say that most of the intentional learning we do is self-guided – that we teach ourselves anything from cooking to philosophy. I know it’s tempting, because I’ve been known to say it, and have read many research studies purporting to show this. However, this is nearly always massively wrong. What we actually do, in almost all cases, is to orchestrate teaching done by others. In some cases this is blatant and obvious. If we learn something by reading a Wikipedia article, or a book, or by watching a video, this is very clearly not a case of us teaching ourselves. At least, not totally. We are merely picking our teachers and exercising a bit of control over the pace, time and place that they teach us. We don’t get all the benefits of teaching that way by any means – importantly, we seldom get much in the way of feedback, for example, and any tailoring that happens is up to us. These kinds of things do not show us that they care about us. Such things are co-teachers, part of the teaching gestalt. But it is all a matter of degree: we are always our own teachers to some extent, and there are almost always others involved in teaching us, no matter how informal or formal the setting. Even when we learn by dabbling and experimenting, we are not exactly pure autodidacts. Partly this is because we often have some kind of target to aspire to because we have seen, read, heard or otherwise encountered terminal behaviours of the sort we are aiming for. For many competences, it is because the things we try to learn or learn with are typically designed by humans who have other humans in mind when they design them – this is true of learning that makes use of things like pencils, paints, cookware, computers, cars, musical instruments, exercise machines, calculators and yachts.  Learning in a vacuum is not possible, unless we are learning about the vacuum which might be, incidentally, one of those rare occasions where no other teacher is directly involved in the process.

By way of example, in recent years,  I have been ‘teaching myself’ to play a new instrument at least once a year. I know what these instruments sound like when they are played well, so I can recognize the gaps between what I can do with them and what they can do. Many teachers have taught me. I have seen other people playing them so I have a fair idea how to hold them but, on the whole, they are designed to be held and manipulated so it seldom takes too long to figure that out by trial and error. Their designers have taught me. That said, I challenge anyone to watch someone else play the flute and, based on what you get out of that, to make the flute sound the same. It’s mighty hard. You might get the odd note and you might even figure out how to shape your mouth differently to switch octaves, but simply copying is probably not quite enough. Most instruments have quirks like that and it would not normally be very wise to simply rely on trial and error. The actual process I generally follow usually involves reading a bit about fingerings, tunings, breathing, embouchure and so on, usually with instrument in hand so that I can check what it all means, then a lot of trial and error, lots of YouTube videos and a great deal of practice until I reach a plateau, after which the cycle repeats again as I learn how to do more advanced stuff like overtones, harmonics, complex chords, intonation, picking or bowing styles, etc. I am never going to become a virtuoso this way, sure, but it is loosely structured in a way that leads to a bit more than the outcome of a chopsticks culture (this refers to Alan Kay’s delightful analogy of what happens when you simply put a computer in a classroom and hope for the best). Eventually I need to play with other people who play better or differently, to get a bit of coaching, to find others who will challenge me to go beyond my comfort zone, but I generally wind up being competent to carry a tune reasonably enough before getting to that point. Part of the reason that I can do this kind of thing because I have learned to teach myself and, of course, I am building on a foundation of existing knowledge. I can read music. I’ve grappled with most families of musical instrument at some point. I know the difference between 3/4 and 4/4 time, and a little bit about harmony. And I know a little about how people learn. All of this is because I have had many teachers, very few of whom were intentionally playing that role.

The unsaid

This all leads to what will, in my talk tomorrow, be the jumping off point for the real discussion, and some questions to which I have some answers but mostly not the best ones. What do all the things that go up to make teachers actually do?  What is the value professional teachers add? How can we manage our teachers? How can we replace them? As professional teachers, how can we allow our students to manage us? What aspects of educational systems teach? What alternative ways of organizing and orchestrating learning might we discover, invent or adapt? I’m particularly interested in exploring ways to overcome some of the manifestly awful teaching that our educational systems do to our students like grading, for instance, and what to do when the tunes we want to play are not in harmony with those played by the systems we are working in. But I am also interested in exploring ways that we can enable people to be better orchestrators of their own inner and outer teachers, beyond institutional contexts, beyond xMOOCs, beyond simple tutorials. I’m hoping it will be a fun discussion. How best to characterize what I’m aiming for? A bit of jazz improvisation, perhaps.


I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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