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Teaching and Learning

The relationship between teaching and learning, what and how teachers teach, and how and what learners learn has long been a subject of controversy. The two, sometimes extreme, positions adopted by those who engage in it can be loosely described as, on the one hand, “traditional” and, on the other, “progressive.”

The traditional position starts from the assumption, taken to be so obvious as not to be open to question, that the purpose of teaching is to ensure that those taught acquire a prescribed body of knowledge and set of values. Both knowledge and values are taken to reflect a society’s selection of what it most wants to transmit to its future citizens and requires its future workforce to be able to do.

An important characteristic of this traditional view is that it seeks to convey what is already known and, at some level, approved. The relationship between teacher and learner is determined thereby. The learner is seen as the person who does not yet have the required knowledge or values and the teacher as the person who has both and whose function it is to convey them to the learner.


From the nature of this relationship, a number of things follow: the systematic transmission of knowledge and values from teacher to learner needs to proceed smoothly. That requires well-behaved learners and a disciplined environment, if necessary externally imposed with sanctions for failures in compliance. Teaching and learning also benefit from carefully designed syllabuses and prescribed curriculum content. Furthermore, as what has to be learned can be set out in full, stage by stage, from the start of the educational process to its conclusion, it follows that what is taught can be regularly tested and that each stage of teaching and learning can best be seen as a preparation for the next. It also follows that, as individual learners learn at different speeds and are capable of reaching different levels of achievement, it seems sensible to arrange learners in groups of similar abilities, either at different schools or in graduated classes within schools. Finally, so far as human motivation is concerned, competition is seen to be the predominant way to encourage learners or institutions to strive to improve their performance in relation to that of others.

The opposed view, broadly described as “progressive” or “child-centered,” starts from the learner rather than from any predetermined body of knowledge. On this view, the function of the teacher, from parent in the earliest years right through the years of school attendance, is to be aware of each child’s capacity and stage of development. The primary importance of children’s learning, which in turn is taken to depend on that stage of development, requires each of those stages to be seen as important in its own right rather than as a preparation for some later stage. An eight-year-old child, for example, is seen as an eight year old to be developed to his or her full potential as an eight year old, rather than as a future nine or fifteen year old. The curriculum itself tends to be seen, in the words of the Report of the Consultative Committee on the Primary School as open-ended and inquiry-based: “the curriculum is to be thought of in terms of activity and experience rather than of knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored.”



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