• Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

Teachers As Professionals First & Learners Second: Does Your Andragogy Interfere With Your Pedagogy?

The Elephant in the Classroom…

There is a big unspoken problem lying beneath the surface of many schools today and I think it’s time we called the 'elephant in the room.'  That 'elephant' is the problem of andragogy interfering with pedagogy in our classrooms – where the need for teachers to learn new skills and undertake observations and feedback can inadvertently compromise the working relationships and quality of teaching and learning opportunities for their students.


Relationships vs Techniques: A Parallel Universe

This problem is not unfamiliar to me as a psychologist who has trained many other psychologists over the years. You see psychologists and teachers live in a parallel universe where we have something very important in common – we both get the best results by having a combination of (a) well-established healthy working relationships with our clients/students and (b) using evidenced based treatment techniques/teaching approaches which maximise recovery/learning. And from a training and development perspective, therein lies the problem!


As psychologists we didn’t always see both factors of relationship and technique as equally important and our profession spent many years downplaying the importance of relationships and upsizing the importance of techniques. Since the 1970s we have proved over and over again that some techniques were more effective than others. We proudly crowed about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ deriding those using ‘wrong’ and praising those who were ‘right’ – our universities and institutes rushed to change their curriculum accordingly – and then something else happened. Outcome research showed that some therapeutic gains were still possible even if using the ‘wrong’ techniques - provided there was a strong working relationship. Even more troubling was the finding that where ‘right’ techniques were used but a healthy working relationship was missing there were significantly lower therapeutic gains. Thus, the 'technique' researchers had to accept the truth that effective working relationships were important AND the 'relationship' researchers had to accept that effective techniques were essential to maximising the impact of treatment.  


Over recent years in Education I have seen a similar discourse playing out. We seem to be spending all our energy assessing and debunking the effectiveness of various teaching approaches and techniques proving which ones are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. We seem to be focusing our education system entirely on ‘technique’, scaffolding and spinning off ever more models of effective instruction and pedagogical approaches with new labels and models which serve to embolden and empower newer teachers familiar with the latest terminology and disempower and confuse older teachers raising their anxiety and the internal noise of self-doubt as they have to distil fact and fiction in letting go of unhelpful teaching practices versus keeping teaching practices that are sound but now have new names and terminology attached to them.


In psychology, the main tenants of cognitive behaviour therapy where philosophically documented thousands of years ago by the Stoics and brought into full applied therapeutic force in the 1940s, 50s and 60s and refined, relabelled and helpfully improvised upon ever since. I can’t help but wonder about the parallels between the evidence based debates in psychology over the last few decades and the current academic debates surrounding teaching and learning in education. The real problem here is a practical one not a scientific one. There is nothing wrong with the scientific method and the need to evaluate per se. There is however a problem when this method spills into the classroom in a manner that disrupts the working relationships between teachers and students.


The Fragile Nature of Effective Working Relationships

To have healthy working relationships we need to make the right emotional connections with others and have a clear understanding of our 'roles and goals'. In psychology this is called establishing the ‘therapeutic alliance’ where the psychologist and patient develop a sense of mutual trust and respect enabling the ‘push/pull’ of the learning and recovery journey to occur without straining relationships to the point of breaking. In classrooms, teachers establish a similar ‘learning alliance’ with their students to enable students to fully engage in the teaching and learning journey. Such working relationships take considerable effort and considerable skill to establish and require continuous and vigilant monitoring of the relationship dynamics to maintain. When effective working relationships are optimised, psychologists describe seeing ‘magic moments’ of growth in their clients and teachers describe similar ‘magic moments’ of growth in their students. 


However these ‘magical’ effective working relationship dynamics are all too easily broken when distractions occur due to the ‘internal noise’ of the psychologist or teacher's own thinking and coping or the ‘external noise’ of changes in the environment such as unexpected disruptions and intrusions. The biggest source of ‘internal noise’ that psychologists and teachers must manage is self-doubt and uncertainty which is at its worst in the early stages of learning new techniques and when having their capability on such techniques evaluated or examined.  The biggest source of ‘external noise’ is when there are additional people present in the working environment who are usually absent.  Whilst some level of internal and external noise is inevitable in teacher (and psychologist) development we cannot afford to let this noise reach levels that disrupt the quality of relationships in the classroom and jeopardise the teaching and learning of our students. We need to keep the ‘noise’ down to manageable levels in our classrooms to enable the ‘magic’ by working within our existing professional boundaries with our students in environmental conditions that do not increase our anxiety. We can then ‘practice’ using new techniques and exposure to new conditions away from our students and only introduce these into ‘live’ settings when we are confident it will not increase the ‘internal’ or ‘external’ noise to a level which compromises working relationships.


Doing The Right Work In The Right Way…

As teachers it is essential to keep improving our techniques aligning to best practice. However we don’t want to make the mistakes of psychologists in years gone by who over-focused on technique at the expense of relationships. As school leaders we don’t want to make the mistakes of poorly implemented observation and feedback cycles which raise the level of 'external noise' in the classroom too high causing anxiety and inadvertently compromising teacher-student relationships. Nor do we as school leaders want to implement professional development strategies for quality teaching and learning which fail to link current ideas to previously established truths (albeit labelled differently) as well as clearly debunking any now disproven associated approaches.  If we get this wrong, we end up ‘doing the right work’ of trying to improve quality teaching and learning BUT ‘in the wrong way’ causing unnecessary anxiety, confusion and doubt to many hardworking, competent and capable teachers which, in turn, compromises teacher-student working relationships and reduces the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom.


Bringing It All Together:


Teachers As Professionals First & Learners Second

To bring this together I would like to propose the simple maxim of ‘teachers are professionals first and learners second’ to help shape the future of teacher development within our schools and better manage the risk of andragogy interfering with pedagogy.


We must remember that professionalism is the first duty of any teacher or school leader prioritising pedagogy – the building of effective working relationships and competent delivery of effective instruction to each student in their care. Lifelong learning is the second duty as the 'learning pit' of andragogy moves a teacher's focus internally away from the outside world (and correspondingly temporarily reduces the effectiveness of teacher-student relationships) whilst the struggle towards mastery of skill takes place. 


As school leaders we must enable teachers to operate with maximum professionalism in the classroom whilst creating space for lifelong learning and professional development in the wider activity cycle of the school.  We must also ensure that any ‘within’ classroom professional development activity we expect teachers to undertake does not increase the 'noise' levels to the extent that quality teaching and leaning is compromised.


Have you got the boundaries between pedagogy and andragogy right in your school or are there blurred lines and mixed messages around teacher development that may be compromising the quality of teaching and learning for the students in your care?


Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

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Contact Dr Pete

3/1 John St Bilinga, QLD, 4225 Australia

drpetestebbins@gmail.com

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