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Advance Organisers and other approaches to structuring teaching

Isn't it nice to find out that something you have been doing all along has a jargon name? It's like M. Jourdain in Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme who was gratified to discover that he had been speaking prose all his life.

Advance Organizers are like that: they are simply devices used in the introduction of a topic which enable learners to orient themselves to the topic, so that they can locate where any particular bit of input fits in and how it links with what they already know. (The name was coined by Ausubel.) Ausubel's major principle — that the most important determinant of learning is what the learner already knows — calls for an image or example which directs the learner to relevant prior experience or learning (preferably of course live and significant experience) and also points forward to new material.

Go here for a more rigorous account (despite it being a wiki, it has a respectable provenance)...and here

A few years ago I went to observe one of my students teaching on an "Access" course. (Access courses are usually year-long programmes for mature students without conventional qualifications to provide an alternative entry route to—traditionally—nursing, teaching or social work. They are one of the few unequivocal Good Things in the UK education system.)

My student was covering (I use the term advisedly) the psychology of language acquisition. She had a group of about fifteen students, all women, aged at a guess from mid-twenties to mid-forties. For the first hour she gave a very competent, well-structured lesson on behavioural and cognitive perspectives on language acquisition. She asked questions and got OK answers, but it was all "out there" stuff. There was a short comfort break, during which the students had clearly been conferring...

When they re-convened, the tutor (my student) checked in with a "OK, is all that clear?" question. She was faced with a barrage of raised hands and urgent questions. "My daughter didn't speak until she was...", "My grandson can say hundreds of words at...", "My son has married a girl from India, how will that affect their children's language development?" And so it went on.

At the end of the session, she was very apologetic. "I'm sorry! The second half did not go at all as planned!" No, I agreed. It went much better. It connected. These were mature women with children of their own (and in some cases grandchildren). They had all, to a woman, followed the linguistic development of their children with an avid concentration which would have put Skinner, Piaget and Chomsky (not that he did that much empirical work) to shame. Why had she not started from there?

To be fair, she lacked the confidence that she could handle what she would get. And she was not sure that she could explain to the tutor who would take over from her in two weeks for the next part of the module why the students might not have "covered the syllabus". But consider the resource and the motivation she might have harnessed following Ausubel's principle.

Common examples are:

  • A simple statement of,

    "We have been handling joints of meat in the kitchen a lot, so in this class we are going to look at cuts of beef. We'll find out which part of the cow each one comes from, what its characteristics are, and how you might prepare it."

    Because this is just verbal, it is transitory. In the example it did not matter because the session had a sort of rhythm to it, repeating the same headings in relation to a succession of different cuts; but in a more complex area, it would be wise to have something more permanent to re-visit.

  • An OHT with a list of the topics and sub-topics on it, which you can return to at intervals during the session in order to mark how far you have got, and show how the new material fits in with established knowledge.
    • A useful variation on this is to use a concept- or mind-map: you can put it on a whiteboard, and start with the major branches identified and add sub-branches as you get further into each topic. This also permits linkages between topics.
      • Even better, of course, is for students to build their own mind-maps, because those will almost necessarily establish linkages in terms of their prior learning.
    • Or a poster on the wall which is permanently there to refer to.
  • A handout with the same kind of information on it, perhaps laid out with lots of white space so that students can fill in their own notes under each heading—again, linking back to what they already know. It could contain more information, of course, as a gapped handout.
  • On a larger scale, a study guide to the course, or a handbook, can locate all the different bits: encourage students to keep it with them and to use it by making frequent reference to it.
  • And don't forget the humble story or anecdote which may be memorable in its own right, but also serves to relate the abstract material to a more-or-less familiar situation in the students' own world.
  • And what about the "teaser"?

    "I see Ben is yawning—heavy night last night, Ben? Ah! But so is Marie! Why is yawning contagious? There you go, Sam! Stay awake and we might get to some possible answers in this lecture!"

    "Is Christmas pudding actually illegal? The Puritans were not keen on enjoying themselves, we know, but is this just a myth? We'll get on to that in a few moments."

    "Freud made a big thing of getting people to confront their basest feelings, we know. But was he fooling himself because there were things too base even for him? One school of thought says so: we'll come to that later..."

Is this "dumbing-down"? Is it compromising the academic integrity and purity of your teaching?

Yes, OK, it may be at one level. But;

  • Pragmatically, it is no good having academically pure "teaching" if the students don't learn as much (or fewer students learn much), and;
  • More important, students are not just "learners" (which is one reason why I object to this current jargon which seems to have infected the FE but interestingly not yet the HE sector). They are complex people, who may be engaged and intrigued at several different levels. "Engaging" them requires that you recognise this. You have a lot in common with them, as well as formal differences in the classroom. They might have watched the same TV as you last night (some of them might even have listened to Radio 4, although I admit that I am lucky in finding some)... Relate to their experience. It is arrogant not to. (I know about academic arrogance; been there, done that!)


Advance organizers on their own are not particularly effective as teaching devices, according to Hattie's meta-analysis, but then as far as I am concerned they are only "openers" to a session, and they involve little effort, so they are worth using.

There are some parallels between advance organizers and the emerging research on threshold concepts.

Scaffolding and the ZPD

Bruner has another model of similar status, that of "scaffolding". Although applied principally to a description of the way in which we naturally teach young children, it also comes readily to mind in taking anyone through new material or skills. The teacher provides the external structure (the scaffold) within which the learner can build their building. This includes engaging the learner's interest, demonstrating, progressing from the simple to the complex, encouraging practice, providing feedback, and so on.

  • Scaffolding, of course, is something which is taken down when no longer needed. So aids such as vocabulary lists in language learning, crib-sheets with formulae in engineering, mnemonics for memorising procedures (like the old "ABC" for first-aiders), can all be useful but are left behind as competence develops.

(Apart from that, a casual reference to Vygotsky and the ZPD [always use the initials] is bound to impress if you are trying to bluff your way with educationalists — it just does not impress the students!)

Vygotsky's wonderfully named "Zone of Proximal Development" has elements of the same process. This points out that learners can achieve more with help and guidance than they can left to themselves. Such an observation is commonplace in assessing the capabilities of people with learning disabilities, where achievement is categorised as "can do alone", "can do with guidance", "can do with physical assistance", and so on.

However, there is more to it than that: judging how it is reasonable to "stretch" learners requires complex assessment. Too little and they don't get anywhere and get bored: too much and the task is overwhelming and they are almost sure to fail.

Models and Metaphors

Similarly fairly intuitive, as a way of structuring new ideas is the use of simplified models, metaphors and analogies:

  • A simplified model: this is routinely used in science teaching. You start with the simplest possible case of something, and then you elaborate and move on to those which are closer to the real world. In discussing forces acting on an object, for example, you may start with an object falling vertically in a vacuum, and go on adding variables and forces until you are discussing a car going round an uphill corner in a cross-wind.
    • In vaguer subjects, an artificially pure and perhaps mythical example or anecdote can serve the purpose. Indeed, that is in part what myths are all about.
  • Analogy and metaphor: "The structure of the atom is like a solar system...", "Think of the hard disc as a filing cabinet", "White blood cells are like guards", "Teaching is like gardening..." This needs care, precisely because it can be so vivid that learners get hooked on it and may not see where the analogy begins to break down. Metaphor is even more problematic: you are asserting that one thing is something else. However, it has its place. While potentially confusing, you can use more than one analogy to emphasise that each one points to just one aspect of a phenomenon. The classic example is that light behaves both like a wave and like a particle.
    • A variant is the physical or visual arrangement of ideas or topics to depict their relationship. See the pyramidal arrangement of the levels of Bloom's taxonomy as an example. Or the diagrammatic representation of legitimate peripheral participation — which is interesting because the authors specifically reject any such representation of their model.
    • ...or, more interesting, get the learners to tell you their metaphors, or to draw them. This may give you more insight into the way in which they are construing the material than anything else. I remember the lecturer, who, when asked for a drawing of his metaphor of teaching, drew an aircraft dropping bombs. He explained that his first job was to destroy his students' preconceptions, before he (or they?) could rebuild.

See also:

This is an archived copy of Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching [On-line: UK] Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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