Negotiated learning and the subject of teaching


Photo by Andrés Canchón on Unsplash

What is the subject of teaching? In this post, I mull over this question, its several meanings and its implications for negotiated active learning.

In my role as an educational developer with responsibilities for both staff and curriculum development, the subject can be understood as meaning ‘disciplinary knowledge’ or the focus of study, being the primary concern of the teacher; what is referred to as ‘core knowledge’ in the UKPSF. This meaning creates a safe space, if not comfort zone, for many university academic teachers. The university teacher can assume a strong sense of ownership over this idea of subject.

The second interpretation of the question relates to the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) and the ideas of praxis and signature pedagogies (Shulman, 2005): how the ways we teach and the ways we learn reflect our discipline and who we are – our ‘being’.

The third meaning is when subject is used to refer to the actual responsibility of the teacher – the student. The subject is the learner and their education, and all that this means. The student is the teacher’s subject and the basis of a student-centred view of teaching, therefore. I don’t know how many university teachers would agree with me that their primary responsibility is to develop their students capabilities to learn. Teaching, therefore, involves the art of situating their students in their learning.

What does this mean for the design of an effective student-centred curriculum and the pedagogic philosophy informing its delivery?

It alludes to the big ideas of situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and authentic learning (Herrington & Parker, 2013; Maina, 2004). A student-centred design is one that resonates with each and every student. Its delivery gives each student purchase – a way in to an open-ended exploration. This is achieved by situating knowledge as an outcome of reasonable challenge – Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (1978) in which each student (whatever their capability to begin with) is supported to estimate and realise their own potential through a continual sense of ‘stretches’ or accessible challenges.

How does the teacher design a learning context in which each and every student in a large cohort is challenged in this way? What does differentiation look like in reality when student diversity is valued as being a fundamental dimension of a student-centred design philosophy? The answer, I believe, comes through the design of an authentic learning environment using the principles of active learning. In such a space, each student knows to negotiate their engagement with a problem or situation; negotiation being a form of autonomous, yet supported, learning. The nature of the negotiation is dependant on that challenge. It may involve an explicit agreement with their tutor or peers, or negotiation can be more subtle based upon their metacognition and reflexivity – self-direction or critical self-determination eventually. The art of teaching in such a space, then, is to develop such learning capabilities; capabilities that continue to develop to hold each learner in good stead for life.


Herrington, J., & Parker, J. (2013). Emerging technologies as cognitive tools for authentic learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44(4), 607-­‐615. doi:10.1111/bjet.12048

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press.

Maina, F. W. (2004). Authentic learning: Perspectives from contemporary educators. Journal of Authentic Learning, 1(1), pp. 1-8.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press.

About amiddlet50

Educational developer working in academic innovation in higher education in the UK
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