Fancy a bit of heterodoxy?

17th March 2006 at 00:00
He once taught liberal studies at Salford tech. Now he uses the web to question education's holy cows and rail against intellectual flatulence.

Stephen Jones talks to James Atherton

Everyone agrees, do they not, that teachers should create a positive learning environment in their classrooms? And that learning should be student, not teacher, centred. And that students, when they struggle, should be supported? "Why?" asks James Atherton.

It is a question he asks a lot on his quirky, irreverent but eminently readable website Doceo - which the scholars of dead languages among you will instantly recognise as the Latin for "I teach". Why in particular, he asks, should there be so many no-go areas in teaching and learning, educational holy cows, which nobody questions because they are what they are: givens? "I am fed up," he writes on the website, "with students (and professionals who are not currently in the role of student) presenting me with submissions full of 'shoulds', 'oughts' and 'musts' in the spirit of 'all right-thinking people will agree with me when I say this'."

The above quotation comes from a section of the site entitled Heterodoxy, a word he goes on to define as sounding like "a term for a promiscuous 18th-century woman, but (which) is properly the opposite of orthodoxy".

Just glancing at some of the other titles in the section gives you a flavour of the Atherton provocative style: Against Formal Education; Against Objectives; For Surface Learning; and, my particular favourite, Learning Styles Don't Matter. Here the author presents us with the teacher's dilemma: there are 30 people in the class, all learning in their own particular ways.

"Can you cope with all this information?" he asks. "Can you even imagine how you might adapt your teaching to suit each of this bunch?" Or, to put it another way - and Atherton is rarely shy of putting it in another, more plangent way - "So some people are holists and some serialists, some activists, reflectors, theorists or pragmatists, some visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners. And some are bright and some just plain thick. So what?"

"I like stirring it up," he tells me when I meet him at his Bedford home, just a short walk away from De Montfort university where - despite being what he describes as semi-retired - he continues to teach trainee teachers on a PGCECert Ed course. "I want a degree of critical thinking from my students. I want them to inspect the ideas, to get behind the superficial."

The site, which covers a whole range of educational issues, both theoretical and practical, began 10 years ago almost by accident. Keen to get his students to indulge in joined-up thinking, he began to put his handouts on the web, providing hyperlinks to connect up the ideas. "Then I began to realise that other people were accessing the site. I started to get messages from people all over the world," he says.

Last year Doceo, together with his two other related educational sites, received almost a million "visits", with people logging on from all over the English-speaking world, as well as in parts of Europe, particularly Scandinavia. Clearly, this has made him into something of a one-man educational e-publishing phenomenon, reaching an audience that most academics would die for. He reacts modestly to my pointing this out - and even emails me later to say "how much the practical material owes to the privilege of working with teams of colleagues over 30-plus years".

Nonetheless, there is a clear sense of an individual voice behind most of the entries, a voice that is undeniably "Atherton".

"The site is about making ideas on teaching and learning accessible and useable," he tells me. And although he insists that the "information is paramount", he adds: "If it so happens it can be leavened with a little humour and entertainment, then that's all to the good."

In many ways Doceo is a reaction against the obscurity and pomposity of much academic writing on education. "It's beset with jargon," Atherton says, "some of which is obscurantist, principally to defend and bolster the position of the so-called experts. The less you have to say, the more difficult you have to make it."

This he calls "intellectual flatulence", and while he didn't coin the term himself, he'd have liked to. "I find most of the academic journals extremely frustrating. Very often it's depressingly unoriginal and very boring."

In an autobiographical section of the site he provides some intriguing titbits about his private life. Not only does he have a dog called Rupert, but, despite being divorced, he still lives "happily with my ex-wife".

He also reveals that in an earlier existence he spent five years teaching - along with a "motley crew of drifters, ex-hippies and graduates in useless disciplines" - liberal studies at Salford technical college.

"I survived," he replies when I ask him what he learned from this experience, adding that in fact it was an excellent apprenticeship for a teacher. "If you can capture those students, you can capture anybody."

He keeps in touch with further education via his work with his Cert Ed students, and laments that in recent years it has become "totally bureaucratised". This affects the quality of teaching, he argues: "The time they have to develop teaching materials and think about what the student experience is, is drastically limited."

But why, you might ask - to end where we began - is a teacher trainer apparently so dead set against supporting students? We are back in heterodoxy territory and Atherton points out that what follows is only a quotation from someone else, but you have to admit that it makes you stop and think: "I'm all for students being supported and being given the benefit of the doubt, as long as my doctordentistairline pilotplumber didn't learn that way!" But then, making you think is surely what Doceo is all about.

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