Counselling face-to-face 2 A counsellor and student at Empire State College, New York, which has a mentoring approach to adult education

These are the last of the teaching models discussed in Chapter 4 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ (I thought I had covered all five of Pratt’s perspectives on teaching in my last blog post, but realised I had accidentally left out these two important approaches to teaching. I have also added a scenario to introduce the Chapter.)

What both these models, identified by Pratt (1998), have in common is a focus on the individual rather than on the teacher, the institution, or state. They are both in a sense attempts at liberating learners from the restrictions of formal and institutional types of education.

The nurturing approach

A nurturing approach to teaching can best be understood in terms of the role of a parent. Pratt (1998) states:

We expect ‘successful’ parents to understand and empathize with their child; and that they will provide kind, compassionate, and loving guidance through content areas of utmost difficulty….The nurturing educator works with other issues…in different contexts and different age groups, but the underlying attributes and concerns remain the same. Learners’ efficacy and self-esteem issues become the ultimate criteria against which learning success is measured, rather than performance-related mastery of a content body.

There is a strong emphasis on the teacher focusing on the interests of the learner, on empathizing with how the learner approaches learning, of listening carefully to what the learner is saying and thinking when learning, and providing appropriate, supportive responses in the form of ‘consensual validation of experience‘. This theory is driven partly by the observation that people learn autonomously from a very early age, so the trick is to create an environment for the learner that encourages rather than inhibits their ‘natural’ tendency to learn, and directs it into appropriate learning tasks, decided by an analysis of the learner’s needs.

The social reform model

Pratt (1998, p. 173) states:

Teachers holding a social reform perspective are most interested in creating a better society and view their teaching as contributing to that end. Their perspective is unique in that it is based upon an explicitly stated ideal or set of principles linked to a vision of a better social order. Social reformers do not teach in one single way, nor do they hold distinctive views about knowledge in general…these factors all depend on the particular ideal that inspires their actions.’

This then in some ways is less a theory of teaching and more an epistemological position, that society needs change, and the social reformer knows how to bring about this change.

History, and relevance for connectivism

These approaches to teaching again have a long history, with echoes of

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) (‘education should be carried out, so far as possible, in harmony with the development of the child’s natural capacities by a process of apparently autonomous discovery‘ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  • Malcolm Knowles (1984) ‘As a person matures his self concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being.’
  • Paulo Freire (2004) (‘education makes sense because women and men learn that through learning they can make and remake themselves, because women and men are able to take responsibility for themselves as beings capable of knowing—of knowing that they know and knowing that they don’t.’)
  • Ivan Illich (1971) in his criticism of the institutionalization of education (‘The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.’

The reason why the nurturing and social reform approaches to teaching are important is because they reflect many of the assumptions or beliefs around connectivism. Indeed, as early as 1971, Illich made this remarkable statement for the use of advanced technology to support “learning webs.”

The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.’

Well, those conditions certainly exist today. Learners do not necessarily need to go through institutional gateways to access information or knowledge, which is increasing available and accessible through the Internet. MOOCs help to identify those common interests and connectivist MOOCs in particular aim to provide the networks of common interests and the environment for self-directed learning. The digital age provides the technology infrastructure and support needed for this kind of learning.

The roles of learners and teachers

Of all the models of teaching these two are the most learner centred. They are based on an overwhelmingly optimistic view of human nature, that people will seek out and learn what they need, and will find the necessary support from caring, dedicated educators and from others with similar interests and concerns, and that individuals have the capacity and ability to identify and follow through with their own educational needs. It is also a more radical view of education, because it seeks to escape the political and controlling aspects of state or private education.

Within each of these two models, there are differences of view about the centrality of teachers for successful learning. For Pratt, the teacher plays a central role in nurturing learning; for others such as Illich or Freire, professionally trained teachers are more likely to be the servant of the state than of the individual learner. Volunteer mentors or social groups organised around certain ideals or social goals provide alternative forms of support for learners.

Strengths and weaknesses of these two approaches

There are, as always, a number of drawbacks to these two approaches to teaching:

  • The teacher in a nurturing approach needs to adopt a highly dedicated and unselfish approach, putting the demands and needs of the learner first. This often means for teachers who are experts in their subject holding back the transmission and sharing of their knowledge until the learner is ‘ready’, thus denying to many subject experts their own identity and needs to a large extent;
  • Pratt argues that ‘although content is apparently neglected, children taught by nurturing educators do continue to master it at much the same rate as children taught by curriculum-driven teaching methodologies‘, but no empirical evidence is offered to support this statement, although it does derive in Pratt’s case from strong personal experience of teaching in this way;
  • like all the other teaching approaches the nurturing method is driven by a very strong belief system, which will not necessarily be shared by other educators (or parents or even students, for that matter);
  • a nurturing approach is probably the most labour-intensive of all the teaching models, requiring a deep understanding on the part of the teacher of each learner and that learner’s needs; every individual learner is different and needs to be treated differently, and teachers need to spend a great deal of time identifying learners’ needs , their readiness to learn, and building or creating supportive environments or contexts for that learning;
  • there is likely to be a conflict between what the learner identifies as their personal learning needs, and the demands of society in a digital age. Dedicated teachers may be able to help a learner negotiate that divide, but in situations where learners are left without professional guidance learners may end up just talking to other individuals with similar views that do not progress their learning (remembering that academic teaching is a rhetorical exercise, changing the way learners view the world.)
  • social reform depends to a large extent on learners and teachers embracing similar belief systems, and can easily descend into dogmatism without challenges from outside the ‘in-community’ established by self-referential groups.

Nevertheless, there are aspects of both models that have significance for a digital age:

  • both nurturing and social reform approaches seems to work well for many adults in particular, and the nurturing approach also works well for younger children.
  • nurturing is an approach that has been adopted as much in advanced corporate training in companies such as Google as in informal adult education.
  • connectivist MOOCs strongly reflect both the nurturing approach and the ability to create webs of connections that enables the development of self-efficacy and attempts at social reform
  • both methods seem to work well when learners are already fairly well educated and already have good prior knowledge and conceptual development.
  • such approaches that focus on the needs of individuals rather than institutions or state bureaucracies can liberate thinking and learning and thus make the difference between ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ in creative thinking, problem-solving, and application of knowledge in complex and variable contexts.

Over to you

Once again, your feedback on this analysis of the two teaching models will be invaluable. In particular:

  • Do you have experience of teaching in one or both of these ways? If so, do you agree with the analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each component?
  • Do you think that connectivism is a modern reflection of either of these models of teaching – or is connectivism a distinct and unique method of teaching in itself? If so, what distinguishes it as a teaching method from all the other methods I have covered?

It’s always great to hear from readers.

Up next

Although I posted some key takeaways at the end of Chapter 4, I will be doing an extended reflection on all the models described with a particular focus on their suitability for developing the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age.


Freire, P. (2004). Pedagogy of Indignation. Boulder: CO, Paradigm

Illich, I. (1971) Deschooling Society, (accessed 6 August, 2014)

Knowles, M. (1984) Andragogy in Action. Applying modern principles of adult education, San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Pratt, D. (1998) Five Perspectives on Teaching in Adult and Higher Education Malabar FL: Krieger Publishing Company

Rousseau, J.-J. (1762) Émile, ou de l’Éducation  (Trans. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1979)


  1. Hi Tony,

    Pratt’s description of the ‘social reform’ approach sounds similar to the educational philosophy of ‘social reconstructionism’. As I understand it, the goals of this philosophy/approach are directed toward ‘liberating thinking and learning’ rather than depending on, or perpetuating, particular belief systems. A recent example of a social reform-based approach to teaching addresses the inequalities that arise from students’ (lack of) the implicit knowledge of academic discourse and practices (‘academic literacies’) required for success in higher education.

    According to Pratt, the social-reform approach is the least common approach. Perhaps a more appropriate limitation of the social reform approach is that it is so rarely identified or discussed that few faculty or academic administrators are aware of it!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here