Teaching and Learning Forum 96 [ Contents ]

The postmodern tutorial as a tool for developing understanding and insight in history teaching

Leonora Ritter
Social Science and Liberal Studies
Charles Sturt University

The fundamental principles of my pedagogy are that education has a social function and that effective education requires an interactive process.

The presumption that education has a social function is a deliberate philosophical challenge to the assumption of 'performativity' that 'simply demands skilled performances within job roles'. It is based on the belief that the activities of professionals should be 'governed by some vision of a just society', rather than merely ''the criteria of efficiency'. It is adapted as an antidote to this economic-rationalist world, in which productivity and efficiency are confused with social improvement and invested with unwarranted intrinsic virtue, allowing the drive to maximise efficiency to over-ride all human needs and associated humane considerations. (Usher and Edwards, 1994, p.176).

This does not mean reverting to 'modern' education with its nineteenth century liberal rigidity about the values that constitute 'progress'; rather, education with social goals fills two important roles in a postmodern world. First, the educational process facilitates post-modern questioning of the hegemony of social conventions, modes of thought, and relations of power by leading students to challenge the definitive, the certain and the 'proven'. Adult education has been described as 'the place where learning inculcated by schooling is "unlearnt"'. (Usher and Edwards, 1994, p.131). More broadly it is an arena for struggle between pre-conceptions and alternative views.

Second, it is crucial as a tool to tame the anarchic potential of postmodernity in a world of rapid change, bewildering instability and constantly changing knowledge. Education can equip individuals to negotiate this constantly shifting world by giving them the capacity to: 'create and re-create an identity, to negotiate and renegotiate its components in a social setting, to judge the merits of public choices as they intersect with self-understanding and social needs, to engage in aesthetic experience and to develop intellectual habits equal to the task of discriminating among inescapably incommensurate demands'. (Steiner, pp.xii-xiii)

Education with a social function requires a more interactive process than the mere dissemination of information. Pursuing learning as an interactive process means focussing on the relationship between teacher and learner. This must not be confused with the relationship between learner and computer or learner and book. Even a very sophisticated computer is only a medium, not a teacher. Current obsession with 'Resource based learning' is a threat to serious pedagogy because it is entirely focused on the medium rather than the process. There is a grave danger that poor pedagogy will be unnoticed and accepted when it is embedded in state of the art technology. Such a fear is fuelled by recent comment that the quality of CD-ROM packages produced to promote universities suggest 'universities have a long way to go in providing simple access to this electronic information'. (Campus Review, November 2-8, 1995).

So far technology has proved efficient in increasing storage of information and to some extent in improving access to and manipulation of data. Accessing and manipulating data is not, however, to be confused with learning. Learning only occurs when some change of understanding takes place in the learner. Students given access to sophisticated technology without an exposure to the process of learning merely become more informed drones, not 'the clever society'. To produce a clever society in this postmodern world education should lead to 'a habit of constantly interrogating the horizons of the mind'. (Steiner, 1994, p173. See also Usher and Edwards, 1994, p.179; Peters, 1973, pp.179-180)

The danger of confusing acquisition of information with learning is increased by the growth of accountability. Accountability is not in itself an undesirable goal, but it does lead to an emphasis on the measurable that limits the educational process. This has serious long-term social implications. For example, it ultimately enhances the hegemony of the entrenched decision makers. (Usher and Edwards, 1994, pp.178-179).

Face-to-face tutorials are expensive and labour intensive. They are justified by their potential for immediate interpersonal dynamic exchange. They provide an arena where knowledge, rather than being conveyed as pre-defined, is created in the interaction between teachers, learners, knowledge and meanings. (Usher and Edwards, 1994, p.140). The important components for successful tutorials are motivation, energy, process, student ownership, and recognition of different learning styles.

It is essential that a tutorial engage students and maintains their interest. Through initiating questions and discussion the tutor must direct attention to interesting and challenging topics. The opening of the tutorial must attract immediate interest and generate debate. To maximise initial involvement and exchange of ideas I often start with small groups tackling an open-ended question, such as ' pretend you are a political party and define "freedom" for your manifesto' or 'an alien from space wants to find a school, describe a "school" for it'. It seems important to engage philosophical questions in concrete ways. It is critical to allow attachment to previously held knowledge and beliefs. The questions posed and the symbols involved must 'present pupils with the various enterprises in the right sort of way if they are to have a chance of responding to them and attaching their unconscious feelings to them.' (Wilson, 1979, p.192).

Engaging and interrogating unconscious feelings is an important aspect of learning. This includes accepting the significance of affect or even eros in effective teaching;

Tutorials that take into account 'the enormous importance' of the emotional component are likely to improve effective learning. (Wilson, 1979, p.162).

In a postmodern tutorial the student immediately becomes a critical and pro-active element in the process. This is a response to the premise outlined by Dewey that 'every education finds its origin and its essence in the condition of human experience and the manner in which the educator can draw out that experience'. (Steiner, 1994, p.194). The generation of full participation is important. Students enter education with their own desires and agendas already formed. It is the task of education to challenge them. Students learn from each other empirically that there are different ways of looking at things. This is more effective than just being told. (Usher and Edwards, 1994, 197). This is further enhanced by the heterogeneity of the group. Mature aged students, students from disadvantaged backgrounds and students from a variety of ethnic backgrounds are all important factors in the effectiveness of learning from the rest of the group.

I engage the white/black board from the outset and then keep a cumulative record of the process as it unfolds. This caters for visual rather than oral learners. Board usage also generates energy for both teacher and learner. In this action, scale is important. I use the whole board, with dramatic gestures to enhance the use of space to create connections and emphasise relationships between concepts. In this a board is better than a screen or projector! Visual dramatisation, using a plethora of swirling arrows for example, can be used to introduce a ludic dimension. In constructing the record of the tutorial, the words and relationships must be generated from the students. This makes the outcome more meaningful to them. Student ownership of the process enhances its effectiveness in their learning. The tutor becomes an important aspect of the pedagogic process as the performer of the students' positions. (Usher and Edwards, 1994, p.220).

The use of dynamic board work rather than a completed over-head shows the unfolding of thought patterns; it facilitates sharing of data and the generation of patterns from the data and acknowledges individual student contribution. It illustrates a cooperative style of learning in which the parts contribute to the whole. It also teaches an analytical construct, a useful pattern of thinking. Through this process 'immediate experience and pre-existing habits of interpretation interrogate each other, the first seeking to reorder aspects of the second'. (Steiner, 1994, p.156). Recording the process allows for free discussion without the student frustration of feeling they have achieved nothing concrete in the hour. There is an out come of a record of ideas that have been expressed and their relationship to one another. To avoid the implication that it is a 'right answer', alternatives, contradictions and connections should be clearly indicated.

The unfolding process is critical as it facilitates discovery learning. My tutorials aim to generate ways of thinking and questioning, of deconstructing assumptions. I start by being very basic, even naive; at the outset of each topic the student is allowed to assume nothing. This is manifested in such opening questions as: What is freedom? Who makes history happen? How would you diagnose an industrial revolution? The goal is the critical understanding of the dynamics and language of history - not comprehending a right answer. In this sense it is 'a pedagogy of possibility' - 'a counterdiscursive activity that attempts to provoke a process through which people might engage in a transformative critique of their everyday lives. This means provoking a consideration of why things are the way they are, how they got to be that way, in what ways change might be desirable, and what it would take for things to be otherwise.' (Simon, 1992, p.60).

There is a strong emphasis on language, on deconstructing key words such as 'history', 'freedom', 'authority', 'progress'. This recognises that the capacity of language to incorporate meaning renders it a political phenomenon. It governs the interaction between the individual and the society. It also plays a critical role in sharing experience and meaning. In learning from each other we must first decode what the other is saying. This requires exploring the different interpretations hidden behind the use of the same word. Working with language in this way enhances individuals' insights into themselves, their society and the relationship between the two. In order to achieve this the students are asked to come up with 'working definitions', not dictionary regurgitations. Small group work produces multiple working definitions that can then be compared in the group as a whole, and be seen to fulfil different but often equally valid functions. (Dewey, in Steiner, 1994, pp.159-160; Usher and Edwards, 1994, p.201).

There is also an emphasis on understanding the processes of history. Discussion and diagram explore the dynamics of social change, legislative change, ideological change, their interaction and their material, cultural and psycho-social effects. Through these discussions students are encouraged to challenge the 'observed horizon'. An aim is to empower by raising awareness of the hidden agendas, structures of power and 'inaccessible collective actions' which shape their lives. (Steiner, 1994, pp.156).

Every tutorial is based on a series of steps designed to explore some basic concepts; apply them dynamically; and test the dynamic diagram with further application and debate. This allows the student to build understanding in a process that cements comprehension by recall and application. It ensures that within each tutorial there will be a balance between exchanging ideas and testing those ideas through application. It thus involves learning from 'experience' in as much as concepts are explored by immediate application. The acquisition of insight through experience is of particular value in the learning process. (Hamlyn, 1973, pp.179-180, 210).

The model is designed to allow students to generate the content, but it is necessary to have some structure. The tutor's role lies in determining the topics and issues to be addressed and the concrete ways students might collectively engage them. Structure lies in using flexible and open ended questioning to produce a model that reflects the students' perceptions of the construct/discourse in question. In conducting the tutorial, the tutor must be alert to the danger that democratic participation can become a form of manipulation; it may even perpetuate power structures through regulation by the group. The tutor can minimise this by validating and encouraging all points of view and developing the notion of discourse as opposed to the search for an agreed truth; by striving for understandings which do not seek 'merely the closure of certainty but an openness to new experience and new and multiple meanings. The aim then becomes to accept the possibility of uncertainty and unpredictability whilst recognising differences and otherness.' (Usher and Edwards, 1994, pp.29-30, 91). Success may be judged from the fact that tutorials on the same topic never produce the same diagram on the board. At the same time, cynical relativity can be avoided by making the participants responsible and accountable for their 'truths'. Defending their own position to peers develops students' self-awareness, reflexivity and skills of analysis and argument.

The positioning of the tutor in this process is critical and must be founded on 'fascination with the dignity and worth of those whom we teach'. This involves careful and sensitive listening and personal reflection on the emotional as well as intellectual basis on which our own positions as teachers are formed. Even the tutor may seek and gain insight through the collective exploration of language, ideas and patterns. The result is that a final strength of this method is that the tutor remains interested and engaged as every tutorial generates its own unique pattern, 'every piece of teaching is a piece of research'. (Simon, 1992, p.72; Mem Fox, 1993, p.185).

The postmodern version of the traditional tutorial is an educational process that is dynamic. It has the potential to elicit an appetite for learning, to promote the acquisition of tools to facilitate thinking, and to provide the experience of opening new mindspace within which to pursue insights. None of these functions is adequately fulfilled by any form of resource-based learning. They can, of course, be facilitated by even the oldest form of resource-based learning (libraries and books). Some readers may, indeed, be wondering by this stage about the role of 'readings' in these tutorials. Readings can facilitate the process by opening the students' minds prior to discussion and it is often desirable that students acquire academic information on which to base their thinking. Reading lists are therefore provided. Tutorials are also, however, intended to whet the students' appetites so that those who read little before hand might be inspired to use the readings as a follow-up.

The specific example to be demonstrated involves extracts from a tutorial designed to develop an understanding of the ideological spectrum of Australian politics in the context of the right wing- left wing terminology.


To give students an understanding of the different ways in which 'right' and 'left' are used. To make them critically aware of political agendas, relativity of meaning, difficulty of applying categories to real people or broad policies. To show them the possibility and limitations of enhancing meaning by creating and imposing linguistic and ideological patterns.


  1. To engage students and maintain interest, demonstrate relevance and need with simple statement: 'Bob Hawke moved to the right after he entered politics, but he was never as right wing as Joh Bjelke Petersen or Fred Nile'. What does it mean?

  2. Brain-storm on what is meant by 'left' and 'right' - assuming that for any entry under one heading, there will be an opposite under the other. Force working definitions, challenge dictionary regurgitations. If they say left equates with 'communist', get them to unpack 'communist'; similarly if right is 'conservative'.

    To engage the board list the Right on the extreme right and the Left on the extreme left. Walking from left to right as the lists are built up generates energy.

  3. After the list is compiled, draw a continuous line from one side to other half way up the board. Pick a mid-point. Graph Australian politicians past and present. Use the criteria that have been established by the group and ask for evidence to support the positions students would assign. When filling in the middle let students call out - bit further left, further right, etc. Try to form a consensus diagram. This may involve a range of positions for the same person or even a moving position to cover variations within a political life (eg. Bob Hawke moves to the right).

  4. Put party umbrellas over them using leading questions such as, how far to the left can you be and still be in the Liberal party?

  5. Test assumptions by asking students to plot themselves. Finish by pointing out that they have created scattergram of a small cross-section of Australian society. (Over 20 years of teaching this exercise has actually indicated rough changes in left/right orientation of student population. Seem to be easing left again at the moment.)

  6. Point out that there are no right answers but positioning of people and parties in terms of the criteria of left and right is problematic; when such jargon is used it is necessary to be critical of the evidence that is presented about the position of the people and parties.


Campus Review (1995). November 2-8.

Hamlyn, D. W. (1973). Human Learning. In R. S. Peters (Ed), The Philosophy of Education. Oxford University Press.

King, E. J. (1973). Other Schools and Ours. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, London.

Mem Fox (1993). Radical Reflections. Harcourt, Brace, Sydney.

Simon, R. I. (1992). Teaching Against the Grain. Bergin and Garvey, New York.

Steiner, D. M. (1994). Rethinking Democratic Education. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Usher, R. and Edwards, R. (1994). Postmodernism and Education. Routledge, London.

Wilson, J. (1979). Preface to the philosophy of education. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

Please cite as: Ritter, L. (1996). The postmodern tutorial as a tool for developing understanding and insight in history teaching. In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p147-151. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/ritter.html

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