The devil is in the detail

Sometimes we think we have a profound understanding of teaching, when actually our ideas are so vague and abstract that they are practically meaningless. For example, we might think that we have a deep understanding of teaching because we have changed our conception from a teacher as merely sharing what he/she knows, to a conception of a teacher as student centred, aiming to foster student learning. However, when we then consider what this means in practice, we realise we don’t really understand at all. Our understanding needs to be refined and enhanced by making it concrete, applying it to our particular situations and contexts, and giving examples to illustrate.

To illustrate this in more detail, I might think that I can help my students to be independent thinkers by asking them to justify their answers. But this is still a very vague insight because it is not concrete about what is said and done, in what situations, and why. Although all the following teaching practices count as “asking students to justify” only some are good teaching practice, and some are much better than others.  I don’t really understand what I mean until I distinguish which of these following concrete practices I mean when I say “I want students to justify my answers”.  There is a big difference between:

  • Just start asking my students “why do you think that?” vs. first explaining to them why I am going to ask them to justify themselves, and modelling how I justify.
  • Asking them “why?” once, vs.asking them regularly and frequently, so they get in the habit of justifying themselves.
  • Requiring an immediate answer from my students, vs. giving them time to think before answering.
  • Asking in a sarcastic tone as if their answer was stupid and wrong, vs. asking as if I am genuinely interested in their reasons
  • Dismissing their answer as incorrect, or leading them to what i consider to be the right justification vs. guiding them to elaborate their reasons, and asking the rest of the class how they might strengthen the justification.


Golding, C. (2017) For example? A philosophical case study of some problems when abstract educational theory ignores concrete practice, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 51(2), 476-490.


About Clinton Golding

Clinton Golding is Associate Professor at the University of Otago Higher Education Development Centre. His previous positions include Philosopher in Residence at Rangitoto College in Auckland, and Thinking Coordinator at Queen Margaret College in Wellington and St. Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, where he worked to develop the thinking of staff and students. He was also a senior lecturer at The University of Melbourne where he received 5 local and national teaching awards.
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