Chapter 3: Methods of teaching: campus-focused

3.7 The nurturing and social reform models of teaching: learning by feeling

In this section I will briefly discuss the last two of Pratt’s five teaching perspectives, nurturing and social reform.

3.7.1 The nurturing perspective

A nurturing perspective on 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 perspective 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.


Figure 3.6.1 Empire State College's mentoring model reflects a nurturing perspective

Figure 3.7.1 Empire State College’s mentoring model reflects a nurturing perspective


Empire State College in the State University of New York system operates an adult education mentoring system that reflects very closely the nurturing perspective,

3.7.2 The social reform perspective

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 as an epistemological position, that society needs change, and the social reformer knows how to bring about this change.

3.7.3 History, and relevance for connectivism

These two perspectives on 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 perspectives on 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.

3.7.4 The roles of learners and teachers

Of all the perspectives on 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 perspectives, 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. For those supporting these perspectives on teaching, volunteer mentors or social groups organised around certain ideals or social goals provide the necessary support for learners.

3.7.5 Strengths and weaknesses of these two approaches

There are, as always, a number of drawbacks to these two perspectives on 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 perspective is driven by a very strong belief system, which will not necessarily be shared by other educators (or parents or even learners, for that matter);
  • a nurturing perspective necessitates 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 may well 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, challenging learners to view the world differently);
  • 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 perspectives that have significance for a digital age:

  • both nurturing and social reform perspectives 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 (see for instance, Tan, 2012);
  • connectivist MOOCs strongly reflect both the nurturing approach and the ability to create webs of connections that enable the development of self-efficacy and attempts at social reform;
  • both perspectives seem to be effective when learners are already fairly well educated and already have good prior knowledge and conceptual development;
  • perspectives 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.

Activity 3.7 Nurturing, social reform and connectivism

1. 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?

2. 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?

Write down your responses in the comment section at the end of this chapter.


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)

Tan, C.-M. (2012) Search Inside Yourself New York: Harper Collins