The Anthropology of teaching and learning

This is a guest post by Rod Pitcher who is a PhD candidate in Education at The Centre for Higher Education, Learning and Teaching at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his study is the metaphors that researchers use when describing their research. Rod can be contacted at or via Twitter @Rod_Pitcher

Teaching and learning are both social acts and therefore suitable for being studied by anthropologists. Anthropologists place teaching and learning in two categories, ‘formal’ and ‘informal’.

Formal teaching and learning takes place in schools and revolve around the study of various subjects as part of a general education. Informal teaching takes place outside the formal situation where one learns by following a demonstration. Formal teaching results in a theoretical knowledge of a subject as a basis for the student’s future learning, whereas informal teaching results in  the learning of a skill that can be used in a specific situation. Formal teaching is the type of teaching that takes place in a school or university. Informal teaching might involve learning to make tools or useful objects for use in living from day to day.

One big difference between formal and informal teaching and learning, that is often mentioned by anthropologists, is the difference in the use of language and demonstration. In formal teaching the language, words are the main form of transmission of information. In the informal teaching the main mode of instruction is by examples of how to do something. In other words, formal teachers use words to pass information to the students. This often involves a jargon specific to the field being studied. Informal teachers, instead, show the students how to manipulate tools and materials to produce a finished product. The big difference is that formal teachers use language to teach whereas informal teachers use activity to teach.

Sometimes both formal and informal teaching and learning take place in support of each other. Formal teaching gives the student the theoretical background to a skill and the informal teaching imparts the mechanical skills to actually do the job.

An apprenticeship is a good example of this practice. For instance, an apprentice electrician will learn how to wire up a building by watching and helping a qualified tradesperson, but s/he will go to trade school to learn the theory and rules behind the practice. Neither alone is sufficient to produce a suitably qualified tradesperson, s/he needs both the formal and informal knowledge to be able to do the job properly.

The PhD is sometimes compared to an apprenticeship because it has some similarities. As well as formal learning about methods and processes, the PhD candidate also learns a lot from working with other academics on reports and publications in an informal way. As well, the student’s supervisor will guide him or her through the process of research. All this knowledge comes together in the writing of the thesis, again with help from the supervisor.


2 thoughts on “The Anthropology of teaching and learning

  1. pravinjeya says:

    Reblogged this on Not a PhD Thesis and commented:
    Rod Pitcher’s PhD research is interesting. I have previously blogged on the perceived similarity between my PhD and pregnancy and childbirth. It would be interesting to know what Rod thinks of that.

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