ABIS Infor - 2012-01

"Ex Cathedra" vs. "Hands On"

Steven Scheldeman (ABIS) - 30 January 2012


"Ex Cathedra" teaching, traditionally the usual method of teaching, is neither the only way of knowledge, neither the best nor the worst. A "Hands On" approach has its advantages and disadvantages. At ABIS, we use a healthy mix of both.

"Ex Cathedra"

Since there are more than enough definitions of "Ex Cathedra", we'd like to state what it means for us at ABIS. For us this means that the teacher presents the subject in a structured, but distant manner. It doesn't matter which technological aides he uses: a beamer, a white boards, a book, a syllabus. Neither does it matter if he demonstrates some practical aspect of the theory. The point is that the entire method is based on a theoretical approach. The ultimate (worst case) scenario is a teacher who reads a course text out loudly, without any room for questions.

The advantages are a very structured overview of the subject and a course that won't disregard any aspects hereof. The disadvantages can be found in the fact that all students need to link the theory to their own practical (work) environment themselves, and that it leads to classes where it isn't obvious to keep your mind on the subject.

"Hands on"

The other end of the spectrum is a very practical approach, where the theory is "taught" by executing practical exercises.The teacher extends an invitation to all participants to submerge themselves in an immediate and practical application of the subject. Usually this approach tends to lead to participant driven courses. By focusing on the questions, the practical needs of the students in relation to the subject, each course will differ greatly from any other while teaching the same subject. This often results in practical applications which are very recognisable to the students and a (sometimes blatant) neglect of the aspects which aren't useful for this particular group of pupils.

The advantages are obvious: a profound practical knowledge of student's specific aspects of the subject and an intense involvement. Disadvantages can be found in the unstructured approach with regard to the theory, which can even result in an incomplete overview of the subject.

A healthy mix

Here at ABIS, it has always been understood that we should combine these two forms in a healthy mix for every course.

We are convinced that a structured approach to the theory, brought in a balanced manner by our lecturers, is a very efficient method of knowledge transfer. A well balanced course syllabus is an essential cornerstone in this method. Not only does it provides a guideline during the course, it is also an aide when maintaining your knowledge. It offers a tool to the participants to memorise the theory, while at the same time serving as a topic checklist for the teacher. According to us at ABIS, any knowledge transfer regarding concepts, is in part an "Ex Cathedra" process.

Evidently, this doesn't mean that our lecturers will ignore questions or remarks. It is the duty of any teacher to adapt examples and demonstrations in such a manner that any student grasps the theoretical side of the subject. Here at ABIS we try to implement this vision by adding a series of practical exercises even to our most theoretical courses. These can serve both as demonstration tools for the teacher, and as a manner of transforming the theoretical knowledge into practical application by the students.

On top of this, we adhere to the notion that any course should be flexible enough to address any concerns of the participants. This expresses itself in the fact that certain aspects of a topic can be explored more profoundly, while others are explained on a more basic level, dependant on the needs and wishes of the students. This leads to courses that may vary from group to group.

Our lecturers are also willing to participate in the practical solving and implementing of problems and solutions, both on an individual student's basis, as on a group level. This can happen in an interactive group effort with the teacher as moderator, this might take the form of constructive remarks during and after the exercises, or this can present itself by analysing material provided by the participants themselves, a sort of linking of the course to recognisable and for the students relevant concerns.

The ABIS method

This attention to a healthy mix of both approaches, is an intrinsic part of all our courses. The theory will always be perused in a classical model, but not in an inaccessible manner. The teacher will always be approachable, can be interrupted for questions and will adapt the course to the level of his audience. Any theory is linked to a large amount of exercises. During these exercises the lecturer won't act as a warden, but as a true mentor.

Coupled to our vision on knowledge transfer (ABIS Infor n° 1), this leads to courses which aren't solely enjoyable, but very informative too. They provide an experience where one will retain the knowledge past the end of the course and - even more importantly - where one learns how to implement this knowledge in one's own work environment.