Academic Development: An educational TARDIS

Teaching is simple right?

You go into the room, tell the students what they need to know and then test them later to make sure they remember what they’ve been told.

This is not only an overly simplistic and unscholarly view of teaching, it is also the “outside of the TARDIS* view”. A simple blue police box with clearly defined limits. Nothing complicated. Nothing that requires a second glance. Until you walk through the door and find that the inside is much, much more complicated. Once you start to investigate, with a suitable Time Lord guide, you find that the TARDIS can do so much more than you would have guessed from its outer appearance.

Some colleagues have an “outside of TARDIS” view of teaching and of academic development. It looks simple, and so therefore it must be simple. And if it is as simple as it appears, why would anyone invest any energy in thinking about it to try to improve things?

This has been depicted by some as a certain and linear perspective on teaching:


PDF version of image: knowledge structures and university teaching

Within such a linear structure, there is no room for development as the model appears to be complete. No loose ends and no gaps. It has a clear start and end point. But if you have the courage to go through the door of the TARDIS, a much more complicated and interesting world suddenly opens up. But just like the adventures of Dr WHO and his accomplices, there are challenges and adventures on the way. It is not all plain sailing and the bigger view also introduces greater uncertainty.

Rather than a simple technical issue of transferring information from one head to another, teaching becomes a scholarly activity of dialogue and enquiry. And it is uncertain because it depends on understanding of and dialogue with students rather than a simple reliance on content knowledge.

This reminds me of an exchange that I witnessed at a conference when a discussion panel member made the claim that he didn’t need to be taught about teaching as he had twenty of years of experience that had served him well. At which point an eminent professor stood up in the middle of the audience of about two hundred and exclaimed, “No you haven’t taught for twenty years, you  taught for one year and then just repeated it nineteen times, it is not the same thing!”  The implication was that if you just do the same thing every year, you clearly cannot be reflecting on your practice or developing your teaching.

I would argue that colleagues who conceptualise teaching as the linear structure portrayed above have indeed only taught for one year and then repeated the process. Colleagues who have a conception of teaching more like the one on the right of the figure would find it difficult to only teach for a single year and then repeat. The structure invites reflection and dialogue, and however experienced the practitioner, they would recognise that there is always room for further development and scholarly reflection. Teaching in this way takes courage. So the question you need to answer when constructing your own personal model of teaching, is do you have the courage to teach, or will you take refuge behind a wall of content?

*Link: TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) is the space ship and time machine in the British science fiction series, Doctor Who:


One thought on “Academic Development: An educational TARDIS

  1. Iain Wilkinson

    Lovely article. I have often thought the concept of the TARDIS itself is a threshold to be crossed – and an irreversible one at that – once you ‘get it’, the idea of a blue police box is forever changed. I often use the TARDIS as a simplified example of an educational threshold when helping people to grasp that concept.



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