Godfrey Thomson and the Rise of University Pedagogical Study



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Godfrey Thomson and the Rise of University Pedagogical Study

A recorded lecture delivered at the University of Edinburgh in November 1950 by Godfrey H. Thomson.

A transcript with commentary


Martin Lawnb, Ian J. Dearya,*, Caroline Bretta, and David J. Bartholomewc
bCentre for Educational Sociology, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

aMedical Research Council Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

cLondon School of Economics, UK
*Corresponding author, Prof Martin Lawn, Centre for Educational Sociology, University of Edinburgh, St John’s Land, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AQ Scotland, UK.

Email address: im.lawn@btinternet.com


Godfrey Thomson 1881- 1955

In 1950, Professor Sir Godfrey Thomson1 recorded a lecture at the University of Edinburgh on the subject of good lecturing practice. The lecture exists today in its original form, five 78rpm acetates [hard, black vinyl]. These fragile discs, the only known copy of the lecture, have survived nearly sixty years, kept by the widow of a close colleague of Thomson2. With this recording, our research project members heard Thomson for the first time. Over the last two years, we had searched documents, followed calculations, interviewed colleagues and students, trying to capture Thomson’s thinking, research, teaching, and personality3. Images were few in number. Finding sources through which to study Thomson was the first task. Later came the task of reconciling the different perspectives that came to light through these different sources. This recording offered the sound of his voice, an extraordinary and unique access to a person born in 1881, in the last years of his life, and offering a summary of his views on teaching in the university [an institution he had worked in since 1906, first at Newcastle and then in Edinburgh], Thomson’s combination of pedagogical interest, empirical concerns and analytical skill is at work in the lecture. It is structured around a series of points about lecturing from somebody who thought lectures at Edinburgh were very good. Thomson speaks about knowing the subject, about audibility and watching the audience; he emphasises the need to arouse curiosity and the use of humour, and especially about talking to, and not reading to, the audience. His talk is full of asides and illustrations, nearly all humorous and to the point; he elicits laughter from the audience on several occasions. His own mannerisms are drawn attention to and he makes knowing references to them; they become jokes within jokes. At times, he chuckles to himself. It is a brave lecture as well. He lectures on the art of lecturing and offers tools for analysis by which his lecture can itself be judged, and he records the lecture so that others may do likewise.


His approach to teaching was research based. Teachers had to treat themselves experimentally as a subject and study their own teaching methods and approaches. In effect, he proposed a form of reflexivity in lecturing.

the only really bad lecturers are those who don't know they are bad….

there is always hope if you feel that you would like to be better,, that you aren’t just satisfied with yourself’ [Thomson Lecture p6]

The lecture is interesting in a number of ways. Firstly, Thomson is known as an architect of mental testing in the UK and as a serious thinker and researcher on the nature of intelligence differences. His Moray House Tests are his legacy in many ways yet his practice as a teacher, and his interest in teaching and training, are not well recorded. References to his direction of Moray House, one of the largest teacher training centres, and its Demonstration School, are meagre. Secondly, the discs allow a rebalancing of the research profile on Thomson; they show him as a committed teacher, working in his chosen field, and managing the institution which many pupil teachers [of which he was one] aspired to. This recording shows him using his interest in the craft of teaching to reflect on the features of a good university lecture. The advice it offers may appear fairly straightforward today but the context is very different now. Advice on lecturing in 1950 was a novel topic among the elite group of university lecturers teaching undergraduates in Britain’s few universities. The tradition was that the subject was sufficient unto itself and needed only to be mediated by the tutor. Pedagogy was redundant. So, Thomson’s lecture has to be read as an innovative step in university teaching, probably about 15 years before the subject began to take hold with the expansion of the universities and the publication of the Hale Report4. The recording reveals a vital element in the work of a research professor, who, while managing a large training centre and teaching advanced research courses, is crucially interested in the work of teaching.


Research and Teaching

Thomson had trained as a pupil teacher in Newcastle and after returning from doctoral studies in Strasbourg, he had taught at Armstrong College [the foundation college of the later University of Newcastle]. Sir James Duff, a colleague and friend, described him as

..a magnificent lecturer, whether to students or a learned society. And at the lower end of the scale I have seen him successfully persuading a class of rather backward children in a village school to use their brains on a problem of simple arithmetic [Duff in Thomson 1969 p xi]

In his diary, Duff described how Thomson came to help him out when he was struggling to manage a rural school –

Oct 8th 1923. …. I went as acting-headmaster to Dunstan School on the Northumberland coast for just over a fortnight in July. It nearly broke me down – a fearful burden of most difficult work, under very trying conditions – great heat in an overcrowded school. I taught 40 children, divided into 5 standards, and the attempt to do so kept me feverishly busy from early morning til midnight. Thomson came down and helped for one day, to my great comfort….

At Armstrong College, Thomson was interested in the Dalton Plan and [WH Kilpatrick’s] Project Method [Duff in Thomson 1969 p23]: the latter emphasizing activity and utilizing the ‘laws’ of learning, a combination which linked Thomson’s teaching and research interests. His training course in Newcastle allowed a range of self organized activities in science [Thomson 1969 p23]. As a trainer of elementary school teachers, he acted as a master of method, the lead instructor on pedagogy, and taught geography, maths, blackboard drawing, psychology, as well as visiting schools for lesson criticism, and running the gymnasium for 3 years [Thomson 1969 p70]

I thoroughly enjoyed teaching my students – it was rather like teaching the upper forms of the secondary school - indeed there is nothing I have ever enjoyed more’ [Thomson 1969 p82]

In the summers, Thomson organized camps with the students acting as guides for the urban children. The camps were organized like military expeditions with Thomson the quartermaster.

After a year working at Newcastle as their Professor of Education, Thomson went to Teachers College, Columbia, working with Edward Thorndike, in 1923- 1924. He enjoyed the experience, teaching on the summer school, lecturing to large classes and visiting many New York schools [Thomson 1922/23]. Towards the end of his time at Teachers College, Dean Russell offered him a Professorship. However, he rejected this ideal research and advanced teaching post, working with people and in an institution he admired, and returned to Newcastle. In 1925, he accepted the Bell Chair in Education at Edinburgh, which was joined that year with the direction of Moray House teacher training centre. This was certainly with his approval as it created a major educational institute in Scotland. His intention was to work broadly across education science in his work at Moray House but before long, he was focusing on his research on intelligence differences. But Thomson always taught and felt that his interests across the curriculum enabled him to manage the training centre better

In consequence, when I came to be principal of a college I felt like the conductor of an orchestra who can at a pinch play any one of the instruments [Thomson 1969 p76]

He had a heavy teaching load at Moray House and in the University Department [also at Moray House] [Inglis in Thomson 1969 p117]. Inglis, his deputy, recalled

few people in academic life found so much pleasure in teaching as Sir GH and it is therefore not surprising that he gave to its art and practice a high rank in his priorities. In his class for graduates in their year of professional training his lectures were a compound of history of education, doctrines of the great educators and a liberal addition of practical hints. Often he began by declaring that it was more important for his students to know what Plato or Rousseau or Dewey thought than what he thought and he would then embark on a careful exposition of his author. [Inglis p119]

His secretary, Marion Cooke, describes a typical morning

he very often had a 9 o’clock class and he’d come right in and go right in, put in his things and go right along to the lecture theatre. And then he was there til lunchtime [Cooke Interview 2006]

Jennie Lee entered his postgraduate teaching course in 1926, expecting like her fellow students, all experienced in Edinburgh classes, to sit and take notes.

We trooped into his introductory lecture, produced our notebooks and pencils, and settled down as usual to an hour’s industrious note taking. Straightaway the professor gave us an uncomfortable jog. We were to put away our note books and pencils. They would not be needed. He did not intend reading aloud to us at dictation pace. It really was not necessary. The material we may have expected to have read out lecture by lecture was at our disposal in book form. This said, smiling in the friendliest way, he paused for a moment. The poor devil may even have expected some sign of approval. Instead there was mutiny in the air. Not noisy mutiny. Just sullen, anxious dismay. No notes? What did that mean? How then could we memorize our pieces in readiness for examination time? His next announcement was a degree worse. We were to form ourselves into groups, each group doing a special piece of reading and research, and later in the term, reporting to the general class.

A later student, Catherine Hunter, described his lectures as very popular with the students in training.

it sounds very patronising to say that he obviously had prepared his lectures very well. He hardly used notes, it seemed as if it just came and, as you can hear from his voice, very clear and distinct. And he had a fetish if you like for pronunciation.

For one lecture he had the students in stitches and I can’t remember all the words but because he’d done a lot of work in America, it was the different pronunciation. [Hunter Interview]

Research and teaching came together for Thomson in Kilpatrick’s argument about the way in which the ‘project’ works -

it is a tenet of the upholder of the project teaching that the pupil will turn willingly to the study of the necessary intellectual tools because he needs them for his main purpose, and that he may indeed become directly interested in the tool subjects themselves on further acquaintance. [Duff in Thomson 1969 p25/6]

In his obituary, in the Eugenics Review, CP Blacker5 made some comments about Thomson’s lecturing which confirm his interest in the practice in lecturing –

His Galton lecture [The Trend of Intelligence 1946] .. was most carefully prepared and committed to paper before the occasion of its delivery… Thomson held strongly that lectures should not be read but delivered. The lecturer’s eyes and attention, he said, should not be fixed on sheets of typescript but upon his audience. Thomson accordingly delivered his lecture without a note in his hand. I was sitting on his left. My most vivid picture of him now is of his profile that evening. He stood erect, his hands in his coat pockets; and he spoke unfalteringly, vigorously and humorously for exactly fifty minutes which was the period which, at his request I had earlier prescribed.

Thomson mentions at the beginning of his talk that he had been invited to give the lecture a year before. The audience was to be ‘young and inexperienced lecturers who had recently been appointed to the university’ [Thomson Lecture p1]. Thomson, as the holder of the Bell Chair in Education, the senior education post in Scottish Universities, would represent good practice in teaching. He was also known as being interested in teaching and the training of teachers. The choice seems natural.

On a copy of the lecture transcript, found in the private papers of Thomson’s son, Hector, there is a note, written by Lady Thomson

The first audience were medicals [far more than the young surgeons Sir James had suggested]. Sir James Learmonth [Surgeon] asked Godfrey to do this for him and to give it quite early in the morning, 8.30 I think. The lecture was so successful that the chair [of the] faculties Arts and Sciences persuaded him to repeat it for them6


Recording a Lecture7

Why should the talk be recorded? This was a pioneering and time consuming additional element to what was an innovative event. Thomson said that his audience should engage in the same practice; there was an opportunity in the university for new lecturers to learn about teaching skills by recording their lectures.

it has been suggested that it would be desirable for young lecturers to have one of their lectures recorded and then go and listen to it played to them [Thomson Lecture p1]

Immediately afterward he refers to the key person who would help them, Mr [later Professor] Abercrombie in the Phonetics department. David Abercrombie had only established the Phonetics Department at Edinburgh two years before and it was to become an important unit in the development of this field in the UK and beyond. During the recording the technician was James Anthony, who later became a senior academic in the department. Anthony was an ex telephone engineer [the key communications technology profession at the time] and member of the Royal Signals [Anthony 1998]. He was chiefly concerned with setting up the Phonetics laboratory, finding the right sort of equipment and also inventing and making speech research apparatus. On appointment, he had been sent to a disc recorder company in England to learn how make gramophone records. Again it is likely that a significant third person, perhaps Sir James Learmonth, brought the two elements together, Thomson and the recording equipment, to solve the third element, the problem of new post war university teaching staff and their teaching skills.

Thomson records in his talk that

I’m a little bit handicapped by this thing which is a recording apparatus. This lecture is being recorded in a room behind there which makes me more nervous than I would have otherwise have been. [Thomson Lecture p2]8

At one point, he refers to having to “stand within 3 feet of this thing “ [Thomson p2].

It is not clear from his account if there were any more instructions or constraints which he had to overcome to do the lecture. The assumption must be that he was alone with a microphone stand in front of his audience and that cabling went to the recording machine and engineer in the next room. At the time, the Phonetics dept didn’t have a proper sound studio but a small lab which had sound equipment to hand. The recording will have taken place in one of the main University lecture halls in the Old College or the Medical School.


Sound recording equipment was rare in Britain in the 1940s. The BBC often made its own equipment in the absence of any commercial production. The engineer had to have a machine, on which acetate covered aluminium discs were ‘cut’. In this case, the reference to the engineer ‘next door’ suggests that this was either a portable recording machine, which was also very rare, or a heavier set of machinery, which may have included an amplifier, a recording machine, a loudspeaker, microphones, microphone hand-grips and stand, drums of microphone cable, a talk-back unit, test records, interconnecting leads, spare parts and a tool kit [taken from a description of a contemporary sound studio]. It is unlikely that Phonetics had all this. This range of equipment would cost around £250 in 1949 [a new Austin A40 Devon would have cost just twice as much that year], approximately £7000 in 2007 values. This would have been a significant investment for the University in this area.

Anthony [1998] described recording then as a ‘human mechanical process’ involving lists of actions and responses to be made by the engineer. There was a likelihood of error between neophyte engineers, a lecturer new to recording and a live, unpredictable audience. The obligation was that the engineer and the speaker got this lecture right first time, unless a commercial editing service was to be used later to create final edited discs. There were five double sided discs, each side lasting for about four minutes. The speaker had to stop at an arranged place or by a signal so the engineer could place a new acetate on the recording machine. It is not clear if Thomson used a script, indeed his lecture was about the necessity of talking to an audience and not reading to or at them. Signalling between the lecturer and the engineer [in the next room] would be needed to produce the stops in the recording [which are well hidden even though each 78 begins and ends cleanly].

Thomson didn’t make things easier for the engineer though. At one point, he speaks to latecomers telling them where vacant seats were in the room. Thomson encouraged the audience to participate; he asked them to ‘stamp loudly’ with their feet if he said ‘you know’ to help cure him of the habit. While he seems at ease and self- confident with the microphone and the recording processes, in the adjoining room the engineer must have been very concerned about noise levels, adlibs and signal codes.






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