The Importance of the Teacher: Learnification Part 2

I continue to think about the role of teachers in this new age of content availability. If content is available to anyone at any time, in any place, what is the role of the teacher? If we think of the role of teachers as providers of content via instruction, then clearly this role becomes obsolete. We need to imagine teaching in a much broader way.

Gert Biesta is one of those who is helping me think through this issue. He has written an important piece called Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher. Biesta criticizes ‘learnification,’ and carefully analyzes the important role of teachers. Biesta shows that, despite the increasing availability of content, the role of the teacher necessarily remains central to education. (For a recent example of learnification on steroids, see Sugatra Mitra’s Ted Talk. I don’t want to discount all that Mitra says, but clearly learnification is at work when teachers are so irrelevant that they can be replaced by British grannies. Be sure to read this excellent analysis of Mitra’s talk by Audrey Watters.) Biesta writes, “The quickest way to express what is at stake here is to say that the point of education is never that children or students learn, but that they learn something, that they learn this for particular purposes, and that learn this from someone. The problem with the language of learning and with the wider ‘learnification’ of educational discourse is that it makes it far more difficult, if not impossible, to ask the crucial educational questions about content, purpose and relationships.” In other words, the language of ‘learning’ allows for the assumption that the relationships between learner and content, learner and purpose, and learner and teacher are irrelevant. Parker Palmer puts it another way in Good Teaching: “‘Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.’ Good teaching, whatever its form, will help more and more people learn to speak and listen in the community of truth, to understand that truth is not in the conclusions so much as in the process of conversation itself, that you want to be ‘in truth’ you must be in the conversation.” Purpose here is assumed in ‘things that matter.’ Content is organized around a ‘truth.’ And relationship occurs all over- between the learner and teacher in community, and between the community and its search for truth. The learner here is not an individual unmoored from purpose or community, as many of our current corporate reformers would have it, but a student deeply embedded in purpose and relationship with others.

The language of learnification obscures these relationships. It privileges learning as a process without recognition of the context it necessarily must occur within, the nexus of relationships that connect us to each other, and to ‘truth.’ The danger of this is that this language makes teachers disposable. Because the language of learnification obscures these relationships, it creates a void that allows for the ‘extractivist’ mindset. Because the questions around purpose, content and relationship are hidden, we are left with only seeing the ‘learner’ from the embedded neo-liberal paradagim- that is, the market as the only measure of value. (Please see this wonderful article which deconstructs extractivism, Dancing the World Into Being.)

Biesta continues in addressing the core task of the teacher, that is of helping a student work through his/her resistance to the ‘other.’ Biesta writes, “Teaching ‘works’ with something that is strange from the perspective of the student, not because what is given/received s necessarily incomprehensible, but because it is something that is not a projection of the student’s own mind, but something that is radically and fundamentally other. The encounter with something that is other and strange- that is not of one’s own making- is an encounter with something that offers resistance (and we could even say that it is an encounter with the very experience of resistance).” Left to his/her own accord, the learner will likely resist this encounter with the other, will not grow through this encounter, will not widen perspective enough (or learn) to let the other (object) become incorporated (subjectfied). The teacher’s task is to help the student work through this resistance. This task is complex, it can’t be done merely via technical means. Technical answers (i.e., teacher ‘skills’) are always enacted by living people, and as Bill O’Brien has said in a quote that I love, “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.” Who the teacher is matters- there is no way around this if we imagine learning as anything more than the regurgitation of content. And this is the core issue that education reform avoids. Most education reform is simply a misapplication of technical answers to a very complex, difficult human issue. (And note that I did not use the word ‘problem’ at the end of that last sentence.)

Biesta puts it this way, “…the research that sees teaching as an intervention working towards the perfect production of certain pre-specified outcomes seriously misses the point of what I have suggested teaching is about. The problem with these lines of thought is that they miss what I have suggested to be at the very heart of teaching, which is the need for concrete situated judgments about what is educationally desirable, both with regard to the aims of education and with regard to its means…and while certain competencies may constitute a necessary condition for good teaching, they can never be a sufficient condition as there is always a need for judgement about which competencies should be utilized in each particular and unique educational situation.” (Emphasis added)

This need for judgement is tied to the need for wisdom, “…a quality of or ‘excellence’ that permeates and characterizes the whole person.”

That is something that increased test scores, more virtual learning, or a charter school just can’t address

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2 responses to “The Importance of the Teacher: Learnification Part 2

  1. Another tasty write-up, cheers Mr. Boyle!

    I think Biesta’s emphasis here is spot-on, and yet I’m also cognizant of the dangerous potential for teachers to be construed as miracle workers and messiahs, too. For instance, in Obama’s Race to the Top there’s an appeal for filling America’s classrooms with ‘master teachers’, because, of course, ‘quality teachers’ have the strongest [in school] influence on education outcomes … Or, so the narrative goes, anyway.

    Legitimacy aside, this heroicization of teachers’ work helps elide all the social inequalities that underlie meaningful differences in outcomes.

    I don’t think that’s the tack you or Biesta are taking. But I do think we must be careful of centralizing our advocacy on teachers’ work. FWIW, here I think Biesta’s discussion on education accountability can offer a few meaningful provocations => Education, Accountability, and the Ethical Demand: Can the Democratic Potential of Accountability Be Regained? (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.0013-2004.2004.00017.x/abstract).

    Regards,
    Tobey

  2. Thanks for this. Just to respond briefly to the comments: the problem is indeed that most of the arguments for teaching and the teacher nowadays come from the conservative side and aim to make the teacher into the one who controls the whole educational process. What I am trying to do in response to this is to articulate a progressive argument for teaching and the teacher. This is one of the reasons why the analysis of teaching as a gift is important, because the power of gift-giving is never a power that the one who gives the gift can claim or possess, just as the power to teach never just lies in the hands of the teacher (unlike what the conservative argument claims). But the critique of the conservative restoration of the teacher will have to be a progressive argument for the teacher, not an argument for learning.
    Thanks again.
    Gert Biesta

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