Category Archives: Learnification

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

Learnification Part 1: Making Bank Off the Banking Concept

I first read the term ‘learnification’ when reading Corey Steeve’s paper, (De/Re)-Constructing Teachers and Their Work. Steeves quotes Gert Biesta in defining the concept: “Biesta described the discourse of learnification as ‘the translation of everything there is to say about education in terms of learning and leaners.'” ‘Learnification’ occurs whenever discourse reduces all of the complexities of ‘education’ down to the simplicity of ‘learning.’ And doesn’t this seem fairly harmless? At first, I rebelled against ‘learnification’ as a negative concept. Who can be against learning or learners? For instance, I have spent much of my time arguing that we educators need to design experiences that allow students to own their learning. Now all of a sudden that’s a bad thing?

On deeper thought, though, it is clear that the discourse of learnification is a huge problem, mainly because the assumptions it hides are very dangerous. Steeves continues, “Biesta argued that learning is an ‘individualistic concept.’ Whereas the concept of education ‘always implies a relationship: someone educating someone else and the person educating thus having a certain sense of the what the purpose of his or her activities is.'”

So Steeves (and Biesta) points out the differences in the discourse between ‘learning’ and ‘education.’ Learning is individualistic and abstracted from the context of purpose. Education is communal and situated in connection to a purpose.

Now, you may be asking yourself, so what? What is the purpose of making these angels of theory dance on the pin heads of educational reality? Why? Because it makes a political difference, meaning a difference in our lives together. Stay with me now.

Traditional teaching is simplistically and conventionally imagined as the transmission of content. (A la Freire’s banking concept.) Teachers instruct students in such a way that students have an understanding of the content being transmitted. Back in the pre-tech olden days, teachers were the main, or only, source of this content. We all know that content now is available ‘anytime, anywhere.’ So if a teacher’s job is to serve as the source of content, then teachers are becoming obsolete. ‘Learnification’ works under this assumption, while, at the same time, hiding it: Teachers are the delivers of content+ content is available anytime, anywhere= teachers are obsolete. Under this formula, the learner and his/her learning are abstracted from the context of both relationship and purpose. So the question of ‘learning for what purpose?’ becomes irrelevant. Will Richardson’s question of ‘why school?’ becomes irrelevant. And teachers, those whose task, I would tentatively argue, is to master the skills of relationship and continually help students to situate content within context, become irrelevant. The discourse of learnification allows humans to be replaced with any of the variety of on-line content delivery systems that operate much more ‘efficiently’ (i.e., cheaper) than your average teacher, and they don’t require health care or retirement benefits. The idea of ‘common good,’ of learning for citizenship, ( for that matter, of learning for any greater purpose other than of the economic benefit of a self) in such an individualistic conception of learning becomes irrelevant.

The problem with learnification is not in allowing students to direct their own learning. It is in allowing students to direct their own learning in a vacuum– and we all know that a vacuum is a space asking to be filled. In the case of learnification, the vacuum is filled by corporate entities, the free market of neo-liberalism, that has its own agenda. That agenda is the making of money. Students then become a source of income, and this income is unquestioned through the process of learnification, and the mantra of ‘any time, anywhere’ which reifies content abstracted from context, has room to grow like cancer. (Please take some time to read up on the scary way how this concept of ‘anytime, anywhere’ is being translated politically in Michigan here.)

Just as importantly, learnification allows for the assumption (allows because it assumes no assumptions) that the purpose of schooling is for the benefit of our economic system. Alternative ways of imagining education- the development of the whole person, including the social and emotional aspects of being human, the development of the dispositions needed in a civil democratic society, and the ability to critically analyze a topic along with the context in which it appears- simply disappear. Such visions aren’t necessary when the goal is simple stamping that will certify a student for participation in our economic society. (And, because economic health is the ultimate value abstracted from all other contexts, there is no need to ask the question of, for instance, economic health for what/whose purpose?) Again, this way of imagining education fails to understand context- that economics, culture and the overall social good are all connected.

Yes, the discourse of learnification matters. It’s not by accident that it literalizes the banking concept.

De-Professionalizing Teachers in the Age of Accountability

Teacher/student/activist Cory Steeves has done an important analysis of the discourse of “21st Century” education reform in (De/Re)-Constructing Teachers and Their Work: A Discourse Analysis of British Columbia’s 21st-century Policy Agenda. His work covers a lot of ground and touches on many important areas of education reform. He specifically looks at what is going in his home of British Columbia, but his analysis can be applied to any place touched by neo-liberal educational policy.

A striking example of Steeve’s thesis is his analysis of the de-professionalization of teaching via the attack on public education. He shows that corporate leaders have disproportional weight in policy development- teachers are rarely asked to be involved while corporate leaders are over- represented. Policy makers lean on the influence of corporate business leaders rather than those who actually do the work of teaching. Steeves writes, “My belief that teachers must have meaningful influence over the policies which shape their work is grounded in the awareness that it is teachers not policy makers- who are solely entrusted with the responsibility of ‘enabl{ling} all learners to become literate, to develop their individual potential and to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to contribute to a healthy, democratic and pluralist society and a prosperous and sustainable economy.’ (B.C. Ministry of Education, 1996, p.. C-13)” If teachers are not involved in the creation of the policy, and yet are held accountable for its results, then clearly this is something that is being done to teachers rather than with them, and thus represents on attack on public education. As Steeves puts it, “I believe that if teachers are not meaningfully influencing policy-level discussions about what constitutes teachers’ work, then public schooling might be seen as under attack, or ‘terrorized’.”

In a recent interview that Steeves held with Dr. E. Wayne Ross, Ross described the language of accountability this way: “Accountability is an economic interaction within hierarchical, bureaucratic systems between those who have power and those who don’t. (It is) a means of dispersing power to lower levels of hierarchical systems. Those who receive power are obligated to ‘render an account’ of accomplishing outcomes desired by those in power. Accountability depends on surveillance and self-regulation. Its power is spectacle that results from accounting. Accountability schemes obfuscate identity of higher authority; serve interest of status quo/unequal power relations.”

What Ross describes is exactly the process that Steeves explicates in his analysis of the power relations between the corporate interests represented through policy, and the teachers and children who are the victims of that policy. Teachers become ‘technocrats,’ objects of policy which is determined by business interests, and are held ‘accountable’ via the surveillance of testing without ever being asked for their input. This ‘accountability’ disperses power through teachers (and their evaluations based on test scores, for instance). The professionalism of teachers, which assumes the ability to make decisions, is thus greatly denigrated. Teachers become the tool for increasing test scores, which Steeves calls ‘accountingization’, rather than professional decision makers concerned with the complexities of educating (not the simplicity of ‘achievement’) the students they are entrusted with.

Steeves works from the belief that if we want schools to be laboratories of democracy that serve the ideals of justice, and thus teachers to act as democratic agents, then the policy making process needs to be democratic, which assumes including the voice of teachers. Otherwise we are left with a hypocritical, cynical attack on the commons, a continuing erosion of the public in favor of the private as represented by the ‘market,’ which is the highest value of neo-liberalism. Scary indeed.

What I’ve written here is really no more than a superficial distillation of Steeves’ work. Please read it for yourself.

See Steeves’ abstract here.

His complete work here.

Follow Steeves on twitter: @symphily