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Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher

Authors:
  • Maynooth University Ireland & University of Edinburgh

Abstract

Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher
Phenomenology & Practice, Volume 6 (2012), No. 2, pp. 35-49.
Giving Teaching Back to Education:
Responding to the Disappearance of the
Teacher
Gert J.J.Biesta, University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg
Email: gert.biesta@uni.lu
"Toute la pédagogie est un travail compliqué ... pour aider l'enfant à se
dégager de la logique du caprice." Philippe Meirieu (2008, p.13)
Introduction: The Disappearance of Teaching and the Teacher
This paper stems from a concern about a very particular development that has been
going on in our educational institutions and our societies more generally, which is the
disappearance of teaching and the concomitant disappearance of the teacher.1 It may
sound odd to claim that teaching and teachers are disappearing, given that every day
around the world millions of children and young people go to school, college or
university, just as millions of their teachers do. To put some statistics to this claim:
the US Census Bureau reported in 2011 that in the 2011-2012 school year 55.5
million children and young people will be enrolled in schools (from pre-kindergarten
to 12th grade), which is just over 19% of the entire population, and that they will be
served by 7.2 million teachers, which is another 2.5% (United States Census, 2011).
To talk about the disappearance of teaching and the teacher in light of such figures
which are likely to be roughly similar throughout the industrialised world—therefore
requires some further elaboration.
What I have in mind here is not the actual disappearance of teaching and the
teacher, but the disappearance—or at least the erosionof a certain understanding of
teaching and the teacher, an understanding in which it can be acknowledged that
teachers are there to teach. Putting it this way does, however, raise a further difficulty
because in recent years the argument that teachers should teach has been made most
vociferously from conservative sides in an attempt to restore what might perhaps best
be characterised as an authoritarian conception of teaching. Such a conception is
orientated towards the idea that teaching is, and ultimately should be, a matter of
control, so that the best and most effective teachers are the ones who are able to steer
the whole educational process towards the production of pre-specified 'learning
outcomes' or pre-defined identities, such as that of the 'good citizen' or the 'flexible
lifelong learner.' The call for controland for teachers to exert controlis often part
of a wider moral panic about an alleged loss of authority in contemporary society,
accompanied by the common 'reflex' that education is the key instrument for restoring
authority (conveniently forgetting, of course, that authority is a relational matter and
not something that one person can simply impose onto another)(see Bingham, 2009).
36 Biesta
To suggest that teaching can and should be reduced to matters of control, ends up
in an uneducational extreme in which the fact that the child or student is never just the
object of the teacher's actions but always also a subject in his or her own right is being
denied for the sake of the creation of an abstract societal 'order.' The French
educationalist Philippe Meirieu has, correctly in my view, characterised such an
attitude towards education as infantile, as it operates on the assumption that the
worldsocial and naturalsimply is at our disposal and thus should obey to our
whims rather than that we acknowledge that it exists independently from us (Meirieu,
2008, p.12).2 Yet my insistence that teachers should teach—and perhaps I can now
add that teachers should be allowed to teachis meant to respond to, and stay away
from, another uneducational extreme, which is the reduction of all that matters
educationally to questions of learning. This development, which I have analysed in
detail in a number of publications (Biesta, 2004, 2006, 2010a, in press-a), is not so
much an uneducational extreme because it would replace a teacher-centred conception
of education with a child- or student-centred one—the simplistic opposition between
conservative and progressive education that is often used by the former to
misrepresent the latterbut because the learning question is fundamentally different
from the educational question (which also means that the language of learning is
fundamentally different from the language of education).3
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 they learn this from someone. The
problem with the language of learning and with the wider 'learnification' (Biesta,
2010a) 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. Yet
it is in relation to these dimensions, so I wish to suggest, that teaching matters and
that teachers should teach and should be allowed to teach. And it is also in relation to
these dimensions that the language of learning has eroded a meaningful understanding
of teaching and the teacher. The aim of this paper, therefore, is to articulate the
contours of a different—and as I will suggest: educational—understanding of teaching
and the teacher, in order to be able, as I have put it in the title, to give teaching back to
education, that is, to reclaim a proper place for teaching and the teacher in our
educational endeavours. My ambition is to develop an argument for teaching and the
teacher that is explicitly progressive, in order to counter conservative calls for a return
of the teacher as a figure of (authoritarian) authority and control.
I will develop my thoughts in five steps. I start with a brief indication of the
reasons why teachingor a certain understanding of teaching—seems to have
disappeared from the educational radar and seems to have been replaced with the idea
of the facilitation of learning. In response to this I highlight that education, unlike
learning, is always framed by a telosthat is, by a sense of purpose—which means
that teachers always need to make judgements about what is desirable in relation to
the different purposes that frame their practice. I will refer to this as the need for
pragmatism in teaching. Against the idea that teaching is nothing but the facilitation
of learning I will, in the third step, explore the crucial difference between the
experience of 'learning from' and 'being taught by' and ask what it might mean for
teachers to work with this distinction. This then brings me, in a fourth step, to
questions about resistance and intrusion and about the need for the teacher to work
with the student in the middle ground between self-destruction and world-destruction.
In the fifth and final step I ask what these reflections mean for the question of
knowledge in teaching. I conclude with a call for teachers to teach.
Phenomenology & Practice 37
Learnification, Constructivism, and the Teacher as Facilitator
I wish to suggest that the disappearance of a certain understanding of teaching and the
teacher from the educational conversation is closely connected to, and at least partly
the result of, what I have elsewhere referred to as the rise of a 'new language of
learning' in education (see Biesta, 2004, 2006). The rise of this language can be seen
in a number of discursive shifts that have occurred over the past twenty years or so
(see also Haugsbakk and Nordkvelle, 2007), including the tendency to refer to
teachers as facilitators of learning, to teaching as the creation of learning
opportunities, to schools as learning environments, to students as learners and adults
as adult learners, to the field of adult education as that of lifelong learning, and to the
very idea of education as that of 'teachingandlearning'—which I deliberately write as
one word, as this is how many people nowadays seem to use it. A rather extreme
example of the 'learnification' (Biesta, 2010a) of educational discourse is the story of
two primary schools in Sheffield that had to merge and, after their merger, not only
came up with a new name for their school but also decided that they no longer wanted
to call themselves a school because, so they argued, the word 'school' had such
negative connotations with parents and children. Hence they decided to refer to
themselves as Watercliffe Meadow: A Place for Learning.4
The rise of the new language of learning can be seen as the outcome of a number
of partially related developments. One is the postmodern critique of authoritarian
forms of education—a critique that, already in the 1980s, was perceived as the
beginning of the end of education (for example, Giesecke, 1985). Another concerns
the impact, particularly in the field of adult education, of neo-liberal ways of thinking,
which has created the belief that individuals should take their own responsibility for
their learning rather than that it being provided for by the state, a development that
has established a 'new educational order' of lifelong learning (Field, 2000). And there
is perhaps also the impact of the internet with its instant availability of a large volume
of information, giving the impression that the school is increasingly becoming an
outdated and superfluous institution because almost anything can be found and
learned 'on line.' But the most important factor in the rise of the language of learning
and its impact on educational practice has been the emergence of new theories of
learning, particularly constructivist approaches. Constructivist theories have shifted
the emphasis away from the activities of the teacher towards those of the student and
have thus put those activitiesoften referred to as 'learning' (but see Biesta, in press-
a)—on centre stage.
Although constructivism is first of all a theory of learning, the uptake of this
theory in schools, colleges and universities has led to a change in practice that is often
characterised as a shift 'from teaching to learning.' Barr and Tagg (1995) have made
the even stronger claim that what is at stake is a Kuhnian paradigm shift from the
‘Instruction Paradigm’ to the ‘Learning Paradigm.’ The point of these phrases is not
to suggest that under the instruction paradigm there was no interest in student learning
whereas under the learning paradigm there is. The point for Barr and Tagg—and for
many others who have made similar observations so as to create a present day
‘common sense’—is that in the instruction paradigm the focus is on the transmission
of content from the teacher to the student, whereas in the learning paradigm the focus
is on the ways in which teachers can support and facilitate student learning. This is in
line with Richardson’s (2003) description of constructivist pedagogy as involving “the
38 Biesta
creation of classroom environments, activities, and methods that are grounded in a
constructivist theory of learning, with goals that focus on individual students
developing deep understandings in the subject matter of interest and habits of mind
that aid in future learning” (p. 1627).
Claims and statements such as these clearly show how the language of learning,
particularly in its constructivist form, has repositioned the teacher from someone who
is at the heart of the educational process to one who literally stands at the sideline in
order to facilitate the learning of his or her 'learners.' Some of the arguments that have
contributed to the rise of the language of learning are not without reason—there is
indeed a need to challenge authoritarian forms of education; the rise of the internet
does raise the question as to what makes schools special; and, to a certain extent, it
cannot be denied that people can only learn for themselves and others cannot do this
for them (although this does not mean that there are no limits to constructivism; see
Roth, 2011). However, the language of learning falls short as an educational language,
precisely because, as mentioned, the point of education is never that students learn but
that they learn something, for particular purposes and that they learn it from someone.
The language of learning is unable to capture these dimensions partly because
learning denotes a process that, in itself, is empty with regard to content and direction;
and partly because learning, at least in the English language, is an individualistic and
individualising term whereas the educational question—if, for the moment we want to
phrase it in terms of learning—is always a matter of learning something from
someone.5 From this angle it is just remarkable, if not shocking, how much policy—
but increasingly also research and practicehas adopted the empty language of
learning to speak about education. Yet if this is indeed the only language available,
then teachers end up being a kind of process-managers of empty and in themselves
directionless learning processes.6
One could of course object that in practice what goes on in schools in most cases
is actually very directed. But this shows precisely the point I wish to make: that the
language of learning is not only utterly unhelpful in articulating such directions, but
also makes the decision-making processes with regard to the direction of educational
learning mostly invisible and inaccessible. In this sense one could say that the
language of learning operates as an ideology, making what really goes on invisible
and inaccessible.
Teleology, Pragmatism, and Judgement
The fundamental distinction between learning and education thus has to do with the
fact that educational practices are always 'framed' by a particular purpose (or set of
purposes; see below). They are constituted, in more technical terms, by their telos,
and in this regard can be characterised as teleological practices. The question of
purpose is in my view the most central and most fundamental educational question
since it is only when we have a sense of what it is we want to achieve through our
educational effortsand 'achieve' needs to be understood in a broad sense, not in
terms of total controlthat it becomes possible to make meaningful decisions about
the 'what' and the 'how' of our educational efforts, that is, decisions about contents and
processes. This first of all means that all judgements in education are entirely
pragmatic, that is, that any decisions about the content and form of education can only
be made with reference to what it is one aims to achieve. This means that in education
there is nothing that is desirable in itself. Whether education should be open, flexible,
Phenomenology & Practice 39
explorative, easy, personalised, child- or student-friendly, or whether it should be
strict, outcome-focused, exam-driven, didactic, or difficult can only be decided in
relation to the aims and ends of education.
There are two important provisos here. One is, as I will discuss in more detail
below, that it is highly unlikely that education only 'works' in relation to a single aim
or purpose, which means that there is the added difficulty of finding the right balance
between the different aims and ends (also because a gain in one direction often
implies a loss in another). The second proviso is that our educational activities and
efforts can never be understood as neutral instruments with regard to what it is we aim
to achieve. The means and ends in education are internally and intrinsically
connectedwhich is a technical way for saying that students not only pick things up
from what we say but also from how we say it and how we do it. Punishment, to use
an extreme example, not only teaches students that certain behaviours are
inappropriate, but also teaches them that force is sometimes justifiablewhich means
that the educational question is not simply whether punishment is an effective way to
'produce' certain 'outcomes,' but also whether punishment is an educationally
desirable way to bring about such outcomes. This crude example also shows what is
wrong with the language of effectiveness in education and why, instead, the focus
needs to be on the explicitly normative question of good education (see also Biesta,
2010a).
The teleological character of education thus suggests quite a different position for
the teacher, not as the one who is there to facilitate learning or to implement directives
formulated elsewhere, but as the one who plays a central role in engaging with the
question as to what is educationally desirable in each concrete situation, both with
regard to the aims and with regard to the 'means' of education (and 'means' here needs
to be understood in the broad, non-instrumental sense, that is, as the way in which
education proceeds in terms of its contents, its processes and its relationships). This is
a matter of judgement, not a matter of the execution of directives from elsewhere
(something suggested in the English language with the popular idea that teaching is
about the 'delivery' of the curriculum), be they from policy or from so-called
'evidence' (see Biesta, 2007, 2010b). There are, again, two additional points here.
Firstly, to make judgements about the aims of education requires engagement with
the question as to what education is for. While this question is—and in democratic
societies ought to be—a topic for on going discussion, it is important to see that the
question of educational purpose is a multidimensional question, stemming from the
fact that most if not all educational practices tend to function in relation to a number
of different aims. I have found it helpful to make a distinction between three aims or,
as I prefer to call them, three domains of educational purpose: qualification (roughly
the domain of knowledge and skills); socialisation (the educational encounter with
cultures and traditions); and subjectification (education's orientation towards children
and students as subjects of action and responsibility, not objects of intervention and
influence). If it is granted that education almost always functions in relation to these
three domains—there is always something to learn, there is always the question of
traditions and ways of being, and there is always the question of the person—then it
means that the judgements teachers need to make about the aims of their activities are
always 'composite' judgements, that is, judgements about priority and balance
between the different domains of educational purpose. Given the fact that gain in
relation to one dimension may often imply loss in relation to another—it is possible,
for example, to push students towards the production of high exam scores, but this
40 Biesta
always comes at a (high) priceperhaps the most difficult task for the teacher is how
to deal with such trade-offs.
Secondly, while the teacher is not the only one who should be engaged with
questions about educational purpose, the teacher nonetheless plays a crucial role
because at the end of the day judgements about what is educationally desirable can
only be made in response to the concrete and always unique situations that emerge
from the encounter between teachers and their students. What may be desirable in the
abstractfor example the policy mantra that the education system is a crucial
investment in the production of a flexible workforce—maybe entirely meaningless in
the encounter with this particular student in this particular situation and under these
particular circumstances. That is why any judgement about educational purpose is
first and foremost 'of' the teacher. This is also the case because such judgements are
not only about the aims of education but also about the means, that is, the ways in
which education proceeds—and again judgements about the way to proceed are
always concrete, situated and in that sense unique. To deny the teacher this roleas
tends to happen in highly prescriptive top down curricula and teaching strategies that
have particularly been 'popular' in England over the past decades—misses the point of
what teaching really is about, unless, that is, one would be satisfied for teachers to
operate as unresponsive robots that are supposed to intervene on equally unresponsive
objects rather than to engage in educational encounters with real human subjects.7
Teleology implies pragmatism, and pragmatism requires judgement, and in
precisely this way we can see how once we go beyond the language of learning and
(re)turn to a language of education the teacher begins to reappear, first of all in terms
of the teacher's responsibility for making situated judgements about the educational
desirability of the means and ends of how education 'proceeds.' If this highlights one
aspect of what it means for teachers to teach, I now wish to turn to a second
dimension of this, which brings us in a different way back to the question and the
language of learning.
The Gift of Teaching
While in one sense the idea of the teacher as (just) a facilitator of learning is a
relatively recent idea that has emerged with the rise of the language of learning and
particularly with constructivist ideas about learning, it is, on the other hand, an idea
with a long pedigree going straight back to Greek philosophy, to Plato's dialogue
Meno, to Socrates and to the so-called 'learning paradox.'8 The learning paradox is the
predicament, posed by Meno, as to how one can go looking for something when one
doesn’t know what one is looking for, and how one can recognise what one is looking
for if one doesn’t know it (Plato, trans. 2008). Socrates’s way out of the learning
paradox is to argue that all learning is a matter of recollection, and this is the main
reason why he maintains that he has nothing to teach but is just acting as a midwife,
bringing out what is already there. The idea of the teacher as a midwifecalled the
maieutic conception of teachinghas indeed some appeal, which probably explains
why it keeps popping up in the educational literature. Part of its appeal is normative
and has to do with the fact, as mentioned before, that teachers should not aim for total
control of their students but should always encounter them as human subjects in their
own right. And part of its appeal, also already mentioned, has to do with the fact that
people can only learn for themselves and others cannot do this for them. Taken
together these lines seem to suggest that we should neither want the teacher to teach,
nor that it is really possible for the teacher to do so.
Phenomenology & Practice 41
But we shouldn't draw our conclusions too hastily, because when we look more
carefully at Socrates we can already see that he is not just there to facilitate any kind
of learning but that, through an extremely skilful process, he is trying to bring his
students to very specific insights and understandings. Seen in this way, Socrates is
actually an extremely skilful didactician, because he knows all too well that to just
'rub it in' is unlikely to convince his students about the things he wants to convince
them of. We could even say that Socrates is actually a very manipulative teacher
because he seems to be hidingat least at the level of what he says but in a certain
sense also through what he does—the very 'art' he is practicing. Sharon Todd (2003)
has therefore likened Socrates to the perfect murderer, who "makes it appear that
teaching has not taken place, who leaves the scene without a trace, and who,
moreover, is convinced of his own innocence(p.23). She notes, however, that by
proclaiming his questions to be innocent, Socrates actually “obscures the fundamental
structures of alteration and asymmetry that are present between teacher and student”
(p. 25). To suggest that the teacher adds nothing to the situation, to suggest that the
teacher has nothing to give but is just drawing out what is already there is, therefore, a
misrepresentation of what teachers do and what teaching is about; a
misrepresentation, moreover, that has contributed significantly to the erosion and
disappearance of teaching and the teacher (particularly where teachers themselves
have began to talk about their own work in this way; see Priestley, Biesta and
Robinson, 2012).
Here, then, we touch upon another dimension of what it means for teachers to
teach, which is to acknowledge that teaching is not about the repetition of what is
already there but about bringing something new—and perhaps it is important to say:
something radically newto the situation. This is what Emmanuel Levinas (1969)
has in mind when he wrote that “(t)eaching is not reducible to maieutics [but] comes
from the exterior and brings me more than I contain” (p.51). In this way teaching can,
and in my view should, thus be understood as a gift (see also Biesta, in press-b).
Partly flippantly but partly also very seriously one could say that giving this gift is
precisely the point of the school, so that rather than to think of the school as a place
for learningas in the case of Watercliffe Meadow or Ellsworth (2004)—we should
think of it as a place for teaching. One can, after all, learn anywhere, but the gift of
teaching is only 'available' in a very small number of places and the school is
definitely one of them. This is not to suggest, of course, that teaching cannot happen
in other places too, but I do think that it is important that we begin to understand the
school (again) in terms of teaching, as that, and not learning, is what makes the school
special and different from many other spaces and places.
To think of teaching as a gift does, of course, raise the question of what it means
to give a gift; a theme that has become quite prominent in recent philosophical,
sociological and educational literature, particularly in relation to the distinction
between a gift and an exchange, that is, where the one receiving the gift feels the need
to give something back (see Derrida, 1992a; Komter, 1996; Wimmer, 2001). Rather
than to approach this question from the gift giver—that is the teacherI have found it
helpful, for a number of reasons (see Biesta, in press-b), to look at this from the side
of the one receiving the gift of teaching, that is, the student. When we look at it from
this angle we might say that there are two ways in which students might receive
something from their teachers. They canand this is perhaps the most popular
expression in the context of the language of learning—learn from their teachers or
they can, in a different and older language, be taught by their teachers. Is there a
42 Biesta
difference between 'learning from' and 'being taught by'? I think there is, and to
appreciate this difference, in my view, is crucial.
While both phrases are about the relationship between students and their teachers,
they do specify a radically different relational 'quality' between the two. When we
learn from our teachers, we could say that we ultimately approach and use our
teachers as a resource. The teacher here is structurally at the same level as a book, the
internet or any other 'learning resource' in that when we learn from such resources we
go to them with our questions in order to find (our) answers. We could say, therefore,
that when we learn from our teachers we are in a very fundamental sense 'in control'
of our learning and our engagement with our resources more generally. This is
precisely where the experience of 'being taught' is a radically different one, because
when we are being taught by someone, something enters our field of experience in a
way that is fundamentally beyond our control. (Just think of situations where we
would sayalways in hindsight—that someone 'has really taught us something.')
Such 'lessons' are often far more difficult to receive than the things we learn from
others, because they enter us radically from the outside—they 'hit us,' we might say—
and in a sense it is hard work to give such 'lessons' a place, to accommodate them
(perhaps also in the literal sense of providing them with accommodation, that is, with
a place where they can be). While we could say, therefore, that to 'learn from' puts the
student in a position of mastery, to be 'taught by' positions the student more humbly
vis-à-vis what comes to him or her; it appeals to a capacity for receptivity and perhaps
even gratitude, rather than mastery.
Looking at the gift of teaching from this angle highlights something very
important, which is that it is not within the power of the teacher to give this gift, but
depends on the fragile interplay between the teacher and the student. Teachers can at
most try and hope, but they cannot force the gift upon their students. Similarly,
students can be open to the gift but they cannot force the teacher to give them this gift.
A gift is, after all, (a) given. In this regard the gift is, as Derrida would call it,
impossible, which doesn't mean that it is not possible but that it cannot be foreseen as
a possibility (Derrida, 1992b, p.16), it cannot be demanded, predicted, calculated or
produced, but comes when it arrives. Nonetheless it is crucial that teachers operate
with an appreciation of the distinction between 'learning from' and 'being taught by,'
with an appreciation of the distinction between themselves as a resource or, in one
word, as a teacher.
Resistance, Education, and the Middle Ground
If teachers teach, or perhaps we should say: if they manage to teach, that is, if they
manage to bring something new to the situation and if this newness manages in some
way to 'arrive,' then it means that teaching in this sense is always an interruption of
some kind (Biesta, 2009b) or, in the words of Jean-Luc Nancy (in a fascinating essay
about his heart transplant), an intrusion (Nancy, 2000). Teaching 'works' with
something that is strange from the perspective of the student, not because what is
given/received is necessarily incomprehensible, but because it is something that
comes from the outside or the 'exterior' (Levinas, 1969). From the perspective of the
student teaching thus brings something that is strange, 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). Such
Phenomenology & Practice 43
an encounter, so I wish to suggest, is of crucial educational significance if it is granted
that education is not a process of development of what is already 'inside' nor a process
of adaptation to what comes from the 'outside,' but is an ongoing dialogue between
'self' and 'other' (in the widest sense of the word 'other') in which both are formed and
transformeda process through which we come 'into the world' (see Winter, 2011)
and the world comes into us. I use 'dialogue' here not in the sense of a verbal
exchange, but to denote a process in which there are interacting parties and where
what is 'at stake' is for all parties to 'appear' (which precisely does not mean that they
are not interrupted or intruded upon (see Biesta, 2006, chapter 1). A dialogue is
therefore fundamentally different from a competition, where the orientation is for one
of the parties to win, which means that the others automatically lose.
So what do we do when we encounter resistance?9 In theory there are three
options. One is to try to overcome what resists us or offers us resistance. Here we try
to impose our will upon the world, upon that which we encounter as other. This
ultimately leads to a destruction of the very 'thing' that resistseither literally or in
the form of a denial of the otherness and strangeness of what we encounter (and
'mastery' is one form in which this can occur). The second option, at the opposite end
of the spectrum is to shy away from what resists us or offers us resistance. It is to
withdraw ourselves from what is strange and other, not to engage with it, not to
connect. If the first response ultimately results in a destruction of the world, the
second response, so we might say, ultimately results in a destruction of the self, as the
self withdraws from the world and therefore does not exist in any worldly way. That
is, the self only exists for itself, but not for and with others. If the educational 'interest'
is in the dialogue between self and world, we can see that both extremes—world-
destruction and self-destruction—fail to achieve the establishment of such a dialogue,
the first because it destroys the conditions under which the self can come into the
world (there is, after all, no world left); the second because the self stays with itself
and never manages to really engage with the world.10 This suggests that the
educational 'space' is located in the frustrating middle ground between world-
destruction and self-destructionand I refer to this middle ground as 'frustrating'
because it is here that we need to work 'through' that what resists us (rather than
destroy it or destroy ourselves), we need to come to terms with it, rather than being
allowed an easy way out (the way of destruction or the way of withdrawal).
If these ideas make sense, they suggest, first of all, that the experience of
resistance is the point at which education in a sense only begins. This is not only so
for the student, but also for the teacher because without the resistance of the child or
student, they only appear as objects, but not as subjects in their own right. This not
only means that without such resistance education becomes the monologue of the
teacher; it also means that without the teacher education becomes the monologue of
the student. The first observation brings us back to the uneducational ambition of
teaching as total control; the second provides us with yet another way to indicate why
the language of learning—which is ultimately a monological languageis not an
educational language.
My reflections on the different ways in which we can respond to resistance also
suggest yet another dimension of what it means to teach. If it is the case that the
experience of resistance is the point at which education begins, then to teach means
first of all to enter this experience into the educational situationthat is, to make the
encounter between child and world possible, to 'stage' this encounter. It also means to
'allow' for the experience of resistance within this encounter, which means to actively
look for opportunities to encounter and engage with resistance (both the resistance of
44 Biesta
the material worldthink of the value of working with so-called 'resistant material'
and the resistance of the social and human world). And it means, above all, to help the
child or student to stay 'with' that which resists and to work 'through' it rather than
against it; to help the child or student to endure the frustration of staying in the middle
ground.11
For this to be possible it is also important that the school itself resists the all too
facile demands from society to be effective and efficient, to gain total control over the
educational process so as, in this (uneducational) sense, to become “perfect”. It must,
in other words, resist the call to become just a function of and thus be entirely
functional for society. Here the original meaning of schole as leisure time, time not
defined by the demands of any societal function, is worth revisitingnot so as to
make school irrelevant for society but to allow the school to be properly educational,
something it can only do if it allows for the openness and risk inherent in all education
(see Biesta, in press-c).
Evidence, Competence, or Wisdom?
If these ideas begin to outline the contours of a different understanding of teaching—
one where teachers can do proper educational 'work' then the final point I wish to
briefly touch upon has to do with the question of what teachers may need in order to
teach. Here we enter the complex terrain of teacher education and teacher professional
development. To refer to this terrain as 'complex' is not so much to highlight that
questions about teacher education and teacher development have an exceptionally
high level of theoretical complexity, but to indicate the increased political complexity
of the discussion in this field. This is due to the fact that policy makers and politicians
are increasingly beginning to see that their desire for total control over education not
only requires control over the schools—which in some countries has been established
to a high degree as a result of the combined effect of national curricula and teaching
strategies, national standards and testing and examination procedures, and a tight
system of inspection and accountability—but also requires control over the education,
or in the lingo favoured by some politicians: the training, of teachers.
In the discussion about these issues we can see two main trends (see Biesta, in
press-d). One, which is being pushed by certain sectors of the educational research
community, stresses the need for teaching to become an evidence-based or evidence-
informed profession, where ultimately teachers only do that for which there exists
positive scientific evidence that such interventions will produce the desired effects
(for an overview and critical discussion see Biesta, 2007). The other trend,
particularly strong in the discourses coming from policy makers at national, European
and international levels, looks at the formation of teachers in terms of competencies,
arguing that all teachers need to master all the competencies they need to conduct
their work. In one sense it is difficult to argue against the idea that teachers should be
competent, and there could even be some reason in the suggestion that teaching
should be informed by insights from educational research; although 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 judgements
about what is educationally desirable, both with regard to the aims of education and
with regard to its means. While some insights from research might feed into such
judgements, they can never replace such judgements, particularly because in some
Phenomenology & Practice 45
cases the judgement might well go against available evidence. 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 utilised in each particular and unique educational situation.
This suggests that for teachers to be able to teach they need to be able to make
judgements about what is educationally desirable, and the fact that what is at stake in
such judgements is the question of desirability, highlights that such judgements are
not merely technical judgementsnot merely judgements about the 'how' of
teaching—but ultimately always normative judgements, that is judgements about the
'why' of teaching. Such judgements, to use Aristotle's distinction, are not about
teaching as poiesis, that is, as a process of production for which we need a capacity
for judgement called 'techne,' but about teaching as praxis, that is, a process orientated
towards the human good, for which we need a capacity for judgement called
'phronesis' or practical wisdom (see Aristotle, 1980). Such practical wisdom is not a
skill or competenceand even less a matter of scientific evidence—but a quality or
'excellence' that permeates and characterises the whole person. This means that the
question here is not how teachers can learn practical wisdom; the question rather is
how they can become educationally wise. Aristotle's contention “that a young man
[sic] of practical wisdom cannot be found” (p. 148) suggests that such wisdom comes
with age or better: that it comes with experience and more specifically that it comes
with the experience of engaging oneself in the exercise of such judgements. The
'excellence' that is at stake here is in Greek called ρετή which, in English translation
becomes 'virtue.' While we might say that the question of the formation of the teacher
should be orientated towards becoming a 'virtuous' professional, it is perhaps more
informative to suggest that the question of the formation of the teacher should be
oriented towards a certain 'virtuosity' with regard to making concrete situated
judgements about what is educationally desirable.
Conclusions: Teachers Teach!
Perhaps there is only one thing I should say in conclusion, and that is that teachers
should teach, that they should be allowed to teach, and that they should have—and
perhaps regainthe courage to teach. What I hope that my reflections have been able
to show is not only why teaching has become so marginalised as it has been, but also
what it might mean to teach and to do so in an educational way. With this I hope that
a new light on some old ideas might help teachers not only in reclaiming their proper
place in the educational 'order of things,' but also to resist conservative attempts to
restore a kind of teaching that ultimately undermines the very education teaching
should seek to make possible.
1 I present this as a general concern and invite the readers to explore the extent to which my
observations ring true with experiences in their contexts and settings. This paper is particularly
informed by my experiences in a range of European countries and my familiarity with Continental
traditions of educational theory and scholarship, albeit that some of the developments I will discuss
such as the turn towards 'learning' and away from 'education'can be found in the wider international
field of educational research, policy and practice.
2 I return to the educational significance of the experience of resistance in encountering the otherness of
the world below.
3 Although the special issue to which this paper is a contribution focuses on the theme of 'the
pedagogical call,' I will use the words 'pedagogy' and 'pedagogical' sparingly because I believe that
there is a risk that the richness of these words in languages such as German and Dutch may get lost
when the English words 'pedagogy' and 'pedagogical' are used to translate words such as 'Pädagogik'
46 Biesta
and 'pädagogisch' (German) and 'pedagogiek' and 'pedagogisch' (Dutch). On the difficulty of translating
between Anglo-American and Continental traditions see also Biesta (2011). A further question in this
regard concerns the language of 'curriculum', which over the past decades has become particularly
influential in North America. Viewed from my European background the 'reconceptualisation' of
curriculum studies (Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, & Taubman, 1995; Pinar 1998) appears to have moved
the field into the direction of cultural studies and thus to questions of identity and social justice rather
than in the direction of 'Pädagogik' and to questions of subjectivity and democracy. I note that this has
perhaps resulted in a greater rift than the one between 'Didaktik' and curriculum (see Gundem &
Hopmann, 1998), by which I do not wish to pass any judgement about the respective merits of these
developments.
4 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watercliffe_Meadow; accessed on 29 August 2012.
5 Below I will argue that the better way to express what goes on in education is through the experience
of 'being taught' rather than the idea of 'learning from.'
6 This also means that a turn towards understanding education as a processfor example a process of
discovery, a process of creativity, or a process of emergencealso misses the point of what education
is about (see also Biesta, 2009a).
7 I use the word 'intervene' here deliberately because I think that it is a fundamental mistake to think of
education as an intervention. This languagewhich is prominent amongst researchers who try to
establish what the most effective interventions for producing certain outcomes arestarts from the
assumption that children and students are just 'response-objects,' not human subjects. For me education
can only 'work'if 'working' is the right term to begin withbecause it is an encounter between
subjects.
8 Some authors do indeed conceive of Socrates and Plato as “the first constructivists in education”
(Nola & Irzik, 2005, p. 105) or, to be more precise, as the first ones enacting a constructivist pedagogy.
9 My discussion of the role of resistance in education has been inspired by Meirieu (2008), although the
detail of the ideas presented here is my own. Note that how I engage with resistance and its educational
significance in what follows is entirely different from the sociology of resistance that can be found in
the work of Giroux (for example Giroux, 1983).
10 While the formulation may sound rather abstract, the experience it tries to describe is in my view
extremely concrete and extremely common in the practice of teaching. Each time our students
encounter a difficultyor each time we confront our students with something that is difficult and
strangethere are those who withdraw, who refuse to really engage with it, to be open to it, to let it in,
and there are those who, often out of a sense of sheer frustration that what is difficult and strange
'escapes' them, put all their energy in bringing what resist under their control, whatever this might mean
for the very 'thing' that offers them resistance.
11 This is discussed in more detail in Biesta (2012), where I relate the question of the educational
significance of the experience of resistance with the idea of the education of the will.
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This book takes a close look at places of learning located outside of schools, yet deeply concerned with the experience of the learning self. It explores what it might mean to think of pedagogy not in relation to knowledge as a "thing made," but to knowledge in the making.
Article
This paper is an enquiry into the meaning of teaching. I argue that as a result of the influence of constructivist ideas about learning on education, teaching has become increasingly understood as the facilitation of learning rather than as a process where teachers have something to give to their students. The idea that teaching is immanent to learning goes back to the Socratic idea of teaching as a maieutic process, that is, as bringing out what is already there. Against the maieutic conception of teaching I argue for an understanding of teaching in terms of transcendence, where teaching brings something radically new to the student. I explore the meaning of the idea of transcendence through a discussion of Kierkegaard and Levinas, who both criticise the maieutic understanding of teaching and, instead, argue for a transcendent understanding of teaching—an understanding of teaching which they refer to as ‘revelation.’ Whereas Kierkegaard argues that revelation—which he understand as a process of ‘double truth giving’—lies beyond the power of the teacher, Levinas interprets revelation as the experience of ‘being taught.’ I use Levinas’s suggestion in order to explore the distinction between ‘learning from’ and ‘being taught by’ and argue that teaching has to be understood in the latter sense, that is, in terms of the experience of ‘being taught.’ To connect the idea of teaching to the experience of ‘being taught’ highlights that teaching can be understood as a process of ‘truth giving’ albeit that (1) this ‘gift’ lies beyond the powers of the teacher, and (2) the truth that is given, has to be understood in terms of what Kierkegaard calls ‘subjective truth’—which is not relativistic truth but existential truth, that is, truth that matters for one’s life. Understanding teaching in these terms also opens up new possibilities for understanding the role of authority in teaching. While my argument implies that teachers cannot simply and straightforwardly ‘produce’ the experience of ‘being taught’—so that what matters has to do with the conditions under which the gift of teaching can be received—their actions and activities nonetheless matter. In the final section of the paper I therefore argue that if we want to give teaching back to education, we need to resist the depiction of the teacher as a disposable and dispensable ‘resource’ that students can learn from or not, and need to articulate and enact a different story about the teacher, the student and the school.