Devaluation of Teaching and Learning

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In the current debate about the future of education a radical position is increasingly popular: teachers and teaching are obsolete, a part of a decrepit model of education. According to this, the teacher organising learning – and any representative of what George Steiner called “the aristocracy of intellect” – is an old model that must be replaced with a revolutionary no-teacher model. It is implied – or directly expressed – that only students have the inherent power to organise learning and teaching better. “Youth” must be left to lead the revolution where learning and teaching are ‘flipped’ to fall in their hands. Technological innovation is always used – along with other valid arguments leading to same wrong conclusions – as a clear body of proof that teachers are not needed anymore and students, from primary school to higher education, need just to be left alone to organise their own learning.

The narrative of this ideological position states that teachers need to have just a decorative  minor role by helping youth with content, resources and facilitate entertainment, following their needs and lead. The first problem is that this is not revolutionary, nor new. The second problem is that there is too often a problematic common point linking the teacher-centered and teacher-less approach to education: an underlying contempt for students. From this perspective there is very little difference between a position designing education where students are obedient and impersonal subjects and that where students are customers, impersonal entities seeking comfort, entertainment and customer satisfaction. These positions invariably fail to accept the student role in education as individuals in search of exploratory journeys where learning experiences are capable to push their limits out of the comfort zones for knowledge, new ideas and discovery.

It is inherently wrong to adopt the position that students need just to be left alone, find comfort and feel empowered in easy and entertaining tasks. One reason is that this approach is causing a decline of standards and expectations through a constant effort to secure ‘positive’ feelings from student-customers (as a superficial form of ‘feedback”). Another equally important reason is that this seems is one of the most hurtful and deceiving forms of contempt for students’ potential and intellectual capacities, for their life and future.

The End of the Teacher

The “end of the teacher” trend – especially popular across Western education – is fuelled by a variety of factors. Commercialisation of education brings to the table the twisted view of students as customers.  A good part of the right oriented political establishment translates into policies (and budget cuts) a general distaste for science and their aggressive anti-intellectual beliefs. Pseudo-experts in education bring a significant contribution to this fad with their very superficial understanding of learning, teaching and pedagogy (manifested otherwise in a proudly exposed distaste for reading, which is seasoned with shock-jock/arrogant remarks about all possible issues in education). Regardless of source and ideological support, these sources build together a dangerous trend for the future of our students. A decline in rigour and quality of education is rarely documented – as this is one of the no-go zones for educational research – and when it is, the unusual passion and energy spent to dismiss it and deny this possibility is a significant indicator.  

The general acceptance of some myths surrounding teaching and learning explain why it is not surprising anymore to find influential and generally respected academics sharing and promoting, with no critical review, articles revolving around this narrative. An example is a recent  piece of writing published by the Huffington Post, ‘It’s Time to Get Rid of Teaching and Learning‘ We can find there a first ideological source of a model stating that education is best when students are guiding alone their own learning. According to this perspective, youth is better at organising learning and teaching is good when is left in students’ hands. Teachers here have a marginal role, as employees in charge with students’ safety, comfort and entertainment. Unsurprisingly, the argumentative structure is childishly simplistic and uninformed. To take just one of the many errors we can look at this argument used as a proof against teaching:

“It could look a lot like something we’re all familiar with – learning to walk. When an infant learns to walk, the fact that its parents (authority figures) are already world-class walkers does not help them.”

In fact, it helps! The author is obviously ignoring entire libraries of research about the importance of social interaction for learning. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, research and theoretical literature on cognition, motivation, and human development offer the evidence that this is a simply a wrong opinion based on a personal guess.

We have to observe that one of the main problems of this ideological position resides in the evident overlook of the history of education. Here can be found that the “Democratic schooling” movement is over a century old and stay as an ongoing radical experiment in education. There are numerous examples of failings of this current, but some institutions still exist and can teach important lessons about the test of time on this solution. For example, one of the oldest democratic schools is Summerhill, a co-educational boarding school in Suffolk, England, founded in 1921 by the British educator A.S. Neill. This movement had plenty of time to test its ideas and limits. Therefore,  it may be very good to have a look at what we already have before we start testing ideas that are just presented as new and revolutionary.

No Teachers Needed, Students Do This Better

New pedagogies, imaginative teaching and a variety of options for educational pathways are crucial for student engagement and success.

In France, an “innovative school” is proposing now “A Different Way To Learn“, which is detailed in the title of a recent article: “A School With No Teachers, Where Students Teach Themselves“. The title speaks on itself about the solution proposed to solve a crisis of creativity, employment and in general the future of France.  

In Schools of 2030: no grades, no exams, no teachers? the future is also imagined in line with the same utopian narrative where students are breaking the shackles of teachers’ presence, organising learning in engaging and meaningful forms. This article starts with a great idea: “Imagine a school without examinations, age based grades, and a single teacher… “. Unfortunately, it fails to explain the role of that single teacher for an entire school.

Imagining seems to be a constant weak point of our times, and the call for action is truly commendable. The problem here is that imagination is good only when there is good quality fuel to make it work. The fuel of imagination is the information we have. The engine of our imagination is our educated mind, the well built intellect, which is also capable to discern between illusions or dangerous scenarios and positive and plausible solutions. 

There is no doubt that diversity and a variety of options for educational pathways is crucial for student engagement and success. However, this is very different from presenting an old idea as new and revolutionary. In the current end-of-teaching movement there are many who push much further than A.S. Neil and pedagogues aligned with old democratic schools ideas. The role of the teacher – finding solutions in new pedagogies, connectedness and a collaborative mindset – will remain crucial for the quality of educational outcomes. 

The role of the teacher – finding solutions in new pedagogies, connectedness and a collaborative mindset – will remain crucial for the quality of educational outcomes.

When we talk about the demise of the teacher and the need to abolish the influence of any Teacher/Mentor model in education it may be useful to consider also where these positions find an equivalent in the past. Results of past experiments are important when plans for the future are presented so enthusiastically, with little evidence that they actually work.

One massive social experiment was applied in China from 1966 to late ’70s. In a different utopia, Mao Zedong decided that the best way to renew fossilised institutions is to remove all old ideas, old customs, old culture and old teachers for a new prosperous, enlightened and classless society. The Cultural Revolution found that youth is better at organising learning, knowledge and the new society. The reasons and solutions differ, but the idea was surprisingly similar: representations and representatives of teachings of the past had to leave the scene. In Mao’s thinking youth was not yet corrupted and all scholars, teachers, writers, poets and intellectuals were announced as propagandists for the corrupt past. After 10 miserable and long years with millions of victims, The Cultural Revolution reached a predictable end.

The disastrous consequences of this utopia were vast and reached every aspect of Chinese society. Among these terrible effects was that China had to rebuild with a generation that was left for a decade with no education, as all teachers were killed or sent in “re-education camps”, the cynical title used for killing fields or forced labour. Youth was not better without teachers and society paid an enormous price for what seemed to be at that time a reachable solution. One possible lesson is that Utopia is a very dangerous space for education and solutions must be carefully considered, no matter how seductive they are at a certain point in our evolution. 

On the history of the future of learning and teaching

A Cultural revolution 2.0. is possible if we take utopian narratives and luring ideas as realistic and informed solutions for our future. There is no doubt that a symbolic elimination of the teacher is superior to Mao’s solution (or other similar examples throughout the history), but effects can be still devastating. Millions of new victims can leave schools poorly educated in a time when machines eliminate workers with basic skills at an accelerated pace. We can just imagine what can happen when millions of graduates with very little knowledge and skills, but high expectations built in years of comfortable play mislabeled as education, will find that there are no jobs for them. We have the responsibility to shape the future of our students and this cannot be taken lightly, as a field of careless experimentation of various fantasies or fanciful solutions. 

We can just imagine what can happen if millions of graduates with very little knowledge and skills, but high expectations built in years of comfortable play mislabeled as education, will find that there are no jobs for them.

This is why the past and the long history of education needs to be seriously considered when we think about disrupting the pedagogical model that came with the industrial revolution and stifled our imagination. The past is not offering only a source of lessons about the impact of some ideas that look new, but are already tried. It is a fertile ground for new ideas for our future. Myths and studies in cultural archetypes were an invaluable source for George Lucas when he created the story of Star Wars. There are numerous similar examples and new pedagogies can learn from these industries and seek some new solutions on these old narratives. Myths and cultural archetypes are able to describe what is embedded in the human nature when we engage in learning in formal and informal contexts.  

To take just one example from one of the few immortal stories for humanity we can see Homer’s Odyssey. In this epic poem we find the highly symbolic character of Mentor, a friend of Ulysses (Odysseus). When Ulysses is leaving for the Trojan War, in a journey that took him 20 years, his son Telemachus is placed under Mentor’s guidance and protection. The story of Mentor is not about what we currently understand as education, but about enlightened guidance towards knowledge and shaping character. Mentor was not simply a self-appointed controller of knowledge and learning, but a wise figure who was there to help Telemachus to think courageously and independently, encouraging him to ask questions and challenge assumptions. It is a complex story about education based on trust, for wisdom and responsibility. This narrative – based on the complex educational ideal of paideia – was not the source of a Cultural revolution, but a flourishing and seminal culture that was able to give the world the ideal of democracy. 

The future may see a rise of the Teacher, in a new paradigm – and education today and tomorrow cannot be based on schooling models imagined in line with the industrial revolution, in 1920′s and 1950′s

This may be a source for imagining education of the future, where technological advance not only replace many jobs, but make critical for individual’s success to leave schools a strong set of new skills. There is nothing new in the call to nurture in our students the capacity to imagine, critically explore new ideas and solutions, operate in line with ethical values in a responsible manner. However, the teacher is forced to teach to the test, to be an accountant of results rather than a helper in a journey to discovery and experience. The change in the future may be a rise of the Teacher rather than a demise. If it will become clear that we all need good education, with rigour and respect, for the teacher and student.

There are many uncomfortable realities of education that are generally avoided today; among them is that good education takes time and effort, personalised guidance, trust and work. An educated mind is built with imagination and work, and comfort is rarely associated with significant results. In this complex endeavour, technology will help the student to explore knowledge and ideas in collaboration with peers and guidance from a wise teacher.

For those who love literature is clear that the Great Gatsby was wrong: you cannot repeat the past. We also know that in this beautiful novel Gatsby’s story shows that the future depends on how you imagine it. We are at the right time to think with courage and clarity about some lessons from the past and imagine a sustainable and positive future.

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18 comments
  1. I wonder Stefan if you have come across Modernizing Minds in El Salvador, Education Reform and the Cold War 1960-1980 by Hector Lindo-Fuentes and Erik Ching. The military regime, under the banner of ‘modernisation’ decided that all lessons would be designed and broadcast from the capitol city into classrooms…..teachers were not impressed…there were protests…blood was shed…..reading that piece about talent seems like reading someone who read, say, Bruner on discovery learning without taking in the crucial nature of the role of the teacher.

    • Thanks Cliff! I will look now for the piece by Hector Lindo-Fuentes and Erik Ching.
      Jerome Bruner seems to be forgotten when his ideas are most needed…

  2. Bob Dunton said:

    The role to which all teachers are relegated by the Standards Movement (read “Common Core” in the U.S.) invites the interpretation that teachers are nothing more than hall monitors. The standardization of everything and the emphasis on efficiency cannot help but move us in the direction of automation. Worst of all, the advocates of this sort of approach are applauded as visionary…as if poking oneself in the eye constituted a vision of some sort!

    • Whatever teachers do
      technology will prevail.
      Nobody was able to stop the World .
      Now teachers cannot stop the World either may be just delay

      There is no TEACHING NOW
      THERE IS LEARNING
      So we will need people WHO know LEARNING WELL .

      • Cliff Jones said:

        Yes, I agree, learning is paramount. But let us go back to the Latin. Educare: to grow; and educere: to lead out. Put them together and we get education. We could leave learners alone and they would learn. We could provide them with a television or computer and they would learn. What they would miss, however, is interaction with fellow learners….that, I believe, enhances education. Teachers are also fellow learners. They have also been called enablers of learning. The UK National Association of Teachers of English (NATE) once referred to the role of teachers of English as planned intervention in language development. To do that effectively you have to be close to the people for whose education you are responsible. When video entered the classroom it took a while to work out how to deploy it….same with all fancy technology….we need to find a way to incorporate new technology into the very social business of education.

    • Thanks, Bob! As usual, an insightful comment from an expert who is actually teaching and guiding learners. Standardization is the missing part in my article, but an important part of the story. Maybe the problem with many new “visionary” is not only in their evident distaste for reading and culture in general, but the lack of experience in teaching and learning… and when your job is to have opinions and/or serve various interests through demagogical rhetoric it is just normal to leave aside common sense.

  3. Angela James said:

    Teaching and teachers in whatever form and approach are crucial to the development of future citizens and the country. Stefan you have raised issues so pertinent to learning which is viewed as a product and not a process. The re-visioning of what schools and tertiary education could be is now. Your comment about new skills and I would add values is essential for the development of the whole being. Just attended a plenary talk by Guy Standing – calls for morality in education and questions the commodification and massification of education. If you integrate your thinking with that of Standing’s we then ask questions about – so what will be the future of education and who will decide this? WILL WE THE TEACHERS LET OTHERS DECIDE THIS FOR US and THE LEARNERS?

    • Thank you, Angela! I am not familiar with Guy Standing. I’ll have a look now to see what I can find.

  4. Peter Boncore said:

    Stefan Thank you; and Cliff Jones Bob Dunton and others concidering the matters at hand. ‘Pray but keep the powder dry’, come to mind as hope flickerd followed immediatly by an adrenal rush.

  5. Reblogged this on New Growth International: Education and commented:
    This is a very thoughtful piece about the past, present and future of teachers, students, teaching and learning. It implores us to understand the need and role of teachers. Ultimately, teachers serve as “helper[s] in a journey to discovery and experience…” They guide. Students work hard and expect rigor. They imagine, explore, and operate within the ethical lines we define.
    It left me trying to imagine how best to take it to scale.

  6. After using Mao’s Great Leap Forward as a cautionary tale of Utopian excess, the author leads the next paragraph with; “A Cultural revolution 2.0. is possible if we take utopian narratives and luring ideas as realistic and informed solutions for our future.” This seems a contradiction.
    He then makes an accurate observation that today’s students: “…leave schools poorly educated in a time when machines eliminate workers with basic skills at an accelerated pace. We can just imagine what can happen when millions of graduates with very little knowledge and skills, but high expectations built in years of comfortable play mislabeled as education, will find that there are no jobs for them.” I find his next sentence mystifying: “We have the responsibility to shape the future of our students and this cannot be taken lightly, as a field of careless experimentation of various fantasies or fanciful solutions.”
    As a highly skilled worker downsized from Silicon Valley, I returned to a California Community College to update my skills, I’m finding the students, teachers and administrators unable to communicate even their basic expectations, needs or goals. This does not bode well for the future of education whether formal or informal, teacher or student led, public or private. In this new economy student choices look to be limited to becoming corporate/state servants or prisoners. As always, a minority will find a way to succeed but the many will be trapped in a rapidly devolving culture.

    • Thanks. The Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne, Australia. If you walk on the street and look up.. this is what you see :-)

  7. I start with your excellent definition of imagination, “…imagination is good only when there is good quality fuel to make it work. The fuel of imagination is the information we have.” I can’t agree more with you. I call this type of imagination “imagination of knowledge”.

    Eliminating imagination from education kills learning. Let’s take grammar for example. Prescriptive grammar is too abstract for children. A dry teaching approach might put them off education for life.

    Bringing imagination into prescriptive grammar engages children in playful learning. They are empowered to explore complex concepts with passion, amusement, and understanding. This creates an environment for creative and critical thinking.

    A sense of humor and fun bring humanity into the classroom.

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