The learnification of education

I start this post by thanking Angela Towndrow, a fellow Aussie whom I met virtually via a mooc, and from whom I continue to draw insights on things related to education.

After reading my previous post Let’s get rid of the instructors!, Angela pointed me to the journal article Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher by Gert Biesta. And I’m glad she did.

Professor Biesta’s article is a response to the marginalisation of teaching in modern society, and a call for teachers to teach, to be allowed to teach, and to have the courage to teach.

The premise of the professor’s argument is that there is a difference between “education” and “learning”:

“…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’ 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.”

It is this learnification of educational discourse that has rendered the words I cited in my previous post – “training”, “lecture”, “course” and “teaching” – dirty. And I must confess it gives me heart to find someone of Professor Biesta’s calibre in my corner (or more accurately, to find myself in his).

Student using an iPad

In describing our general mindshift from teaching to learning, Biesta tells the story of two English schools that, upon merging, no longer wanted to call themselves a “school”. So they named their merged entity Watercliffe Meadow: A Place for Learning. Beyond the deliciously Waughian nature of this name, Biesta objects to its semantics:

“…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).

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.

From this angle it is just remarkable, if not shocking, how much policy – but increasingly also research and practice – has 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.”


I certainly agree that the language of learning pushes the sage off the stage and recasts them as a guide on the side. But I feel compelled to point out that this does not in itself render the art of facilitation devoid of educational purpose. On the contrary, I see facilitation as a means of education. Assuming the teacher has in mind a certain something for his or her children to learn, then to “teach” may mean to stage the encounter indirectly – that is, to seed, scaffold, clarify and validate – as opposed to direct instruction.

Indeed, Biesta offers the most eminent of examples in Socrates:

“…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.”

Biesta goes on to suggest that that Socrates was a manipulative teacher, and I whole-heartedly agree. If there were no manipulation underpinning the Socratic method, then I dare say that sales people wouldn’t use it! Yet while facilitative teaching is by definition manipulative, I implore that it need not be deemed so in the negative sense. It is rather a manifestation of the teacher exercising his or her judgement in the context of the given situation.

History teacher Nicoleta Caraiman helps her students during class exercise at the Scoala Frumusani School in the village of Frumusani.

To Biesta, it is teaching (not learning) that makes the school special. He sees teaching as a gift, and the giving of this gift as the raison d’être of the institution. So instead of thinking of a school as a place for learning, he prefers to think of it as a place for teaching.

But does this swing the pendulum too far back the other way?

Indeed I agree that we should think of a school as a place for teaching. As my rambling in Let’s get rid of the instructors! will attest, I very much advocate teaching under the right circumstances. However, just as the learnification of educational discourse devalues teaching, I believe the teacherfication of educational discourse devalues learning.

Notwithstanding the importance of our students learning something for particular purposes from someone, sometimes that “something” can not be taught because it hails from the future; which is a round-about way of saying that we need to teach our children how to learn so that we can future proof their education.

My understanding of “learning” in this sense is not empty and directionless because the teacher is there to guide and support the process. I contend that the role of the teacher can find the middle ground between the ultra-conservative view of teaching – whereby the curriculum is transmitted from state to child – and the neo-liberal view that would have us throw the curriculum out the window (except where it furthers its own agenda, of course). On this middle ground the teacher is empowered to work with the curriculum as he or she sees fit; whether that be via direct instruction, or facilitation, or perhaps even – sometimes – rhizomatic exploration.

So I advocate neither Watercliffe Meadow: A Place for Learning nor Watercliffe Meadow: A Place for Teaching. If learning skills are to be incorporated into the education that our schools give our children, then let’s call a spade a spade: Watercliffe School: A Place for Teaching and Learning.

13 thoughts on “The learnification of education

  1. Ryan, I think you are right when you say that if learnification devalues teaching then teacherfication devalues learning. Schools are not just places where people are taught things, they are learning environments, where education takes place. Yes there are specific things that children need to be taught at school, but there is also a hell of a lot they need to learn.

  2. I don’t think facilitator is appropriate, teachers teach. To teach is not the same as to facilitate. Biesta makes great points about the many roles of the teacher, so I wonder how the title is allowed to change over time? And why teachers might themselves adopt such a title when it is clearly inadequate, and much like the “digital immigrant” metaphor (often used to target teachers), it deprivileges the position.

    We need to take ownership and possession of the title. Teacher pride! Sure, we guide, facilitate, mentor, direct, inspire, challenge etc, but they are all the things a teacher does. Facilitator is part of the deconstruction of not just the name, but the profession as Biesta and you are inferring, I think.

    Here is another particularly good one, which I think captures the essence of different approaches to curriculum, and in so doing, does not shunt the teacher sideways. Although it does address the problem of insufficiently skilled teachers, falling short of the mark is a universal part of the human condition across all professions, activities and actions!

  3. I agree Angela that the title of “Teacher” should remain so. As you say, the role of teaching includes various sub-roles, but whether it be via facilitation or otherwise, teaching is teaching.

    Thanks for the new link. I’ll check that one out too.

  4. From consumer culture theory, I’d argue that “learnification” is yet another symbol or token to differentiate the market-place that set about the commodificaiton of childhood.I research games and families, and would put forward that the symbolism in the naming of ‘sites’ is wrapped up in Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft ideas which pre-date mass education. Consumer culture towards communication seems to amplify our anxieties over our seeming in-ability to revert to a different mode of learning entirely, and one which is perhaps seen as “uncool” in terms of technologically framed media messages about ‘cool learning’. There’s nothing wrong with being a teacher, but there’s a lot wrong with manipulation of media to change how they are represented — and broad decline of wages, work conditions etc.,

  5. Thanks for your additional insights, Dean. I hadn’t considered this issue in terms of CCT, but I see now that it has quite an impact on the “language of learning”. The cool factor is a powerful force, as is – I would add – a desire to be seen as progressive.

  6. Yes Ryan, one of the things Prensky also said in his much misquoted and out of context usage around “digital natives” is that there will be jostling for position and authority. One reason I believe education (by which I mean, the communication of ‘education’ as idea) changes the language is simply to differentiate new capital markets from old ones. It’s almost impossible to be seen as ‘progressive’ unless you are holding culturally endorsed products/devices. I work in children/games research … where an Xbox sits outside the norm for example. There are some huge problems in reducing teaching to ‘pulp fiction’. But those standing to gain the most will care little about that sadly. Nice post! Good to chew over.

  7. Well said. Teacherification and learnification are great terms. It is very hard to discuss any of this–as concepts, processes, or constructs–because of the limitations of language and existing connotations. Teaching, learning, education, students–so much is newly possible for the first time in human history, almost demanding a kind of CTRL-ALT-DELETE of everything.

  8. Thanks for this important article. To me learning is one of the outcomes of education. However, when talking education, what is learnt must be useful to the learner and the community where he/she belongs.When the social role of education is considered whatever that is learnt should bring about positive change in terms of knowledge, skills, values and attitudes. The change should bring out positive contribution for the growth of the individual and the society in all dimensions, Meaning what has been learnt should bring about joy, happiness and fulfillment. Dictatorships in determining what brings about joy, happiness and fulfillment is what broods the “learning and teaching as separate entities yet they are supposed to be complimentary.knowledge, skills, attitudes and values acquired through education and learning should be used in problem solving but also used to create new knowledge, skills attitudes and values to address the existing challenges.

  9. A way ot find balance might be to place the subject and topic at the centre of the teaching and learning. Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach speaks to that. We all come at the world through a particular prism and lens of our own experiences that create different understandings and mis-understandings. Gadamer proposed that rhetoric is more than the words we use. It is the way we comport and compose ourselve as we act and speak as teachers. That is lost in the world Professor Biesta is writing about.

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