Rescuing education: Acknowledging the other dimension

Without a doubt, education is hurting; and many are disappointed by the budget that just came out. We were hoping that a Labour government would ride in on its white horse and rescue us from our pain. However, while I completely agree that the schooling sector has not been well served for many years, we would be foolish to put the future of education, our wellbeing and success as a sector, completely in the hands of a government – any government. Relationships are always dysfunctional and mental health poor, when we place our happiness or success as human beings into the hands of another. We need to, at least partially, rescue ourselves.

Who knows, rescuing ourselves may take the form of industrial action at some stage in the future. But that is not what I am wanting to talk about here. At the recent Education Summit in Auckland, Professor Russell Bishop said that we need to shift from deficit theorising to the language of potentiality. I completely agree. We were talking about this back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Bishop and Glynn published their important work “Culture Counts” and advocated for culturally responsive teaching; and inclusive education became a thing. These two educational movements were focused on acknowledging and embracing the huge potential of each and every child in the way that we taught them, no matter how they presented in front of us. We needed to see beyond the immediate to their unlimited potential.

This way of thinking has become a little sidelined over recent years in education for a number of reasons: the introduction of National Standards and, most particularly, making that data available in the public realm (and the league tables that resulted), have influenced what schools have focused on and put a spotlight on the performance of the teacher; the influence of John Hattie and his size effects, in particular, the focus on the teacher as having the biggest size effect; the influence of the Best Evidence Syntheses, which similar to Hattie’s size effects, focus on the actions that teachers and leaders should take in order to get particular outcomes; the focus on evidence-based practice and learning outcomes; the expectation that teachers would meet the needs of every student by providing personalised learning programmes; the learnification of education, as Biesta (2017) calls it, in which the focus is learning-as-comprehension - an approach to education, in which teachers provide programmes of learning to minimise the learning gap and maximise the likelihood of learning happening by knowing exactly where students are at in their learning and providing for their next steps; what we now know about the brain; and so on.

These are all positive approaches (except the league tables!) and I am a strong advocate of many of them – especially meeting the needs of every student and the personalisation of learning. However, if they are not just a part of the bigger picture of education then they have the potential to reduce education to a simple input output model in which everything rests on teachers’/leaders’ shoulders to make the right inputs. This is a largely scientific approach to education and we should maximise science’s contribution to education. We must take every opportunity to maximise the likelihood that our inputs will be effective. This has been the positive contribution to education of the raft of policies and approaches of the last decade or two – as a profession we are now better able to use science and research to improve outputs for students.

However, though this approach will take us quite far, it will only take us so far. We cannot fulfil the task of education with these approaches alone and we will likely burn ourselves out trying and still not succeed. There is no doubt in my mind that this is why our teaching workforce is exhausted and depleted. We have been trying to achieve too much with not enough (and I am not talking about resourcing, though, of course, this impacts). There is no doubt that these approaches will more efficiently result in competent and skilful students (Biesta, 2017), which, needless to say, is an important and necessary outcome of education. However, there is more to the task of education.

Biesta (2017) argued that the educational task consists in “arousing the desire in another human being for wanting to exist in and with the world in a grown-up way, that is as subject” (Chapter 1). Being “subject” is a very difficult concept to describe. It is not about our unique identity, or unfettered freedom to do as one wants, but includes being able to live in the world without having to occupy the centre of it (Meirieu, 2007 as cited in Biesta, 2017). It is about each individual’s contribution - where, “I encounter freedom as the very thing that only I can do … and no-one can do in my place” (Biesta, 2017, chapter 1). Biesta (2017) argued that opening up the space “where the student might appear as subject”, is the work of teachers and teaching and “when teaching has an interest in and orientation towards the subject-ness of another human being, it operates in an altogether different way” (chapter2). It operates differently from the learning-as-comprehension approaches described above.

We might even say, it operates in a different realm – the non-temporal realm – or the “spiritual” realm. At this point , I am going to ask you to do two things – keep reading and read differently – read not only with your brain, but also read for resonance – for what might resonate with you. The secularisation of public schooling has meant that this “spiritual realm” has been sidelined in education, yet, I believe it is operating consciously in this realm, as teachers, that may “save” us and save education. The language of potentiality that Russell Bishop spoke of is not the language of the temporal realm, but of the non-temporal, spiritual realm. It is about “Tapu” – the potentiality for power. I will return to this shortly.

The recognition that there might be a realm that operates differently from the temporal realm (the visible world that can be experienced with the five senses) is NOT about religion - religions are organised responses to the existence of a spiritual realm. Rather, it is about acknowledging what is, and realising that if it is, then education must take account of it. If the world has multiple dimensions, including the spiritual realm, then education must take account of all dimensions, or our students will only be partially prepared for the world in which they live. But of greater import in the context of this article, is that, if, as teachers, we only operate in the temporal realm, then educational outcomes will be completely reliant on the inputs we are (humanly) able to make. We will place ourselves, as teachers, at the centre of the educational world and the weight of educational outcomes will rest firmly and only on our shoulders. In this scenario, we will NEVER be enough. We will never be able to meet all the needs of our students because the needs are far greater than what we can possibly (humanly) bring to the table and we will be forever falling short – an exhausting proposition and where, I suspect, we find ourselves in education right now. This inability to fully meet the needs of students is for two reasons. The first is that what we can bring to the table is limited by our temporality as humans – by time, energy, and the physical dimension of our being. We can only work efficiently for so long each day; we can only be in one place at one time; we can only fully focus on one thing at one time; we need sleep etc. And, secondly, because what will meet the needs of students cannot only be achieved by the learning-as-comprehension approaches of the temporal realm. The outcome of education has to be more than competent, skilful students; it also needs to include students as “subjects” (See Biesta, 2013, Beautiful Risk of Education). As Biesta stated, “teaching matters not for the production of learning outcomes, but for our existence as grown-up subjects, in the world but not in the centre of it.”

It is in operating in the spiritual or non-temporal realm that we as teachers “shuffle off this mortal coil” (Hamlet) and for a moment can rise above the physical limitations of our human bodies and the temporal world, and things can happen that are above and beyond what is normal in the input/output world. Here miracles take place. A student who is “well-below” goes up seven reading years in a year and it has nothing to do with the quality of my teaching of reading. I am just not that good. Biesta (2017) suggested that this world is characterised, “by an orientation towards the unforeseen…, that is, to what is not present, to what can be the object of hope and thus requires faith, but can never be a matter of knowledge or certainty”. This is the “spiritual” realm, where teachers do not “input”, but rather make “teacherly gestures” that open up the possibility for our students to appear as “subject”. In this realm, teachers are active in the world of education, but do not occupy the centre of it. And the hoped for outcome is the “grown-up subject-ness” of the student.

It is here that I will return to the language of potentiality to help explain. An important metaphor in Te Ao Maori is the three kete or baskets of knowledge, which represent knowledge of earthly and spiritual things. According to Reverend Maori Marsden (Shirres, 1996), the first kete, kete aro-nui, speaks of the material, mechanistic world - the temporal realm. The second basket of knowledge, kete tuaa-uri is knowledge that is “beyond in the world of darkness” (Shirres, 1997, p. 17). Underpinning this knowledge is the realisation of the worth of every part of creation, a worth that comes from the very fact of its being. It includes the concept of Tapu - that every person has the potentiality for power (Shirres, 1996). The knowledge contained within this kete provides a pathway for each person’s actualisation and realisation of his/her tapu or power, which is known as mana. These concepts are powerful forces in the Maori worldview and help us to a greater understanding of what is meant by the “grown-up subject-ness” of students and what those teacherly gestures are that open up the space for students to appear as “subject”, to realise his/her tapu or potentiality for power – his or her mana. The third kete, kete tua-aatea, contains knowledge of spiritual realities, “worlds beyond space and time” (Marsden, 2003, p.61).

It is only by approaching students as “subject”, as having mana, that the situation opens up “within which the student may or may not appear as such” (Biesta, 2017). Approaching the student as “subject” may arouse in the student the desire for wanting to exist in the world as “subject”. This expression of hope and faith is a “teacherly gesture”, not an input, because we (the teacher) makes the gesture with hope and faith, but without expectation of any particular outcome, because to do otherwise would be to position the student as “object” (the object of our input) not “subject”. As teacher, in approaching the student as subject, as though he or she has mana, we refuse to only see what is visible, what is obvious - the verifiable truth - and look to an unseen future that might be different and then we act as though it is now. In this way, we approach the student as subject. As Biesta (2017) said, “It is matter of “making true” or seeing what can be done if we start from this assumption.” He said, “the question at stake is not whether this assumption is true…but is about what may happen if we start from this assumption….but in order to open up this future as a possible future, we need to act on the assumption that it may be true because only then may we find out whether it is true”.

Approaching a child or student as subject even when this flies in the face of what is obvious to us is a teacherly gesture in which the teacher asks him/herself the very powerful question, “I wonder what might happen if I approach this student as “subject”?” The point is not to prove that the child is capable, but to see what might happen under that supposition.  It is a “gesture” because it does not reach beyond being an offering or an invitation. It does not impose on the will of the student, but says to the student, “This is how I see you” (as subject) and leaves the student free to choose to step into the space of “subjectness” or not. What helped a student to shift seven reading years in a year? Perhaps the teacherly gesture I made helped. It was also his willingness to step into the space that opened up as a result, and, most importantly, it may have been the “magic” that happened when he was in that space – the unique contribution of the spiritual realm – that turns what could be into what is now. What was my teacherly gesture? One day, early in that year, when he did not turn up for school, I went to his house, knocked on the door until he got out of bed and I told him that he was coming to school, and, what’s more, that I would come and get him for school any day that he did not turn up (and was not sick); and that is what I did. That was a teacherly gesture in which I refused to see him as anything but a successful learner and student of worth, in spite of all the “markers” that might have positioned him as a school failure. Unconditional regard is a teacherly gesture. We give it with no expectation that it will be acknowledged, recognised by the student, or that it will bear fruit. We give it freely with no expectation of return. Our refusal, as teachers, to allow a student to deny his or her potential, to deny his or her capability, to deny his or her subjectness and the refusal to allow a student to remain as “object” is a teacherly gesture that opens up the space for the student to appear as subject.

On our walls at school, we have our “Essential Understandings of the world”. Several of these understandings, in particular, point to the two very different realms I have identified. “The world is ordered and principled” speaks of the temporal realm in which inputs lead to outputs and we can use science to get the inputs right to maximise outputs and minimise the risk of failure. This is the world where learning is constructed and where success rests on the shoulders of teachers who work hard to make the right inputs and continually improve their knowledge so they can make better inputs. On the other hand, “The world is [also] mysterious, ambiguous and uncertain” and “The world is revelatory”. These speak of the non-temporal or spiritual realm where teachers make gestures, and the world cannot be controlled. In this realm, we cannot predict what the outcomes of our gestures will be, and neither do we try, because imposing our will may limit possible outcomes. In this world, we don’t construct learning but we listen to the world and receive its revelation and wisdom. In this world, miracles happen, and there will always be mysteries, truths that remain hidden from us.

The Essential Understanding that the world is “holistic, intertwined and integral” reminds us that education must take account of all these characteristics of the world in which we live. We must NOT allow the swing of the pendulum to take us away from what we have learned from science and research about making the best inputs we can. Rather we must integrate all approaches, all worlds and dimensions into a cohesive approach to education. Acknowledging the spiritual realm and making gestures that open up the space that allows our own subjectness as teachers and leaders and the subjectness of our students to appear, will, I suspect, energise teachers and students. It will assist the epidemic of anxiety we face. It will enable us to be more as teachers for our students without more effort and sacrificing of sleep.

I know these are not new ideas. But we are excited to be discovering them anew and to be embarking on a more explicit exploration of “subjectness” and the role of gestures in opening up the space for students [and teachers] to appear as subject. This raft of ideas may assist the rejuvenation of education and it may help education to rescue itself. I will keep you informed.

 Note: Some page numbers are not included for quotes because I used the Kindle editions and page numbers are not available.


Biesta, G. (2013). The beautiful risk of education. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from

Biesta, G. (2017). The rediscovery of teaching. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from

Bishop, R., & Glynn, T. (1999). Culture Counts: Changing power relations in education. Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press.

Marsden, M. (2003). The woven universe: Selected writings of Rev. Maori Marsden. The estate of Rev. Maori Marsden. New Zealand.

Shirres, M. (1996). A Maori understanding of knowledge. Retrieved June 2004 from