“When we bracket our desire for learning and our desire for understanding, the world can begin to speak to us, can begin to address us, can begin to teach us.” (Biesta, 2017. Prologue: The Need for a Re(dis)covery of Teaching)
I have been involved in education for most of my life. As a young person I spent many years in formal education, going through school, on to university and then completing a post-graduate teaching qualification. I then spent the rest of my adult life to date involved in educating others. And yet when people ask me, as they do from time to time, about significant learning experiences in my life, I invariably flash onto times outside of the classroom, when I was not seeking meaning or looking to learn, but somebody/something taught me something of worth. For example, the time Tommy and Paul Smith taught me about the importance of kind words. We were all five years old and in our first year of infant school. We had been playing in the playground and I had obviously said something unkind, because Tommy walked away looking hurt and upset. His twin brother Paul came over and spoke crossly to me, saying I had hurt Tommy. My five year old self was outraged; how could I have hurt him, I hadn’t even touched him! Paul told me sharply that I hadn't hurt his body, I’d hurt his feelings. “You hurt his heart!” I remember him shouting at me. That brought me up short. I was a boisterous child and not afraid of a knock or two, but the idea that you could hurt something as vital and powerful as someone’s heart really made me stop and think, and that you could do it with just your words had simply never occurred to me before.
I’d like to think I was a kinder person from then on, who knows. I was, however, much more aware of the strength of words; perhaps that’s where my love and admiration of language and words came from. The powerful lesson that Tommy and Paul taught me in the school playground nearly forty years ago has always stayed with me. No doubt my teacher at that time meticulously planned and delivered a range of lessons for us on the importance of how we treat each other, but for the life of me I can’t remember any of them. I can’t forget, however, a cross little boy telling me I’d hurt his brother’s heart. Unbidden, the world spoke to me that day and revealed one of its many secrets: words are powerful and can hurt or heal.
My recent teaching sabbatical has been another significant learning experience for me, but again, not in the planned, structured way that it was meant to be. I was awarded a teaching sabbatical last year, with the proviso that I spend part of the time completing a research project that could be shared with other teachers nationally. I had a research project all planned out, with arrangements made to spend time in several schools to gather data, and a hypothesis all ready to test. However, when the time came, I knew it was not right; the research was not what I needed to do at that time. The only problem was, I did not know what else I needed to do in its place. I spoke with a number of trusted people about this and received the overwhelming response of ‘read.’ “Read what?” I asked. Anything, was the general response. Everything. Just read. Then you will see.
And so I did. I read books about courage in teaching, the risk in teaching and 21st century teaching. I read about effective teaching, rediscovering teaching and trust in teaching. I read about the timing of teaching, the history of teaching and the future of teaching. I was not searching for any particular answers or wisdom. When I began reading, I did not know what I needed or wanted to know; I simply knew I needed something. And a strange thing happened.
Of all of the books in the whole world that I could have read at that time, the second book I chose to read told me exactly what I needed to know at that very moment. What are the odds? As I continued reading a variety of books on education and leadership it kept happening; as my thoughts and understandings developed, the very thing I needed to know or think about, always appeared. And that made me think even more. I came to understand that learning isn’t everything. As a teacher who had dedicated her life to learning, that came as a bit of a blow, but it also fascinated me.
Letting the world teach you
Gert Biesta (2013) argued that the language of learning and the ‘learnification’ of education is problematic, as it exerts a powerful influence over what we can be and how we can be. If learning is to be understood as an act of sense making (Dewey, 1938; Biesta, 2017), then Biesta argued that learning “puts the self at the centre and turns the world into an object for the self......it becomes increasingly difficult for the world.... to speak on its own terms, as a world that addresses me, limits me, interrupts me and decentres me.” (Biesta, 2013. Chapter 2: The Problem of Learnification in Education: Being a Learner). By continually seeking to put ourselves in the driver’s seat, to make choices over the understanding we search for and shape it into self-chosen questions, we leave little room for the world to teach us. There is obviously an important place for learning and for the seeking of meaning, but the question Beista asks is should this be the only way of being in the world?
Alongside learning, Biesta explored knowing in a more passive sense: knowing as receptivity, rather than construction. He describes this as the world being ‘something’ rather than an object at our disposal. “Knowing then is not an act of mastery or control...but can better be described as a process of listening to the world, of caring for the world, perhaps even of carrying the world.” (Chapter 2). In this sense we open ourselves to that which we did not expect or seek. The world can surprise, dismay, delight and disappoint; it can show new things and share its secrets. It can teach us.
So often we can find ourselves viewing the world in very binary terms: “We see everything as this or that, plus or minus, on or off, black or white,” (Palmer, 1998; p. 64). Palmer argues that this is problematic, because “When we separate any of the profound paired truths of our lives, both poles become lifeless specters of themselves - and we become lifeless as well.” (Palmer, 1998; p. 67). As such we need to not only seek to learn and make meaning, but we also need to leave space to encounter what is ‘beyond’ our understanding, to let the world to teach us. (Biesta, 2017). We need to be in and with the world, but not be the centre of it. It is striking that the only choice for teacher refreshment through sabbatical is to complete a study or research project. Whilst this is clearly a useful process and has a rightful place in professional development within the profession, should it be the only option? Are there other possibilities that would allow teachers to regain perspective and shape by being in the world, by interacting with it but without needing to directly seek learning, thereby leaving space for the world to speak directly to them, to teach them?
The need to step back and allow the world to speak to me was becoming urgent for me as I drew closer to my sabbatical; I just didn’t recognise it. I was finding the world of education increasingly tangled and complex, and I was tired. I was wrestling with what Leon Bernade describes as the challenge to be innovative and the commitment to knowledge (Bernade, 2017). Biesta (2017) talks about the middle ground between “world destruction” (where we force our will, our intentions too much onto that which is other, and this can, in the end, cause the integrity of that which is resisting to destruct) and “self destruction” (when we withdraw from that which offers resistance and step away from it, with the risk of withdrawing completely from any engagement). This middle ground is where Biesta claims ‘grown-up-ness’ can occur, and is therefore where we need to be. It is only in the middle ground where existence is possible. However, this middle ground is difficult and challenging, and “sometimes we do need to retreat from the middle ground in order to recharge our batteries or gain perspective on what we are encountering” (Chapter 1: The Educational Task). This was what I realised my sabbatical was all about. It was not about seeking meaning around a particular educational aspect, but about drawing breath and gaining perspective, seeing the bigger picture and realising what was happening in the middle ground. I did not know what that picture was about, or even that this is what I needed to do. I needed the world to show me that, and, when given the space to do so, it did.
In modern education, teaching and learning are often used as one word: ‘teaching-and-learning’. However, Biesta (2017) argues they are not the same and they are both important in different ways. Learning is one particular way in which we can exist in and with the world. However, there are other ways of being in the world, ways that do not necessarily put the person at the centre of the world but allow them “to encounter what comes to them from ‘beyond’ their sense making” (Chapter 3: The Problem with Learnification). As educators we need to allow the world to speak to us, as well as seeking out learning by asking our own questions. In the words of Biesta, “to exist in the world as subject means coming to terms with the fact that the world is not a construction or project of our making, but exists in its own right and its own integrity” (Chapter 7: Virtuosity). Can the options for teacher sabbatical or teacher professional development be widened to allow for a variety of existential practices, creating space both for learning and for the world to teach us? What options do we offer our teachers and our students for experiencing the world without deliberately seeking some specific comprehension? Where are the ‘Smith brothers’ moments going happen for them - what space do we leave for them to occur?
Biesta, G. (2013). The Beautiful Risk of Education. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Biesta, G. (2017). The Rediscovery of Teaching. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Bernade, L. (2017). Being a teacher in the 21st century: A critical New Zealand research study. Singapore: Springer Nature.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Palmer, P. (1998). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.