Gert Biesta

[approximately 800 words]

I formerly wobbled in an irregular orbit around two distinct centers of gravity, two views of teaching and learning. On the one hand, there was the version presented to me through formal schooling and the educational systems to which I was subject.

On the other, largely because of my own experience as a largely miserable and erratic student during about two decades of formal education, I consistently believed that self-directed learning was vastly superior to a system that tends to lump together disparate learners with disparate needs, treating pupils and students defined by broad categories, treating them as essentially the same according to age, sex, and/or social or economic standing (or other arbitrary standards).

Today, I continue to think that learners must learn for themselves and have important insights into the best ways to acquire and retain new knowledge, perspectives, and skills. Teachers can, at best, support and encourage the learning of only learners. They are unable to teach pathways and strategies for learning. Teachers can present, organize, advise, cajole and otherwise inform, guide and motivate learners. But they are incapable of “teaching” in the sense of forcing learning to happen or in the sense of obtaining universally valid and durable learning results among all learners.

For a long time, in weighing the relative value of those two centers of gravity, my strong view was that autonomous, self-directed, self-motivated learning is vastly superior to taught learning.

On the other hand, Gert Biesta.

He has convinced me of the utility of teachers, of teaching, of skillful guidance and mentoring as a part of the learning process. He has gently aligned my thinking more fully with those who emphasize pedagogical expertise driven by teachers’ professionalism, their devotion to learners and their adherence to good pedagogical and institutional practices in education. In particular, I find Biesta’s view of the teacher’s core roles convincing, compelling. Not only do teachers foster the acquisition of knowledge and skills (what Biesta calls qualification), but they also inculcate and refine learners’ capacity for interacting respectfully and effectively with diverse persons, ideas and practices (what he calls socialization) and they foster learners’ strong sense of themselves as a thinking individuals with autonomy, dignity and agency (what he calls subjectification).

When I articulated my preference for self-directed learning, as opposed to formal education and teaching, I thought almost exclusively of qualification. In many domains, I still prefer to acquire new knowledge and skills on my own, at my own pace, seeking help or guidance only when I realize that I need it. On the other hand, it is true that one can best develop the other important aspects of learning and intellectual autonomy only in relationship with others, often by engaging in processes and shared activities that are overseen by someone with expertise in guiding and refining the development of socialization and subjectification.

This view of teaching has shifted my thinking toward a high appreciation for teachers and educational institutions. Particularly socially sensitive, attentive, skillful experts of teaching and learning. And institutions whose culture is one of care and respectful, flexible service to learners, in support of meaningful learning.

I still believe that a teacher can do relatively little if the learner is not engaged. Yet such is the power of the teacher: to inspire, motivate, stimulate enthusiastic responses, as well as to guide, give feedback, mentor, and monitor. A superb teacher can move students toward a love of learning and a desire to practice skills. (If I am honest, I will admit that my own curiosity and taste for learning was fostered and furthered by several exceptional teachers who, despite my unwillingness to fit the educational paradigm that they were operating under, found ways to draw me out, to satisfy my curiosity and to engage me, in spite of my reluctance to follow my peers or to conform to an educational program.) What is more, teachers’ work is not incompatible with giving students a significant autonomy in the learning process. In a word, I no longer see the “teaching versus learning” dichotomy as opposing, distinct phenomena, located on either side of a divide. Rather, I believe that they are situated along a complex, rich and dynamic continuum where the best pathway to learning threads its ways through the middle. The exact region through which an individual’s pathway to learning wanders depends on an individual learner’s profile, propensities and personality. But it also depends on the teachers, guides and mentors that the learner encounters. Caring, emotionally intelligent, well-trained, experienced teachers are the ones best qualified to help learners navigate their way to the proper mix of questioning, exploring, practicing and seeing/hearing others. Teachers can help learners make their way to an effective and appealing pathway toward learning, personal development and socialization.

Thank you for changing my mind, Dr. Biesta.