Gert Biesta

[approximately 680 words]

I formerly wobbled in an irregular orbit around two distinct centers of gravity, two views of teaching and learning. On the one hand, partly because of my own experience as a largely miserable and erratic student during about two decades of formal education, I believe that self-directed learning is vastly superior to a system that tends to treat students in broad categories, by age, by sex, by social or economic standing.

I still think that learners must learn for themselves. Teachers, can, at best, support and encourage the learning of only some learners, but not all. They are unable to teach 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, my view was that automonous, self-directed, self-motivated learning is 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 and institutional-practice-driven education. In particular, I find his view of the roles of teachers convincing, compelling. Not only do teachers foster the acquisition of knowledge and skills (what Biesta calls qualification), but also an ability to interact respectfully and effectively with diverse persons, ideas and practices (what he calls socialization) and a learner’s strong sense of her- or himself as a thinking person with autonomy, dignity and agency (what he calls subjectification).

When articulating my preference for self-directed learning, as opposed to formal education and teaching, I was thinking almost exclusively of qualification. In many domains, I still prefer to learn 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 in relationship with others, often by engaging in processes and engagements 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 significantly toward a high appreciation for teachers and educational institutions. Particularly socially sensitive, attentive, skillful experts of the classroom. Or 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, guide, give feedback, mentor, monitor. A superb teacher can move students toward a love of learning and a desire to practice skills. What is more, that work is not incompatible with giving students a significant autonomy in the learning process. In a word, I no longer see the teaching/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 is somewhere in the middle. The exact region along which that pathway lies depends on an individual learner’s profile, propensities and personality. 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 that constitutes an effective and appealing pathway toward learning, personal development and socialization.

Thanks for changing my mind, Dr. Biesta.


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