Teacher Education for Authentic Learning
In order to elucidate a philosophical perspective on teacher education, it is necessary to establish the central purposes of education and the role of the teacher in fulfilling them. This, itself, is a complex philosophical task, partly because the idea of education is contested and there are competing versions that need to be taken into account. In addition, not all of the functions that educational institutions serve are, from some perspectives, strictly educational, yet teachers as members of those institutions will necessarily be involved with them. Hence, in addition to specifically educational activities, schools and universities may be involved in more general socializing, even indoctrinatory, activities regarded as being socially desirable at some point, but that do not meet strict educational criteria. Notwithstanding that a student looking back might think of everything that they experienced at school or college as “part of my education” (which might include, e.g., being bored or bullied), for the purpose of identifying some central aspects of the role of the teacher, it is helpful to distinguish this purely descriptive use of the term “education” from a normative one that sets out criteria for what should happen in education and what its central aims ought to be. Mention has been made of the fact that there are differing views on this, and so for the purpose of this account, it is necessary briefly to elaborate and to justify a position that will inform the rest of the discussion.
One longstanding and widely held normative conception of education that derives from classical times is that of “liberal education.” In broad terms, this is a noninstrumental conception of education in the sense that it places the pursuit of truth and knowledge (generously interpreted) and their power to inform and enrich the mind, at the center of education, independently of their serving what happen to be identified as current social or economic needs. Truth and knowledge are considered to be desirable for their own sake as an inherent element of human flourishing. This is not to say that their acquisition cannot have collateral instrumental value, such as helping to get a good job or meeting the needs of the national economy, but this is not the chief reason for their being taught. From a strictly educational standpoint, what is central is the enhancement of understanding that facilitates an ever-expanding personal perspective on the world and capacity to participate in the human condition.
At this point it should be noted that the pursuit of truth is not all of a piece: there are different kinds of truth and ways of pursuing them that give rise to different forms of inquiry associated with different bodies of knowledge and intellectual traditions. By way of emphasizing their dynamism, Oakeshott (1991) has characterized these traditions as “voices” contributing to a conversation that has been evolving since the dawn of human awareness – voices such as those of science, history, mathematics, poetry, and so forth. Drawing loosely on this metaphor, each “voice” can itself be regarded as an ongoing discourse employing its own evolving procedures, criteria, and sometimes peculiar concepts, and that at times mingles with other discourses in the greater conversation. Hence an individual’s learning to think and to understand involves a transaction between generations that initiates the newcomer into an historic inheritance of human understandings and imaginings in their distinctive modes (Oakeshott 1989). Pupils must learn to engage in these discourses (or “modes of experience”) and the greater conversation to which they contribute – listening and responding through the relevant procedures and criteria for judgment. Clearly, this process will involve participation rather than merely passive reception, although in the early stages attention might be focussed on acquiring the basic grammar and lexicon necessary to enter a conversation. On this view, enabling ever fuller participation on the part of pupils is the teacher’s central task. It is also a point at which an important tension arises: between that of the pupil submitting to the demands of complying with the lexicons, modes of enquiry, and issues that might dominate a discourse or conversation at any one time, constituting a kind of orthodoxy, and the pupils developing their own voice in the conversation. This can be couched in terms of the danger of an intimidation by orthodoxy that has the power to undermine the personal authenticity of the pupil.
It might be thought that this sentiment has a renewed relevance in our current “information age.” Whatever is the case here, it is clear that heavy emphasis on achieving the mind’s compliance with pre-existing procedures and conceptual structures holds the danger of leaving an individual’s own sense of things behind, such that they end up merely aping the thoughts of others. Such pre-specification of learning in terms of the products of other’s thinking is the bane of authentic learning. How is it to be avoided? How is the right kind of openness in learning to be understood and maintained? The answer to this has two strands. The first derives from the nature of authentic thinking, and the second arises in elucidating the nature of a truly educational teacher-pupil relationship. Each of these will be considered in turn.
I should suppose that education was the curriculum one had to run through in order to catch up with oneself, and he who will not pass through this curriculum is helped very little by the fact that he was born in the most enlightened age. (Kierkegaard 1970)
In recent decades, frequently “good” or “effective” thinking has been portrayed as an aggressively constructivist process in which various thinking skills and strategies are applied to an essentially inert content that is either delivered by the senses or culturally transmitted in order to mold and manipulate it into useful calculative products such as some explanation, theory, plan, or project. Here, thinking is devoted to identifying problems and ways of solving them so as to further anthropocentric desires and purposes. Hence great emphasis is placed on developing so-called higher-order skills of analysis, problem-solving, and creativity that are taken to facilitate the achievement of instrumental ends. While not denying a place to pursuing practical and prudential concerns in life by such means, the focus provided by the normative view of education that informs this account holds that other kinds of goal need to be reasserted in an educational context, and that the kind of thinking and understanding associated with them is of a very different character to those involved in calculative enterprises. Rather than imposing an order on content in line with exterior purposes, a more receptive-responsive kind of thinking is evoked that, in Heidegger’s words, tries to listen for “what calls to be thought” (Heidegger 1968). Here an open attentiveness to what lies before us is central to thinking: an attentiveness to what things themselves in our immediate and/or contemplative experience of them might communicate. In this sense authentic thinking has a poetic character and seeks to reveal a reality that is not dominated by instrumentalism.
Now a key feature of this reality is that what we experience arises out of what remains mysterious and other – that is to say, withdrawn. Authentic thinking is an adventure into the unknown. It takes its cue from the fullness of what is present and a sense of what is withdrawn, the latter drawing it on into further thought that cannot be pre-specified. Harking back to Oakeshott’s “conversation,” it can be seen that on this account, genuine engagement with the voices that contribute to it likewise will involve a “listening” that allows them gradually to reveal themselves such that we develop a feel for the deeper concerns that motivate their utterances, their many nuances, and their many incipient unknowns – that which is yet to be articulated or understood – that draw them forward. Through patient and attentive engagement, the pupil may develop his or her own sense of what calls to be thought and in turn be enriched by its potential and ever partial revelation.
This Heideggerian and Oakeshottian view of thinking has strong implications for the role of the teacher as educator and the character of the teacher-pupil relationship. If poetic thinking of this kind is apt to the revelation of the concrete reality of things in the world, it is also apt to the revelation of the individuality of pupils and their engagements with the world. We do not learn who someone is by imposing pre-specified structures of thought and behavior upon them, but by letting them be – albeit, in an educational context – in response to invitations and challenges that we as teachers might offer them in the light of our understandings of them and our own understandings of what the different voices or subject areas have to offer. The job of the teacher, here, is not to tell pupils what to think – to communicate predigested knowledge – but rather to act as a guide and support in helping the learner cope with and flourish within the openness of the call of the withdrawn. That is to say the teacher will be concerned with supporting the experience of thinking: the courses or careers of affective-cognitive response involved in full engagement with content. Through drawing upon his or her own knowledge of thinking from the “inside,” the teacher can sustain the learner in staying alert to the call, sensitive to the pull of what currently is withdrawn in the pupil’s engagement. Sometimes this will lead to the satisfaction of enlightenment, sometimes to the frustration of what seems obstinately obscure. Informed by her own experience of such engagement, the teacher can empathize with the courses of such emotions and encourage the learner to accept that, for example, confusion can be a necessary step toward understanding, that what currently feels dead can become enlivened, that which currently frustrates can become a source of enlightenment, that mystery and paradox may portend some greater truth, and that all such features are constitutive of the experience of thinking as it carries us in and out of them in ways that may on occasion astonish and mystify (Bonnett 1995).
This is suggestive of a teacher-pupil relationship that is dynamic and also “triadic” (Bonnett 1994, Chap. 14). It is constituted by a creative reciprocal listening: the teacher to this or these pupils in their present engagement with the world and also to the conversations of others, past and present within the relevant traditions, introduction to which might help a pupil to engage more fully through inviting them to ask productive questions and to consider and try approaches that they might not themselves have thought of. In this way pupils might begin to feel for themselves the potential of what is there to be explored and learnt. Through the power of this invitation that provokes curiosity, pupils learn to attune to what waits to be learnt, engaging in their own conversation with it – one that is genuinely receptive but also responsive in provoking their own evaluations of what they are learning and attempts to articulate this to themselves and others. The ever-evolving interplay of teacher, pupil, and what calls to be learnt is both open and structured, constantly generating its own forward motion that is highly purposeful, yet that cannot be pre-specified. It is structured by the consciousness of the pupil in its attempts to understand, by the reality of things with which concretely it engages, the narratives and conversations that are introduced and drawn upon to facilitate articulation and deepen understanding, and the invitations to further thought and consideration provided by the stimulus and guidance of the teacher.
Undoubtedly, for the teacher, to fulfil the role sketched above is demanding, for the teacher has to be open to the call both of the consciousness of the pupil and that of what can be learnt – the bodies of knowledge and understanding and the voices and conversations that culture makes available and that can help to articulate, deepen, and expand the pupil’s engagement. Hence, central to teacher education is the development of both a feel for – even love of – this “subject material” and an ability to empathize with, and to challenge, his or her pupils.
It is important to say something about the idea of empathy here. Essentially, it must be taken to refer to an openness to the other rather than a presumption of knowing the other – what they are thinking or feeling. True empathy, while willing of fellow feeling, is always tentative in its understanding of the other, constantly waiting upon what the pupil might disclose in his or her otherness. It seeks this disclosure through attentive observation and genuinely open-ended questions that are person-centered rather than object- or subject- centered. They also can express an element of challenge provided they occur in the context of a teacher-pupil relationship in which the pupil feels, or comes to feel, that their views are valued. Examples of such questions would be: What are your thoughts on this? Can you say why you think this? What made you decide to do it this way? What else did you think of? What do you think that you should do next? How might you deal with this problem? Have you come across the idea that…? When I did this, I found X helped. Do you think it might be worth trying? And so forth.
Hence, a central element in the professional development of teachers will be to nurture both an appropriate sense of responsibility for the educational situations that they create and a sense of humility in relation to their role in the enterprise: it is the consciousness of the pupil and the ongoing conversations of which Oakeshott speaks that are the final arbiters of what calls to be learnt.
At this point it is worth amplifying the idea of these conversations, for there is a danger of them being equated exclusively with currently high status rationalistic forms of thinking in the West. Among other things, rising environmental concern and the consequent need to attend carefully to the condition of the natural world brings such an interpretation into question. Knowing nature is not fully encompassed by discursive science; it also includes an embodied, affective, direct acquaintanceship of the kind, for example, celebrated in indigenous cultures. Here the natural world can be experienced as inherently mysterious, purposeful, normative, and possessing intrinsic value that sometimes can be best articulated in song, dance, and poetry. The conversation of humankind has always been enriched by tensions between the voices of which it is composed, and teacher education needs to reflect this, rather than to endorse an arbitrary editing of the contributory voices.
In parallel with all of this, teachers as professionals operating within conventional educational institutions and structures must be equipped to be able to evaluate critically and modulate the demands placed upon them by government and other bodies external to particular teaching-learning situations. Currently, due to powerful economic and other “social efficiency” imperatives (Magrini 2014), these demands are often in tension with, and sometimes overtly hostile to, the kind of learning and triadic educational relationship outlined above. Hence it is critical that in their education, teachers learn both how to recognize and maximize opportunities for authentic learning within their current areas of discretion and also to develop the capacity to defend and extend these areas of discretion through coherent argument. Here some introduction to the educational disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, psychology, and history can have an important role to play both in helping to reveal and appraise the underlying assumptions of their own, and others, arguments and in providing a rich range of alternative ideas and perspectives that provide an intellectual context for the debates that arise.
In sum, a key strand of teacher education is to provide experiences that (a) develop the trainee’s own sense of what it is to participate in those deeper conversations/traditions of thought that illuminate the human condition and (b) develop the attitude of caring not simply for what their students come to know but for what they are becoming. That is to say that an essential outcome of teacher education is that they come to learn how the claims of the epistemological are to be exercised in response to the calls of the ontological – in the sense of making the acquisition of knowledge genuinely contributory to the enlargement of each pupil’s selfhood.
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