The Beautiful Risk of Education

The second meeting of the Philosophy Of Education Reading Network discussed Gert Biesta’s book – The Beautiful Risk of Education.

A small group attended, probably about 15 or 16. At least 6 were not using their videos, so I can’t be sure. It’s a very pleasant group, many of whom are PhD students, with some drawing on Biesta’s work for their research. There’s no pressure in the group to speak (or be seen), although all contributions are welcomed.

I didn’t find Biesta’s book an easy read. I think I have heard Biesta say somewhere that if we don’t expect subjects like neuroscience to be easy, why should education be any different (or words to that effect). I suspect that there may have been some others in the group who didn’t find the book easy either, since whilst the discussion was good, it was sometimes difficult to follow and difficult to find satisfactory answers for the questions that were raised.

But I agree with a comment made by Eddie Playfair (one of the participants) on Twitter this morning –

Reading Biesta’s ‘Beautiful Risk…’ provides a good opportunity to question many of our assumptions about education and a wonderful antidote for many of the disorders of our time. I’m sure we’ll be returning to its themes often.

The Beautiful risk of Education is the third book in a trilogy, dating from 2006.

  • Beyond Learning. Democratic Education for a Human Future (2006)
  • Good Education in an Age of Measurement (2010)
  • The Beautiful Risk of Education (2013)

Biesta believes that these three books lead to a theory of learning which he outlines in the Appendix of The Beautiful Risk of Education.

Biesta starts by saying that there needs to be more focus on the purpose of education and its aims (I agree) and that there are three overlapping domains in which educational purposes and practices can be articulated:

  • Qualification (the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values and dispositions)
  • Socialization (ways of doing and being)
  • Subjectification (the subjectness of learners – emancipation, freedom and responsibility)

Each of these involves risk. Currently education is risk averse, but education always involves risk, because it is impossible to make education into a perfectly operating machine; education practices do not work in a machine-like way. There is no perfect match between input and output. This is the ‘weakness’ of education. It is easy to recognise the push for making education into a safe, risk-free space, but complexity reduction comes at the price of unjustifiable and un-educational suppression, where suppression becomes oppression. Education should establish a dialogue with what or who is ‘Other’, which means that the outcome will always be unpredictable.

The book explores the weakness of educational processes and practices in creativity, communication, teaching, learning, emancipation, democracy and virtuosity. In each chapter, Biesta takes inspiration from other thinkers, authors and philosophers to develop, clarify and substantiate his thinking. These include John Caputo, Emmanuel Levinas, John Dewey, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Ranciere, Hannah Arendt, William James and others. This engagement with other writers and thinkers nicely mirrors his belief that all education operates through communication and dialogue, rather than through transmission. Education is something that educators and students do together. Communication should be radically open, generative and creative, but it is not possible to determine what communication is – hence the risk.

For me, having had a career in teaching, the most interesting and stimulating chapter was the one on Teaching. Biesta’s ideas on teaching were not new to me. I have been familiar with them for some time, but it was good to be encouraged by the reading network to revisit them and consider them more closely and carefully.

In an age where there is so much informal learning and a belief in constructivism, the focus has shifted from teaching to learning, and teachers have been encouraged to think of themselves as facilitators whose job it is to create learning environments in which learners can learn from each other (what Biesta calls learnification). Biesta believes that constructivism is a theory of learning, not of teaching, and if we make teachers no more than facilitators of learning, we give up on the very idea of education. He says, ‘to learn from someone is a radically different experience from the experience of being taught be someone’ (p.53). This is something that I have always felt, but have not been able to articulate with the clarity that he does, i.e. that there is more to teaching than facilitation, or being a fellow learner, and that teaching is a necessary component of all education.

But teaching is not about authoritarianism. The power to teach is not in the power of the teacher. Teachers cannot understand the impact of their teaching on their students. But this does not mean that a teacher doesn’t teach. Teaching presents students with something that transcends what they know. We should think of teaching as transcendence (experience that goes past normal limits, or the ability to achieve this), as a gift that cannot be given, but is received. The experience of being taught, of receiving the gift of teaching cannot be produced by the teacher. What the teacher teaches lies beyond the control and power of the teacher. Teaching carries with it the idea of possibility and revelation, not just bringing out what is already there. Teachers should work on the distinction between what is desired and what is desirable.

All these points made by Biesta resonate with my experience and what I implicitly came to believe over my teaching career, but wasn’t able to articulate, the main principle being that teaching cannot be controlled by the teacher, it always involves risk.

As one of the reviewers of The Beautiful Risk of Education has written:

‘It aims to explore the weakness of education understood as the fact that education cannot be reduced to a machine-like process. As always, Biesta expressed this fundamental aspect and argument elegantly and with great insight demonstrates that this weakness is not a problem that needs to be overcome, but rather the very basis of the life of education and what makes it humanly important.’

There is, of course, a lot more to learn from this book and about Biesta and his work, not least that his name is pronounced ‘Beaster’ rather than ‘Be-esta’. Too much to write about here, so I’m glad to have the book on my bookshelf and the possibility of re-visiting it in the future, and I’m grateful that the Philosophy of Education Reading Network is an open network which welcomes all comers.

There will be another meeting of the Philosophy of Education Reading Network next month on October 20th, when we will discuss Mary Midgley’s book What is Philosophy For? I’m looking forward to reading this. It has been on my list for quite a while, so it’s good to be prompted to get on and read it.

Reference

Biesta, G.J.J. (2013). The Beautiful Risk of Education. Paradigm Publishers: Boulder, London

3 thoughts on “The Beautiful Risk of Education

  1. Bruno Annetta September 16, 2020 / 10:25 pm

    I created a phrase for myself to encapsulate and remind myself of my main purpose as a teacher. I stuck it on the wall above my desk. It was “I am in the business of creating possibility for me and my students.” Now after reading you article I would add “… A very risky business in deed.” Thanks!

  2. jennymackness September 18, 2020 / 10:50 am

    Good to hear from you Bruno. The phrase that you had stuck on your wall reminded me O fEmily Dickinson’s poem, I Dwell in Possibility. I think she would have recognised the risk too 🙂

  3. md mohin November 28, 2020 / 10:56 am

    Everything is very open and very clear explanation of issues. Was truly information, your website is very useful. Thanks for sharing.

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