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

Rhizomatic Learning – A Pedagogy of Risk

Leap-of-Faith
(Source of image: http://jobangel.blog.hu/2013/07/29/kinek_a_kockazata_a_jutalekos_munka)

On Twitter Nick Kearney asked “Are we reaching an understanding of what ‘rhizomatic’ praxis might involve?”

I’m not sure. I think we probably still need a clearer view of what happens or can happen, in terms of learning, in the open space for learning that will be created by taking a rhizomatic approach.

An open learning environment of the type we have experienced in #rhizo14 (Dave Cormier’s open online course on rhizomatic learning),  is associated with ambiguity and uncertainty and puts learners in a liminal space – an in-between-space – between mastery and troublesome knowledge. This is a space of potential risk.

In #rhizo14 the creation of open space has been an integral part of the course design. There has been space to engage and interact in locations of our own choice (Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Blogs, Diigo, Google Hangout), space to follow our own lines of enquiry and space to experience the ideas being tested, such as unpicking the meaning of open sharing, remixing and repurposing information, embracing uncertainty, questioning the authority of knowledge and books, learning in a community, and creating our own curriculum.

Some #rhizo14 participants have given a lot of thought to what it means to learn in open spaces. In the video she created for the Week 3 topic – Embracing Uncertainty, Helen Blunden showed us the physical spaces that she works in, more open than in the past, and shared with us what uncertainty means in her workspace. Keith Hamon has written two blog posts (here and here) about the relationship between structure and space in rhizomatic learning, suggesting that space does not mean lack of structure or boundaries, and that space offers possibilities and structure offers potential. On Matthias Melcher’s blog, Vanessa Vaile posted a link to an article which suggested to her that edges and visual complexity aid navigation in open spaces.  Matthias himself, whilst not writing specifically about space, has discussed rules and patterns in rhizomatic learning,  which seem to me to be related to space. And Mariana Funes in a long post that covers a lot of ground, has some interesting things to say about what ‘safe’ space might look like in an online environment.

Mention of safety in relation to online space raises for me the link between space and risk.  With space comes risk and with risk comes ethical responsibility. I would suggest that the more open the space, the greater the risk for both learner and ‘teacher’, and the greater the ethical responsibilities of all participants, but particularly the ‘teacher’.

Ronald Barnett in his book ‘A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty’,  includes a chapter near the end of the book on ‘Space and Risk’.  He acknowledges the ‘virtue of space’ as being freedom, but with this freedom comes a number of risks. He recognises that a common response to these risks in an educational setting is to close down the space, rationalising this as being in the students’ best interests – but as he points out ‘No risk, no space’ – and space is needed if the students/learners are going to become ‘authentically themselves’.

So what are the risks? Barnett sees a number of them.

In relation to curriculum the spaces needed are ‘intellectual space’ and ‘practical space’. We have had both these in #rhizo14. They are associated, respectively, with

  • ‘epistemological risk’ – by following their own lines of enquiry, creating their own curriculum, students may end up with a ‘warped perspective’ or ‘skewed understanding’
  • and ‘practical risk’ – the students may not have the practical skills  to cope with the open curriculum environment – skills such as self-organisation – or the student might be over-dependent on the skills they have and not learn new skills

In relation to pedagogy, we need a ‘space-for-being’ and the risk here is ‘ontological’. A risk to the learner’s ‘being’, i.e. a risk to their identity. This risk is ever present. It is more than a practical consideration. As Barnett says (p.146):

… the tutor has all the time to make judgements about how and when to intervene, to bring individuals on, to divert them into new paths of becoming, to give yet other individuals a new sense of themselves and yet others an understanding that their use of their space is not taking them forward as it should. There is an ethics of educational space, which has surely not been excavated.

… No matter how careful a teacher is, a word, a gesture, may be injurious to a student’s being.

Ontological risk is the greatest risk when opening up learning spaces for both the teacher and the learner. As Barnett also says (p.150) – ‘Space is necessary, but it has to be a controlled space’.

But what do we mean by control and how much control is too much?  In CCK08 (Connectivism and Connective Knowledge MOOC) the space became, at times, very risky for some learners. Following the MOOC a number of us discussed this at length and some of us came to the conclusion that:

Most important of all, negative constraints must be put in place and communicated to the participants.  Secondly, the instructors or facilitators must dampen negative emergence and amplify positive emergence. (Source of quote: IRRODL)

The difficulty is that open spaces attract a diversity of learners. What is a negatively risky space to one will be a positively challenging space to another.  But whichever way you look at it, risk is a factor of open learning spaces.

So to return to Nick Kearney’s question: Are we reaching an understanding of what “rhizomatic’ praxis might involve?

Well, I think I have some understanding of the uncertainty of the learning process, the need to constantly question and challenge assumptions, and the need for space in which to do this. But I think much more understanding is needed of the complexity of the learning process and the risks that learners and ‘teachers’ are subject to when adopting a rhizomatic approach to learning and course/open space design.