Blinded by Learning: How Contemporary Discourse Subverts Education’s Potential

I recently had the opportunity to attend a focus group for ASCD, an international nonprofit organization specializing in issues of curriculum and supervision. Principals, teachers, and administrators gathered to discuss what we saw as the most pressing concerns facing today’s educators. At some point the issue of teacher evaluations came up. A principal explained that his teacher observations focused 100% on students. He didn’t provide a single word of teacher-centered feedback. “It’s all about student learning,” he said as those around the table nodded their heads in approval. “My job is to maximize student learning. Why would I focus on what the teacher was doing?” This sentiment was echoed many times throughout the session. Whether maximizing student outcomes, developing action plans based on data, or collaborating in PLCs, the concept of observable student learning dominated the 90 minute conversation.

The notion that schools should revolve around student learning seems obvious. Why wouldn’t we focus on what students are learning in our classrooms? Gert Biesta addresses this issue in his wonderful essay Against Learning. Biesta focuses on the terms we use to discuss education along with how those terms shape our very view of education itself. In the 1980s, he argues, our discourse shifted from an emphasis on education to a focus on learning. He credits four distinct phenomena for this change. New ideas about learning are the first reason for the linguistic shift. Groundbreaking theories such as constructivism showed us that learning isn’t a passive relationship. A fruitful exchange of ideas requires active participation on the part of the recipient. The introduction of postmodernism is the second reason. By providing a critique of Enlightenment-style rationality, postmodern theory helped us understand that education’s purview extends far beyond the realm of socialization and self-management. The third reason, the silent explosion of learning, is found in the proliferation of individualized learning applications and technologies. Often referred to as ‘learnification’ by commentators and educators, the silent explosion of learning enforces an individualistic, skill-centered view of schooling. Biesta’s final reason for our language of learning is the erosion of the welfare state. Since the 1970s the cultural climate of many Western nations has gravitated towards neoliberalism, a sociocultural ideology that subsumes everything to the power of the free market. Biesta’s article shook me to my marrow. This is an essay in the true sense of the word. It represents my first attempt at grappling with this complex material.

Everything we do as educators is now pitched towards the concept of student learning. Teachers have become redefined as servants and facilitators of learning. Schools push for “student-centered classrooms” that cater almost exclusively to the individual learning needs of each child. MOOCs and 1:1 initiatives offer the promise of individualized instruction to maximize student learning. Mastery objectives and standards-based assessment create a classroom paradigm where direct, observable learning is the apogee of quality instruction.

These aren’t necessarily bad things. Although the history of education is one of multiple perspectives and competing narratives, it wouldn’t be unwarranted to say that focusing on students is a positive development. The problem of our language of learning isn’t the focus, it’s what’s left out of the frame. In this case that’s nearly everything else.

What learning leaves behind
My primary concern with a language of learning is the way it enforces a hermetic vision of schooling. Questions about the purpose of education, about the fundamental makeup of the classroom, of the relationship between teacher and student, are impossible to address under a language of learning. The “why” of education has been successfully buried under a deluge of “how” and “what’s.” What strategies are we using? What are the mastery objectives? Where are you in regards to your curriculum pacing guide? Have you consulted your test blueprint/cross-walk when preparing this unit’s learning objectives? A language of learning only allows for a singular type of student, teacher, and classroom. Anything else is delegitimized. Students are seen as naïve consumers. Teachers are cast as the middle-men and women responsible for delivering the goods to the student. Regardless of whether we’re the sage on the stage or the guide on the side, the teacher’s only role is train students to acquire skill sets. Learning is a much more dangerous occupation than our current language would suggest. It requires trust, negation, dissonance, and support. Student and teacher must confront what is other, what is different. Our current educational language makes this extremely difficult.

The impetus for this piece came from my school’s beginning of year parent-teacher conferences. Nowhere is our language of learning more on display than during conversations between child, adult, and teacher. The entire enterprise of education, the glorious mess of dissonance and difference, vanishes without a trace as conversations become nothing more than dead language reducing everyone and everything to packaged units to be transferred back and forth. The teachers at my school (and every school) are fantastic. Their classrooms buzz with interesting projects, conceptual discussions, and real thought. You would never know that, however, by the conversations occurring during parent-teacher conferences. Study harder. Complete the classwork. Pay attention.

And I get it. The language of learning provides a comforting anchor. It has a way of reducing life’s deafening noise to a mechanistic equation of work hard, learn X, earn Y. It’s like everything we say and do is coming from a redacted script. An empty language full of shiny neologisms and outcomes yet signifying nothing. Instead, Biesta asserts that we must create spaces where students are able to confront, reflect upon, and come to terms with the plurality characterizing our society. An education free of scripted curriculum maps and vaccuum-sealed experiences. This is only possible when educators are able to discuss their purpose. To fully explore the reasoning behind every endeavor they embark upon in the classroom. Where a language of learning reigns, questions of purpose wither.

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9 comments

  1. edifiedlistener

    Wow! Congratulations on this essay! This has got fire and guts and all the nerve that can stir up a lively discussion. You’ve captured so beautifully what eludes so many of us in our commentary: the very language we use to describe our best intentions for students has been co-opted to the point of becoming reductive. “The language of learning provides a comforting anchor.” And I agree that what is steadily pushed out of the frame is cause for deep concern. Thank you for not holding back! you’ve given us all a mighty wake up call!

    Liked by 2 people

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