I am (still) talkin’ about a revolution

I was there in spirit

Biesta, G. (1998) Talking about a revolution … suggestions for the impossibility of critical pedagogy. Educational Theory, 48 (4) pgs 499 – 510

I seem to be on something of a Gert Biesta kick at the moment. I have just checked all the texts I have recently added to PaperShip and most of them are by Biesta or by Biesta and someone else or a review of something Biesta has written. He’s not yet my specialist subject for the Mr’s Mind TV quiz show, but who knows where this might lead? So many of his references ignite my imagination, setting new unexpected directions for the work I want to do.

Most recently  his paper, ‘Say you want a revolution … suggestions for the impossibility of critical pedagogy’ (Biesta 1998) has left me with that warm lovely tingly feeling. Reading, understanding, changing your mind or making it up finally about something that has been hovering on the surface of your cognition for some time is a pleasurable sensation. It’s an embodied experience of – not quite Eureka –  but at least that moment of arrival. The paper offers a detailed reading of Peter McLaren and Ilan Gur-Ze’ev.  This might also be a point of departure. It’s that moment where something vague at the back of your mind, unexpectedly articulates itself.

I have been waging a silent, sulking argument with someone whose professorial line of thought was authoritative and convincing but wholly uninspiring.  Someone whose thinking aligns closely with Hammersley who I have also been reading recently.  Hammersley introduces himself as a trouble maker – and while he is a magnificent writer: clear (mostly), impassioned and curious, he is also provocative and destabilising. That is, after reading him there are fewer and narrower possibilities for the critical pedagogue.  He rages against the contradictions of certain strands of qualitative inquiry. (He is an ethnographer, so not all qualitative inquiry) and his further rejection of partisan scholarship would seem to make research a fairly dull pointless activity. For me. Hammersley’s  definition of the academic endeavour as a relentless pursuit of truth without a consideration of the ethical considerations that surrounds that pursuance  – its purpose, its conduct and its outcome – strikes an uncomfortable chord.

Until of course I remember that there are moments when simply telling the ‘truth’ is a revolutionary act and then, along comes Biesta, Tracey Chapman and that tingly feeling.

Biesta argues that the impossibility of critical pedagogy is the impossibility of education itself. The impossibility of education defines the enterprise. This may sound like an irresponsible play on words. But there is a truth in this line of thinking that every teacher (and every student) recognises. We can not always foresee (and therefore cannot control) the outcome of our endeavours. Teaching  – like psychoanalysis – is an ‘impossible profession’.

The new professional standards, the mountains of templates defining good practice, the promise of ‘input equals predictable outcome’ implied by successive revisions of OfSTED’s inspection framework, the drafting and redrafting of teacher proof pedagogues – are all testament to a simple irritating truth about the social world: education can not be conceived as technique and its outcomes can not be predicted (with any degree of accuracy). Indeed, this is an essential character of all human interaction – including education. Human interaction is ‘boundless’ and ‘inherently unpredictable’.

The teacher then does not simply usher the student to predefined learning outcomes. Though we can play that ‘simulacrum of assessment’ game. Despite the constricted system we work within, students ‘use’ what is taught in different and distinct ways. Education requires this un-codeable difference; an un-codeability and difference that causes the system to fail. It is this same un-codeable difference and the systemic failure it implies that is the mark that something successful has happened. Input did not lead to equal output.  Something  happened in-between: something un-codeable, unpredictable and transformative. Students ‘used’ what we offered them in ways we had simply not planned or even imagined.

Biesta’s paper is beautifully structured and revolves around three broad concepts each of which derive their meaning from inversion. The commitment to education, requires an understanding of the impossibility of education. The desire to demystify (to raise consciousness about the ways in which ‘the system’ conspires against the interest of ordinary people,  is the very present (im)possibility of moving beyond and standing inside / outside a system that has generated the necessity for critique. The impassioned commitment to social justice – race, gender, class, ableism – is a commitment to that which can not be foreseen and calculated as possible. It is a desire for the otherness of the Other. And an acceptance that (in)justice will forever be present.

Justice is therefore not a principle or a criterion (as this would mean that we would know right now what justice is), nor an ideal (as this would mean that we would now be able to describe the future situation of justice), not even a regulative ideal (or what McLaren calls a provisional utopia, as this would still require a decision on what justice is, although with the implication that the ideal is not expected to be present in some future). It belongs to the very “structure” of justice that it never can be present and therefore never will be present. It is by necessity, as Derrida would say, a justice to come, which means that it is always to come. p509

I find Biesta a tricky read. I have to return to and re-read certain passages. Whole paragraphs float by without me grasping fully what he is saying. It doesn’t help that I have a stream of twitter tit-bits to delve into. But I will read this paper again (and again). I am not suggesting that he is a deliberately obscure or clumsy writer. But I confess that after all these years,  reading academia is hard work.

I might be wrong, but in a conversation with someone whose professorial line of thought is authoritative and convincing but wholly uninspiring, is it entirely impossible that a non-partisan Biesta will be on the side of critical pedagogy?


… to come


One thought on “I am (still) talkin’ about a revolution

  1. Another really interesting piece which reinforces what feels like a common thread which many of us involved in teacher education often feel.
    We are working in a context where almost everything is described, organised, categorised, standardised, checklisted and turned into something banale, uninteresting, and often soul destroying. At the same time, the very joint enterprise we are all involved in … trying to help teachers get better at helping others to learn .. is so impossible to describe and define in the ways which OfSTED and others try to. Teaching and learning, just like fields such as community development, is so involved with emotion, growth, challenge, power, imagination and potential that it almost defies description, and I believe that’s how it should be. Hargreaves also writes well on this essential contradiction and impossibility at the heart of teacher education, where we are working to build a better future and learn from the past, but are strongly steered (to put it mildly) by our governments and others to approach this in the present in ways which neither learn from the past, nor offer the hope of an equal future for all!
    An example which illustrates this to some degree .. as part of some work to find out what seems to be taken for outstanding teaching and learning in the Lifelong Learning sector at the moment, I searched through about 90 recent OfSTED Common Inspection Framework FE College reports (not a thrilling exercise!), and read through the grade 1 college reports (there were only 5 out of 90). I did mange to glean some helpful info about what these colleges were doing which was particularly interesting and you could sense that there was some really good quality education taking place within positive, inclusive, community-focussed organisations.
    My overwhelming reaction to the reports though was of dismay. If the names had been removed, it would have been very different to tell which college was which. They could have been about any college. What should have emerged was an interesting, engaging and vibrant picture of special places, which I hope these colleges are. What did emerge was boring descriptions, repetitions and blandness and I struggled to read them as carefully as I needed to as they were so dull!!
    I appreciate that an OfSTED report is unlikely to read like a Patrick Ness book, or for that matter a Tracy Chapman song, but does it have to represent education in such an unimaginative way?
    Tracy Chapman’s song is optimistic things may change …. what about you?

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