Teaching without teachers

I worked for a long while in Further and Adult Education and remember a distinct moment when everything changed. We – the entire team of academic staff – were told by a VP that students should no longer be known as students. Instead we were – from that day forward to refer to them only as ‘learners’. Since this time I have noted various OfSTED texts, notably How Colleges Improve – does not mention students at all. Not once. Not once in the entire text. Or to be precise, students are mentioned a few times in this OfSTED summary of how colleges might improve their performance from within the OfSTED framework, but only parenthesis. That is, the only time the word ‘student’ appears is when they are quoting text produced by one of the colleges to which they refer.

It is as if someone somewhere took that joke that busy academics make towards the end of the year when we are busy trying to tie up all our loose ends but somehow – there is still  a queue of people outside your office, ‘My job (as a teacher of students or a manager of people who teach students in an organisation whose existence is premised on the existence of students) would be so much easier of there were no students involved.’

There is so much to say about this!

At a recent Programme Board of which I was chair, an external examiner commented on the learning [sic] goals that trainees [sic] set themselves on their ILPs. All seemed, he said, focused not on what the trainee was teaching, but on what the recipients of that trainees practice were learning. The pupils! Those whom we may no longer refer to as students.  There is a good reason for this. OfSTED wants impact and so we give them impact. The teacher is merely the conduit through which knowledge travels, the one who delivers impactful learning outcomes. What matters is learning, the teacher is merely the unencumbering incumbent through which learning is accomplished.

I think this is connected to the sort of thing which Biesta refers when he develops this concept of ‘learnification’.

Claims and statements such as these clearly show how the language of learning, particularly in its constructivist form, has repositioned the teacher from someone who is at the heart of the educational process to one who literally stands at the sideline in order to facilitate the learning of his or her ‘learners.’ Some of the arguments that have contributed to the rise of the language of learning are not without reason—there is indeed a need to challenge authoritarian forms of education; the rise of the internet does raise the question as to what makes schools special; and, to a certain extent, it cannot be denied that people can only learn for themselves and others cannot do this for them (although this does not mean that there are no limits to constructivism; see Roth, 2011). However, the language of learning falls short as an educational language, precisely because, as mentioned, the point of education is never that students learn but that they learn something, for particular purposes and that they learn it from someone. The language of learning is unable to capture these dimensions partly because learning denotes a process that, in itself, is empty with regard to content and direction; and partly because learning, at least in the English language, is an individualistic and individualising term whereas the educational question—if, for the moment we want to phrase it in terms of learning—is always a matter of learning something from someone. 5 From this angle it is just remarkable, if not shocking, how much policy— but increasingly also research and practice—has adopted the empty language of learning to speak about education. Yet if this is indeed the only language available, then teachers end up being a kind of process-managers of empty and in themselves directionless learning processes.

Biesta (2013)

Does any of this matter? I think it does. In 1999, Colin Griffin linked the discourse shift from education to learning to a wider shift of the State’s withdrawal from public life. The individualization and privatization of functions that had at one stage been public, shared, collective, social. If learning is an individual endeavor, a State can not have an learning policy. It can have an education policy because education is not the responsibility of an individual – it is the responsibility of the state.

It is evident, however, that the learning focus of lifelong learning could never have been an object of public policy in the same way that the provision [of education] could. It is being argued here, on the contrary, that this way of thinking about lifelong learning should be understood more in terms of the withdrawal of the state from public policy-making as part of a strategy to reform the welfare state.

Griffin (1999)


Barrow (2014) The beautiful risk of education, Pastoral Care in Education: An International Journal of Personal, Social and Emotional Development, 32:4, 308-310,

Biesta, G. J. (2013). Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology & Practice, 6(2), 35-49.

Griffin, C. (1999). Lifelong learning and welfare reform. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 18(6), 431-452.


3 thoughts on “Teaching without teachers

  1. I’ve heard students (the term I use, because that is the term they use) referred to as “bearers of grades”…

  2. Brilliant, as ever. I see myself as a teacher who churns, a bit like a butter churn, but in my vat are learners, spewing out at the end of the process, squared and wrapped in foil paper!
    So much for enlightenment, democratic process, imagination, creativity, community, responsiveness, responsibility, i.e. education.

  3. A bit late with a comment here, but …

    I completely agree that ‘learnification’ seems in many ways to have taken over, and that the teachers seem to be ever more regarded as the mechanism through which these ‘learner’ people move from not really having any what Ewart Keep I think called ‘really useful learning’ to being productive member of the working society!!

    As a teacher it is obvious as soon as you start, whatever and wherever you work that there is more to it than that, and when I think back on the students I have taught, what I remember is how they actually become different, and often better people over the period of time I taught them. I couldn’t tell you why in any detail, and ‘betterpeopleification’ doesn’t sound that good as a term does it, but that’s what often happened .. I didn’t make it happen, but I id help the students to make it happen.

    Maybe OfSTED and others could include a ‘betterpeopleification’ grade in their inspections!

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