Bringing the Classroom Back to Life

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Issue 312
January/February 2019
Courage

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Bringing the Classroom Back to Life
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Cover: Anna and Elena Balbusso www.balbusso.com

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Jonathan Dawson explores the power of transformative pedagogy to challenge the negative impacts of today’s dominant educational paradigm.

Exciting times in the economics classroom. Students around the world are in rebellion over the diet of largely undiluted free-market fundamentalism being served up to them. Their core demand is for a richer, more diverse and nuanced menu – something that has come to be called heterodox economics – including Marxist, feminist, ecological, behavioural and other traditions within the discipline.

So far, so good. But could it be that by focusing solely on the curriculum, student organisations such as Rethinking Economics might be missing a trick? The implicit assumption in their position is that in changing one set of textbooks for another everything is going to be all right. However, there are reasons for believing that in the ‘how’ of education there lies even greater and more radical potential for transformation.

Let’s begin by recognising that the almost total absence of pedagogical concerns in today’s economics counternarrative is generally not the result of careful reflection. It is rather that the conventions and practices of education as we have known it have become so taken for granted that they are now largely invisible. This is what Stephen Sterling, my colleague at the University of Plymouth, refers to as “the subterranean geology of education” – those hidden assumptions that underpin today’s dominant educational paradigm, and that manifest in dysfunctional norms and behaviours in the learning space.

Let’s explore some of these assumptions. Here are three of the big ones: first, there is a fixed body of knowledge to be transmitted from the expert teacher to the largely passive student, generally in subject-specific silos; second, the intellect is the only scientifically legitimate learning faculty – all else is purely subjective and consequently, according to currently dominant norms, of no objective value; and third, education is an individualistic and competitive pursuit, with students marked on their capacity to regurgitate what is delivered to them by the expert teacher. In this paradigm, collaboration is called ‘cheating’.

Admittedly, there are noble exceptions to these governing principles within today’s educational system. Nonetheless, what I have described here are broadly recognisable as the dominant characteristics of the current system. I want to argue that, together, these assumptions have had a profoundly deadening and alienating impact on the generations of learners who have passed through this system. Challenging and reversing these assumptions is an essential prerequisite to reanimating the learning space as a theatre of deep cultural and systemic transformation.

As soon as we shine a light on these unquestioned dominant assumptions, their shallowness becomes apparent. Let’s look first at the notion that there is a fixed body of knowledge to be transmitted from expert to student. While this may be true for a range of purely technical problems, such as the construction of a jet engine – hands up who wants to fly in an airplane designed by an anthropologist! – it ceases to be so in matters relating to people and society, where the ‘wicked’ problems converging on our civilisation reside. Here, meaning and knowledge are socially constructed.

There is no objective truth out there waiting to be cognitively uncovered and communicated to the student. In fact, knowledge that is presented as such tends to mirror the values and narratives of the dominant political elites, marginalising other cosmologies and narratives. In short, history is written by the victors. Rather, meaning necessarily emerges out of an ongoing, iterative process of experimentation, questioning and reflection. Allan Kaplan, co-founder of The Proteus Initiative, captures the essence of this way of understanding the dance of enquiry between students and the object of their study: “[T]here is a delicate relationship between the world ‘out there’ … and the sense-making that we bring to that world; that the phenomenal world we live in arises from the conversation between sense and sense-making.”

Under closer inspection, the second assumption outlined above, that the intellect is the only legitimate tool for enquiry and knowledge generation, begins to look equally flimsy. Emerging evidence from neuroscience – check out Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error, for example – suggests that the process of thought cannot be neatly separated from emotional and embodied intelligence. Linguist George Lakoff goes so far as to postulate that all new knowledge enters through the body and is then transferred to other learning faculties through the use of cognitive metaphors.

Further, a range of studies demonstrates that emotional engagement is essential for behavioural change to happen. Journalist George Monbiot captures this beautifully: “Acknowledging our love for the living world does something that a library full of papers on sustainable development and ecosystem services cannot: it engages the imagination as well as the intellect.”

Finally, the convention that education is an individualistic, competitive pursuit needs to be replaced by a recognition that knowledge generation is a social activity and that the learner is likely to be happiest and most effective when embedded within a community of learners. Such communities promote thinking across disciplines, encourage the development of collaborative skills, and meet our innate need for sociability. It is precisely for these reasons that we are seeing the proliferation of innovation hubs and other shared workspaces, which are proving especially popular with young people. This trend mirrors and helps to drive the transition from centralised to distributed organisational forms, and from the heroic entrepreneur to networks of collective intelligence that we are witnessing across society.

In summary, current educational norms and practices are not fit for purpose in the context of the ‘wicked’ problems now converging on our societies. They drain our capacity for innovation and agency and leave us outside of life, looking in, equipped only to dissect the other-than-human world for the instrumental use of our species. They turn us into what Wendell Berry describes as “itinerant professional vandals”.

The good news is that we are now seeing a flourishing of innovation at the levels of educational philosophy, curriculum and pedagogy, drawing upon various indigenous and countercultural trends, that is seeking to heal the rift between our species and the rest of the living world. This is manifesting in more collaborative, embodied and transdisciplinary ways of working in the learning space.

Much of this is happening outside the mainstream, in the non-accredited sector, where fewer constraints exist. However, a number of innovative educational centres, including Schumacher College in Devon, are offering accredited degrees within the mainstream system. At Schumacher College, we describe our course offerings as “education for head, heart and hands”.

This new brand of educational experiments seek to shift the focus from teaching to learning, and from the authority of the teacher to the distributed intelligence of the learning community. They encourage and enable students to take ever-greater responsibility for the framing and management of their own learning journeys.

At Schumacher College, as in many of the other emerging centres of transformative, whole-person education, the living classroom expands to include all dimensions of the life of the institution, enabling a breaking down of the artificial boundaries that conventionally exist between the theory and practice of sustainability, as between staff and students, all of whom are responsible for the cooking, cleaning and maintenance of the space. Students learn to grapple in real time with issues relating to rank and privilege; decision-making and conflict resolution; facilitating rather than driving change processes; sourcing and cooking food; and relating to others in respectful and regenerative ways.

The ultimate aim is to help form graduates who are as realised and comfortable in their embodied and emotional intelligence as in their intellect; who are able to think collaboratively and systemically across silos; and who are able to open their hearts to the wider living world of which they form part.

The English polymath Gregory Bateson referred to the illusion of separation of mind from body and of humans from the rest of the living world as an “epistemological error” that has further perpetuated and deepened that felt sense of separation. This is the rift that we now need to heal.

Changing one set of textbooks for another may help us to undermine neoliberalism – neither an immodest nor an unimportant task. However, our ambitions now need to be higher: to weave ourselves back into the web of life. Perhaps surprisingly, classroom etiquette may just have a pivotal role to play in this.

Jonathan is a Senior Lecturer at Schumacher College teaching on the MA Economics For Transition programme. For more information email: Jonathan.Dawson[at]schumachercollege.org.uk

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