Be a ‘know all’, not a lifelong learner

The redefinition of students as ‘learners’ speaks to the hollowing-out of the knowledge base of education.

Dennis Hayes

Topics Politics

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The phrase ‘we’re all learners’ sounds open-minded. But it really means ‘we’re all stuck in the primary classroom’, often with the pitiful task of building our confidence and ‘learning to learn’.

Equally, ‘lifelong learning’ sounds progressive. But it really means ‘lifelong dependence’, a process that turns adults into perpetual beginners, lifelong children who always needs support and never grow up. The widespread use of the term ‘learner’ outside of the primary school, driving lessons and other beginners’ classes expresses a diminished idea of young people and adults.

Even at university, young people, all of them adults, are referred to as ‘learners’ with ‘learning objectives’ to meet. They used to be ‘students’, which implies a certain level of personal independence, academic autonomy and self-direction. Lecturers are now also often encouraged by learning and teaching propagandists to see themselves as ‘learners’, in a spurious equity with the ‘learners’ in their classes. This infantilisation of university teaching leaves lecturers as no more than ‘lead learners’.

Learning is prior to knowing and, although it is true that we learn throughout life, in both casual and systematic ways, we are also ‘knowers’ and we know a lot. Some people, including teachers and lecturers, know a great deal. They should be proud of their knowledge and of being ‘knowers’ rather than childish ‘learners’. Boldly wearing the L-plate of ‘learner’ is to accept the diminished state of never quite being a knower.

The ease with which adults describe themselves as learners rather than knowers is not a linguistic accident. It is part of a new anti-educational therapeutic culture, at the heart of which is an attack on knowledge and the knowing subject. Being human above all else means being a knowing animal. If our ability to know is undermined, then we are made less than human.

In a book I co-wrote with Kathryn Ecclestone, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, I used examples from all sectors of education to try to convince readers, particularly teachers and parents, that a therapeutic ethos was in danger of dominating teaching and the curriculum. What we called the ‘therapeutic turn’ began spontaneously, with various people putting the case for the use of counselling techniques in teaching, and was then taken up by policymakers who produced curriculum initiatives such as the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL).

The popularity of fads and fashions such as ‘emotional literacy’ workshops, or ‘happiness’ classes and ‘resilience’ training, disguises the fact that such initiatives are directly or indirectly supported by government. Simply put, the therapeutic turn in education was a political act by a political class that had found a new way of relating to people. Unable to offer anything intellectual in terms of big ideas, the political elite began working on people’s emotions. As almost all children go to school, the classroom became a place for playing with children’s emotions, but only certain emotions were allowed; ‘empathy’ and ‘compassion’ were acceptable, but not ‘anger’ or ‘hatred’. A friend’s daughter told me that the one ‘subject’ she didn’t like was SEAL, but, she said, ‘some of the children in the class have problems with anger management’. She is nine and has been trained to talk like a therapist. The children in her class who have been trained to accept or see the need for therapy are not being made strong, but sick. They will grow up as diminished human beings more concerned with their feelings than their thoughts.

The therapeutic turn was enhanced by an attack on subject knowledge. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers’ book, Subject to Change: New Thinking on the Curriculum, remains the clearest expression of the desire to replace subjects with various sets of skills. As education came to be seen to consist of skills, many of them dispositional, attitudinal or emotional attributes, the idea of a ‘subject’- linked to the disciplines into which human knowledge was divided – ceased to have meaning. While schools retained the title ‘subjects’, the knowledge content was emptied out.

The growing concern with children and young people’s emotions, and the rejection of IQ (the intelligence quotient) in favour of EQ (the emotional quotient), is changing not only the nature of education but human nature itself. Children and young people are being transformed into unknowing, emotional creatures.

Reversing the dual attack on the knowing subject and the human subject means exposing and providing a constant critique of the therapeutic turn in education. But first and foremost, it requires a defence of subject-based education and a subject-led curriculum. That also requires a defence of knowledge and understanding that takes note of historical change.

Old debates about the content of that knowledge and what constitutes a ‘discipline’ took place within a general educational perspective that valued knowledge and understanding. When these issues are discussed today, they add weight to the general antipathy to knowledge and understanding. Instead of being interesting epistemological and sociological questions, they are most likely to produce a weary emotional response: ‘If we don’t know what knowledge is and it is only for the rich, aren’t we better off valuing our feelings, which we can be certain about and which we own?’

The defence of knowledge and the knowing subject must begin with the defence of the knower over the learner, and of the intellect over the emotions. What is at stake is the possibility of an intellectual life for future generations of children and young people.

Dennis Hayes is professor of education at the University of Derby and honorary secretary of the Standing Committee for the Education and Training of Teachers (SCETT), which is running the Battle of Ideas satellite debate ‘Defence of Subjects’, supported by spiked, on Thursday 11 October.

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Topics Politics


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