My work revolves around issues concerning global ecology, cultural change and social transformation. I teach things like “Earth Calling“, “Life Journeying” and “Philosophical Conversation” at Ry Højskole. I have taught courses, seminars, and workshops of different length at universities, conferences, festivals, folk high schools and places like LungA School. I also speak with people about what I or they do in online and offline conversations, open dialogues and workshops.
I believe learning, as an ability to respond creatively beyond a conditioned reaction, is at the heart of facing most of our problems today. And therefore, having stumbled into being a teacher makes sense to me. In this statement, I try to articulate what it means to teach someone something.
One step ahead together
There is at the heart of teaching a fundamental inequality, an asymmetry, between teacher and student. The basis of this asymmetry is not that one knows something and the other doesn’t – an out-dated (or just naive) viewpoint – but the fact that two (or more) people meet in a context where one is (voluntarily or involuntarily) forced to listen to the other. The teacher doesn’t have to listen to the student but the student has to listen to the teacher.
This inequality can easily be abused, and often is. As a teacher I once knew said: “I just force the students into submission”. Having been both subject and witness to this abuse of power throughout my contact with educational institutions, I’ve come to believe that good teaching can only occur when this inequality is acknowledged and consented to. If that happens, the role of the teacher (as well as the student) gets a lot more interesting and serious.
Because at the same time, of course, there is at the heart of teaching a fundamental equality: the equality of intelligence. Intelligence is not something we can have more or less of, intelligence is. The latin root legere means “to read, pick out or choose”. Inter-legere is literally being able to read between the lines, to generate legibility and to translate. Intelligence in action is “to see and to compare what has been seen”, as Rancière puts it, translating experience so that we can learn (and it would be appropriate to extend this metaphor beyond vision to include all experience).
This capacity is so fundamental that it puts us all in the same boat – a very large one in my opinion. To experience and to order experiences is characteristic for all of life. If learning is a common and innate ability to respond appropriately to new information or change over time, what enables learning is intelligence. (If this is correct, it seems to me both learning and intelligence are fundamental to all life forms, probably to the universe itself.)
So for all intents and purposes intelligence puts us on a level. The equality of intelligence is a kind of counter-weight or anti-dote to the inequality of power because if it is acknowledged, the teacher can no longer stay within a “knowing” position somehow “above” the student’s intelligence without standing in the way of her own purpose: encouraging learning. While the inequality of power places a significant responsibility on the teacher to assume authority not in her own person but on account of her subject, the equality of intelligence is a tremendous challenge: not to stand in the way of the student’s own intelligence but to help her along on her own path.
In this circumstance, the first thing the teacher has to do is to connect with the student’s intelligence. I mean this neither in a “physical” or “mental” sense – it is simply a recognition of the student’s intelligence and a willingness to be present with it. To meet. And the task of teaching, then, is to be a companion within a subject area, field of knowlege, way of knowing or being.
Areas, fields and ways are geographical descriptors, suggesting the wider metaphor of learning as a journey within a landscape. And if that is an appropriate image, the teacher is more of a guide who can navigate a terrain than an instructor of knowledge – and the student is someone who familiarises herself with what she sees rather than a recipient of knowledge.
A Danish word for teacher is “underviser”. “Viser” means showing and “under” comes from the German “unter”, which here means between. A teacher is someone who shows the connection between things, who renders something legible (“inter-legere” in action). As a travelling companion within the landscape of learning, a teacher understands how to navigate the territory by reading the terrain. The task is to make this skill available for the student to “see and compare with what has been seen” on the journey.
This view distinguishes teaching from simply knowing something about a given topic and communicating it: a focus on knowledge and communication reduces the interaction between teacher and student to finding better or more efficient ways of stating facts, acquiring techniques or achieving an answer. Rather, teaching is about creating possibilities for the student to find her own way to the answer and then to verify it: the teacher is not just pointing out the most prominent features of a landscape, she is showing how to interpret them in relation to the territory.
Any particular feature in the landscape can obviously be as new to the teacher as to the student. This situation shows how the teacher isn’t just someone who passes on knowledge about something: she shows how the knowledge is produced and enables the student to go on doing this herself. And it highlights the nature of teaching as a craft because it emphasises skilfulness over mere processing of information.
So the first task of the teacher is to engage the student’s own ability to navigate the territory and from this, then, flows the capacity to organise information about the landscape. In this light, perhaps it makes sense to express the skill of teaching along these lines: good teaching acknowledges both the inequality of power and the equality of intelligence and helps the student teach herself how to navigate the field of study.
As teaching begins, the teacher and student set out on a journey together. What drives this voyage is the student’s intention to learn – at least in principle. If that intention is absent learning becomes much more difficult and the teacher might have to “trick” the student to go on a walkabout. Let’s leave that scenario aside for now and assume there is at the minimum a token interest in learning. This sets up the teacher as someone the student believes she can learn something from. And this expectation puts the teacher one step ahead on the journey through the landscape where learning takes place.
This small advantage is where the teacher’s skill comes into play. Whether the teacher moves ahead on the basis of a detailed lesson plan or simply on the basis of experience, this fraction of a difference is what gives the student a sense of direction in her exploration. While the teacher may be one step ahead, the teacher and student proceed by taking one step ahead together (the imagery of a dance is close at hand). In this way, the student begins to learn her own manoeuvres while the teacher learns more about how the student experiences the landscape.
The actions available to the teacher relate to the student’s inquiry as well as to the journey and her confidentially with the landscape. At one level the teacher asks questions, points out specific details, prompts the student and judges where to go next. At another level, the teacher creates connections between different features of the terrain and helps the student remember what she has seen. At the deepest level, the teacher initiates the student into a way of knowing, seeing or being. This connects the student with the history, tradition and spirit of the landscape she is journeying through.
Learning occurs in both directions on this journey. The student learns to see more qualities within the landscape while the teacher learns about an intelligence in action. At the bottom of this lies mutual attention, observation and patience. Once teacher and student have become familiar with each other, they can begin to play with shortening and lengthening the distance between them as part of practicing navigation. Eventually, when the student has learned to navigate on her own, the distance becomes eliminated altogether and the relationship of teacher and student transforms.
The metaphor of teaching as a craft of guiding someone through the landscape of learning may seem lofty given the everyday challenges of teaching, where preparation, time constraints, assessments and institutional limitations often don’t allow for much experimentation. Such constraints may make it impossible to practice teaching in the way described here. In this case, “teaching-as-craft” is firstly a critique of these limitations: they stand in the way of teaching and, more importantly, of learning. The main challenge may simply be to break out of the expectations that surrounds the role of the teacher within established schools.
But the notion of teaching as a journey is also an approach which is available to most despite institutional constraints. Helping someone to teach herself how to navigate a field of study is a straightforward principle, which is easily applied outside teaching as a profession. Awareness of both power dynamics and the equality of intelligence may open up new avenues for learning. Or at least avoid the damage to a learner’s self-confidence that often results from ordinary schooling. Turning to Rancière again: “When one intelligence is subordinate to the other, there is a dumbing down”.
Getting out of the way of a learner’s intelligence may almost seem paradoxical from the perspective which takes the teacher’s knowledge as a starting point. I am not arguing that the teacher’s knowledge can not be beneficial to the student. However, if the student is going to discern what the teacher knows, she will necessarily do so by moving towards it from within her own understanding. If the teacher is unable to see where the student is coming from, getting to grips with how the student can produce the knowledge herself is likely to produce a better outcome.
Thus, this view stipulates that the teacher’s greatest achievement is to make her own role obsolete. While this can take a long time depending on the landscape the teacher and student are journeying through – in most teacher-student relationships it will likely never happen – it points to the simple fact that what a good teacher is doing is first of all assisting the student’s perception of reality to deepen. This is key to help make the connections that allow the student to understand how a certain kind of knowledge is generated. Once this is understood there is nothing more to teach beyond the counsel of experience that the student couldn’t learn by herself.