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Teacher / student relationships

Philosophy of Education: this lecture focuses on the nature and purpose of these relationships from the perspectives of: ethics, authority, and wider society.

Rupert Higham

on 23 January 2017

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Transcript of Teacher / student relationships

Teacher / student

Rupert Higham
Philosophy of Education
23rd Jan 2017
Trust / responsibility
Beyond the functional
Not all professional relationships are the same: teachers don't fill students with knowledge as dentists fill teeth.

But Bonnett (1996) and others point out that a focus on 'curriculum delivery' and fixed outcomes in education implies a knowable product and a practitioner-led process:

The teacher-pupil relationship becomes a vehicle for manipulating children - a 'management tool' - in the services of goals externally imposed. (p.34)
The purpose of the teacher/student relationship thus represents a problem in an age focused on productivity and accountability.
A broader affiliation and role
"For the pupil, to learn is... to acquire knowledge, to distinguish between truth and error, to understand and become possessor of what he was born heir to.... But to the teacher things must appear differently... [he must] get his pupil to make the most of himself by teaching him to recognize himself in the mirror of the human achievements which compose his inheritance." (Oakeshott 1989, p.48)

"If asking... difficult questions is a central and necessary aspect of educational relationships, then it is important to acknowledge that such relationships are not necessarily easy or pleasant. By asking the difficult questions that allow students to come into the world, we challenge and possibly disturb who and where our students are... as educators we are always interfering in the lives of our students." (Biesta 2006, p.29)

These writers suggest that teachers have a duty to help students shape themselves in relation to the past and the future, as well as in line with the demands of the present: guardians of a rooted, developing culture.
It is wholly unsurprising that [education] should become as concerned with the image of learning as with the actuality... The teacher-pupil relationship will become a vehicle producing those kinds of learning which are most easily displayed publicly. It will focus on those things that are most tangible to, and valued by, people who are external to it. (Bonnett 1996, p.31)
Oakeshott's quote earlier suggested in imbalance in the relationship: teachers are more concerned with their students than themselves, and shape the enquiry as participants towards the students' discovery and development.

Unlike regular conversation,the teacher/student relationship is also mediated by the subject-matter - and more strongly so at secondary level. This has consequences for our understanding of teachers' authority:
Teacher in authority
Teacher as an authority
In this case, learning is transmitted, and the focus is on teachers' status as gatekeepers of valued knowledge and as behaviour managers - controlling the process of transmission efficiently.
Bonnett (1996) suggests that teachers help frame the discussion of the topic, with their authority deriving from their skill and knowledge in mediating the material, and in enabling 'poetic' exploration and interpretation of material from different perspectives
In this case, the relationship is paramount, and the nature of the topics covered secondary to the pursuit of learning itself. Paolo Friere (2000) argued that the roles can swap, and that focus should be set by the learners' context, not by fixed subjects.
Education as authority
Risk and uncertainty
To engage in learning always entails the risk that learning might have an impact on you, that learning might change you. This means that education only begins when the learner is willing to take a risk. (Biesta 2006, p.25)
Biesta (2006) argues that genuine education challenges what students think they know, forcing them to reinterpret the world; teacher/student relationships must demonstrate:

1. trust without ground
2. responsibility without limit
3. 'transcendental violence'
...but this advocates highly personal, involved teacher / student relationships. Why should we advocate this?
The truth is that the idea of education becomes incoherent if we attempt to ignore persons as individual centres of consciousness, capable of relating to the world in ways that have personal meaning, for this is essential to 'human' being... (Bonnett 1996, p, 34)
Bonnett: even Ofsted criteria recognise the centrality of students as individuals making meaning of what they learn in relationship to their wider lives. This requires between teacher and student genuine engagement between 'personhoods' - one that starts with listening, not prescription.

Also, teachers find these relationships of trust and responsibility rewarding, but that this openness to students reveals teachers' vulnerable, human side - which can be damaged when this aspect of their work isn't valued by management and inspectorates.
Personalisation: Towards a more human relationship?
Thus in the government’s Five-year strategy for children and learners (DES, 2004a), we find a call for education to become ‘personalized’. David Miliband explains that this means ‘shaping teaching around the way different youngsters learn... [and] taking care to nurture the unique talents of every pupil’ (DfES, 2004b, p. 1). (Doddington 2006, p.132)
Doddington: this initiative rode roughshod over principles behind it such as Assessment for Learning, by incorporating them into 'target setting and data gathering, when its real concern is classroom process' (Alexander 2004). Personalisation can thus be a way of increasing the efficiency of transfer of learning by using the best techniques - rather than as a way of valuing individuals' perspectives and abilities.
As the basis for a reconceptualisation of personalisation in education, Doddington cites Sergiovanni's (2005) distinction between a 'contract' and a 'covenant'* between teacher and student.

What differences do you see in the associations and implications of this term for the teacher/student relationship? Discuss in pairs.

*def: "an agreement, usually formal, between two or more persons to do or not do something specified"
Language shaping reality
Doddington (2000) argues that we transfer metaphors from other fields into our understanding of education - and that in recent years many from industry, business and management, and sport have been drafted in: efficiency, targets, performance, accountability etc. In the past, horticultural and pastoral metaphors were more common: growth, nurture, development etc.

Further, Frowe (2001) argues that 'there is no pre-existing reality called "education" - it is a social activity substantially shaped by the language we use in its discussion, and that such language becomes "an active constituent of the practice' (p.95). The transfer of language and metaphor from one field brings many of its values across as if 'natural facts' within education.
Contracts versus Covenants
Limits of the dyadic relationship
The teacher/student relationship has so far been presented as somewhat atomised - yet it exists in a wider social context, and is infused with values and expectations drawn from the school, parents, peers, policy and wider culture. Thus Doddington (2007) points out a tension in the notion of personalisation:
The move towards stressing the communal nature of life appears to direct focus away from individuals and thus sits uncomfortably with the idea of ‘personalization’. Prioritizing the individual over the group has a strong philosophical heritage in Western thought, and this orientation is deeply embedded in the way we think about education. Individual pupil autonomy is still stated as an aim for many schools and the value of helping children to become independent learners needs little justification since its worth is rarely questioned.
Heidegger and authenticity
Heidegger argues that we come into existence in relationship to others rather than as realised individuals - and that authentic individuality has to be striven for to avoid assimilation into the crowd. However, this authenticity is a quality of these relationships with others rather than an intrinsic quality.

Heidegger thus saw human existence as an 'issue' that we must explore; Doddington suggests that schools are the place for young people to explore this issue. While the student/teacher ratio in schools limits direct verbal engagement, non-verbal communication between everyone in the school community can help express shared values (2007, p.136).
Noddings (1998) identifies 'caring', broadly defined, as Heidegger's fundamental principle of human life, consisting of: - 'Engrossment' (full receptivity to others)
- 'Motivational displacement' (a desire to help)
Each stimulates thinking as one must put oneself in another's place. Starting with other people, it can broaden with practice into caring for ideas and things in the world as well.

The teacher/student relationship can thus provide an model of care: in the teacher for the student, and in the student - prompted and guided by the teacher - for ideas, events and the world.
The teacher/student relationship in context
Teachers intuitively bring to bear a wide range of values, standards and understandings from across society into classroom activity, and relate it to the unique subjectivities of their students. This constitutes humane engagement and has a large element of improvisatory performance as well as planning.

Heidegger: this relationship is a powerful metaphor for humane and valuable engagement with others; it also alerts us to the danger of isolating it from its wider social context. The more we limit our focus onto the teacher and student in isolation, the more transactional the relationship becomes.

Beauvais and Higham (2016) argue that the term 'young people's potential' does not apply to individuals; 'potential' does not inhere in a person but is only realised in a particular context through authentic engagement with others. We are not educated in parallel, but interconnectedly, empowering and limiting simultaneously.
Alexander, R. (2004) Excellence, enjoyment and personalized learning: a true foundation for choice? Education Review, 18(1), 15–33.
Beauvais C & Higham R (2016). A reappraisal of children’s ‘potential’. Studies in Philosophy of Education. 35:6, 573-587
Biesta, G. (2006). Beyond learning: Democratic education for a human future. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
Bonnett, M. (1996). 'New' Era Values and the Teacher-Pupil Relationship as a Form of the Poetic. British Journal of Educational Studies, 44(1), 27-41.
Doddington, C (2007): Individuals or persons—what ethics should help
constitute the school as community?, Ethics and Education, 2:2, 131-143
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Frowe, I. (2001) Language and educational practice, Cambridge Journal of Education, 31(1), 89–101.
Heidegger, M. (1962) Being and time (London, Blackwell).
Oakeshott, M. (1989). The Voice of Liberal Learning. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Noddings, N. (1998) ‘Caring’ in Hirst, P. and White, P (Eds) Philosophy of Education – Major Themes in the Analytical Tradition Vol IV
Sergiovanni, T. (2005) Strengthening the heartbeat: leading and learning together in schools (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass).
Think of examples of teacher/student relationships from your experience.
Evaluate them in relation to the following concepts:
Difficulty / challenge / 'violence'
Trust / responsibility
Nature of authority
Individual / communal
Transmission / transaction / engagement
Personal / Role-based
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