Learnification and the Attack on Education
The ‘Learner’ Identity1placeholder
Attend your local school board meeting. Listen to those frigid statements you’ll hear from educational institutions — usually after receiving some bad media coverage — about their priority of ensuring ‘positive learning environments’ for their students. There is no doubt, education in our society has become increasingly concerned, maybe obsessed, with the achievement of good outcomes. Of course, ‘good’ is always a morphing compendium of societal opinion.
At certain times in history, ‘good learning outcomes’ was thought to require a transactional model of education, which required obedience and passivity towards the teacher as a possessor of knowledge. In today’s increasingly corporatized university, these good outcomes are now mostly concerned with making things easily consumable to the student. The Italian cultural theorist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi argues that this is one of the most pernicious and ubiquitous expressions of power in our neo-liberal historical moment: power, he says, referencing the words of Bill Gates himself, resides in “making things easy”.2placeholder
One consequence of these modern consumer models of education is the phenomenon of e-learning. In e-learning culture, extreme emphasis is put on facilitating learning. Learning must be available when the student wants it, at any time, and more than this, be palpable and enjoyable on the student’s terms. It has to be easy. As I am part of the drifting mass of precarious PhD labour, hopping from one short-term contract to the next, I’ve seen firsthand how often the truly educative qualities of schooling can become stripped away through these ‘online learning environments’. Education, and the very idea of ‘school’ itself I will argue, is about taking time out of productive life to study with others in a shared world.
After my own experiences teaching undergrad e-learning classes — witnessing widespread disengagement from my fellow instructors and professors, and the general alienation from students with each other — I began to wonder about the extent that we as teachers can even facilitate this ‘easy’ learning asked of us. Learning involves a person’s presence; it also involves an encounter with something unknown, something new, and thus requires vulnerability and exposure.3placeholder In fact, it would seem that learning isn’t really easy at all, for it cannot be easily determined or implemented. Through my ‘e-teaching’, I gradually began to ask:
“What kind of learning is this, which calls for no productive effort on the part of the learner, nor even for his presence, which replaces the teacher by a programme, which severs head from body, mind from world, and immunises the learner from the potentially corrupting effect of any disturbance from outside by means of a productive shield?”4placeholder
This rise in ‘e-learning’ culture, and its virtually unquestioned acceptance in schools and universities, can be better understood through a phenomenon that the educational philosopher Gert Biesta labels, with a deliberately ugly term, learnification.
Learnification refers to the effects of the prevalent language and ‘discourse of learning’ that has dominated educational circles for around two decades. These effects are evident in several all-too-perceptible educational trends: the attribution, by educational and governmental institutions, such as UNESCO, of the ‘learner identity’ to all — even those not currently undergoing educational programs — and the rise in simplistic learner-centric discourses that limit or diminish the role of teaching. Lifelong learning has gradually usurped the older coinage life-long education without many taking notice.5placeholder But the change was deliberate and ultimately ideological: life-long learning has an economic rationale; it is about the development of human-capital.
The English word ‘learning’ aside from being a process term, is an individuating term. The individualizing aspect of the language of learning has “shifted attention away from the importance of relationships in educational processes”.6placeholder Very easily, as Biesta points out, learning becomes a tool of neoliberal policy. Political problems quickly become “learning problems” (ibid. p. 67) and individuals are responsible for being ‘lifelong learners’, which in this narrow context basically means that they are “responsible for keeping up their employability in rapidly changing global markets” (ibid.). He continues: “the issue is entirely defined as a question of individual adaptation and adjustment– as a matter of learning –and not as one about structural issues and collective responsibilities”.
This discourse has major consequences to the very way we practice and think about education, according to Biesta:
“The quickest way to express what is at stake here is to say that the point of education is never that children or students learn, but that they learn something, that they learn this for particular purposes, and that they learn this from someone. The problem with the language of learning and with the wider ‘learnification’ of educational discourse is that it makes it far more difficult, if not impossible, to ask the crucial educational questions about content, purpose and relationships.”7placeholder
Learnification makes exploring these ‘qualitative’ educational dynamics irrelevant and has the unwanted effect of ‘naturalizing’ the concept — presenting learning as something everyone implicitly does, without explaining why or how. I want to show in this short essay that the reduction of education to something individualized and controllable runs completely antithetical to the understanding of education that is implied in the word ‘school’ itself.
Ford Nation takes on Education
Learnification, as expressed in much ‘e-learning’ that happens these days, is a market-driven expression of a far more prevalent cultural conviction that learning should be operationalized in the service of society.
Doug Ford’s new conservative government in Ontario is a perfect testament to this way of thinking. In just a few short weeks after taking office he scrapped the newly developed sex Ed curriculum, reverting it to its 1998 iteration, promising along with these changes, the creation of a website (what critics call a ‘snitch line’) from which students and parents can report ‘problem’ teachers who refuse to teach this newly 20 year backslidden curriculum.8placeholder Immediately following his election win, Ford repeated his campaign talk for a “back to basics” approach for his government’s reform of Ontario’s public education.9placeholder As we’ve seen over and over, generally what these ‘back to basics’ pronouncements imply is greater standardized measures for students and educational staff, and reduced funding and curricular emphasis on the fine arts and humanities (music, art, creative writing, dance, theatre, etc.).
Education for Doug Ford is about control, accountability, and productivity. His government has specifically challenged the recent emphasis on “inquiry driven education” in the province’s new curriculum and endorsed a return to more standardized methods of pedagogy and evaluation; a return to “proven teaching methods” they say. As public intellectuals like Henry Giroux have long emphasised, the trend towards increasing standardization in North American schools has only grown since the 1980’s and shows little evidence of slowing down. According to Giroux, this is an example of a form of neoliberal pedagogical terrorism in which “any collective struggle to preserve education as a basis for creating critical citizens is rendered defunct within the corporate drive for efficiency, a logic that has inspired bankrupt reform initiatives such as standardization, high stakes testing, rigid accountability schemes, and privatization”.10placeholder
Neo-liberal think-tanks like British Columbia’s Fraser Institute often lament public school’s low ratings (a rating they mostly determined through standardized testing) as a way to rebuke public schools generally, before going on to (over)emphasise the burden public schools have on the taxpayer. Public schools, to these arguments, seem to represent the lingering residues of a failed socialist dream –one of the last barriers in the way of total market-driven education. The problem I see with these political arguments and strategies for ‘school reform’ largely resides in the fact that they seem to have little understanding of what ‘school’ really means.
In Defense of the School
Educators and politicians should know that the word ‘school’ comes from the Greek word scholé (which refers to free-time). That is to say, scholé is time free from productive time. Free time in the service of a more equitable society. Simmons and Masschelein explain:
“It is the materialisation of the refusal of a natural destiny and of the confirmation of homo educabile; since there is no (given) destiny, (wo)men can be educated. The school was doing this while providing scholéor free time, that is, non-productive time, to those who by their birth and their place in society (their ‘position’) had no rightful claim to it”.11placeholder
Children of all backgrounds and classes freed from having to ‘earn their keep’: saved from the demands of their particular household and scarcity, so that each can have a fair shot in society. A grand ideal, no doubt. Schooling, in this understanding, is expressed in the possibility of suspension; where the younger generation can put what they received from the older generation “on the table”; remove it from the demands of everyday life, and begin to reimagine these things anew for themselves. Teachers are not slavishly instilling knowledge and skills into the mind of novices, but rather, allowing ‘learning to happen’ — by taking ‘care of knowledge’ through studying together, learners may forge their own relationships to what is passed down to them. According to Jan Masscheilan, education, as implied in the word scholé, is not about mantipulating or forcing attention, but rather a mode of togethering that makes attention possible. Schooling is in this sense a de-acceleration, a slowing down and an opening to the future. It is here Masscheilan says that we truly “put our thinking to the test”, by exposing it to the broader community and public and allowing it to be reinterpreted and re-cognized anew.
The process of suspension and intergenerational renewal implied by the concept of scholé is all but stripped away from modern education; “in contrast, there seems to be the opposite tendency, that is, to connect students to their past and family background, to transform teaching into a productive activity and to make subject matter directly useful.”12placeholder This is, as we can see, directly expressed in Ford’s mandate. He says that “parents”, not teachers “know best”, and teachers need to be held accountable. The public servant — salary paid for by the province — are the natural enemy of such beliefs.
When learning is reduced to the achievement of ‘good outcomes’ it becomes a simple means-ends mechanism. Teachers are construed as ‘instruments of the state’, transferring a standardized curriculum onto passive students. Both the left and the right wish to improve their model of what ‘good learning is’ whenever they gain public office. The issue is the ideological cult of solutions, productivity, and accountability itself.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere:
“To escape the clutches of standardization and the homogenization of learning, society must come to trust teachers in their ability to be flexible and not just display a blind adherence to method and curriculum… This of course requires a massive societal swift, a great de-acceleration of schooling — of no longer thinking of schools as learning environments that produce desirable and profitable learning outcomes in the fast and certain march toward the future.”13placeholder
This is a society that allows for the possibility of teaching and learning to emerge; again, to let learning happen, and not impose it from above. A society “ready to trust people enough to free them of requirements of productivity … [to] allow them to be teachers and students” (Masschelein and Simons 2015, 93).
The Tao Te Ching famously says that “If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy”.14placeholder This seems to be the impasse we have reached in these fractured and nervous times — with our public institutions under attack and governments increasingly offloading more and more of their responsibilities and services onto multi-national corporations and businesses.
There is no doubt, the acceleration of modern life has taken a terrible toll on our notions of education. Acceleration has increased our demands that learning be productive and accountable. Coupled with our rapidly accelerating social media lives, ‘schole’ seems all but impossible today. We learn more everyday about how corporate tech giants — Facebook being the prime example — increasingly do not have the public interest at heart; under the social-media model that Jason Lanier cleverly calls BUMMER (Behaviour of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent).15placeholder These models rely on self-adjusting algorithms that adhere to simple reward and punishment loops. The problem is that, although proven to be very effective at keeping people ‘engaged’ on their smartphones, these behaviourist methods present us with a pretty inadequate way of thinking about society (ibid. 19). The problem is simple according to Lanier: “if you want to motivate high value and creative outcomes, as opposed to undertaking rote training, then reward and punishment aren’t the right tools at all” (ibid. 19). As clear evidence, these new social media models have helped propagate populist and fascist political movements and ideas, and have made democracy all but impossible (ibid. pp. 103–107).
I think we can safely say that these models, and the way of thinking about society that they presuppose, are not educational — they are not rooted in an ethics of care, and what tech folks call ‘engagement’ is not at all about fostering anything that could be related to ‘learning’, ‘teaching’, or for that matter, ‘scholé’. Yet, social media platforms are increasingly one of the principle ways young students engage with each other and the world around them. If we want students to be creative, inventive, and imaginative, we have to allow the time and space for this to happen. This might mean taking a step back from these platforms and questioning the gradual technification of our lives, and how this feeds into the language of learnification. For education, it might mean considering seriously the ways in which we can foster space for enacting scholé in our educational institutions. Part of this would, no doubt, involve taking a closer look at e-learning culture and its implict assumptions. It would also suggest not overburdening students, teachers, and professors with learning and research outcomes, standardized forms of evaluation, and topdown curricular enforcements.
The dream sold to many young people –that a loosely networked individualism coupled with ongoing ‘technological progress’ can somehow keep us afloat through the turbulent late stages of global capitalism and the impending ecological crisis — is increasingly less credible. Now more than ever we must ask ‘are we ready to fight for this vision of what school can mean?’
I have discussed some of these ideas about learning and learnification previously, in an article called “Returning Learning to Education; toward an ecological conception of learning and teaching”, as part of a recent special issue of the journal Sign Systems Studies called “Learning as Adaptation”, edited by Andrew Stables and Alin Olteanu.
(2012, p. 15). The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. Los Angeles: Semiotext (e) Intervention Series.
See my 2016 article “Indexical Ways of Knowing: An Inquiry into the Indexical Sign and How to Educate for Novelty.” Philosophical Inquiry in Education, 24(1), 15–36.
Tim Ingold. (2017, p. 54). Anthropology and/as Education. Abingdon: Routledge.
See, for example, the recent article published on OECD.org “Why isn’t everyone lifelong learning”.
In Gert Biesta (2016, p. 15). The Beautiful Risk of Education. Abingdon: Routledge.
(2013, p. 36). “Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher”. Phenomenology & Practice, 6(2), 35–49.
For journalistic response to Doug Ford’s educational approach: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-doug-ford-is-failing-on-the-education-file/; and for response to the Ford ‘snitch line’, see https://www.theloop.ca/teachers-arent-happy-about-doug-fords-new-sex-ed-snitch-line/
In what follows, I will be referring directly to the Progressive Conservative’s own statements about how they reform Ontario’s educational system: https://www.ontariopc.ca/on_education_doug_ford_will_respect_parents_and_get_back_to_basics
Giroux, H. A. (2004, p. 496). Public pedagogy and the politics of neo-liberalism: Making the political more pedagogical. Policy Futures in Education, 2(3–4), 494–503.
(2015, p. 86). Masschelein, Jan, and Maarten Simons. “Education in Times of Fast Learning: The Future of the School.” Ethics and Education 10(1): 84–95. See also, for a more extended argument, Masschelein and Simons’ 2013 (free)book, In Defence of the School: A Public Issue: https://ppw.kuleuven.be/ecs/les/in-defence-of-the-school/Jan%20Masschelein%20-%20Maarten%20Simons%20-%20In%20defence%20of%20the%20school_booklet4.pdf
(2015, p. 86). Masschelein, Jan, and Maarten Simons. “Education in Times of Fast Learning: The Future of the School.” Ethics and Education 10(1): 84–95.
(2018, p. 328). Campbell, Cary. “Educating Openness: Umberto Eco’s Poetics of Openness as a Pedagogical Value”. Signs and Society, 6(2), 305–331.
(Ch. 17). Mitchell, S. (1991) Tao Te Ching. New York: Harper Perennial.
Lanier, J. (2018). Ten arguments for deleting your social media accounts right now. New York: Henry Holt and Company. -For a description of the pernicious effects of BUMMER on society at large, see Argument 2 (pp. 25–38) in particular.