Biesta: The Beautiful Risk of Education

13th December 2014

We seem to be in the process of creating an education system that strives to reduce all risks whilst making ever-greater demands. The new system tells our students they have to work harder, be more productive, and aim ever higher, but is not prepared to allow them simple freedoms or opportunities to make choices and to decide things for themselves. It is a mechanistic system of control and productivity that sees qualifications as the over-riding purpose of education.

Recently I read a blog written by a teacher at a high performing academy where the students are required to move around in total silence and are told where to sit at lunchtime. This is justified because some students find social situations difficult and silence ensures minimum disruption between lessons. But is this level of control desirable? Is it even educational?

Gert Biesta, in “The Beautiful Risk of Education”, argues systems of this kind have got their priorities out of balance. They are efficient at maintaining the status quo and at reproducing what already exists, but are useless if what we want from education is students who can think and make judgements for themselves – “free subjects rather than docile objects”.

For Biesta, education has three aims: the attainment of academic qualifications, socialisation into a community, and ‘subjectification’ – becoming a wise human being. He understands there is a tension between these three aims and that the purpose of education is to find a productive balance. If one or more of the aims is allowed to dominate the others then the education of the students will suffer.

The problem with the new system approach is that the aims of student attainment and socialisation have been privileged above subjectification and this has led to the development of an instrumental (as well as dehumanising and dysfunctional) process of schooling, that might get better results, but exacts a terrible cost.

To become a wise person requires experience, it is not something learnt from a book, but something developed over time through experience and reflection. If we deny students opportunities to take risks, make mistakes, and experiment with power, then we deny them opportunities to develop wisdom and to learn how to become responsible ‘grown up’ human beings.

This is the ‘risk’ of education in the title of Biesta’s book. The risk we have to take as teachers if we are to allow our students experiences of freedom and responsibility. As well as the risk of engaging with ambiguity and complexity in a system prepared to share power and decision-making.

The new system justifies high levels of control and risk-reduction by claiming they are acting in the best interests of the students. By limiting their options and requiring simple obedience and hard work, the new system claims it gives students the best chance they have to realise their potential. This is particularly true, they claim, of the poor who are disadvantaged from the beginning by their badly educated parents. This is evangelical education. An approach that justifies the means by the ends, and claims other less regimented approaches have low expectations.

But, as Biesta points out, we don’t ‘produce’ our students: they are not products of our schools they are human beings with agency and minds of their own. The idea of emancipating the poor through education, in a system that denies them freedom and the power to influence, is patronising and self-justifying. In fact it’s not education at all, but a system of schooling that puts the interests of the system and the economy above those of its subjects. Freedom is not something people are educated into, but something education is for. There is no graduation date for becoming a human being and having the rights of a person. And as much as we tell ourselves we are doing it on their behalf, we do not have the right to control children’s every move.

Biesta’s book is a challenging read. It is academic and heavy going in parts, but it shines a bright light on the mistakes we have made in the past and the new ones we are beginning to make for the future. He is not interested in apportioning blame or looking for scapegoats, rather he understands education is a complex multifaceted business and most people are working hard with good intentions. The problems we have, he argues, are created because we have never clearly decided on the purpose of education – what it is for and for whom. Until we do, we will continue to repeat the makes of the past.

I’m convinced by Biesta’s plea for balance. Education is not about denying children knowledge, opportunities to belong, or chances to experience freedom and responsibility. It is about striving to find methods that embrace all three and give our students the best chance they have to become educationally wise human beings.

This blog was first published in Teach Primary


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