No guru, no method, no teacher

The following comment was awaiting my approval when I logged on the other day, and I promptly relegated it to the spam heap:

But then I started to think about its precepts regarding ‘Teachers’ and ‘Leaders’, and about some of the trends we’ve been discussing in education. I’ve made an odd sort of link between this and a small religious group…

The above verse was often used by a fundamentalist Christian faction known as the Plymouth Brethren to argue against the hierarchical structures of most other Christian denominations. They didn’t have priests, bishops, cardinals or even ‘pastors’. The minimised the use of symbols, imagery and ceremony. Their Sunday meetings involved sitting silently in a room until a congregation member decided to say, pray, read or sing something. This was all with the loftiest egalitarian aims, rooted in revulsion against the ecclesial aristocracy of the 19th century Church of England in particular (but obviously other denominations as well).

Anyone with a cynical bone in their body will probably know how this group progressed since its inception:

  • While arguing that everyone should interpret scripture themselves rather than listening to ‘teachers’ or ‘leaders’, John Nelson Darby‘s writings themselves became ‘scriptures’ (and he a revered figure) even outside of the Brethren.
  •  The meetings (not ‘communion services/eucharists’) were not as egalitarian as they may appear–only adult males who were members of the group (not ‘church’) were allowed to say anything. Women were silent had kept their heads covered.
  • Outside of these Sunday morning meetings, people (men) did give talks (not ‘sermons’). Women taught Sunday School and other women.
  • A great quantity of unwritten laws arose through practice (such as how to carry Bibles and hymnals, what types of prayers to offer when in the course of a meeting, women could not wear trousers to meeting–even in the mini-skirt era, etc.).

Why am I going on (and on and on) about this? Well, it seems to me that often educators can get stuck in the same muddle as the Brethren did. Wanting to make education as egalitarian as possible, and as organic as possible, we try to sidestep traditional educational pitfalls such as hierarchical structures, but oftentimes end up back where we started. I’ll give a few examples…

  • No teacher. The Brethren eschewed ‘priests’ (and the Roman Catholic ‘Father’), but had ‘Travelling Brothers’ who were funded by the Brethren to spend their lives speaking at different meetings, writing articles and books, etc… It doesn’t seem a million miles away from the ‘sage on the stage’ rebranding into ‘guide on the side’ (or ‘meddler in the middle’?!). I’m going to be rather traditionalist here and suggest that, while I think this is pertinent to how students learn (by doing rather than being talked at, for example), the who they are learning from is still important. They are a guide; they are there (ideally!) because they‘ve walked a road similar to this before. They’re not afraid of learning something new from the students, but in this context they do have a certain role.
  • No method. I don’t know much about psychology, but I think it’s safe to say that people like a degree of routine–especially in social situations. They generally feel more comfortable with norms of behaviour, whether their personal rituals or those of a group or society. Thus the many unwritten rules that arose to fill in the gaps in the early days of the Brethren (who had plenty of written rules to go on already) were never overthrown but became part of the culture. Likewise, I think educators sometimes take the rules away in order to give students more freedom, only to find that the students are constantly asking for boundaries to be set, or have misinterpreted a task in an unforeseeable way, or become frustrated by having to ‘guess’ at what they’re supposed to be doing. Not that this isn’t a very difficult balance to achieve–it takes experience and an understanding of a group of students. I guess the important part of this is that ‘open’ does not equal ‘unstructured’.
  • No guru. Another danger of letting students experiment, experience or interpret is that they will do so in a vacuum. In addition to an expert of some kind and a structure, students need to know the broader context–they need the object to be re-solidified. The Brethren, while claiming to rely on the bible alone, actually based their beliefs on other people’s interpretations of it; the most dangerous thing about this was that it was almost always unconscious: people actually thought that such-and-such a doctrine had come from their objective reading of scripture (not from Darby or Brother Smith or from what so-and-so said last week at meeting). The context existed, but was not recognised. I’d like to argue that this can happen in education as well (it was certainly apparent when I was studying literature as an undergrad): students can only form understanding based on the resources available to them–I could read TS Eliot with understanding, but how would this compare to my understanding after some historical background, reading contemporary and modern criticism, reading other poetry of the same era, discussing Eliot with people with different points of view and understandings… These resources existed, but it was seldom explicitly suggested that I go looking for them, that they would broaden my understanding, etc.

This is still all getting away from abstraction, categorisation and the subjective human (which is why I’m blogging about it now!) and I think shows in a different way how the teacher, while their role might have changed in the evolution of educational theory, still has an important (and certainly more nuanced, changeable and demanding) part to play in the student-inquiry-object-rhizome morphology.

Looking at this from a broader perspective, though, we may (like Edwards?) then ask what education is for anyway. But…that’s for another module.

Thanks to Van Morrison for the title.

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