Mini-Series: Who is responsible for the “education” happening in the classroom?

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Hamilton, Unsplash CC0

In this Mini-Series on Embedding Belonging in the Classroom, Annie Dimond, Honorary Lay Chaplain at the University Chaplaincy, reminisces about her experiences in classrooms, talks about the assumptions we make, and begins to ask the big questions about belonging…

When I was 16, I binned letter after letter that came to me in the post from universities trying to convince me to visit campus and enrol. I was a bit of an idealistic youth, who loved philosophy of education, and as a result, I was angry and annoyed about how universities were selling themselves to me in merely economic or ego-centric ways. Then, one day, I received an actual lightbulb in the mail from a university, with a postcard that said something like: “Thomas Edison failed hundreds of times before he created the incandescent bulb. Come to our university, it’s a safe place to fail.” That is, you’ll belong here no matter how many times you get it wrong, as long as you come ready to participate. My experience of the university bore that truth out.

I love classrooms. That is, I have loved a lot of particular classrooms since I was in school, and I love the idea of a classroom – what it can be. As a PhD researcher, who has now been at four different universities, I sometimes long for the days of taught modules and the after-class processing discussions that happen over lunch. But I’ll admit that the often solitary slog of research is likely tinting my memory with a rosy lens. The reality of many of my classroom experiences, over the 25 years I’ve engaged in academics, is that they have often left much to be desired, educationally and communally-speaking. And I know I’m not alone in that experience. This is neither an indictment of the teachers themselves, nor of the students. To blame students or teachers would be a bit too easy, and it would assume an answer to some pretty big questions, like:

  • Who bears responsibility for the “education” happening in a classroom?
  • What are they responsible for?
  • Do they have the resources they need to be held accountable to such a responsibility?

Because universities have grown so large, it is often the case that different arms of the university assume or inhabit different answers to these questions. The lack of coherent answers, or even clarity in conflictual conversations, means that one arm might have their hands tied by implicit assumptions or by explicit requirements made by another arm. Such assumptions are often embedded in what students and teachers and departments are required to exhibit or produce to prove that learning has happened. This is not to say that these kinds of requirements are unnecessary; merely to say that sometimes the tail is wagging the dog, and, in holding people accountable to demonstrating that “education” is “happening,” we import a lot of assumptions about who is responsible for what, what learning is and is for, and how learning happens.

Here are some assumptions that we might do well to question, and that easily sneak their way into our current conception of the classroom. By questioning these assumptions (even one at a time), we take an active, conscious, and agential stance from within our particular location in the classroom or in system that creates the classroom, and we take up our belonging by asking how things belong to the educational process:

  • Student as consumer (Where is formation in this model?)
  • Student as product (Who is this product for in this model?)
  • Student as passive recipient (Where is student agency in this model?)
  • Teacher as objective (Where is methodological awareness and decision-making training in this model?)
  • Teacher as sage on the stage? (Where is collaboration and engagement in this model?)
  • Information as “content” (Where is healthy conflict or meaningful integration in this model?)
  • Classroom as separate space (Where is social and communal relevance in this model?)

Realistically speaking, all of these assumptions exist in a classroom. But, without asking questions of these assumptions, I think we will fail to recognise both the value and the difficulty of educating persons, and we fail to see who belongs and how they belong in the community of the classroom.

In the information age, the classroom has begun to feel less and less relevant. Why go into a classroom at all? If the student is a consumer; a product; a passive recipient, and if the teacher is objective; a sage on the stage: delivering “content” for an isolated module, then truly, why go into a classroom? You can do that online. And now, you can do it online with meaningful exchange between those who are creating space and who are showing up to it.

Is something possible in the classroom that is not possible via youtube videos, or online learning communities? Or do we secretly whisper in our hearts “no, there is nothing different except you get a real hard copy diploma at the end”. Have we entirely functionalised education? Or is there still value to the time and the space—and the relationships—within a university education that brings students and teachers physically together in a classroom?

To me, belonging is at the heart of the educational endeavour, and this belonging is what continues to make a classroom an important place to be: putting so many people into one room creates a really messy, tense, laborious, and conflict-ridden set of histories, fears, needs, perspectives, hopes, and ways of encountering the conversation occurring in a learning space. The very presence of these many diverse bodies and ways of processing goes a long way to making the classroom a place of relevant conversation and discovery. But, that isn’t how everyone would describe the value of the classroom. And so, we must ask again—What is education? Who is responsible for it? And are our classrooms set up to be educational environments where everyone is able to, and empowered to, take responsibility for their part of the learning?

To my mind, these are questions that a community must ask together. And, in working towards answers, big decisions will be made about educational vision and methodology. These kinds of answers (whether explicit or implicit) will drive decisions about class sizes, assessment of student learning, spatial design, negotiation of roles in the classroom, allocation of funds, core curricula, requirements on student engagement and attendance, and many more.

And so, examining the issue of responsibility for the classroom is a way in for us to enter the question about what education is for, and the same time, it will help us reckon with our constant impulse to make individuals the answer to communal problems. Such question asking and answering cannot be left to individual teachers, students, or classrooms, because to do so is to impoverish the collective endeavour and to resist meaningful integration of educational research, rendering such inquiry entirely inert and ineffectual. To actually ask the question about responsibility is an exercise in humility, and, as such, it is courageous and it is visionary. To ask the question, I might go as far as to say, is an act of love.

Annie Dimond

Annie Dimond is an Honorary Lay Chaplain at the University of Edinburgh, a PhD Student in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen, a teacher and coach at Enneagram for Wholeness, and a co-creator of The Institute for Embodied Learning.

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