In our modern education system we have come to pride ourselves on an ability to build into our environments sophisticated processes and protocols designed to mitigate risk of all types. We see it in the types of activities that are permitted in schools and those that are not. We see it in the way that teaching has developed into a system that values best practices over teacher intuition and ingenuity, pre-identified learning outcomes over serendipitous delight, and a prediliction for data sets and indicators over the look of joy and surprise (or the lack of joy and surprise) in the eyes of our students.
In a sense we have developed a sense that, for education to work, we need to take the guesswork out of the project and take risk out of the equation.
It is against this backdrop of safety and risk management or, better, the complete avoidance of risk, that Gert Biesta introduces the compelling thesis of his recently re-released Beautiful Risk of Education. For Biesta, the core dynamic of the education enterprise is, to be blunt, always (and necessarily) risky:
The risk is not that teachers might fail because they are not sufficently qualified. The risk is not that education might fail because it is not sufficiently based on scientfici evidence. The risk is not that studetsn ight fail because they are not working hard enough or lacking motivation…The risk is there because education is not an interaction between robots but an encoutner between human beings. The risk is there because students are not to be seen as objects to be molded and disciplined, but as subjects of action and responsiblity. —Gert Biesta, The Beautiful Risk of Education
Biesta insists—and this is something that will resonate with those with any degree of proximity classroom life—that the central energy of education exists in that relationship between teacher and student. But it is not a relationship based on a simple “input-output” logic but, instead, on a dialogue between two living, breathing entities. Success in education is not about making the learning process more efficient, more predictable, more reliable—more risk-free. This would be to take the human element out of the equation. In fact, in Biesta’s mind, “there is a real chance that we take out education altogether”.
Instead, the real dynamic of education is grounded in an approach to relationship that would, in my opinion, be considered strange, in not foreign, in today’s risk-free classroom. It requires an attitude of patience, resilience and vulnerability that is not only “not demanded” in today’s education climate, but is actually discouraged.
But Biesta challenges us to think of this as the type of risk that we must take if we are serious about education. It’s risky business because, in many ways, it forces us to empty ourselves of the things that we are used to bringing to the table: tools for management and control, practical knowledge, exquisite approaches to planning, well-established sets of success criteria and a keen eye for efficiency and results.
In doing so we come to the stark, sobering realization that we have nothing but ourselves to offer.
And for many of us, the real risk will be that we may not think that’s enough. But, isn’t that what makes it so beautiful?