Didaktik, Bildung and the Beautiful Risk of Education – Reflections on troubling reading.

I am ‘teaching’ on a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Eduction.  As part of this the participants (academic colleagues from within my own institution)  are required to maintain a reflective learning journal.  I have decided to maintain my own learning journal and, unlike the participants, I make this open to all on the course.  It sits somewhere between modelling how to ‘do’ reflective writing for professional learning and being honest about the fact that I do not have all the answers ( I am not a master explicator).

I share my second entry here as it pick sup on earlier comments I have made on troubled reading.


In coming to organising this particular session I am very conscious that I do not have much experience of large group teaching. Almost all of my teaching has been on post-graduate courses and consequently involved small cohorts. What I do have, and share with many of the students on this particular course, is my experience of being a student and experiencing the ubiquitous ‘lecture’. It is important to outline the context of my higher education because the experience of any educational event is largely determined by the particularities of the course, student demographic, location, etc.

I entered higher education in my mid-20s and so came in as a ‘mature’ student. I had no intention of going to university. I had not enjoyed school and only went back to study A Levels (senior cycle in the Irish system) because the bottom had just fallen out of the economy in the part of England I lived. Literally, the industrial landscape disappeared with the large smelting plants and metal works being erased from the skyline. The air quality improved but we were left with few jobs. So, I went back to school but with no plan as to what this might lead to. I didn’t complete my studies and left as soon as I found work. For a number of years I moved from one undemanding job to another, traveled a little, and ended up, by accident, on a community project. This altered my perception of what was possible to BE in life, brought me into the company of people who had been to university, and who encouraged me to consider this option for myself. The withdrawal of funding, during another economic slump, in the 1980s offered me the opportunity to go to college. My choice was to train to be a teacher (I am still trying to work out how I came to that decision). I felt I ‘should’ do something more vocational, and this was a better option than one or two others at the time.

So ‘lectures’ were part of the repertoire of learning experiences, but not the main one. Lectures do not rise up in my memory as important learning experiences. They were mostly boring. An example will illustrate my recollection of the lecture during my undergraduate studies. Being and education degree we had a lot of lectures on psychology. The main lecturer turned up on time. He used acetates (this was pre-powerpoint and widespread use of computer technology), and he provided us with handouts. But, the handouts were usually faded because they had been printed off years before and had been stacked up on his windowsill – hence the fading from the sun. The handouts simply repeated his lectures. My response was to strategically miss his lectures and read the books instead. I spent a lot of time in the library. But maybe this is in part the response of a mature student. The research and anecdotal evidence suggests that mature students are often keen but also strategic in their approach to learning. This particular lecturer relied upon delivery of information but with little space for reflection or engagement. This contrasted with the science lecturers (I eventually opted for arts as my specialty). They had a clearly articulated view of what they were doing. They saw school science as being about students behaving like scientists, engaging in activities were ‘science like’, to think like scientists. And so this was the view they took with us as well. I only had these folks in the first two years because we specialised in our third year, but they had a big impact on me. Their lectures were interactive, they got us to think not just about the process of teaching (the how) but also the ‘why’ and therefore the ‘what’. Sure, there was a good deal of information transfer, but my overriding impression is not of that.

When I came to take on lectures while working as a researcher I was ill-equipped. I had spent years working in community settings where ‘lecturing’ would see you heading straight for the exit door. I had taken in a view that any worthwhile learning came through ‘working with’ people. But how was I to do that when I did the occasional lecture to 200-300 undergraduates. I was often called in to do set piece lectures on ‘gender and education’ or ‘social class and education’ or ‘race and education’. These were stand alone, not even sitting within a wider programme that focused on these topics. Nobody advised me. I was given a timetable and that was it. But, maybe because of the community-based work and because of the need to ‘engage’ people who were unsure about why they were taking part in our activities, I had an intuitive understanding that I needed to capture the audiences attention. So, I used a lot of visual material. Computer-based presentation software was by now becoming common. So I used that. But I also used a lot of video. This meant video tape – so the process of identifying which segments to use was time consuming compared to now and the technical aspect was often beyond the scope of any individual teacher and required a lot of assistance from technicians.

Intuitively I also found myself using a lot of questions. But my skill at this was limited, and so often failed to encourage discussion (let alone obvious reflection). I think what I did take from my community-based work was that you had to be clear about what the key issues were you needed to build your activity around. This should frame the content and form of the activity.

The truth is that I made it up as I went along and with hardly any feedback.

However, these formative experiences did feed into further reflection when teaching became much more a fundamental part of my work in higher education. But I would say that I still have a tendency to try and cover too much ‘content’ without enough thought about matching the pace of a teaching session to the deep structure or deep learning I want to encourage. There is a sense in which I feel that unless I ‘give’ students a lot of ‘content’ then somehow I have failed them.


My reflection here operates in relation to: reflective description and analytical reflection.

Descriptive reflection

In selecting the core materials for this session I relied upon discussions within the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL). So, the articles approach the issue of large group teaching is mostly framed by constructivist assumptions. This doesn’t mean that lectures are rejected. Phil Race’s chapter, for instance, approaches it in a pragmatic fashion, providing really useful tips for structuring lectures. But, as with the three articles, there is a general perspective that lectures are ill-suited for cultivating deep learning. And it is this primary concern with ‘learning’, and specifically learning understood in cognitive terms, which points to the underpinning constructivist philosophy. Constructivism, as I pointed out in Session 1, also underpins much of academic development as a field of practice. And so, this assumption fed through into the selection of videos as supplementary material.

Analytical reflection

The constructivist presumption is that we can organize ‘learning’ experiences in such a way that we can lead students towards deep learning. But can we, and should academic developers, make that suggestion (no matter how subtle) at all? I am unsure. I have been enmeshed in the constructivist presumption for so long that it is difficult to imagine stepping outside of that.

The main challenge for me at the moment is my engagement with discussions of Bildung/Didaktik and the work of Gert Biesta.

There is a lot of similarity between the constructivist approach and that of Bildung/Didktik. Two recent texts I have read (‘Restrained Teaching: the common core of Didaktik’ by Stefan Hopman & ‘Microlearning and (Micro)Didaktik (On Microlearning)’ by Norm Friesen). Both stress the importance of the ‘learner’ and ‘learning’ and not just ‘teaching’; that learning is best understood as an active engagement with content; and sometimes a radical critique of content led ideas of curriculum. But didaktik is concerned mostly with teaching and the teacher, rather than the learner. Hopman’s article challenges some of my presumptions about leading students towards deep learning. He argues that in the didaktik approach teaching and learning are viewed as autonomous of each other, and the content of teaching does not ‘lead’ towards any particular outcome. From this perspective, my selection of particular content (core materials) does not necessarily carry the meaning I might wish students to adopt/learn.  The meaning of any educational interaction will be determined by the relationship between particular students, with particular teachers, with particular content, and particular environments. One example is that a student from a Quaker tradition will engage with the study of war with a particular perspective separate from that of the teacher’s intention. Following this, I have to make (the almost obvious) assumption that students on this course will construct their own meaning within the didaktik triangle (student-teacher-content). But more than this, the idea of bildung provides a much broader conception of the purpose of education than that often captured in concepts of ‘curriculum’ or ‘instruction’ or ‘teaching’. Bildung, in its reduced sense, is about the cultivation of the whole person and introduces into teaching/learning the idea that teaching should be aimed at assisting the student to engage with learning in a way that enables them to enter the world. I think I will come back to this in future entries.

Gert Biesta approaches the issue of education very much with bildung/didaktik as his cultural background. In a series of texts he has argued against the dominance in Anglo-American educational discussion of ‘learning’, and so challenges many of the presumptions of the kind of constructivism that has animated my own practice (and many of the ideas students will meet in this course). He argues for the reclaiming of the importance of ‘teaching’. But what he means by this is contrary to the idea of teaching as ‘control’ or primarily about the delivery of content. His argument for the reclamation of teaching (as different from learning) is that in his conception of education the role of the teacher is to bring something new to the didaktik triangle. Also, similar to bildung, he stresses that real education is full of ‘risk’ in that what happens in education escapes our attempts to control it. Now this potentially challenges some of the ideas that will be dealt with in Semester 2, particularly that of ‘learning outcomes’.

There is much more here for me to examine.

Biesta, G. (2014) The Beautiful Risk of Education, London: Paradigm

Friesen, N. (2006), ‘‘Microlearning and (micro)didaktik’’, paper presented at Micromedia and eLearning 2.0: Getting the Big Picture, June 8-9, Innsbruck, available at: http://learningspaces.org/n/papers/microdidaktik.doc

Hopmann, S. (2007 ) Restrained Teaching: the common core of Didaktik, European Educational Research Journal, 6(2): 109-124

Have you ever had a student walk out of your class? I did, but should I feel good about it?

Empty classroom in 56 St. building


I have recently finished a busy weekend of teaching on a doctoral study school.  When asked how it went my immediate response is to state that a student walked out.  This is met, so far, with a little hesitation as the recipient of this news struggles to find an adequate response.

Possible responses might include:

  • Oh dear, what went wrong?
  • What did you do to make her leave?
  • Are you OK?

As they pause, ever so slightly, perhaps looking for a polite way to comment on this extraordinary revelation, I have added: “..and I take it as a badge of honour”.

That really sets the internal narratives going awry.

Of course, I say this a little tongue in cheek, but only a little.

It’s not that I am actually proud that a student felt so frustrated that they walked out.  It was certainly not my intent to irritate and annoy.  But irritate and annoy I did.  But disrupt, upset?  Well, in part, yes.

It appears that the first rumblings of discontent began early in the weekend.

It is at this point that I need to state that I had this group of students for the whole weekend.  This is rather unusual in our programme.  The study schools are for working professionals undertaking a professional doctorate in education.  Normal practice is for students to experience a series of one-off lecture type sessions within an overall theme.  The module I co-ordinate is modelled differently.  On paper there is a more explicit coherence to the structure, flow and content.  Built around the thematic title of ‘Approaches to Educational Policy Research’, the stated aim of the module is to introduce students to the field of education policy studies.  The students are provided with a smaller set of pre-readings than usual.  These readings have a dual purpose of providing them with subject content whilst also signposting different ways of approaching the study of education policy.  The structure of the weekend is primarily organised around a set of linked and guided activities through which it is hoped students enhance their understanding of a number of key research approaches and appreciate the role of policy in their forthcoming research.  Apart from the initial introductory session, the remainder of the weekend entails structured student inquiry and tutor facilitated reflection.

What perhaps makes this module different is that there is very little ‘content’, and hardly any ‘delivery’.  This is deliberate.  It is also what appeared to cause some upset.

The first news of possible discontent arrived at my door on the Sunday morning, that is following a full day of activity on the Saturday, and just before the students delivered their presentations.  As with the overall design of the module I made clear that the presentations themselves were less important than the discussions that the students engaged in the process of working towards the presentations.  Similarly, some of the ’empirical’ material for the weekend (a particular piece of English education reform) was a vehicle for engaging with a number of important strands in educational research thinking.   I was informed by a student that some of their colleagues had registered an unhappiness with the seeming lack of ‘content’ in the module.

I felt unsettled by this.  My internal narratives immediately began accusing me of ‘failing’ the students, of not being a ‘good teacher’, etc.  I had to pause, disrupt the flow of mental agitation.

In this pause came to mind a Zen story that I felt spoke to the situation.  The story goes something like this:

A university professor came to a great Zen master to learn about Zen.  The Zen master invited the professor to take tea with him.  The Zen master began to pour the tea into the guest’s cup, and continued to pour, and pour, the tea overflowing and spilling on the floor.  Eventually, the professor could hold back no more and called on the Zen master to stop pouring the tea.  Thinking, perhaps, that the master was inattentive the professor asked the master to recognise the error he had made, that “the cup is full, no more will go in”.  In response the Zen master said: “Like this cup you are full of your own opinions and pre-conceptions. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”.

At the time I saw this as referring to the students wanting to be ‘filled’ with content.   A number of questions then formulated in my mind, questions I thought I could use in response to what I anticipated as a chorus of complaints about the ‘lack’ of content:

  • How much content would you require to feel full?
  • Is information the same as knowledge?
  • Is knowledge the same as understanding?

My speculations and anticipations were to be confounded.  No questions about content arose during the student presentations.  All seemed well after all.  The final session involved a structured activity to guide the students to think and plan for their module assignment.  They had already been provided with an assignment brief.  Again this differed slightly from practice in the programme where students were often provided with suggested assignment questions or titles.  As an indication of my pedagogic stance I made clear that I would not field questions that asked for direct guidance, that such questions were a matter for discussion between students and their assignment tutor.  Instead, having gone through the guided activity I invited them to share their initial thoughts on their assignment.  The first student outlined their plan and suggested how it might help them build towards their thesis research.


Then the next student asked the following type of question: ‘Should I do this or that?”.

I tried to reflect the question back by reframing it so that it directed the student to the dilemma they felt in relation to the task – that is, what did the assignment brief ask them to consider and did they think their initial ideas helped them address that brief?

“But should I do this or that?”.

Again, another round of attempts to reframe or redirect the dependent question.

I thought that maybe it was now clear that I would not answer dependent questions.  But no.  It was as if I had actually said: “Please. please, let me tell you what is right and what is wrong”.

Even though a number of students started to intervene to suggest ways their colleagues might reframe their questions there was still this insistence to pose dependent questions.

My frustration grew.

Faced with another dependent question I eventually called a stop.  I made it clear that I would not answer such questions.

At this point a student stood up stating that if I wasn’t going to tell them anything she might as well go.  In this statement she claimed that I was saying that they could do whatever they wanted.

She left.

There was a pause.

What would I do?

Would this anger spread and a mass walkout occur?

What an interesting construction of the pedagogy.  By not telling students what to do to ‘pass the test’ then anything counted.  But of course, that logic is incorrect.  Let me explain, as I did to the remaining students.

I felt I needed to make explicit my pedagogic stance.  So let me go back to the Sen story earlier and use it to explicate what I thought was going on in that weekend.

A university professor came to a great Zen master to learn about Zen.

It could be argued that there was a presumption on the part of many students that weekend that ‘doctoral’ study was matter of ‘learning’ from a ‘master’ explicator (as Jacques Rancière would put it).  That is, enter a relationship structured around one who knows and one who lacks such knowledge.  You could say that most education enacts this social arrangement.

But what is the problem with ‘learning’ in this context?

The Zen master invited the professor to take tea with him.  The Zen master began to pour the tea into the guest’s cup, and continued to pour, and pour, the tea overflowing and spilling on the floor.  Eventually, the professor could hold back no more and called on the Zen master to stop pouring the tea.  Thinking, perhaps, that the master was inattentive the professor asked the master to recognise the error he had made, that “the cup is full, no more will go in”.

In refusing the role of ‘master explicator’ not only was the presumption of the social order challenged but by explicitly refusing both this role and the relational ‘other’ – the student as unknowing, this placed back upon students the burden of freedom – the reality that a certain ontological choice was made, a role identified.  There are times when learning, when doctoral education, is and perhaps should be uncomfortable.  Perhaps it is those moments of existential disruption that the most powerful learning occurs.

 In response the Zen master said: “Like this cup you are full of your own opinions and pre-conceptions. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”.

What is our responsibility then as educators?  Is it to ‘satisfy’ students as customers?  Is it to validate ourselves by seeking their approval, even love?  Or is it to invite them, in all its uncomfortableness, to recognise the presumptions they bring on entering the classroom (to recognise our own presumptions both pedagogic and psychic) and to empty them and open themselves to understanding and wisdom?