Learner Autonomy & Its Complicity
Tweetable abstract: In its current form, the promotion of freedom in education is, at the same time, the promotion of its opposite.
Online pedagogic advice about promoting learner autonomy tends to be guided by a rather dubious contrast between a free life and an unfree one – a black and white view of liberation beyond the classroom. The idea of the active, self-directed learner rests on an idea about the active, self-directed adult who has left education and become a fully autonomous individual, and this unthought idea belongs to a binary opposition long-since falsified by the proof of centuries.
In that assumed contrast, there is on the one side a glowing image of a free society where individuals are choosing and taking initiatives and passionately pushing towards personal success; and on the other side a dark image of browbeaten people waiting passively to be told what to do. The free society liberates individuals and all their latent dynamism; the unfree society crushes them in the name of a static order – the sort of oppressive order that was to be shattered by the digital revolution, or so we were told back in 1984, when the Apple Macintosh was depicted as a sledgehammer for a defiant individualism.
Hence the familiar contrast between two approaches to education: The bad old one that prepared children for an obedient life in a repressive industrial order, and a good newer one that encourages individual autonomy and the creative problem-solving skills now recognised to be so valuable in a digitally retooled society where a box-defying creativity matters far more than compliance.
Freedom and unfreedom: the received ideas
This assumed binary opposition deserves more thought – a difficult task, admittedly, since it requires leaving the safe but suffocatingly narrow specialism of pedagogy to think more generally about the social reality of freedom. Perhaps habituated specialists think matters of such generality should be left alone, but if we don’t confront them, then our specialised discourse risks being little more than academically well-referenced, peer-reviewed chatter. We need to drag those taken-for-granted ideas out into the open and see if they have the innocent truth they are assumed to have.
Of those twin opposed ideas of freedom and unfreedom the latter would seem to be the more important one, since it is the one that the discourse of freedom resists. Freedom, whatever it is, is a struggle against its opposite.
The dominant idea of unfreedom sees it as our subjugation to the will of another. We are unfree if we have to do what other people tell us to do. So unfreedom is about obedience and the learned passivity of people who have been conditioned to wait to be told what to do (and there is no tyranny without that learned passivity because if people are not waiting to be ordered, there will be no ordering).
The 1984 advert for the Apple Macintosh gives a nice visual representation of this. It brings out the sharp contrast between the passive monochrome mass and the active, vibrant and defiant individual insisting that the culture of passivity must end.
Freedom, here, is all about that self-directed activity of individuals who are taking initiatives, looking around for opportunities and seizing them. No one is giving orders.
These ideas are the basis for the contrast in education between passive and active learning. Encouraging learner autonomy is very much about encouraging active learning. Education shouldn’t be about children passively waiting to be told what the answers are. It should be about them actively working out the answers for themselves. Ideally the learning should be project-based, and it should also be personalised so that individuals can work at their own pace, giving free rein to their personal dynamism. It is not just that this is the way that children, as a matter of fact, learn best; it is also that this is how to prepare children to be fully active members of a free society.
The unfreedom of the free
The narrative of pro-active individuals destroying an older order of unfreedom is a rousing one, but it obscures what has been happening in society for a long time now. The creative energy, the dynamism, and the opportunity-seeking and problem-solving skills of individuals have been unleashed in a way that has them co-creating not an unambiguously free society, but one that establishes a new form of unfreedom.
That unfreedom has become all the more palpable following the crisis that began in 2008. Here in Greece, for instance, a massive vote against the prevailing policies in a referendum in 2015 was overturned within a matter of hours. No justification for that was given. No one came forward to explain that the sacrifices (in private wealth – or what was left of it – jobs, the hopes of the younger generation, public assets, not to mention the sacrifice of key democratic principles) were necessary to achieve some greater good in the future – some vision of a brighter European order that would become possible. No, there were no justifications. There was simply the insistence that there is no alternative.
In a free society the sort of mythology that dominated the dark societies of the medieval period is supposed to live on only as material for entertaining films and novels. And yet we find ourselves immersed in a globalising system whose imperatives have a force reminiscent of medieval ideas of fate. Our lives are dominated by systemic imperatives that rule with an unquestionable fatefulness.
It is not a world in which the 99.9% are a browbeaten mass subject to some tyrannical will. We are all opportunity-seeking and problem-solving individuals enjoying our equality under the law and our almost unlimited freedom to tweet our opinions. No one ultimately is telling us what to do. Where we must bow to the instructions of middle-management, the instructions are based on a clear grasp of the systemic imperatives, not on some arbitrary will that insults our freedom.
But do those systemic imperatives not amount to a new insult to our freedom, such that a new sledgehammer needs to be thrown, not at a new Big Brother, but at the system that has replaced him? The answer depends – does it not? – on where the system is heading.
Back in the 19th century, when it still made sense to think that humanity gave the measure to all things, the collective project that we participate in could be imagined to be heading somewhere meaningful. A society dominated by Satanic mills could be imagined to be a stepping stone to a post-industrial order of material plenty and leisure enough for the lives of everyone to be filled with something more meaningful than the struggle to make ends meet.
Where is that narrative now? Even if we just limit ourselves to material concerns (the only ones that matter publicly, in any case) there is no prospect of an epoch of plenty that might allow us to get off the hideous treadmill. Instead, new forms of scarcity are continuously created, driven by an imperative to accumulate wealth. In effect, money, which ought to have been a mere means of exchange, stands now as the ultimate end of human endeavour on a global scale.
What sustains the system is not a learned passivity, but the dynamism of active, opportunity-seeking, problem-solving individuals, organising personal learning projects aimed at success, because everyone now is a life-long learner continually on the lookout for new ideas about how to succeed. And success inevitably involves adapting to the prevailing system, lending one’s personal energies to its consolidation. A perfect union is created between personal dynamism and the dynamism of the system, without anyone being told what to do.
The prevailing unfreedom – the state Max Weber described as an iron cage – is not the antithesis of freedom, but a state emerging out of the pursuit of freedom.
Freedom and meaning
Our misconstrued freedom is one that forgets the importance of being able to find meaning in the world to which our free activity will contribute a miniscule part. Something that Georg Simmel says illuminates the connection between the issues of freedom and meaning:
Just as freedom is not something negative but rather is the positive extension of the self into the objects that yield to it, so, conversely, our freedom is crippled if we deal with objects that our ego cannot assimilate. (p460)
Objects that can be assimilated to the ego are those that, in everyday language, “make sense”. The same applies to the world of action: Our freedom is crippled when we find ourselves participating in a world that does not make sense.
Much of what passes now as education for autonomy is a preparation for this crippled freedom.
The complicity of education
Integral to this new form of unfreedom are two ideas that the dominant approach to learner autonomy unwittingly lends its support to: an idea about the self and another about the world. And these are not merely ideas since they are constituents of a form of life in which the modern self sets itself over and against a world construed as a thing to be studied with perfect objectivity – an impersonal, law-governed and systematic reality. The modern self insists on its freedom from the world. The self will determine the ends of its existence in a world that can be manipulated and made to serve those personal ends.
These ideas comprise what might be called a pop existentialism according to which the world is essentially absurd – an endless and meaningless round of T. S. Eliot’s “birth, copulation and death” – and that absurdity can be accepted insofar as it leaves the individual free to create his or her own meaning. Meaning becomes personal, private, and reality is accepted an impersonal, indifferent, essentially meaningless system. Meaning loses its reality and reality loses its meaning, but the modern self now finds itself free to put the stuff of the world to use with no limits placed on what might be done.
When these ideas were first clarified in the early 17th century people could be forgiven for thinking that the self that liberated itself from the world was, quite simply, the individual. The liberation being envisaged would be the liberation of individuals. There is no excuse now for continuing that belief. The old view of the world as subordinate to the triumphant self led to the creation of a world subjugating individual selves to an impersonal and indifferent system antithetical to any meaningful notion of individuality.
The wrong kind of education for autonomy is one that continues to entrench this split between the manipulative self assumed to be the source of meaning and an indifferent, meaningless world waiting to be manipulated. An example: the framing of learning as a relationship between the child and a world of information, and the view of a revolution in education made possible by forms of technology that give the child unprecedented direct access to that information. To imagine the child as inhabiting a world of information is to imagine that world as essentially meaningless. Once the last drops of meaning drain from the things of the world what we are left with is mere information. If this view of the self-world relationship is accepted at the outset and taken for granted, there is little chance of the ensuing education pushing against the prevailing heteronomy.
Sugata Mitra gives a nice example of the worst kind of learning activity – one pitched as revolutionary when it is actually the opposite. In his so-called self-organised learning environments (SOLE) the teacher is to set questions for younger pupils, who enthusiastically find answers online. He refers us to a question about goats. It asks whether goats are capable of doing something. The answer will be a fact about goats. Different ideas about the abilities of goats will be found online and the children will have to sift the true piece of information from all the misinformation.
According to the prevailing standards, this is good, age-appropriate active learning. What people fail to see is how this type of active learning reinforces the idea of an essentially meaningless world waiting for us to manipulate it. The activity focuses the children’s attention entirely on a fact about goats. The place of the goat in our world, the meaning of the goat and the connection to the Bacchanalian are completely ignored, presumably because there is no truth to be established there. Education must be about getting the children to respect an impersonal truth – a truth composed of facts and the theories that explain the facts – one which has no place for old stories that might help children to discuss what is important and what not. And the child learns that his or her subjective response to the goat is neither here nor there in the public world which a formal education paves the way for.
Even the facts are meaningless. The question about the goat seems to have been chosen at random. The children run off to find an answer which will be just good enough to satisfy the teacher, then they are given another question, apparently unrelated to the first. There is no concern to connect the activities up so that the children might begin to develop a view of the world as a meaningful totality. No, instead the world is left as a meaningless and overwhelming mass of information that exists to be processed either by the mind of the child or its digital equivalent.
This is an approach to education that fits nicely with the view of the world established in the broader, all-pervasive media environment. The digital media continue the trend already established in pre-digital TV, where news of a tragic death could be followed by an upbeat advert for toilet cleaner, providing a perfect informal education in the world as essentially meaningless. Perhaps children go through a brief period of bewilderment before learning to be indifferent to things, not in the sense of being uninterested, but in the sense of no longer expecting things to mean anything. Hence the mentality behind the popularity of the fail compilations on YouTube. The pain of others as the height of entertainment. The most technologically sophisticated civilisation gives a license to an unqualified barbarism.
The exercise of a misconstrued freedom is at the same time a construction of the world as essentially meaningless. In learning to be free, the children learn how to adapt to the very order that negates their freedom.
Although the dominant narrative sees a newer concern with the child as an active learner replacing an older idea of the child as an empty vessel, a more interesting contrast is between the long-established concern with objective knowledge and an older concern in education with character. What predated the model of education centred on an abstract notion of the child was a model devised for a particular social class. Education was the cultivation of the sort of character motivating the members of this class to put all their initiative, creativity and problem-solving skills in the service of the empire that they would help lead.
The new form of education for autonomy strangely ends up serving the same kind of purpose. Children are inspired by the million ingenious ways in which things can be intellectually and technologically manipulated, and through that inspiration they are motivated to put all their initiative, creativity and problem-solving skills into the service of the ingenious global system that has replaced the age of empire.
Just as that post-imperial empire systematically excludes questions of the meaningfulness of what is being done, too much of what passes for a liberating education prepares children to accept that systematic exclusion of the question of meaning. And in learning how to become expert manipulators of meaningless material, children learn how to become uncomplaining objects of manipulation.
Education for a less crippled freedom
So far the techniques devised to promote learner autonomy have not challenged the dominant idea about the object of education. Mitra caused a stir in wondering out loud that children might not need to learn very much any longer (in the sense of committing it to memory) but that left the object of education exactly as it was: the sort of objective knowledge that lends itself so well to quantitative assessment. Mitra merely suggested that instead of internalising that knowledge, children only needed to learn how to access it and manipulate it and put it to use.
If there is to be an education for a less crippled freedom, it needs to challenge that view of the object of education. Instead of limiting itself to the kinds of problem-solving activities and projects that fit very nicely with the existing curriculum, it needs to push for a different curriculum. Different issues need to be put at the centre of the educational agenda: issues having to do with the phenomenon of meaning. Objective knowledge and impersonal skills need to be seen as subordinate to a more important enquiry into the meaning of what on earth is being done with all that knowledge and all those skills.
In practice this means that teachers will be less interested in establishing critical distance (partly because that distance is already such a prominent feature of the prevailing culture outside school) and more interested in cultivating an appreciation of the things that children have been distanced from. The opportunity to have contact with and perhaps care for real goats is infinitely more valuable than a quick fact-finding exercise about the animals conducted online. Even better: a trip into the hills to see the goats in their natural habitat, followed up back in class with an enquiry into what goats have represented in the past – taking the children into even stranger hills in worlds created long before the goat became little more than a cheese factory on legs. The deeper the appreciation of things like this in all their sensuous and social particularity, the more the cause of a less crippled freedom is advanced.
With this approach to education depth becomes more of a concern than superficial intellectual dexterity. When students are looking at different cultures, for instance, the ability to compare and contrast those cultures means less than the ability to see things that we can learn from them, which would involve developing a deeper and more open engagement with our own culture. This also avoids leaving the students with the impression that in the quest for meaning there are so many contradictory points of view that the project just has to be abandoned.
In this way, the exploration of meaning takes us not into some murky internal life where discussion quickly becomes impossible, but into a sensitive and critical engagement with the historical project to which we belong.
In effect, this alternative approach to education connects students with the roots of civilisation itself, asking: Was it for this that the earth grew tall? And: If not, what? The currently dominant idea of freedom which a lot of the pedagogic discourse rests on belongs to an epoch in which the project of civilisation is, in effect, put on autopilot. Discussion of the ends of that project is reduced to an irrelevant twittering commentary, leaving the systemic imperatives to gain momentum unchecked and revealing that behind its high-tech, nanofibre veil this new civilisation is harbouring something hideously barbaric. The unprecedented noisiness of our epoch is matched by its equally unprecedented silence on the really major issues concerning the ends of our existence.
A new education for meaning and civilisation would revisit earlier pedagogic concerns with values, but instead of hardening children (e.g. with obligatory boxing lessons for the boys), preparing them for the civilised barbarism of empire, the aim would be to deepen and refine their sensitivities, cultivating the richest possible engagement with the world they live in – thereby developing the sort of character able to confront the senselessness of the world and demand that it stop.
In short, to open up the prospect of a less crippled freedom educational talk about learner freedom needs to stop reducing learning to developing the techniques of manipulation and accumulation. They need to be subordinated to an enquiry into the values that might guide our manipulative and accumulative activities and help us undo the order that negates human freedom. Given the connection between that negativity and the prevailing taboo on any meaningful discussion of the ends of our existence, an education for a more thoughtful autonomy must put that question of ends – so contentious and yet so historically pressing – at the top of the agenda.