Learning without a teacher

Abysses of new learning culture

by Christoph Türcke

In the early capitalist period, employees themselves had kindly to take food and fuel to the factory, just as they themselves had to provide for their old age and to pay for doctors. Only after long trade union battles the responsibility for an adequate equipment of the workplace, for participation in old-age provision and health care, for the continuation of payment in case of illness and for further training was gradually placed on the companies.
All these responsibilities are questioned again, since there are those small universal machines, which nowadays almost everyone can carry with him in the briefcase or in the pant pocket. They can as well be operated in a company building as in a private apartment. Living and working space, leisure time and working time are merged again. Why should one award regular employment for jobs not longer requiring fixed collective workrooms? Why not consider every computer owner as a self-employed person, who is paid as a supplier of work performances instead of permanently appointing him? Who himself defrays the costs for his infrastructure and his insurances, but who in return is also allowed to freely and independently organise his work and leisure activities – if he just provides his performances as contracted.
This is how the flexible, deregulated world of work runs. Only the world of education still lags behind. There are still fixed common teaching rooms and times, homogenous teaching groups with a fixed range of subjects and a syllabus for whole age groups. And, above all, teachers, exercising and recalling the predefined syllabus with whole groups of pupils at the same time, while each student is supposed to tick differently.

Children are reduced to their “competence”

An end to all of this, that’s what the neoliberal educational ideology demands. Contemporary lessons should be oriented towards the personal interests and the individual pace of the learners. Teachers are not needed, but learning guides, who are readily at hand, whenever learners get bogged down and need special support. Instead of obliging all learners of an age group or a performance level to acquire certain specialist and technical competencies, a new flexible design of competence is to take place, in which so-called soft skills, i.e. capacity for teamwork, social, communicative and media competence are at top priority, and hard skills, i.e. specialist and technical competencies, are just acting as their servants.
In any case, curricula only focus on one thing: competencies. In former times, to be competent meant to be responsible for something or to be expert. Nobody can have objections to that. But the current concept of competence is not aimed at that. On the one hand, it is a flattering term. When children can crawl or suck their thumbs, one calls that infant competences. Who can count to five, has the up to five counting competence. There exist just competent children everywhere.
On the other hand, children are thus reduced to their competence, and this means being able to do something. Not having experienced and learned is what counts, but the retrievable skills which are expected at the end of each learning. They should be scientifically exactly definable, producible at any time by means of appropriate didactic tools and verifiable by validated quality control. The German Research Foundation has put millions into competence modelling programmes. And why does so alarmingly little come out of it?
Because skills are always skills of something. They can only be precisely described by listing the entirety of the contents through which they were acquired. But this is exactly what is to be avoided. Contents are merely to be the lubricants of the acquisition of competence, however, competencies are to stand for their own: as pecuniary behavioural patterns. In mathematics, this partially works. “Mastering the basic arithmetic operations”: This is a relatively precisely described competence.

Absurd new “German of guidelines”

 

 

But what is reading competence? In the third or fifth grade, what does constitute a simple, a demanding, a complex text; when can it be considered as being understood, when as being applied meaningfully, when as being reflected appropriately to the respective level? This cannot precisely be predicted by any competence modelling–and certainly not what exactly is meant by the new social, communicative and media competencies required by microelectronics.
But precisely these soft skills are enjoying a boom. The soft skills have already reached the educational standards of the Conference of Education Ministers for the primary school. It says: “Instead of a dull inert knowledge that the students can only use to narrowly answer defined and known tasks, networked knowledge is to be developed, which can be used to address diverse problems.” For the writing course, this means: After four years, students have “basic spelling strategies. They can transcribe accordingly to the phonetic sound and take into account orthographic and morphemic regulations and grammatical knowledge. They have gained first insights into the principles of spelling. They test and compare spellings and think about them. They get to correct spelling by comparing, looking up in the dictionary, and applying rules. They develop a sense of spelling and self-responsibility towards their texts.”
What a nice German of guidelines. The ten-year-old as a responsible spelling strategist at least by taking into account orthographic and grammatical rules and by being able to look up all the words which he cannot write correctly: The profile indicates all too clearly what is meant with the “inert” and “networked” knowledge. Knowing how to write correctly is inert and restricted. On the other hand, “taking into account” spelling rules, permanently looking up (in other words: clicking), “testing and comparing” “spellings” (in other words: writing words either this or that way): that is networked, responsible, creative.

Cloze tests/fill-in-the-gap texts instead of spelling and writing

So called dictations via cloze tests – so called gap text dictations – are believed to be particularly efficient and fair. “Differences in writing pace are not significant.” “The amount of writing is limited, which is especially helpful for weaker writers.” “Writing of (almost) surely mastered words such as articles and pronouns is no longer necessary.” “Undivided attention can be given to orthography. More complex memory as is required with text dictates does not matter.” Here, it is openly stated that a routine of writing, where no spelling or orthography is memorised (a once properly written word is still not a fixed repertoire), is no longer aimed at. The “weaker writers” are deprived of this means of memorising, allegedly in order to not disadvantage them.
That was the logic of the cloze tests from the beginning. Just in the 1970s, when the microelectronic turn began, the cloze test also began its triumph. It hardly gives a rise to fluent  handwriting. Why then still handwriting? Its dismantling began – always on the pretext of better integrating educationally deprived strata/strata remote from education. Why plague them with Latin handwriting? A “simplified version of handwriting” was invented, with fewer swings and loops. Has the handwriting since then become better and more fluent? On the contrary. Why, then, should you still insist on cursive handwriting at all? Block letters will also do.
Once again, “those who are less likely to access education” are used as a reason. They are now being taken for too stupid to learn to write contiguously. Finland is pushing ahead and is only teaching its pupils block letters – precisely with the argument that four decades ago already accompanied the introduction of the gap text: one accommodates the “weak writers”, does not waste time for stupid motoric exercises but wins even more time for the creative handling of thoughts and contents.

Connection between writing and thinking is not considered

What complete misjudging of the connection between writing and thinking! As if thoughts were clearly arranged in the head and had only to be made accessible to others by means of writing. Even with superb writers it does not work like this, how should it do with children. Thoughts are brought into a clear structure just by oral and written utterances. Writing is a mental sewage plant. When writing down, words, sentences, thoughts are manually arranged, objectified, and fixed on a surface. Writing compels to dwell upon them. Writing is a gesture of devotion. A child learning this devotion has to concentrate like never before motoric skills and attention with considerable endurance, on one point: the tip of a pen. Regular, continuous writing movements demand a high level of coordination and concentration during the phase of learning them. Writing takes apart and puts together at the same time. It creates a feeling for the relationship between the parts and the whole. Or in Nietzsche’s words: “Our writing equipment takes part in forming our thoughts”.1
Where the renounce of handwriting leads to is obvious. In a few years, handwritten block letters will also be “too troublesome” for the children, as has already been the simplified version of handwriting. And the school policy will resemble a physician who will advise people against walking when walking has become too troublesome because they usually go by vehicle. Driving is much more comfortable and faster. So let us alphabetise on the computer from the outset!
This, however, changes the overall attitude to writing. Letters that you can no longer draw yourself are only produced by jerky finger movements with a constant change of view between keyboard and display. The gesture of devotion, which focussed the whole organism in a single point, dissipates into disparate impulses. The process of writing becomes just as bustling as are its surroundings in the deregulated classroom already. Literacy on the computer is fuel for ADHD.2

Ticking instead of thinking

Are the educational standards for mathematics better in primary school? Not at all. First of all it is not just a matter of learning to count correctly, but rather of “networked” and “process - related competencies”, of “solving problems mathematically on your own or collectively, of communicating about understanding and solving tasks, of arguing about wether assumptions are true or not or about mathematical correlations.”
This sounds like a major in mathematics rather than primary school. And how does it work with ten-year-old? As follows: “Tina and Esther collect football pictures. Together they have got 25 pictures. Tina has got 7 pictures more than Esther. How many pictures does Esther have?”
Yes, you have to think about it and to phrase the calculation task before you solve it. However, four possible answers are provided, the numbers 7, 9, 16, and 18. In order to notice that 7, 16, and 18 are out of question you don’t have to phrase anything. Number 9 remains. It is enough to mark it. Then you have “solved” the task. Actually, phrasing means ticking. The talk of arguing about mathematical correlations is just pulled over. What is the cloze test in language teaching, is the multiple choice test in mathematics. Filling the gap correctly or filling the correct gap: this has priority for written tests. Gap-filler mentality is being practised.

Diffuse global flexibility pressure

The current educational standards prescribe a lowering of levels which they offer like the Emperor’s new clothes by the highest level. But they do not do it for fun or to loosen the reins in the beautiful new world of flexibility, but under diffuse global flexibility pressure. The greater the flexibility, the more impalpable this pressure. Is it exerted by clients, supervisors, customers, or are they merely passing it on, because they themselves are under pressure? Does it come from the outside, does it work from within? This is becoming more and more difficult to keep apart. But the more communication is linked electronically, the more noticeable it becomes. Those who do not withstand are thrown off. This threatens countries, companies, individuals equally.
Education policy is promoted by this fear. Only those countries, whose school and university graduates are equipped for microelectronic capitalism will be able to compete internationally. That is the apprehension. And the consequent conclusion is: Those who have practised from the cradle the promising soft skills will be best prepared and will get rid of all the ballast for which there is intelligent software. Mental calculation? Done by pocket calculators. Writing routine? Becoming superfluous by the copying button. Orthography? This is ensured by spell checkers. Learning vocabulary? Stupor. History? Year dates and facts are available at any time with Wikipedia. Geography? That is what Google Earth is for.
Soft skills push forward in all educational standards. Hard skills such as mental calculation, orthography, memorising are reluctantly dragged along and erode. They are no longer regarded as mental elementary techniques, not as foundation of higher achievements, but beneath the children’s dignity, who should improve by creative discovery instead of drill. Modelers of competence and education politicians argue like pianists who no longer practice on the piano, because it is not the technique that matters, but the music.
In the authoritarian state the school board regularly complained about inefficiency in the schools. Whereas in the neoliberal state teachers’ associations protest that school policy run down mental elementary techniques; that drastic decrease of the writing ability is compensated by increasing demand of cloze tests; that the grade point average is pushed up because bad marks have to be justified; that the ever-improving grades are the proof of a constantly growing education level and thus almost being an order to further increasing the numbers of high school graduates.

Devaluation of the Abituron the way into the comprehensive school

The content of these protests certainly bounce off the school board. They perceive no more than the complaints of representatives of professional associations, who stick to obsolete school diplomas, such as the Abitur. And indeed: the Abitur is an outdated model in a more flexible educational world. It is still too early to simply abolish it. The protest of high school teachers and ambitious parents would be too violent, alternatives are too little developed. But now, the Abitur can already be inflated.
The higher a nation pushes its numbers of high school graduates, the better its position in the international education ranking will be. At the same time, it prepares itself the post-Abiturian era. Inflation always means devaluation. It is nothing special anymore if sixty to seventy per cent of a year pass their Abitur. Conversely: It is unpleasant not to have it. Should a diminishing minority of thirty or less per cent really be excluded? There is growing pressure to prepare this minority and the Abitur in such a way, that the minority can also achieve the Abitur. And thus the Abitur will eliminate itself in the medium-term.
Sooner or later it will be replaced by a new comprehensive school. It should no longer exclude anyone and let everyone find their individual place. Inclusion is the slogan. It comes right from the top like the flexible competence design. The Convention of the United Nations on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities demands that “no child should be left behind”, leaving it to the states (of which hardly any carries under 100% of public debt) to implement a functional school operation.

What is at issue with “inclusion”?

According to the advocates of inclusion, if the state declares to be a member of the UN convention, the state has to provide the money for the implementation of the inclusion. Unfortunately, it is the other way around: because less and less money is available for education, the UN invented the “inclusion”. It calls for the dissolution of all special-needs schools and special schools, all gradations between lower and higher schools. This yields enormous savings on buildings, rooms and personnel, especially teachers. Support teachers no longer run their own classes, but are taken over by the regular schools as a mobile intervention service. Wherever normal subject teachers fall short of their limits, because the level differences in the classroom are just too big, they are on the spot and devote themselves to students who do not keep up. Their lessons are reduced to selective repairs – with several children in one class, in several classes, in several schools.
The fact that support teachers without a driving license and their own car would not be able to work at all, that they go from school to school and do not belong anywhere is not a childrens’ disease of the inclusion; it is the structural result of the dissolution of all special-needs schools and special schools. In the system of regular schooling, support teachers are always only guests. Occasionally, they build up a stable relationship to the problem child, but this is structurally not intended. They are always present for hours only.
What’s more, many class teachers and subject teachers do quite like that. Where their responsibilities end, and those of the support teacher begin is difficult to define clearly during a specific school day. There are constantly overlappings and sources of friction. The help of the support teachers is paid dearly by means of incessant preliminary and subsequent discussions on the roll adjustment. The same amount of support teachers and class teachers would, however, not solve the structurally unsolved situation between teaching and repair work. It would remove the whole project from its decisive savings effect, i.e. less teachers for more classes.
As much as a Abitur is no longer a Abitur, joint teaching is no longer joint teaching for all – at least if one understands that a certain subject matter is introduced to all members of a class or group; – how to perform addition and subtracting, how to distinguish verbs from adjectives, make a role backwards and so on. However, every specific learning material sets limits. For one thing, the learning group cannot be of any desired size. On the other hand, it must provide certain minimum requirements: being able to count when it comes to adding; differentiate words, when it is supposed to recognise the peculiarities of a verb and adjective; have that much mobility at its disposal that it can at all give a try to the role backwards. There is no unconditional learning.
In the case of inclusive teaching for all, the commonality includes hardly more than the classroom, the same teaching staff, as well as a few nonspecific headings. When it comes to “counting between 1 and 100”, some learn to count in beads, the others add and subtract. With “grammatical foundations”, some attempt to recognise the nouns, the others juggle with principal and subordinate clauses. In the case of “common sports”, some learn to stretch the knee, while the others learn to make a role backwards.

No end to exclusion

There can be no talk of common instruction. Even less so of the end of exclusion. The classroom, that accepts everyone and lets everyone be different, is a space where especially handicapped persons and disabled pupils are constantly being toughly demonstrated their otherness. That others can do better than they may occasionally motivate them, but only as long as they see their chance to compete half-way.
If, however, children that are on account of their disability barred from learning to read and write, tackle equations, hopping and jumping, constantly have to experience the fact that classmates are capable to do this and show them daily what they are excluded of, the exclusion has by no means disappeared. It is merely denied, but it is more present than ever. There is no escaping. Inclusion does not tolerate the outside. Other schoolrooms and forms will no longer be considered. All of a sudden, the basic meaning of the Latin word inclusio exerts influence. It actually means incarceration.
In the inclusion space all are together, no one can get out, and everyone learns for himself. He is given his own learning material, usually in the form of specially tailored worksheets. While the students fill in the blanks that are left open in the worksheets, the teacher ensures that the noise level in the classroom does not prevail, watches how the students get on with their sheets and helps when there are questions – or reads the newspaper. He is no longer teacher but learning guide.

New authoritarian posture

It is praised as the main achievement of the new learning culture. At last, teachers who accompany and promote each child on its individual learning path. At last, there are no more crammers standing in front of a group and showing them the same facts. Does one not realise how much the work sheets appear like a crammer? They give a frontal lesson to everyone. Mostly, they open up an issue with meagre, woody words only as far as a subject is provided, and then they continue to speak only in the imperative: answer, calculate, tick, fill in. The authoritarian posture does no longer emanate from persons. It comes along as inherent necessity. The learning guide is supposed to provide the necessary acceptance and generate the willingness to complete the forms at all levels. Not without reason the inclusion spaces resemble deregulated open-plan offices.
What here no longer proceeds is a living doctrine, where a person opens up facts to others and shares them through common words, gestures, and mode of contact, as it once began quite elementary between parents and children – look there, a ball, a Teddy, a light beam. From such indications, a common world of facts builds up between parents and children. Whether or not they want, parents are the first teachers and whether or not they want, teachers are the parental extension.
At first, many things are learned for the sake of the teachers. Their praise is longed for. Teachers in turn want to be popular. There is no emotionless learning and teaching. Good teachers understand how to redirect the admiration they receive to the facts they present, thereby objectifying the teaching step by step and gradually cut the cord from them as person.

On the meaning of showing

But this only succeeds from the primal scene of teaching – to show. Watch out, now I show you something new: how to draw an “m”, how to calculate a root, how to create a vegetable bed. Then, the newly shown has to settle by repetition, variation, application, in small groups, individual work, at school, at home. The showing is the solemn opening, the highlight – the sedimentation and conveying is the indispensable subsequent work, the daily routine. Where nothing is shown, there is nothing to promote. Promoting without showing is a barrel without bottom.
When teachers are degraded to mere companions and supporters, to worksheet appendices, and to mobile intervention service, one takes away the real thing of their profession, the showing. They do not have to put up with that. They do the job at the base. If they simply do not support the new learning culture and insist to be professional showers – what is the school board to do about it? A more constructive strike is hardly imaginable.     •

(Translation Current Concerns)

1    Nietzsche, Friedrich. Sämtliche Briefe. Kritische Studienausgabe Sigle: KSB 1986 [1882], p. 172 [All the letters.]
2    Türcke, Christoph. Hyperaktiv! Kritik der Aufmerksamkeitsdefizitkultur, 2012 [Hyperactive! Criticism on the attention deficit culture