Teachers’ “Götterdämmerung”

Teachers’ “Götterdämmerung”

A book review of a recent publication by Christoph Türcke

by Lis Calganini

One may understand the term “Teachers’ ‘Götterdämmerung’” in a drastic way: Teachers are no longer needed, facilitators will be enough. Or one may understand it as conveying a feeling of hope: “It is dawning on the teachers that they must not accept this. If they really fight for the preservation and the ethos of their profession, they will open an orientation debate that will touch the foundations of the neoliberal world.” (p. 153) So the book written by German philosopher Christoph Türcke ends. But let us start at the beginning.
In the first chapter “Competences Mania”, Türcke clarifies the origin of the term “competences” and shows for what purpose this term has to serve today.

Controlling and manipulating people’s reactions

The concept of competences is mainly used for accurately describing all learning achievements and for making them measurable. This postulation is based on the idea that the only thing about human being that is verifiable and scientifically accessible is our behavior. Originally, this was the behaviorists’ idea: to replicate and control human behavior by machines. “Already in the 1950s, behaviorism had begun to divide all learning behaviour into the smallest possible steps, and to accurately describe them.” (p. 30) No one today would express this in such an outright way as Watson did at that time: He indeed wanted to control and to manipulate the reactions of people. The achievement of a learning objective was called a qualification. But the word had a technical connotation and did not encompass the whole person. Still in the 1970s the detailed description of learning objectives and qualification was named operationalisation. The concept of “competence” however sounds much more flattering. In terms of content, as Türcke shows, it remains the same: competence describes a desired behavior that should be defined as accurately as possible.

“Gap-filler mentality”

“And so, in the 1990s, education policy began to rename all learning objectives and qualifications competences. That helped the acceptance of their behavioural measures.”(p.31) A lot of money was invested in this competence modelling, glossy brochures as well as meetings spread the impression that this is all about a highly promising long-term project.
Even the elusive competences such as the ability to work in a team as well as social and communicative competence were to be described accurately. Networked knowledge was to be developed instead of so-called inert knowledge. For example, the knowledge of how to write words correctly is called inert knowledge; children should instead consider spelling rules and have strategies how to obtain them: in plain language by checking them or clicking them up. This is considered to be networked knowledge, responsible-minded and creative. The educational standards of today flatteringly call school children spelling strategists and independent authors as soon as they are able to draw some letters. Cloze tests have become fashionable in order to reduce the laborious effort of writing, which in particular favours weaker writers. But without practicing the writing process in the context of coherent writing, correct spelling cannot take root firmly. The same applies to mathematics: in accordance with competency requirements, it is primarily not about learning to do sums, but above all to communicate about understanding and solving calculations, to argue about suppositions and mathematical correlations, and to arrange one’s own exercises. As only a few schoolchildren are able to achieve this, possible answers are readily supplied, which is then called multiple choice. In fact, a so-called “gap-filler mentality” (p. 45) is practiced as well in language as in mathematics teaching.

Level reductions imposed

In all educational standards the so-called soft skills are winning through. Hard skills such as mental calculation, spelling, memorisation are taking a backseat. They are considered to be beneath the children´s dignity, as those should discover things creatively instead of cramming them into their minds. History lessons? There’s Wikipedia. Geography? That is what Google Earth is for. Learning words? How dull! Pianists who do not want to practice their technique but rather make music immediately, would probably argue like that, or footballers, who focus on the really important thing, the intelligent interaction, instead of doing the necessary strength and fitness training. And children are to be equipped primarily with soft skills for taking part in our microelectronic capitalism and they should get rid of all superfluous burdens for which software exists. In microelectronic capitalism social skills, ambition, flexible personalities are required, whereas expertise can be looked up. According to Türcke level reductions are thus imposed from above.
It is a fact: All these changes make the A-levels (Abitur) obsolete in our flexible educational world. The truth is: “The higher a nation pushes its number of A-level students the better will be its position in international education rankings.” (p. 47) This means that soon it will be embarrassing to have no A-level, but its significance will also be reduced. Because: “If, however, every student passes the A-levels, no one will pass it any more,” (p. 51) Once it used to be called  “general matriculation standard”. Today, not only the grades but the CV, the motivation and the personal interview are taken into account for potential students. Measuring the competences has led to a graduation ending up in a pile of fragmented competence-shards.
And – what many people do not wish to believe – this pressure calling for more flexibility, which breaks conventional workspaces and existing educational areas into pieces, is not a wish of the people, but a demand of power. Our school policy just passes on the pressure.

A right to alms

Türcke goes on to say that the principle of “difference of objectives “ – here in Switzerland called exemption from learning objectives – which was originally intended as a concession to weaker learners is intended to become a general principle of education. Everyone should have a right to this caritable gift. Everyone is different from everyone else, eveyone has his own pace, his own preferences and talents.Therefore we need a school that satisfies everyone: the inclusion school.
Türcke gets to the bottom of this “inclusion madness”. This is also the title of his second chapter. A few decades ago the term “exploitation” was at the centre of all serious social criticism. However, with the microelectronic turnaround, when the computer made ever more workers redundant, the sociocritical agenda changed. Was it not much worse to have no job, to be “excluded” from the labor market, than to be exploited? In 1989, the EU Ministers of Social Affairs adopted a resolution to combat exclusion. Since then this has been considered the fundamental evil of our time. It is taking part that counts, this is the motto. Integration is desirable. Those who have a job are integrated. “That is the simple principle of a new, interdenominational and cross-party ideology, which radiates in all social areas.” (p. 61)
This principle also underlies the Convention on Persons With Disabilities, which has been effective since 2008 and demands full participation in society for all people. Who wants to disagree with that? Of course this includes the education system. But how can we achieve this end? How should the exclusion of the disabled be made to come to an end? “Fortunately” education experts are at hand with their solution: the comprehensive school. Their basic message is: time is up for separate schools catering to different levels of performance. At first, the concept was not to separate children with disabilities in special schools right away, but to offer them special one-hour lessons with differentiated learning objectives. Inclusion advocates now demand to have all students take part in the same lessons with all their diversity of competences and levels. While the inclusion school welcomes all students equally – regardless of their individual presuppositions – the integrating school still specified performance differences and did not cease to distinguish stronger and weaker students.

Support teachers’ education demoted to repair operation

Especially teachers who feel their profession to be a matter of the heart and more than just a job find a new meaning of life in it and are therefore also ready to implement the inclusion principle as well as possible, with a great willingness to make sacrifices. The slogans of inclusion: “It is normal to be different” or “Every child is special” sound good and, the longer the more, are accepted by many. When it comes to such a wonderful principle, the real consequences of this course of action are accepted as “teething problems” of implementation. But Türcke warns: “The United Nations do not consist of apostles, but of experienced politicians and diplomats.” (p. 71) They are the ones who demand the dissolution of all support and special education schools worldwide. This allows for tremendous savings in buildings, rooms and teachers. Today it is already evident that now support teachers (here: special educators) support the subject teachers (here: class teachers) as mobile units. If the expected result fails to materialise with a child, the child is to be empowered to succeed by targeted promotion. So support teachers’ lessons are demoted to a punctual repair operation on several children in a class, in several classes, at several schools. It sometimes happens that the special education teachers build a stable relationship to a child; however, this is not provided for by the structures. They are only there for a few hours, and every school day passing without any major friction between class teachers and special education teachers is a stroke of luck. All those who are convinced of inclusion hopethat the state will finally provide sufficient funds, but, as Türcke says, this hope will soon have to give way to the disenchantment that inclusion does not serve the children, but primarily serves the intentions to make savings: “A global inclusion offensive has started precisely because real national debt gives ever less cause to expect money for education.”

Inclusion: a neoliberal project

“Inclusion is a neoliberal project, not a sociocritical or even “left” project. It hurts all the more to see how much educational enthusiasm is burned up by it.” (p. 75) So Türcke indicates that a proper education for all cannot be a proper ecucation any more. Study groups should have roughly similar learning prerequisites. Of course, even in a – in terms of power – heterogeneous learning group everybody can solve arithmetical problems with the numbers between 1 and 100. Some will then count colored balls, while the others deal with adding and subtracting. But you cannot call this joint education; even less you can call it the end of exclusion. Especially children with disabilities and learning difficulties will feel their otherness painfully. They are constantly confronted with what they will surely never be able to learn. It is not a matter of excluding somebody in a discriminatory way, but it is about the fact that precisely these children have a right to a protected space where they do not have to compare with the others permanently. That would probably give them more stability and security.

Teaching shrinks to introduction and the handing out of working materials

Türcke fears that in future subject teachers will assume the role of support teachers: The actual “teaching” will shrink to the introduction and handing out of work and working materials. The teacher will henceforth only encourage and advise as well as evaluate the children and their work. Conventional support teachers remain the mobile operational service. But why should not also the class teachers become nomads in this new scenario? Mobile teams of learning coaches in flexible learning environments, in which all children are supervised and coached individually? In this way even school reports would become unnecessary. Portfolios (this is a term from the financial sector), i.e. competence profiles of children would take their place. Fortunately, this kind of standardised school still lies in the future, but the future has already begun. Worksheets dominate, portfolios are on the rise.

Simply letting them grow – that is not possible

In chapter three, “Return to the teacher”, Türcke shows how the current trend could be changed again for the better. He addresses himself to long-established developmental-psychological insights that have unfortunately been lost in the current debate on education. For example, he emphasizes the importance of showing things to the children, as this helps to consolidate volatile structures so as to form collective facts. When a child starts to learn, this is entirely dependent on close caregivers or family members and their emotions. But even under favorable circumstances, it always takes place in an environment also characterised by conflicts. The pioneers of modern pedagogy – above all, Rousseau – edited out this fact. He glorified the natural state, which had its justification in his time: he protested against using force and against the suppression of the child’s needs. What was natural was good and reasonable. Also the progressive educational movement of the time around 1900 succumbed to this fallacy. Their focus was also on the child and they also propagated letting it develop naturally. But their merit was that they wanted all subjects to be taught in an intuitively accessible way and to be perceived and learnt with all the senses. To some degree this is today established as the standard, and no one wants to return to the earlier drill school.

An “educational revolution” with a neoliberal accent

This approach is being glorified again, as part of the current “educational revolution”, but this time there is a neoliberal accent. But children want to learn, they are curious by nature, plus they need adults who show them the things in life. “Showing and highlighting is teaching” (p. 101) Here Türcke shows his belief that parents are probably the first and nearest teachers and that parents can also be good teachers. In his opinion though, more distance is of advantage for children from preschool age onwards.
So the children are detached from the care of their parents in daycare and kindergarten and accompanied on their way to school. Much depends on how this is done, if there is a framework, whether suggestions and rules are given with patience and perseverance or whether discord and disturbance are allowed. Children should get the opportunity to build common ground with their peers under the guidance of adults. If they miss this experience, it is not easy to make up for it later.
Elementary instruction at school essentially consists of showing and highlighting things or issues, and consolidation is not thinkable without repetition. Children starting school are to be familiarised persistently and patiently with their new environment. Normally the basic rules of spelling, reading, writing and counting should all be presented together, but this is everything but a process evolving no emotion. Primary school teachers are role models, and only if they accept this role, they awaken interest. Children are not insatiable explorers who find everything interesting if only given enough latitude. The foundation for their interest must be laid by their caregivers: “At primary school age enthusiasm for facts is still largely transmitted love for people. Human teaching and learning present themselves as a multi-layer transfer process. “(p. 106)
There is no learning free of emotion. Education comprises more than the accumulation of knowledge and skills. Good teachers also want to promote emotional and social learning. Nevertheless many people presuppose “... the behaviorist division of the learning capacity and then try to reassemble the thus isolated particles by teaching compassion and common sense in a way as isolated as the basics of mathematics.” (p. 110)
Türcke is very attentive to what he calls the common now-time. By this he means that a teacher places extra emphasis on a fact by calling for the attention of all students. If twenty pairs of eyes are fixed on him this is also a highlight for the teacher and no permanent condition. And the more he is enthusiastic about the matter, the more the children are enthusiastic, too, and this is the only way they will understand this matter deeply and lastingly. But that is by no means possible without a variation of follow-ups by repeating, applying, varying, deepening. Competencies, however, can be “grafted” on a person; somebody may be “competent” in some matter, even if he has only understood half of it. In fact, the creation of something of your own never begins at zero and has always something to do with overcoming resistance. Creativity is based on understood facts and cannot be learned per se. Today’s concept of creativity is shallow. It plays off mindless learning of predetermined facts against “networked” knowledge said to be creative.
The brave new work world of intercommunication and flexibility also goes hand in hand with what Türcke calls the harassing fire of interruptions. The following quote illustrates the way in which this background noise of modern communication has already arrived in school life: “As reading is determined as a competence which should be constantly checked, the current teaching of reading interrupts every act of reading by supposedly useful control and comprehension questions and so destroys it.”(p.130) How should a child discover the pleasure of reading, immerse itself into an exciting text, if it is checked after each paragraph?

Connection between thinking and writing is neglected

The introduction of the cloze text that does not demand the composition of coherent texts makes the flow of writing superfluous, so that the connection of thought and writing is recklessly neglected. Finally the triumph of the cloze text has led to the introduction of a simplified new basis writing. There is no longer an established context. No more time is wasted on motoric exercices, time that would allegedly be used better for dealing with creative contents. Türcke wonders where this will lead to, when some day children will be learning their letters with the computer instead of learning to write them themselves, and he progosticates an increase of ADHS.

Subject matter has no significance at all.

Often it is the work sheets that determine teaching today. They are distributed, they give  the children facts or circumstances on an individual level, and they demand: Calculate. Sum up. Fill in. The teacher walks around through the classroom and advises the pupils when required to do so. That is what “optimal support“ on a poor basis looks like. The subject matter has no significance of its own. But it is no longer a question of contents, as they are but a means to acquire competences. Competences comport themselves as if they were capital owned by a person. “The fundamental attitude of the paradigma of competences is to control and organise everything by yourself, to have a disposing relation even with things and thoughts that are intangible.“ (p. 144) Today even religious education follows a tendency towards the neoliberal ideology of education. So, for example, the children are supposed to acquire the competence of discovering fundamental issues of life. You cannot „discover“ fundamental issues. They force themselves upon anyone, in any case of disease or of feeling with another. They require no discovery expertise, but they do require an attitude that is open to them. This also requires contents. But content has to be imparted with the aid of emotion. Otherwise it has no chance to win children’s hearts. Contents reveal themselves only when they fascinate and let time be forgotten – i.e. if they evoke an attitude of devotion and a wish to linger. If something is to become part of an education, it will have to enter into the fundus of the student, he will have to grapple with it, it will have to mature with time.

An educational vow

“By contrast, the neoliberal educational offensive is an offensive against education. It wants to reduce education to competence, and attitude to behavior. Its success is catastrophic.”(P 146) For contents that really affect a child cannot be settled by isolated learning acts as they occur during competence learning. Nevertheless, this also leaves memory traces. Even when allowed to run wild as in today’s lessons, a memory remains. Therefore a fundus made up of parts of learned contents is made up by learning. This indistinct structure, that “still is more than competence” today represents the formation of a human being, and even if it is shamefully little, this sediment of residues of learnt factual content is a beacon of hope.
Machines have no education, they only have their program. They provide sheer competence. To view people only in terms of their competences means to degrade them to machines. “This is dreary! To reduce teacher to competence sourcing agents means to debase them. They must not put up with this. They are under no obligation to surrender themselves; but they should return to what teaching is intrinsically: to showing things. And what there is to show is facts which are not encompassed by competences and which therefore have something to give - something substantial that can provide stability and comfort” (p. 148). Just as the Hippocratic Oath gives an orientation in medical-ethical questions, so would a pedagogical oath be essential, and this would define the showing of things and facts in a common now-time as mandatory core activity. This would be a strong orientation.
Teachers also need a professional ethos, and that is not a competence but an attitude that makes up the backbone of a person. Yet the neoliberal education policy wants to be flexible. “But just as little as the insistence on the indispensability of plenary teaching is a plea for teacher-up-front style, so little does the criticism of the delusion of inclusion already imply a return to that rigidly separate schooling, which from the outset spoiled a lot of opportunities for self-development for many special, primary, and middle school pupils”. (p.149)
The conclusion at the end of the book is refreshing. Despite the sharp criticism of the competence orientation, which has progressed in Germany much more than here in Switzerland, Türcke shows a way out, he has hope. Admittedly politicians of all persuasions are still calling for extensive inclusion, and a harking back to divided schooling is taboo. But even in a divided school projects of special school pupils and high school students together are possible, as is impressively shown in the example of the film “Rhythm is it”.
The new learning culture is mainly promoted by the “leftists”, which is rather incomprehensible, as it has its origin in the neoliberal turnaround. Paradoxically, just those political forces that complain about the neoliberal excesses in education, uphold capitalism which they describe as the best of all forms of society. And those who criticize neoliberalism most sharply do everything to enforce the neoliberal competence and inclusion concept.     •

Christoph Türcke. Lehrerdämmerung. C.H.Beck, Munich 2016
(Translation Current Concerns)

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