The dialectical task of the hand

by Carl Bossard*

Good leadership qualities include the ability to think and act in tense situations. This is often forgotten. However, to act as a leader is multi-layered. Even in everyday school life: this includes giving support and letting go. An artist reminds us of this.

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. How true! To stand in front of a picture, hold still, marvel – and let your mind wander and indulge in associations. That’s what happened to me when I saw a picture by the German painter Norbert Schwontkowski (1949–2013). Especially after I discovered the title of the painting: “The Teacher”.

Provide support and
at the same time allow freedom

At first glance, it appears to be an awkward painting: a few brushstrokes, faces only hinted at, very few colours. The figures are barely distinguishable. Who is older here? Who is the teacher? Who is the upright person, who is the floating one? And the key question: How do the two figures relate to each other?
  Art educator Jochen Krautz attempts an answer in his book “Bilder von Bildung. Für eine Renaissance der Schule” (Images of education. For a Renaissance of the School).1 He writes: “In the reduction to a few brushstrokes […] something essential of the pedagogical relationship and its task is made clear. The teacher holds and secures the pupil and at the same time enables him to float, to become free.”
  Providing support and at the same time enabling freedom – in a relationship, in an asymmetrical interaction: it is the central contradiction, of every educational process; it is the challenging dialectic of relationship dynamics – in companies and organisations as well as in schools.

Education is a dialectical process

The eye quickly zooms in on the centre of the picture: the two hands. But this elementary detail is not exactly recognisable. It alludes to the skilfully balanced pedagogical or interpersonal relationship. Jochen Krautz again: “Thus, being a teacher is a fragile task between holding, securing and releasing.”2
  Such a dialectic is generally part of the task of educating others; opposites have to be balanced again and again, contradictions have to be brought into a clever equilibrium, which means allowing freedom and at the same time conveying security. Being present without imposing – supporting without being overbearing – understanding without always agreeing – being laughingly serious. The Basel philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers once said that any exclusivity is inhumane. Good leadership is therefore dialectical balancing; it thrives on the integration of opposites, on understanding affection with simultaneous clarity of purpose, for example.

Freedom and order at the same time

Many such pairs of opposites are familiar, especially in school. Immanuel Kant’s question is well-known: “How do I cultivate freedom in the face of compulsion?” At first glance, the two terms seem to contradict each other – depending on the perspective from which one is arguing. They are in a dialectical relationship with each other and are simultaneously dependent on each other. Every freedom requires a certain security, a framework within which it can move. And every security also creates freedom, because it provides a framework within which one can be free again. Good teachers therefore give pupils security without taking away their freedom. And they give them just enough freedom that they don’t meander in uncertainty. “Without order,” says Albert Einstein, “nothing can exist; but without freedom, nothing can come into being.”
  In other words: Young people should be guided towards autonomy, but they also need structures to support them. This is especially true for children with learning difficulties. They need a stable railing that gives them support and security. It is the vital presence of the teacher, a stimulating and guiding counterpart. ‘Pedagogue’ comes from the Greek paid-agein, ‘to lead young people’. Leading, not just mentoring and supporting.

Taking responsibility for yourself

Many theorists of learning and thinking remind us of this – including the Bernese university lecturer and didact Hans Aebli, perhaps the most important student of the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget.3 For Aebli, the cognitive development of a young person proceeds from the outside to the inside and – depending on the conditions – is more or less guided. For him, learning, thinking and problem-solving are first and foremost social, i.e. dialogue-based and therefore linked to a relationship: the hand, the turned gaze.
  There is the small child, the adolescent, the young person. Opposite them is a more competent partner, an attentive teacher, in a direct relationship, face-to-face. They form a bridge, a relationship – as a basis for dialogue, exchange (of ideas), teaching and learning. Just as the artist Norbert Schwontkowski expresses it in his painting.
  Learners gradually internalise the problem-solving mode. After all, it was initially socially supported. At some point, they interact mentally with themselves – as they previously did with a more competent person face-to-face. They take responsibility for their autonomous learning, thinking and problem solving.

We need a counterpart,
to learn to think

But this responsibility hardly comes naturally; we are not Kaspar Hauser figures. In the beginning, you need a responsible counterpart who guides you, who leads you to yourself in a mutual exchange and thus, eventually, to autonomous critical thinking.
  After all, thinking is a conversation, a dialogue between me and myself. That should be the core purpose of school: to lead young people to think, to find themselves – and to understand: to find themselves in others, in the other person. The writer and teacher Peter Bichsel, for example, experienced this. He remembers: “I had a wonderful primary school teacher in the 5th and 6th grade in Olten: he convinced me of myself and turned me into a writer. Because underneath all the mess of spelling mistakes, he discovered that I wrote good essays. […] I loved him.”4
  Understood in this way, the cognitive, creative development of young people is a joint ‘construction’ between them and a responsible counterpart. The goal is autonomy, the goal is symmetry, but the path to this is not symmetrical. It is initially asymmetrical. Children and young people therefore need the hand of other people. A hand that provides support and also lets go.
  Leadership is a dialectic process.  •


1 Krautz, Jochen. Bilder von Bildung. Für eine Renaissance der Schule. (Images of education. For a renaissance of the school.) Munich: Claudius Verlag, 2022.
2 ibid., p. 95.
3 Aebli, Hans. “Von Piagets Entwicklungspsychologie zur Theorie der kognitiven Sozialisation.” (From Piaget’s developmental psychology to the theory of cognitive socialisation.) In: Gerhard Steiner (ed.): Die Psychologie des 20. Jahrhunderts, Band VII: Piaget und die Folgen. (The Psychology of the 20th Century, Volume VII: Piaget and the Consequences.) Zurich: Kindler, 1978, pp. 604–627.
4 In: Die Zeit of 24 June 2021, p. 17

Source: of 25 May 2024

*  is the founding Director of the University of Teacher Education Zug. Before that, he was headmaster of the Cantonal Secondary School Nidwalden and director of the Cantonal School Lucerne. Today he consults for schools and leads continuing education courses. He deals with questions of school history and education policy.

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