On students, teachers and the pedagogical alliance

We look for an idea that is beyond student-as-consumer, and we witness a reinforcement of a deterministic, manifest destiny of the student who bears the risk for her higher education. We witness statements that divide student and teacher: “we continue to use technology to reinforce 19th century teaching practice to meet out-dated assessment models.” We witness statements that tie information and employability to metrics and risk, through choice and accountability. We witness statements made about the rule of money in the creation of a market that will lever teaching excellence: “Without radical changes to how universities were financed however it was going to be difficult to change their behaviour. Now there is an opportunity to use our funding changes to push a real cultural change back towards teaching.” We witness statements made that reduce education to value: “Without high educational attainment, the UK will not maintain its wealth, quality of life and status in the world. A highly educated population is essential to Britain’s success in the global knowledge economy.”

Education defined by price; defined as value; defined for value. Relationships framed by price; defined as value; defined for value. Educational relationships framed by the ability of the student to manage her own risk: in finding £9,000 per annum to pay for access to her education; in managing her transition into higher education; in accessing and corralling sufficient resources to ensure progression across years; in enclosing and commodifying sufficient emotional and cultural and social capital to be employable. To become an entrepreneur in the face of the growth delusion of the UK economy, and the global assault on labour and the sociology of moderation that some would have us believe is opportunity, or skills for jobs as yet not invented, or the natural order.

Capitalist work as the natural order. The only alternative being there is no alternative.

And in this what is lost is the critical relationship between the student and the teacher. What is the complicity of the teacher in the entrepreneurial reinvention of the student? What is the definition of the pedagogy and of the curriculum worth in the face of the entrepreneurial reinvention of the student? What is the purpose of the teacher in the face of the risk- and compliance-based culture of higher education? What is the value of the teacher’s academic labour inside a marketised higher education? Where the social relationship between student and teacher is commodified around outcomes, performance, managerialism and risk, is there an alternative to a culture of performativity?

Where is the space to debate the alternative? We don’t witness this in the current UCU industrial action based on pay. We rarely witness this in the campaigns that claim to defend the British University. We are left, as Andrew McGettigan notes, with financialisation as the key determinant of the student-teacher relation.

Consumerism produces a new ‘teaching’ vector: customer-manager-ombudsman-regulator. It displaces traditional academic relations: it is essentially deprofessionalising. It cannot be emphasised enough that, no matter how many regulatory bodies, quangos and paper-trail hounds clog up the sector, the bottom line is that universities have degree awarding powers because they demonstrate (or are meant to) a ‘self-critical community’ of academics and scholars who safeguard standards.

As the pressures of the rule of money are exerted we wonder, what is to be done? Do we buy the idea that the University, governed by vice-chancellors as chief executives, and students as carriers of units of debt, and credit ratings agencies, and private providers operating with impunity inside its walls, and the realities of insurers of risk and bond markets, is lost? Do we cave to the idea that as a globally-competing business, the relationship between student and teacher is lost to the market, or as Neary and Hagyard argued to we re-radicalise the curriculum, and our relationships inside it?

In order to fundamentally challenge the concept of student as consumer, the links between teaching and research need to be radicalised to include an alternative political economy of the student experience. This radicalisation can be achieved by connecting academics and students to their own radical political history, and by pointing out ways in which this radical political history can be brought back to life by developing progressive relationship between academics and students inside and outside of the curriculum.

And this echoes and amplifies the radical, critical, pedagogical work of bell hooks in Teaching to Transgress, that

to educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin (p. 13).

This is spiritual, because it is about the person, in the form of the teacher and in the form of the student. It is about having soul and spirit and connecting to the soul and the spirit. It is not about connecting through the base abstraction of money. Thus, she continues:

that means that teachers must be actively involved committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students. (p. 15)

This is the testing of reality through the organising principles and values of the curriculum, in a way that Freire acknowledged in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

[T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side. (p. 39)

Transformation is liberation because it is deeply and politically personal and rooted in solidarity. It is not about the entrepreneurial internalisation of the risk of failure, it is framed by spaces inside-and-through which it is possible to challenge one’s perception of one’s place in the world with others. Thus, Freire maintains that this is about education and the politics of place, linked to identity, without which “there can be no real struggle.” In turn this is rooted in questioning and praxis: “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” (p. 72)

Here the role of the teacher is not as liberator, but as member of a solidarity economy through which pedagogy is not done to the unfortunate student as a form of emulation, but is defined and produced by the student. For Freire, “The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption”. (p. 54) Elsewhere Freire noted that “The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.” (p. 181)

This connects deeply to the idea that the teacher might hold the same liberation role, born out of solidarity, as the therapist who is able to effectively support the emancipation of her client as a human being. As Wampold has argued for psychotherapy, relationships that emerge from trust, care and love rooted in empathy tend to have an impact on recovery/liberation.

Putting aside the debate about whether some treatments are more effective than others, it is clear that if there are differences among treatments, the differences are quite small (Wampold, 2001, 2007, 2010). Thus, we are left with the question: If the differences among treatments are nonexistent or are very small, are there other factors that do have an influence on the effects of psychotherapy? The answer is yes—the therapist who is providing the psychotherapy is critically important. In clinical trials as well as in practice, some therapists consistently achieve better outcomes than others, regardless of the treatment approach used (Wampold, 2006).

Whilst Wampold highlights 14 qualities of effective therapists, the following seem especially pertinent in reflecting on Freire, hooks and Neary and Hagyard’s pedagogic radicalisation of the student/teacher relationship:

Clients [students] of effective therapists [teachers] feel understood, trust the therapist [teacher], and believe the therapist [teacher] can help him or her. The therapist [teacher] creates these conditions in the first moments of the interaction through verbal and importantly non-verbal behavior. In the initial contacts, clients [students] are very sensitive to cues of acceptance, understanding, and expertise. Although these conditions are necessary throughout therapy [the curriculum], they are most critical in the initial interaction to ensure engagement in the therapeutic [pedagogic] process.

Effective therapists [teachers] are able to form a working alliance with a broad range of clients [students]. The working alliance involves the therapeutic [pedagogic] bond, but also importantly agreement about the task of goals of therapy [learning]. The working alliance is described as collaborative, purposeful work on the part of the client [student] and the therapist [teacher]. The effective therapist [teacher] builds on the client’s [student’s] initial trust and belief to form this alliance and the alliance becomes solidly established early in therapy [teaching].

Moreover, this approach is reinforced in some analyses of the interrelationships between the client’s theory of change and therapist variables in psychoanalysis. Here what emerges is the critical “interplay between therapist variables (the person of the therapist) and the client’s theory of change. When these two vital factors meet, something new is created. It is crucial that the therapist becomes aware of, and manages, the effect of therapist variables on the alliance.” Just as the client’s theory of change in therapy co-evolves with the therapist through dialogue, meaningful pedagogic engagements are deeply political in that they involve the co-evolution of the spaces inside-and-against which the student and the teacher negotiate the liberation of the former from the latter’s power over her, alongside the understanding that the student has over the structural domination that de-limits her power to create her world.

Critically, this does not involve a uniform creation of the client/therapist or student/teacher model. That model might be revealed as advocacy or directive or designing or co-operative. They are individually framed and defined, and are grounded in phenomenological difference. As Robinson notes:

Research further suggests the most important aspect of therapy that involves the therapist is the therapeutic alliance. According to Assay and Lambert (1999), the therapeutic alliance accounts for 30 per cent of outcome variance. For Wampold (2001), the alliance accounts for more than half of the 13 per cent attributed to therapeutic factors, rather than client and extra-therapeutic factors. Put another way, the alliance accounts for seven times as much outcome variation as the model or technique being used by the therapist.

Thus, what is clear in the therapeutic situation, is understanding how the specific therapist meets the client’s theory of change, as it is revealed in the therapeutic alliance, precisely because: “each therapeutic encounter is a one-off encounter between a unique client with their unique theory of change, and a unique therapist with their unique response.” Here, for Robinson, two types of questions emerge in the therapeutic alliance: “They will ask ‘what part does my client’s theory expect me to play?’ They will then ask ‘Is this a part I have the skills to play and am capable of playing, and is it a part that ethically I am willing to play?’” In critical pedagogic terms teachers might also ask: “what part does student’s epistemological theory expect me to play in her learning? Is this a part that I have the skills to play and am capable of playing, and is it a part that ethically I am willing to play?

From a willingness to ask these questions emerges a social dialogue around: power and roles in organising a curriculum for liberation; the expertise, skills and knowledge to be shared; the practices to be uncovered, trialled and tested. This feels like the solidarity of connection that is beyond the rule of money. Pace Robinson, we might continue thus: “The client [student] comes to therapy [learn] with their presenting [pedagogical] problem(s), their solutions, their internal and external resources and, arising out of all of this, their own unique theory of change. The many variables that contribute to ‘me’ as a therapist [teacher] then come into play as I endeavour to meet the challenge to connect with this person and their theory.” At issue is then finding a dialogic solution that is constantly negotiated by student and teacher, which accommodates the student’s epistemological and ontological view of the world inside a pedagogical alliance. Such an alliance addresses what the student considers important and relevant, and helps the student frame a pedagogy that can support her action in the world. This needs to take place both inside and outside the classroom, in order to reflect what the student needs from the curriculum.

The question is whether educators have the will to struggle for a pedagogical alliance that is based upon the collective, socially-negotiated overcoming of power-over learning, teaching and the curriculum. Do they have the will to struggle for the humanistic connections between students and teachers, or will the abstracted power of money dominate and de-legitimise? How might a critical pedagogy enable self-actualisation and the genesis of the soul of the student through a pedagogical alliance?


3 Responses to On students, teachers and the pedagogical alliance

  1. Pingback: On the domination of time and the liberation of a pedagogical alliance | Richard Hall's Space

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