Students are now routinely referred to as “learners” in the school system-bound world of K-12 education. Teaching is “facilitating learning,” the classroom is a “learning environment,” and pursuing continuing education is “lifelong learning.” Over the past forty years, learning has essentially subsumed teaching, devalued the professional practice of teaching, and, in many ways, resulted in the disappearance of the teacher.
The dominant language of learning is symptomatic of a much more pervasive educational process – the learnification of primary and secondary education. That term, largely unknown to the public, was first coined by the Dutch-born educational philosopher Gert Biesta, the recognized global leader of the reclaiming teaching movement. It’s reached a point where the regular practice of standing to deliver a lesson is frowned upon by education ministries, education faculties and many elementary school principals.
Warnings from Biesta and fellow teaching practice researchers went largely unheeded until the global pandemic. Suspending in-person schooling in March 2020 for three months, followed by the introduction in September 2020 of hybrid-blended learning schedules, shook up the Canadian school system and exposed learnification and its debilitating effects on teachers and teaching for everyone to see.
With schools closed and traditional classrooms gone, teachers were left on their own to deliver the curriculum and interact, mostly-one-on-one, with students. Facing a gallery of students with cameras on, logged into Zoom or Microsoft Teams or another type of system-sanctioned platform, changed the terms of engagement in COVID-19 education times.
Conventional progressive pedagogical practices such as cooperative learning activities, facilitating group discussion and project-based learning were far more challenging, if not impossible to implement. Many and perhaps most teachers defaulted to simply assigning homework and hoped for the best. Over the course of the first three months, student participation rates plummeted and an estimated one-out-of-four students went missing in public education.
The gradual shift from teaching to learning did not happen overnight. The transformation has been happening gradually since the 1980s. But the change altered far more than the language of education. It changed the role, position and the identity of the teacher. A whole generation of teachers were schooled to shift from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” and, in the eyes of some, to “peer at the rear.” System change theorists and progressive education reformers socialized classroom practitioners to blend-in as a learner among learners in a learning community, to the point where many were almost indistinguishable from their students.
Today’s generation of teachers has been thrust into technology-enabled distance learning and given a crash course on managing the complexities of hybrid-blended learning. Video conferencing and live streaming are emerging as the primary survival tools for educators faced with teaching a combination of in-person and virtual classes. That dramatic development has also thrown school system change theorists and progressive pedagogues for a loop.
The new normal in K-12 education is not conducive to the simple resumption of past teaching practices, and particularly elementary learning centres, process-driven activities and interactive group learning. A whole generation of educators, steeped in progressive pedagogy, is coming to the realization that post-pandemic education may well be defined by physical distancing, spaced-out student desks, plexiglass partitions and “keeping your distance” education. Standing and delivering a lesson, live-streaming presentations and whole-class teaching are much more practical and pragmatic responses to post-pandemic educational realities.
Today it’s fashionable in K-12 education to attribute all that ails the system to globalization and so-called neo-liberal education reform. Standardized testing and accountability did play an instrumental role in promoting and entrenching efficiency and managerialism, while eroding teacher autonomy in the school and community. It was not, however, the main impetus behind the new technocratic educational language of learnification. That shift was promoted by education change gurus and reformers of all persuasions, and – most notably – by education progressives wedded to student-centred learning.
The pandemic disruption has upset the educational status quo and challenged the hegemony of system-focused learnification. Engaged parents and educators have been awakened to what Biesta aptly identified as the real point of education: to learn something, to learn it for a reason and to learn it from someone. It may turn out that it took a global pandemic to demonstrate the wisdom of bringing teachers back to centre stage and putting teaching back into K-12 education.