Our approach is vested in the following principles:
- Understanding that learning should be interesting and fun and that tuition should be a training ground for social, spiritual, emotional, and knowledge acquisition.
- Understanding that maturity and wisdom arise from the gradual taking of responsibility for human actions.
- An ecological epistemology whereby the connectedness of the different aspects of life are presented, and that linear cause-effect thinking is framed in the circular ecosystemic way of knowing the world.
- Understanding that universal inclusivity demands that we reach out and care for all who experience impoverishment of any kind or circumstance.
- That there must be proof of learning and understanding, which is an essential output in any educational institution and that at any time this can be assessed/presented.
- That learning and assessment can take place in diverse manners across different media platforms and that project based learning, continuous assessment, conversational learning, and case studies are valid methods.
- Understanding that knowledge and knowing are different. The difference lies in that knowing requires a knower and is tied to context and observation.
- Understanding that it’s the listener, not the speaker who determines the meaning of an utterance.
- Realising that the map is not the territory.
- Realising that in any dynamic system the roles are not fixed and may be interchanged: Teacher may take the role of learner, while learner may also be a teacher.
- Understanding that dignity thrives in an environment of mutual reciprocity.
- Power and control are merely descriptions of various forms of cooperation.
- Understanding that stereotypes and generalisations are simply artefacts of lazy thinking relying on oversimplified ideas, often resulting in errors in judgment.
- Understanding that we share this world and that people and nature could work in cooperation with the theme of “Nature knows best”.
- Understanding that access to education is a right and that diverse methods of accessing information should be made possible even in impoverished contexts. (Guerilla Open Access Manifesto)
Learning begins with each student’s aims or outcomes. Gordon Pask (1976a:45)
My interest in an alternative educational system has been driven for many years by a quote from Ross Ashby related to his cybernetic view on the topic of intelligence: “Everyone is world champion at some game (although some of the games have not yet been recognized) (Conant, 1981: 426).” If educational systems accepted this proposition, they would assist or even challenge students to identify their passions, realizing their unique contributions, rather than standardizing knowledge and skills. Of course, such acceptance implies that the society that embeds education is structured to employ these unique contributions to the benefit of all. I would like to believe that the purpose of education is summarised as follows:
Society has instituted, and supports, an educational system as a means for developing human personality and thus fostering the common good. The worthy ends of all human activity include relief from material and spiritual want, from ignorance, from oppression of body, mind, and soul. Education that fosters the fullest growth of the moral, aesthetic, social, physical, and intellectual aspects of the human being must be available for all, not just the privileged, members of society… We may explain our moral concepts and standards humanistically, as the result of the accumulated experience of our race. (Burnham, 1963:32)
Keeping this in mind, I have realized that each individual has something special to offer and has the ability to think in an entrepreneurial innovative manner. It is my role to create an environment where the students can thrive and these special characteristics of the learners can grow—while I too learn. The reader may now be asking, “How do you do this?”
The first step is to determine the roles of all the actors in the classroom. The word actors is used based on Austin’s (1962:138) statement:
Once we realize that what we have to study is not the sentence but the issuing of an utterance in a speech situation, there can hardly be any longer a possibility of not seeing that stating is performing an act.
Each person in the education system is in effect an actor, and each person has a role to play in the teaching and learning system. Defining the roles of the learner and the teacher may seem easy at first; however, this in my view requires a complete re-think of the education system, a study of communication theory, and a paradigm shift for most people.
A common misconception is that many educators believe that teaching rests on transmitting information. This information transmitted model based on Shannon Theory is problematic. Presenting information is not teaching, and information is not knowledge: “we do not transmit knowledge, we transmit information and this information only becomes knowledge when there is real understanding and application, not mere rote regurgitation” (Du Plessis, 2015: 4). These sentiments are not new, for Ernst von Glasersfeld’s point was already clear when he stated: “Knowledge is not passively received but actively built up by the cognizing subject” (1992: 18). This “information transmitted” and its associated absolute judgments vested in Shannon Theory, are problematic in social sciences, with channel capacity being reliant on human memory capacity (Nizami, 2011), as well as cognitive processing factors. Learning is biological adaptation, which happens incidentally in the context of the pursuit of current “need-satisfying” goals (Scott, 2010).
Transmitting information without awareness of the receiver and its characteristics becomes a guessing game. If the receivers of this information do not actually receive or understand the message as the educator (transmitter) intended, the responsibility still rests on the educator for this error in communication. The classroom is a communication system, which both the transmitter and receiver are equally important in this shared learning system. Presenting work to a group of students in a class is just that, it is an act of presenting. If the students have learning disabilities, or do not get this message, or do not care to take part, then the presenter remains a presenter. The term teacher can only be attributed to this presenter when learning takes place, as the term teacher requires the term learner for each to be attributes of the other. There is a systemic relationship between these two terms. I cannot be a teacher without the presence of learners, who by their learning solidify the term teaching—note the use of present tense. Knowledge is different from knowing, with knowing tied to a knower. The focus on the present tense links the process to the word knowledge and removes the objectivity, as it now incorporates the observer. The knower is an important aspect of the knowledge and thus is also included in the system, as everything known is experienced from the viewpoint of an observer. Figure 1 shows a representation of the theorising person in their world of constructing knowledge.
Punctuating the attributes within the system allows one to determine the responsibilities of those who make up the system. The word attribute is used rather than characteristic, which was inspired from following Alan Turing’s (1951) work on intelligence. Turing in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, believed that intelligence is an attribute provided by the other in the interaction between the two. This method of determining intelligence moves away from fixed definitions of what it means to be intelligent and introduces the experience associated with the activity as the informer of intelligence. The same is true for the word teacher. To provide a set of definitions describing what it means to be a teacher would find that as society changes, the definition would become outdated as learning systems evolve. Further, asking students what a teacher is, will also show that there is variability in this definition for different students have different answers to this question. Turing realised that the Black Box approach is a better method for describing behaviours. The observer is the one who provides the attribute of teacher through their experience in the classroom. This means that the learner through their learning, are attributing the term teacher to the person who is steering their learning, and vice versa for each performing their responsibilities within the system allow the other parts of the system to reach their goals. When a group of students attribute the term “good teacher” to me, this does not mean I am now a good teacher in a universal sense. Rather, for this group of students they have experienced my role as effective in the interaction between them and me; however, another group of students may determine that I am a useless teacher. The point is that it is the in the between that is of interest, as Glanville (2008) highlights. Thus, the combination and relationship between the parts have resulted in an outcome where this label of “good teacher” has emerged—it is not something that I own independently.
The labelling of the parts within the system are merely descriptions of observations attributed by observers. The teacher who sees misbehaved or naughty students, should also see this too can be mutually reciprocal. What role has the teacher played to have learners who are misbehaving or students who are not learning? Is the teacher also misbehaving? The same is true of the teacher who says she has weak learners. The learners are not weak in an objective sense. The subjective experience of the teacher in the interaction between the teacher and the learners gave rise to this label, which is a function of the beliefs and values of the person/observer who made this observation providing this label of weak learners. This is why a different teacher may not agree with the colleague who made this label, as the other teacher may have a different experience of these same students. The Milan Research team in their work in cybernetic family therapy found that labelling can be troubling. Boscolo et al (1987:44) wrote:
Once labelling has been accepted by the family, then all behaviours are related to the labelling …: “You are cooperative”; “You are good”; “You are bad”. It is like being cast in a role in a play and never being able to get out of it. If you say “I get along with my son, we have fun together,” that’s relational. But if you say “My daughter is intelligent,” you use words to kill the relationship. To unstick that kind of system, you must bring in a process that helps people get away from labels – not only negative ones, but positive ones too.
Labelling can quickly lead to a generalizing narrative, for example, “this group of learners are weak”, or “the public school system provides weak students”. These statements then become the accepted narrative in a department within a school using it as a justification for poor results. There are several problems with this line of thinking. First, narratives such as these are not true of all people. Second, it just adds to the blame game (See paper titled Chasing the Blame by Glanville, 1995). As a responsible party within the learning system, I need to realise that labelling should be made in the present tense. I may feel that today the assessments for some students did not go well and thus I can ask the students what led them to achieve poor results, but this cannot be extended to labelling a person as weak. This same person has the capacity to achieve greatly in the next assessment, while the person who had achieved well in the past, may now perform poorly in the next assessment. Thus, going down the rabbit hole of assuming that behaviours are static, robs the individuals and myself of future spontaneous new behaviours and observations.
Second, the next problem with labelling is that it is made by an observer to another observer and thus there is some responsibility on the person who makes the label, as it is this person who punctuated the observed behaviour and provided a label for their observation. I have experienced a learner who usually scored high on their assessments and then scored considerably lower. Upon enquiring about the learner’s performance, this leaner was in fact quite happy with their mark as they had experienced a life-changing event (violent crime incident) and in their own words “had still managed to pass the test”. My labelling is irrelevant as it more important to determine how the learner feels about their achievements, rather than applying my worldview on theirs. In sum: Labelling is troubling and so too are stereotypes and generalisations.
This brings me to my next point of mutual reciprocity. Cybernetics is concerned with circularity and mutual causality. Glanville states (2008:168-169):
The Principle (or Law) of Mutual Reciprocity states that, if through drawing a distinction we are willing to give a certain quality to that we distinguish on one side of the distinction, we must also permit the possibility of the same quality being given to that which we distinguish on the other side of this distinction: If I distinguish myself from you and I consider I am intelligent, I must consider that you (which I distinguish from I) might also be intelligent…
This principle explains how qualities such as intelligence may be understood to belong to both participants in an interaction; shared in the between (Glanville, 2008). In the classroom context, if the actors (teachers) are to think of themselves as having knowledge, so too must they allow the other actors (students) to also have the option of having knowledge, for the teacher alone with knowledge is meaningless, unless this knowledge is being acknowledged by the co-learners in the classroom. There needs to be compliance/cooperation between the relational elements, with neither side thinking they are in control.
Is there such a thing as power and control? Does a slave have no power? For example, in Hegel’s (1998) Phenomenology of Spirit, he shows how the master and the slave are both required for each to individually exist. In the same way the sadist needs a masochist, a child needs a parent, or the first term cannot be stated without the assumption of the second role-player. Thus, educators need learners and learners need educators (not excluding that one can fulfil both roles). Von Foerster states: “the principle of relativity says that a hypothesis that is true for A and B can only be acceptable if it is also valid for A and B together” (von Foerster & Poerksen, 2002:28). Cybernetics shows that all communication be it between man and man, or man and machine, is always circular. Owing to the circularity in the relationship, the notion of unilateral control is rejected. Control is not located in any one entity but rather is in the between. Observers or actors in a conversation are never outside of this system but are part of it, including their own observations and their observations of the other’s observations and so forth (see figure 1). By use of feedback, which teacher and student provide as a process, neither are controlling the other. Barnes (2007) says, “I don’t control you, though I may think I do or wish I did”. Teachers need to move away from linear thinking—thinking that they are in control of their learners. With the cooperation of the learners in a given context, the teacher may experience that they are “in control” but this is an illusion. This means that there should also be a mind-set change from hierarchy to heterarchy. The role of the teacher could also be seen as a steersman or a variety regulator. The word cybernetics originates from the Greek word Kybernetes which means to steer. The role of the teacher is not to control; it is to steer. There is still circularity in this steering. Pilots, sailors, and racing car drivers know that steering is not a linear activity, as successful steering entails constantly monitoring (or feeling) of the vehicle/machine as the steering is planned and implemented relying on continuous status updating or feedback in a recursive manner.
Teacher and learners together form a system. I have realised that having a condescending attitude towards students as though they do not know anything, is pointless as its untrue. If I think of students in this way, then according to Glanville’s mutual reciprocity, they too could think of me in the same way: as a person who does not know anything of importance in their world. If I have a hopeless attitude, then why would I expect anything different from them? I must take responsibility for not only my observations, but also my attitude, actions, and beliefs. For my students to think of me as a good teacher, I need to co-create a classroom context where their observation of my behaviour and utterances give rise to their experience of me as “good”. This in turn means that definitions of behaviour are context specific and vary from situation to situation. Being called a good teacher is an attribute. An attribute is something provided by someone else. This in turn means that for me to reach my goal of “good teacher”, I require the students to reach their goals too in the context of a syllabus under a given curriculum.
Full version available upon request.
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