Our conventional pedagogy emerges from a principle that is hardly communal. It centres on a teacher who does little more than deliver conclusions to students. It assumes that the teacher has all the knowledge and the students have little or none; that the teacher must give and the students must take; that the teacher sets all the standards and the students must measure up. Teacher and students gather in the same room at the same time not to experience community but simply to keep the teacher from having to say things more than once.
In reaction to the above convention, a proposed pedagogy based on an antithetical principle has arisen: students and the act of learning are more important than teachers and the act of teaching. The student is regarded as a reservoir of knowledge to be tapped; students are encouraged to teach each other; the standards of accountability emerge from the group itself; and the teacher’s role varies from facilitator to co-learner to necessary evil. It may sound like community, but as I will argue in a moment?, it can too easily degenerate into something less than the community of truth.
As the debate swings between the teacher-centred model and the student-centred model, some of us are torn between the poles. We find insights and excesses in both approaches, and neither seems adequate to the task. The problem is that…we are caught in yet another either-or. Whiplashed with no way to hold the tension, we fail to find a synthesis that might embrace the best of both.
A classroom in which the best features of teacher- and student- centred education merge and transcend is not by putting teacher nor student, but the subject at the centre of our attention. If we want a community of truth in the classroom, a community that can keep us honest, we must put a third thing, a great thing, at the centre of the pedagogical circle. When student and teacher are the only active agents, community easily slips into narcissism, where either the teacher reigns supreme or students can do as they wish. A learning community that embodies both rigor and involvement will elude us until we establish a plumbline that measures teacher and students alike as great things can do.
True community in any context requires a transcendent third thing that holds both me and thee accountable to something beyond ourselves. The subject-centred classroom is characterized by the fact that the third thing has a presence so real, so vivid, so vocal, that it can hold teacher and students alike accountable for what they say and do. In such a classroom, there are no inert facts. The great thing is so alive that teacher can turn to student or student to teacher, and either can make a claim on the other in the name of that great thing. Here, teacher and students have a power beyond themselves to contend with; the power of a subject that transcends our self-absorption and refuses to be reduced to our claims about it.
In a subject-centred classroom, the teacher’s central task is to give the great thing an independent voice; a capacity to speak its truth quite apart from the teacher’s voice in terms that students can hear and understand. When the great thing speaks for itself, teachers and students are more likely to come into a genuine learning community, a community that does not collapse into the egos of students or teacher but knows themselves accountable to the subject at its core.
Having seen the possibility of a subject-centred classroom, I now listen anew to students’ description of their great teachers in which ‘a passion for the subject’ is a trait so often named. I always thought that passion made a teacher great because it brought contagious energy into the classroom, but now I realise its deeper function. Passion for the subject propels that subject, not the teacher, into the centre of the learning circle and when a great thing is in their midst, students have direct access to its energy of learning and of life.
A subject-centred classroom is not one in which students are ignored. Such a classroom honours one of the most vital needs our students have: to be introduced to a world larger than their own experiences and egos, a world that expands their personal boundaries and enlarges their sense of community. This is why students often describe great teachers as people who ‘bring to life’ things that the student had never heard of, offering them an encounter with otherness that brings the students to life as well.
A subject-centred classroom also honours one of the most vital needs as teachers: to invigorate those connections between our subjects, our students and our souls that help make us whole again and again. But putting the secret at the centre of the circle, we remember the passion that brought us into this work in the first place; a remembering that cannot happen when we and our students sit in that circle alone.
Is such a pedagogy a mere romantic fantasy or can it become a practical response to some of our most pressing educational needs?