Teacher-Student Relationship

David Brooks, in his popular book, The Social Animal, expounds on education, and has a few interesting things to say, mainly in the American context (although undoubtedly with meaningful echoes elsewhere). For instance:

For 30 years I’ve been covering school reform and we’ve basically reorganised the bureaucratic boxes — charters, private schools, vouchers — but we’ve had disappointing results year after year. The fact is, that people learn from people they love, and if you’re not talking about the individual relationship between the teacher and the student, then you’re not talking about reality.

But that reality is expunged from our policy-making process.

Of course, it is about so much more than ‘…the individual relationship between the teacher and the student…’, and to be fair, his book does dig deeper than that in places. And whether or not you have to love someone to learn from them is, at least, debatable.

I’m not convinced any more by the absolute centrality of that relationship between teacher and learner (beyond the undoubted centrality of the relationship between the very youngest learners in school and their teachers). It is, and always will be, a critical relationship, but the connected nature of our world today means that a number of other relationships can be defined as central to successful learning: the relationship between learner and learner, the relationship between the teacher-as-learner and the learner (and sometimes between the teacher-as-learner and the learner-as-teacher), the relationship between the learner and the prodigious mountains of information available at a keystroke, the relationship between the learner and their own understanding of the world we live in.….and there are so many more.

Nonetheless, Brooks’ book is an interesting read, an odd mixture of fact and fable. His core thesis, that we are driven far more by our instincts, by our unconscious, than by rational thought, is one I have some sympathy for, although it is not an argument that in any way negates the centrality of the scientific method, of course. I still lean towards David Hume’s notion of the primacy of experience over logic, when he wrote:

We abandon ourselves to the natural undisciplined suggestions of our timid and anxious hearts…

Brooks’ thesis is not a million miles away from a philosophy uncovered by this great Enlightenment thinker a quarter of a millenium ago.