From ‘Radical Impossibility’ to ‘I Am Learner’

I recently re-visited a paper by Ron Burnett, President of the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, entitled Learning to Learn in a Virtual World.

It was a critical paper that shaped my thinking. Ron took as his starting point, the paradoxical statements of Socrates (Plato’s words in Socrates’ mouth, really) and Freud about the ‘radical impossibility of teaching’ (a turn of phrase used by Shoshana Felman in an essay written in 1982). Ron’s paper is incredibly well written and (therefore) highly readable.

So, what is it about?

Is the whole process of teaching a paradox? When teachers teach and learners learn, what is the nature of the causal link between the two, if any? How does teaching produce learning? Does teaching produce learning? Is learning merely an accidental consequence of teaching?

One thing is clear to Ron, that:

….a recognition of the “impossibility” of teaching, enables and encourages the development of new and innovative approaches to pedagogy and learning. The contradiction is that learning can never be reduced to the way information and ideas are structured for communication. The core confusion is between the authority of the teacher and the authorship that goes into various educational discourses and the manner in which those discourses are exchanged
among learners and teachers.

Recognition of the ‘radical impossibility of teaching' at once affirms and negates the pedagogical activities that contribute to learning, since, on the one hand:

…learning is a part of everything we do as human beings…

while on the other hand:

…we have developed models of human thinking and models of mind that could best be described as functionalist and reductive in orientation. These models narrow the potential for learning and particularize the processes that make learning possible.

For Ron Burnett, a recognition of this ‘radical impossibility’ is the first necessary step towards fully understanding the need for a new education narrative, one in which teacher and learner are conjoined as mutually supportive learners.

For John Connell, it was a necessary step towards I Am Learner, and I will always be grateful to Ron for that provocation.