Book Review: The Rediscovery of Teaching by Gert J. J. Biesta
London/New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 111 pages. Hb. £96 / Pb. £26.39 / EBk £29.69
Extended Review Essay
Ewald Terhart, University of Münster, Institute of Educational Science, Germany
Neo-Existentialism as a Theory of Classroom Teaching? An Extended Review of Gert Biesta’s Re(dis)covery of Teaching
Gert J. J. Biesta’s latest book, The Rediscovery of Teaching, is devoted to classroom teaching and to school teachers. Biesta argues that we have to rediscover teaching as well as the teacher from a pedagogical point of view. He argues that it is time to free teaching and teachers from what he considers to be a too narrow psychological interpretation fixed on increasing measurable learning outcomes on the side of the students. The title of the book could also be The Re(dis)covery of Teaching. The foreword (page 1) bears exactly this title and articulates two senses of rediscovery: The rediscovery of teaching in the sense of seeing teaching in a new way, and the recovery of teaching in the sense of healing or re-establishing it, or re-valuing it as a defendable, necessary, and essentially value-based and valuable practice.
What is it that Biesta has rediscovered and that he wants to recover at the same time? To understand this, first of all Biesta’s theoretical considerations concerning education and teaching have to be presented, because his theory of teaching and the teacher are embedded in ideas about the mission, the importance, and the limits of education in general: the task of education is to support children and adolescents on the way to independent adult life.
Biesta is arguably one of the best-known and most-cited contemporary educational philosophers in the world. In his work he covers a broad spectrum of educational philosophical topics, in which he does not just focus on questions, traditions, and problems of philosophy of education in the narrower, technical-specialist sense. Nor does he follow the ‘classic’ traditional analytic approach to educational philosophy. Rather, his books and articles are devoted to a very broad range of themes and developments in the current educational system. He also includes educational research and theorising in his work, and links all this to processes of change in the socio-cultural contexts of education, schools, and teaching. After numerous books and essays on more general and fundamental educational topics, it makes sense that he has now published this book on teaching and teachers under the title The Rediscovery of Teaching.
Biesta’s pedagogical approach is very much rooted in contemporary social philosophy and epistemology as well as in the European (continental) tradition of philosophy of education. He criticises the dominance of empirical-quantitative educational research, in particular its claim to supply educational policy and educational practice with sound and solid empirical evidence as a basis for decisions concerning educational policy and practice. In his articles and books he has repeatedly rejected the claim of psychology to be able to adequately interpret and analyse pedagogical processes and phenomena in general, and teaching and teachers’ work in particular. His recurring motif in this context is the criticism of the “learnification” of education. I will come back to this later.
In this respect, one can view Biesta’s work as a counterpart to psychometric and experimental quantitative educational research and to the global “test industry” (Biesta, 2007). In his view, this test industry is unsettling both teachers and parents, by orienting schools and teaching towards a narrow – and wrong – goal: the increase of measurable learning outcomes in a few central domains, which results in a deprofessionalisation of teaching. These are positions also set forth in German-speaking and other European countries by the critics of the dominance of empirical-psychometric educational research. In Germany, this criticism is embedded in the ‘leftist’ critique of the neo-liberal transformation of the education system, partly embedded in the traditional convictions that the pedagogical field has a genuine structure and dignity of its own, which has to be defended against all political and economic intrusions and interventions. Sometimes the critics also mix or combine ‘leftist’ and more ‘traditionalist’ arguments. In opposition to the internationally known, empirical-psychometric paradigm of the study of education and schooling, Biesta develops and defends an alternative, holistic interpretation of education and teaching processes based on a humanistic and hermeneutical approach. In this approach, the person, the subject-to-be-educated, is at the centre of educational attention and intention, but this subject is always regarded as existing in close connection to the world and to others. As a consequence of this humanistic approach to education and educational theory and research, his critique of neoliberal education policy and of quantitative-empirical research is not so much driven by leftist political arguments and positions. Instead, the autonomy and generic structure of the pedagogical field are defended against whatever external, not genuinely pedagogical, intervention may come up.
For those living with and working in German academic pedagogy (Pädagogik) and education science (Erziehungswissenschaft) and who are familiar with its history, this approach may be both surprising and familiar: in English, on an international level and with tremendous resonance, Biesta obviously develops a geisteswissenschaftliche theory of education, schooling, teaching, and the teaching profession (cf. Biesta, 2011, 2015; Oelkers, 2006; Schriewer, 2017). Biesta does this in a clear and dedicated manner. And he finds much greater resonance than the founding fathers and current adherents of this German pedagogical theory-tradition would have ever dreamed of.
In Biesta’s words: “The educational task consists in arousing the desire in another human being for wanting to exist in and with the world in an grown-up way, that is as subject” (p. 7, italics in original). Being-a-subject and adulthood mean to be able to shape the world together with others, without giving up the world due to excessive creative will or, conversely, abandoning any creative will and even shattering oneself as a subject. Biesta writes: “The middle section between world destruction and self-destruction is the field on which an adult form of (co) being with others and others can be reached” (p. 15). Adulthood also includes an elaboration of one’s desires encouraged (but not enforced) by pedagogical actions and the experience of the difference between the subjectively desired and the generally desired. In this respect, education is centrally about interruptions of one’s own state of mind (interruption), it creates a sanctuary for contemplation (suspension), and offers support and assistance (sustenance) for those to be educated.
These elements are central to all forms of education. For the teacher it is crucial that his institutionally conferred power is accepted as an authority by the students. Biesta defends the authority of teaching and teachers. Teaching has to address students as subjects and should not regard them as mere objects of control. Teaching remains necessary and inevitably risky, and in a way uncontrollable and ineffective: one never knows what short- and long-term consequences will result from teaching on the side of the students, in some cases perhaps also absolutely none. However, this is not, according to Biesta, a problem or a deficit. Uncertainty or, to use a term from the German-language tradition of didactics, “Unverfügbarkeit” (“unavailability”, unverfügbar in the sense of not-to-reach refers to a thing not at the disposal of man; the concept is also used in theological discourses) is exactly a positive element of teaching and for education in general. That is why Biesta has called one of his earlier and well-known books The Beautiful Risk of Education (Biesta, 2015). The idea of giving education, schooling, and teaching a clear and measurable goal and then trying to find the most effective means to reach this goal is misleading, according to Biesta. In his eyes it is crucial that we overcome the safe view of and on education, teaching, and learning and, on the contrary, recognise the risk, the openness, the unpredictability, disruptiveness, jumpiness, and incontestability as constitutive elements of each and every pedagogical process and action – if we want them to be and remain genuinely educational processes and actions! If these elements are regarded as unimportant, if they are ignored or abolished, the process of trying to influence students consequently loses its character as a pedagogical process. The rest is behavior-shaping, training, indoctrination, manipulation.
Of particular importance to Biesta’s position concerning teaching and learning is his idea that teaching must be conceived independently from learning. Or, even more strongly: that teaching has to be “freed” from learning on both the conceptual and the empirical level. Biesta fights against the monopoly of psychology to theorise, to research, and to determine learning processes (Biesta, 2004). In his eyes it is wrong (a) to associate the teacher’s teachings too closely and one-sidedly with the subsequent learning of the students, and then (b) to consider measurable learning outcomes as a demonstration of the impact or success of the teaching activity. Teaching cannot control or produce or generate learning but it might stimulate or provoke it. However, he also rejects the widespread constructivist view of the relationship between teaching and learning as being too psychological or ‘ego-logically’ oriented. Rather, it is necessary to broaden the concept of learning, because learning does not only happen in cases when someone has taught something to someone. Learning should instead be conceived as a broader, existential experience in which one experiences the thing as well as oneself and others by encountering oneself in the process of doing something. Being taught is thereby only one element of the constant learning of an individual. In this respect, both teaching and learning would profit if they were freed from each other, if their nexus was dissolved.
With the image of helping students on their way to adulthood, on the path towards becoming a subject in a world of others, Biesta does not reduce or downgrade the role of the teacher. He rejects the psychological view that there has to be “a shift from teaching to learning” (Barr & Tagg, 1995) in schools and classrooms, a view that has long been claimed or propagated by social constructionist learning and teaching psychology, which in its essence led to a withdrawal of the teacher and to a simultaneous emphasis on the students’ self-organised learning. As Biesta puts it, it was wrong to downgrade the teacher from a sage on the stage to a guide at the side and finally to a mere peer in the rear. Teaching and the teacher have to be rehabilitated or recovered – even and especially if one is interested in a deliberative, emancipatory teaching that strengthens the students as subjects-existing-in-a- world-with-others, rather than being the center of their world. It is precisely a critical, emancipatory-oriented understanding of education that has to rely on the present, recognisable, irritating, provocative, interruptive, or even disruptive teacher, a teacher who can lead the pupils out of their current, limited subjectivity and situation to broader horizons of knowledge, thinking, judging, experiencing, and living together in a world together with others. Learning and educational processes are erratic, not uniform. They do not fit a specific developmental logic, a further argument against the dominant schools of thought in developmental psychology.
Although he rejects developmental models, Biesta nevertheless opens the door to accept some kind of pedagogical influence, one that has been successful when it is no longer needed. A pedagogical influence is successful when it does not ‘work’ any longer because of the established subject-ness of the person to be educated. This idea shapes the concept of pedagogical influence or pedagogical effect in a non-technological way, but in the sense of the basic paradox of all pedagogical striving: that one wants to lead others to their freedom. Education sees itself as responsible, but at the same time wants to become superfluous in the end.
To those familiar with the German-speaking tradition of educational theorising, this pattern appears like a good old friend: it is philosophical existentialism (cf. e.g. Heidegger, Buber) applied to or explicated for the field of education: existentialist pedagogy. The most important representative of this pedagogy in Germany was Otto-Friedrich Bollnow. Biesta often refers to this intellectual and/or theoretical tradition in German pedagogy and cites Bollnow in other articles and books, but not, however, in The Rediscovery of Teaching. This is a remarkable gap in a book in which diverse older and newer theoretical approaches and offerings are presented and discussed very thoroughly.
Before evaluating the book in more detail, first some comments on the language of the book and some textual features. Biesta points out that the book consists of some of his already published journal articles that have been newly put together here and integrated into a broader and comprehensive picture. In the book, the reader finds many references to Biesta’s other published work as well as many cross-references to other chapters of this book. The weaving together of articles originally published independently from each other into a complete book inevitably leads to redundancies here and there. But the chapters’ introductions and outlooks, as well as inserted summaries, do provide a very consistent line of thought. Reading the book for a second time, this consistent line of argumentation becomes even clearer. Due to his positioning in existentialist educational philosophy and his use of language, his rhetoric is sometimes very condensed, especially when he presents crucial points of his line of thought, resulting in a slightly poetic, but by no means murmuring tone. Although very abstract and complicated philosophical themes and problems are discussed, it is easy to follow the author’s line of thought because of the clear organisation of the text and the use of language, which is not forcefully compelling, but rather gently persuasive (Biesta’s language and his decisively ‘weak’ pedagogical style of presenting his thoughts are congruent with his own approach to pedagogy and teaching; see Charles, 2016).
To conclude this review I make five, more critical, points on Biesta’s argumentation and positioning, against the background of current developments in general didactics, but also in empirical research on teaching.
1. What is really new in Biesta’s positioning concerning teaching and teachers’ work? In substance, it is a revival of an earlier dominant, but in recent decades obviously weakened, tradition of academic pedagogical thinking articulated (socially) philosophically and in the field of general pedagogy, pedagogical anthropology, and the arts: academic pedagogy, educational studies as a Geisteswissenschaft, as a moral science and a part of humanities. Biesta adopts a special branch of that broader paradigm: geisteswissenschaftliche Pädagogik in its existentialistic variant. This philosophical pedagogy does not want to patronise, instruct, or even “steer” educational practice. Rather, it sees itself in a very restrained educational relationship to the reality of education, to educational praxis.
2. In Biesta’s book, opposing views on education and on the role of academic pedagogy and educational research and science are brought together: on the one hand, education is understood as manufacturing, producing, shaping, or forming, and this process has to be organised in an efficient, goal-oriented manner. This position is rejected by Biesta. On the other hand stands a concept of educating as stimulating and waiting, as provoking and ‘interrupting’, as an attempt to support the person-as-subject to overcome his or her subjective situatedness. These two approaches to education and educational research are easy to put in opposition to each other, of course. Not least because this opposition has been repeatedly spelled out in recent decades; one may even have the impression that it has become some kind of ritual. Biesta is attached to this ritual, but can always give it a new language, new metaphors, and strengthened analytical clarity, for example, by recourse to modern theories of the subject.
3. The neo-existential view of teachers and teaching is informative and stimulates critical reflection. It challenges and corrects the simplicity and partial blindness of the psychological approach to classroom teaching. This approach conceives classrooms as a complex bundle of nested variables, which have to be disentangled step by step via controlled experiments. This, then, conceives classroom teaching as the production of learning outcomes according to the evidence collected by instructional psychology. But on the other hand the (neo-) existentialist view of teaching and teachers’ work has its limits. Its power of persuasion is based on a convincing language and rhetoric, and also on a strong skepticism concerning all too well-meaning, but too intensive, intrusions into the ‘subject-as-a-whole’. Here and there the argumentation is underpinned by strongly interpreted practical examples. However, good formulations, sympathetic morality, and illustrative examples do not prove anything. I admit, however, that they are sometimes more convincing, more realistic, and more influential (I am avoiding the word ‘effective’ …) than the most elaborate empirical-experimental studies and evidence. In current German Erziehungswissenschaft, now and then attempts are made to bring different paradigms into conversation, especially qualitative and quantitative research on education, or to bring together philosophy of education and empirical research (Terhart, 2017). According to my observation, in the international (English-speaking) debate and research on education, the worlds of empirical research and philosophical scholarship devoted to education remain quite separate from each other: they ignore each other, or do not acknowledge each other, and if one does, the thinking of the other camp is related to ex negativo (as a counter-example see Golding, 2015).
4. Beyond debates about academic interests in drawing demarcation lines or the possible or impossible (non-)compatibility of scientific paradigms, there is another critical point that I would like to bring forward against Biesta’s approach: the structural incompatibility between an existentialist view of classrooms and teachers’ work on the one hand, and the character of the modern school system as ‘iron cage’ on the other. The modern state-driven compulsory school system as it presently exists cannot and may not be ignored, also because it could only be overcome under favorable, extremely unlikely, conditions. The school system, and in it the teaching profession, has a public mission and certain objectives to fulfill; they receive and consume a great deal of resources in terms of time, energy, enthusiasm, and last but not least, money. Schools have a qualifying, cultivating, and personalising mission. At the same time, they engage in performance-oriented selection and allocation by granting or withholding entitlements – however unfairly and inaccurately this is done. Society as a whole – but particularly parents and students – have the right to see this mandate performed effectively, and as effectively as possible: the legitimate aims of the school system should be reached as completely as possible, and this should be done at defendable and appropriate cost. In this respect, schools are not to be compared with other public cultural institutions such as museums and theatres, which, in principle also have a cultivating mission and public funding. But they are supported regardless of their cultivating effect – whoever wants to ‘measure’ them. Thus, existentialist (educational) philosophy seems to argue from a rather radical position when they model the teacher’s work as a fundamentally opaque and unfathomable endeavour. This especially holds with respect to the tendency to decouple teaching from the student’s intended learning or learning success. Imagine that medical treatment is disconnected from the idea of striving to restore the health of the patient – a rather bizarre notion when one considers that medical action is not always successful, and that in the end we all have to die.
5. To state in an existentialist gesture that educational situations should and cannot in principle be conceived as ‘processes-of-producing-a-result’ and that all classroom teaching situations are ‘un-plannable’ and ‘not-to-be-reached’ by technological efforts in a way obscures or mystifies the work of teachers, and transforms pedagogical situations into a riddle or a twilight zone where subjects encounter each other in an unforeseeable way. At the same time this view puts teaching under pressure to bring about all these existential encounters in a routine way! Bringing existential experiences into all lessons of a school day is probably not possible. You also have to keep in mind what teaching as a practice in reality is all about. In elementary school – should one associate the tense transition or the explanation of the electrical circuit with existential experiences? Can one expect from teaching the climate zones of central Europe in geography lessons, or from explaining the proof to the sum of angles in the triangle in mathematics, that the student will be shaken deeply as a subject? French grammar – a positive and enriching disruptive learning experience? Maybe yes, but not always and not for everyone! Trying to make existential experiences a routine endeavor is a self-contradictory undertaking, as is the desire for everlasting ecstasy.
6. Biesta’s theoretical perspective on education, teaching, and teachers’ work is developed and presented in a systematic way. The theoretical background of his approach is made explicit, the central normative presuppositions are declared and argued for, and the central concepts are systematically related. Biesta has not explicitly developed his own research methodology, however; his commitment to a methodological pluralism, which includes all known forms of research on education, immediately finds consensus, but is somehow vague in its content. His book contains plenty of clarifying reasoning and new, interesting approaches to tackle theoretical problems of pedagogy, teaching, and teachers’ work. He integrates and discusses traditional and modern European and international discourses in the field of philosophy of education in a creative and genuine way – and among others refers to a particular German tradition of existentialist pedagogy. The question arises, however, to what extent the recourse to a certain and nearly forgotten variant of German philosophical pedagogical thinking from the middle of the last century (the 1950s) really offers productive and timely impulses for the theory and practice of teaching and the teaching profession at the beginning of the 21st century.
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Biesta, G.J.J. (2015). How does a competent teacher become a good teacher? On judgement, wisdom and virtuosity in teaching and teacher education. In: R. Heilbronn & L. Foreman-Peck (Eds.). Philosophical perspectives on the future of teacher education (pp. 3-22). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
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Terhart, E. (2017). Interdisciplinary research on education and its disciplines: Processes of change and lines of conflict in unstable academic expert cultures: Germany as an example. In: European Educational Research Journal, 16 (6), 921– 936.
Wegerif, R. (2017). The rediscovery of education: Response to Biesta. In: http://www.rupertwegerif.name/blog/the-rediscovery-of-education-response-to-biesta (23.1.2018)
Author details: Prof. Dr. Ewald Terhart, University of Münster, Institute of Educational Science, Bispinghof 5/6, D-48147 Münster, Germany. email: email@example.com
You can also read our interview with Gert Biesta about the book here.
 Priest & Quaife-Ryan (2004) already mention “recovery of teaching”, notably in a paper about the “re-enchantment of education”.
 It is not possible to discuss all themes or questions discussed in the book. I do not go into Biesta’s detailed Levinas exegesis and do not discuss his reflections on emancipation-oriented teaching based on the work of P. Freire and J. Rancière.
 For a more detailed and explicit account of the theory of the teacher and teacher education, see Biesta, 2012, 2015 and Biesta et al., 2015). Biesta’s strengthening of the teachers’ position is quite different from the educational commonplace, that “teachers matter!” and from the quintessence of John Hattie’s meta-meta-analysis of empirical research on the conditions for successful learning: “What good teachers do matters!” (Hattie, 2008; for an analysis of “Visible Learning” see Terhart, 2011).
 Otto Friedrich Bollnow’s (1903 – 1991) work was very prominent in the 1950s and 1960s in Germany; on an international level his approach to Education and pedagogy found the broadest audience in Japan. Only parts of his work have been translated into English (Bollnow, 1972, 1974, 1976, 1979). As an introduction to Bollnow see Koerrenz (2017) and Koskela (2012).
 Central parts of Biesta’s book can be found in in Biesta’s paper (2016a) “The Rediscovery of Teaching. On robot vacuum cleaners, non-egological education and the limits of the hermeneutical world view”. For a critical discussion of this paper see Wegerif (2015).