The Ayb Educational Foundation, in collaboration with University College London, has developed the Araratian Baccalaureate Professional Teacher Development and Certification Program. As a result, at the first stage we have more than 100 qualified teachers throughout Armenia.
Read the interview with John Yandell, Senior Lecturer at University College London, Institute of Education, Department of Culture, Communication and Media.
Mr. Yandell, we often talk about education, but after all what does it give us?
Education has always been contested territory. So, education isn’t the same thing as processes of schooling. Processes of schooling are one, nowadays very important dimension of education, but education happens outside school and university just as much as it happens inside school and university. And that was true a long time before the invention of the printing press, let alone the invention of the Internet, and it still is true as much and differently now. So, one way of beginning to address the question is: “What does education achieve?” And it can achieve the transformation of individuals and societies, a transformation that can be for the common good. Education can be emancipatory. On the other hand, and sometimes at the same time, education processes, particularly processes within formal education, can be repressive and coercive. They can limit the potential of individuals in the society to grow, they can be ways of enforcing unequal power relations and the unequal distribution of access to knowledge.
What do you think, in today’s world what kind of knowledge and skills should teachers impart to students?
They shouldn’t, because that isn’t how my view of useful education happens. It isn’t an imparting of knowledge and skills by teachers to students. Within most societies, in most parts of the world now, there are views of education which fit very neatly with the question that you ask. So, if you were to go out into the street and ask somebody passing by what does education look like, my suspicion is that, if you got them to draw it, you would probably see a recognizable classroom and you probably would see the furniture arranged in a particular way and somebody at what was very clearly the front of the room, who could be identified very easily as the teacher, and there might also be a board or a screen or something else. And most of the furniture would have its orientation towards the front of the room. The kind of common sense assumption is that those entities at the front of the room, the teacher-like person and the board or the screen-like object, will, in some sense, impart knowledge and maybe even skills to the less knowledgeable, less skillful others in the room. And it’s a model of education that I think is at best deeply problematic and tends to be quite misleading. I’m much more interested in forms of education that involve dialogue and collaborative investigation of problems. That doesn’t mean that I discount the possibility of some participants in that collaborative inquiry arriving at the inquiry with different and possible even more things to offer in the pursuit of the knowledge or skills that might be desirable. But not to see it as a collaborative and dialogic endeavor, I think, runs the risk of encouraging people involved in education not to acknowledge what learners bring with them to educational processes. So, the way which you pose the question, as if it were a question of imparting knowledge and skills, positions learners as deficits, as empty vessels and as people in need of filling up with knowledge or filling up with skills and that’s never been my experience of educational processes.
What can a teacher do today competitive in the 21st century when students can get virtually any knowledge and information from the Internet? In some sense, doesn’t the Internet replace teachers today?
Lots of people have made distinction between information and knowledge. So, yes, it’s absolutely right that you can get an extraodinary amount of information from the Internet. Some people would say the difference between what you get from the Internet and what processes of formal education offer is that in those processes of formal education information is organized into coherent bodies of knowledge with recognizable and replicable ways of ordering that knowledge and interrogating it and hence developing it. So, this is what some people would argue. You can find out stuff about the speed of light or about gravity by doing a Google search but to place those bits of information within a more or less coherent model of how the universe operates, it’s helpful to have the discipline of physics, around which such bits of information are organized and developed. And I think there’s a bit of truth in that, but I also think it’s not entirely true: I’m going to shift from thinking about physics to thinking about history, humanities and literary study, where I am much less convinced that the disciplines of history or literary criticism or philology are different in kind from the kinds of knowledge that people have beyond the university, beyond the school. I think those forms of knowledge about culture and history and language and literature are also in different ways organized bodies of knowledge.
So, I don’t think that the claim is that teachers’ knowledge or the knowledge of the disciplines is quite as categorically different as those who argue that disciplinary knowledge is better than the information of the Internet. I don’t think that I’ll buy that. However, I think one of the things that teachers offer is in a sense not what teachers offer but what schooling offers, which is a space specifically designed for and set aside for learning together. So, there is a sociability about schooling on a good day when things are working well and when nobody’s being horrid to anyone else, that enables a richness of learning that is not merely either the acquisition of knowledge or the organization of knowledge, but is something much more fundamentally human, which is to do with an inextricably connected sociability of learning about others and learning from others and of the development of the self in relation to others and the world. And it isn’t that those things don’t happen elsewhere, they do, they happen in families, in homes, in workplaces, in the street. But, within schools, there is an environment that is specifically designed for such sociable learning. And teachers have a unique role to play in the organization of such experiences of learning. So, that’s what teachers’ pedagogic skill is all about. And that’s also why seeing teachers primarily as repositories of knowledge won’t do as an account of what it is to be a teacher, in that that ignores or underplays the significance of teachers in forming pedagogic relations with their students.
Who is the good teacher and what would you advise teachers in Armenia?
It could be that the sample of teachers that I met is not representative; but on the basis of the sample of teachers that I’ve met, I have been hugely impressed. There is amongst those teachers a commitment to developing their own practice and an openness to different ways of doing things and a willingness to share experiences that I think is characteristic of the very best forms of community of practice that can exist within teaching. The readiness of the teachers whom I met yesterday to share their experiences of engaging in forms of investigation into their own practice and their readiness to play around with me in the afternoon in exploring different ways of working with texts and different ways of creating texts was very refreshing for me and I just was full of admiration for what they were bringing to the sessions. And I think if there is any sense in which those colleagues are representative of teachers in Armenia, then there is a very bright future for education in Armenia.
What would I advise? I’d say: “Get involved in different new programs! You’ll have fun and you’ll also learn things.”