What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research by Coe et al. (A summary)

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Elliot Major, L. (2014). What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research. London: Sutton Trust. Retrieved November 1, 2014 from http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/What-Makes-Great-Teaching-REPORT.pdf

  1. What makes “great teaching”?
  2. What kinds of frameworks or tools could help us to capture it?
  3. How could this promote better learning?

Q1. What makes “great teaching”?

Effective teaching is that which leads to improved student achievement using outcomes that matter to their future success; student progress is the yardstick by which teacher quality should be assessed. [This statement makes several assumptions: that “achievement,” or grades, indicate learning; that so-called relevance – “outcomes that matter to … future success” – is the goal of learning (with what counts as success being undefined and “outcomes” of learning assumed to be what we should value) — Sean]

Strong evidence of impact on student learning:

  1. content knowledge
  2. quality of instruction

Moderate evidence of impact on student learning:

  1. classroom climate
  2. classroom management

Some evidence of impact on student learning:

  1. teacher beliefs
  2. professional behaviours

Q2: “What kinds of frameworks/tools could help us to capture great teaching?”

A formative teacher evaluation system (based on continuous assessment and feedback rather than a high-stakes test) must triangulate a range of measures, from different sources, using a variety of methods.

Moderate validity in evaluation:

  1. classroom observations by peers, “superiors” or external evaluators
  2. “value-added” models (assessing gains in student achievement)
  3. student evaluations

Limited validity:

  1. the judgement of superiors
  2. teacher self-reports
  3. analysis of classroom artifacts and teacher portfolios

Q3: “How could this promote better learning?”

Teacher learning can have a sizeable impact on student outcomes, especially when structured explicitly as a continuous professional learning opportunity in which

  1. the focus is kept clearly on improving student outcomes
  2. feedback is related to clear, specific and challenging goals for the recipient
  3. attention is on the learning rather than to the person or comparisons with
  4. teachers are encouraged to be continual independent learners
  5. feedback is mediated by a mentor in an environment of trust and support
  6. an environment of professional learning and support is promoted by the institution

And …

What doesn’t work?

Here are seven common teaching practices that are not backed up by evidence:

  1. Using lavish praise

Use praise that is valued by the learner

  1. Allowing learners to discover key ideas for themselves

Teach new ideas, knowledge or skills directly

  1. Grouping learners by ability
  2. Re-reading and highlighting

Teach students to test themselves at intervals to allow for productive forgetting

  1. Addressing issues of confidence and low aspirations

Enable students to succeed and their motivation and confidence should increase

  1. Teaching to a learner’s preferred learning style
  2. Active learners remember more than passive learners

Get students to think about what you want them to learn – “actively” or “passively”


Workshop Teaching

Workshop teaching, because it is not-for-credit and often one-off, involves a combination of learning prompts (LPs) and classroom assessment/evaluation techniques (CATs) that are mnemonic and/or formative in nature:

prebrief — introduce yourself (and signal the inclusive and interrogative nature of the workshop), survey the room (about the learners and what they already know)* and on that basis prompt an agenda for the class

teaching — mini-lessons as LPs (asking questions as you go) → templates and mnemonics

practice — individual and collaborative CATs like

  • minute papers — writing a brief response to questions like “What was the most important thing you learned during this class?” (constructive) or “What important question remains unanswered?” (deconstructive).
  • muddiest point cards — jotting down a quick response to the question “What was the muddiest [most unclear or confusing] point in the workshop?”
  • classroom polls
  • chain notes — passing around an envelope with a question on it into which a written response can be placed.
  • directed paraphrases writing a lay person’s “translation” of something from the workshop, aimed at a specified audience.
  • one-sentence summaries — writing a single sentence that answers the question “Who does what to whom, when, where, how, and why?”
  • focussed lists — listing ideas closely related to a term, name or concept from a mini-lesson or elsewhere in the workshop.
  • what’s the principle problem-solving — clarifying the problem at hand and deciding what principle(s) to apply to solve it.
  • application cards/articles — writing down a real-world application for a concept — or a short article about it.
  • memory matrixes — filling in a table where the rows and column headings are given but the cells are left empty to categorize information and illustrate relationships (similar to categorizing grids, where a table is given with two or three superordinate categories filled in and we are asked to fill in the gaps by unscrambling a list of subordinate elements that belong in one or another of those categories).
  • empty (or half-empty) outlines — filling in an empty or partially completed outline of a workshop.
  • learner-led test Qs — writing mock test or exam questions and model answers.
  • suggestion boxes.

debrief — summarize and prompt further action

N.B. Don’t just think about

  • what you will teach (content) and
  • when you will teach it (sequence, duration), but
  • how you will teach, i.e., your
    • mode (teacher- or student-led, co-constructed; content- or task-driven) and
    • means of delivery (telling: lecturing, talking, or showing: performing, modelling; powerpoint, images, document camera, whiteboard, flashcards, etc.), and
  • where you will teach (the room and how you use it), not to mention
  • why (although you need to decide how much you want brief the learners on the aims and objectives of the class — some learning can remain beneath the surface).

* This is known as a background knowledge probe: a short-answer or multi-choice questionnaire given to students at the start of a workshop, designed to uncover students’ preconceptions.


See Classroom Assessment Techniques at Iowa State and Hawaii.


  • Angelo, T.A. & Cross, P.K. Classroom Assessment Techniques. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.
  • Davis, B.G. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Teaching as Letting-Learn: Heidegger on Pedagogy

Paideia (παιδεία)

In What Is Called Thinking? (1951-52), Martin Heidegger seems to foreshadow what we teachers know as “co-construction” in the classroom. He calls it “letting-learn”:

Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn. The real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than — learning.

The teacher teaches learners how to learn — though they might not get it:

Their conduct, therefore, often produces the impression that we properly learn nothing from him [or her], if by “learning” we now suddenly understand merely the procurement of useful information.

But the teacher also learns from teaching; he or she learns how to let learn:

The teacher is ahead of his [or her] students in this alone, that he [or she] has still far more to learn than they — he [or she] has to learn to let them learn.


The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the students. The teacher is far less assured of his [or her] ground than those who learn are of theirs. (WCT 15)

This “teachable moment,” when the teacher becomes the taught and their own teaching comes into question, entails risk, courage, trust . . . questioning (Havinghurst 5). Not for nothing is Socrates’ paradox “I know that I know nothing” the principle of pedagogy for Heidegger. But this revaluation of teaching also brings research into question, as Heidegger argues elsewhere:

Hitherto it was thought that teaching had to arise out of research—but the boundlessness of research has made teaching aimless. Not research—and thereby also teaching, but rather teaching—and in teaching—researching. [. . .] Only out of teaching does genuine research, that is, research that knows its limits and responsibilities arise again. (“GU” 305-06)

Teaching is not the poor relation of research: teaching is research. This is the deeper lesson of letting-learn.


Robert J. Havighurst. Human Development and Education. New York: Longmans Green, 1952.

Martin Heidegger. “The German University” (1934). Trans. the author. Gesamtausgabe 16: Reden und Andere Zeugnisse eines Lebensweges, 1910-76. Ed. Hermann Heidegger. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2000. 285-307.

—. What Is Called Thinking? (1951-52). Trans. Fred D. Wieck and J. Glenn Gray (slightly amended by the author). New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

For Heidegger on teaching, see also:

[Heidegger on] the Art of Teaching” (1945). Trans. Valerie Allen and Ares D. Axiotis. Heidegger, Education, and Modernity. Ed. Michael A. Peters. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. 27-45.

Modern Science, Metaphysics and Mathematics” (1962). Basic Writings. Ed. D. F. Krell. New York: Harper & Row, 1982. 249-54 (247-82). Excerpt from What Is a Thing? Trans. W.B. Barton and Vera Deutsch. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1967. 66-108.

Plato’s Doctrine [or: Teaching] of Truth” (1947). Trans. Thomas Sheehan. Pathmarks. Ed. William A. McNeill. Cambridge: CUP, 1998. 155-82.

“Traditional Language and Technological Language” (1962). Trans. Wanda Torres Gregory. Journal of Philosophical Research 23 (1998): 129-45. [See Gregory’s “Heidegger On Traditional Language And Technological Language.”]

tà mathémata: we can only learn what we already know

“Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here!” (inscription above the entrance to Plato’s Academy)

In his essay “Modern Science, Metaphysics and Mathematics” (1962; from Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell [San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1977] 247–82, an excerpt from “What is a Thing?” [1967; Chicago: Regnery, 1969] 66-108), Heidegger wrote:

In its formation the word mathematical stems from the Greek expression tà mathémata, which means what can be learned and thus, at the same time, what can be taught; manthanein means to learn, mathésis the teaching, and this is a twofold sense. First, it means studing and learning; then it means the doctrine taught. (249-50)

  • mathésis: teaching and learning
  • tà mathémata: what is teachable or learnable

Learning is a kind of grasping and appropriating. But not every taking is a learning. [. . .] To take means in some way to take possession of a thing and have disposal over it. Now, what kind of taking is learning? Mathémata—things, insofar as we learn them. . . .

The mathémata are the things insofar as we take cognizance of them as what we already know them to be in advance, the body as the bodily, the plant-like of the plant, the animal-like of the animal, the thingness of the thing, and so on [verbatim from “The Age of the World-Picture“]. This genuine learning is therefore an extremely peculiar taking, a taking where he who takes only takes what he basically already has. Teaching corresponds to this learning. Teaching is a giving, an offering; but what is offered in teaching is not the learnable, for the student is merely instructed to take for himself what he already has. If the student only takes over something that is offered he does not learn. He comes to learn only when he experiences what he takes as something he himself really already has. True learning occurs only where the taking of what one already has is a self-giving and is experienced as such. Teaching therefore does not mean anything else than to let the others learn, that is, to bring one another to learning. (251)

Heidegger continues:

Teaching is more difficult than learning; for only he who can truly learn . . . can truly teach. The genuine teacher differs from the pupil only in that he can learn better and that he more genuinely wants to learn. In all teaching, the teacher learns the most. (251-52)

I’m reminded of Plato’s discussion of amamnesis, of learning as remembering in the Meno and Phaedo—though Heidegger most often employs this characterisation of ta mathémata in his critique of the pseudo-circular nature of modern scientific research, which is almost tautological in its foreclosure of knowledge by its use of deductive or hypothetico-deductive method and its pursuit of objectivity.

In “The Age of the World-Picture,” he argues that scientific research is a type of rigorous knowledge (Erkennen, a.k.a. “judgement”) that relies on a procedure (Vorgehen, a.k.a., “priority, lead”) that establishes its field of operation by the projection (Entwurf, “design, project, plan, outline”) in advance of a ground-plan (Grundriss, a.k.a, “framework”): projection → procedure → knowledge.

But for him, to speak in the most general terms,

[t]he mathémata, the mathematical, is that “about” things which we really already know. Therefore we do not first get it out of things, but, in a certain way, we bring it already with us. (252)

The writing zone as “writing-intensive zone” (Wendy Bishop)

Wendy Bishop, “Contracts, Radical Revision, Portfolios, and the Risks of Writing,” ed. Anna Leahy, Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2005) 109-20.

Further to my summary of Peter Elbow’s “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking,” a summary of Bishop’s recipe for “a ‘writing-intensive’ zone,” which focusses on

how evaluation discourages and encourages student writers’ entry into the revision process and concurrently supports them in learning to understand themselves as writers

i.e. “authority-conscious pedagogy” (109).

First off, using portfolios to create an “evaluation-free zone” (Elbow 1993) allows us to focus on revision and risk. Revision is compelled by the course contract, and risk—a.k.a. “experimentation” (115)—is practised in our writing (and in the zone more generally—and, needless to say, in our teaching).

Second, setting up an atmosphere of risk in the writing zone encourages “going public,” not only with “therapeutic” disclosure but also “writerly disclosure” (112). Of course, it requires that readers of this disclosure be trained to help improve it.

Third, as a consequence of the first and second ingredients, creating “classroom carnival, turning the text upside down”—and the hierarchy and codes of the university (115). (This sense of carnival I call decryption and deformance.)

Fourth, recognising that the teacher is an authority, who “tell[s] students not what to write, but to write” (113). That is to say, the writing zone is not just a risky and upside-down place, a place where “trust” must prevail, it is also a place where people are compelled to write, and thus, inevitably, a place of “resistance” (118).

The resistance is at least fourfold, then: against public disclosure and compulsion, against our preconceptions of writing and the university, and against the university and its codes—not to mention, against that common enemy of writers: resistant material.)

(Bishop takes as a given reading [of our own, and others’ unpublished and published writing], drafting, and a language for talking about reading and writing.)

Affect in the Writing Zone (Susan McLeod)

It must be recognized that affect (that is, the noncognitive aspect of mental activity) plays a large role in writing and in learning to write. Most models of the writing process are based either on cognitive psychology (“embrained” cognition) or a social constructionist approach (embedded cognition)—and ignore affect (embodied cognition).

This is a problem in—and of—the governance of the supposedly “excellent” (transnational, transcendentally capitalised, technobureaucratic, programmatic) university (“U 1.5”) in which we find ourselves, I would suggest, because the calculative or quantitative measurement of processes from above in terms of throughputs and outcomes does not reckon with affect, except insofar as it can be registered on rating scales and in repeat business (essentially measures of customer satisfaction)—not that it was registered particularly well in the old national university (“U 1.0”), which was captured by a reductive Enlightened model of rationality. The “exploded” (nodal, glocal, technoimaginary, programmable) university (“U 2.0”) must take account of the media that do manifest affect from below—like Facebook, etc.—and embody a new orality beyond literacy (the term was coined by Ong in the ‘seventies [see 136-37]).

So, to understand the writing process more completely, Susan McLeod suggests that “we need to explore how cognitive, affective, and social elements interact as people write” (n.pag.).

(Note that though I use three terms—embrained, embodied, embedded cognition—I’d say that the first is not, in fact, separable from the second, though it is often seen that way, the corollary being that one cannot, except in theory, split the cognitive and affective elements of the writing process.)

This, then, is a ecological reading of the writing zone, a description/decryption of the living relations that are at work—and at play—there (ecology: from Greek: οἶκος, oikos, “house, household, housekeeping, or living relations”; -λογία, -logia, “study of”).

Affect in the writing zone manifests itself, for example, in

  1. anxiety in the face of the secret codes (cryptograms) of the university and at the failure of autodidactic codes (idiograms)—what I call fumblerules—to adequately encode their own writing. Alice Horning calls this the “climate of fear” in the classroom that becomes a “Filter” [sic] between the teacher and the learner (65). Elsewhere, in the context of L2 research, Heidi Dulay and Marina Burt describe an analogous process by which “the [L2] learner constructs, internally and unconsciously, the system of rules and principles by which a language is governed” as filtered by “affective delimiters” (1977, 99), there being four key ones: the learner’s personality, anxiety level, peer identification, and motivation to learn (1982, 72).
  2. aspiration, which begins with writers bringing their humanistic assumptions about learning to learn in the university (in particular, that learning will be passively received and mimicked in return) and then becomes mimicry of these secret codes in an attempt to propitiate the university
  3. a background awareness of the dissonance of space and place (the global and the local), which to a degree work at cross purposes (thereby generating the glocal site we actually inhabit)

And . . .

Teachers are not unaffected: they are anxious about the process (about the contract, assessment, revealing themselves, their writing, and their likes and dislikes); they aren’t objective about either their students: McLeod describes a “Pygmalion effect”—students becoming better because the teacher believes they are—and the more common opposite, a “golem effect”—students becoming less capable because their teachers view them that way (108-09), or their writing: see Elbow on liking.


Heidi Dulay and Marina Burt. “Remarks on Creativity in Language Acquisition.” Viewpoints on English as a Second Language. Ed. Marina Hurt, Heidi Dulay, and Mary Finocchiaro. NY: Regents, 1977. 95-126.

Heidi Dulay, Marina Burt, and Stephen D. Krashen. Language Two. NY: OUP, 1982.

Alice E. Horning. “The ‘Climate of Fear’ in the Teaching of Writing.” Teaching Writing: Pedagogy, Gender, and Equity. Ed. Cynthia L. Caywood and Gillian R. Overing. NY: SUNY P, 1987. 65-81.

Susan H. McLeod. Notes on the Heart: Affective Issues in the Writing Classroom. Carbondale: SIUP, 1996.

Walter S. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. 1982. NY: Routledge, 1988.

The University in Ruins (Not)

The problem

Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Harvard UP, 1996), the blurb:

It is no longer clear what role the University plays in society. The structure of the contemporary University is changing rapidly, and we have yet to understand what precisely these changes will mean. Is a new age dawning for the University, the renaissance of higher education under way? Or is the University in the twilight of its social function, the demise of higher education fast approaching?

We can answer such questions only if we look carefully at the different roles the University has played historically and then imagine how it might be possible to live, and to think, amid the ruins of the University. Tracing the roots of the modern American University in German philosophy and in the work of British thinkers such as Newman and Arnold, Bill Readings argues that historically the integrity of the modern University has been linked to the nation-state, which it has served by promoting and protecting the idea of a national culture. But now the nation-state is in decline, and national culture no longer needs to be either promoted or protected. Increasingly, universities are turning into transnational corporations, and the idea of culture is being replaced by the discourse of “excellence.” On the surface, this does not seem particularly pernicious.

The author cautions, however, that we should not embrace this techno-bureaucratic appeal too quickly. The new University of Excellence is a corporation driven by market forces, and, as such, is more interested in profit margins than in thought. Readings urges us to imagine how to think, without concession to corporate excellence or recourse to romantic nostalgia within an institution in ruins. The result is a passionate appeal for a new community of thinkers.

This sounds familiar.

The solution

Jeffrey J. Williams outlines the history of the idea of the university and offers a solution to this ruinous situation: teaching the idea, history, literature and sociology of the university in the university, specifically, in English departments that, as writing zones, are supposed to know well what is ostensibly the language of the university: writing (“Teach the University,” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 8.1 [2007]: 25-42).

Williams Intro

Jacques Derrida offers a radical—and perhaps utopian—response, arguing for “The University without Condition,” in which the “new humanities” will play a vital role, because they are concerned with humanity, human rights and crimes against humanity, the same concerns that “organise” mondialisation (globalisation), “which wishes to be a humanisation” (Without Alibi, trans. Peggy Kamuf [Stanford UP, 2002]):

University Without Condition 202


University Without Condition 203


What, then, is the role of the humanities in the university without condition? It is to exercise the right to speak without condition—“to say everything” and “to say it publicly,” as literature does (cf. Jacques Rancière, who might say that whereas the “police” operates via consensus, “politics” operates via dissensus; the university without condition would be “political”—or “redistributed” according to what he calls the “democratic heresy”):

University Without Condition 205(205)

(So I read Williams as more pragmatic than Derrida—or perhaps he’s just less Continental: for Derrida, literature, the writing of différance, will take over from philosophy as the language of university; for Williams, it seems, it’s writing per se.)

This solution is complicated if we view the historical situation in which we find ourselves as not amenable to humanistic, literary or writerly enquiry, as Vilèm Flusser suggests it is in “The Codified World” (Writings [U MN P, 2002] 35-41). His epochal reading of codes is as follows:

  1. premodern/prehistorical: image—the scene (imagination: magic, myths)
  2. modern/historical: writing—the concept (conception: explanations, theories, ideologies)
  3. postmodern/posthistorical: techno-image—the program (techno-imagination: models, games)

For Flusser, we face a “crisis of values” at the transition to techno-images because the old written “programs,” politics, philosophy and science, not to mention art and history, have been disempowered (41).


I would say: the university is not in ruins—a certain idea of the university might well be: of the university as “literary” research institution, certainly, or, more broadly, of the human university. It is, in fact, in rude good health, not so much in the Crystal Palace of the Business School, the “excellent” (transparent/transcendentally capitalised) university, with its reduction of governance to calculability, but in the face-to-face encounter in the place of learning, wherever it should be.

Said “excellent” university wants to count its students and research outputs, but it does not account for itself (it is non-reflexive); teachers in the university ought to account for themselves—as should students (they should be reflexive). This teachers can do, not by grading students and counting research outputs, but by taking account of the “distribution of the sensible” (a description of what counts) that prevails in the place of learning: affect from below (democratic affect); deformance, intentional and otherwise; decryption; etc. . . . (of which more later).

And because the “excellent” university is also an “exploded” university, it is distributed well beyond the walls of the Crystal Palace through the relatively autonomous—and thus relatively incalculable—nodes of remote learning and other @-universities; and encloses within its walls other similar nodes, such as centres, writing-studies classrooms (!), and (post-)seminars.

The place of learning

teachers put/keep students in their place—and step into the centre of the room: the institutional place-holder (the zero in the zone)
the only alternative seems to be mapping the places within the PLACE (description [+], rather than prescription [-]—tho this process is in itself prescriptive [either it offers an open prescription or a prescription that is a decryption [kryptos, “hidden,” thus uncovering, a.k.a. aletheia], i.e. decodes the institutional code [a code uses a cipher or algorithm that makes it unreadable to anyone who doesn’t possess special knowledge, a.k.a. a key], transcribing its ciphertext in

Quin etiam obest plerumque iis qui discere volunt auctoritas eorum qui se docere profitentur; desinunt enim suum iudicium adhibere, id habent ratum quod ab eo quem probant iudicatum vident.

In fact the authority of those who stand forward as teachers is generally an obstacle in the way of those who wish to learn, for the latter cease to apply their own judgment, and take for granted the conclusions which they find arrived at by the teacher whom they approve.

—Cicero, De Natura Deorum [On the Nature of the Gods], trans. Francis Brooks (London: Methuen, 1896) 1.5.10 (see Montaigne, “Of the Education of Children“)

Normally, in the classroom, the place of learning, teachers cannot help but put and keep students in their place by stepping into the centre of the room, which is the institutional place-holder. They then, intentionally or not, prescribe what learning work can take place there.

This happens even in the liberal—read: enlightened and equalitarian—writing studies classroom in a university, where students are compelled to disclose themselves to their co-workers to be allowed to participate fully and freely in the work of learning. This is obviously problematic, say, when the classroom is multicultural and the teacher is of the dominant culture—or, for that matter, when there are females in the class and the teacher is male (see Alison Jones’s “Pedagogy by the Oppressed: The Limits of Classroom Dialogue“).

Thus, the “democratic heresy” of the writing zone, to borrow Rancière’s phrase, which takes “equality as a point of departure” (see “Politics and Aesthetics: An Interview” 192), proves, like most heresies, to be an authorised misreading of a “religious” authority. That is to say, the writing zone’s not really democratic or heretical: it’s another cloister, a “free” space within the institution that has been authorised by it—much like the space of the seminar.

It’s not one of those sites that, according to Foucault in “Of Other Spaces,” “have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites [in the spatial network of a society], but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect,” the non-site of the utopia or the counter-site of the heterotopia that “contradict all the other sites.”

(For Foucault, utopias [ou-topos, “no place”] are unreal places “that have a general relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of Society,” that perfect or invert it; heterotopias [hetero-topos, “other place”] are “real places . . . which are something like counter-sites, . . . enacted utopia[s] in which the real sites . . . are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted” [see wikipedia].)

The writing zone’s not a utopia, an ideal refuge, or a heterotopia, a critical vantage. It is not the counter-university within the university: there is no counter-university—especially not one that works from below; the university goes all the way down.

Of course, this was always already true of the university, ever since the academy was placed at the centre of education by the Greeks (not at the centre of the state per se, which centre is occupied by the religious site). It is called the academy (Ἑκάδημος) from when Castor and Polydeuces, guardians of Sparta, invaded Attica to liberate their sister Helen, and Akademos betrayed to them that Theseus had concealed her at Aphidnae. Whenever the Spartans invaded Attica, the twins always spared Akademos’s land, which lay on the Cephissus, six stadia from Athens. In the historical era, his land became identified with a grove of Athena outside the walls of Athens—just outside the city proper. The academy, the garden of Athena, goddess of wisdom, seems, then, to represent a haven from politics—but it is one secured by politics.

The only alternative for teachers seems to be to enable learners—and teachers themselves—to map their places within the place of learning, thereby taking account of the various positionalities at work there and their relative positions: a process of description, rather than prescription. Of course, this process is in itself prescriptive, in that it closes off the room by defining what can or does go on there. Or, you might say, it offers

  1. an open prescription for what can or does go on there or
  2. a prescription that is a decryption [kryptos, “hidden,” thus decryption, “unhiding,” a.k.a. aletheia, truth as unconcealment], in that . . .

. . . we thereby decode the institutional code (a code uses a cipher or algorithm that makes it unreadable to anyone who doesn’t possess special knowledge, a.k.a. a key), transcribing its ciphertext in plaintext. The teacher gives the lead in this decoding process, because they work within and know how to “work” the system to which the learner wants access and cannot but work with.

Not coincidentally, this is akin to the sacrilegious practice that Vilém Flusser in “The Future of Writing” calls writing, by which we “learn to decipher . . . images, . . . [to] learn the conventions that give them their meaning,” images—and imagination—for Flusser being mythic, magical (and thus propitiatory) and prehistoric, and writing—and conceptual thought—being religious, scientific (and thus political) and historical (65). When we write (rightly) at university, we decipher the immutable mythic entity that is the university to understand the magical gestures by which we propitiate it and thereby understand it as a mutable institution, with a liturgy (a way of working), an epistemology (a way of knowing), and thus a politics (a distribution of work).

The Brain is a Muscle

According to Carol Dweck,

people’s self-theories about intelligence have a profound influence on their motivation to learn. Students who hold a “fixed” [static] theory are mainly concerned with how smart they are—they prefer tasks they can already do well and avoid ones on which they may make mistakes and not look smart. In contrast, she said, [those] who believe in an “expandable” or “growth” [dynamic] theory of intelligence want to challenge themselves to increase their abilities, even if they fail at first. (Stanford Magazine)


changing a key belief—a student’s self-theory about intelligence and motivation—with a relatively simple intervention [e.g. learning study skills] can make a big difference.

This model could allow us to transcend the binary of the sophistic and philosophical methods of teaching learning:

  1. sophistical teaching: teaches strategy/ethics—institutional know-how, e.g. study skills like shortcuts (a relativistic rhetoric according to which truth is strictly contextual, a skill)—to produce efficient knowledge-workers
  2. philosophical teaching (à la Socrates): teaches wisdom/ethos or “character”—knowledge, e.g. fidelity to a way of thinking (truth to oneself or to Truth itself, a good)—to produce good citizens

So a sophistical intervention in a student’s learning process, e.g. learning a skill, might change a key belief or “self-theory” and thereby enable a student’s philosophical growth.

And dynamic students can learn from their mistakes (something fostered in, say, in an erratological approach to learning writing):

Fixed-mindset individuals dread failure because it is a negative statement on their basic abilities, while growth mindset individuals don’t mind failure as much because they realize their performance can be improved.

(The theory also has implications for parenting, as Dweck suggests:

One very common thing is that often very brilliant children stop working because they’re praised so often that it’s what they want to live as—brilliant—not as someone who ever makes mistakes. . . . It really stunts their motivation. Parents and teachers say they now understand how to prevent that—how to work with low-achieving students to motivate them and high-achieving students to maximize their efforts.

So we should “praise children’s efforts, not their intelligence. . . .”)

See “If You’re Open To Growth, You Tend To Grow” in the New York Times for some links; Design Tumble Log for a visual:

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