The difficult things that matter most

I have come to the disconcerting conclusion that, pressed into the quick production of teachers, faculties of education cannot but gloss over (if even touching upon) the deeper difficult things that matter most. As it turns out, the powers that be in schooling continue to reductively interpret and minimally understand what we do well in teaching. I believe that this largely owes to: (1) the complexity of the task, (2) a public appetite for simple answers and immediate solutions, (3) a market economy that, having thus trained that public, is focused on delivering the goods, and (4) a human tendency (and the dissociative denial of that tendency) to harness ideology in service of unknown unconscious needs.  

Whether teachers and learners succeed has everything to do with the relational field that participants can and do co-create and the dynamic fit between elements of influence in that field. First, there are the participants: the students – who they are and what they can be, who accompanies them in mind and in physical co-presence, and who engages the lessons with them – and their teacher, including all that she brings, not the least of which is her own history. Then, there is the political, socio-economic, and cultural climate within which the nested systems of class, school, and community reside and from which they take their cue. Lastly are the tangible things most commonly measured and therefore readily held to account: the number and age of students; the time, frequency, and duration of convening; the nature of supports and resources available and their mode of access; the obligations and responsibilities (e.g., programs of study and codes of conduct); and the actual affordances of the space, including even whether there can or should be sunlight streaming in. 

Given the complexity of the relational field – including especially the indirectly accessible and deeply compelling workings of the unconscious at play – considerable ingenuity would be needed to reduce critical components into operationalisable constructs at the ready for evidence-based study. Were this possible, the leap back from empirical research into contextual application would remain chasm-spanning. While there are those teachers – eager to do good and to trust authorities on how such good might be achieved – who embrace whatever new initiative comes their way, there are also legions of disillusioned others scratching their heads over the latest advice, technique, and mandate on how to navigate the complex waters of teaching and learning. Notwithstanding the discipline of curriculum studies (that neither holds the reins nor the purse-strings of schooling practice), the research findings having most influence in schools have yet to comprehensively and compellingly address the capacity, trust, and meaning necessary to the intersubjective–intrapsychic dialectic that is learning (see the circle of learning for its depiction), including especially developing a substantive scholarship with deep and nuanced appreciation of the relational field of a classroom to support such learning. 

While part of the difficulty surely entails in this complexity, it strikes me as no small coincidence that public schooling, as an arm of government, is about: (1) pleasing and/or placating the electoral masses (2) maximising conditions so that, in a thriving meritocracy, the “cream” rise to the top and economic viability is maintained, and (3) keeping expenses (and taxes) down.

Now the societal cream, no surprise, describes the highly influential, tech- and business-savvy, nouveau bourgeoisie comprising stakeholder groups and filling the ranks of big business, government, and educational research institutions. In Western economies, despite shifting demographics, these institutional structures continue to carry the attitudes and beliefs of the notoriously white, heterosexual, and cisgendered men who built them and the national structures upon which they depend. The ideal school, in today’s imaginative rendition, bears an uncanny resemblance to the kind of school that just these folks would have liked to have attended and in which they would have thrived – or indeed wherein they did. In the manner of all learning systems, the social system replicates itself, performatively and recursively so. But being accomplished affords no privileged access to unconscious proclivities or motivations and little assurance of any critical view on human nature and the socio-political systems that govern the possible. What “being accomplished” does provide is a distinct advantage in terms of one’s continued place and the place of one’s offspring in the evolving system that made one’s accomplishments possible in the first place. 

It would be difficult to deny the grave magnitude of the multiple socio-political and economic forces tugging today at the thin fabric of schooling: Environmental disasters, global unrest, and war have heightened social migration making sociocultural diversity a fact of life. The accounting for-and-of colonial and patriarchal histories have brought increasing attention to legacies of injustice, still at play. The result has spawned heightening demands for and resistances to facing and reconciling with these truths. These concerns join special needs education as dominant preoccupations for inclusive practices responsive to and welcoming of students of difference. To be sure, planetary overpopulation and local urbanisation, environmental degradation, digital promiscuity, and a life-changing pandemic press the dire need for cutting-edge, fiscally sound, technological advancements as governments vie for economic and political security on the world stage. And while our least privileged classes tend to essential services, innovative technologies and artificial intelligences continue to encroach on labour, supplanting blue colour jobs and sounding the urgency for a tech-savvy entrepreneurial population.

And so, the divide between the rich and the poor expands, while schooling practices continue to favour the privileged – for the apparent reason of not really knowing how to do otherwise. We seem to be missing something critical and the result is increasingly playing out in nations divided – this despite, and I would argue because of, gross misunderstandings about what it takes to foster equity in teaching and learning. Regrettably, on the near horizon, I do not see any paradigm-shifting disruption to these, our now-global, repetition compulsions. 

The Rise of STEM or “We can design our way into high-level performance.”

In the above contexts, twenty-first-century orthodoxy holds the ideal student as empowered, engaged, self-actualising, teacher-independent, technologically savvy, and collaborative learner extraordinaire. The archetypes of technocrat and entrepreneur capture cross-pollinating clusters of charismatic citizens with qualities that marry business connoisseurship with inventive design and innovation in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math. Buzzwords and rally cries of “success for all,” “everyone can,” “everyone included,” “everyone unique,” “differentiated instruction (and assessment),” “student choice,” and “student-centered learning,” advertise an even playing field, student rights, and no place for advantage or disadvantage. But these things do not an even and inclusive playing field make. As if to please the masses (fortifying and serving meritocratic beliefs), a pervasive “can-do” rhetoric promulgates myths of self-control, self-empowerment, and self-actualisation so that everyone can be happy and productive. Such practices as “growth-mindedness,” “goal-setting,” “mindfulness,” “presence,” “metacognition,” “self-reflection,” and “self- and peer-evaluation” set the purported means by which students will “self-regulate,” eat right, exercise right, act right, and think right on their way to individual happiness and success (see Cederström, 2019, & Brinkmann, 2014/2017, for incisive critiques). The result, however, is an ever-escalating set of strictures on “right being” that are the fecund ground for either outright rejection, rebellion, and defiance (for those who are quite fed up) or troubling preoccupations and deeply engrained anxieties as conscientious citizens strive every day to be all that they are told they can be. Clearly the fallout of in-your-face defiance, on the one hand, and anxious preoccupation about doing and being right, on the other, could fairly characterise the extremes of the political landscape in most Western countries today.

All of the foregoing said, the purported ideal learning environment is a moving target, typically more narrowly defined than advertised – these days emphasising gaming culture and makerspaces as epitomising best practices on the way to ensuring student engagement. 

A makerspace is a collaborative work space inside a school, library or separate public/private facility for making, learning, exploring and sharing that uses high tech to no tech tools. These spaces are open to kids, adults, and entrepreneurs and have a variety of maker equipment including 3D printers, laser cutters, cnc machines, soldering irons and even sewing machines. A makerspace however doesn’t need to include all of these machines or even any of them to be considered a makerspace. If you have cardboard, legos and art supplies you’re in business.

In the makerspace, student-centred learning calls for the collaborative generation of products as solutions to problems that teachers find or create. The best problems are “practical,” “real-world,” “authentic,” and “rich” in terms of possibility for interpretation and address. They allow for the application of those things that the student already knows and can do, without necessarily translating the doing into further conceptual understanding. The approach is interactive, real-time, and high energy. Pride of product is emphasised in showcases for all to see. Meanwhile, gaming, the complement of the makerspace, offers student engagement with high-paced interactive technologies, where students apply, and purportedly hone, their skills for the reward of levelling-up in the game.

In gaming and makerspaces, the entertainment value of an activity is often extrinsic to the object of learning, making learning itself into more of a by-product than by-intention – neither the point, nor the source of joy, in the engagement. While not in themselves objectionable, these incarnations of twenty-first-century learning become problematic insofar as they erode values and capacities associated with, for example, solitary study; quiet, sustained attention; clear instruction; Socratic dialogue; teacher-directed and curriculum-centred learning; desks in rows; repetition; effortful practice; traditional tests; introversion; and critical thinking. 

As it turns out, the child who most succeeds in current contexts is the one who is able to figure things out on his own. It is also the child already schooled in diligence and perseverance, usually at home, and mostly by example – a matter-of-course, given that the relevant socio-cultural resources are already in place. And finally, the successful child, typically arriving to school already endowed with notable cultural capital, is either unintimidated by and can focus in the fray and/or has developed the charisma to take the lead. 

Advocates move too easily from “complex” to “enriched”, where “enriched” is very much in the eye of the beholder, often reflecting the beholder’s cultural and class values. Rich, complex environments tend to include what the authors value and exclude what they abhor. . . . Complex, enriched environments for humans end up having many of the features of upper-middle class, urban, and suburban life. 

Bruer, in Nadesan, 2002, p. 407 

Thus, as before, privilege begets privilege in the twenty-first-century school. Can we do otherwise? Perhaps.  I surely hope so.  Relational psychoanalytic insights prompt us to begin to deconstruct current educational practices, to think through the contradictions, and to entertain different, non-prescriptive ways of framing and approaching the challenges we face. Acknowledging the inevitability of categories, we would do well to trouble popular understandings, beliefs, and practices in relation to ideals the likes of what constitutes inclusion, meaningful experience, community, character, learner-centred education, and therapeutic, emancipatory, and entrepreneurial schooling projects. How can we rethink twenty-first-century orthodoxy? 


Brinkmann, S. (2017). Stand firm: Resisting the self-improvement craze. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. (Originally published in Danish, 2014)

Cederström, C. (2019). The happiness fantasy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Nadesan, M. H. (2002). Engineering the entrepreneurial infant: Brain science, infant development toys, and governmentality. Cultural Studies, 16(3), 401–432.

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