Seven ways to avoid a Frankenstein education – Philippe Meirieu.
The French educationalist, Philippe Meirieu, in his 1996 book ‘Frankenstein Pedagogue’ reviews popular accounts of attempts to fashion a person to a maker’s design. Such fictional person-making often proves futile and can end up as monster-making, which is why it makes for such great stories.
Meirieu examines the stories of Pygmalion, Pinocchio, The Golem and Robocop and, of course, Mary Shelley’s extraordinary and tragic tale of scientific over-reach.
The book’s subtitle is ‘the myth of education as manufacturing’ (le mythe de l’education comme fabrication) and Meirieu considers the dangers of education as person-making and our repeated attempts to use education to shape people to our pre-dertermined design; a generally disastrous project.
Meirieu suggests we need a ‘Copernican revolution’ in the way we teach. This requires us to give up on any ‘Frankenstein’ educational project of constructing people to a blueprint. But it doesn’t mean giving up completely or giving in to our students’ every whim. Meirieu argues that education should flow from the relationship between its content, the social world which generates it and the students as they are. It should allow students to construct themselves as a ‘subject in the world’ while understanding the present they exist in, the history that has created them and the future that they themselves could create.
Meirieu recommends that to avoid the Frankenstein project, we need to accept seven propositions:
- Education should not be about satisfying our wish to create people but about welcoming our students into the world as people who have a history as well as a future; indeterminate and different from the past.
- Students cannot be shaped to a master-plan and it is inevitable and healthy that students will resist attempts to shape them. If we insist on trying, then disengagement and conflict will follow.
- Knowledge and skills cannot be reproduced or transmitted mechanically. Students have to re-discover them for themselves as part of their own learning project.
- Students need to make a personal commitment in order to learn and no one can learn for them. That personal ‘decision to learn’ is the way to overcome the preconceptions, expectations and assumptions which can limit them.
- Teachers can create the conditions for learning even if they can’t control their students’ commitment to learning. Teaching doesn’t automatically lead to learning, but teachers can help to make sense of the process and create the setting for students to ‘do something new in order to learn something new’.
- Education should nurture students’ growing autonomy. Autonomy is enhanced every time a student acquires something new, makes it their own or re-applies it in a new context. This acquisition is not transmitted by the teacher but it is central to the educational transaction.
- Teachers don’t have total power; this is the ‘unbearable lightness’ of teaching. The teacher does not really control the process and can only create the conditions for students to learn. Every learning moment is unique and pedagogic theories are only ever a fragile approximation of the practice of teaching. Educational thinkers such as Pestalozzi, Freinet, Makarenko, Don Bosco, Korczak and Tolstoy have acknowledged the yawning gap between the way they express their ideas about teaching and the reality of ‘thought in action’ during the actual process.
These conclusions could be regarded as a counsel of despair by teachers who want their work to make a real difference to their students. But reminding us of the power teachers don’t have can sharpen our focus on the power we do have; the ability to understand and work with students as and where they are, rather than as and where we might wish them to be. This is not just about being a ‘guide on the side’, but understanding both the limits of teacher power and the great potential of teachers to nurture learning. Education is transformative and does involve construction, it’s just that teachers are not the only people on the building site.
Gert Biesta touches on many of these themes in ‘The Beautiful Risk of Education’ (2014) which explores the impossibility of making education predictable and risk-free. Here is Biesta summarizing Meirieu’s views:
“He argues that to think that education can be put under total control denies the fact that the world is not simply at our disposal. It denies the fact that other human beings have their own ways of being and thinking, their own reasons and motivations that may well be very different from ours. To wish all this away is a denial of the fact that what and who are other are precisely that: other.” (Prologue)
In ‘Frankenstein Pedagogue’ Meirieu is describing education as a form of co-production, or sympoiesis; a term I came across in Donna Haraway’s ‘Staying with the Trouble’ (2016):
“Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means ‘making-with’. Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoetic or self-organizing… Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems.” (chapter 3)
For Meirieu, education is torn between poiesis and praxis. Poiesis is the activity of making something which can be completed. To reduce education to poieisis would be to see the student as a thing whose predefined success can be fully achieved. Praxis, in contrast, is a continuing process which is worthwhile in itself and can never be said to be fully complete. It is the interaction of ‘thinking and doing’ between people aiming to get a better grasp on reality; open, uncertain, social and full of new possibility.
I have translated the seven requirements fairly freely from the French so any loss of clarity or meaning is mine.
What is learning? Philippe Meirieu (July 2014)
Market autonomy or democratic autonomy? (May 2016)
Educating after the November 13th attacks (December 2015)