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Teaching – Biesta and Becoming

What is the difference between studying and learning?

Last week, at the Sam Houston State University Teaching Conference, faculty from across campus were asked to respond to a question from our keynote speaker, Dr. Joyce McCauley, about the difference and relationship between studying and learning.  My response was that studying referred to long-term engagement, whereas learning referred to short-term engagement.  Study may be a factor influencing learning, but it is not necessary that one study to learn.

Many faculty in the room thought the opposite. Of course study must be associated with learning; one can only learn by studying.  This perception of studying and learning being in a linear, causal relationship is fundamentally rooted in particular assumptions about education, particularly at the K-12 and undergraduate level.

For the faculty that disagreed with me, there may be a belief that students who spend a significant amount of time “studying” will “learn” material, thereby making them successful.  This is true in student affairs as well.  Alexander Astin’s (1984) theory of student involvement is premised on precisely this assertion, as are more contemporary theories of student engagement (Harper & Quaye, 2009; NSSE): energy invested equates with return on investment.  Often, we measure such “success” through examinations, presentations, and occasionally longer-term assessment measures, such as comprehensive exams, capstone projects, or portfolios.

Coincidentally, Dr. McCauley was not attempting to emphasize study as I understand it (even though metacognition was framed as a “study” habit of sorts); rather she was focused on learning.  She was arguing that faculty helps students incorporate metacognition as learning strategy – short-term strategies/tools/tips that help students remember or perform more aptly on assessments.  Her presentation was bolstered by many examples of student academic achievement improving based on adoption of metacognitive strategies.

I raise this minor debate not to argue for or against one perspective over another in terms of studying and learning, nor to debate the merits of metacognition (I’m sure some students find metacognitive strategies useful). Rather, I seek to highlight that our language often has profound impact on our teaching: our curriculum, our pedagogical approaches, and our assessment measures of success.

Gert Biesta: Learner, Student, Speaker

This is precisely the point made by Gert Biesta in his 2010 article Learner, Student, Speaker: Why it Matters how we Call Those we Teach.  During the start of this academic year, college student educators broadly – student affairs professionals, faculty, administrators – might consider the language we use to call those we “teach.”

2015-08-23 21.40.58Biesta (2010) utilizes the writing of Jacques Ranciere to problematize, in particular, the language of learning.  For Biesta, talk of learning in education starts not from a position of equality, but rather a position of inequality, assuming that the “learner” is somehow in need of someone to explain and “teach” that which she/he/ze does not know. The language of learning is ubiquitous in education: in student affairs the publication of Learning Reconsidered and Learning Reconsidered 2 introduced the language to the profession.  Across higher education we now refer to “adult learners” and “continuing learners.”  Lifelong learning, too, assumes that one is never complete – there is always something more to learn, and therefore, always someone more “learned” than you.  Biesta challenges the language of learning based on its starting position: inequality.

Rather, Biesta (2010) believes we should refer to students as speakers.  Again, Biesta draws on the writing of Ranciere, who makes arguments about the equality of human intelligence.  Utilizing the language of speaker allows Biesta to discuss how, in education, students can discover their own intelligence – not through teaching as ‘explanation,’ but rather through speaking and subjectification (For more on subjectification as educational outcome, I encourage readers to read Biesta, 2014).

“What matters, therefore, is not so much that students study but that they speak” (Biesta, 2010, p. 549) [italics in original].

This article became one of my perennial favorites during my journey to Ph.D.  Biesta carefully articulates a philosophical argument I believe will resonate with many educators, particularly in the field of college student affairs.  Biesta’s discussion of emancipatory, democratic education in this article (and many of his other writings) argues directly against many educational initiatives and guiding philosophies of the current college student affairs/educators profession, which is one reason I believe college student educators should engage the text(s).  Yet, as a philosophical text, Biesta’s (2010) assertion that we “refer to our students as speakers provides. . .a starting point, not a conclusion” (p. 550).

STOCK PHOTO 8Reflecting on Teaching Philosophy

I refer in my own teaching philosophy to the importance of becoming. I state that “the foundational role of education is ontological, not epistemological: education is the process of becoming human.”  Here, I am referring specifically to students – human students – with whom I work. My statement that education is foundationally ontological is rooted in my posthumanist, complexivist worldviews.

I believe I take up Biesta’s challenge in my philosophy to teaching, and this fall in several of the projects that students will complete.  I provide what I believe and hope to be tremendous autonomy for students to speak – selecting their own term project “forms” in my Diverse College Students course; offering students in my leadership course various opportunities to speak outside the confines of traditional academic assignments (see last week’s post on Rhizomatic Learning for more on this approach); and in my Research in Higher Education class, asking students to speak about what they are learning regarding Emerging Researchers in a variety of possible ways.

Yet, as Biesta suggests, I am still at a starting point. I must actively interrogate and reflect on my teaching philosophy – for it is riddled throughout with the language of learning. For example, I state “we are all teachers; we are all learners.”  What does this mean to me now, in light of Biesta’s arguments? What would it mean to change the language in my teaching philosophy to “we are all speakers?” Would such a change shift the starting place of my teaching and relationship with students?


Astin, A. W. (1984). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel25(4), 297-308.

Biesta, G. J. J. (2010). Learner, student, speaker: Why it matters how we call those we teach. Educational Philosophy & Theory42(5-6), 540-552.

Biesta, G. J. J. (2014). The beautiful risk of education. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Harper, S. R. & Quaye, S. J. (2009). Student engagement in higher education: Theoretical perspectives and practical approaches for diverse populations. New York, NY: Routledge.

NSSE. (n.d.) National Survey of Student Engagement. Retrieved from http://nsse.indiana.edu/ 

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