An intellectual adventure in lockdown – teaching and learning online and at home

17 April 2020 onwards…(mid lockdown)

In 1818, at the University of Louvain, Joseph Jacotot had an intellectual adventure. He gave his students a bilingual text and told them to use it to learn French. They did – brilliantly. Without help. His experiment led him not only to question the necessity of professional teachers, but also fundamental ideas about how teaching methods can stultify or liberate the student. These ideas are examined in Jacques Ranicières ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster’.[1]

With most school and university premises closed, and teaching and learning moved online, the ideas in Rancière’s ‘The ignorant Schoolmaster’ seem even more pertinent. Concerns have been raised about the inequalities in learning outcomes that are expected as a result of this switch. It is argued that children who do not have the advantage of resourceful and dedicated parents, access to a quiet place to study, computers and the internet will be disadvantaged.[2] Some of these arguments would also seem to apply to university students, at least in terms of space and resources. The energy and input of others in the household will also be relevant if we follow Rancière’s argument. A basic tenet of Jacotot’s method of universal education is to talk, to say what you think and say what you make of something. 

However, this seems to require an ignorant schoolmaster to set the work, to ask the questions and to verify that the student is paying attention. The issue is not whether the person or people who live with the student have the knowledge and skill to instruct the student, in fact this could be counter-productive and stultifying. The parent who tries to direct learning and get a certain answer from the student will, like Socrates, be teaching the student that they need to be taught. What is needed instead, according to Jacotot, is the belief and understanding that we are all equally able and intelligent enough to learn for ourselves; we can make our own links, form our own opinions. We can then verify our own understanding by drawing on evidence whilst also recognizing that the whole truth is unattainable, and we will only ever circle around it in our own individual orbits. Isn’t this exactly what we want our university students to do? Removing students from an institutional setting that reinforces the idea of instruction and letting them loose to discover and research their ideas and concepts for themselves could be a good thing, couldn’t it?

In some ways yes. If our students are left and encouraged to think for themselves even more, if we give them leeway to not attend all tutorials, to do a bit less in the midst of a global pandemic, that could give the space and the necessity to learn for themselves. But, they still need someone to talk to, to ask questions of them, to verify they are learning. What the university can provide is that community of interested people, other artists, to share thoughts and ideas with. There is a great example in the book of how discussion develops a language of art for a child (but not necessarily fantastic drawings), in the section “Me too, I’m a painter”: 

“A few days before putting a pencil in his hand, we will give him the drawing to look at, and we will ask him to talk about it. Perhaps he will only say a few things at first – for example, “The head is pretty.” But we will repeat the exercise; we will show him the same head and ask him to look again and speak again, at the risk of repeating what he already said. Thus he will become more attentive, more aware of his ability and capable of imitating. We know the reason for this effect, something completely different from visual memorization and manual training. What the child has verified by this exercise is that painting is a language, by the drawing he has been asked to imitate speaks to him. Later on we will put him in front of a painting and ask him to improvise on the unity of feeling present, for example in the painting by Poussin of the burial of Phocion.”[3]

The passage concludes that the child understands that art is the desire to communicate and to move others and that desire and ability is within them too, and if they study this language they can learn to use it themselves. It is in the eliciting of the child’s opinion, the digging deeper that develops and verifies the child’s understanding, not instruction and explication. Nevertheless, an interlocutor is required here. The painter and the student can communicate silently, but it seems that it is the sharing of one’s thoughts with a living person that is the loadstone for learning. This would seem to apply at any age. Without this interested other the child or the university student would seem to be disadvantaged.

During the pandemic, UAL creates this space and opportunity in the online tutorial. The chance afforded by the pandemic to decouple learning from an institution and set curriculum could be lost by creating new ways to teach students that they still need teaching. I have thought hard about how to avoid this trap and instead add to the potential for greater intellectual emancipation in my teaching practice now that we had moved online. Following Jacotot, what I would like to counter is the idea that of any hierarchy of intelligence or creativity, to disrupt the teacher-student hierarchy and see how online teaching can facilitate this.

The move from in person, to online tutorials changes something. Firstly, we are all using Teams. For the first time, we are all learning this together and no matter how many preparatory meetings I attended beforehand, how good I am at technology, it still comes across that this is new for us all, and in this we are equal. Sadly, this novelty will soon become old-hat. Teachers will once again become masters of their teaching environment, develop habits and ways of teaching that return their command over the now online teaching environment. But for a moment we can enjoy this moment of a shared lack of expertise.

Secondly, I am teaching from my sofa in my living room, and I haven’t been to the hairdressers. My home is not grand, and I deliberately don’t sit with a bookshelf full of books on art and philosophy behind me. Contrast that to me, the professor (one day lol), in the university setting where I have worked for years, know everyone, every corridor, where I feel at ease, at home, as I speak to the new student surrounded by unfamiliar people in unfamiliar places, the student who maybe even got lost and arrived late because they couldn’t find the room. Using Teams, we are all at home, all comfortable in our own environments.

Thirdly, this changed environment creates a necessity and an opportunity, mid-year, to change my teaching style ever so slightly. We are mediating through a screen, only heads and shoulders are visible, there is less of the body’s language to read.  Less facial definition, so that micro-expressions and the cues that you would get in real life can be missed. It is easy to misinterpret and be misinterpreted and I have changed my teaching style to compensate.

My response is to be more-friendly, emphasizing my enthusiasm for the positive aspects of the students’ work, not as an instructor but as a person who chooses to believe in the equality of intelligence and is curious about the creative processes and influences of the people in front of me. I do not verify their claims, I give that task to them. I ask questions of them out of interest and through these questions they develop their language of art for themselves, develop their own ideas for themselves.  

I verify that they are learning about art by paying attention to art in the world. And they tell me the artists they have looked at. I suggest other artists too, of course, and they appreciate this. I and my co-tutors offer suggestions for developing their work. Again, they appreciate this. But this is not a one-way process. It is a conversation in which we explore ideas together. It is not just my way of being that has changed in the lockdown, some students also seem to have become productive in a different way. They have had to be creative to create. They have had to do this themselves and seem to recognise that they can learn, and have learned, for themselves. They may be finding things difficult, but the pandemic allows them to say that they find things difficult and this is legitimate and universal for us all. They have the freedom not to worry too much about the quality of their work, because we are more concerned about them as people. And yet I feel that the work that is produced is now more interesting. That said, 25% of my students didn’t turn up to today’s tutorials. One explained she had broken her laptop. The others didn’t contact us.

Returning full circle to the opening idea of closed schools increasing inequality for those already deemed disadvantaged, I think it is a failing of Rancière’s book to omit the materiality of disadvantage. It seems to assume equal resources or discount their importance. For a young child it is said that there will always be something to hand from which to learn – Telemaque, or even prayer book, in the time of Jacotot. But surely a prayer book can only take you so far? And nowadays, there may be no prayer book, no books at all.

So, what is that thing from which to learn in times of Coronavirus? When you can’t leave the house? Is it access to the internet? Permanent or intermittent accessibility? Is this now indispensable? Well, that seems to depend. The internet may not be essential to learning or creativity. Who knows, the students denied access to technology may respond to their exclusion with amazing creativity, out of necessity. Jacotot is big on necessity as motivation. There are always exceptional cases. But I am not concerned with them. I care for the many. And what about those overcrowded living conditions? Or even the distraction of hunger? 

Luckily for our UAL students, they are usually from financially better-off backgrounds. That still leaves some students struggling. Measures have been taken to make sure that UAL students, unlike school and FE students, all have access to computer equipment and the internet. As adults they are also less dependent on their parents than younger children. This means that there will be material differences in the debates about the sharpening of inequalities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, when we are talking about university students rather than children. 

So, what about our university students? Who are the university students that are not turning up? What are their backgrounds? And most importantly, are they busy creating great art without us, or failing and in distress? Only time will tell. In the meantime, the global pandemic has sped up the changes in education, above all university education, that were happening and bound to happen. As teachers, we need to identify how to make our roles facilitate the intellectual emancipation of our students through our teaching practice. There is also a wider question of what we want as a society we want from our education system. It is interesting that in post-revolutionary France Jacotot was concerned not to replace a fictional hierarchy of social birth with a fictional hierarchy of intelligence. That battle seems almost lost as education grades and sorts its subjects and students respond with greater anxiousness about obtaining not just a degree but also the highest grades. Increasing use of technology, post the appearance of Covid-19, allows for and will imbed greater and greater opportunities for measurement of both students and teachers. I would suggest that this could be detrimental to the role of teaching and intellectual emancipation. We also need to avoid the danger that we become cogs in an increasingly digitized, quantified, and monetized education industry and retain our ability to facilitate our student’s growing creativity and confidence in their abilities.

[1] Rancière, J. Trans. Ross. K. (1991) The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford University Press. California, Stanford.

[2] See for example, or Keir Starmer’s views reported  in

[3] Rancière, J. Trans. Ross. K. (1991) The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford University Press. California, Stanford. P. 65