In an article that I wrote with a few colleagues of mine, we made the point that the notion of responsibility needs disambiguation, as it may refer to very different pedagogical “scenarios”. Let’s see why.
Lucas in his book on responsibility argues that responsibility establishes a triadic relationship: I am responsible for something to somebody. In our article we called this “answerability” to stress that this conception of responsibility always involves in one way or the other to respond to somebody (for something). There are a few things that I may draw from that, which has important consequences for education – I believe.
The first is that what we are held responsibility for should be known in advance. This implies that this something I am responsible for should described or made fully explicit. This is typical of contractual relations. In education, these are the learning objectives. What is it that the student will eventually acquire? Skills, competences – all these should be fully described in a specific way.
The second thing is that, if I am held responsible for something, then this something should be within my reach. Say, that I am appointed to make coffee for breakfast. So, I am responsible for preparing it. However, if the next morning the coffee machine breaks down, then, I cannot be held responsible. As far as education is concerned, this is a very interesting point. Learning is interpreted by some as acquiring certain skills, knowledge or competences defined beforehand. That is what a student is responsible for. But here comes the third actor in the triad. If I am held responsible for making coffee, as I said, that should be within my reach. Indeed, the machine may get broken. Yet there is another condition under which I may not be able to fulfill my “duty”. And that is when I don’t know how to make coffee. When, in other words, I have to learn. Being in such a state is a quite interesting one. And the reason is this: I may not be able to make coffee now, but I can learn and be able to make afterwards.
If that is the case, then there must be somebody who should teach me or, at least, assist me in the process. In schooling this role is fulfilled by the teacher. Interestingly, the teacher is in the pedagogical process that one the student responds to. But because of the pedagogical relationship the teacher is also the one becoming responsible for the students’ learning process. The teacher is, in other words, responsible for bringing the student into the state of knowing. The teacher is the one who posses pedagogical knowledge. That is, the kind of knowledge that would in theory allow the student to get to know what he/she has to know. At the same time, the teacher is also the subject supposed to know. That is, the state the student should achieve. So, the student responds to her.
So, to go back to my example. I am supposed to make coffee. But I lack the skill to do so. Therefore, a teacher is appointed to teach me how to make coffee. The teacher has pedagogical knowledge. That is, she tells me what to do in order to learn the skill. My responsibility now is not to make coffee, but to follow her instructions, which would allow me to acquire the skill. So, I am now responsible to her, while at the same time she has become (temporarily) responsible for me making coffee. This is what Lucas calls the “upward spiral of responsibility”, which seems to be a fundamental element of schooling.
Now, it goes without saying that the upward spiral establishes the conditions for hierarchy to emerge, because different people become engaged with one another in a sort of co-dependent relationship of duties – I respond to you, you respond to her, etc.. Some would call this “chain of fools”.
We can use responsibility as answerability to describe the state of affairs in education. But is there another way to interpret responsibility?
As I said, answerability establishes a triadic relationship: I am responsible for doing something to a third party. If I am not capable yet to fulfill my duty, then the third party becomes responsible for my learning process, whereas I become responsible for following what the third party – my teacher – tells me.
We can, though, deconstruct this. And that can be done, if we do not interpret responsibility as something related to an outcome to achieve or secure (e.g. making coffee). But as a process. Or, more specifically, as a type of engagement while doing something, which, though, may not be entirely specified. If we go back to the example of coffee – a trivial one, indeed – we may say that, if I am responsible for breaksfast, then what that means is that I am the one who will be taking care of preparing breakfast. I may make coffee, bake a cake, make toasts, etc..What counts is not so much what I am going to prepare as my own engagement, which eventually will lead to preparing something.
This is quite a radical departure from the triadic relationship. We may say that we are still somehow responsible to somebody for doing something. Yet such connections are somehow relaxed or loosened up. What counts is more something coming out of oneself rather than mere compliance. This has indeed very important repercussions on education and the way in which we may conceive it. For example, the learner is not necessarily to be seen as an executor of the teacher’s plan (for his own good, indeed). Conversely, the student becomes a subject of a process that is essentially open to his “will to learn”. In other words, to educational trajectories that very much depend on his own ideas and plans, not teachers’, school’s or society’s. The teacher then is not taking responsibility for the learner’s learning process. Conversely, she becomes an ally of the student in the process.