Unconditional Teaching start

Inspirations for our way of thinking about teaching

Katharina Pietsch, 3. Oktober 2019

Here are some of the people, ideas and resources that have inspired our own work.

Jesper Juul: ‘Beziehung’ instead of ‘Erziehung’

For us, Jesper Juul stands for a fundamental shift in the perception of relationships between parents and children, adults and young people, as well as teachers and students: instead of thinking of these as relationships of ‘Erziehung’, where the person in the more powerful position has the right and the obligation to parent, discipline and educate the person in the less powerful position in a top-down manner, Juul advocates for ‘Beziehung’, that is, framing these relationships in terms of their connection between persons which is not based on their hierarchical difference but on the principle of ‘Gleichwürdigkeit’.

The term ‘Gleichwürdigkeit’, which Juul has coined (ligeværdighed in Danish) – meaning a relationship that is fundamentally based on respect for each other and recognition of each other’s human dignity – best describes the kind of relationship with students we strive for in our teaching.

Jesper Juul. Aus Erziehung wird Beziehung. Authentische Eltern – kompetente Kinder. Herder, 2005.

Jesper Juul. Your Competent Child – Towards New Basic Values for the Family. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001. | Jesper Juul. Dein kompetentes Kind: Auf dem Weg zu einer neuen Wertgrundlage für die ganze Familie. 18th ed., Rowohlt Taschenbuch, 2009.

Alfie Kohn: Unconditional Parenting

Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting is one of the inspirations for our term ‘Unconditional Teaching’. He is critical of the use of competition, standardised testing, grades, homework, and traditional schooling in teaching, and of conditional love, punishments, rewards and praise in parenting.

Alfie Kohn. Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. Atria Books, 2006.

Alfie Kohn. Punished by Rewards: Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes. 25th ed., Mariner Books, 2018.

Alfie Kohn. Feel Bad Education and Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling. Beacon Press, 2011.

There is also an amazing wealth of resources on Alfie Kohn’s blog.

Non-violent Communication

The basic premises of nonviolent communication have been at the heart of the way we attempt to communicate with our students: communication that is empathetic and non-judgemental, with the prime goal to increase the chance that everyone’s needs – of learning, teaching and connecting about ideas – are being met.

Marshall Rosenberg. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. 3rd ed., Puddledancer Press, 2015.

Peter Felten: Relationship-Rich Education

Meaningful relationships in educational settings make learning meaningful, and caring relationships that show learners they are valued as people create belonging and make learning healthy. If students approach education mainly as a transactional process – completed tests in exchange for grades – then that’s because they lack a community that inspires them to learn because it makes their learning meaningful as an exchange of ideas.

Peter Felten and Leo M. Lambert. Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College. Johns Hopkins UP, 2020.

Jesse Stommel: Ungrading

Jesse Stommel advocates for Ungrading – a practice of teaching were teachers don’t grade and have open conversations about grades, the effects of grading and the alternatives with students and colleagues.

Essays on Ungrading: Why I Don't Grade | How to Ungrade | Ungrading: an FAQ | What If We Didn't Grade? A Bibliography

He also writes critical essays on other aspects of pedagogic theory and practice, like this one about pedagogical models: Not Taking Bad Advice: a Pedagogical Model

Solution-focused Coaching

The solution-focused approach assumes that people are the experts of their own lives and always have resources to make their lives better. In that vein, we believe that learners know best what they want, what they need and the resources they already have.

The solution-focused approach believes that focusing on problems – like the deficiency-oriented view on students we usually find in education – gets people stuck in a problem mindset, whereas focusing on desired outcomes and resources lets people move towards the future they want and the person they want to be.

The solution-focused approach also teaches us that we as teachers influence which version of our students show up in our classrooms and our office hours by the assumptions we make about them and the way we address them and treat them – depending on whether we focus on their deficiencies or on their strengths, goals and resources as learners.

Chris Iveson, Evan George & Harvey Ratner. Brief Coaching. A Solution Focused Approach. Routledge, 2012.

Keith Hjortshoj and Katherine Gottschalk: Teaching Writing

Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj’s Elements of Teaching Writing is a great resource for teaching writing at university that, in our view, should be read by anyone who instructs, supervises and evaluates student writing. They are critical of grading as the default approach to dealing with student writing because “the institutional importance of grades tends to define student writing – for teachers and for students – as an object of evaluation, not as a form of communication” (p. 49). There are a lot of invaluable insights about the things that university teachers can do to facilitate student writing, like practicing what you preach in the writing you address to students and responding to instead of correcting student texts, and why feedbacking a finished and graded student text is basically like a ‘diagnosis in an autopsy’ (p. 114).

Keith Hjortshoj & Katherine Gottschalk. The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in All Disciplines. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.

Peter Gray: Freedom to Learn

Peter Gray is an outspoken critic of coercive schooling. He is an advocate of self-directed education and freedom from constant adult supervision for children.

Freedom to Learn blog

Universal Basic Income (UBI) discourses

The German version, bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen, translates to ‘unconditional basic income’. Like in any other unconditionality discourse, the number one counter-argument against UBI is that people would just be incredibly lazy if they didn’t have to earn money. Just as the number one counter-argument against unconditional parenting is that children would be unruly monsters if they aren’t disciplined by praise and punishment, and against unconditional teaching that people wouldn’t learn if they aren’t made to do so with incentives and didactic tricks. All of the unconditionality discourses are up against an incredibly wide-spread disbelief that human beings can be benevolent, curious, creative, intrinsically motivated creatures with the will to make life better for themselves and others if we only let them.

Four important values at the heart of the case for a universal basic income – dignity, participation, trust and existential safety – are also central arguments for unconditional teaching: Unconditionality in education foregrounds the dignity of learners as human beings, facilitates participation, shows trust in learners and reduces fear by an increase in general safety.

Another interesting parallel is the potential of both an unconditional basic income and an unconditional education to be much more than just a solution to problems. As Philip Kovce und Birger P. Priddat put it, “the unconditional nature of the basic income leads to a lack of the kind of societal problems to which it was meant to be a solution”1. Ultimately, what both the ideas of a universal basic income and an unconditional education dare to believe is that there are much better solutions than the solving of existing problems: changing the system that creates those problems in the first place.

Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability

Maybe the most famous TED Talk of all time is the one where Brené Brown talks about the power of vulnerability. Vulnerability is the basis of all true connection, and therefore vulnerability is important in any kind of teaching that is about connection, too.

TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” by Brené Brown

Common Academic Experiences No One Talks About

Many academic researchers experience feelings of rejection, impostor syndrome and burnout, but those experiences are rarely talked about openly in academia. In this paper, 10 researchers write about their experiences in a personal way and by sharing their stories try to contribute to the destigmatisation of these experiences.

Lisa M. Jaremka, et al. “Common Academic Experiences No One Talks About: Repeated Rejection, Impostor Syndrome, and Burnout.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol. 15, no. 3, 2020, pp. 519–543.

Article on Sage | Article on ResearchGate | Article on Semantic Scholar

  1. Philip Kovce and Birger P. Priddat. “Bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen: Zur Einführung.” Bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen: Grundlagentexte, edited by Philip Kovce and Birger P. Priddat, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2019, pp. 11–53, p. 23, my translation. ↩︎


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