Pedagogy in the higher: must we really bet on the autonomy of students?


Etymologically, the word pedagogy means “the art of teaching children” – paidos, in ancient Greek, meaning “child”. But while higher education is growing and continuing education is developing, we can notice that no other term has emerged to designate the way to teach an adult audience, not even “andragogy” – of the Greek andros designating the man or the adult. We continue to talk about pedagogy regardless of age, be it the school system or the post-baccalaureate curriculum.

“When a thing does not exist, there is no word to designate it; and if there is no word to name a thing, it is because this thing does not exist, “according to Aristotle. Can this precept be applied to pedagogy? Can we say that adult pedagogy does not exist? Inspired by the closeness between the psyche of the adult and that of the child, Antoine Léon, author of an adult psychopedagogy, answered this question in the 1970s:

“Andragogy appears much more as an aspiration than as a doctrinal or methodological ensemble in process of elaboration. In other words, the opposition between andragogy and pedagogy is more the domain of opinion than that of the scientific or even empirical approach. “

A necessary framework

What about forty years later, when more and more autonomy is being invoked? Can this be a base around which adult-specific teaching is developed, distinct from methods for young children? Devices like the MOOCs, and their classes broadcast online, or the inverted class – where the student discovers the course at home before deepening it in class – seem to place learners alone in the face of knowledge. But from there to conclude that autonomy is the condition of a good learning, there is a step.

This is shown by the example of Eric Mazur’s inverted class. The annotated individual reading is one of the program’s iconic activities at the prestigious Harvard University in the United States. It consists, for each student, to read on his computer the chapters of a book, to highlight the passages poorly understood, then, via a networking platform, to describe his problems to his fellow students and to answer any questions asked by them.

Cooperation that is established spontaneously? No, since the work done on the platform, including comments, is supervised and noted. At the heart of one of the largest universities in the world, welcoming some of the best students on the planet, it has been understood that it is under the influence of its environment that the individual becomes what he is, and that it is only through a social history that he will best develop his aptitudes. And this story, it belongs to the teachers to create it.

Decisive social interactions

In reality, the autonomy whose virtues are vividly extolled can not be considered as a key competence in the act of learning. It is only the result of learning and not its prerequisite: at any age, the individual is autonomous only for what he has already learned. Going beyond what he already knows how to do, each time requires new social relationships with third-party caregivers – a teacher, a student colleague, a parent. To progress, it is necessary to be confronted with new social interactions which will allow to be guided towards new acquisitions. The real driver of learning is therefore not the autonomy of the learner, but the unprecedented social bonds that can arise from a stimulating human environment.

While the role of teachers in some devices is now more behind the scenes than on the stage of the lecture, it is still essential to guide learning. Their imprint is through the prescription of relevant exercises, personalized assessment of students, management of the discipline, encouragement to persevere in the effort and recognition of success. All things, obviously, that a class can not easily obtain or impose on itself and motivate the recourse to a multiple external help.

Whether the teacher is facing a group of children or adults, their needs are the same in terms of pedagogy. It is by abandoning the myth of an autonomy more and more necessary over the age that the academics can begin to deploy a pedagogy “radically social” stopping to navigate between two waters, as underlined this study for the Observatory of student life:

“The great contradiction […] is the coexistence of two discourses: on the one hand, we demand more and more autonomy for students and, on the other hand, we insist on the need for greater supervision. “

In doing so, they will privilege all activities leaving the student out of isolation, such as group work, project management, communication between students or between teachers and students. And to say it even better, we will leave to Malson and the poetry of his verb, the most beautiful conclusion: “Before the meeting of the group and others, the man is nothing but virtualities as light as transparent vapor. All condensation implies a medium, that is, the world of others. ”

Author Bio: Yann Roche is an Engineer-Researcher in Pedagogy at the Grenoble School of Management (GEM)