The Radical Impossibility of Teaching

(Note: This essay has been read and downloaded over 25,000 times. I am preparing an update entitled, "Lessons Learned from The Radical Impossibility of Teaching.")

In an essay written in 1982, Shoshana Felman described some paradoxical statements made by Socrates and Freud on education and learning. In the context of a discussion on pedagogy, they both talked at different times about the “radical impossibility of teaching.” (Felman, 1982: 21)

I would like to argue, in some agreement with Felman’s conclusions, that a recognition of the “impossibility” of teaching, enables and encourages the development of new and innovative approaches to pedagogy and learning. (Most of the discussion which follows deals with undergraduate education in the context of technological change.) I will also link my discussion of teaching and learning with some comments on the creation of technologically mediated environments for education. My ultimate goal is to enrich the debate on technology and learning by linking innovation in education with the history and theory of classroom practice.

At the root of the claim about the impossibility of teaching is my feeling that learning never progresses along a “simple one-way road from ignorance to knowledge.” (Felman, 1982: 27) In addition, teachers cannot fully control the outcome of the processes of communication and interaction with their students unless the learning process is framed by a set of very narrow concerns. The balance between where students have come from and where they are headed is rarely linear and is often not clear. There is a legitimate desire on the part of teachers to structure ideas and values, as well as knowledge and content, for the purposes of presentation and discussion.

What must be recognised is the role of “desire” in communication and teaching, as well as the gap between what teachers know and how well they have come to grips with what they don’t know. This profoundly affects the teacher’s capacity to create a site of learning for students. The same problems and potential solutions apply to learners.

As Felman herself suggests, “Ignorance is thus no longer simply opposed to knowledge: it is itself a radical condition, an integral part of the very structure of knowledge.” (Felman, 1982: 29) For Freud, and for Socrates, knowledge is only gained through struggle and as a result of the recognition that ideas have an impact because of the dynamic interplay of words and spoken language, interpersonal communications and public discourse. It is their recognition of the importance of speech and of the balancing act between knowing and not knowing that opens up new possibilities for discussion and learning.

Ignorance is about resistance and lack of knowledge. It is about the desire to think and act in certain ways, many of which are rooted in a conscious (and sometimes unconscious) refusal to engage with processes of inner reflection. The problem is that some pedagogical strategies try to anticipate what students need to know, as if teachers have already solved their own contradictory relationship with learning. The result is that teachers create (if not imagine) an ideal student and then make judgements about the students who are unable to attain the standards set by their instructional methods.

If there is to be some equality of exchange here, then the teacher has to be learning nearly all of the time. This can then set the stage for some linkage and visibility between the foundational assumptions of the instructor and her own past, as well as her own history of learning. This may then return the teacher to a closer understanding of what it means to be a student.

The underlying presumption of most teachers is that students need to learn. There is a moral imperative to this assumption that is often linked to the overall values of our society, even if those values are themselves the site of intense struggle. Ironically, as the age of students at the undergraduate level increases, the question of who knows what, drives teachers into using more and more specialised knowledge constructs.

The difficulty is that the need to learn cannot be understood in isolation from actual classroom practice. And the classroom is not necessarily a site of communication and exchange. The more specialised the teacher is, the more likely that the teaching will orient itself towards a power relationship that is results-oriented. But why should students learn in the first place? It seems almost heretical to ask that question. I ask it in the context of institutionalised forms of education that are driven by a complex set of motives that don't often include the student.

Historically, the culture of education has bred a tree of contradictions. Many of the supposed beneficiaries of the educational experience participate because they have to, not because they want to. This combination of resistance and acquiescence is framed by an increasingly complex system of assessment and evaluation. In order to fill the obvious gaps here, institutions rely on survey strategies to find out what is working and what isn’t. If the students are ambivalent about their learning experiences, their capacity, even their need to respond to survey-type questions, will be influenced by a set of impulses that are unlikely to appear in the results. This only further amplifies the difficulties in getting to know what students know.

In order to explore some of these contradictions, I would like to briefly discuss a course that I taught during my tenure at McGill University as Director of the Graduate Program in Communications. Although I had spent many years teaching graduate students, I decided to teach an undergraduate class of 85 students. The course was at the third and forth-year level. The lecture hall was designed for about 125 people and was built in the style of a Roman theatre, with row upon row of stadium seating. I found the environment alienating, as did the students. Nevertheless, we developed a strong relationship over the period of a year. I spent the first two classes introducing the material in the course, and noticed with increasing discomfort that the students were not only physically distant from me, but seemed to be psychologically distant as well.

At the beginning of the third class, I asked them whether we might profit from a discussion of their backgrounds and their motivations in taking the course. They readily agreed. And so began a month-long debate on education, their years in secondary school and at McGill. With time, the students changed from expectant consumers of the information and ideas that I had prepared for them, to excited participants in a debate about the meaning of learning. The debate was framed by comments on the relationship between their personal history and public role as students. It became clear that nearly half of the class came from divorced families and that many had experienced a variety of familial problems. Our shared disclosure of this common base, and a strong desire to explore the implications of that discovery, led to questions about the best way to organise the course. They wanted to change its parameters and redesign its content. After some resistance, I agreed. As the fall semester drifted into the winter, I realised that the content of the class was being directed toward subjects that would help the students analyse their own personal histories. They became increasingly fascinated with psychoanalysis and, in particular, psychoanalytic readings of popular culture. They were slowly developing the tools to analyse cultural history, but set against the background of their own experiences. I am not suggesting that there wasn’t any content, merely that the content was now coming from a variety of concerns, none of which were located within traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Over the year, I came to know this large group of students very well. We were all very upset when the course ended, as if the artifice of the university schedule had finally won out. I would say that more than anything else we had learned to learn. But this meant that we had to go through an unlearning process as well. I had to unlearn what it meant to be a teacher and to recognise how the students themselves were handling the process. At the heart of our shared experiences was the fact that we had shifted from a concern for information, and for the canonical debates of a particular discipline, to something far more ephemeral, which could never have been captured by a course outline.

While reflecting on the class, I was drawn to another comment Felman made, about learning and teaching following an irregular path, full of “breakthroughs, leaps, discontinuities, regressions, and deferred action.” (Felman, 1982: 27) This comes close to my sense of what we went through. In other words, we had to define not only the nature of the task, but the goals, orientation, and direction of our pursuit. We had to examine what we didn’t know in order to come to grips with ideas that might be worth knowing and we had to ask some fundamental questions about knowledge in general. We couldn’t do this in a linear fashion. It was in the breaks, the breakdowns, the ellipses and the creation of unique boundaries of debate and discussion that a new process came into being.

The most important aspect of this experience, for me, was the confirmation of an intuition. The history of education is full of experiments and noble efforts at change. And, as I shall discuss below, we are on the cusp of a profound shift in the experience of learning as a result of the exponential growth of virtual environments. My intuition has always been that learning comes about when we understand what motivates us or attracts us to a particular set of ideas or practices. The difficulty for the teacher is that the classroom is not necessarily the best place to discover those motivations. The classroom as an environment often does not facilitate the type of personal interaction that permits students and teachers to recognise the elliptical nature of the communication processes in which they are engaging.

So the question is, why is this example important? What is the connection between the “impossibility” of teaching and the process that I went through with my class? And how does all of this relate to the fundamental “paradigm” shift that we are presently experiencing in the educational system?

There is something about the quality of the classroom that I would like to capture here, not to set it in opposition to on-line and virtual learning, but to discuss the changing, if not transformed context, for education in the early 21st century. When information is packaged into modular form or when it is prepared so as to encourage students to follow a particular structure (the better word might be scenario), what impact does this have on the process of learning? I want to emphasise process here because my own experience as a teacher would suggest that, however effectively one “prepares” for a class, the realities of learning alter the original orientation (if not the original goals) in a number of creative and unpredictable ways. If the structure is too tight, or the scenario is too predictable, then we move towards a tightly organised outcomes-based approach to learning. We end up confusing the relationship between clear goals (set by the teacher), and an anticipation that the student will meet the expectations of the course, because they have replicated the core meaning of the content.

This is, to some degree, summarised by the institutionally driven assumption that teachers need to envision what students should know at the end of a course. Yet, knowledge cannot be packaged in such a simplistic way. We gain an understanding of an idea, for example, through dialogue as well as reading, through discussion as well as mediated forms of communications. Dialogues can lead in an untold number of different directions. The fundamental unpredictability of dialogue is that both interacting parties may have no sense of where they are headed and may, indeed, learn in ways that they had not anticipated. This should be a source of excitement, but it is often a source of anxiety. I believe the anxiety is partially situated in how we define teachers and students.

Another way of thinking about this point would be to ask, What would happen if the student were to speak from the position of the teacher ? Would the student organise the material in the same way? Would she set the same goals? Would she need to make a moral judgement about what should or shouldn’t be known or understood? How could the student be thought about outside of the Teacher/Student framework?

In other words, we need to ask questions about the way students are conceptualized within educational institutions. Every teacher comes into the classroom with a model of what students can and cannot do. This would apply as much to the experienced teacher as to the novice. The model, which the practice of classroom teaching and learning sometimes supports and sometimes doesn’t, has already informed the construction of the course outline. To some degree, the content of the course has been given a structure to satisfy the expectations of the teacher. This wouldn’t normally pose too many problems, were it not for the fact that the teacher must then grade the student on their ability to both adapt to and internalise the model (of knowledge and of student ability) put in place by the teacher.

It is this power relationship that sustains the hierarchical power structure of the classroom and influences the assumptions about how well or how badly students have mastered the ideas that have been presented and discussed. What I have just said also applies to courses that are more practical in orientation, although there are qualitative differences in the perceived outcomes. The problem is that if the student resists the teacher, she is likely to suffer a rebuke even if that resistance is an important facet of how she may be learning. The teacher is not necessarily to blame here, because she may not have had the chance to gain an insight into why the student is resisting. This points out the fragility of the situation. How can the teacher know and understand the many strands that make up this complex interaction?

In the classroom, there is unlikely to be time, or even effort, put towards the type of interpersonal dialogue that could open a window on the state of mind of the student (and of the teacher). To some degree, both student and teacher operate within a context that may make it difficult to achieve a strong degree of critical awareness because of this gap. Yet, it seems clear that the gap will not be bridged, unless there is some agreement between both parties that the interpersonal is as important as any other part of the learning experience.

Interpersonal relationships are one of the foundations of dialogue. How much time is available to students and teachers to engage in this type of interaction? Could it be that efforts at reform continue to operate within the mindset of a structure and a schedule that precludes the openness needed to address these issues? When one talks of curriculum design, can these questions be put to the side? And doesn’t the whole orientation of instructional design place the emphasis on a set of temporal boundaries, that may not be sustainable, when and if the dialogue goes off in an unpredictable direction?

This suggests that students need to get involved in the organisation of the course, but it also suggests a more present-tense relationship between student and teacher which may change the original objectives of the class. Clearly, there are some subjects which by their very nature encourage a greater fluidity of organisation and responsiveness (Media and communications studies would be good examples.). The point is not to dispense with all the prior claims that students and teachers have made when they first decide to share a classroom together. Rather, it is to allow for and encourage fundamental, not superficial, change.

At a crucial point in her article, Felman comments on a statement by Freud in which he discusses the process he went through in giving his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. “This time once again it has been my chief aim to make no sacrifice to an appearance of being simple, complete or rounded-off, not to disguise problems and not to deny the existence of gaps and uncertainties.” (Felman, 26) At the heart of Freud’s statement is the recognition that it may not be possible to anticipate what a student will be able to do with the ideas, information and exchanges that have made up a course. Although Freud speaks from a place of authority, he recognises that his position is largely dependent on his role being accepted by the students. The self-reflexivity needed by the students to contradict Freud will only be encouraged, indeed facilitated, if the ideas themselves are not modelled as if they are complete or prescriptive. This is only possible if one is willing to leave the “gaps and uncertainties” in place and not hide their impact on the instructional effort. This will only come to pass if the student feels that there is some value to situating herself both for and against the teacher. To recognise this paradox is to understand the impossibility of teaching. No amount of content correctly formulated and presented will simplify the binds here. Ironically, the flow of contradictions that I have just been describing could be at the heart of an entirely different set of pedagogical strategies. The difficulty is that the structure of the educational experience, both from the teacher’s and the student’s perspective mitigates against the value of invention and exploration. To be truly inventive, a student would have to feel confident enough to examine the teacher’s assumptions at the most basic of levels. And that examination would have to have the force of reason attached to it, as well as the competence to redefine the direction of the dialogue. This is a huge challenge.

I have gone into great detail here about the contradictions of classroom learning and teaching because I feel that we are rushing into the creation of a new technologically driven environment for learning without examining the many lessons that the classroom experience has taught us. I think that we are also witnessing shifts in what we mean by learning that will have a profound effect not only on the social and political structures of western countries, but also on the ways in which in which we see ourselves, act upon and within the communities of which we are a part. These shifts will affect how we create meanings, messages and information for the proliferating networks of education that now surround us. The ‘new schools’ we are shaping will mirror the problems and contradictions of the past, if we are not able to formulate a radically different approach to the learning process. The introduction of new technologies will not lead to innovation if we don’t fully examine how the history of specialisation in the educational system has often prevented new pedagogical strategies from being invented.

There are a number of significant elements that have shaped the terrain upon which the educational system is now building a new infrastructure.

  • pedagogical innovation - driven in part by the breadth and possibilities of technology, inhibited by a lack of knowledge of how the educational uses of technology and classroom practice can be moulded into productive learning environments (and paralleling this, the rush to innovate without enough historical and theoretical enquiry into the extraordinary pressures for innovation over the last fifty years); 
  • the meaning of learning in the context of both individual and social needs set against a background that over-emphasises the links between learning and skills; 
  • the nature of educational institutions - the structural constraints that inhibit if not prevent new ways of thinking from taking hold; 
  • the practical and philosophical problems of disciplinary boundaries and the resistance to redefining traditional communities of learning and research as well as current and often dominant paradigms of disciplinary orientation; 
  • a popular cultural context that has recast the learning experience away from home and school and encouraged dramatically new forms of auto-didacticism and grassroots cultural production; and 
  • the concept of networked connections - the pervasive existence of networks encourages and generates new forms of exchange that far exceed conventional notions of communication and have transformed the relationship between information, learning and knowledge.

All of the above factors have had an impact on the context within which learning takes place. I am particularly interested in the relationship between learning and popular culture. The level of activity in popular culture is so profuse that educational institutions can no longer disregard their impact. Our cultural definitions of learning within the educational system should not ignore the strength of the auto-didactic impulse. It may well be the case that the intersection of technology and education is precisely about the growth and proliferation of many, many different ways to learn. This explains why the concept of networks is so exciting, although it doesn’t explain why there has been so little constructive, critical analysis of what networks mean. The question as to whether disciplines can exist within this context is a fundamental one. If networks mean anything, it is that all of the varieties of specialisation that our culture has nurtured can be infiltrated, redesigned and cross-referenced. This is both the wonder of the hyperlink-hypermedia interface and a key instance of its power to overwhelm conventional boundary markers and to fudge the way we have differentiated between bodies of knowledge. The challenge to what we mean by education and educational institutions is so basic that we may have to re-imagine the structure of learning from the ground up.

A new kind of classroom is being envisioned. It is set within the parameters of a mixed and flexible environment that is not restricted by time or physical location. However, if, as I have just suggested, educators in most western countries have still not fully understood the contradictions of conventional classroom practice, what kind of new vision can be assembled for a computer-mediated classroom? Most of the “content” now being created for networked-based forms of education and learning is derivative and largely dependent upon already existing models of information and communication. There is nothing particularly new about a great deal of archival information being made available to students on a university campus, although the availability of this information for students at a distance is a significant change. There is something new about being able to gain access to that information through a computer screen and network link. There is something radically different in the web-like structure of that information and the way primary and secondary sources intersect in a chaotic and unpredictable fashion. One would have to be very narrow and closed-minded not to recognise the implications of having so much research available that is relatively unmediated, if not unstructured. 

I am concerned with the assumption that “knowledge” can be transferred into a technologically mediated environment and made available for learners and learning. If we are to have pedagogical innovation, then we must also examine whether the traditional learning experience will be effectively transformed through the use of technology. And, as I have tried to show, our analysis of the traditional classroom leaves much to be desired. But I am also concerned with the underlying assumptions about the role of technology in the development of a learning environment. The following excerpt from a recent policy document prepared for the Council of Education Ministers of Canada underscores some of the problems I have been discussing. “The learning experience for both face-to-face and distance students can be enriched and enhanced through Technology-Mediated Learning [TML] tools. For example, reference materials that were previously inaccessible can now be viewed by students via the Internet. TML can also be used to create simulations of phenomena too small, too large, too fast-paced, too expensive or too dangerous to bring into the classroom. Finally, TML can bring post-secondary education to a new group of students without the time or ability to attend normal campus courses. Working adults and advanced learners are key beneficiaries of the process of extending advanced training beyond the walls of the colleges and universities. This benefit depends on learners having access to the necessary hardware and connectivity.” (Lewis, Smith, Massey, McGeal and Innes, 1998:18)

I have been arguing that we need to re-examine the nature of the dialogue in the classroom and that we have to be prepared to change our definitions of students and teachers. The availability of more reference materials is wonderful. The opportunity to create computer simulations that will enhance our potential understanding of micro or macro events or experiments is significant. The opening of the doors of post-secondary education to adults and professionals is, to my mind, extremely important. But these issues have been central to most educational institutions since the post-war period. There has been a continuous struggle with accessibility and non-stop efforts to develop new tools for the presentation of information and research. True, the computer terminal offers a personal environment for learning if the student is prepared to operate in isolation of his or her peers. Chat rooms and social media invite and often stimulate connections and conversation, but they are difficult to sustain and will remain so until we are able to communicate in real time with sound and images. Video conferencing makes it possible to converse over great distances. Yet it remains difficult to support image to image relationships for a long time, and ultimately the static nature of the process makes it as hard to maintain as any interaction between individuals and groups of people in a classroom setting. Social media offer a plethora of information and a variety of possible interactions, but not enough space to explore dialogue beyond the frameworks provided by the web and various apps. 

Have the fundamentals changed here? Are we any closer to understanding how people learn? Can we do that without more profound models of mind and a richer understanding of the communications process? Is it important to distinguish between learning and skills acquisition? In the policy document from which I just quoted, pedagogical issues are briefly discussed, but are not central to the paper. How can we develop policy around issues like lifelong learning, for example, in the absence of discussion about a more highly developed analysis of learning itself? In other words, what has happened to theory?

The short answer is that an overwhelmingly pragmatic attitude has taken root. It is simultaneously holding onto some of the most conservative traditions in education, while proposing revolutionary solutions that will allow for a growing segment of the population to gain access to more and more information. This is why terms like ‘educational provider’ or ‘delivery’ appear over and over again in the literature. It is as if learning is about receiving, as if information is about delivery. Access means nothing if there isn’t a foundation upon which the information can be transformed into knowledge, and it means very little to gain access to an archive if one has no connection to, or understanding of, history.

It is here that the concept of a networked connection has overwhelmed and perhaps obscured our ability to explore what connections actually mean. The conventional classroom is a living laboratory of the contradictions, potential, and unpredictability of connections. Why have we not learned from that experience and applied that learning to radically reinventing the structures that we are creating for technology-mediated educational experiences? This is why Freud and Socrates were right. The ‘impossibility’ of teaching is situated in a fear of fragmentation and breakdown, in other words, the flux and flow of contradictions that may have no immediate solution. Teaching, as much as learning in my opinion, is about the struggle to keep these issues in the foreground, and to keep the conflict among all of these elements rebounding against each other in a productive manner. The people who are building technology into education and learning, will have to heed these lessons. Otherwise, we may end up reproducing the very structures of learning that have inhibited fundamental change from occurring in the first place.


Shoshana Felman, “Psychoanalysis and Education: Teaching Terminable and Interminable,” Yale French Studies, No. 63, 1982.

Brian Lewis, Richard Smith, Christine Massey, Rory McGreal, Julia Innes, “Technology-Mediated Learning: Current Initiatives and Implications for Higher Learning,” Report Presented to the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, August, 1998.