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Resonance Pedagogy 101  

Part of the Resonance Pedagogy series, visit the home page.

This interview is part of Hartmut Rosa and Wolfgang Endres’s book “Resonanzpädagogik: Wenn es im Klassenzimmer knistert”, Weinheim: Beltz, 2016. The English translation is by Christophe Fricker. Publication with kind permission granted by the publisher. 

Entering into a new relationship with the world means adaptively transforming it. Try this at school and enjoy the goose bumps when teaching and learning work for everyone involved!  

Wolfgang Endres: Goose bumps in the classroom? Can teaching and learning be that exciting? Do we run the risk of creating tension when everybody is not on board with the prevailing mood?  

Hartmut Rosa: Yes, to all three questions – but let me explain. When a teacher captivates the attention of a whole class to an extent that there is palpable excitement, we feel touched by the task, the activity, the subject matter of the session and we reach out and try and touch and grasp the part of the world that is being discussed. This doesn’t mean that everybody agrees; it can mean debate, differences in opinion, tension, and even conflict.  

Are goose bumps an indicator of resonance?  

Yes, because they show us that there is something we really care about. This won’t happen unless there is an initial spark. And that spark may or may not fly – I sometimes feel I talk to my students and nobody listens. If interactions stay muted and stunted, resonance won’t come into being.  

Don’t we need to acknowledge that quite often, simply, “the rest is silence”? 

And silence can be frosty too! There’s nothing colder than barren indifference. But when learning is lively, an active process, I will soon feel encouraged to relate to the world and invite it to speak. Setting up a new relationship with the world is an experience of “adaptive transformation” (Anverwandlung, in my original German).  

This does sound magical, but a bit airy-fairy too, in the context of a real-world classroom … The term “adaptive transformation” itself sounds grand and lofty, but what on earth do I do with it when I am in front of my students?  

It sounds magical because that’s what it is. I’ll make no apologies for dreaming and thinking big. Adaptive transformation means to adopt something as my own but not in a way that I simply own and possess it but, rather, in such a way that I am touched by it, affected, and perhaps transformed. We know very well that it is not good enough for us to own and rule and dispose of things as we please. We need to enter into a form of dialogue with them and give the world a voice. When it works, I will be transformed. And when I say “I,” I mean my students too, of course.  

How would a student even do that, “give the world a voice”?  

By adopting some part of the world in precisely the way that the student is affected and transformed. What matters is that you set up a relationship that you can experience and that has the potential to change you.  

How can class be a part of the world that changes a student in so profound a way?  

What students see at first is subjects and disciplines. Once they start exploring music, sports, English or maths in a way that means something to them, they can give these things a voice. They can resolve to do more with what they encounter. When you study Politics, you can become politicised. Politics begins to resonate for you. The same can happen with Theatre, Music, Religion, the environment.  

To summarise, then: when something captivates me and I try to adopt it, I relate to it and may be transformed. But what happens when I don’t do that and simply appropriate parts of the world? Wouldn’t it be enough in schools and universities for students to take it all in and be done with it? I know some tutors who would be happy enough if that were to happen …  

Look, we really shouldn’t confuse our desires for a relationship and for an object. Appropriation means wanting to own a thing – I claim it, and then it’s mine. I can take that kind of attitude to competencies and skills. I can rehearse the way to interpret a poem and, in the end, I can recognise the rhyme scheme. I can memorise a mathematical formula and use it correctly. Appropriation means personal gains in terms of skills and resources. I come to own a resource that I can deploy, like a tool. Adaptive transformation is entirely different: I adopt something as my own by letting it affect the way I am. I will end up being a different person.  

You do aim high! Does it work, with mere mortals?  

Let’s look at a poem. That text will look different to me when I interpret it. With a mathematical formula, that same process is a little more difficult to detect, but even here I can say: once I’ve adopted it for myself, I can use it in contexts that I hadn’t even considered – and that it may never have been used in before. I may also begin to relate it to new types of questions that it doesn’t normally have anything to do with. Adaptive transformation is a much more active process than appropriation.  

And this is where goose bumps come into play?  

You’ll see them when students interact with one another, and in interactions between teachers and students. Transformative relationships emerge when we are ready for resonance. We need to be open to encounters with something new, something different that affects me and moves me and might have the potential to change me profoundly. It’s a process where we show ourselves to be vulnerable. Schools and universities must be safe spaces where we can take these risks.  

Does that mean schools and universities are, by definition, resonant spaces?  

Yes and no. They aren’t in and of themselves resonant spaces. They can be spaces where relationships are established. At its core, education means developing new relationships with the world. Education achieves its goals when we enable a young person to give voice to some part of the world we all share and inhabit. The whole point of education is to enable learners to listen to the voice of the world and come to resonate with it. Education isn’t about gaining knowledge or making strides as a solitary individual; it’s about entering into new, productive, resonant relationships with the world.  

In practice, what does that mean to “give voice to the world”?  

During their time in educational settings, young people ought to cultivate an attitude of curiosity; they should become more and more interested in what it means to live in the world. They should start to learn to adaptively transform the world and themselves. This is what I call dispositional resonance.  

So how do we turn our classrooms into resonant spaces?  

Take a history lesson, for example. I wouldn’t know what to do with all my knowledge of the Greeks and Romans if all I had were lists of dates. But once I am able to see the Classical period as a time that matters to me, things will change. I will then be able to see it as part of my own world without which I wouldn’t be here or wouldn’t be who I am. Poems can initiate the same kind of reflection. I can do so much more than acquire the skill to recognise a rhyme scheme and metre or gather some information about the poet and historical context. For the purposes of assessments and grades, this may just be enough; but don’t we want more? Don’t we read Shelley, Rilke, and Cavafy because we are looking for something that no-one has ever told us before? Poems can do something with us!  

Can a school or university as a whole be a resonant space?  

Yes! Schools can be resonant spaces when axes of resonance are established that involve both teachers and students. There is a social side to that. As a student, I may be inclined to trust a particular teacher who opens up an aspect of the world to me that used to be inaccessible. Teachers and students must both be enthusiastic about what they work on.  

And what happens when one party refuses to play ball?  

The other will usually feel discouraged as well. Relationships sour; as sociologists we call this repulsion or indifference. In the latter case, students and teachers feel they have nothing to say to each other. Repulsion is worse: I don’t like him! She hates me! It’s often both … Schools can turn into sites of alienation where everything is terrible: the teachers, my peers, the endless business of teaching and assessment.  

If we want to avoid alienation, do we need a new approach? Do we need Resonance Pedagogy?  

That’s my point: Resonance Pedagogy looks at education as a multi-faceted, open-ended process. I would usually start my exploration of Resonance Pedagogy by drawing people’s attention to buildings, rooms, and corridors where we move and sit and work and talk. Resonance is always at least partly physical. Look at the way we turn towards each other when we meet and interact. When things go pear-shaped between colleagues or, say, managers and staff, the opposite of dispositional resonance will take hold. But to return to your broader question: yes, by Resonance Pedagogy I mean a holistic approach to education as a process involving axes of resonance and the gradual development of a ‘resonance compass.’  

Where do you draw the line between building relationships and pampering?  

These are quite different! In fact, Resonance Pedagogy is the opposite of pampering and pandering to students. Pampering is less about resonance than echo; it’s about harmony at all costs and avoiding any form of disturbance so no-one is upset, and every form of feedback is pleasant and positive. What happens there is that young people are deprived of resonance and simply swallowed up by endless echoes … 

… although you might say that there is at least some interaction, if only within the limits I have set?  

That difference matters, though. Echoes affirm what I have already said. That’s got nothing to do with resonance. Resonance means listening to a voice that is emphatically different from mine and encountering the other person as Other. In that process, I recognise the limits of my own understanding and my ability to adaptively transform what I encounter.  

In other words, there is room for disagreement in resonant relationships?  

Young people don’t just want to hear that they are right. They want to be challenged and invited to go further; many are keen to engage with contradictions. The key is to contradict in a way that takes them seriously, that matters to them, and moves them. This is completely different from simply and coldly refusing to engage in any form of dialogue; it’s different also from the shouty violence we tend to find on social media. We need to be quite careful to distinguish repulsive relationships that denigrate young people or make them feel overlooked and, on the other hand, relationships that allow for productive disagreement. If you don’t feel understood and think the other side makes no attempt at reaching out to you, there won’t be resonance.  

Does Resonance Pedagogy help us understand each other better?  

I would go even further: Resonance Pedagogy aims to help us develop our capacity and sensitivity for resonance. These are social skills we need to enter into any resonant relationship. Being able to resonate is a fundamental part of human culture; Resonance Pedagogy affords it a central place.  

Would you say resonance is “music to my ears”?  

To me, resonance is a specific type of relationship which I think you can indeed trace back to music. Think of two bodies that resonate – say, a violin and a guitar. Each of them will speak its own language, but they will sound differently when both are played. For them to sound at all, they must be at least partly closed. Porous, excessively open bodies won’t sound, but nor will bodies that are entirely sealed. It’s about finding the right balance between open and closed. For a young person this means being put in a position where you can develop your own audible, recognisable voice. Don’t try and fuse everybody into the sameness of some sort of collective harmony!  

If, as you said, resonance is a specific type of relationship, of being in touch and being able to move and be moved, isn’t this primarily about an ability to respond?  

Yes, absolutely. Resonant relationships are responsive. There is a passage about responsivity in the final part of my book on resonance. I want to suggest that we can do better in our relationships to the world, to life, to other people, to what used to be called Creation, than just always try to rule and control and get our hands on stuff. We would do better to listen and respond. We are at our best when we welcome surprises and enjoy being moved, and when we feel able to respond.  

Andreas Weber expressed it in rather poetic terms: “Transition is a point where the forest calls out to the meadow, and the meadow responds to the forest.”  

Forests and meadows are full of life and rely on each other: the forest’s influence extends well into the meadow, and vice versa.  

Where forest and meadow touch, they converge. There is no clear dividing line between the two. Would you say the same is true for puberty, a time of transition?  

Puberty is a time of alienation. It is when we are most susceptible to experiences of alienation and a lack of responsivity. As a stage in our development, it almost epitomises alienation. And yet, it is a stage we all need to go through, and why not in a school. What a young person has come to know and taken for granted and perhaps even enjoyed will suddenly seem strange and alien. He or she will encounter indifference or hostility, and ask: “What am I even doing here, in this family? What have I got to do with these people?” Parents appear, suddenly, as mere points of origin, as “stuff” that happens to be there, revolting, or pointless at best. This is an unsettling experience for a young person who steps out into the meadow and doesn’t see the wood for the trees.  

Can resonant relationships provide reassurance?  

Adaptive transformation has to kick in again. Resonant relationships don’t need clear-cut, categorical differences like the one between forest and meadow. They also don’t need the insistence that we should just live in the here and now. We are best at being in the world when we build relationships rather than cut ourselves off.  

What about those special moments then, those moments of transition? I read somewhere that Søren Kierkegaard once spoke of the ‘moment’ as the point where past and future fleetingly touch.  

Yes, Kierkegaard is right in saying that it is a joyful moment for us to be able to relate our own past to our future in a meaningful, palpable way that opens up a window to something new. We recognise a temporal axis, a form of progression that makes sense. These moments are hugely enjoyable – we remember something from the past which helps us see the future in a new light. This is where forest and meadow meet.  

In these moments of happiness, we feel hard-wired into the world. You mention the word “erotic” in this context. Sexuality aside, would you say that resonance means being in love with the world?  

Eroticism, to me, is the opposite of trying to manipulate the world. To love something is so different from trying to use and usurp and control it. Too often what we learn in school is how to make things available to ourselves. Technology seems designed to facilitate this very process. But as I said, to love and to be fired up for something is totally different. We can love a person, but also a thing, an object. I love poems; I need them. I love music; boy, do I need it! History, sports, tennis, volleyball, football – it doesn’t matter whether it’s “school stuff” or not: we can resolve to approach the world in a way that allows for resonance. That’s the “disposition” I talked about earlier.  

A declaration of love to make us think how best to relate to the world?  

What we can observe is that an approach that foregrounds manipulation, control, dominion, and confrontation will cause harm. Loving relationships, on the other hand, enable us to encounter something – or someone – new with respect and care. In my mind, our civilisation is fundamentally misguided if it prefers Promethean skill and mastery of the world to what Herbert Marcuse calls an “erotic” relationship to the world.  

Part of the Resonance Pedagogy series.

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