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Resonance Pedagogy: turning schools into resonant spaces

Article by Wolfgang Endres, translated by Christophe Fricker, Part of the Resonance Pedagogy series, visit the home page.

How research made time for resonant relationships  

Technology helps us save time and yet, we never have any. Sociologist Hartmut Rosa made it his mission to find out what happens to all the time we save. What he discovered was that it rarely makes itself felt as a positive experience that we cherish and enjoy. Instead, and ironically, we tend to burn through the time we have saved or view it as barren and pointless. Rosa’s first conclusion was that ‘The time we save is for the birds’ – and this seemed to him to be a sorry situation. Next, he set out to analyse our attitude to time itself. And here’s what he discovered: ‘There’s clearly something wrong with our attitude to time, and I very much suspect that that, in turn, is an indicator of a much wider problem with our attitude to the world.’ With this link at least plausibly suggested, resonance research was born, and its first and most basic hypothesis formulated: ‘If acceleration is the problem, resonance may be the solution.’  

How resonance research paved the way for pedagogy  

Rosa used his initial assumption as the basis for a new ‘Sociology of a better life,’ nothing less than a fundamental re-assessment of how we relate to the world. If, he says, our relationship to the world is intact, stable resonant relationships will soon emerge. Rosa has published a comprehensive, sociological analysis of resonance, which James Wagner has translated into English.  

This work then led to a re-appraisal of schools and teaching – in other words, to the new discipline of resonance pedagogy, which aims to turn schools into resonant spaces where learning happens through positive relationships. Goose bumps in the classroom show us when we are on the same wavelength. Resonance pedagogy believes that schools need to foster these moments. Attainment will follow.  

Resonant relationships in different flavours 

What do we mean by resonant relationships? Jens Beljan, a former PhD student of Rosa’s, explains: “Imagine a friend of yours plays you a song that you heard at a concert the night before. Hearing the very first notes, your friend’s face lights up. She is visibly affected and begins to move to the rhythm of the tune. She then looks at you with a sense of expectation, but you realise that the song has left you cold and you do not share your friend’s excitement at all. The song has not touched you; it does not ‘strike a chord’ in you. It ‘tells you’ so little that you cannot even say you do not like it. You may even be a little embarrassed by your own indifference. Suddenly, your friend’s brother bursts in and shouts: ‘Turn off the bloody music! This is unbearable!’”  

In this little scene, what we can observe are three different reactions to the same song: Your friend is touched by the music and allows it to capture her. There is a visible physical aspect to her response, which constitutes a resonant relationship between her and the music. You were unable to share in the emotion, in spite, perhaps, of your own best efforts. The song did not touch you; it did not tell you anything. You do not care much about it, and you are unaffected. Finally, your friend’s brother was touched by the song as well, but very negatively. He was repulsed by the music and rejected it. His relationship to it was hostile. These three modes of relating to the world are present in schools as well, and in many different forms.  

Implications  

Indifference can turn into repulsion, and school, into a place of alienation and constant fighting. For some young people, violence provides the only form of self-efficacy, of sensing that their actions make any difference at all.  

Relationships in the smartphone era  

Smartphones allow us to see that virtually everybody is desperately looking for resonance. Hartmut Rosa calls smartphones the ‘digital umbilical cord that connects us to a world of plenty’ – a world that provides us with what we need to survive. The internet has become a resonance-scape where lively relationships are supported. Our digital egos are hungry for a world that responds to us and provides the nourishment we need. In the process, the traces we leave behind in the online world have repercussions for our offline lives as well.  

Offline, we need moments away from screens, and we need physical, face-to-face encounter. If we meet someone on screen, what we see is not actually their eyes. In a daring piece of performance art, Marina Abramovic highlighted the nature of our online interactions by sitting down at a wooden table in a New York museum, facing nothing but an empty chair. She stared at the chair but did not say a word. Visitors were invited to sit down with her and look at the artist in silence. In the space of 90 days, three quarters of a million people came to look at the artist and be seen by her, looking, perhaps, for a moment of resonance.  

Being in tune  

From birth, humans need, and seek, resonance. New-born babies shriek with pleasure when we play with them and make faces. If we just stared at them, they would break out in tears or turn away.  

Physics tells us that ‘resonance occurs when the matching vibrations of another object increase the amplitude of an object’s oscillations.’ In school, the teacher serves as a tuning fork. With her own – good – vibrations the teacher might say to class: ‘I’ve got a great plan for today. I think, or, rather, I am absolutely certain that you’ll find this exciting as well!’ Her commitment is palpable and will be felt by her students. The teacher’s approach leads to resonance, when students are much more likely to be open to something new. If the process is successful, moments of intense vibration are physical sensations that may even be visible on our bodies, as goose bumps. Make no mistake, what I have just described is an ideal scenario. But why should we assume that repulsion is the norm, or that the only physical sensation felt by students (and teachers) is the pain of alienation?  

Resonance means motivation  

Once in a Lifetime, a documentary about a teacher at a struggling school in the suburbs of Paris, shows kids who are bored, aggressive, foul-mouthed, and academically weak. And yet, teacher Madame Anne submits a class project for a history competition. The kids end up winning the award, thus also revealing the secret of Madame Anne’s success in teaching: she has more faith in her pupils than they themselves and will say as much. It is her very enthusiasm that bolsters the pupils’ self-efficacy and leads them to delve into the project so deeply that it becomes an experience of profound, personal change.  

Establishing relationships that positively impact the expectation of self-efficacy is what Hartmut Rosa calls Anverwandlung, a term that has quickly become a cornerstone of Resonance Pedagogy. It speaks of a process of appropriation in which the appropriating person themselves undergoes significant change. For this to be possible, individuals must sense that they can be part of the solution to a problem they face. Teachers can stimulate this experience, and very often it does not take a lot – a word or two can make all the difference. Consider the student who struggles with their work; the teacher might say: ‘This is perhaps a little too difficult for you right now,’ thereby indicating that learning is possible and the student will grow.  

If we get the impression that answers are already out there and all we need to do is wait for them to be delivered to us, we will not try to come up with our own. For students, however, it is much more exciting to hear that many questions do not have an answer yet, or will never be answered definitively, and that it is still worth looking for an answer that will do. Teachers can choose to say: ‘I don’t know either. Why don’t we try and come up with an attempt at an answer by tomorrow? Let’s reconvene and see what we have each come up with.’ It is a much more transformative experience for young learners to discover their own answer than to simply hear the teacher’s.  

Can skills development go hand in hand with resonance?  

Skills and competencies are what we possess when we rule supreme over something we have appropriated for ourselves. Resonance, on the other hand, refers to the ongoing process of cultivating relationships with an object or person. Says Hartmut Rosa, ‘Resonance is always open-ended and at least partly beyond our control. That is how it’s different from a skill or competency.’ Rosa suspects that whenever we seek to be competent, we are actually competing. Pupils who operate on the assumption that they compete with one another are unable to build resonant relationships. Competition encourages jostling and elbowing; those who are fast and loud will get faster and louder and those who are quiet and slow will disappear from view. Some will resign and hide away altogether, perhaps for fear of embarrassment. Rosa’s views are clear: ‘It’s either competition or resonance; it can never be both.’  

Resonance? Funny that!  

Ask a pupil what they like best in a teacher and the answer will often be, a sense of humour. Humour comes from the heart. When the heart is silent, relationships harden. Laughter provides relief and laughing together will bring a community into being. This is what Resonance Pedagogy is all about.  

To put it in simple terms: laughter is a window into people’s souls. It is an attitude to the world – an approach to both your own self and your neighbour. With a sense of humour, it is easier to admit that you are fallible and that it is ok that others are too. Humour, in effect, is the celebration of expectations undercut. An acceptance that mistakes will be made and we sometimes fail is one of the building blocks of resonance. Adds motivation researcher Michaela Brohm, ‘Our own well-being and our sense of belonging increase when we manage to be grateful.’ In other words, let’s make time for expressions of gratitude in our teaching. Let teachers and pupils gather their thoughts and write on a dedicated board what they are grateful for, right now and right here, in this group and this school.  

Being pre-disposed to resonance will help  

Here is how Hartmut Rosa encourages everybody in schools to anticipate resonant relationships and thereby contribute to pedagogical success: ‘Being pre-disposed to resonance means encountering the world with a positive mindset. As individuals, we can decide to be ready to embark on resonant relationships and greet the world with an attitude of openness and good faith, even at the risk of admitting our own vulnerability.’  

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