‘Education’ has the potential to take place in any situation where two or more people are meeting, that is, relating. Relationship lies at the heart of what it means to be human and hence what it means to educate. The root ‘educare’ refers to a ‘drawing out’ process that naturally unfolds in the context of authentic, engaged dialogue. Through our presence we draw out the latent potential in the other; we bring something to life. In an era when technology threatens to reduce the human element to a bit part in the process of education, it is important to remember that education is fundamentally a human process in which living beings interact, inform, and form each other.

The dialogical encounter is, I would argue, the essence of real education. The infant learns and grows through its face-to-face interactions with the care-giver, imprinting a template, which indeed is already biologically pre-determined, of how we learn, grow and become.

We learn through encounters with the unknown, through contact with the other. This ‘other’ experience can be our contact with a person or people, with the world, or with knowledge mediated through books and other technology. While the latter certainly hold value, it is worth remembering that as the ‘co-operative species’ with a fundamentally social brain, there is no substitute for the depth of experience and potential for learning that comes through the making contact and dialoguing with other human beings.

How much time in educational settings is devoted to these live, face-to-face interactions? Even when this is happening, what is the dynamic? Are there reciprocal encounters happening between ‘learner’ and ‘teacher’, and between learner and learner, or is the experience one-way traffic in terms of top-down instruction.

The traditional model, what Paulo Freire referred to as the banking model of education, involves a transactional transfer of knowledge from teacher to learner. The teacher is the expert who holds knowledge as a commodity, which is then passed onto the learner, often for a price. Much like any capitalist transaction, the learner is reduced to the role of consumer, passively, and often uncritically ‘swallowing’ what they are fed.

The way a classroom is set up indicates what we place value on in an educational setting. Is the environment oriented towards the teacher? In most educational settings it is and with this comes the implicit assumption that the teacher is the source of learning. But, of course – the teacher is the ‘expert’, the ‘knower’, the sage on the stage that will dispense the wisdom.

When we are talking about the transfer of technical knowledge this may have some validity. But when we are educating for humanistic ends and developing holistic learners then this makes less sense. Is it the ‘teacher’ who educates or is it the group? Where does power lie in the generation of learning? Surely, it is the learner who is the key determinant in what kind of learning takes place – where their attention goes, what their interest is, their level of engagement, motivation etc. When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear as they say. But instead of reinforcing dominating power structures and hierarchies that subjugate, perhaps a more enlightened approach to learning would be to view and educational setting, not divided between, teachers and learners, but instead initiating a more democratic ethos of horizontal and egalitarian relationships, taking place within the context of a ‘community of learners’ inquiring, exploring and learning together, where the group, rather than any individual is the authority. For a teacher to feel like they have nothing to learn from their students is to devalue and dehumanise both themselves and those whom they supposedly serve.

Everyone who enters a learning environment brings with them a lifetime of different experiences and a multiplicity of diverse perspectives. These are all potential sources of learning, material that could ignite or spark learning to life, in what might otherwise be a disengaged learning space. So often this richness is ignored in educational settings. Instead, the attentional flow is moving in one direction, up towards the top of the class.

Given the fundamental place of the human presence at the heart of learning, and the fundamental need in the world for empathic education, we can safely argue that the most important tool a teacher has is their very ‘self’. The use of that self will determine the quality of the educational experience they provide. It is their presence that educates, not what they know, nor skills or techniques, but their ability to connect, to care, to be present and engaged.

Given this fact, it is amazing that there is little, if any, time in teacher-training programmes given to personal growth and development, to cultivating social and emotional intelligence. Psychotherapists, when in training (and throughout their professional lives) engage in deep, experiential learning that aims to develop them as a person. Should not the same model be used in training teachers? Teaching and therapy are not fundamentally different in that they both deal with human relationships and aim to help the people they work with grow and develop.