Applying Assemblage Theory To Reimagine Education For All 

by Charlotte Hankin

As I type these words on my laptop, I am sitting in a wooden chair at my dining room table. I am not ergonomically positioned and as a result, I sense a dull ache in my lower back. I hear the gentle whirring of the fan trying to cool the room down. Outside birds chirp despite the hot day. As I cast my eyes out the window above my computer screen, I see a frangipani tree with bright pink flowering buds drooping elegantly over the grass below. Around me, my two kittens are causing havoc, darting across the room, chasing tails and tossing small toys around in their paws. There are relations between table, chair, computer, birds, fan, heat, kittens, frangipani, cat toys and me. Agency is distributed across all materials, objects and bodies (human and nonhuman) in this ‘territory’, creating various affects. In turn, these affects create emotions: with my kittens, I feel an internal tension when I consider the scratches they are inflicting on my furniture and yet I feel love and humour for their juvenile antics; with the unsurpassable heat and back ache, the anxiety for my writing exacerbates. Shortly though, I will go to the gym for a workout and then likely have lunch with my husband, which will involve different relations that create different affects. The relations in each territory are temporary; enmeshed, dynamic, immanent, emergent and embodied, circulating across and within one another. ‘I’ emerge within human-nonhuman assemblages of affect; we are entangled. 

What are you in relation with right now? Look around you, listen to sounds, feel your body’s responses, consider your space(s) and reflect on the weather…how are all of these objects, humans, nonhumans, materials intermingling to create an affect for you right now?

The territories we find ourselves in contain assemblages, a term coined by French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, and French psychoanalyst, Félix Guattari, in their book, A Thousand Plateaus (1987). When explored, assemblages can help us open up to different perspectives of living systems: rather than focussing on individual elements, we give our attention to the relationships between elements instead. For instance, we can explore elements of school life such as physical spaces, learning resources, technical devices, environmental sounds, objects, animal bodies and consider how they ‘circulate in relationships, most particularly embodied relationships’ (Mulcahy, 2012, p11). Together, they create networks of connections that can be re-conceptualised as assemblages. We can conceptualise any assemblage; for instance, this article, explores how children’s relationships with nature and the natural world are framed by complex forms of relationality.

The application of assemblage theory might prompt us to reimagine how education has the potential to nurture healthier relations with ourselves, between humans, with other species, and with the Earth. At a time when social and economic injustices and environmental destruction are heightened due to COVID-19 and the global climate change agenda, our planet needs education that supports social and ecological justice for all. Justice for the natural world might include reducing C02 emissions, helping endangered species to thrive, improving mass farming techniques to be more environmentally-friendly, reducing waste in and across industries. Justice for society might include eradicating the pay gap between men and women, helping students from impoverished communities to further their education, building infrastructure for those who do not have easy access to clean water, providing legal aid to marginalised groups. Whilst these issues are all critical in their own right, they are all interconnected: economy is entangled with politics; society is enmeshed with nature. It is the unhealthy relationships between the elements that lead to disaffection and decline. By focusing on our relations with others, we stand a better chance of understanding our capacities for social and ecological change.  

Buchanon (2021, p10) provokes, ‘What does the concept of the assemblage enable us to see that we couldn’t see before?’ By exploring relations in living systems, we acknowledge the interconnectedness of life. In schools, this often eludes us when we compartmentalise elements such as family life, weather, curriculum, health and safety, and so on. We often fail to take into account how they relate to one another and view them instead as individual entities. Think about the impromptu conversation between a teacher and a student in a corridor – what might the exchange between the two of them reveal about their relation? How about the way that the students treat the flowers in the gardens around school – what do their actions tell us about the relation between the species, the culture of the school, and the community at large? What about the way that the biology curriculum is enacted – what might the planned learning engagements and resources used tell us about how the school relates with living creatures? When we consider the relations between such school-based elements, or what might be described as micro-encounters, we discover more intimate and, in turn, much broader perspectives of living systems.  

If we understand that life itself is an interconnected, enmeshed web of relations, why is it that schools, particularly those of Western humanist tradition, are so concerned with individualising humans? Assessment culture is one area of school life that individualises students and we must question the purpose and benefit of doing so, especially in terms of how quantitative data is collected and used. If we consider the role that schools might play in improving humans’ precarious relations, we might see that individualising and therefore separating the student from their school assemblage is neither possible, healthy, natural, nor helpful. Why do students take solo written exams, physically separated from others at a table and chair, in an expansive large room? Moreover, why use only a pen and paper to communicate understandings of a taught curriculum that was created by a team of people who do not know the students and their contextual relevance? After all, assemblages can never be standardised. A bigger question becomes this: how do the combined effects of pedagogical approaches contribute to separate humans from their eco-system(s) – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually? Beyond this, we can then ask, what is the impact on the human and nonhuman inhabitants of our planet and planetary health at large, if we continue to separate and divide? We can start to think that continuing to individualise the student in a school is contributing to social division and ecological destruction. 

In a school assemblage, if we start to give our attention to relationships between elements or those micro-encounters in schools, we understand that forging ‘alliances between seemingly disparate ideas, objects and disciplines’, is critical when exploring the diversity of nature, which includes humans, and the natural world (Pringle and Landi, 2017, p118). To reimagine education to support social and ecological fairness for all, we have to address knowledge and practices in schools that separate and therefore, dominate. This includes hierarchical, mechanistic, linear and chronological structures, since they produce dualistic, binary style thinking, leading to ‘stable, independent and fixed identities’ (Pringle and Landi, 2017, p119). 

Applying assemblage theory to schools informs our perception of the binaries or dualisms that are present since we can explore their relations: human-animal, human-nature, inside-outside, school-home, teacher-student, learning-teaching to name just a few. With this approach, we are both honing in to explore the relations, as well as zooming out to view the assemblage(s) as a whole. This helps us to respect the way that the natural world works: it never isolates if it wants to thrive. In turn, this may guide us to reconsider the power dynamics that are built into our systems and organisations and eventually enable us to see the disempowerment or marginalisation of certain groups, both within human and nonhuman networks. Additionally, as norm-producers for society, any messages of separation and power that may be consciously or subconsciously transmitted through and beyond the relations of a school, will be amplified across communities, consequently contributing to perpetuation of social-economic injustices and environmental degradation. Applying assemblage theory within and across school systems conceptualises relationality in a way that supports all living things.  

When you return to your school context, remind yourself of the question posed earlier in this article: What are you in relation with right now and to what degree are you aware of these relations? How do these elements all interrelate? What others might there be on which you are not bearing focused attention? Then, explore how ‘you’ are emerging as a result of the assemblage(s)? As the adult and professional in the school assemblage, how might you become unfettered from the power dynamics of micro-encounters? How will you animate the voices of others, the humans and non-humans, in the eco-system? 

Consider your students: What are they in relation with? Zoom in to the micro-encounters to explore their relationality and then zoom out to understand more about the assemblage as a whole. Take a different perspective when observing their responses. Slow down. Try thinking without learning objectives or pre-conceived ideas and explore how and why learning emerges. Consider how systemic assessment methods might be reducing them as individuals and therefore, dismissing their potential to contribute more to the world around them. Design opportunities for students to go beyond expectations and boundaries, challenging your own privileged voice, as teacher. 

Go even further: decentre all human perspectives and consider the nonhuman networks. Think deeply about the physical or mental divides between humans and nature. Break free of the classroom spaces and go outside to be in relation with nonhuman life. For example, instead of discussing the weather from inside the classroom in a way that suggests it is ‘out there’ and therefore, disconnected from ‘us’, go outside and experience it for yourselves; recognise how the rain, for example, has agency and therefore, the capacity to impact not just the learning plans for the day ahead, but the healthfulness of the eco-system. Through your example and explicit teaching, show students how to relate with the weather to honour its potential for life. Minimise all actions that suggest we dominate or control the natural world. 

Understanding how we are entangled in our eco-system can open up and transform our way of being, thinking and doing. In turn, this will help us to avoid the separation from others, the human and nonhuman, which will helps all life to thrive. 

References

Buchanon, I., 2020. Assemblage Theory and Method, London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. 

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus : capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Mulcahy, D., 2012. Affective assemblages: body matters in the pedagogic practices of contemporary school classrooms, Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 20(1), 9-27. 

Pringle, R. and Landi, D., 2017. Re-reading Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Annals of Leisure Research, 20(1), pp. 117-122.

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