Sufrimiento educativo positivo y negativo en modelos internacionales de educación

Positive and Negative Educational Suffering in International Models of Education

By Martin Urrutia-Varese

Martin is a Peruvian educator with experience in preschool, K-12 and post-secondary settings. He finished in 2015 an MEd in Educational Administration and Leadership at UBC, where he started his research on international education policy and educational suffering. He is currently working for the Ministry of Education in Peru, teaching Intercultural Bilingual Education at UPC in Lima, and also teaching Spanish in high school. In his free time he also collaborates with Esperanza Education's blog (, writing about social justice in education and language teaching.

Positive and Negative Educational Suffering in International Models of Education


Posted on May 4th, 2016.

As many authors indicate (Jonas, 2010; Hillesheim, 1986; Cheng, 2011; Todd, 2001, 2002; and particularly Mintz, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2013; and Biesta, 2005) suffering is a natural and essential part of any educational process. The fact that a student needs to suffer in order to learn something new may seem counterintuitive and, in fact, traditional progressive education is against it: "It is a recurring theme in progressive educational thought that has given rise to the widely held belief that frustration, confusion, distress, and other painful moments in education inhibit learning" (Mintz, 2012, p. 249). As Avi Mintz states in the same piece, shielding students from the distress that might come from valuable educational challenges is actually unproductive. It is precisely in those frustrating and painful moments that any individual becomes a learner. Educational suffering is what Mintz (2012) calls "potentially valuable educational distress".

The issue of suffering in education can also be addressed from a different perspective when assuming that learning implies a process of transcendental violence (Biesta, 2005). As Gert Biesta states, "we can also see learning as a reaction to a disturbance, as an attempt to reorganise or integrate as a result of disintegration" (2005, p. 62). Again, education is depicted as a desirable void or absence that is not necessarily pleasant. Education "is about challenging students, confronting them with otherness and difference and asking them difficult questions. This suggests that, in a sense, there is a violent dimension to education" (Biesta, 2005, p. 63).

If we, educators and educational administrators, understand education as this painful process of deconstruction and reconstruction of our identities (of our existential nature), then a fundamental question arises: what is our responsibility regarding students' suffering? According to Emmanuel Levinas (2009), suffering is a passive experience that strips individuals from their agency, denying them freedom. However, it is necessary to distinguish the suffering in me from the suffering in the other, thus discovering, in the attention to the other, the bond of human subjectivity (Levinas, 2009). It is possible (and necessary) to relate Levinas' universal perspective on suffering to educational suffering. As teachers and administrators we have a responsibility to respond to the suffering of our students, especially if we know that suffering is an implicit part of education.

Considering the perspectives of these three thinkers, it is possible to distinguish two kinds of suffering in an educational process. On the one hand, we have a useful suffering, one that is inherent to education and encountered by a personal exploration that involves learning by confronting oneself with the Other (the not learned), one that I will call educational suffering. On the other hand, a useless suffering is also present, one that appears as an imposition and takes away the students' capacity to act: "Useless or dangerous suffering is the artificial and arbitrary domination, punishment, and coercion foisted upon children, suffering that neither facilitates learning nor cultivates just social relations" (Mintz, 2012, p. 265).

To finish this brief reflection, I would like to present a contemporary example of this dichotomy of forms of suffering in education. If we understand useless suffering as the external imposition that represents an arbitrary domination that does not consider nor take responsibility over the student's pain, then it is possible to consider standardized testing as a source of useless suffering. The neoliberal values of accountability and benchmarking imply the use of universal criteria to judge the learning process, denying any internal and personal educational result. If we, teachers and administrators, are expected to take responsibility over our students’ personal and educational wellbeing, it is necessary to rethink international models of education based on values that suppress the subjectivity of individuals and impose external stress upon the learning process. The question we need to ask is: does the model of accountability really guarantee a moral and safe educational model?



Biesta, G. J. J. (2005). Against learning: Reclaiming a language for education in an age of learning. Nordlisk Pedagogik, 25, 56-66.

Cheng, R. H. (2011). Bearing and transcending suffering with nature and the world: a humanistic account. Journal of Moral Education, 40(2), 203-216.

Hillesheim, J. W. (1986). Suffering and self-cultivation: The case of Nietzsche. Educational Theory, 36(2), 171-178.

Jonas, M. E. (2010). When teachers must let education hurt: Rousseau and Nietzsche on compassion and the educational value of suffering. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 44(1), 45-60.

Levinas, E. (1988). Useless suffering. In: Bernasconi, R. and Wood, D. (Eds.) The provocation of Levinas: rethinking the other, New York; London: Routledge.

Mintz, A. (2004). "The disciplined schooling of the free spirit: Educational theory in Nietzsche's   middle period". Philosophy of Education [H.W.Wilson - EDUC], 163-170.

Mintz, A. (2008). The labor of learning: A study of the role of pain in education (Doctoral dissertation). Available from PorQuest Dissertations and Theses Full Text database. (UMI No. 3317653)

Mintz, A. I. (2012). The happy and the suffering student? Rousseau's Emile and the path not taken in progressive educational thought. Educational Theory, 62(3), 249-265. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5446.2012.00445.x

Mintz, A. I. (2013). Helping by hurting: the paradox of suffering in social justice     education. Theory and Research in Education, 11(3), 215-230.

Todd, S. (2001). Guilt, suffering, and responsibility. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 35(4), 597-614.

Todd, S. (2002). "Listening as attending to the "echo of the otherwise": On suffering, justice, and education". Philosophy of Education [H.W.Wilson - EDUC],  405-412.