Image courtesy of Nick Page
Have you ever had one of those days where a certain topic keeps coming up over and over again in completely different situations? Yesterday was like that for me. The completely random topic? Critical pedagogy. Not sure why, but I’m not complaining. This is a topic that I have really started to sink my teeth into, even if I am still working out all that it encompasses and how it plays out in my language classroom.
For those not entirely sure about what critical pedagogy is, here is a really, really simplified (perhaps oversimplified?) version. In the beginning, there was Paulo Freire, a philosopher and educator from Brazil who wrote this amazing, albeit somewhat dense, book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. By the sounds of the title, I am sure you can probably start to guess where this is going. Freire believed that education should allow those who find themselves oppressed and cut off politically to gain a voice and be given the tools and space to transform their situation. Freire also fought against the traditional dispensing of knowledge by the teacher, instead giving the students the means to direct and create their own learning especially through social interaction. Basically, critical pedagogy levels the playing field by stripping away the hierarchical structure so prevalent in education. Students take what they learn in the classroom and transform their world outside of the classroom. There is so much more than that, so if you would like to understand it better, go here.
Okay, before anyone starts blasting me for missing important components of critical pedagogy, the purpose of this post isn’t to be a treatise on all things critical, but I simply want to provide a foundation to explain what I have been thinking about. In this case, three different things arose from the conversations and texts I read.
The first was a discussion I had with one of my Brazilian students here on a study program. He told me after class that he isn’t a very good student since he doesn’t like to study, he is more interested in learning. Bang! His insight into his ability to learn a new language was so spot on. The conversation quickly moved on to the topic of Paulo Freire which he is very proud of as a Brazilian. This student was actually a social studies teacher in a high school before re-entering university to study chemistry. We had a fairly deep talk in a short time that encompassed the need to provide students with the tools to make a difference in their lives and not just to impart knowledge. He so gets it.
The second was a discussion I had in the ‘hoteling suite’ (our shared office) with a teacher from the English Literature department as he was clearing out his locker and desk for the summer. We were talking about why we teach and he brought up the desire to make a difference in the lives of the students he teaches. He is a PhD candidate that is defending his dissertation at the end of the summer (hence the reason for the summer clean up) and wants to get into higher level teaching. The conversation quickly moved into what it is that we want to see most from our students. He mentioned how he loves to hear students challenge him on what is happening in class. He feels that he has provided a safe environment for them to think and act critically. He doesn’t see it as a confrontation, instead he sees it as meaningful dialogue. Fantastic! That is so important for students, especially those that haven’t been given the freedom to challenge those who have a stake in their education.
The final was a text that I read from a professor in Egypt who was talking about critical thinking and pedagogy. What was funny was that I wasn’t looking for this article, it just came up in my normal cycle of reading. The article was on the growth of critical thinking amongst students in Egypt as illustrated by the Arab Spring uprisings. What struck me was this statement:
Advocacy on the street succeeds in toppling regimes: first Mubarak’s, then Morsi’s. But that kind of citizenship, based on opposition, seems unable to change tactics and work towards reconciliation and reconstruction. It just recreates the protest cycle over and over again (Bali, 2013).
Wow. I hadn’t really thought of it in that manner before. I suppose it is what I have been thinking, but to have it put so succinctly, my mind was really starting to see the pieces come together. It isn’t just about fighting against something, it is about transformation, reconciliation, and rebuilding what has been taken down. We have become so good at ‘poking holes’ in ideals, but we aren’t very good at building bridges and working together for positive change. We have become backseat drivers telling others where to go and how to do it, and bleacher coaches screaming at the coaches, players, and fellow spectators. It’s time we take the wheel. Better yet, we need to help our students become the agents of change.
Over the years, I have become better at finding what is wrong in not only what I do, but also (maybe especially?) in what other teachers do. I have tried to focus on my classroom and what I need to change in my role as facilitator, but I often get distracted by others. What I need to do is to get away from being the ‘dispenser of knowledge’ and work on becoming a better ‘agent of change’. I think this is what most people hate about things like worksheets, grammar quizzes, and so forth. The role of teacher takes on the role of information distributor instead of that of guide and supporter. I get it. It is hard not to start doling out the information since it is something we already know, they don’t and they want it. Since students spend most of their time learning away from us, shouldn’t we be focusing on helping them take control of their learning and helping them to develop into ‘agents of change’? Easier said than done, but critical. Learn, not study; that is the key.