I was surprised to learn this week that critical pedagogy is kind of already what I do in my classroom. I pride myself on teaching my students to question the world around them and to apply the material we are covering to potentially controversial topics in the news rather than focus on lifeless “stock” examples. For example, this semester I am teaching a class that focuses on classical and operant conditioning. For the midterm project, I asked students to critique an advertisement and break down the classical conditioning being used in the ad to get consumers to purchase the product. To go beyond this, I asked them to spend time in class discussing how conditioning might be used in presidential campaign and attack ads (how is conditioning used to “sell the product” of one candidate or block the “sale” of another?). I think having to discuss such a fresh and controversial topic was challenging for some students, but many of them did give me insightful, thorough written responses that pertained to both major political parties. My students are the architects of their own learning, although I am there to provide blueprints for them. I find myself repulsed by the notion of Fromm’s “necrophilous” person, who thrives on control and believes that education begins and ends with passively transferring knowledge into student receptacles. I note, however, that I could be doing more to encourage students to question the material itself, not just the potential limits of its application, and this week’s readings helped me realize that I could still grow.
Kinchloe’s overview of Freire’s life and work brings up an interesting effect of classrooms based on critical pedagogy, which is that people from diverse and traditionally oppressed walks of life who may have previously been denied access to the academy can find a new, hopeful place in higher education. In such a classroom, these students would be encouraged to apply the course material to their own struggles and engage in problem naming, critiquing and solving in a way that can benefit their corner of the world. A teacher with a better grasp of critical pedagogy than I might be able to understand how the individual perceptions of these students impact the teacher’s delivery of the material and make some adjustments. A classroom like this would be inclusive and collaborative, with diversity playing a starring role rather than being tucked away in a corner and forgotten. Naturally, this brings up some of our previous discussion on how to construct an effective “brave space” to facilitate healthy, challenging student engagement. It seems that building a successful “brave space” is necessary for allowing students to confront real issues in their communities and feel comfortable and confident enough to challenge the status quo of the material.
I had a couple thoughts on how these two topics might intersect, drawing from Shelli’s slides on critical pedagogy. One is that I think we have to establish the classroom as “ground zero” for making these changes. I’ve used this term before, but what I mean here is that students need to feel safe and at home in your classroom before they will feel comfortable using that space to create and work on difficult problems. I draw an analogy to the adoption system: if you adopt a child, one critical step to helping him or her feel “at home” living with your family is to allow him or her to help create a room of his or her own. This may involve picking out a paint color together, buying sheets and curtains, and choosing furniture. This is a space in which the child has had some input, sending the message that his or her ideas matter. In the same sense, you can allow students to play a role in establishing an atmosphere of respectful and contemplative discussion, and this will give them a “base” to work from when critically evaluating and applying course material. In other words, students ought to feel safe speaking up and sharing their opinions on a topic in your classroom, so that they can feel more comfortable doing so out in the world.
Another thought I had was about unpacking and reconsidering power dynamics in the classroom. To be honest, it takes a lot of pressure off me (especially as a graduate student) if I can admit that I don’t know everything about a subject and allow there to be room for questioning what is covered in the textbook. Over the years, I’ve gotten more comfortable with asking a student to let me go out and do some independent research about a question, rather than saying “I don’t know” or “that’s not on the test.” Freire makes the point that teaching and learning have to occur together to foster critical pedagogy. My experience is that taking off my “instructor hat” and just being more of a guide to my students by asking the questions that will help them work through their own thought processes is effective for helping students settle into the course, and it also seems to make me more approachable when they need help. This practice may help level the playing field for students who are underprivileged or at a disadvantage.
Another of Shelli’s points is to allow personal and political aspects of the material to seep into the room. Part of this process, which goes along with my above point about power dynamics, may be to allow students to see the “human” side of their instructor. I had an unexpectedly emotional moment like this a few weeks ago, when I took Christian’s advice and brought up the recent police shootings to my students. I started out by saying that I was available if anyone wanted to talk about what had happened, and I ended up making the point that a lot of what we talk about with conditioning is used when prejudice and discrimination occurs and students should think about what we’ve discussed when they watch the news. It was interesting to see my students’ faces as I talked about this topic, which has never impacted me directly but does bring up an emotional response because of my commitment to social justice. I could tell that they were really listening to me in a way that they hadn’t before, even as I transitioned somewhat awkwardly into my lecture. After class, a student even asked me if my research was about racial violence, and remarked that I seemed to know and care a lot about the topic. This was unexpected and touching. I’ve talked about the judicious use of self-disclosure before, and I think a little of it goes a long way.
The more I think about it, it seems like critical pedagogy–especially when combined with both deep and broad knowledge of the subject matter–is essential for distinguishing ineffective from effective teachers. I hope that I can continue to grow in my effectiveness by using what Freire wrote so passionately about.