Group Blog Post on Critical Pedagogy

What does Critical Pedagogy mean to you and your group?

For us, critical pedagogy encompasses a number of critical elements:

  • Ask questions and encourage students to question and reflect on everything.
  • Education is political and students must be aware of the vested interests and underlying assumptions in the information they are provided.
    • Democracy thrives in the illumination of learning, and withers without it.
  • Fostering a community of engaged learning in the classroom.
  • The passion that teachers and students both have for different subjects should be fostered and encouraged.
  • Encouraging childlike curiosity and unconstrained critical thinking.

This is contrasted from traditional approaches.

All too often we ignore the data we collect and continue full steam ahead because the data doesn’t support the people making money or the way things have “always been done”. We need to give children the freedom to be curious, not drown them in testing.

We need to remember that everyone in the classroom has a life outside of the classroom. This does not disappear when they walk into the room. If we want students to learn their best, we need to teach in ways that are relevant to their problems and their interests or the outside issued will overwhelm the class material.

The traditional pedagogy is like a banking system, which expects all students with different thoughts rooted in their various backgrounds to think in the same ways. On the other hand, critical pedagogy appreciates the diversity of learners and fosters their ideas with encouraging to think out of the box accepting the other’s opinions and come up with a genuine solution together.

How may you apply it to your specific fields and educational settings?


Chemical Engineering:

  • Emphasize the strategies to assess a problem, build a toolset of techniques and mathematics, and then apply them to a given situation. All too often students are taught formulas that apply to abstract situations and do not properly understand when they apply or when they do not. They can plug-and-chug their way through problems without understanding where the final equation came from. Teach students what went into each equation, conceptually, instead of just defining variables.

Political Science:

  • Particular segments of political science are already aware of the need for critical reflexivity in the discussion of different topics. Students should be made aware of different approaches to particular issues. In international relations, neither liberalism, realism, or constructivism are dominant and there are numerous scholars who promote their favorite rationales for their own reasons. The study of politics itself is often grounded in only occasionally questioned personal biases and beliefs. Students should be encouraged to express their own views and interests in their research classes. Different approaches to political issues should also be promoted through student-led research projects such as the State Department’s Diplomacy lab where students decide how best to solve or discuss issues facing the U.S. State Department around the world.
  • Should also continue to promote a sense of the reason why criticality and education matter. Going back to Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s The Politics and Constitution of Athens, and Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws education and republican democracy are linked. It is important for democratic citizens to possess the ability to critically evaluate information beyond simply promoting rote memorization of facts but through really internalizing the need for self-critical reflection and development in students.

Hispanic Studies:

Critical pedagogy in the Hispanic studies classroom should encourage critical perspectives and understanding of language ideologies, culture and identities. This can be done by acknowledging the diversity in Hispanic cultures, disrupting stereotypes, and diversifying the representation in the material used in the classroom. With this, we can encourage students to step into perspectives that differ from theirs by showing how these language and cultural ideologies affect people from different socioeconomic, racial, and religious backgrounds.

Critical pedagogy in the Hispanic studies classroom should disrupt discrimination based on stereotypes, as well as the conflict and difficulties brought about when cultures and languages collide. Encouraging curiosity and questions in the classroom to create in students a spirit of understanding, compassion, connection, and critical thinking.

Lastly, critical pedagogy should create in students a desire to mediate for Spanish speakers in the country and also recognize underrepresented populations in the Spanish speaking world such as indigenous, afro-descendants, as well as religious minorities.

Industrial & Systems Engineering:

Based on my experience I found engineering education is dominated by the traditional lecture-based teaching and exams questions are presented as well-structured problems with given parameters that are stated, and students are asked for the correct solution. This type of education is characterized by what Freire called “banking education’ where the relationship between teacher and student is clearly hierarchical, where knowledge is transmitted through a top-down approach. Instead of banking education, critical pedagogy could enhance problem-posing education in engineering which would break the hierarchical relationship between students and teacher and develop critical consciousness and improve the learning process.

Engineering in General (Hani)

To be perfectly honest, a comprehensively-overhauled and critically informed engineering pedagogy would have almost nothing in common with current practices in the engineering department at R1 universities. Not only are engineering teaching practices at the department level still rooted in arcane conceptualizations of teaching like the banking model and myths of meritocracy and an abstraction-fixated curriculum; the very framing of “what an engineer does” conveyed thru the content is actively disempowering to the budding engineer. Not only are classes taught with the teacher as the sole authority; at no point is it ever included that an engineer is a human being who actually has a specific social location and lacks/has relevant information.

We engineers do not teach to solve problems any more than a calculator is able to “solve problems”, so when attempting to adopt a critical pedagogical approach, an engineering instructor rapidly encounters the staggering chasm between current practices and hypothetical someday. We can, of course, mimic the motions described in Friere and hooks’ works- let students choose their own projects, affirm the validity and importance of their unique experiences and knowledge, decenter our own choices as instructors to adopt a more collaborative course structure with our students, even encourage students questioning the posed problems. But a flipped classroom cultivating diligently unquestioning servants of existing hegemonies can hardly be described as serving the oppressed.

My attempt at a full-fledged implementation of a critical pedagogy in engineering would need to start with restructuring degrees around “what needs does the individual seek to address in their community?”, then go from there to having them address a succession of as many concrete, complete problems around that need as possible as situated design projects immersed in and in collaboration with their community. Course offerings under such a degree architecture could then make vastly more effective use of a critical pedagogy: with students routinely encountering the real-world intergroup power conflicts that seem to almost always underlie systemically unmet needs, instructors could genuinely engage with the realities of the classical content’s ideological background and its weaknesses while concurrently empowering students with the specific technical content they need to be immediately effective changemakers within and for their community. Without similar change to the underlying system of engineering departments, an individual instructor attempting substantial change toward practicing a critical pedagogy in their own classroom would find themselves spending half the semester attempting to unlearn in their students the trained helplessness & unhelpful misinformation that was taught in all the previous courses along the way.


Inclusion in the classroom

As a white male with tons of privilege, this topic has always been an interesting and necessary topic for discussion for me. I grew up in a very affluent area and went to a very well off public school with very little diversity. I was raised to respect everyone as an individual and to remember that everyone has their own stuff to deal with. As a result, I’ve always wanted to be inclusive and politically correct and what not. But it can be very difficult to educate yourself. The internet can take you down many dark alleys while speaking to others in person tends to just get uncomfortable.

I think the Heineman podcast does a good job of breaking down the need for discussion. It can be especially important in school because we need to learn to have tough discussions at some point. I think we need to learn how to avoid offending people while talking about sexism, racism, bigotry, and all our other problems. I think we need to learn how to tell superiors their behavior is inappropriate. I think we need to learn to ask for enlightenment.

But I also feel that much of our society emphasizes not talking about issues. School is a tremendous place to do this because we generally try to emphasize the idea that there is no such thing as a dumb question. The problem is that we need some techniques, some ice-breakers, to get into the topic and to keep people from shutting out the discussion. Does anyone know how to do this? I honestly don’t know how to break through someone’s conscious, and unconscious biases.  Plenty of people tune out anything that doesn’t match their biases, so we can’t really have a discussion with others until we break that barrier. What are your thoughts?

Take your nose out of the grade book and behold wonder!

In the video we saw during class, Dan Pink talks about higher rewards leading to worse performance on cognitive tasks. However, he doesn’t describe the experiment well enough to understand why/how higher rewards impact cognitive skills. His other video does a better job with the candle experiment. In this one, he describes that the higher reward narrows subject focus so much that they can’t think outside the box to solve the problem. This matches with the quote used by Alfie Kohn :

A student asked his Zen master how long it would take to reach enlightenment.  “Ten years,” the master said.  But, the student persisted, what if he studied very hard?  “Then 20 years,” the master responded.  Surprised, the student asked how long it would take if he worked very, very hard and became the most dedicated student in the Ashram.  “In that case, 30 years,” the master replied.  His explanation:  “If you have one eye on how close you are to achieving your goal, that leaves only one eye for your task.”

I didn’t register the impact of Pink’s work until I read Kohn’s. Then I got hit by memories of finals time with friends calculating what grade they needed to get grade X in each class. While I’d like to say I was above this practice, that I didn’t feel those needs because I would rather be studying instead, such words would be a lie. In the classes that I enjoyed, I don’t think I ever calculated a theoretical grade, but in the boring or disinteresting classes there was a lot of “I could probably accept a lower grade in exchange for my sanity…”. What’s worse about this is how focused people are on only grades.

Students want a degree to get a job, and think that grades will affect their job chances. The truth is that your professional network and your ability to interact with people will pull far, far more weight in the job market. However, students feel more compelled to study than to attend networking socials and conferences. I have a terribly hard time getting students to attend events for my club (when they’ve already told me they are interested) because they’re afraid to take time out away from the lab or studying.  I offered a free week in Detroit to eat food and network at the largest and most important conference in my field, no presentations required, and no one would take me up on the offer. That is insane to me. I basically had to force close friends to go because I had already booked housing with university funding. I’ll do the same thing next year too. Students are so focused on finishing degrees or getting good grades that they miss the opportunities that make life good. It’s a sickness at this point, and I blame this need to keep an eye on your grade/end goal. Finishing is important, but if you enjoy the journey you’re far more likely to make it out alive.

With this in mind, what are some opportunities you’ve missed because you were afraid of setting yourself back or getting a lower grade? What experiences have you enjoyed at some cost?


Edit: With the vast interest in this conference I’m “dragging” people to, I thought I’d give a little context. The conference is the annual conference for the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE), know as ANTEC. Last year it was in Orlando, this year it’s in Detroit, and next year it is apparently in  San Antonio. My advisor is the club advisor so I kind of got guilted in signing up for a leadership position when my lab mates wanted to step down. Since starting I’ve started to love the opportunity and I want to give it a bigger presence around campus. VT has an amazing polymer/plastics program and that makes it a great place to use a club/organization like SPE to dispel the many misconceptions about plastics (yes they stick around forever, but they are so efficient to make it makes paper bags look like hummers – you win some, you lose some) and teach amazing things (like plastic eating fungi)! Anyhoo, to make an impact I applied to a bunch of funding opportunities through VT and SPE and got some. I’m also tabling for my department at their career fair/expo thing, so I got some support from the Macromolecules Innovation Institute to talk up VT to anyone considering grad school in the polymer field. So if you’ve got any vague connection to plastics you want to take advantage of, hit me up for next year’s conference (or come to the SPE meeting on March 1st).

Also, for anyone interested in a cheap local conference, in 2020, VT is hosting the National Graduate Research Polymers Conference (NGRPC2020) through ACS. It’s a great time to learn about how plastics affect you. And currently, we plan to offer VT students a discount…but that is still being worked on.

</shameless plug>

Mindlessly Mindful, a Tale of Excessive Curiosity

This week’s readings made me realize I should tell y’all something about myself. I’m annoyingly curious. I’m that person who hears the words “I don’t know” and is googling the answer before the sentence is even finished. I’m a strong believer that if we have roughly all of humanity’s knowledge in our pocket, we might as well use it. This curiosity has driven me to waste tons of extra time on various tasks because I want to know just a little bit more.

As I’ve gotten older, this has led to me getting antsy and annoyed at any class that tries to teach me something that I feel won’t lead to a lasting skill or understanding of some sort. From my experience, required classes rarely have more than a 5% application to my research/life, especially if formatted as an information dump. To me, such classes are a waste of my time.

As it turns out, I dislike these courses because they feel mindless to me. I sit in those classes and zone out because enough material is easy/old that it’s difficult to think critically about the information. It’s hard to just accept information as it’s piled on top of you at a rate that doesn’t allow in-depth question/answer sessions.

To combat such classes I’ve started adapting assignments such that they force me to learn something on my own. Instead of throwing data into excel and letting it make an ugly plot, I started taking the time to learn a coding language and analyze the raw data by myself. I ignored software options to calculate peaks and slopes, opting to program derivatives and other things instead. This technique took way more of my time, but it also taught me way more. I was deliberate about my learning and had to think about the content from a variety of angles before I could implement the necessary strategies.

This is to say that while I’m a strong proponent of teachers reworking classes to push students toward mindful learning, sometimes students have to learn to be mindful themselves. We have the ability to turn the tables and say hey, your way isn’t working, but this way worked really well for me.

Ideally, both teacher and student would work towards a mindful learning approach. However, I think this would take extra work for both parties. So my question is, how do we convince people to put in the extra effort? I had wanted to learn to program, so the effort was worth it to understand something I’d been putting off for years. Without that incentive, I think I would have just suffered through the class.

Gamify All the Things

This week had interesting timing as I spent much of my “free” time looking at mobile conference app websites. A lot of them emphasize that you can gamify (yeah, it makes me uncomfortable that this is a word too) your conference to get people really involved/invested in the conference. Then I start reading about the same idea for learning. I had previously seen this for learning good habits, and I think many of us have play exam jeopardy or something similar to try to make learning fun.

However, the quest to learn floored me. The amount of emphasis on all aspects of the gamification process is astounding. This is a tremendous way to get children involved and critically thinking about problems. Programming your own games requires you to explicitly solve many tiny problems that you normally wouldn’t realize you’re solving. This teaches kids to critically asses everything they do, but in a fun way. It’s absolutely amazing really. I can’t help but be tremendously jealous of these young programmers.

This brings me to my next point though. The money that quest to learn must have, to supply Macbooks to students, is way out of reach for most schools. Even today, teachers across the country are complaining about basic teaching supplies like pens and pencils being out of reach. I can’t help but feel that this program comes from a place of tremendous privilege that is unobtainable for the majority of schools in this country, and certainly in the global community. The learning techniques are wonderful, but unless we change our funding priorities in a big way, they are only going to facilitate a larger divide between the haves and the have-nots.

What are your thoughts? Is gamification the future of teaching? Is it a temporary fad? Or is it another tool for gentrification?

Hooking into the Network

Networked learning is a strange concept. It isn’t something that should be special, because it is so much of how we process the world. We connect with the things around us to remember people, places, smells, sounds, and general sensations. But we waste so much time learning in a static and stuffy manner that suddenly the way we naturally process the world became a new and creative concept.

I earned an undergraduate and a masters degree with nothing but class time and some lab hours. The amount of information I’ve retained from those degrees is minuscule despite the years invested. Meanwhile, since I’ve been at VT I’ve had to present my work multiple times, I’ve had to interact with people outside my degree, and I’ve actually started building a network. This reinforces my own knowledge while connecting me with people I can talk to when I reach a topic outside of my comfort zone.

Interacting with the “real world” forces students and people, in general, to reevaluate what they are doing and saying in a way that enhances understanding and retention. At the best of times, people fact check and correct your mistakes making learning that much better. Sometimes they’ll do this in hurtful ways, but that is yet another learning experience. Getting a B on a paper and no other marks hardly teaches me to learn from my mistakes. Meanwhile, @blogjerk496 (I hope no one actually has this handle) telling me I’m an idiot and should have researched x, y, and z before talking about the origin of the alphabet gives me a chance to correct myself and learn some new information.

What I think we really need to teach in classrooms is how to connect to, build, and utilize our networks. Blogging, Facebook, and Twitter are a start, but how do we actually grow those communities beyond close friends, classmates, and maybe our parents? How do I invite amazing speakers to talk to my student group? Heck, how do I get people into my student group and to care as much as I do about the group? Once the network starts to build I imagine you can facilitate discussions to learn from their experiences. Actually having those discussions can be difficult for some, but for me, I’m not even that far yet. I’ve got some distant peers that I hope to run into at another conference, but that’s about it. Should I track those people down and follow them on Twitter? Facebook stalk them or remind them that they have a LinkedIn? Even if I do connect, how what do I discuss? I can hold my own in a room fairly well but over the internet in 140 characters or whatever? That’s so far outside my comfort zone right now.

What do my classmates think? How have you developed your networks? Do you wish you could add something to it (like international collaborators or diversity)?

Once more into the fray!

Hello everyone! Here’s to another semester of blogging! You can read more about me on my page, but as a quick intro to me, I’m in the Macromolecular Science and Engineering program. This is my second time in a PhD. program because I had problems with my advisor staying put after I joined his lab. I’m infinitely happier here than I was at Syracuse University where I left with a Masters. This has left me very interested in the advisor-advisee relationship and what the ideal strategy is to address items such as professors leaving.

Anyhoo,  I’ll end here. Let’s have an awesome semester!