Critical Pedagogy and getting involved in class discussions

“There is more than one way to interpret something”, can be described as the root of the definition for critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy can be thought of as a way to challenge individual thinking and perceptions on a topic. A way to break away from not questioning what is being instructed or discussed. Is an invitation to question, form your own opinions, and speak up. Personal and insightful opinions can be made when the topic of discussion is relatable, therefore, life experiences can be used to further understand, proof or disproof if the evidence that is being provided is sufficient to support the idea that is being presented.

The implementation of critical pedagogy in a classroom allows increase the active involvement of students in a class by inviting them to be part of the conversation. No longer the discussion is unilateral, but bilateral, causing and exchange of ideas to take place. This exchange is inviting and challenging, promoting further inquiry and discussion. Additionally, having a welcoming, and respectful environment allows to bring and incorporate into the discussion other topics that may not be traditionally discussed (e.g., race, inequity, privilege, identity, and more) and incorporate them in the conversation and address the role they may play in the topic of discussion.

Student Assessment

How do we assess student progress in a course?  I think this is a question that probably any academic has asked themselves, but also students.  As a student myself, I have questioned the objectives of an assignment and what am I supposed to get out of it. I think  this sort of questioning happens when objectives or expectations are not clear. Additionally, in many cases assignments are given  as a way to meet a requirement and be able to give students a grade. The traditional way for “student assessment”  typically consists of exams, quizzes, presentations, or projects (group or individual). Some of these may sound more recurrent than others, but in the end they can be somewhat limiting when it comes to incorporating students’ interests and the different ways in which they can feel ownership over their work and incorporate an aspect of themselves in it.

When students feel ownership over the work they do, this increases their engagement and interest which are very important things to have present in a classroom. I think providing students with the opportunity to incorporate parts of who they are in their class assignment may promote a type of learning experience that becomes memorable. However, I do recognize that having a variety of options for students to decide the type of work they want to do for their required assignment may become challenging and demanding for the teacher because there is a lot of different ways in which students may decide to do their work. This can also be more challenging when class sizes are bigger, which may required a more standardized way to evaluate students. Perhaps, with lots of planning and evaluation of  how we assess students we can design courses that are more student focused and allows them to excel and engage in a classroom environment where they are invited to bring their ideas to the table and still meet the requirements of a course but are also able to identify the different ways they are more likely to learn about something.

Implementing hands-on experiences for students in the classroom

Direct application of topics and concepts that are discuss in the classroom can enhance the learning experience for students as well as their understanding. Hands-on experiences provide a unique opportunity to test and challenge critical thinking in our students. It can be a fascinating experience for both students and instructors but it requires a lot of work, particularly in the organization of lecture and the different components that are part of it as well as coming up with activities and assignments that will put student’s skills to the test.

I have  had some experience teaching courses that are designed to be “hands-on”, here is what I learned after 2 years of teaching of an inquiry-based learning class. My first exposure to teaching an inquiry-based learning class was during my master’s, where I taught an Introductory Biology course. One of the objectives for this class was to have students develop data analysis skills and understand the different applications of the scientific method by applying different ecological concepts to it. A big part of the course consisted in students designing their own research projects based on data that they collected. For their first project, student’s were provided with all the instructions for sampling and some potential questions/topics  they could focus on. Once the data had been collected, they would come up with research questions and hypotheses. For the second half of the semester, they would design a research project from scratch and come up with an experimental design that would allow them to collect all the data needed to answer their questions and test their hypotheses. Students often found this challenging, because it was thinking “outside the box” and trying to come up with a question and a hypothesis, which often they wanted to be “right”.  Although this was somewhat challenging, the greatest challenge for students was the data analysis. Prior to taking this course, very few students had some background on data analysis or using any sort of data analysis software. When I noticed that students were struggling, I decided that it would be more beneficial to spend more time in class reinforcing those data analysis skills and start the semester with an assessment of the students knowledge regarding basic data analysis and descriptive statistics. This assessment gave me an idea of the areas I should spend more time going over in class. In addition to the assessment, I increased the amount of activities and class assignments that involved any sort of data analysis as a way to reinforce and revisit the different things students had learned throughout the semester.

Overall, the incorporation of inquiry-based learning or problem-based learning practices provides a unique opportunity to diversify the learning experience in the classroom and promote the development and application of a variety of skills. Critical thinking is  a skill that is important for students to develop but this often gets overlooked because sometimes the students focus is more on passing a class than learning from it. This on its own can be a major challenge because it directly leads to a lack of engagement which make incorporating these teaching practices more challenging.


Inclusive Pedagogy

How to implement inclusive pedagogical practices? Inclusive pedagogy requires a good  understanding of the differences among students, teachers and any other person that might be involved with a teaching environment. These differences include but are not limited to: identity, interests, background knowledge, and much more.  Understanding these differences is fundamental in order to incorporate and integrate teaching practices that make everyone feel safe and incorporated. One of the greatest challenges within pedagogical practices is that they often tend to be monotonous and structured in a way that does not seems natural, engaging or interesting. Having an understanding of where your students are at in terms of class material and fundamental concepts that are considered “background knowledge” or things that they “should know” because they took “x” and “y” class, is crucial to develop lectures. Students will not only meet the requirements of the class but will also improve their learning experience. Additionally, taking the time to get to know who you are working with or instructing can promote learning experiences that are more relatable to students which can enhance their sense of belonging and make them feel more included.

Having inclusive pedagogical practices can break barriers in the classroom. Students are more prone to participate and feel like they can contribute to class when they feel welcomed and encouraged to be there. Having students that feel motivated and eager to take part of class discussions is beneficial for both the instructor and students. Increased student participation opens the opportunity for further discussion of topics because being scared of being wrong is less of a dominant feeling, which opens a window for a more active participation and learning.

The ongoing journey to finding our authentic teaching self

Our perspectives on teaching are often shaped by our experiences as students, which can later nurture from what we go through as instructors and aspiring academics. When thinking about who I aspire to be as a teacher I cannot help but think about the many instructors I have had and the way each of them ran a classroom.  From instructors that simply read what was on a presentation slide to instructors that went above and beyond to make sure students were understanding and following along what was being explained. There are a variety of ways from which one can adapt or develop teaching practices. Who we are when in front of a classroom feeds off what we have seen before and have identified as relevant, useful, and valuable. Pedagogical practices tend to vary, not all the same techniques or structures work for everyone.

My journey with teaching started during my first semester of graduate school. I was a laboratory instructor for an introductory biology course. I had never formally taught before and I must admit I feared not “meeting the expectations”, which at that time I was not sure what those even were. However, I took this opportunity to challenge myself and further question what I valued and considered to have the most significance in a classroom. To me, having an instructor that is genuinely excited to discuss topics every week and open to questions is key to increase and facilitate student engagement, which can often be challenging. One of the very first lessons I got during my first few months of teaching was that I did not have to know it all. This may sound obvious to some, but to me being open and accepting that I did not know everything was crucial to be open to change and evolve as the course progressed each semester. It served as an opportunity to invite my students to learn with me. This also made me feel more human and connected to my students. Whenever a question I did not know the answer to was asked, I would write it down to further investigate and come ready to address it the next time we had class. This sort of exercise allowed me to be honest to myself and recognize my limitations and the areas I needed to strengthen.

I think honesty plays a big role in finding our authentic teaching self. If we are honest about the things we need to improve and what is not working in the classroom we can work towards improving the areas where we are lacking. To me acknowledging early on that there were going to be concepts and questions that I needed to review and learn more about has enhanced my enjoyment of teaching. Additionally, along with honesty we need to recognize that finding our authentic teaching self is a continuous exercise that needs to be revisited often to make sure that our teaching practices are not being done mindlessly and instead we are being mindful of our actions as instructors and their impact in the academic formation of our students.