After having read a number of my peers’ posts and having read several different perspectives on Critical Pedagogy, I thought I wanted to spend my writing time this week thinking through a concrete application for Critical Pedagogical theory. I generally find that I’m unhappy with the work I am doing when I don’t have a grounding theory or an approach I can be proud of, but I also think it’s ultimately important, as I’ve seen several other posts calling for, to go beyond the abstract and have a plan to put it into practice.
Structure is one of those aspects of classroom management that I often struggle with. I want discussions to be student-led, I’ve always been a hands-on, ask-wild-questions kind of learner, and I’m instinctively drawn to teaching that way. Sometimes this means taking too long rambling about minutia of points that were meant to be quick. I have to repeatedly remind myself to start lectures (and essays, and papers, and blog posts…) with an overview of the points I intend to cover. I have zero interest in doling out punitive actions or quibbling about grades, proper paperwork for sick days, other classroom policies… these have always felt like wastes of my time at best or, at worst, things that actively obstruct the entire class’s focus on the subject at hand. I still remember, when I was a university chemistry tutor as an undergraduate, the day that I was being observed by my supervisor and the student I was tutoring, in the middle of the session, just pulled out his phone. I stared, dumbfounded, as he continued to look at it and we sat in relative silence for about five minutes while I waited for him to put the phone away, my supervisor sitting right there. Even the debrief with my supervisor where she attempted to politely ask me why the #@*$ I didn’t say anything about the cell phone has not made me more interested in drawing lines in the sand to force students to focus. Maybe it’s the flipside of having had things that help me focus be derided as distractions and “bad behavior” in favor of a model of sitting still and listening that I cannot possibly follow whilst doing anything else–least of all learning.
And yet, I know that structure is an important aspect of running a classroom, and that students need to have enough of a routine and enough consistency of expectations to be able to know where to focus their attention, how to move on. I want to make an environment that is stable enough for my students to succeed and thrive, but I don’t want to rob them of the equally important lesson of how to create that environment for themselves.
So what solutions might the lens of critical pedagogy provide?
Freire writes that his goal is to foster in his students a sense of “autonomy, laboriousy constructed, that freedom will gradually occupy those spaces previously inhabited by dependency.” He writes of leaving behind authoritarian practices to focus on democracy and giving the students agency, and in doing so building the kind of self-discipline that students will be able to take with them into the chaotic world outside the classroom. So I think we’re on the same page about what kind of structure we want to create in our classrooms, but what are some ways I can actually do so?
Perhaps I can ask the students at the start of the semester what their goals are in the class, and have them write those down, and when they do things that seem to me contrary to those goals–like turning assignments in late, or coming to talk to me only after a test when they find themselves confronted with results they don’t like, or shopping online in class–ask them to explain to me how they feel they’re making progress towards those goals. In doing so the students would have to confront cognitive dissonance and practice setting priorities that align with professed goals, without having it punitively imposed from the top.
Perhaps I can work to both model the structuring of ideas in my presentation of them–roadmapping what we will do at the start of every lesson and ending with a summary of what we have done, tying it all to an overarching picture of the course objectives–and have the students practice the arcane art of organizing ideas themselves. I can stress that in grading or critiquing their own writing or presentations, and instead of waiting for students to inevitably ask me for study guides before tests, I can create an assignment for them to make their own and then share the resources they’ve made together.
Perhaps I can have each class have a parallel structure, and consistent due dates, but within those I can build in times that are explicitly unstructured and/or student-led like class discussions, or problem sessions. I’ve found so far in teaching that the unstructured goes over much better with students when they learn to expect it as part of the class from the beginning.
Perhaps I can be honest with my students about the research I base my pedagogy and course planning upon, and have repeated surveys or other chances for student feedback about how and why the class is structured.
Maybe a dedicated scholar of Critical Pedagogy would take umbrage with some of my proposals here, but I find it helpful to start with small steps. I can focus on the kind of teacher I’d like to become, and imagine what it would look like to model certain ideas in the classroom–like to trust in my authority without having to constantly prove it, and to focus on student-led rather than top-down motivation and structure–in concrete ways.
Freire, P. (1998). Teaching is a Human Act. In Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Quinn, R. E., Heynoski, K., Thomas, M., and Spreitzer, G. M. (2014). The Best Teacher in You: How to Accelerate Learning and Change Lives. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.