Some thoughts sparked by this week’s readings from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom. Namely, for teaching to truly ignite learning, teachers must consider some challenging perspectives.
- By teaching, their students may come to know and think for themselves. While this sounds like the ideal and inevitable outcome of teaching, I wonder if it isn’t too scary for us to truly aspire to.
Our current K-12 education system in the U.S. would suggest this fear may be widely accepted. As high stakes testing and common core have shaped curriculum, resources, and pedagogy, even the most aspiring teachers have to help their students read between the lines to bring to light the meaning of their meaning-making in hopes they will learn the power and question the limits of their thinking. Higher education is not removed from these fears as well, as academic capitalism becomes a survival tactic and we are sometimes challenged in our ability turn students from consumers to constructors of knowledge.
Students who are empowered to think for themselves may come up with a different opinion or a new answer or a novel solution. If it isn’t in the textbook or on the test, do we negate it’s value? Or worse – if a teacher isn’t learning with and from one’s students, is it silenced? When learning belongs to the learner, it might not sounds like the teacher’s teachings.
- To know is to also understand we don’t know. Critical consciousness calls us to believe that constructing our own knowing is not a process with an endpoint. The contextual nature of knowing is limiting without the dialogic exchange Freire discusses.
Teachers are supposed to know everything. That’s how students learn, right? I’m not going to argue that knowledgeable teachers aren’t valuable resources in student learning. But what is important to know? And what is okay not to know? How do teachers who seem infallible teach students who are quite aware of their own failures and shortcomings that they are capable learners? How many teachers, in their college preparation, consider constructing knowledge and skills to be partners with their students so that learning and teaching can be reciprocal?
In our current climate teachers find themselves held responsible for their students’ proficiency scores and their schools AYP targets. Being authentically unknowing is probably worse than just being plain wrong. What we should be embracing is the curiosity to keep constructing new knowledge and new ways of knowing and nurturing that in our students. When we believe we know it all, why seek to know more?
- To promote authentic learning by reducing the traditional balance of power between teacher and student, things can get a little unpredictable. On a tight schedule with limited resources and lots and lots of assessment, is there room for unpredictability?
If students and teachers will truly share in learning and teaching each other, both students and teachers have to have room for flexibility. This could be in the topic learned, the medium for conveying the topic, the type of work done to construct knowledge, the conversations comparing all the knowledge created, exploring what’s not being taught when something else is, and so on, and so on. Now, our system has never been set up for such learning, and I can agree that there are benefits to bounding learning in digestible chunks and trajectories to meet and stretch learners’ capabilities in their zones of proximal development. That said, it’s a scary thing for a teacher to know that any deviation from something as large as the curriculum and something as minuscule as the day’s lesson plan (that’s carefully constructed in a larger, carefully constructed, already-not-enough-time-to-teach-to-the-SOLs-and-consider-individual-learner’s-needs unit plan) is going to potentially set them and their students up for failure in our current system.
So, what to do?
First, it’s essential to note to any educators engaged by Freire’s works that none of us teaches in a vacuum, and it’s unlikely any of us teach in a Freirian context. This is not cause for conceding – it’s only knowledge that helps situate our own perspectives and actions.
Second, “devote ourselves humbly,” as Freire says. We don’t know everything. Our students will think in ways different from us. We can work freedom into our pedagogy in the text and the subtext. We will fail. We will toil. But we will ask our students to learn with us, fail with us, toil with us, and succeed with us. The hardest part of learning, regardless of the context, the philosophical underpinnings, the pedagogical process, is that it is a process. We can see that process as an exhausting attempt to learn all the things others have come to know for us, or transform it into something finite so we can be relieved. Or we can see that process as rewarding and renewing, knowing that we’re engaging it all the time in our own ways of knowing, and sharing it with others in hopes they’ll transform it into their own.