Realizing Critical Pedagogies

The readings this week, like many readings I have encountered over the years, confirmed my opinions on our education systems. The systems that see students as consumers and “to be taught”. The systems that aim to “process” these students to make sure they have a role in this society. The systems that constantly reproducing the oppressions and injustices structured within power dynamics between the majority and the minority.

So how do we address the issue I presented above? How do we realize them within our contexts? Frankly speaking, I do not know. When I start imagining me doing this in my future engineering classrooms, I get overwhelmed and stressed. How do I navigate the very system to get my students to think critically about said system? How can I persuade and convince my students and peers that this is something we need to constantly reflect and consider when we design learning environments? These are difficult questions I am struggling to address and realize.

I think some topics that we have learned so far in class (culturally responsive pedagogies, problem-based learning, case-based learning) may be a good start to help implement such philosophy in our contexts. It is possible that I use culturally responsive pedagogy to challenge my students to think about the world as it is, and where they situate through reflection pieces on their own personal backgrounds and experiences. It is possible that, with guidelines, to facilitate my students to have difficult conversations. It is possible that I can use problem-based learning to make aware of the systems that we live in, exposing my students to the different problems that different communities confront, with in-depth contexts and histories to situate those problems.

These are some of the ways I could think of, but again, I do not know how to fully embrace critical pedagogy in the current system. I am, however, excited to be challenged on the topic. I look forward to incorporating critical pedagogical elements in learning environments I have the privilege to facilitate.

What is Digital Pedagogy?

From Anaid Shaver, KJ Chew, Sam Salous, Rifat Sabbir Mansur, Zhenyu Yao

“We did not know it was different from online teaching. We are not sure what digital pedagogy is.”

These were some of the opening statements we had in the group. Our discussion revolved around interpreting what “digital pedagogy” is. 

For some of us, digital pedagogy is not a thing that you do, it is a “force” that exists that has multiple elements. For instance, when we talk about Kahoot, it is not digital pedagogy. It is deeper than that. It is its own force in itself and it invites learning in the process. It is also always evolving. The use of “hacking” as a form of manifestation of learning also supports the idea of what digital pedagogy can be. For others, some view digital pedagogy as a study and a philosophy, indicating that one needs to spend years and efforts learning it. An instructor needs some training before he/she is assigned to teach a course. Similarly, one becomes a digital pedagogue by spending years researching, participating, writing and presenting on digital pedagogies. The most important factor in teaching is that it is still a human endeavor rather than just based on the technologies. 

However, what makes it “digital”? For some of us, we think some of the authors have “digital” as a conversation starter. They do not want to restrict the conversations, mindsets and definitions of what “digital” is. They want us to break out the restrictive thinking and mindsets revolving LMS and digital teaching. This means digital pedagogy does not mean it has to be in a virtual setting. It also does not have to be using digital tools. It is a way we can facilitate learning better in creative, flexible and expansive ways.

On the issues of banning digital tools or technologies in the class, we think student agency is important, and we should be teaching students on how to use the tools, like laptops. Instead of discussing with them using laptops for social media, we can have discussions with them on how to use laptops for learning. For instance, one of our group members provides them links to look for using their laptops to learn about critical thinking. The instructors should focus on how to make their class materials more interesting. Especially, at the college level where teaching is not a form of babysitting. It might be helpful to develop more flexible teaching approaches, such as recorded lectures, where students can follow through according to their own convenience. The key aspect here is that teaching should excite students into being curious and learning more.

Let’s Pump the Brakes before Diving Straight into Popular Pedagogies

I think many of the popular pedagogical approaches (problem-based learning, active learning, case-based pedagogies) have expanded to various learning environments and disciplines. This is a good thing, do not get me wrong, but I also tend to stumble upon conversations that talk about how some instructors struggle with implementing those in their classrooms, and some tend to give up saying that “it’s not for me” after several difficult experiences.

I admit personally that many of these approaches can be daunting, and I have not figured out how I would implement them in my future classrooms, nor have I implemented them before. However, I do want to point out that context matters.  Before anyone starts jumping onto the bandwagon of “PBL is good” or “we should do this because it is the right thing to do”, instructors should reflect first on the contexts they are going to be facilitating learning in. Class size, students’ backgrounds, assessment and evaluation requirements, classroom furniture arrangement, course contexts, and even departmental cultures. Not to mention the pandemic we are currently experiencing. Considering all these factors may make implementing these pedagogies less overwhelming and more adaptable. As one of my peers always says: “Start small and short, and evaluate how to move forward.”

Although I have not been an instructor of record, here are some of the strategies I may employ while implementing some of these pedagogical approaches.

  1. Reflect on the different contextual factors about the classroom and document all these factors so that I can visualize it.
  2. Review some articles and research on the approaches, especially those that document implementations of said approaches.
  3. Plan out the structure. Starting small is important, since this will be my first time. This means I may use it for one of the modules in the course, for example, instead of implementing it for the whole course.
  4. Using “backward” design, which suggests setting up the learning outcomes, then assessments, and finally, the pedagogical approaches, I can lay the overall structure of the implementation and module.
  5. Continuously assess in formative manners to gauge students’ experiences during implementation for immediate and future improvements.
  6. Improvise! A friend tells me: “Planning can only do so much. In teaching, you have to improvise sometimes because you cannot anticipate every possible scenario.”

These are some of the strategies I can use in the future, and I definitely am excited about it.

The Inherent Intentions behind Inclusive Pedagogies

Two years ago, when I heard the words “diversity,” “equality,” or “inclusion,” my mind immediately went to including people of minority backgrounds on the table, or reaching the “number” that would “solve” underrepresentation in any fields or settings, or focusing on accommodating minority to help them succeed. Only after I started reading about critical paradigms in social science research that I realized how off the mark those thoughts were.

The thought above popped into my head when I reflected on inclusive pedagogies, because how could I not? Inclusive pedagogies, to me, signify two loaded concepts: 1) we live in a place where realities are shaped by power structures that oppressed those who are not of the majority, and 2) our educational systems are rooted in those power structures, effectively refuting the notion that schools are apolitical.

The first concept ties directly to the first paragraph. My perceptions of the world and realities transformed when I started engaging in critical literature. I thought I figured out what racism was because I grew up in an environment where racism is clearly displayed on papers that dictate how one should behave in the society. In the said environment, everything about racism seems to be about playing the “numbers” game, including people in settings, and constantly “accommodating” to minorities with ad hoc policies and rhetorics. Essentially, it was how I experienced racism in Malaysia.

I brought those thoughts and experiences with me to the States ten years ago. Living in this country revealed to me a deeper and more disturbing layer of racism that I wasn’t aware of. I knew something was off about the situations, but I could not express or articulate it. Two years ago, I started reading about critical paradigms in research, and things finally clicked. It was then I learned of the words “power structure,” “oppression,” “minoritized,” “privilege,” and “systemic,”; the language that I can use to talk about the realities that I see and some of my friends experience. It was then I learned of how the society is structured based on race, gender, sexuality, ableism, religions, and many others that humans construct to differentiate among each other. It was also then I learned of my privilege that I hold and have benefitted from over the years, and how I have experienced the States very differently than some people who are perceived differently. Confronting all these is difficult yet important for me to make sense of the world we live in.

These discoveries, along with literature and readings, led to another realization: our educational systems are political institutions embedded within the power structure that shapes the society (the second concept). Schools, colleges, educational programs are also operating within the system, many have argued that these educational systems have been implicitly reproducing the social oppression and inequity that are the outcomes of the power structure, as many of the learning and teaching seem to revolve around the “norm,” “standard,” or benchmark” that are shaped by the majority. Though some may argue that schools should be neutral, they are not, and not acknowledging the political nature of education, I argue, can do a lot of harm to our society.

Inclusive pedagogies, thus, become an appropriate small step for instructors to embrace in addressing the two systemic issues that I just espoused on in the classroom settings. I think inclusive pedagogies can compel an instructor or facilitator to confront the world we are living in and situate themselves while designing learning environments. In other words, instructors who employ inclusive pedagogies are comfortable and well-equipped to facilitate difficult conversations in their classrooms (setting up ground rules and challenging students to think beyond their comfort zones). They also are mindful of the power dynamics that may occur in their classrooms based on the social constructs that have differentiated humans (designing team-based projects and activities that are mindful of social constructs). In addition, they constantly think about how to ensure the learning environment is safe for their students (constantly check in with students on the classroom climate and act on those comments). These are some of the essential parts of this pedagogical lens, and I think they can contribute, however big, toward addressing the systemic issues I see in this world.

I strive to constantly be mindful of the power dynamic that occurs due to differentiating social constructs when I design learning environments. I strive to constantly check in with my students to make sure they feel safe in the classrooms. I strive to be better and prepared to facilitate difficult conversations among my students in the classroom. I strive to embrace inclusive pedagogies as an instructor in the future. It will not be easy, but it is necessary.

Not to Compare, I Remind Myself

I compare myself a lot to other people. That was the environment I grew up in. In Malaysia,  rankings of students after a big strings of exams were posted on the board for all to see. You, your friends, your peers, your teachers, your parents, and everyone in the school WILL know where you rank among your fellow peers in the same class or cohort. To make myself be better, and feel better, I constantly compare to my peers. Yeah, so comparison is a fabric of my life. Everything I have been doing, I will compare it with how someone else does it. Sometimes without contexts, and sometimes without rationales.

Teaching, a favorite part of my life, does not escape such trap of constant need for meeting “standards” or “norms” or “ways of teaching” or “best practices” or “the very popular and amazing teacher who teaches math on Monday and Wednesday!” In my mind, comparison is my go-to in terms of how I perform, how I convey, how I talk, how I care, and how I assess. Whenever one drops in the conversation saying “that person is an amazing teacher”, I will probe on the topic, asking about how, why, and what about that “amazing teacher”. I will then compare (you get the gist!) and re-evaluate how I do, based on, eventually, how that “amazing teacher” does.

So why am I having this soapbox about comparisons and how I tend to operate in this blogpost? Well, because last year, when I came across Sarah Deel’s article, especially this quote: “I embraced the idea that there are many ways to be an effective teacher…My encounter with Parker’s ideas freed me to try to become a teacher true to my own qualities of self,” an epiphany hit me. It hit me particularly hard, and I realized why. I never really had an authentic teaching self. Granted,  I have never really taught in official capacities, but I have been GTAs for classes, tutors for many of my peers, and graders for my instructors. While taking on these responsibilities, instead of reflecting and looking inward, I constantly looked outward and strived to be another “amazing teacher.” Yes, I compare, always. Never did the thought of me sitting down, without screens or anything, and reflect upon myself ever cross my mind, until I read Deel’s article and others.

I embarked upon that journey of self-reflection since then, and constantly remind myself not to compare. Yes, it is essential to always improve yourself with great ideas. When a teacher does something I think that would be great for my students, I plan to research on it. When publications recommend certain pedagogical and assessment approaches, I plan to do my due diligence to make sure it fits the context of the class I am teaching. But I will constantly remind myself this: never compare. You are not that “amazing teacher,” and an “amazing teacher” does not exist, because every teacher has their own voices, their own ways to engage with students, their own ways of caring about their students, their own ways to convey knowledge, their own ways to assess their students, and their own ways to design and facilitate learning in a classroom. Be authentic to yourself so that you would feel comfortable in your classroom, and your students would feel the genuine you while they learn. As Sarah Deel says: “I will not spend my teaching life striving to be the one perfect teacher; I know that there are many ways to be a good teacher, and I will enjoy the freedom to explore them as I choose.”

Hi everyone, KJ here!

Hi all,

I am KJ Chew, and I plan to share my experiences on my journey navigating the engineering education domain and the treacherous waters that is education research here! I look forward to reading everyone’s comments and discussions here and elsewhere on the topic of teaching and learning in engineering education.