Monthly Archives: March 2015

Critical Pedagogy

This week in class we discussed critical pedagogy. Now, the fact that I am in the social sciences and in a department that has a few critical theorist scholars needs to be kept in mind with what I have to say about all of this.

When I first had to write my teaching philosophy in my master’s program, long before I had ever taught, I remember attempting to write about the desire of challenging student’s notions of how the world is structured and helping students think critically about topics. That is a rough approximation of what I wrote and what I was trying to get at. Then, last semester I started learning about feminist pedagogy, which is connected to critical pedagogy, and finally found some of the language for what I strive for in my classroom.

All of this is my own understanding of critical pedagogy and a bit of feminist pedagogy. With feminist pedagogy and critical pedagogy, there is a learner centered approach and more of an egalitarian classroom. It also acknowledges and understands the fact that we have diverse learning styles (multiple intelligences and neurodiversity). Our classrooms are not homogenous places. People have unique histories and different needs from us. This is part of why it was beautiful that we discussed diversity and inclusion last week and critical pedagogy this week!

Education can empower students to be critically engaged and active participants in society. This is in part by helping students analyze what they are learning and understanding what they believe. It can change their views of the world or help them solidify their beliefs and be able to argue why. They are Deconstructing received wisdom. Something some of the readings were getting at is that knowledge is a social construction. There is no “big T” truth; there are not truly facts without context. All knowledge is built and understood within the culture in which we live and work. We want students to be active agents in the world. If they are challenged to think outside of what is “common knowledge” then they can reflect on their beliefs in relation to others and gain a deeper understanding as to why they hold the understanding, beliefs, and values they have.

If we keep some of this in mind, we can have some dialogical exchanges between teacher and students, where everyone learns, questions, reflects, and participates in meaning making. We are all the learners and the teachers. One way this is done is through reflection. Reflecting on what is being done, on different so-called facts, etc. Taking the time to process what is being discussed and how it relates to you, your life, your beliefs. Sometimes that means rectifying old points of view with new ones. Sometimes that means questioning and reflecting on the nature of our historical and social position in order to effect change in society.

On Wednesday one of my group-mates asked us all about our favorite professor we’ve had. I always go back to a professor I had at Hollins. There were many great ones and I had a wonderful mentor there that helped me learn the ropes of research. However, there was one that changed my world and how I thought about the world. In many ways I was terrified of this professor—she had extremely high expectations of students, but we all wanted to reach her expectations. She challenged us and turned our views on their side to make us figure out why we believed what we did. I am not sure if she would say that her teaching philosophy is based on critical pedagogy (though I would say it is a safe bet to say that she would claim feminist pedagogy). Maybe that is part of why I strive for this sort of philosophy, because it changed me so much.

I am not sure how well I do any of this. It is a high ideal and one that can be difficult to do. For some of the classes I teach it’s easier than others. I was observing one of my colleagues yesterday who is teaching the same thing I am just in class rather than online and I kept thinking how hard it can be to challenge people’s thinking in class and one relatively uncontroversial as child development. So far, I find it easier for online classes than seat based. I think primarily because students can reflect and process everything in their own time and in their own space without 80 of their peers watching and potentially judging. It may feel less like the instructor is forcing their views on them (as it unfortunately can sometimes come across). As an instructor, I can also see where students are at in their thinking a little clearer because they are forced to think about topics and write about them more often. Looking back at teaching online, these are some of the reasons I actually appreciate teaching in that medium.

How do you think you are using critical pedagogy in your own classrooms? Are you? If you want to have a critical pedagogy philosophy, how might you use it in your class?

“Free” Higher Education

I was reading a couple of weeks ago an article discussing some of the benefits and drawbacks of Europe’s model of free or mostly free education for all (of course I now can’t find the article that I was reading to link to for you all). We have this idealized view of having free education for all students, which I agree would be really nice. However, what is the cost of making that change?

One thing about “free” education is that it is not truly free. It may require higher taxes to fund it. There still may be fees associated with going to higher education institutes. I have even heard the argument that just because people might not have to pay for tuition, students still could go into debt for their education because of having to pay for living costs. This is especially the case if a student choses to attend an institution in a city or country in which their family does not reside. Similar to those of us who move great distances in the U.S. to attend the best institution based on our needs and our interests, the move and living independently can be costly.

In the article I read that now can’t be found, a student was saying how with free tuition, institutions were doing all they could to save costs, including having very large lecture classes. We discuss within GEDI about the benefits of hands-on learning and student centered classrooms. Within these large lecture classes and lecture halls in some of these European institutions, who make the decision for financial reasons, are they using some of the techniques that we have been discussing and applied learning?

I did a short period of high school in Germany, where I attended a Gymnasium (one of the academic high schools). One of my clearest memories of the schools was physics. I had already had this particular lesson in my U.S. high school, but I do remember noting a difference in style of giving the lesson. In my U.S. high school, the students were using this toy car within each group to understand the concept. However, in the school I was attending in Germany, we were in a tiered lecture hall with probably close to 50 students and the teacher was demonstrating the concept using the exact same toy car. We could not try it for ourselves. What she said was the lesson. It will be interesting to see how the classrooms and the teaching styles will be similar or different when we visit different institutions in Switzerland and Italy this summer.

Another thing that has been playing on my mind about free education and a primarily public higher education is how much that will limit the types of schools individuals can choose from. Shortly after the announcement of Sweet Briar’s closing, the president of the college, James Jones, said that the “diversity of American higher education…is changing and becoming more vanilla.” In some ways that is becoming true. If schools are not able to hold on financially and students are not able to afford certain institutions, even if they are a better fit for them, we may slowly have only public institutions where everyone is commuting to the campus. What would that mean for diversity initiatives? Would students from diverse and unique backgrounds be able to afford attending unique institutions? If everyone commutes to campus will they truly be exposed to diverse ideas and people by not living with randomly selected people like many of us have when first entering dorm life in college?

I say all this not because I disagree with making higher education more affordable or even “free”. But I think before we hold anything on a pedestal we should look at it critically and see if there may be drawbacks or additional benefits.

The Four P’s of a Great and Powerful Teacher

For those of you who have paid close attention to my blog or my tweets will have noticed that I love Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. I have been reading those weekly if not daily since undergrad. It was such a well-known fact about me reading them that the Dean of Students at my undergrad would frequently save the hard copy of the Chronicle that she received for me and I would get it the next time I saw her.

This week there was an article online discussing powerful teachers. It started with the point that recently teaching in higher education has become a much more discussed topic than it once was. That is great and I hope that conversation continues. Isn’t that part of why we are all taking this GEDI course—so that we can discuss and stay on top of the discussion about teaching?

The article then goes on to discuss powerful teachers and what makes people great. One point the author makes is that we all remember certain teachers that were great. That is true—yet I bet if you asked ten people even a year after a course some would rank a teacher as great while others wouldn’t. Again, we can’t all be great for all students. What worked best for me as a student does not necessarily work great for the students I am currently teaching.

Anyways, the author argued that there were four traits or properties that made teachers great and powerful (maybe like the Wizard of Oz?). The four are: Personality, Presence, Preparation, and Passion. Within personality he stated that one should be approachable, professional, funny yet demanding, and comfortable/natural. Some of that goes back to our discussion of authenticity. The second one, presence, he discusses being able to “own” a room, basically referring to being charismatic. This one I have a bit of trouble with because I don’t know that everyone can or should be charismatic. I definitely do not think that I have that characteristic. I am engaged in the classroom when I teach in-person, but I am an awkward person and always have been. I do my best to put that aside, though I think it will always shine through on some level when in front of more than 10 people.

Preparation and Passion I fully agree with. As a student and as an instructor I want and need those around me to be prepared for what we are getting ready to do. I want things laid out logically, or at least as logically as possible. It may make me a workaholic, but I spend many breaks preparing for the next semester, so that when I am in the middle of my own classes and other work, I am not frantically trying to prepare for the course I am teaching. And, admittedly, teaching online helps with that. I also have a great love for my discipline and what I study and teach. Even within my child development course, which is not my main research focus area, I bring in a little bit of what I love and desire within the topic. Though sometimes I worry I do not show my passion or that it does not come across, students actually seem to pick up on it.

Online Testing

Every semester I try and provide an opportunity for my students to give anonymous feedback about how the course is going and make suggestions for changes about halfway through the semester. Not many choose to take part, but it gives them the option to have a voice. Every time I do this I am reminded how as instructors we really cannot please everyone. For example, most like the way I use forums in the course but there are always a few who do not or most who like the structure of the paper assignment and a few who do not. It also shows just how many do not actually read what I provide them with.

I continue to do this exercise to see what needs to be changed for future semesters in addition to seeing if anything could be changed for the current semester. As a newer instructor this is useful information to have midway through the semester.

However, there is one piece of feedback that I am not completely sure what to do with is on how the quizzes are set-up. I teach online, so the quizzes and exam are online. Within my department there is a big push to prevent cheating. So most instructors use the linear format, where students take the quiz one question after the other and without being able to go back. Many also use timed tests, with between 60-90 seconds per question set up. I have done both 60 seconds and 90 seconds, with my current course being 60 seconds per question based on what an advisor instructed me to do. We also do not release the exact questions to students but offer for them to come in and look over the quizzes and tests with us. As graduate student instructors, our hands are frequently tied as to how we set-up a course, and for me, this is one of them.

However, I keep struggling with whether it is the best way to set-up quizzes and tests, especially for online courses. I have had discussions with others in the past about the fact that the timed, linear tests may not be best due to neurodiversity. Though, the scores so far this semester are quite good.

So, how do we allow for differences in learning and testing styles and abilities, while still maintaining the integrity of our courses and tests? Yes, we have an honor code and I am a proponent of that. But, it seems to only go so far. With maintaining the integrity of test questions, I keep coming back to the situation the physics department found itself in last year where test questions were posted online from previous times the course had been taught (Collegiate Times story here). In some ways it comes back to being fair to as many students as possible. That can be by doing our best to insure no cheating, where everyone is on a level playing field that way. Or by being open to diverse abilities. Is there a good balance between allowing for diverse abilities while still trying to prevent cheating?