What Constitutes the ‘Classroom’?

This week’s readings concern an issue I continuously grapple with, which is how to create a space for cultivating critical thinking and, simultaneously, how to make it inclusive for all students. I want to put into conversation Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens reflections on the problems with safe spaces with Paulo Freire’s provocation that there is no clear division between teaching and learning. As an aspiring ‘teacher’, two of the things I grapple with most are: 1) how to get students to engage closely with the text, including putting themselves ‘into’ the text and 2) how to get students to enter into critical dialogue with each other.

Arao and Clemens touch on a really important problem with commonly held interpretations of ‘safe spaces’ in classrooms, which is that this is often equated to making students comfortable (Arao and Clemens, p. 135). As someone who engages in political inquiry, it has been my experience that most students hesitate to engage with each other directly, preferring instead to direct their questions or points to me, the instructor. This creates difficulties when the desired engagement is for students to have conversations with each other and put into play their own assessment of assigned texts in a critical manner. In other words, rather than too much political disagreement, one of my main difficulties is too little. This obviously is not to say that I desire ‘disrespect’ or combativeness in a classroom, but it is to say that more often than not the difficulty is getting the conversation going in the first place.

The encounter with this difficulty most often materializes as silence. I will frame the reading, usually historically and contextually in relation to other texts we have read, then I will ask a pertinent question, which oftentimes does not have a ‘right’ or ‘correct’ answer but is meant to get students to engage with the main arguments. Usually, it is the case that conversation will follow and students will respond, but my main difficulty has been then getting students to respond to each other’s differing points and to get them to have a dialogue.

A common practice I do around the 5-6 week mark in a course is to have the students anonymously write-in how they view the class is going. I do this so I can have a sense of how they are experiencing the class, obviously, but I also ask them to provide suggestions of what they like from other classes, which may entail any number of things. I promise I will review their collective comments and we will reconvene to have a conversation about potentially changing various things about the class. It has been my overwhelming experience that students appreciate this and feel afterward they have more design over the class. However, one of the most common comments I get is that the class structure is unusual: they are not used to being asked to discuss the text. In addition, the most common comment is a deep anxiety that they do not have the ‘right’ answers. I think that this speaks to what Freire means when he writes that students conceive of themselves as objects who will receive ‘knowledge’ and who will then go on to regurgitate said ‘knowledge’ which usually amounts to merely ‘facts’ and ‘information’ (Freire, p. 30).

One of the most difficult things I confront, then, in nearly every class is challenging students on what their conception of what constitutes an education. Are they merely customers purchasing a piece of paper that provides them professional accreditation? Or, are they actively engaged in learning a series of practices which they will take with them, and which will transform them as people? If students understand the answer as the latter, they usually are far less anxious about having the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer and understand themselves and their participation as being crucial to the class. It is also my experience that if students are less concerned about the ‘grade’ at the end of an assignment and are more focused on the skills the assignment seeks to practice, they usually are more likely to get the grade they desire. What oftentimes gets in the way of ‘education’, then is the students’ expectations (which is certainly not only their own individual expectation) that their knowledge is measured by a ‘grade’ rather than the grade being an, admittedly, incomplete measure of what they learned.

I think this speaks in many ways to Freire’s provocation which is: how do we use our classrooms to cultivate an ‘epistemological curiosity’ that students will take with them wherever they go and exceeds whatever class material may be assigned? I am very curious to hear what others do in order to produce this epistemological curiosity, as well as the practices which gets to what Freire is gesturing towards with producing a particular “relationship with the text” (Freire, p. 34). So often it is my experience that students do not see themselves in the text and/or they see the text as separate from their daily lived experience. How do we bring this knowledge into the classroom in such a way that students are self-reflexively questioning their own presuppositions in conversations with others and the text? These are the sorts of questions I have when doing my class prep. Finally, I think this gets at what I was signaling with during my last post, which is how does this alter our understanding of the location of the classroom? In other words, how does encouraging the students to bring in their own experiences, and putting them into critical dialogue with others in the class, as well as the assigned text, alter how we approach, experience, and understand the classroom as a space of ‘learning’?


Arao, Brian, and Kristi Clemens. “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice.” In The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Educations, edited by Lisa Landreman. Stylus Publishing, 2013.


Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Rown and Littlefield Publishers, 1998.


4 Replies to “What Constitutes the ‘Classroom’?”

  1. Hi there, I really enjoyed reading your post! I have certainly grappled with the same issues as you. I teach human sexuality and I have taught in-person only once, but I remember conversations going “well” when I encouraged students to think critically. What I always meant by this was — think REFLEXIVELY. I want students to not just critical think about the content, but to critically engage with their own thought process as they discern what to share. I often emphasized the importance of language in human connection. There’s body language of course, but I think the actual verbal dialogue is really all we have when making a first impression. In a class of ~50, I remember students sharing a range of opinions and ideas. By taking a critical reflexive approach, students got in the habit of explaining their stance on an issue. I wouldn’t let them end with “that’s just what I think.” I wanted them to think about their upbringing, their past experiences, and how those experiences are similar and different from the people they are sharing a space with.

    I, too, did a mid-semester survey when I taught in-person. Mostly, I wanted to know if the lecture and discussion format was working. If I were to incorporate this survey again, I would include elements of safety. I have a vivid memory of a professor in my Master’s program being adamant that classrooms can foster mutual respect, but they can’t guarantee safety. Of course, I can excuse a student from class who is being disruptive, but I cannot assume that none of the students were harmed. I also cannot guarantee that students will feel 100% comfortable because of the content that is covered in human sexuality. I have definitely been influenced by this professor I mentioned, but I am trying actively to seek out ways to reduce discomfort among students while also trying to balance a “healthy” amount of discomfort as it pertains to growing and understanding complex ideas.

  2. This is a detailed and thorough assessment putting together texts and experience. I liked that you have brought up Freire’s formulation as well (50th anniversary of his text being published was in the last week, btw) in reframing your teaching practice. Since I haven’t been a teacher yet, I would definitely save some of your suggestions for when I am going to teach independently.
    Thank you Sam !

  3. I enjoyed reading the post and have experienced many of the same dilemmas. I have had multiple students ask me if it is possible to post the discussion questions before class so that they can prepare their answers ahead of time. To me, this indicates that students do not automatically understand what I mean when I say that I want a class to be discussion based. They somehow assume that I am talking about information recall, rather than critical thinking. I agree that students are often very afraid to say anything that could be perceived as controversial, and seem to tread so carefully around some of the topics that they end up not saying much at all. I find that in the written discussion posts that I also assign, students are more willing to share their actual opinions about the texts, although sometimes this ends up being just a criticism about why the text was assigned in the first place, which as an instructor is hard not to take personally, but at least it is an opinion.

  4. Sam,
    What a great blog post. I think that students are conditioned, starting early in education to concentrate on grades. Which as the education system today is run is not a bad thing. However, there is more to life than memorizing facts and figures from a book. I wrote in my blog post how, as a bartender here in Blacksburg for many years, I witnessed really ‘smart’ (book smart) students enter the restaurant and not understand the things that were going on around them. For instance, how to pay a tab or leave a tip or even order from a menu. I saw first hand how ‘book smart’ does not necessarily lead to street smart. I saw how essential the teaching and learning style of PBL could have been utilized in order for students to gain much more out of education. Again, thank you for your point of view. It was refreshing to read.

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