/ pedagogy

Starting off with critical pedagogy

A teacher's first encounter with critical pedagogy can be overwhelming. The ideology is radically (pun intended) different from "traditional" approaches to education, and it can be easy to lose the trees for the forest, so to speak. Critical pedagogues, myself included, like to write sweeping manifestos. And because the movement is heavily ideological and rooted in justice, it can be easy to think that the only way to become a critical pedagogue is to change absolutely everything about the way we relate to our students.

But a radical (again, pun intended) overhaul of our teaching is rarely practical, and only occasionally desirable. Not only is such an overhaul a lot of work, but changing too many things at once makes it difficult for us to manage the changes well. Of course, we will make mistakes any time we try something new. But more than that, critical pedagogy is a student-centered pedagogy, one that requires us to be attentive and responsive to our students. There is no one-size-fits-all technique, there are no "best practices"—in fact, that's the point. Making that kind of transition quickly, especially if we are uncomfortable, risks alientating the students we are seeking to empower.

Working out a change from "traditional" (i.e., industrial) pedagogy to critical pedagogy often benefits from a slow transition, and in some cases is only possible on a small scale—at least until skeptical colleagues (and students) see it in action. And every new batch of students will require some measure of "retransition" to allow them to get used to approaches they may not have seen before. So in this post, I offer a few things that we can do on the small scale to introduce critical pedagogy to ourselves, our students, and our colleagues. In some cases, these kinds of things will be a gateway to more radical change in the future. In others, they may be as far as we go in a particular setting. Either way, I hope they are helpful.

Students should always be making decisions. This was on a list of tips that my son's U-7 soccer league sent to all the coaches. Drilling technique at practice will win more games in the short-term, but it will harm the kids' ability to play well in the future as the game grows in complexity. The same goes for students at all levels: mindful agency is the goal. Technique will come in time—and there might even be some drilling in the future. But as much as possible, during our class meetings, our students should be exercising their agency in some way. This can be as simple as using clicker questions that challenge all students to work through the logic of a conceptual issue simultaneously, as opposed to one student at a time being asked to recall a specific fact. Or it could involve self-contained problem-based learning tasks. No matter the details, we can make substantial critical progress if, when we plan for class, we choose tasks that put students in a position to make real decisions.

Don't make students wait in line. This is another soccer-coaching insight. If most of the kids on the field are waiting behind a line of cones for their chance to play while one or two teammates are active, we're failing the kids. In other words, every kid should have a ball at their feet for most of practice. When there are more than one or two players in the queue at a time, get another line going, and keep them moving. Often our class discussions look like one of these soccer drills: an excellent drill, but it only engages one or two students at a time. The rest are waiting in line, and possibly not even spectating. Critical discussions often happen better in smaller groups than full classes anyway, so why not split the class up, appoint a couple "cone jockeys" (what we call parents or older siblings at practice who don't actively coach, but simply keep things moving), and set them all to work.

Ask questions that don't have answers (yet). If class activities are directed towards a single, correct answer, our student-centered pedagogy will be disingenuous. Chris Friend calls this "lecture in disguise." Teleology kills inquiry, and when the answer is known, our pedagogy is content-centered rather than student-centered. Asking questions that don't have answers can help us break our addiction to answers, and can help students do the same.

I should point out, though, that sometimes there are answers that students need to know. But with a little extra thought, we can usually devise a class activity that either uses that information as the springboard for critical inquiry, or that frames pursuit of that answer in a way that has students propose, experiment with, and evaluate methods for finding the answer. For example, students can compare different methods of transcribing music by ear to evaluate which method works better for different music or individuals. Or students could compare "traditional" with "new" methods for doing arithmetic. In such situations, we shift the focus of the class from the answer that is known to questions about things that are not known or that are particular to the individual. They still learn the "facts," but in the process learn more about how to ask and pursue answers to other questions they encounter in the future.

Shut up for a while. Many of us find that in our attempts to get students talking to each other, we often just get them taking turns talking to us. For example, in my current doctoral seminar, we begin class with basic informational issues before moving on to deeper conceptual discussion and questions of application. Because so much of the information is new to the students, I am often the only one who can answer some of the questions. Even after a break, the tone is set for students to ask questions that often ultimately get answered by me. So I decided that for some portion of class, usually when discussing application (where the students are all experts in different areas than I am), I will only communicate to students via Twitter. Verbal discussion is completely controlled by them. Almost immediately after my first attempt with this, Chris Friend published a similar approach in an article for Hybrid Pedagogy, where he listens to students and acts as a scribe for the class in Google Docs. In both cases, the onus is put on students to lead and carry on the discussion, and they are freed from note-taking so they can do just that. I am also freed from discussion-leading duties so that I can focus more on observing students and thinking carefully about their comments and level of (in)activity.

These are just a few small ideas, but in each case they can be incorporated relatively painlessly. With a little extra thought in planning, and no major curricular overhaul, things like these can open up the world of critical pedagogy in our teaching and in our students' work. These ideas may not represent a major social revolution, but they do offer simple ways to begin to flatten the classroom hierarchy and empower students to exercise their agency and critical thought.