We should print it in big, bold letters because that’s how this idea rolls:
I’m teaching this semester, and despite all of my emotional hand-wringing in my last post, I genuinely enjoy it. I’ve got a good class and so far they’re working to do what I ask and stay engaged. They keep showing up every day, an effort that I genuinely appreciate.
I’ve got goals – big, lofty ones and realistic, smaller ones – that I’m working to achieve in my students and in myself.
One of my goals is to improve my own pedagogy by unpacking and implementing some of the ideas I’ve learned in the past few years about active learning, student-centered learning, and critical pedagogy.
Active learning happens when teachers choose learning activities that engage the student in participating meaningfully in the learning process. This reduces the time given to passive receiving of information (lecture, watching videos, in-class reading) and gives that time instead to a variety of techniques which demand involvement, ranging from basic discussion to group projects, collaboration, thinking activities, improv, building, prototyping, communicating, creating.
Student-centered learning is a similar concept; it probably involves a lot of active learning but each occupies a different axis within educational practice. I like to define it as the broad attempt to move the student to the center of the classroom experience, usually by pulling the teacher off the center stage. This doesn’t mean that the instructor is less important, but it does raise the value of a student’s voice and it implies that students have agency over what they learn and how they go about it. A student-centered classroom puts the questions raised by the learners at the center of lessons, and teachers who pursue this model invest a lot of work into teaching students how to ask deeper questions, research for more than a pat answer, and fuel their studies through internal motivation (what the student wonders, loves, wants to know).
Critical pedagogy is a term that could take weeks to define. If you go forth into the wilds of the internet searching for an explanation, you may return scarred and terrified — yet, at its heart, critical pedagogy offers us an important focus for human education. Let me compress these ideas into something straightforward: critical pedagogy builds on the work of legendary Brazilian educator and lawyer Paolo Friere, who worked with the poorest of the poor in his native country. He realized that literacy means nothing to people who own little and feel they cannot control much in their lives. Their relationship to “power” is totally broken as they live out the realities of social injustice. Yet even “uneducated” people are rich with experience, and if someone takes the time to teach them how the world works, how power structures work, how they can step aside and critique the way their world is working, even the poorest people can begin to take charge of what agency they do have and turn it into something useful to make their lives better.
Friere recognized that whether a student comes from poverty or privilege, he or she can be enriched by learning how to critique power structures, act as agents as change to achieve greater justice in their social structures, and enjoy the freedom and joy that comes from being someone who understands better how the world could work. Friere’s writings are infused with explosions of joy and theological presuppositions that I find quite refreshing. He might be one of the most “Christian” educators I’ve ever read.
So. For me, this means changing the following about my habits of teaching:
- I want to move my students into the center of my classroom experience. That means less talking from me, and more work on my part to generate strong questions or learning prompts to drive students deeper into their own inquiries. Believe me, it’s a whole lot easier to just lecture….
- I want to master the skills of facilitating better discussions, both as a class and when students are working in small groups on tasks. That means sharpening my own critical thinking and analysis skills, but also shutting up and listening more than I talk.
- I want to be more aware myself of critical perspectives on texts, toward the daily news, of national crises like the Ferguson / Charleston shootings so that I can model for my students what it looks like when we step outside of our contexts and critique those contexts through a variety of lenses. My lens tends to be shaped by what I believe are biblical concepts of human dignity, social justice, economic systems, power relationships, etc.
- I want to resist stepping in too early to rescue students as they labor—often with great anxiety—to give birth to a new idea or understanding of the world mediated through their reading or writing or experiences. Being able to give “the right” answer feels very heady, like drinking from an authority fountain. I think professors and instructors secretly love that feeling. But our drinking comes at the expense of our students’ growth.
- I want to facilitate better relationships among my students, forming us into a discrete learning community that displays love and care for each other as well as concern for the broader world. This is much more difficult, I’ve found, in college where my contact hours are much fewer and students in my class may see one another only during my period. If teaching is relational (and it IS), then I need to also acknowledge that learners are related to one another. Asking them to step into difficult, challenging spaces with a group of strangers will never do.
I titled this post “Trust the Process.”
The thought hit me recently as I walked down the hall from the day’s lesson that I’m gambling a lot on my insistence that teaching writing be grounded in teaching students better thinking skills. I think a lot of us find it easier to grind through grammar exercises and assign writing prompts that focus on the pedantic, nit-picky final stages of the writing process.
Those stages are structured and codified. I can easily recognize a comma splice. I can mount an argument to defend the Oxford comma or criticize overuse of linking verbs. I can quote handbook sections in response to unclear pronoun referents, and dump the responsibility on the students to figure out how to fix those broken sentences in their latest papers.
And while much writing instruction claims to talk about the thinking behind the writing, much of what we DO in the name of writing instruction doesn’t actually do much to force students out of incomplete, inadequate thinking patterns into new ones.
It’s my firm belief that if I spend a lot of time shoving students into better habits of mind, proving to them that fuzzy thinking can never produce clear writing (only clear thinking can), then in the end—even if things are really rough around the edges right now in their papers—they will emerge in three months as better thinkers and therefore better writers. And that improvement will stick, if I can fundamentally alter the way they approach thinking about a question or a problem.
And if their thinking changes, even in small ways, that brings them closer to being people who have a shot of developing the ability to step out of themselves and ask the hard questions about their situation. Why aren’t we accepting more Syrian refugees? Why haven’t our legislators reformed the US’s abysmal Gordian knot of an immigration system? Why aren’t Christians who claim to be guided by biblical morality demanding reforms in immigration as an outworking of the Gospel in their thinking? Our power structures are broken. Our economy smashes some people so that others can consume the excess. Our politics descend to angry ranting. My friends, these things ought not so to be.
My experiment may fail.
I’m not assessed to death like K-12 teachers are, but my day of reckoning will come when the final papers (argumentative essays) enter the pile for the committee to read in May and assess how well my students’ writing stacks up against the course rubric.
Some English professors are all about the fine points of grammar and argumentation, popping veins when students try to modify the word “unique” (pro top: unique means “the only one of its kind”; don’t tell me something is “really unique”) or misplace the adverb only in a sentence. I’m convinced even they would agree with me that moving students toward clearer thinking is worth more. I’m also convinced that I can teach students how to cope in a world that demands good spelling and decent sentences … but that must come alongside sharp and clear thinking.
So I guess we’ll see….