Critical Pedagogy in Classroom Discussion: a #Digped Discussion

Sep 03, 2014

“Indeed, little of the teaching makes our students see the relevance, necessity, or beauty of the subject.” ~ Paul Goodman, from Compulsory Mis-education, 1964

Many tensions lurk beneath the surface of classroom discussion. Social anxieties, race relations, class assumptions, personal desires, and diverse power dynamics are at play. New instructors may feel the pressure to manage these conversations immensely and experienced professors tend to develop a mantra that guides them through the chaos. This challenge is not new nor is it going away anytime soon. In fact, as lectures and content knowledge move beyond the classroom walls, discussion-based alternatives replace them. So, how do we make the most of this time together?

The discussion-ending comment is a well-known classroom phenomenon; one moment, the classroom is alive with discussion, and the next: silence. Fortunately, however, these moments are neither isolated nor unpredictable and pedagogues have long considered the origins of this challenging classroom dynamic.

According to Paul Goodman, there is a difference between the teacher- and student-reality at the root of this problem. Goodman asserts there is a culture of accreditation that makes it difficult for students to participate in discussion in personally meaningful ways. Instead, as a recent poll suggests, students attend college to get a degree to get a job to make money.

In the classroom, then, this culture of accreditation may prove harmful to even the most well-intentioned student. Consider a student who is intrigued by something the teacher says and “wants to demur, argue, ask a question.” At this critical moment, Goodman suggests that “the chief obstacle to discussion, however, is the other students. In their judgment, [student-directed] discussion is irrelevant to the finals and the grades, and they resent wasting time,” (133). In fear of negative peer attention, the student is silenced.

bell hooks, too, identifies the frequent possibility of silencing in the college classroom. Long before a student even begins college, hooks asserts, there is “racism, sexism, and class elitism [that] shape the structure of classrooms, creating a lived reality of insider versus outsider that is predetermined, often in place before any class discussion begins” (83). A student from a privileged background may make a statement that marginalizes a certain population and a black student may quickly become tokenized for speaking from an African-American experience.

Despite the broader social contexts in which these dynamics of exclusion were developed and maintained, however, hooks argues that it is largely the teacher “who determines classroom dynamics” (83). Thus, while a misogynistic, racist society problematizes student relationships, a pedagogy shaped to respond to this reality may serve to transgress these rigid social practices.

Join us at 12:00pm EDT on Friday, September 5th for this month’s #digped, where we will begin to discuss pedagogies of inclusion. Informed by both critical theory and personal experiences in the classroom, we will begin to demystify the complex classroom dynamics that frame student discussion.

In anticipation of the upcoming conversation, reflect on the following questions:

  • How can we shape our pedagogies to affirm a student’s presence and their right to speak without privileging certain shared responses? How can we, as hooks asks, “construct a pedagogy that critically intervenes before one group attempts to silence another?” (86).

  • Further, also straight from bell books: “how can professors and students who want to share personal experiences in the classroom do so without promoting essentialist standpoints that exclude?” (88).

  • In what ways can we establish alternative classroom cultures, ones that promote student-directed dialogue, even when it digresses from course content and graded assignments? Alternatively, how can this student-initiated dialogue be positively accounted for by grades, grading policies, and learning outcomes?

  • How does a culture of accreditation affect your classroom atmosphere, particularly relating to discussion? How can we alleviate the perceived boundaries between a student’s desire to earn a degree and the instructor’s desire to teach a specific subject (especially without resolving to “teach towards the degree” as many schools teach towards standardized tests)?

If you are interested in these and other related questions, please join us on September 5 at 12:00pm EDT. For those unable to join the conversation this week, Hybrid Pedagogy’s #digped recurs monthly, on the first Friday of every month. So our next #digped conversation will occur on Friday, October 3, same time, same place. If you have suggestions for future topics, feel free to add them to the comments on this entry or tweet them to @slamteacher or @hybridped.

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