Thursday, 30 August 2012

A critical Pedagogy


I am going to examine the approaches of Dewey, Bruner, Friere, Illich,Vygotsky towards building up an alternative system of education. Their ideas contradict what is taken to be the conventional views about ‘schooling’.

John Dewey and experiential education
It is worth reminding ourselves that these problems were considered in the 1930’s by John Dewey, an instrumentalist, a pragmatist, who held that we learn through experience, by doing, and argued that greater emphasis should be placed on problem solving and critical thinking skills. Dewey emphasised that   'teaching' is too concerned with the delivery of approved knowledge. This needs to be balanced by a much greater concern with the students' actual experiences, and active learning. He was an exponent of 'experiential education' based on project based learning, with the learners as active  researchers, problem solving  topics  in which the teacher, the learner and community identify what is to be learned.  

Bruner and scaffolding
The work of  Bruner confirmed that the learner is active, whereas systems of 'teaching' assume that  'learners' are passive.....doing as they are told!   Bruner emphasized that learning is a social process  and  that knowledge was best acquired when students were allowed to discover it on their own.’ 
A useful starting point can be for teachers and learners to think in terms of Bruner’s concepts  of learning and ‘scaffolding’ in which the role of the teacher is to provide support for student thinking in ways which help them to move beyond their present levels of understanding. A major theme in the theoretical framework of Bruner is that learning is an active process in which learners construct a scaffold of new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge.  If scaffolding is properly administered, it will act as an enabler, not as a disabler.

Friere and discovery
These strategies   were explored by  Paulo Friere, 1968, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, who declared a respect for diversity; a recognition of our interdependence in cooperation not competition; and that we are all learners. He argued  that learning is living and takes place everywhere.Paulo Friere, and Ivan Illich, went further than Dewey, and Bruner, insisting  that education is learning by discovery,  creating learning communities, or cultural circles, involving everybody, young and old, in the processes of learning new knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
This alternative approach to education involves an open, process-based, negotiated curriculum which is based upon general learning outcomes, key skills and collaboration and participation.
This is an alternative to any prescriptive approach embodied in a National Curriculum. It is a negotiated curriculum, where the arbiter of studies is the learner not the teacher or tutor and certainly not the government. Within a negotiated curriculum the teacher/tutor is the facilitator, the enabler, providing a service. The learner is actively pursuing their preferences with the advice of the teacher/tutor. The learner takes on the responsibility to meet the deadlines, and to consult with the teacher/tutors and to pursue their projects.

'Learning as discovery', as described by Ivan Illich, will take place in learning spaces, not teaching rooms. These spaces can be in the field, forest, street, museum, classroom, home, town hall, and so on. The learners will not be organized in rows in classrooms but in flexible patterns. Sometimes all age groups will be together, other times, friends, and family groups. The knowledge is not prescribed, it is to be discovered. The teacher is not at a high desk at the front of the room, but is sitting with the learners, sometimes the learner, sometimes the leader, at other times the adviser. Lessons are not a series of prescriptions, but a complex series of problems to be solved jointly.  For those with access, the library is the world wide web with up-to-the minute information, facts, statistics. For others, the creative use of the local community and neighborhood can provide personal experiences and local knowledge from which to encourage investigation, and an innovative database.  The communities of learners are actively involved in negotiating their studies with teachers who see their role as co-learners, organizing and structuring the learning experiences. This means that the teachers must themselves become learners, developing their skills in planning the presentation of problems and devising a supportive structure to guide learners in their explorations. An important aspect of these approaches is that everybody is involved and learning, and enjoying the experiences.
For the poor, education in learning spaces will avoid the costs of schools and colleges. All they will require are laptops and teams of teacher-tutors. It will not be necessary for teachers to be subject specialists. It will be important for them to be skilled problem solvers, managers of information for the communities of learners.  ‘Education’ can be provided for all local communities at a minimal cost. Vygotsky offered further support for the social situations of learning.  He wanted to insist that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition e.g. that we learn a language amongst our family and friends.  Bruner and Vygotsky argue that learning must begin from what the learner actually knows and can do. More open approaches to learning, in which the teachers change their role from one of instruction to guidance, will enable learning to be a voyage of discovery in which each learner is inspired to construct, innovate and communicate. This voyage will ensure more effective learning.

A pedagogy of the poor is Open learning. The focus will change from prescribed knowledge to the achievement of General Learning Outcomes; key skill areas such as Communication, Problem Solving, Interpersonal Relationships, Planning, Decision Making.
Open learning involves the development of an open dialogue aiming to alter the relationships between teachers and students so that all can participate as a community of learners.  The development of dialogue is a key element in an alternative model of education.  It provides a structure and a learning space for everyone to participate as equals.  Dialogue can encourage diverse groups to come to consensus about the issues being discussed.

Education as open learning, and learning as discovery, involve the teachers and the learners, the writers and the readers, in the social processes of dialogue, negotiation, experiment, writing and reading as communities of learners. The implication of such notions is that the identification of meaning is a collective action. The texts that we write and study are not fixed transmissions but have to be interpreted in the light of the problems and the answers that we are seeking.
Umberto Eco (1979) University of Bologna, developed the notion of an ‘open’ text which calls not only for the cooperation of the reader but actually wants the reader to make a series of interpretive choices: that is, the text is open to interpretation by any reader. There needs to be a move from the usual models of communication which describe a direct transmission of a known message from the  author  to the the reader which assumes an understanding of the ideas by both parties. An open text may be conceived as interactive, rather than given as received. If it is interactive, then the entire student group can contribute. If it is received, then it is ‘given’ and requires the learner to memorise it, reproduce and quote it for assessment.
The adoption of such procedures can give teachers a clear framework for providing appropriate scaffolding for students in developing their problem solving skills. The purpose of developing such skills is so that students can recognize their interdependence and analyse the texts and actions of others in order to clarify their meanings and purposes.

The availability of the internet means that learners can be anywhere and everywhere and lead to the creation of Virtual learning communities. The concept of 'community' has been used to refer to people being in the same space. The notion of a ‘virtual community’ clearly challenges this, focusing rather on the sharing of the activity of communicating by electronic means rather than the sharing of a physical space. If we are able to learn in virtual space it would make the educational buildings in physical space redundant. A ‘virtual learning community’ would then be groups who engage in the process of communication to improve learning. This could be thought of as a ‘community of ideas,’ the connection between the participants being the identification of a common problem which they wish to address. For a virtual learning community to develop, participants would need to be prepared to enter into relationships within which respect and trust are paramount. The aim of such a virtual community of learners would be to uncover meaning, developing understanding of self and others by focusing upon a common problem.

This approach sees community development as a process, not a product. Within a virtual community of learners, technology is used as a tool, facilitating connections between people who do not share a common space and time, but who share a common goal. This goal could begin with a problem but can grow into the development of skills in learning how to identify questions and finding answers. The age of the computer has opened the way to self-directed learning. Computer and e-mail connections are not only the preserve of the wealthy, developed world. Across the world extensive connections have been set up, allowing people to gain access to the ‘information super highway’.  It may be that the future is ‘virtual’ whereby all comers are able to ‘log-on’ and ‘log-off’ when it suits them. The potential of a ‘virtual’ learning community has many attractions:
The institutional gatekeepers can be bypassed more easily;
Members of the community could avoid the hierarchical ‘habitus’ of traditional institutions;
Learners could access learning opportunities at times and in ways, which are suited to their own learning needs.
Educational Liberation
Our earlier concerns with the role of teacher and tutors can be resolved by recognizing that learning can take place outside of the classroom setting. Educational researchers such as Bruner, Piaget, Bourdieu, Vygotsky identified that learners are active, and involved. Learning is discovery. Writers such as Illich and Friere argued that liberation education should be in the home, in the field, on the street corner; in the village hall.  [The internet, and the wireless laptop, now provides us with the means to make this happen.] It is essential to recognize that we are talking about members of communities coming together to research, to learn, to study, to collaborate, to cooperate, to solve problems.
Students act as subjects in the creation of a democratic society. They learn to critically examine the social construction of society, rather than being forced unknowingly into a class within society. They develop a critical awareness of social reality through reflection and action, dialogue and praxis; that  lead them to demand social change. 

In Paulo Friere’s work  his emphasis on dialogue has struck a very strong chord with those concerned with popular and informal education. Given that informal education is  dialogical
(or conversational), rather than a curricula  form, this is hardly surprising. However, Paulo Freire was able to take the discussion further with his insistence that dialogue involves respect. It should not involve one person acting 'on' another, but rather people working ' with 'each other.
Second, Paulo Freire was concerned with praxis - action that is informed (and linked to certain values). Dialogue wasn't just about deepening understanding - but was part of making a difference in the world. Dialogue in itself is a co-operative activity involving respect. The process is important and can be seen as enhancing community, and building social capital and to leading us to act in ways that make for social justice. Informal and popular educators have had a long-standing orientation to action - so the emphasis on change in the world was welcome.
We need to recognise that what we learn and how we learn is a response to our social environment. These social activities build up our ‘social capital’ and promote our ‘social identity’ and as learners we recognize ourselves to be part of a wider social picture, reading the ideas of earlier writers, helping us to develop our own understanding. Even creative thinkers link their ideas to those of others. We learn by 'standing on the shoulders' of others. In recognizing our connections with others in the learning process, we have the potential to overcome the restraints of our present situation that may help us to be liberated, to develop our ‘social freedom’ by joining in communities of learners. Suddenly we can begin to see the realization of the ideas of Friere and of Illich both of whom emphasized the social context of learning as a problem solving activity, and the existence of Learning Webs.
In the process of negotiating a curriculum a wide range of problems will have been identified and it is these problems which will form the stimulus for enquiry. This can be seen as another facet of the development of an ‘open’ text. An ‘open’ text can be seen as material, which enables students to interrogate the ideas being raised, rather than being presented with the answers. This can be thought of as providing a window for students to use to reflect upon
issues and ideas. The raising of questions is intended to encourage students to reflect upon themselves and their social context, developing critical thinking skills and reflexivity in the learning process. The purpose of such thinking and enquiry is to encourage students to recognize their interdependence in an effort to develop social freedom and social ecology.

We should be viewing ‘education as liberation’, as social change. Bourdieu reminds us that the development of cultural capital is achieved by the alteration of the 'habitus' so that rather than competing with each other for the acquisition of specialist knowledge, situations are set up in which the development of learning skills and the identification of learning outcomes is achieved through teams of learners and the creation of communities of  learners. These communities come to realize that knowledge is a collaborative venture that leads to social freedom for all rather than academic distinctiveness for just the few. What we know now is built upon the endeavors of all who have gone before. It is the height of arrogance to believe that any single individual or group have the secret to all wisdom. What we know, we have learnt from others. Our education is mediated through the inspiration of others.

Our education should be a response to the environmental changes that are taking place around us. The increasing evidence of the pollution of the atmosphere; the increasing particles in the atmosphere causing ice melt, rising temperatures, and violent weather events, and the destruction of species, such as marine life, and forests, as well as the poisoning of rivers and lakes;  have led to an increasing awareness of the impacts of human action upon the natural environment. A social ecology perspective demands the promotion of sustainable economics across the globe, along with serious efforts to conserve organic life and abandone capitalism that exploits resources at any cost and without regard for the indigenous communities.
The responsibility for the sustainable economics must be local and global, with human communities organized as direct democracies. The importance of local action means that education services must be based on communities of learners, expressing their interdependence with the complex of ecological communities and seeking solutions to the problems of environmental destruction.

These alternatives may not be possible.
We have seen recently in Russia, China, Syria, Myanmar, that governments do not want to allow any freedom of expression, and would certainly attempt to control ‘education as liberation’. Whether we like it or not, ‘education’ is regarded by many governments to be an effective agent of control…..even though, according to learning theory, it is nothing of the kind. Perhaps what is more significant is the willingness of communities to send their children to school so as to pass their time doing nothing of any interest!

Confucius [450BC] stated: Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember.
 Involve me and I will understand.

For a more detailed discussion of these issues go to  A Discourse: Social Ecology/Education

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