I have never forgotten one essential point my educational psychology professor related to my class back at San José State University when I was working toward my Secondary Education Teacher’s Certification in 1970. His point crystallized for me the intent of true and meaningful learning. My professor explained that the term “education” is derived from two Latin roots: “e,” meaning “out of,” and “ducere,” meaning “to lead” or “to draw.”
“Education,” he said, “is the process of drawing knowledge out of the student or leading the student toward knowledge, rather than putting or depositing information into what some educator’s perceive as the student’s waiting and docile mind”—what the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Reglus Neves Freire termed “the banking system of education.”
I would ask, however, what effects has our age of “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” eras of standardization, corporatization, globalization, privatization, and deregulation of the educational, business, banking, and corporate sectors have on learning?
Standardized curriculum and testing were initially intended to gauge students’ progress, but have, unfortunately, metastasized into benchmarks for student advancement through the levels of education, for teacher accountability, as well as criteria for school funding from the government. The new Core Standards curriculum policies, rather than improving the educational outcomes of our students, have the potential of merely reinforcing and extending the failed so-called “neoliberal” policies of the past unless implemented with care and foresight.
The educational buzz word (or, rather, buzz acronym) is now STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math). Actually, since the time of Sputnik forward, we hear from the White House, to the school house, to the houses of industry that for us to achieve and maintain personal and national security, we must emphasize and rigorously promote STEM education in our schools and jobs in our economy.
As we understand in plant biology that stems cannot take root and grow unless planted in a fertile nutrient-abundant soil, likewise STEM fields cannot take root and grow unless planted in a fertile foundation of the social sciences, humanities, the arts, and all in the context and development of creativity and critical thinking skills.
According to the so-called “Allocation Theory” of education, schooling has turned into a status competition, which confers success on some and failure on others. Our schools have morphed into assembly-line factories transforming students into workers, and then sorting these workers into jobs commanded by industry and business. In so doing, educational institutions legitimize and maintain the social order (read as the status quo). Schools drive individuals to fill certain roles or positions in society, which are not always based on the individuals’ talents or interests.
For genuine learning to occur, for it to be transformational, it must be student-centered—grounded on the shared experiences of the learners—and composed of at least two essential elements or domains: the “affective” (feelings) and the “cognitive” (informational). I design and implement my classes on a dialogic approach within a social justice framework in which students and educators cooperate in the process, whereby all are simultaneously the teacher and the learner. Educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky referred to this process as Obuchenie.
Education, as I have gained from Freire, is a path toward permanent liberation in which people became aware (conscientized) of their multiple positionalities (identity intersectionality), and through praxis (reflection and action), transform the world.
Educators, to be truly effective, must spend many years in self-reflection and must have a clear understanding of their motivations, strengths, limitations, “triggers,” and fears. They must thoroughly come to terms with their positions in the world in terms of their social identities: both the ways in which they are privileged as well as how they have been the targets of systemic inequities. They are not afraid of showing vulnerability and admitting when they are wrong or when they “don’t know.” They have a firm grasp of the content area, and they work well with and are accessible to students and their peers.
Realizing that students come from disparate backgrounds in terms of social identities, and that students learn in a variety of ways, educators must be “culturally competent,” and must be informed on the historical and cultural backgrounds of diverse student populations, pedagogical frameworks, theories of cognitive development, personality types, preferred sensory modes of learning, and others.
In the ideal classroom, the overriding climate is one of safety. This is not, however, the same as “comfort,” for very often, comfortable situations might feel fine, but are not necessarily of pedagogic value. “Safety” in this case refers to an environment where educators facilitate a learning process: one in which one can share openly without fear of retribution or blame; where one can travel to the outer limits of one’s “learning edges” in the knowledge that one will be supported and not left dangling.
The multicultural/social justice classroom poses exceptional challenges, or more importantly, opportunities to find creative solutions to address not only potential but actual student resistance to course materials and concepts, for we touch upon some very personal and potentially triggering issues related to identity, social inequities, and critical histories that for many reasons are not often investigated in other coursework.
To address potential student resistance, I structure and sequence my courses around Robert Kegan’s three-stage teaching model. In the initial stage, called “Confirmation,” the educator meets learners why they are, solicits ideas, beliefs, and knowledges, listens and legitimize, invites elaboration, and asks questions.
In stage II, “Contradiction,” educators stretch students’ existing views and experiential backgrounds by reframing issues, offering another perspective and new information, suggesting educational experiences (books, events), challenging stereotypes and previously held assumptions, offering a wider analysis, soliciting additional opinions from others, drawing out contradictions, and providing time and opportunity for exchange.
During stage III, called “Continuity,” educators continue the contradiction by giving constructive feedback, providing and soliciting a variety of perspectives, affording time for student reflection, giving praise for engaging in the process, and offering humor if and when appropriate.
Very often, a single semester course may not provide the educator sufficient time to fully appreciate the true growth or impact of their endeavors, but it can at least provide the opportunity for the planting of a seed, for overall, the role of the educator is to excite, to motivate, to develop or enhance in the student a continuing and life-long quest for learning.
A foundational element in critical multiculturalism/social justice is social reconstructionist or transformational education in which the educator’s role is to help prepare future citizens to reconstruct society to better serve the interests of all groups of people, and to transform society toward greater equity for all.
Christine Sleeter and Carl Grant emphasize four unique educational practices underpinning this philosophy: 1. Democracy is actively practiced in the schools, 2. Students learn to analyze institutional inequality in their own life circumstances, 3. Students learn to use social action skills, and 4. Bridges are built across various oppressed groups.
I require students to justify and backup all of their thoughts and “opinions.” Opinions without justification are just that—opinions. Stephen Brookfield discusses three inter-related phases in the process of critical thinking: discovering the assumptions that guide our decisions, actions, and choices (What do I think and why do I think of it the way I do?); checking the accuracy of these assumptions by exploring as many different perspectives, viewpoints, and sources as possible (Talking with others, taking courses, reading, researching, etc.); and taking informed decisions based on these researched assumptions (Informed decisions are based on evidence we can trust, can be explained to others, and have a good chance of achieving the effects we want).
Critical multiculturalism/social justice education is far more than my academic interest and focus for me. On a number of occasions, I have been asked the following question: “Are you a professor/educator, or are you a community organizer/activist, a writer, a theorist, or a researcher?” I always answer “Yes, all of the above,” for I view critical multiculturalism/social justice as providing a seamless connection to all these elements in my life. And I attempt to practice what I teach.
I have conducted all of my work in the service of social transformation. Without a basic knowledge of and experience in the humanities and the social sciences, students’ education remains incomplete, one that will not fully prepare them to live in a continually changing global environment. The traditional 3 Rs are indeed important, but we need to include the forth of “Respect” for cultural differences.
In addition to teaching the 3 Rs (Reading, wRiting, and ‘Rithmetic), we need to teach students how to investigate issues around Self Awareness: how to “Read” the Self and “Solve” social, emotional, and ethical problems. We must provide students with, what Jonathan Cohen terms, “Social, Emotional, Ethical, & Academic Education” (SEEAE).
Last semester, I asked the students in my University Educational Psychology class to answer the following question by raising their hand: “How many of you have a parent or guardian who wakes up in the morning thinking to themselves, ‘I have a job I love and I’m looking forward to going to work?” Of the approximately 100 students in class that day, exactly seven raised their hands.
I usually still answer that question in the affirmative. I cannot think of any other profession where one reads and discusses ideas with others and (sort of) gets paid for it. I love the opportunities for learning and engagement that I have as a professor.
I see how “education” and “schooling,” however, as currently constituted contradicting its own methodologies by primarily focusing on grades in the service of eventual jobs and economic security for the educational consumer, and in so doing, we have diminished in many of our students the joy of learning for learning sake, and learning for the sake of understanding themselves and the world around them.
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