Being a critically reflective teacher: A Freirean perspective

For those who work in Southern Hemisphere universities, Semester 1 is just beginning now, so I will soon meet some keen (hopefully!) students who are a third of the way into their 3-year Bachelor of Education programme. This may be a good time to briefly reflect then, some of what the great critical educator, Paulo Freire had to say about what it is to be a teacher.

Pedagogy of Freedom (1998) drew particular attention to the teacher, and some of the qualities and attributes Freire believed teachers, educators and thinkers of education ought to aspire to.

Freire was committed to the idea of teaching as a political activity and the idea that teaching is an ethical activity. Freire’s claim is important to uphold when teachers are increasingly seen as mere functionaries of the reformist, neoliberal state.

Freire held a controversial position on the development of critical consciousness. There are, however, two ways the idea of critical consciousness applies to teachers and teaching: first, teachers should be initiating their students into the process of developing criticality, and second, teachers have a responsibility to both themselves and their profession to develop as critically reflective practitioners.

Freire regarded teachers to have chosen to make a difference to the world, and believed the work of teaching professionals to be intrinsically valuable, calling on teachers to dignify teaching. These commitments require actions, however, some of which may be discomforting to some teachers.

Not all teachers (especially beginning ones) will realise that policy directly influences their professional lives. Being aware of, and challenging, the role of policy reveals teaching to be a political activity. Policies too often are a knee-jerk response to perceived failures of the education system to deliver a return on taxpayer investment. Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom (1998) revealed his concern with the impact of the “scourge of neoliberalism” (p. 22) on teachers’ thought and practice. This fatalistic ideology places enormous emphasis on the accumulation of grades through continuous assessment, and encourages teachers to see the world as a given, discouraging theorising of its underlying causes and tensions, giving preference instead to data manipulation as an explanatory tool. The promise of a hopeful education that develops a love of society and consequently, egalitarian tendencies, is no more than a vain hope under these policy agendas.

Freire argued that educators ought to recognise that their role is more influential than merely teaching content—their role includes the moral formation of learners, which cannot be separated from teaching content. Teaching is people-centred, and the relationships that develop in an educative context are complex. Therefore, teaching, Freire would argue, is an ethical activity, and at its heart is consistency between the actions and words of teachers. Thus, Freire accentuated teachers’ actions over their words (actions speak louder than words).

The ethical teacher listens, rather than speaks. This focus on listening over speaking does not silence the teacher’s voice, but allows the student voice that is struggling to make meaning and sense of knowledge. To create the climate in which this student voice can be heard requires a spirit of humility on the part of the teacher, although this does not imply the submission of the teacher. By being an active listener, however, the teacher models appropriate behaviour for students to follow in their relations with teachers.

Teaching is not a technical matter, but a task richly ethical, yet radically uncertain. This state of uncertainty was captured by one of Freire’s well-known notions, that humans are never complete, thus teachers are in a state of ever–becoming.

In his acclaimed Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970/1996),  Freire rejected ‘banking education’ in favour of ‘problem-posing education’, a rejection he reiterated in Pedagogy of Freedom. Transmission style teaching was thus rejected in favour of dialogical education that would develop a critical disposition. The life experience and prior knowledge of students are a text in the development of critical understanding. Problem-posing teachers will seek ways to bridge existing knowledge with students’ knowledge, to ensure their students cross over to critical curiosity and consciousness.

Students require teachers who assume responsibility for promoting and developing critical thinking. If students are to think critically, they must think about something. Specifically this will be the knowledge of the curriculum and the knowledge of the students. It is important then that teachers must see themselves, and be seen, as authorities in their field of expertise, but not seek to be elitists or authoritarians.

Critical teachers commit themselves to transformative change. Therefore, Freire clearly intended that teachers be open to change and new ideas, through critical reflection. This reflective activity will support teachers to be consistent and coherent. Critical reflection on practice is thus central to Freire’s theory. When teachers think critically about their present practice, their future practice will benefit, and they develop their theoretical understanding of their own purpose as educators. Through a process of reflection, self-reflective teachers theorise their practice, then try out their emerging theories as they gear their classrooms so that students can bridge the gap to critical curiosity.

As self-critical learners, and problem-posing educators, teachers research their students as if they were themselves ‘texts’. Teachers seek to understand their students much as a reader seeks to understand a text. Critical reflection on practice is morally informed and committed to transformative action. A focus on the relationship between theory and practice by teachers as part of their daily routine helps to challenge the technical and instrumental rationality pervading education in the 21st century.

Freire’s simple humility and respect for the dignity of others, and his driving passion for the attainment of a just world in the face of a global orientation that emphasises greed, self-aggrandisement and individual attainment over social cohesion, serve as an object lesson to all educators, and a model for all teachers to emulate.

Teaching in the BYOD (1:1) environment

Teachers increasingly find themselves in schools now where devices (such as iPads, Chromebooks and laptops of various kinds) have penetrated the classroom, either as a school recommendation, school provision of class devices, or as a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) (also called 1:1) policy. Each of these options will scale up the involvement of the teacher. In some schools, for example, where device use is optional, some teachers may opt not to integrate devices and associated digital technologies at all. Where classrooms may have a set of laptops or tablets, there is likely to be greater onus on the teacher to engage with the technology. In a BYOD situation, however, the more likely expectation is that teachers will not only seek to find ways of using technology and digital tools (such as the Internet and various applications), but also will actively re-think their approach to teaching as a result.

I want to follow up my previous posting (‘Technology – like the air we breathe’) with a summation of some comments I made as part of a discussion of findings for a still-unpublished book chapter. These findings are based on in-school qualitative, ethnographic research I conducted in the winter term of 2015. These contextualised findings raise some interesting points that arose for me, as I observed many students and teachers, and through the many conversations with those students, teachers and even some parents.

 Some critical points

  •  Some teachers overestimate the digital capability of their students, and assume that young people necessarily know their way around computing and digital devices. This plays out in the classroom when teachers call on students to help each other to master the required technical or computing skills. Furthermore, some teachers may also assume that students will be ‘naturally intuitive’ in accessing, navigating and working in digital environments. This is a spin-off of the over-emphasis on a ‘digital native/digital immigrant’ distinction. There are various critiques and analyses, such as this one.
  • Some teachers regard technology merely as a tool, rather than as way to revolutionise their pedagogy. The notion of technology as a ‘digital pencil’ persists. In this sense, technology has not been integrated into the fabric of the some teachers’ thinking about their work.
  • While teachers understand the SAMR model, they find it challenging to get beyond substitution. ‘Electronic worksheets’ are a mere substitution of a paper handout. For some teachers, however, there is simply not enough time to develop a redefinition of tasks, not to mention the unwillingness of some to take the risks associated with possible failure, should radically new tasks go awry.

 What kind of response to change should teachers aim for?

Some embrace change, as they see the opportunity to develop their imaginative abilities. Fundamental change may positively influence the way teachers think about their daily work (it may also make them question their life’s work and purpose, however). A critical change to put into action is more individualised teaching and less teacher-talk. Ironically, this kind of shift may cause some students and parents to imagine teachers have relinquished their responsibility to ‘teach’ and just become ‘glorified baby-sitters’.

 Why are teachers willing to change?

 Many (most?) teachers are motivated by their desire to make a difference in the lives of their students, no matter how difficult and challenging change may be. The implementation of BYOD and associated e-Learning strategies add significantly to teachers’ workload, with implications for personal health and well being. New responsibilities include writing, planning and creating new materials, and this may be akin to the first year of teaching. Technology-rich digital environments may provide a sense that teachers must be ‘experts’ who are familiar with the cutting-edge of new technologies and applications.

Technology, especially ICT, the Internet, mobile devices and the various software programs and the many and varied applications, are a boon and a burden. A recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report suggests that these technologies are not yet as widely used and implemented in schools as perhaps they ought to be (given their impact on our daily lives). Yet, the same report finds that their impact on student learning is anything but clear-cut and certain. This finding is grist to the mill of those who question the value of ubiquitous device implementation in schools. What that suggests, I argue, is not to step back from the brink, but to engage more critically with the technologies that are impacting the pedagogical lives of teachers, and the way their students choose now to communicate.