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.

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Getting back to teaching as a subversive activity

Today, the 11th January, 2016, marks a return to work for many in New Zealand. Summer has barely begun (indeed the best is to come), yet the shift back into routine cannot be delayed any longer. Schools and teachers will make a more gradual awakening, coming fully to life by about the beginning of February. Prospective student teachers will have an even slower start, with their first semester commencing by the beginning of March, although the ones who are choosing the pressure-cooker, compressed Master level postgraduate teaching qualification make their start somewhat earlier (and this notion of a ‘postgraduate profession’ probably deserves its own blog posting sometime in the future).

Despite enjoyable summer days at the beach still to come, some of these students will no doubt be turning their thoughts in anticipation to the year ahead, as indeed, should be the academics who will guide them along the way. On that note, I thought about some of the exciting ideas I was introduced to in my first year of Education study, and amongst these were the ideas presented by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, in their 1969 book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity.  These authors have been credited with popularising inquiry learning.

Suppose (suggested Postman & Weingartner), all the syllabi and curricula and textbooks in the schools disappeared…In other words, suppose that the most common material impeding innovation in the schools simply did not exist. Then suppose that you decided to turn this ‘catastrophe’ into an opportunity to increase the relevance of the schools…

[Now instead] suppose that you decide to have the entire ‘curriculum’ consist of questions. These questions would have to be worth seeking answers to not only from your point of view, but more importantly, from the point of view of the students…add the requirement that the questions must help the students to develop and internalize concepts that will help them to survive in the rapidly changing world of the present and the future. (1969, p. 65).

There are some remarkable features in this portion just quoted. The first is that it is the opening of a chapter entitled, ‘what’s worth knowing?’, in itself a critical question any educator (or prospective educator) ought to ask. Or, a question any critical educator should ask! And the answer is likely to have much to do with the final sentence of the quote above. That is a second remarkable feature of the quoted material, because it was written nearly half a century back. The insight suggested by Postman and Weingartner seems lost, however, on the army of commentators, experts and ‘modern educators’ who speak of educating and learning for the ’21st century’, using precisely the same words, yet in an evangelistic manner suggesting that they have just invented this ‘great new idea’.

A further figure of importance who suggested ideas that cohere well with those already suggested, was Paulo Freire. In particular, his notion of ‘problem posing education‘ is one that sits well with the idea of turning the questions students have into the ‘text’ of the class. In their quest for relevant knowledge, educators will do well to honour the insights of their predecessors, as well as to apply critical standards to their own work in the present.

A final thought then: a third remarkable feature of the quoted material from Postman and Weingartner is their warning that standards, texts and curricula impede innovation in the classroom. This is a warning that is often repeated, yet teachers and schools work in the midst of neoliberal  accountability demands and a public climate that projects teachers as part of the problem leaving them with few options, it seems. While this seems a dire note on which to conclude, as a new year begins to unfold, critical educators must continue to seek opportunities to teach subversively, if any of their dreams of a transformative education are to be realised.