The National Teaching & Learning Forum

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Online ISSN: 2166-3327

Editor's Note, Volume 22 Number 6

Unlike cooperative learning or any of the other approaches to teaching usually described as pedagogies, critical pedagogy can’t be understood as a technique. Critical pedagogy—the focus of this issue’s lead feature—is a disposition, an attitude, a philosophy. Some describe it, perhaps accurately, as an ideology, and it’s there in its political associations where the rubs for and against critical pedagogy begin. Though this line of thinking has a much longer history, it’s the 1970 educational classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire that forms the cornerstone of critical pedagogy theory. Freire’s thinking arose in the context of political oppression in Brazil, and his answer to that oppression involved creating a social literacy strongly influenced by Marxist thinking. Hence, the critical pedagogy following from Freire has an undeniable leftist slant, which critical pedagogues do not dispute, but see as reformist. Their view sees an authentic college education as more than preparation for a good job within the status quo. It accepts the idea that many aspects of the status quo, while they may have become endemic in American society, don’t reflect the highest ideals of democracy and social justice. They make no bones about that and direct their teaching toward understanding those imbalances and building a sense of agency directed toward their correction. For critical pedagogues, education is political, and we are kidding ourselves if we think otherwise.

Interestingly, Paulo Freire’s work grew out of efforts to increase literacy in Brazil, and literacy of all kinds remains key to any lasting social agency. For that reason, John Webster’s (University of Washington) piece on working with English language learners—many from China—in learning to write in English makes a nice companion to an introduction to critical pedagogy. Increasing agency, after all, remains a fundamental goal of all faculty, whatever their politics. As it turns out, the advice John has for meeting this challenge seems apt to working with all novice writers in English, even native speakers.

Agency means a great many things. Helping students find a voice through writing is only one. Agency also comes in expanding students’ creative potential, but as this issue’s CREATIVITY CAFÉ by Sweet, Blythe, and Carpenter of Eastern Kentucky University makes clear, creativity can seem scary. It’s a fear of the new and of those crazy people who continually ask “Why not?” when the here and now seems good enough. But as with a lot of fears that stand in the way of new learning and the acquisition of agency, education can and should dispel it.

The more we learn about the brain or the mind, the more powerful we find it to be. But as it turns out, some of what we seem to have known for a long time we’re only now getting around to situating within what we know about effective teaching and learning. Our piece on the research of Jared Ramsburg and Robert Youmans describes their findings about the effect of a short period of Vipassana breathing meditation on students’ academic performance. Over and over in a series of experiments, they found that a mere six minutes of such focus gave a measurable boost to students’ performance on an examination about the lecture they’d just heard.

Finally, we’ve been hearing for years about the death of the lecture, what a bad way it is to teach and so on. In this issue’s AD REM … Marilla Svinicki quickly reviews all the good things that lecture can do that other modes of teaching can’t and then suggests ways that technology can help lectures overcome their inherent shortcomings.

Agency, yes, agency—that’s what we’re here to encourage, isn’t it?

—James Rhem

Access the full issue of the National Teaching and Learning Forum, October 2013here.