Public Education: Opportunity or Oppression?

This week’s discussion on Critical Pedagogy comes at a very tumultuous time — the election of a new President and his appointed governmental  leaders means significant changes are upon us. The American Education System is one of the first sectors facing serious reform. Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, looks to overhaul the current public education system by shifting to a more privatized system. Devos reform plan is being met with plenty of opposition from politicians, teachers, and parents alike despite evidence that many public schools are failing and Federal attempts to improve them have yielded no meaningful success. Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you Devos’s plan is will completely fix all the problems with our education system, but I want to look at the situation with regards to critical pedagogy and how the American Education System came to be in its current state.

Critical pedagogy has been defined as a philosophy of education (and social movement) that has developed and applied concepts of critical theory and related traditions to the filed of education. Critical pedagogy advocates view teaching as inherently political, rejecting the neutrality of knowledge, and believe issues of social justice and democracy are related to the teaching/learning process. The concept of critical pedagogy can be traced back to Paulo Freire’s best-known 1968 work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which Freire provides a detailed Marxist class analysis in his exploration of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized as it pertains to education.

Let’s take a quick look at the American Education System. Government-supported and free public schools for all began to be established after the American Revolution. However education was optional and mostly offered at private local institutions or performed at home. This meant that education was not standardized nor was quality education available to everyone. In 1852, Massachusetts was the first U.S. state to pass a contemporary universal public education law requiring every town to create and operate a grammar school. Fines were imposed on parents who did not send their children to school, and the government took the power to take children away from their parents and apprentice them to others if government officials decided that the parents were “unfit to have the children educated properly”. Laws requiring compulsory education spread and now, virtually all states have mandates for when children must begin school and how old they must be before dropping out. Compulsory education laws require children to attend a public or state-accredited private school for a certain period of time with certain exceptions, most notably homeschooling.

Now that we’ve gotten some of the important background information out of the way, let’s discuss how America’s compulsory education laws have created this colonizer-colonized relationship Freire outlines in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. By mandating that all children be educated, the Federal government was now responsible for providing a national educational system that was accessible to everyone. This meant that they now have control over the quality and type of content being disseminated to students. Though the public education system was meant to provide everyone with the same educational opportunities, it has furthur exacerbated the educational gap between people of different racial and socio-economic backgrounds.

The is a growing body of evidence showing that the U.S. public education system does not provide the same quality of education to all students. Additionally, similar research shows that U.S. student academic achievement is falling behind that of other countries.  Much of this is attributed to the poor quality of education provided by the public school system. Now, there are many quality public schools that provide high-quality education but, unfortunately, they are normally found in areas of economic prosperity. Areas of economic disparity, arguably areas where quality education is most desperately needed,  tend to have poor public school systems whose students often fail to meet Federally set academic standards. A factor that furthers this issue is the fact citizens are required to pay taxes supporting the local public schools. For low-income citizens, this means the portion of their income that could have been spent on sending their children to a private or charter school is forcibly invested in public schools. By forcing parents to send their students to school, as well as pay taxes to local public schools, the Federal government is essentially dictating how certain populations will be educated. In the case of those living in low-income areas, they are forced to send their children to the affordable, yet poorer quality, public schools instead of sending them to private or charter schools that may offer a better educational experience.

As it stands, it appears the American Educational System promotes this “colonizer-colonized” relationship, outlined by Freire, which oppresses students via banking education. If we are to free students from this oppression with respect to critical pedagogy, maybe Devos’s reform plan holds some promise? By expanding the options available to families seeking a better education for their kids, parents will have the opportunity send their children to schools offering the best education. Ideally, this will create competition among schools, encouraging them to improve the quality of education they offer. It doesn’t necessarily force students out of public schools, but stimulates the schools to improve while at the same time giving families options if they don’t. It really raises the question on whether continued support of public schools creates opportunity or fosters oppression.

Affect’s Effect on Inclusive Pedagogy

I bet you’re thinking “Why did she use the words affect and effect side by side in the title? It makes no sense!” If this was your first thought, hang in there — I promise it’ll make sense by the time you’re done reading this article. Let me start by defining the word affect as it was used in the title. Affect (pronounced “af-ekt”; noun) is a term  referring to feeling or emotion, and it plays a key role in how an organism (i.e. humans) reacts to a stimuli.  Much of my doctoral research is focused on understanding the relationship between affect and food and how that relationship influences food choice. Additionally, I also study affect’s role in biases as it pertains to interdisciplinary group settings. So when I read Shankar Vendantam’s How “The Hidden Brain” Does The Thinking For Us, I couldn’t help but think about how my research relates to inclusive pedagogy.

In his article, Vendantam mentions that our brain operates in two modes: “pilot” (consciously) and “autopilot” (subconsciously). What’s fascinating is that the brain absorbs and processes information in both modes simultaneously. We don’t realize it, but our brain takes a multitude of explicit (i.e. consciously perceived) and implicit (i.e. subconsciously perceived) factors into account when cataloging information for future use. Even the positive or negative emotions we experience during an interaction with a stimuli can affect how we will respond to it (or with other stimuli we perceive as being related) in the future.

As Vendantam stated “…the mind is hard-wired to ‘form associations between people and concepts’.” From the first moments of fetal existence, everything we encounter or experience shapes how we think for the rest of our lives. In the whole nature vs. nurture debate, it’s safe to say that nurture significantly impacts one’s cognitive processing. What does this mean in the context of pedagogy? Everything.  It means that each and every student is unique in how they behave and interpret the world around them. This impacts their ability to learn and interact with information as well as their fellow classmates. As an educator, it means that your teaching style as well as the manner in which you conduct yourself and your class are greatly influenced by your past experiences. It means that the individual experiences of students in your class will impact their future actions. This is why, as educators, it is vital that we are mindful of ourselves, our students, and the learning environment we establish. Care needs to be taken to ensure our courses are as inclusive as we can make them. With 10 or even 300 unique individuals in a class,  maximizing inclusivity may seem like a daunting challenge. However, by focusing on learner-centered materials and teaching methods, I believe any educator can be successfully implement inclusive pedagogy.

What’s in a name?

When reading the materials for class this week, I began to ask myself “what sort of teacher am I”? Now, this isn’t a question I’ve ever sat and reflected upon before. I struggled to related the writings of Sarah Deel, Seymour Papert, and Shelli Fowler to my personal teaching persona because I never considered myself to have much experience teaching. By that, I mean I haven’t done much “traditional” teaching. The only “traditional” course I’ve ever taught  was a wines course just this past fall, and even then I wasn’t the main instructor. During my master’s program I taught  the odd lecture or seminars (related to extension activities) vs. regularly scheduled courses in a classroom. Additionally, I managed a lab where I taught undergraduate lab workers how to perform all lab activities and testing.

I guess I have yet to find my “teaching voice”. I do recognize that my “non-traditional” experiences are valuable, and there is much I can learn about myself from them. In fact, reflecting upon them has shed some light onto qualities I possess that will define my future teaching self. I think these qualities are best summed up by the fitting acronym E.L.I.Z.A.B.E.T.H. (aka my first name).


Earnest– I’m not distracted by things unrelated to my goals. If my goal is to educated my students, you can guarantee it’ll happen.
Laudable– This applies not to myself, but how I respond to those I teach. I’m great at providing feedback, and praise those who show they are making progress and/or an effort.
Imperfect– I will never claim to be perfect, so I don’t expect my students to be perfect either. I readily admit when I make mistakes or don’t understand something, and would like for my students to feel comfortable doing the same.
Zealous– I’m very enthusiastic and passionate about food science. That passion shines though when I’m instructing, and hopefully will inspire my students to take interest in the subject.
Attentive– I put a lot of thought and attention into everything I do, which I like to think will translate into the attention I will give to helping my students learn.
Bold– Fearless and daring. That’s how I’ve been in pursuit of an education and that’s how I want my students to be in my class. I want them to step out of their comfort zone, and take on challenges to better themselves.
Empowered– The support I’ve had from several key educators throughout my career has given me the confidence to succeed academically. I will strive to help my students feel empowered so they will have the opportunity to  achieve their full potential just as I have.
Tenacious– To achieve your goals, academic or otherwise, you have to be tenacious. I have always exhibited determination in pursuit of my academic goals, even when faced with adversity. I hope my experiences enable me to relate to my students’ struggles, and assist me in helping them overcome any adversity they may face.
Harmonious– Years of life in academia have taught me one thing: you need to have balance in your life or you’re going to be miserable and never succeed. I want my teaching to be harmonious, offering options that balance the needs of my students with the goals of the course. I want them to feel they are learning something valuable from my teaching just as I hope I can learn something valuable from them. If mutual learning is happening, I’ll consider my teaching voice to be in perfect sync.


Choose Your Own [Learning] Adventure

If you ask any educator to define their teaching style, you’re bound to receive a plethora of responses. It’s likely they will categorize their style as “traditional” or “contemporary”, and then proceed define it by the practices employed to engage students. There will be mention of in-person lectures, virtual classrooms, interactive modules or labs, and much, much more. The one commonality among all the elaborate explanations is that they will conclude the the exact same claim- that this particular method is the BEST. But for whom is it the best: the educator or the student? Would all students in a class agree with the educator’s teaching method?

The answer is no, they likely would not.

Just as there are a multitude of teaching methods, many learning styles have also been recognized. I did a little research, and found there are at least seven learning styles (visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social, solitary) that comprise an individual’s learning profile.  An individual’s preferred styles guide the way they learn, internally represent experiences, and how information is recalled. It seems logical to assume that no single teaching style can successfully or effectively engage every student to learn. So if there isn’t a “blanket” method, how is one educator expected to effectively engage a whole classroom!?


Personally, I think educators will be able to engage more students with a hybrid style I like to call “Choose Your Own [Learning] Adventure”. The inspiration for this style comes from a game-book series I read during my youth titled Choose Your Own Adventure. Each adventure-based story was written in second-person, allowing the reader to assume control of decisions that impact the plot’s outcome. I believe that learning should be presented in a similar manner. Instead of the educator dictating a singular learning path, they should provide a variety of options and allow the student to dictate their own learning adventure. Educators can do this by providing materials/experiences geared towards engaging each of the seven learning styles. By doing so, students can select control their learning experience and dictate the own unique learning path.

choose3Now, do I believe the “Choose Your Own [Learning] Adventure” method will result in the success of every student? Absolutely not. Similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure books, not all learning paths lead to a “happy ending”. There is always risk involved when one assumes responsibility for their own outcomes. The path to learning is riddled with unforeseen pitfalls and booby traps that can fell many an adventurer. Still, I think such a method is an intriguing alternative that may provide [student] adventurers with the opportunity to actively engage in the learning experience. However, there will always exist a select group of adventurers who prefer to have a “guide” outline their path for them.


Assessment: Providing Answers or Just More Questions?

Assessment has always and continues to play such an integral role in education. To educate is to not only disseminate information, but to ascertain if that knowledge has been absorbed and understood. I mean…what’s the point of teaching anything if it isn’t retained and used later? The present assessment system in place is the traditional grading scale. Students are given grades based off of their ability to “jump” through academic hoops (homework, quizzes, tests, etc.). Is this system truly effective? Does it give educators a full picture of that students academic comprehension?

In Alfie Kohn’s The Case Against Grades, the argument is made that grading is inherently problematic. Rather than motivating students to learn, it tends to have the opposite effect and can be rather discouraging. Kohn furthur argues that grading accurately quantify the quality of a student’s learning, nor does it reflect their true ability to achieve. To some extent, I agree with this. Not all students are the same, and the educational methods used to teach them aren’t equally effective for everyone. Some students will naturally do worse than other, which will be reflected in their grading assessment. Receiving a bad grade can prove very discouraging to students, especially for those whom this becomes a “norm”. However, a poor grade should not be treated as a point of shame. Rather, it can be a useful tool serving as a signal to educators that their teaching methods aren’t reaching particular students; educators can then reassess their approach and attempt to reach the student. Additionally, I will agree that grades are not reflective of achievement. Plenty of students are intelligent enough and capable of learning, but often that isn’t reflected by their grades. I recently went through a battery of tests to substantiate my ADHD diagnosis, and many of them were designed to assess my ability to achieve in certain areas (math, reading & language comprehension, writing, etc.). These tests revealed I was more than capable of achieving well in these areas, but by actual performance ability didn’t always match up.  I believe grades are the same way, a useful measurement of performance but a poor reflection of  achievement.

I want to go back to discussing  the topic of motivation. I loved the animated video The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Dan Pink and how it illustrated motivation. The part I found most fascinating from this video was the depiction of the traditional motivational system- the tiered system where the largest rewards go to the top performers and the the lowest performers are not or minimally rewarded. Though studies have shown this system works when solely mechanical skills were involved in performance, it had the exact opposite effect when rudimentary cognitive skills were involved. Academic performance consists of the combination of mechanical and cognitive abilities. Based off Pink’s logic, a traditional tiered motivational system where the highest performers are rewarded and the lowest are not (i.e. grading) is not a wholly effective motivational system for student academic performance. Academic performance is not a simple straight-forward task; it’s incredibly complex and high-stakes rewards don’t effectively motivate the highest level of performance.

Now, do I have an answer on how to best motivate students to perform better academically? No, I do not. Will there ever be a conclusive answer to my previous question? I highly doubt it. What can we do to better assess academic performance and motivation to learn? My best guess would be to constantly investigation and  reassess motivation as it evolves with the evolution of studentkind.

Mindful Learning: A Path Out of the Educational Death Valley

What does it mean to be a mindful learner? If you’d asked me this as a child, I’d have told you it meant listening very intently to what my teacher was saying then being able to recall what what said at a later date . My teachers would likely argue this wasn’t something I practiced, but that’s something I’ll touch on a little later on in this post. As I progressed on my academic journey, I came to believe mindful learning meant taking what was being taught and applying it contextually to solve problems in the world around me vs. just being able to  regurgitate the information when prompted. Now, as an aspiring educator taking this GEDI course, the definition of mindful learning is becoming increasingly more complex than what my younger self could even conceive.

A great visual of "mindfulness" Source:

Source: https://mindfullearningandliving.

First, I want to touch on what I learned about mindful learning this week. According to Ellen Langer in Mindful Learning,  mindfulness is defined as “as a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things, and sensitive to context”. Similarly, in her book on mindful learning, Langer lists three characteristics to mindfulness: the continuous creation of new categories, openness to new information, and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective”. These three characteristics all seem to support the “new method” of teaching proposed by Langer, whom suggests teaching should be based on “…an appreciation of both the conditional, or context-dependent, nature of the world and the value of uncertainty”.

This new method of teaching really resonates with me. Whether it’s due to my INTJ personality, the sign I was born under (Pisces), or the fact I’m a scientist, I have always described my perceptions of the world as “fluid”. To me, pretty much everything is a shade of grey-there are very few things I consider black or white. As knowledge evolves, so do my opinions. To me, it seems only natural that learning should follow a similar pattern. With new knowledge should come new ideas, new context, and new approaches to how things were done previously. Personally, it seems that being a mindful learner means being actively aware of knowledge as it becomes available while critically evaluating its potential to be applied in a variety of present and future contexts.

Remember when I said I’d touch on my (perceived) lack of ability to mindfully learn? Well Ken Robinson’s How To Escape Education’s Death Valley is the perfect “segway” into that topic. In Robinson’s video, he briefly mentioned Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder(ADHD), how a growing number of people are being diagnosed with it, and how he believes it is a symptom of our educational system. Now, I’m not going to delve into whether or not ADHD is a manifestation of the education system. However, I am going to discuss my experience with ADHD as it pertains to mindful learning.

Though bright, I was a considered an average student. I didn’t perform well on tests, homework, or anything that our current educational system uses as a measure of a students’ learning capacity. I will say I excelled in reading and English classes where I found myself incredibly engaged by the material, but I did poorly in mathematics-a class I found horribly boring. As it turns out, I was diagnosed with ADHD midway through my master’s program. In order to validate the diagnosis, I was required to go through a full battery of psychological, intelligence, and achievement testing. Going into the testing, I was under the impression these tests would be similar to those I took in school-they’d be used to see if I met a benchmark for my capacity to learn. In this context, however, the tests were used diagnostically to assess where I was at rather than tell me I didn’t meet a certain “bench mark”. Robinson discussed this subject and how our present educational system uses tests as a benchmark rather than as a diagnostic tool. He made a very valid point about education: it is not a mechanical system, it’s a human system. Testing appears to be one of the many paths leading to the “Educational Death Valley”. Unfortunately, our current educational system seems to be riddled with paths that lead students to this valley-a place where effective learning no longer occurs.

To this day, I firmly believe my educational experience would have been drastically improved had I 1) been diagnosed with ADHD earlier and 2) had a path out of the Educational Death Valley. I think that if we, as educators, can be more cognizant of the pitfalls within the educational system, then we will better recognize when students journey down the path into “Death Valley” and we can be ready to engage them in mindful learning to show them the path out.