Critical Pedagogy: Learning to think not memorize

Sit down and pay attention. I am going to tell you what you need to know to pass the upcoming test and then we can proceed to the next set of stuff for the next test. Does this sound familiar? If so, you more than likely attended an American public education institution. The current form of education is analogous to a cow’s processing of food. Cows eat grass, regurgitate it for some further processing, then expel it so new grass can be consumed. In education, students are fed, more likely force fed, information that is regurgitated for a test, maybe for some further processing in a test review then expelled so information for the next test can be administered. THIS IS NOT LEARNING!!!!!!!!!!!! This is memorization or a learn and dump system that could be better termed bovine educational systems. So we can safely say our current education system produces dung. Our current educational system creates a herd of sleeping cattle that thrill seeking teens could easily tip over. So how do we become “woke” from the mind numbing, use and dump form of education. Well Bell Hooks has a way to elevate learners and memorization systems to that of thinkers and question asking people. That is what allows a society to flourish. That will help any nation or community become great. Want to make America great again? Well create a system of thinking, not just learning.

Bell Hooks states that thinking is an action. Any drone worker can sit and listen for an hour but can they think for an hour? Currently, students sit in rows and columns for time blocks while the teacher disseminates information necessary for passing a test. They are not challenged to think and come to fear thinking. Early college students exhibit this characteristic very early. The look of panic mixed with dread and unadulterated fear is a discomforting sight to a college professor. This look is witnessed the first time you cold call a student and ask what they “think”. How do we get students to think and expand their practical understanding of a topic? The action of thinking is precipitated and perpetuated through systems of critical pedagogy. Get students to embrace thinking in class. Use current, practical examples in the classroom. Work with students to understand how the subject of discussion applies and all the different ways it could apply. As a professor of Foreign Policy and Diplomacy, I am provided with a wealth of practical examples for class discussion. It is not good enough to walk students through the discussion. We must walk with the students through the discussion. Don’t give the relevance, work with students to find the relevance. The “aha” moment is a very rewarding event. The rapture of an expanded mind is a powerful tool a student can utilize throughout their entire life. The bottom line is this, teachers should not teach specific details of test material, instead, they should teach how to think. To do this, one must not stand in front of the class and dictate the terms and items of learning. One must be with the class and be a part of the discussion. That is critical pedagogy that will make a difference.

Stir the emotional pot on the first day

As a professor of record, assistant, associate, or full professor, we can face the same dilemma every semester. How do you engage students so they are interested in your subject. You could be a professor who doesn’t care if students are interested and engaged. But then why be a professor if that’s the case? Well it could be that you are employed at an R1 university and research is your primary reason and teaching is a thing you do to get a paycheck. I won’t rant about that this time but will instead pretend all professors care about the student and write about how to get the kids to keep their eyes and ears open for that grueling hour long class.

EMOTIONS………………………..!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Those strange things that get people mad, sad, happy, giddy, and all sorts of feels get folks moving. Main emotions I want to discuss are the knowledge emotions discussed by Paul Silvia of UNC Greensboro. The four specific emotions are surprise, interest, confusion, and awe. One can understand using interest and awe but how about surprise and confusion? Well, surprise and confusion lead to attention and desire to learn. That is the goal of teaching any course at any level, isn’t it? If every student were fully interested and in awe of learning, teaching would be easy. So easy, anyone could do it. But alas, we know that not every student is fully vested in the class subject and only there because the course is ‘required’ to graduate.

When does the process of stirring up these emotions begin? How about on day one! Syllabus day. The waste of 45 minutes covering what any student should be able to read for comprehension but for legalities sake, we will be the reader for them so they don’t miss a detail. The syllabus is that tree killing thing handed out on day one and then forgotten for the rest of the semester. Know why I won’t respond to your email……..BECAUSE IT’S ON THE SYLLABUS!!! Well maybe we could provide a reading that the students want to revisit throughout the semester. Make the syllabus exciting with great descriptions of the course. What will they learn, list all the cool ways they will be shown new information. Don’t threaten with grade scales and attendance policies but create surprise and interest. “This class will cover the fundamentals of foreign policy and diplomacy.” Well isn’t that just great, I figured that from the class title, you know the one called Foreign Policy and Diplomacy. Instead, get them emotionally invested through interest, surprise, confusion and awe. “This class will engage your mind as we travel through the tangled and twisted mazes that states use to create a foreign policy and the forms of diplomacy employed to get others to believe them.” Hmmmm…tangled and twisted mazes? Is this professor the guy from Saw? Getting others to believe them. What does that mean?

Let’s break the routine of a cookie cutter syllabus and get students excited from day one and keep them excited until they graduate. Then let the world deal with them. lol.

BEEEE Yourself

Robin Williams’ voice as the Genie as he tells Aladdin to bee himself echoes in my mind as I think about teaching styles.

Image result for bee yourself

Or, if you prefer, you can engage William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Act – I, Scene – III is when Polonius gives advice to his son Laertes. “Neither a borrower or a lender be.” Yes, I looked this up on a learning machine, or computer if you prefer. (And you can watch the cast of Gilligan’s Island sing the phrase below.) What the heck am I talking about with these opening references? Teaching is not a monochromatic exercise. It is not devoid of a full range of colors, tones, and movements. To sit in a desk and stare at a cut out of a person while hearing a monotone humming is a great way to induce sleep or meditation but not teaching and learning. Sarah Deel discussed how she searched for a style and read to learn new teaching techniques but realized it was her style that needed projection. Her systems and manners allowed students to relate and become interested in the class. Dr. Fowler does not tell us how to teach but offers guidelines that allow each of us to find OUR way of presenting material. She does not suggest clown suites, but that could be fun, nor does she say be too relaxed. She offers a balance to maintain the teaching position and allow for personality to become exhibited. This is how to keep a class engaged in the material without losing yourself.

Seymour Papert gives a parable of time traveling doctors and teachers and how they would perceive the world today. This story is meant to illuminate the lack of progress in education. Why hasn’t pedagogical practices advanced in the last 100 years? It is not fault of that progressive thinker John Dewey. If new techniques and materials are appearing, why don’t educators use them? That is what we must constantly ask ourselves, as well as how giraffes sleep.

Grades-what are they good for?!?!

What grade did you get? By asking that, are we really just asking how well someone did at memorization and regurgitation? What is a grade? What does it mean? How well does it reflect a person’s learning of a subject? I could go on a little longer with these questions but you get the idea. Be careful how your answer, I am grading you there. If professors, teachers, educators want to assess the information a person has retained and provide feedback as to that assessment, we must do better than a test and grade. As a new professor of record, I tell my students they all have an A in the class. To maintain that, they must be active in class participation and provide some evidence they are learning something. As long as a student finishes the semester knowing one new cool and exciting (yes, this is arbitrary) fact, they have succeeded in the class. To assess them, my assessments are not based on specific question answer tests. Rather, I give essay tests where they just need to use the stuff discussed in class and make a strong argument. I don’t have right or wrong answers as long as you use valid information to support your choice. I used to, and still do to an extent, suffer from test anxiety. I no longer become physically ill and have to use the bag (you know what I mean) but I still get anxious and nauseous before taking a test. Trust me, it is no fun filling out a multiple choice sheet with sweaty hands. Why do we, the educational system, put students through this today? The readings offer critiques of our current system and discussion for alternatives but does that matter? We need to break the system, turn it upside down, share ideas on how to get better assessments. I don’t think we are even testing the students but rather testing ourselves on how well we pass on information. If that is the case, just give them answers, then give them an A, they give us a positive SPOT review and we all win.

Yeah for no education where everyone wins (or is it loses but graduates?).

I think this blog is a difficult test this week. I don’t agree with Standard Of Learning tests. I actually think the acronym SOL is very appropriate. I don’t care for current testing or assessment systems still used in higher education, so staying positive is difficult. RISE UP GEDI and CHANGE THE WORLD!! At least the way we test students and ourselves.

Mindful vs Mindless: A no brainer

Even the title seems moronic and absurd. Why would anyone choose less over full? But then again, why would anyone choose to act in the often quoted bon mot that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?” This quote is in itself a form of mindless education. It has been attributed to Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin but I can not find a definitive source. So I too engage in mindless education because repetition of single exposure has made that quote my definition of insanity. Ellen Langer has written of the mindlessness of education and the benefits of being mindful. She says mindlessness as two ways of coming about and they are (1) repetition and single exposure, (2) processing information without questioning alternative ways the information could be understood. To understand how to process information differently, she offers three differing perspectives of why the American Civil War began. Being mindful means we are aware of perspective and individual attributes when engaging in pedagogical practices. For me, this is so ever true in coaching high school athletes. No two people are the same. You must consider the teenagers ability to process the new information, their physical strengths, and their ability to train their bodies to move in specific ways. You must adapt coaching techniques and language so every athlete can improve and reach their potential. This is the same in education and training of the mind. You must present information that is not biased and in a manner that best facilitates knowledge learning. This is not easy but the use of new technologies can be of great assistance. Be mindful though, not all your students may have identical knowledge and skill sets to use the technology. Mindful practices are not easy but the better way than the cookie cutter systems employed today.

Learning without being TAUGHT!!

All electronics are banned from my class. Good luck asking students to look up something in class there professor.

The use of electronics in a classroom can be a mixed bag of results. If the student is engaged with the topic, they will look up more information that adds to a droning lecture. In the realm of political science or international studies, why wouldn’t you want a lap top on every desk? Get the students to engage in real world, real time events that contribute to the subject of the class for that day. If the President is tweeting comments about another head of state, tie that into the class on Foreign Policy and Diplomacy. The use of electronics can be distracting but if you allow yourself the freedom to engage technology and allow the students the freedom to explore the virtual world while in class, you just might find they learn a little more. And, you might not have to work so hard in preparing a long lecture.

Being asked to teach a class on Intelligence and National Security can be a daunting task. How do you get students to be interested in a topic that has so much to cover and so little time to do it? How do you get them to understand the real world implications and applications the class has to offer? Well, you tell them to open their laptops, find an online news source, hopefully not the Onion, and find a news story that has importance towards US National Security concerns. The world is there, the concerns are real, your subject is not totally theoretical, but you have to let go and trust the students. They want to learn, they want to know why it matters.

WOW, they are excited!!!

WOW, their written assignment of stating why their news story is relevant while using the theories taught in class is incredibly thorough!!!

WOW, they are learning!!!

You can lecture for an hour, you can give a test to see if they remember it for a few weeks, but it would be better to know they can use that knowledge after they graduate. That is what technology can offer. That is what the screens can help with in education. Don’t just teach, facilitate learning. I have experienced it as a student and professor. It works if you use it. Don’t be afraid of technology, utilize it for learning. You just might learn something too.

Teach in a galaxy far, far away. You might really enjoy the journey yourself.


The Importance of Digital Sharing

Today’s system of education is still structured in the ways John Dewey warned could lead to a totalitarian regime in the United States. Chairs in a room, arranged in rows and columns so all the students face the front of the class room. At the front stands the teacher. This teachers holds the power to spoon feed the students any information the teacher deems important. All the student need to do is memorize and then, on test day, regurgitate the facts on paper. Is this learning or a memory game? John Dewey envisioned open class rooms that taught children based on interests of the individual, not the institution. This system is put into actual teaching methods across the country but tends to end at the university level. Many classes, if not most, at the undergraduate level are taught in the rigid rows and columns fashion. The professor drones on for 50 to 115 minutes while students avoid repeated cramps in their hands as they attempt to take notes at a pace resembling a starship traveling at warp speed. Other students attempt some form of telepathic learning that is accomplished through a sleeping state while in the class room. Either way, what the heck makes us endure that form of mental anguish to earn or ‘get’ a grade? Well there are options out there. The readings by Gardner Campbell, Doug Belshaw, and Tim Hitchcock enlighten the educators as to possibilities of new forms of not just teaching but the sharing of information with students, peers, and the general public. The use of digital platforms such as blogs, twitter, vlogs, and the like allow for information to be shared at an instant. Immediate feedback allows for ideas to be planted, nurtured, pruned, and then cultivated as strongly rooted concepts for all to enjoy. Why do academic institutions not encourage these options? Why is it restricted to a class called contemporary pedagogy? Why not call it “alternative pedagogical practices for those not tenured and wanting to actually educate rather than just teach”? (I mean no offense to tenured professors, many I have found to be wonderful educators) The use of digital platforms does not remove the people engaged in the online discussion but rather can draw them together. This is the message of this first week of reading and it is a message that should be shared broadly and very often to remind all that teaching is not a job to be endured between academic publications by an exciting way to impact the future through those sitting in your class room.