Have I lost my empathy?

I connected so much with the article ‘When do medical students lose their empathy?’ found here – http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2013/10/medical-students-lose-empathy.html- that I thought I’d start writing on empathy and see where my thoughts take me. As I read the article above I realized, once again, that the degree to with I empathize or feel connected to situations … Continue reading Have I lost my empathy?

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Pedagogy Has A Context Outside Of The Classroom

In the classroom, we tend to ignore, or forget, about the main roots of education, which are related to facilitating a progressive change in the world. Effective pedagogy must be framed within social, economical, and by default, political contexts. Student learning can be more profound if we, pedagogists,  guide students to use their knowledge base, … Continue reading Pedagogy Has A Context Outside Of The Classroom

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Critical Pedagogy in Engineering Classroom

Critical pedagogy is the education movement aimed developing students into socially and politically aware individuals, helping them recognize authoritarian tendencies, empowering them to act against injustice, and employing democratic and inclusive classroom practices. The term “critical pedagogy” has been used by educators to refer to a broad range of pedagogies that employ critical theory, feminist theory, queer theory, anti-racist theory, multicultural education, and inclusive pedagogies. In this post, I will discuss some of the critical pedagogy practices employed by Dr. Donna Riley (currently a professor at Virginia Tech) while teaching a class called “Engineering Thermodynamics” as Smit College, an all women college, during Spring and Fall semesters of 2002. It should be noted that Riley uses liberative pedagogy as an inclusive term for critical pedagogy, feminist pedagogy, and radical pedagogy. Some of the classroom practices employed by Riley included:

Connecting learning to students’ experiences. Students learn the most from examples which they can relate to, based on their social and cultural backgrounds. Hence, Riley used a wide variety of thermodynamic systems in class as examples. Also, the textbook for the class was chosen such that it contained a wide variety of examples of thermodynamic systems.

Democratic classroom practices. Students were assigned teaching roles to teach parts of the course to the entire class. They were not only asked to develop modules to teach the class but also encouraged to relate them to their own lives. Also, the seating arrangement reflected the democratic classroom practices. Instead of sitting in rows facing the instructor, students were asked to sit in circles with each student facing and talking to the entire class instead of just the instructor.

Taking responsibility for one’s own learning. Students were required to take responsibility for their learning in that they were asked to do metacognitive reflections on what was working or not working for them in the class. They were also asked to do assignments in which they reflected on their learning of various aspects of the course.

Ethics discussions.In order for students to be develop as ethically responsible individuals, they need to learn the impact which an engineer’s work has on the society. To develop such an ethical awareness, Riley and her class watched and critiqued videos on “energy in society”, critiqued the textbook used for the class by analyzing the aspects (e.g. alternate energy, environmental applications of thermodynamics, energy system in developing countries) which were missing from the textbook. Also, students were assigned ethics problems to reflect on.

Breaking the Western hegemony. In order to decenter the male hegemony of the Western civilization, Riley discussed examples of thermodynamic inventions done by non-Western and non-male inventors. Also, some of the assignments required students to make interracial and intercultural connections in thermodynamics.

Normalizing mistakes.By normalizing mistakes in the process of learning, Riley fostered a classroom environment in which students were comfortable attempting problems (sometimes even on the black board) in class and learning from their mistakes. Another strategy used by her for normalizing mistakes was acknowledging when she herself did not know something.

Discussion of history and philosophy. Riley discussed the history and philosophy of the development of thermodynamic laws to demonstrate to the students that the process of discovery does not lead one to an absolute truth. Instead, making mistakes is acceptable in the process of discovery. Students were also required to reflect on how the knowledge of history and philosophy of thermodynamics helped their learning.

Assessment techniques. The assessment of students put a greater emphasis on participation. Moreover, a flexible grading system was adopted. Students were asked to work in pairs on some exams. In the second offering of the course, problems were given to the students only as a learning exercise and not as an assessment tool. Moreover, continual course feedback was taken from students to improve their learning experience.

One of the critiques of critical pedagogy is that it does not provide specific classroom practices. It just suggests that teaching and learning should be contextual and aim at raising critical awareness among students. A lot of times educators do not know how to apply critical pedagogy in their classes, especially in hard and applied sciences, due to a lack of knowledge about how to apply it. I hope the practices noted above can be adopted to and adapted for any classroom and any discipline.

P.S. The complete paper in which Riley discusses her experiences of applying liberative pedagogy in her classes can be found from: Riley, D. (2003). Employing liberative pedagogies in engineering education. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 9(2), 137–158.

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She is not disabled. She has a disability.

I am conflicted. I do not know how to begin recording my many thoughts about inclusion and the underpinnings of our judgments. I have two personal ties to these topics, through experiences as a female pursuing science and through another (often unmentioned) stigmatized characteristic: disabilities. Claude Steele’s “Identity and Intellectual Performance” showed just a small sample…

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Inclusive Classroom Lessons from the Movie Freedom Writers

(A still from the movie Freedom Writers. Image Source: http://images.amazon.com/images/G/01/dvd/aplus/freedomwriters/freedomwriters6-hi.jpg)

In my Education and Anthropology class last Thursday, we watched the movie Freedom Writers. I am a movie buff (In fact, based on my innumerous references to movies in class while teaching, last week one of my students, Nicholas, asked me, “Ashish, are you the movie guy?”) but very few movies make me think as deeply as this one did. Based on a real-life story, the movie tells the tale of a high school in Long Beach, California. Erin Gruwell joins the school as the new English teacher. She is given the responsibility to teach English to “at risk” students who come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and most of them have a long history of racial and gang violence. They do not see a future for themselves and do not see how school is helping them in any way. Gruwell, a first time teacher, works her way through the administrative struggles to ignite her students’ passion for learning and helps them envision a future for themselves. How does she do it? Through inclusive pedagogy! She teaches us the following four important lessons about creating inclusive classrooms:

Validate students’ capacity to learn: The first and foremost requirement of making a classroom inclusive of students’ needs is to have enough trust in the students that they can learn and succeed. We fail the students a lot before they encounter actual failure if we do not lay our trust in their abilities. When the entire school treated her students as a burden, Erin believed in her students’ abilities and kept putting in efforts to provide new learning experiences to her students. She even took up two part-time jobs after her regular job so that she could buy books for her students and take them to museum trips.

Listen and understand:To make the teaching inclusive, the teacher needs to listen to students’ needs and understand their needs by being cognizant of the sociocultural backgrounds they come from. For assignments, Erin Gruwell asked students to tell their own stories through an anonymous journal. These stories not only helped Erin to know her students better but also increased her students’ confidence as they started believing that their own stories are as important as any other story and others need to know their stories.

Have instructional materials relevant to one’s background: Students, in any classroom, come from diverse backgrounds and the same educational material might not cater to the needs of all the students. Erin Gwen soon realized that her students did not see value in learning about Homer and his works. Hence, she changed the texts to the ones about the lives of teenagers in times of violence and war so that her students could relate their own experiences with the texts they were reading.

Bring in your own personal identity to relate to students: While a teacher needs to have deep sympathy with their students’ oppressed histories, they also need to empathize with the students to relate with them on a higher level. And this empathy can only be evoked by the teacher if they bring their own personal identity and history to classrooms and relate others’ intense experiences with their own culture and identity. Erin Gruwell does that almost perfectly when she brings her own Jewish identity and the history of Jewish oppression to relate it with her students’ identities and histories of oppression and violence.

In Erin’s case, most of her students had a history of oppression and violence and all of there were identified as “at risk” students. Students in our classroom might not fall into those categories. However, we can still make the classroom more inclusive of students by understating their identities and aspirations. As, educators we need to understand the classroom context and devise our instruction accordingly. And that way, we can move toward “inclusive classrooms” in true sense of the terms.

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