Sean Michael Morris and Chris Friend

Teachers don’t teach; instructors don’t really instruct. The lecture-based course fell out of favor years ago, and we know today to bring front and center the role students play in their own learning. “Education,” says Paulo Freire, “becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed). When critical and independent thinking are the most valuable products of learning, we must ask and make space for students to work and create on their own. It isn’t enough for them to take notes and then recite; learners must invent — not just the products of their knowledge, but also their own learning.

These lofty goals require risk. If we give students the freedom to choose their own path, they might choose poorly or make mistakes on our watch. But we must be willing to allow them the challenge of this authority, the dignity of this risk, and the opportunity to err and learn from their mistakes. They learn and gain expertise through experimentation. We are given responsibility for a classroom because we are experts in our fields, which we become after years of work and experience, learning things that are very difficult to put in a textbook or instruction manual. These experiences require time, and often frustration. We have to try, and risk failure, so that we also can learn.

The words experience and expert both come from the Latin word experiri meaning “to try”. If we want our students to become experts, we have an obligation to give them the opportunity to try things, without the real danger that otherwise exists outside a classroom environment. Our students must have the chance — and the compulsion — to experiment in their thinking and with their work. That’s what school is for. Because one day it ends, and everyone involved in this grand experiment, both experienced and novice, must become experts in their own right.

If we decide that our classrooms are places where trying happens, then we transform them into laboratories; and in a laboratory, with happy people of varying skill sets working side by side, anyone can make a discovery. As lab managers, then, we do not approach our work as “I’ve solved this problem, let’s see if you can too” but as, “here’s a problem with many possible solutions.” Everyone is invited to try, allowed to fail, encouraged to succeed. Our job becomes making sure that all the appropriate equipment is available for success to occur.

They don’t need us to let them do what we hope they will do in our classes. Our students need to work through each experience on their own apprenticed terms, not on ours. In “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year,” Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz explain, “freshmen build authority not by writing from a position of expertise but by writing into expertise.” And because “being a novice allows students to be changed by what they learn,” we have an obligation to our students — indeed, a mandate — to make our classrooms sites of trial and experimentation, rather than routine and repetition.

There’s only one of us, but plenty of them, so is it really our classroom? When we view a class as “ours”, the term brings with it an inherent sense of ownership and even domination. We want students to have control over their learning. But because they’re in school, an institution built around hierarchy, at most they can have the illusion of control within the limits set by the instructor or the institution.

This is the fly in the ointment of critical pedagogy. Teachers must teach students to think for themselves, to feel empowered, and to cultivate their own learning processes. And yet, to teach that is to assert the educator’s own authority. Even when we step aside from the podium, the act reminds everyone in the room under whose power the podium really is, and who has the ability to resume that position at will.

Good teachers bemoan the separation of instructor and student, and ply our trade to bring student voices into academic conversations. We may make efforts to publish student work, involve students in conferences and discussions, create student-led courses, let students set class rules or evaluation standards, and more. But too often these efforts reinforce the division they mean to overcome. A good teacher works to give students the space, the opportunity, and the motivation to learn on their own. The best teachers upend the hierarchy and strategically use their authority to make teachers unnecessary. In her recent blog post about listening to learners, the author reticulatrix states,

Some people feel excluded from dominant discourse. Some do not want to contribute to the dominant discourse. Some of us are fed up of being consistently on the wrong end of power structures with the academy. Furthermore, many of us have already been doing just fine creating our own conversations and resource repositories … it now seems to me even more than before, that academics are often busy talking to themselves inside their own bubbles.

Learners of all stripes are having conversations about learning, networked collaboration, and open education entirely outside the academic environment. In fact, many of these conversations eschew academics because of the myriad complexities those “authorities” bring into discussions of teaching and learning. Learners are talking about learning, and they might share with educators… if educators are willing to listen more than speak.

Teachers should not be gatekeepers for student voices, and once we suppose we are, we miss half the conversation. When teachers serve as gatekeepers, when we tell students explicitly what they should learn for our courses, when we establish requirements or procedures for their learning, we aren’t functioning as teachers; we aren’t allowing students to engage in genuine, self-directed, natural learning. We are instead being scriptwriters. The more elaborate direction, specific instruction, and constraining requirements we provide, the less our students rely on themselves to think and learn. They work to adopt our mindset, to decipher and satisfy our expectations, and to gain our knowledge and experience, rather than using their own curiosity and their own experimentation to risk learning something new… and we stifle learning. Instead, we need to be in the business of manufacturing opportunities.

Classrooms murmur. They hum and buzz — with experimentation, with discoveries at all scales. Underneath the lectures, slideshows, and exams, voices rustle. These are the voices of students, learners of all shapes and variety, online and on-ground, higher ed and K-12, formal and lifelong. These voices don’t talk just of course materials and content. They talk about what is taught, and how, and about what and how they want to learn. They talk about the things that matter to them. Students have plenty to say about learning, about the failings of higher education, about their own futures and careers. If we think they’re only concerned with life outside of school, we’re mistaken; learners have a deeper investment in our teaching than we do.


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Critical Digital Pedagogy Copyright © 2020 by Sean Michael Morris and Chris Friend is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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