Cathy N. Davidson

I’m often asked why I start with pedagogy, given the larger institutional reforms and social ambitions that HASTAC and the new Futures Initiative program advocate. If your goal is equality in a world where inequality is structural and violent and pervasive, you can at least start with your classroom as a place in which to model a better way. Rather than feeling overwhelmed and oppressed by the unfairness of the world, be an activist in the realm where you have control. You can change to a pedagogy of liberation today. These four ways are all simple to implement. And if you make sure to add “meta-cognition” — you discuss with your students what it means to change power relations when you have the opportunity — you also instill learning and life lessons that persist far beyond your classroom.

Remember:  your students have had at least twelve years of practice/indoctrination in mastering the formal education methods where hierarchy and control displace all the complex, experience-based, interactive learning methods (i.e. the kind we all use in our lives outside of formal education when we really want to learn how to do something). Because they have been rewarded for credential-centered and teacher-centered learning in school, some will think you are trying to get out of work or pulling a fast one by having them do the thinking and taking responsibility for their own learning. So I typically note that these are extensively researched theories, practices, and methods designed to help students learn not for the test or the grade but for the best possible retention and application of complex ideas that they will use in this class, in other classes, and in their lives beyond school.

All of this is true and it is useful to state it up front. If you are untenured, it is even useful to put this into a syllabus and to cite some great sources. HASTAC and Hybrid Pedagogy are two online communities and peer-reviewed open publications with lots of research and methodology in this area, but the theory goes back at least as far as Dewey, and the research is extensive.

NB:  These methods work.

Why start with pedagogy? Here are four reasons, followed by four easy methods:

1. It is in your control. There are so many huge and pressing and overwhelming issues facing higher education and our society, most of which require enormous changes in funding, policy, priority, reward systems, and accreditation structures — not to mention huge social realignments of race, gender, sexuality, income, citizenship, and on and on. No one can accomplish all that needs to be accomplished. We all need to be working (and are working) to change structural inequalities at every level. While we do, we’re not off the hook in our individual lives and in our professional practice.

The classroom is one of the least egalitarian spaces on the planet. There is abundant research on who gets into college, who gets out, what kind of college you go to, and how all relates to income inequality, racism, and gender issues. There is also plenty of research on how little it takes (roughly 20% participation) for a teacher to believe there is “full participation” and that “everyone is discussing” in a seminar. There is also plenty about the disproportionate time spent by race and gender talking in class, getting attention, grades, recommendations, responses to queries, all of it.  And, without building in a structure of equality, the typical “unstructured” classroom replicates social inequalities (again lots of research on this) and, indeed, becomes a site for modeling inequality. Who gets to talk? Where is the teacher? Who has the knowledge? Even in seminars with “discussion,” who hogs the floor, who is the boss, who is too ashamed to speak?

Learning inside formal education is different than successful learning almost anywhere else — and it is almost universally effective at learning social protocols for who has knowledge, who has power, but not so much for deeply transformative learning for every student. The student who is not likely to specialize in the field and go on to be a professor is typically the most marginalized by our traditional educational practices. Of course there are stunning educational successes in every classroom, but the structured inequality of the classroom is an obstacle great teachers, great students, and great learning must fight against. That does not happen by chance or by willing it so, but by thinking through how your own classroom is structured, overtly and covertly, and thinking about how it can be restructured according to the principles you say you espouse as a professor. And it’s easy (see “how” part of this discussion below): You can restructure your classroom tomorrow.  You may not solve the adjunct crisis tonight but you can rethink pedagogy and enact change in how your students learn — and change lives tomorrow. Pedagogy is your responsibility, and you can change how you teach and learn immediately, in ways large and small, in virtually any institutional setting.

2. It is free. You don’t need any technology to transform your classroom from a credential-centered or professor-centered environment (information and ideas emanating from you to your students) to a student-centered, interactive, engaged, research-based, goal driven, egalitarian classroom. You can use as much or as little technology as you want. (I start with index cards, Google Docs, and an interactive website that allows students to publish their work and comment on one another’s work publicly. That can be building a WordPress site, creating a Group on HASTAC, or using available collaborative sites such as Hypothes.is).

3. It works. I don’t know anyone who has tried simple student-centered techniques who hasn’t had success — either spectacular success or just better luck than they have been having with a given class. I find any of the four solutions below, used at any point in a class, changes the whole temperature of the room. I’ve also done this in a group of five coworkers, in a class of 20 students, and in the Philadelphia 76’ers stadium with 6000 high school teachers. Also, the more you think about how giving power to others enriches everyone’s learning, lightens your own load, and makes everyone less alienated, the more you see why democracy is preferable to oligarchy. You are not just modeling a classroom practice but a social ideal. That gives meaning and affect to all the other conditions of social inequality you may want to address. But even if you have no interest in social equality, as the work of physicist Eric Mazur at Harvard shows, just putting student inquiry at the center of a classroom helps everyone learn better, deeper, and more. It is just a better method for learning, in the short run, and a better goal for education, in the long run.

4. It is gratifying and gives you energy and inspiration for the bigger institutional battles. Social activism and institutional change are difficult. Victories should be celebrated because we need to keep our spirit up to fight against legislators cutting funding and programs and tenure; the horrific adjunct crisis that must be reversed immediately; the soaring cost of tuition and the immoral tuition debt with which we saddle the next generation; the irrelevant curriculum designed for the Taylorist era of the assembly line not for the world we live in now; the standardized metrics that test only how well prepared you are to take standardized tests (in itself largely income based); the soaring educational inequality that exacerbates income inequality. Etc. There is so much work to do. So why not see your students thrive, see them enjoying their learning, see them becoming engaged in ways they were not before, see them learning and designing learning that is far more ambitious and thoughtful and deep than you had thought possible. All that is gratifying and inspiring. It is joyful. We need joy and positive energy to fight all the battles ahead.

Here are four easy methods for turning any classroom, of any size, in any field, into a student-centered, engaged classroom.

1. Think-Pair-Share. Approximately 5 minutes of class time; can be done at any point in a class. At some point in every class and every lecture, I use this technique I learned from a second grade teacher but have also seen in medical schools (it’s analogue is See One. Do One. Teach One. And then I add: Share one.) In Think-Pair-Share, you hand out index cards and pencils (this is not necessary but it somehow sets the mood fast and fast is important in TPS). You set a timer for 90 seconds (really, 90). And you pose a question. For example, if this were a class on “Why Start With Pedagogy?”, I would ask everyone to take 90 seconds to jot down three things (there are no right or wrong answers) they do in their classrooms to engage students. When the timer sounds, I then have students work in pairs for another 90 seconds in a very specific, ritualized way. Their objective in this 90 seconds is to, together, come up with one thing to share with the whole group — it can be a synthesis of various comments on both cards, but one agreed upon thing to share.

But before that each person has to hear the other. One member of the pair reads their three things while the other is silent; then the second person reads to a silent listener. Hearing your own voice in a classroom — and witnessing being heard — is the beginning of taking responsibility for your own learning. It’s not only about meeting someone else’s criteria but setting the bar for yourself. There is also something about the ritual of writing down, then reading to someone else, that allows the introvert to speak up in a way that avoids the panic of being called on and having to speak extemp before a group. It is extremely egalitarian — it structures equalityThe final 90 seconds involves going rapidly around the room and having one person in each pair read their contribution.  After this, you can go anywhere, do anything. But involvement is already 100%. A triumph. In a very large lecture class, I often have a Google Doc ready and “share” is everyone writing their one thing on the Doc. I like to make this a public contribution so we do it as an open Google Doc or we post it to the website.  For more details, look at my article, “Single Best Way to Transform Classrooms of Any Size!”

2. Everyone Raise Your Hand. No extra time needed. The great science fiction writer Samuel Delany was shocked when he began teaching at Tufts University to find that he’d ask a question and some students would simply look ashamed and cringe. In an interview with me, he says:

Don’t you realize that every time you don’t answer a question, you’re learning something? You’re learning how to make do with what you got, and you’re learning how not to ask for a raise … you’re learning how to take it. That’s not good! That’s not good! So, from now on, whenever I ask a question, everybody’s got to put their hand up. I don’t care whether you know the answer or not. You have to put your hand up … I’m going to call on you and if you don’t know the answer, I want you to say nice and clear: I don’t know the answer to that, Professor Delany, but I would like to hear what that person has to say. And we’ll pass it on. And so this is what we started doing. And I said, whenever I ask a question, everybody put their hand up. I don’t care whether you know or not … You need to teach people they are important enough to say what they have to say. (“The Single Best Method For Class (Or Any Kind of) Participation (Thx SciFi Genius Samuel Delany)”)

So now I do that, I ask everyone to raise their hand. It works. It’s funny, it’s embarrassing, but it is a training, a practice, in participation. It also means people prepare better because they know they cannot hide behind their own shame or indifference. By the way, I learned this technique last semester from a student in our student-designed “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education” class.

3. Question Stacking. No extra time needed. I learned this from a student too, and they learned it from the Occupy movement. It’s an alternate way of structuring equality in the classroom to the Delany method above — and it works great in department meetings too. To ensure no one hogs the discussion, when someone has a comment to make you write their name down on a sheet. You go through the sheet and ask for comments. No one asks a second question or makes a second comment until everyone else on the sheet has gone first. Also, set a time limit of one minute per question and have a timer set. People will adjust to the time quickly. It makes a difference, sets a practice of consideration, respect, and egalitarianism in a structured way.

4. The Exit Ticket. Three minutes of class time. I learned this from a student last semester too.  End every class three minutes early — set a timer if you need to. It’s an important practice in itself.  On those index cards, have every student write the one question that is still on their minds at the end of the class. Ask that it be full sentences and signed. Have them also add the question, signed (if your university permits) to a public, open Google Doc that you can share with the other students in the class and the world (if you wish). Everyone leaves with a thought written out carefully which makes for deeper reading. Everyone sees the questions that remain and that causes a different kind of post-class introspection. You as a professor can read all their questions and use that to help shape the next class period — perhaps tomorrow’s Think-Pair-Share. If you have 200-seat classes, this substitutes for a pop quiz and for attendance. It is efficient, engaged, useful, on many levels.

These are just four of hundreds of ways to restructure your classroom for student success, for learning, for equality, for engagement, and, if you are inclined, for activism. The main thing is that, rather than despair about the things too big to change, start changing the ones within your control and that can make a difference in the lives of your students — and in your own life too. Let’s get started!


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Critical Digital Pedagogy Copyright © 2020 by Cathy N. Davidson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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