Engaged pedagogy

On Saturday, I delivered a talk on applying critical thinking skills in the classroom to 450 teachers in Islamabad. Here is the write up I’ve sent them.

Is this image familiar? It certainly spoke to me. This is how I felt about education as a child in Pakistan but not later, when in an International Baccalaureate sixth form college. As a student of the International Baccalaureate whose base was weak in critical thinking (thanks to the private Pakistani schools I had attended), I struggled. But even today, I remember much of what I learnt. I retained it. I still remember my tedious critical thinking classes, taught in the form of a compulsory subject called Theory of Knowledge. I still use what I learnt there. Did I just get lucky? Or was it because I was no longer part of a passive education system?

We, Pakistani teachers, are passive educators and today I appeal to you to band together to get rid of this system for it has too many disadvantages. It promotes authoritarianism, suppresses thoughtful inquiry and has a negative impact on creativity & imagination. Furthermore, it doesn’t teach students how to “learn to learn” or make informed decisions. It creates a culture of dependency and it certainly doesn’t motivate. Can we even call this real education? I certainly can’t.

Children are born critical thinkers. We, the adults, actively suppress that skill they are born with. According to bell hooks, “thinking is an action” but our children are taught to fear it at home and in schools. As a result, they reach college unprepared and struggle with critical thinking courses. Many are unable to think critically and some are unwilling. They are scared of philosophy and say it is “useless”. It is a struggle to teach them and it is a struggle for them to learn something so basic: how to think. Should it have to be?

Currently, we live in a culture where lecturing is the norm and we believe that it is important to lecture. It is, after all, a skill they must learn. However, lecturing is a passive activity which has many drawbacks. I know I’m not the only teacher who believes that lecturing is counterproductive. It discourages participation because it isn’t easy to make a connection with listeners. It is incredibly boring. The message we are sending non critical thinkers, who cannot be active listeners, seems to be “learning is NOT fun kid, and you better know it from the start!”

In order to break this culture, we should move away from lecturing to interacting. According to bell hooks, “engaged pedagogy begins with the assumption that we learn best when there is an interactive relationship between student and teacher.” Students become active participants but they must be provided a safe space where everyone is free to respectfully disagree.

So what can we do? Here are a few tips:

Make this a golden rule: our job is to teach, not preach. Always be open minded and be aware of your biases & prejudices. Don’t be judgemental (but be skeptical) and always be open to new ideas and perspectives.

Don’t be scared of being challenged by a student. Students should be free to disagree or ask clarifying questions. That is how they will learn!

If a student asks you the answer to a question you don’t know the answer to, say “I’ll look it up & get back to you”. It is much better than giving misinformation or silencing a curious mind. Remember that we’re human and it’s ok to expose our humanity to our students. We are not robots and we shouldn’t be afraid to share our stories or emotions. We shouldn’t be afraid of not knowing an answer. It’s certainly better to be respected for being human than it is to get faux respect out of fear.

Encourage your students to work towards the solution of the problems you’ve posed instead of spoon feeding them. Even if they can’t solve the problem in class, don’t answer it. Let them go find the answer. One may come and give it to you herself in the next class!

Encourage and teach argumentation instead of only debating.

Expose students to diversity and alternate perspectives even if you don’t agree with the alternate perspectives. You owe it to them!

Teach logic and promote logical thought.

Encourage creativity in all subjects. It’s possible! As a student of IB higher level math, I had to complete a portfolio which I found incredibly tedious. I later realised it was very valuable.

Please do allow the students to use their imaginations and be creative.

Insist on small class sizes.

We, teachers, should be lifelong learners. We also teach by example: stern, unbending, judgemental, paternalistic attitudes aren’t conducive to critical thought!

Finally, please feel free to email me at nabiha@theknowledgefactory.org I am happy to share my resources or answer any questions.