A Primer for the Progressive Educator
On August 3, 2021, I was invited to give a talk to primary and secondary educators at a Human Restoration Project event. The text of that talk is below.
I started my now 20-year career in progressive pedagogy in a very unprogressive way. The first job that I had that could be considered education-related was as an instructional designer for a small Colorado company. That company produced generic training courses for other companies that required their employees to take those courses. We’ve all taken these before: the mandatory click-through lessons on workplace safety, or digital security, or sexual harassment. No matter the subject, though, these courses are mostly irritatingly dull because of their surpassingly simple design: read about something on one page, watch a video that explains that thing further, and then take a quiz to prove that you did the reading and watched the video.
It’s a style of instruction that has no other point than the passing of a test. Quite literally, the point of this pedagogy is assessment. And assessment is essentially reiteration or repetition of the material. (If that sounds like the ACT or SAT, it should.)
Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, referred to this kind of instruction as “the banking concept” of education. He writes that: “The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else they expound on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of students. Their task is to ‘fill’ the students with the contents of his narration” (52). Simply put, the teacher speaks and the students listen. Or, the teacher teaches and the students are taught. In this banking model, “the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits” of information (53).
My job as an instructional designer was precisely this: to fill the learner with information which they could store for future use—but if we’re honest, most of that information was only stored so long as it took to pass the quiz. To tick the box of having done the thing.
I’ve never been this kind of learner myself. Sure, I can learn this way if I need to, but I wouldn’t really call it learning. I’d call it memorization. And I’ve been good at it. We’ve all been good at it at one time or another.
Here’s an example. I remember learning my multiplication tables in the third grade. For some reason, I was especially fond of 9 times 9 equally 81. In fact, all the nines were interesting to me because of the pattern they laid out. Nine times 2 is 18, and 1 plus 8 is 9. Nine times 3 is 27, and 2 plus 7 is 9. But even more fun, the numbers reverse themselves at 45 and 54—18, 27, 36, 45, 54, 63, 72, 81. Nine had a self-replicating and mirroring effect as you went along the times tables.
I was good at my multiplication tables, and I learned them through memorization—a memorization that helped me as multiplication and division became more complex. So yes, I could memorize. But the thing that stuck, the thing that still sticks, was the way the nines lined up.
Why? Because I didn’t know why. Because in that line of nines I encountered a mystery I couldn’t quite unlock. The mystery of mathematics, the automaticity of an equation that was nonetheless enticing. I saw possibility between those numbers; not a possibility that was taught to me, but which I, in my 3rd grade scholarly imagination, could perceive.
It wasn’t my ability to memorize that drove me to be really really good at math in elementary school, nor was it my ability to memorize that landed me in an advanced math class when I started middle school. It was the mystery that lay between the numbers.
Paulo Freire writes that: “Apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” (53) He calls this idea of the impulse toward inquiry humanization, which I’ll get to in a bit; but the point really is that it is human to ask, to inquire, to wonder at, to find the mystery and test our capacity to plumb its depths. Little 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade me loved nothing more than the strange slippage between knowing and not knowing, which propelled me to learn.
But what’s important to note in this story is that slippage, restlessness, impatience, hope, none of these were part of a lesson plan. I wasn’t taught these to prepare for standardized testing. My love of the mystery of nines never helped me on a quiz, a spelling test, or a book report. And some part of my childhood mind knew this, knew that what I was being taught and what I was teaching myself were not always aligned. And this led to a kind of code switching, from restless, impatient, hopeful learner to good student.
It’s the same kind of code switching we all do when we sit down to click our way through a mandatory module or course. We flip a breaker in our brains and turn certain parts of ourselves off so that we can store the information in the lesson until we need it. We don our push-button hat so that we can finish the task. But the person finishing that task is not the same person who immerses themselves all weekend in a good book, or who can’t stop staring at a Van Gogh, or who simply marvels at the cobbled streets of London, or who wonders why trees and lungs share the same fractal pattern.
What we wonder at makes us human, but what we learn in order to pass a test makes us students.
Progressive pedagogy–and in particular I’m talking about critical pedagogy—starts here: with the desire to humanize education, to make learning more full of the mystery of nines and less reliant on simply knowing what the teacher knows.
My first introduction to progressive pedagogy was a mystery I still sometimes wonder at. A teaching technique so simple and so earnest that I often wonder how my professor learned it. My first introduction to critical pedagogy, to progressive pedagogy, was nothing more than a quiet, interested stare, accompanied with just the slightest smile.
This was during my graduate program, at the University of Colorado Boulder, and the quiet, interested stare was from one of my professors, Martin Bickman. Marty taught a graduate course on pedagogy, during which a small group of graduate students collaborated to teach an American Literature course. Our work was to dream up new ways to teach the class, and then to meet afterward to discuss pedagogical readings from educators like Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Ira Shor, John Dewey, and others. We read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and experimented with different styles of teaching—always working to both understand and apply progressive pedagogies.
It was during those times when we gathered to talk over our readings and collaborate on the next classroom activities that Marty did his staring. We would talk, and he would listen. Now and then, he would ask a question to get us to think deeper; but mostly, he sat in a chair in our circle of chairs and watched us work things out for ourselves.
Freire writes that “education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students” (53). What he means here is that, in the traditional “banking” concept of education where the teacher teaches and the students are taught, there is an unreconciled difference—of power, but also of participation in the learning process—between teachers and students. He goes on to list some of the more obvious ways this difference shows itself:
The teacher teaches and the students are taught (that one we already know);
The teacher knows everything and the student knows nothing;
The teacher thinks and the students are thought about; …
The teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply; …
The teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects. (54)
It’s this last statement, about who is the subject and who is the object of the learning process, that is at the crux of critical pedagogy. If teachers are the subjects of the learning process, then they are the directors of it, the decision makers about content and lessons and assessment and what success looks like. Meantime, the students are the objects of the learning process, meaning that learning is done to them, rather than emanating from them. Progressive pedagogy—critical pedagogy—tries to imagine an education which works the other way around, where students are the directors of the learning process, and the teacher learns from them.
But what’s important here, too, is that the script isn’t just flipped, it's rewritten. Teachers don’t become students and students don’t become teachers—rather, they share both roles. Freire posits a teacher-student and a student-teacher. “ [Students are] critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher. The teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and reconsiders their earlier considerations as the students express their own” (58, 62). In this model, learning goes both ways, teaching goes both ways; and because no one is depositing information into anyone else, the resulting knowledge is a knowledge produced by the learning process rather than delivered through instruction.
There’s a lot more to progressive or critical pedagogy than teachers and students learning together, though. In fact, there are a lot of different kinds of pedagogies associated with progressive education. There’s critical pedagogy, feminist pedagogy, pedagogy of liberation, humanizing pedagogies, pedagogies of care, trauma-informed pedagogy, contemplative pedagogy, pedagogies of justice, and more. Each of these may have its own processes, may be their own fields of scholarship, but they all only provide various means to a singular end: the articulation of the self within and with the world. What I mean by that is this: that for a student to be truly educated they must discover for themselves the power they possess to change the world, and also the ability to identify what changes they believe must be made.
This is a very quick move from learning to action. And I’ve maybe made the leap too fast. Let’s consider for a second something John Holt wrote in Instead of Education:
“Not many years ago, I started to play the cello. I love the instrument, spend many hours a day playing it, work hard at it, and mean someday to play it well. Most people would say that what I am doing is ‘learning to play the cello.’ Our language gives us no other words to say it. But these words carry into our minds the strange idea that there exist two very different processes: (1) learning to play the cello; and (2) playing the cello ...
“Of course this is nonsense. There are not two processes, but one. We learn to do something by doing it. There is no other way.” (13)
What Holt is implying here is that learning isn’t learning without application, and even that it’s through application that we learn. Paulo Freire refers to this idea as praxis, as a thinking about doing and then doing—reflection and action—which is elemental to not just a learning process, but a humanizing education.
In other words: we learn in order to do, and by doing, we learn again.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that’s a true enough statement. What does that look like within the banking concept of education? What do students do? Freire answered that question for us before: students are limited to “receiving, filing, and storing” what they learn. That’s what they do, what they are allowed to do. In the banking concept, just like in the instructional design that I did long ago, the point of education is to pass an assessment, to prove they’ve stored all they were told to store.
Critical pedagogy argues that humans are more than compartments for information. And in fact, when they’re treated like more than compartments, they are not only capable of learning, but also of producing knowledge and taking action. Action which is dependent upon the knowledge they produce, and therefore variable, unpredictable, and “restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful.”
Many educators hear all of this and say “sure, but how does that fit with the material I need to teach?” And the answer to that is both simple and complex. The simple answer is that all it takes is a quick small shift of our teaching lens and, like a treasure map, a humanizing curriculum rolls out before us. The complex part is the struggle leading up to that quick small shift.
This shift is one I’ve already mentioned, wherein the student becomes the subject of the learning process. Seems simple. Give students stuff to do, ask them questions, get them asking questions about the material. In the higher ed circles in which I usually run, educators talk about letting students participate in making rubrics, or revising the syllabus of a class. But in truth, most of these practices—from inclusive pedagogies to personalized learning—do not truly shift the student to being the subject of the learning process.
Let me try an example. When we set up something like personalized learning, it’s kind of like offering a child a car for their 18th birthday. It is a symbol of freedom without being freedom. In offering that car, a parent also offers with it an indoctrination into the world of car insurance and car payments, into the world of traffic violations. Cars are not themselves free from policing, and therefore neither will the teenager driving one be.
And if driving their own car doesn’t seem like a kind of oppression rather than liberation, consider what Maxine Greene writes in Releasing the Imagination, that “Functionally, oppression is domesticating” (51). What she means here is that by teaching students the rules of the road, if you will, we are asking them to submerge themselves in an adult reality over which they have no control, into which they have no ability to intervene, against which they can only ineffectually argue.
When a teenager asks why they need car insurance, or why vehicle registration costs so much, the answer almost always comes down to “Because.” Because that’s the way things are, always have been. It’s what I had to learn growing up, so it’s what they have to learn growing up. But from the perspective of critical pedagogy, and especially with regards to education, when we decide to inculcate agreement, docility, and an uncritical response to “the way the world is”—to what we might see as objective reality, the rules of the road, the existence of rubrics, the necessity of grading—that is oppression.
The illusion of the student-generated learning objective is that control has been handed over—or they have at least been included now in a kind of collaboration with the teacher. But in fact, we’re simply teaching them how to manufacture the structures that keep them students, and objects of the learning process.
Freire and others refer to this action of learning to manufacture the structures that keep us where we are adaptation, as in, we adapt to the world as it has been made for us. But, as he writes in Pedagogy of Indignation, “I do not apprehend to adapt but to change.” Adaptation from a progressive lens is submersion in the ideas of reality that we are given rather than the one we build through inquiry and observation. And a progressive education, a critical pedagogy, challenges us to think and see the world differently.
This shift of making the student the subject of the learning process should kinda blow our minds, because it changes everything. Everything about modern educational practices, and everything about those practices that’s been handed down through policy and the unreconciled teacher-student contradiction. What school is has been founded on the accepted understanding that the teacher teaches and the students are taught. So, what happens when, as progressive educators, we stop accepting that understanding?
There’s the simple and the complex all at once.
How this becomes curricula, how this becomes teaching, is through nothing other than praxis: through learning and then doing and then learning from what we do. As teachers, we don’t have the benefit of teachers, of someone in the room prodding us with good questions or offering a quiet, interested stare. So we must turn our own critical lens, our natural capacity for inquiry, on our own work.
This can start with a discussion of grading, for example, which is a popular discussion among progressive educators. Jesse Stommel, one of the leading advocates for ungrading, writes: “There is copious evidence that grades are not a good measure of learning, that they inhibit intrinsic motivation, and that they create a competitive environment between students and hostile relationships between students and teachers.” Grades hamstring us by their very nature. Grades get soaked into the learning identity of the student who gets them, whether they get straight A’s or they’re a solid B student, or they receive the occasional F. After we’re finished with school, and amongst friends, we might even bond over the kinds of grades we got—the geniuses who nearly failed out, the up-by-the-bootstraps first generation students who had to work through college but who earned their 4.0, the happy slackers who contented themselves with C’s. We continue to talk about grades long after they’ve ceased to matter because they mark us indelibly.
A lot of folks are beginning to think more critically about grades and grading, to find alternative ways to signify success or mastery. Doing this looking is something that Freire calls “reading the world,” and it’s a kind of critical literacy that supports our learning when we have no teachers to do so.
Our own critical consciousness looks around at the world, reads it for what is really going on, and then decides what to do. Reflection and action. Praxis.
But where critical inquiry can begin with classroom practices, like grading, it can also lead us or be applied to ever more difficult subjects, as in what does it mean to educate in schools built on indigenous land that indigenous people are unable to attend? Or as in how do we reconcile the histories we teach the young, histories we say were written by the victors, which implies someone’s history was lost? How do we acknowledge and then wrestle with our implicit biases around ideas of race, gender expression, intelligence, ability or disability, sexuality?
Can we weave this inquiry into our curriculum when that curriculum is often written by the state, and written to push greater student success that can then fuel more funding for our specific school? How do we, as critical, progressive educators balance what society considers success, considers intelligence, or considers appropriate citizenship with our investigation of those very ideas?
The difficult but absolutely necessary truth is that a progressive pedagogy is a relentless pedagogy. Because the very centre of progressive pedagogies like critical pedagogy is a grounding in critical consciousness—in the not only willingness and capacity to read the world, but the insistence that reading the world must be done, and must be done honestly, intentionally, sometimes roughly but always compassionately—it means there are no matters of education which aren’t subject to being read, to being questioned, to being examined and investigated.
To be a progressive educator is to never really leave behind that restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.