Critical pedagogy group meeting: the Space Project 23rd November

On the evening of  Wednesday 23rd November, the Critical Pedagogy discussion group had its second meeting at the Space Project in Leeds, described as a radical education project. Of the small group that attended half had not been at the initial meeting so this meeting started with a brief report on what had been discussed then but quickly moved on to a discussion of why each individual was interested in the topic. In some cases it was a concern to develop a more relevant and critically engaged approach to teaching within higher education. In others the interest is to see if critical pedagogy has anything to offer when thinking about engaging with groups and communities outside of formal education. One of the reasons that the Space Project was interested in starting the critical pedagogy group in the first place is to explore how it might be relevant and useful for engaging with groups beyond the university who could be brought into the project and use the space. There seemed to be a general consensus that a critical pedagogy should be ’emancipatory’, in itself or in its objectives. Emancipation from what was not explicitly discussed although it became clear that there was a shared dissatisfaction with many aspects of contemporary society and defective democratic political processes. Likewise, the meeting didn’t start with any attempt to define critical pedagogy in advance.

Apart from the inside and beyond the university distinction, there was also some discussion of the difference between critical pedagogy as a set of teaching methods and techniques and as a process. One concern was about how to change the relationship between teachers and students and get away from the so-called ‘transmission belt’ and ‘banking’ models of education where teachers are seen to have the knowledge, students suffer from a knowledge deficit and it is just a question of the former transferring their knowledge to the latter who ‘bank’ it for later use. In practice this leads to forms of hierarchy and dependency and ignores the knowledgeability of students and that knowledge construction is a continuous social process. It implies knowledge is a ‘thing’ of some sort and down plays the fact that knowledge is always incomplete, always developing, always partial and open to negotiation. Students are assessed in terms of how much knowledge they have absorbed and can reproduce competently. The participation in and awareness of knowledge as a process is confined to the academic. Critical pedagogy opens the possibility that the relationship between teacher and student could be one of collaboration in a knowledge construction process where the historical, social and contingent nature of knowledge is recognised and exploited in a joint project that respects and utilises the knowledge and reasoning capacity of students. Critical pedagogy introduces and embeds criticality into the content and process of teaching and learning, a process where the distinction between teacher and learner breaks down so that everyone is a collaborative learner. However, it is still the case that not everyone will be equivalent in terms of their expertise and experience or their facility to articulate these in discussion. There will be different sorts of ‘cultural capital’ attached to individuals. Clearly the collaborative knowledge construction process would need to be able to exploit individuals’ expert knowledge and broader experience without lapsing back into the disabling hierarchical ‘transmission belt’ model. This requires the critical problematisation of the notion of legislative expert knowledge and the development of non-hierarchical forms of consensual decision making. Expert knowledge, like any other, is contextual and historically contingent and subject to change in the face of challenges and changing circumstances. This is usually a process that is confined to other ‘qualifying’ experts. But when the expert knowledge is deployed in a collaborative process with ‘lay persons’ in real life situations about which they are already knowledgeable, intellectually and in their lived experience, then the expert knowledge can be modified through exposure to concrete situations that require consensus based pragmatic decisions and actions that cannot be simply ‘read off’ from expert knowledges.

That this is in fact very hard to achieve in the current educational context of assessment, metrics and measurements was also a point of discussion. Several of us have experienced the resistance to these ideas, or, more accurately since the ideas are rarely discussed, to the practice of these ideas, by students. It can lead to anxiety and discomfort as putting this into practice subverts expected and familiar roles and procedures. It may well be that the intention is to empower students and broaden the context within which they think and understand, but this is experienced as a threat very often, of lecturers not doing their job properly and jeopardising the students’ ability to perform according to assessment criteria. Basically they want to know what knowledge they need to reproduce, what are the best books and articles to read that will give them the answers and how many references are deemed to be sufficient, and so on. Critical pedagogy as a set of techniques and practices may prove very difficult to apply in practice unless the organisational context simultaneously embraces critical pedagogy as a process that modifies the administration and assessment of learning outcomes. This may not be quite such a problem outside of and beyond the organisation of formal education.

There was some discussion of ‘levels’ or modalities of criticality and a distinction was made between ‘surface’ or shallow versions, as in the examples of quality circles, suggestion boxes and so on, and the deep criticality of questioning the surface reality, getting behind it, seeing how contingency is packaged and presented as taken-for-granted ways of thinking and doing,  custom and practice, exposing and examining the underlying social process of construction, of framing, the networks and mechanisms of power and control, interest and repression, inclusion and exclusion. This is clearly fundamentally connected to the analysis of ideologies and ideological processes. The first ‘surface’ criticality reproduces the status quo, the second questions and problematises it. The first ‘perfects’ and focuses on the resilience of the existing reality. The second, by demonstrating the contingency of reality, as represented and as materially existing, as the result of specific contingent historical events and processes, demonstrates the world was different before it got this way and could be different from what it is now, and so opening up the discussion of possibilities.

There was some discussion of the knowledge and knowledgability of individuals, groups and communities beyond the university and the Space Project. One suggestion was that critical pedagogy as a process might suggest a way of aligning with radical groups and issues and bringing to struggles and movements a broader explanatory framework that recognises and exploits the existing knowledge and experience of the group  and that has strategic and practical significance.  As an aside, this is where I mentioned Harry Collins’ research on ‘interactive expertise’ where, for example, a group interested in critiquing and campaigning against certain forms of biotechnology recruited and worked with experts in biotechnology and where the experts and the lay members of the group learnt from each other, developing the more technical aspects within a practical social and political context. An example of this perhaps closer to home is the process whereby various specifically focussed anti-cuts movements, for instance against the cuts in HE and another against the attack on pensions, come to identifying the common connection their issues have and recognising the broader underlying system that each are a symptom of – the ideologically and powerful interest driven process of privatisation and hyper-marketisation. This coming together of groups and issues has developed ‘on the ground’ as the groups have formed links and communicated largely via the Internet and social media. But a wide variety of students and academics from different disciplines and with different expert knowledges have contributed to this development right from the start and increasingly academics and research students are in discussion and participating in ‘teach-ins’ and other events in newly emerging public  events and spaces including occupations, sit-ins and squats.

Finally there was some discussion of the way forward. Two strands to follow were identified. One was to do some reading and research on the ideas around critical pedagogy and alternative forms of education. This might take the form of a traditional study group. The other strand was to look for and think about concrete examples of what could be seen as a critical pedagogy in practice. This could include some aspects of the current occupations, for instance, but could also look at some examples from Italy, South America, and so on. What we didn’t leave the meeting with was a reading list. The final decision was to find a way of including anyone who is interested who cannot make all, or indeed any, of the meetings. Some sort of on-line presence and reporting would seem to be the obvious solution. Again, no concrete proposal was made other than to have a dedicated Facebook group. This will probably happen but, as was noted at the time, not everyone is in or wants to be in Facebook. Another suggestion was a blog, or a section in the Really Open University web site. Look out for announcements any day now. In the meantime theses notes are my recollection of what was discussed at the last meeting with a few additional observations. No doubt others will add to these and, where I have misremembered, put me right!

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