Amanda Di Battista is the project coordinator at the Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food Systems and Director of Programming, Education, and Communications for the UNESCO Chair on Food, Biodiversity, and Sustainability Studies. She co-produces and hosts the research podcast, Handpicked: Stories from the Field and works closely with food systems researchers on effective knowledge mobilization. She has co-edited several publications including Sustainable Food System Assessment: Lessons from Global Practice and Food Studies: Matter, Movement & Meaning.
“Where learning communities can flourish”: Mapping critical pedagogy onto classroom learning
Critical pedagogy is an approach to education that sees teachers and students as whole, unique individuals who live, work, and learn within complex systems of power. These systems—which include capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, among other systems of oppression—exert themselves in unequal ways with profound social consequences. Critical pedagogy aims to engage students in meaningful and transformative learning so that they can better understand, resist, and change oppressive systems of power. Ideally, critical pedagogy brings educational theory and practice together in praxis, the ongoing and reciprocal relationship between thinking (theory) and doing (practice) (Freire, 2000, p. 65–66).
In this podcast, Amanda talks about her experiences as a university student in two very different courses—one that set the stage for transformative learning, and the other, not so much. She looks at how these postsecondary educators’ different approaches to student engagement, the space of the classroom, and the delivery of course content help to illustrate the impacts of critical pedagogy on learning. Paying particular attention to the work of bell hooks’ (1994), including her ideas of engaged pedagogy, self-actualization, mutual responsibility, and the creation of learning communities, Amanda describes how both classroom experiences became turning points in her educational career.
Listen to the podcast:
[Sound of finger tapping on microphone]
Is this thing on? Hello, hello…
[Soft intro music fades in]
My name is Amanda Di Battista, and this is “Where Learning Communities can Flourish,” a podcast that maps critical pedagogy onto classroom learning.
[intro music fades out]
I went into university sure that I was going to be a scientist. I started first year as a biology major and though most of my classes were challenging, the excitement of the professors was contagious. Organic Chemistry though was different. The class was Friday morning at 10am in a modern building full of bright light. In our classroom, there were two hundred of those plastic chairs with, you know, those tiny desks attached to the arms, all facing a projector screen that stood at the front of the room.
My memory of the professor is super vague—he wore beige slacks and rumpled dress shirts, but I can’t recall his face. Each class he walked briskly [sound of walking] up the aisle without making eye contact with anyone [sound of bag thumping down onto a desk], power up the computer and projector [sound of computer mouse clicking and computer powering on], and bring up his PowerPoint slides. Then, when he was ready [computer beeping], he’d look up from his notes, scan the room absentmindedly, and launch right into his presentation. He used a red laser pointer to call attention to the most important bits on the screen.
Leaning low into my desk, I would write frantically, trying to copy down all of the information on the dozens of slides whizzing past [sound of notebook pages turning], catching almost none of the teacher’s words as I wrote [sound of frantic writing with pen on paper]. My notes were a mess—a blur of blue, punctuated by angry red circles [sound of pen being dropped on table]. As the sun shifted in the sky outside the windows behind me, the slides became harder to read and the smallest text faded into the white of the screen.
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I think that we’ve all probably had a similar classroom experience. Critical pedagogue Paolo Freire describes this as the banking model of education—where the teacher is the ultimate authority on knowledge and dispenses that knowledge to in the minds of their students for withdrawl sometime in the future. My chemistry professor dispenses that knowledge into the form of a complicated slide every 90 seconds. It was torture.
bell hooks, a student of Freire, critiques the banking model of education too. Instead, she call for engaged pedagogy—an approach to education that values and teachers and students as whole people, who are mutually responsible for coming together as a community of learners.
My organic chemistry professor created a classroom space where no such community could flourish. He didn’t see students as whole people with potentially valuable perspectives on the course material. In his class, the teacher was the only person worth listening to.
A few years ago, I took an intensive graduate level writing course. The professor, Cate, was a brilliant scholar—I’d been in her class before and found it exceptionally challenging, but also fascinating and exciting. There were three parts to the course—intensive theory, discussion groups, and field writing. The reading list was long and difficult, and I rarely got through it all. But when Cate delivered her lectures, she teased out the important threads with expert precision, moving her hands to the rhythm of her words to give life to theoretical concepts. The class was small, and we built an easy rapport with each other centred on a shared sense of possibility and respect. While I struggled to find my voice—um, I’ve always been a little bit shy about speaking up in a group, and unsure that what I had to say was worthwhile— my ideas were always valued.
We spent two days each week in the classroom and one day writing in the field [sound of birds in field]. When I was writing, my senses came to life. Closing my eyes to pay attention to the sounds around me opened up an entirely new world. I could hear the rhythm of the wind in the trees [sound of wind rustling leaves and birds chirping], I could smell the heat on the pavement [sound of passing car on road], I could feel the water evaporating off the grass beneath me [sound of soft water drops].
This shift in my awareness extended beyond the class—sitting on the streetcar [sound of streetcar driving on tracks and dinging bell], I’d become hyperaware of the scratchy seat fabric on the backs of my bare legs [sound of scratching]; I’d get caught up in imagining the life history of the person sitting next to me [ambient streetcar noises and chatter]. Sometimes I’d feel overwhelmed by it all. Sometimes I was dazzled.
I think bell hooks’ would describe Cate as engaged pedagogue: she came to the classroom full of passion and brought her personal experiences to bear on theoretical concepts. She was eager to learn from her students, empathetic, and fully aware of her position of power as the professor. Instead of using her authority to bolster her own ego, she used it to bolster our voices and encourage our learning. bell hooks would call this kind of teacher a self-actualized educator—aware of her positionality and politics, full of care for her students, and engaged in the ongoing process of enlightenment herself.
This was also a master class in how to create the conditions for a learning community to flourish. A sense of mutual responsibility is crucial for learning communities, and bell hooks says that the best way to teach mutual responsibility is to model it. Cate modelled deep respect for the personal knowledge of her students so that we learned by example how to engage in dialogue with each other. We were expected to bring our best selves to each class, to actively participate, and to take responsibility for the creation of our learning community. Because we knew that our voices were valued, we brought our personal experience into the classroom and connected it directly to the course material. We begin to critique—as bell hooks does—the split between mind and body, between theory and practice, between personal and political that characterizes so much of postsecondary education.
[fade in soft music with clock ticking in background]
bell hooks says that, “to teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.”
In the end, I finished my first-year organic chemistry class with a fine grade, but I can’t tell you what I learned. The things I learned in Cate’s writing course though—especially the embodied practice of writing as a way of knowing—that will stick with me forever.
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- What is the banking concept of education? Have you experienced a classroom that used the banking concept of education? What did that classroom look like? How did it feel to be a student in that classroom?
- In the podcast, how did the two educators’ different teaching approaches encourage or discourage the formation of learning communities? How did the presence or absence of a learning community have an impact on the speaker’s experience?
- Why is mutual responsibility such a key component in bell hooks’ engaged pedagogy? How are the requirements of mutual responsibility different for educators and students? How are they similar?
- Do you think that classroom education has a role to play in uncovering and changing structures of oppression? Explain.
In five minutes, describe a time where you were fully engaged in classroom learning. Think about the classroom space, the teacher, how you interacted with your peers, what you learned, how you felt during the class, and how you feel about the experience now. Include any details and personal reflections that you think are relevant.
In five minutes, describe a negative classroom experience or a time when you felt disengaged from learning. Think about the classroom space, the teacher, how you interacted with your peers, the content you were learning, how you felt during the class and how you feel about the experience now. Include any details and personal reflections you think are relevant.
With a partner, compare your classroom experiences. Are there similarities? What are the differences? What made your positive experiences so positive? What made your negative experiences so negative? How did your experiences shape the way you think about the classroom?
On a piece of chart paper or a shared document, brainstorm/map the components of a “transformative learning community.” Build on your own classroom experiences and the information presented in the podcast. Be prepared to share with the class.
Crenshaw, K. (Host). (2018–present). Intersectionality Matters! [Audio podcast]. Apple Podcasts. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/intersectionality-matters/id1441348908
Pippin, T., & Hulsether, L. (Hosts). (2017–present). Nothing Never Happens: A Radical Pedagogy Podcast. [Audio podcast]. https://nothingneverhappens.org/
The New School. (2014, October 8). Teaching to Transgress Today: Theory and Practice In and Outside the Classroom. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_9OgVs19UE&list=PL70gEjyI5-60vNARBaoIb_R1Ylwm1qjG-
The New School. (2016, September 7). bell hooks + Jill Soloway – Ending Domination: The Personal is Political | The New School. [Video]. YouTube.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fw6Fd87PhjU
University of Washington. (2020, March 23). A Conversation with bell hooks. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqSVcnanjM8
hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary ed.). Continuum.