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Re-contextualizing the classroom

Shannon Palus on critical pedagogy, and one McGill proponent

Being a good teacher is difficult. Being a good teacher in the age of television and the internet, when Facebook is available at the click of a few touch-screen keys, in an age when entertainment and misinformation, and the opinions of Hollywood execs, and the opinions of whoever has the technical knowledge to set up a Tumblr account are always available – is even harder.

“When Sesame Street does a segment, they bring in little children to watch it. If the children start wiggling before 17 seconds, they cut the segment,” explained Shirley Steinberg, co-founder of the McGill-based Freire Project. “Seventeen seconds. That’s what Sesame Street sees as a rational time for kids to give their attention. That tells me as a teacher, I have to be good.”

But what qualities makes a good teacher, and a good lesson? And how do you put those qualities into a classroom – whether it’s a room of kindergartners jaded by too much television or an introductory science lecture in Leacock 132?

Steinberg’s role is to work with teachers: to talk to them about media literacy and critical pedagogy, the philosophy on which the Freire Project is founded. She described the project as a global network of grassroots educators who question the standard curriculum: “Is this enough, should we have more?”

Where do politics fit in?

I had arranged to talk to Steinberg via Skype – though she is based at McGill, she was in Spain when I contacted her collaborating with a group at the University of Barcelona. I hit the call button, and moments later I found myself facing Steinberg in her hotel room; I half-heartedly apologized for the fact that I was sitting in my room in a hoodie, my hair caked with grease. Steinberg’s red hair was pulled back into hundreds of tiny braids; she had two coloured rubber bracelets on her wrist. One reads “The Freire Project: Radical Love,” and the other is for Joe Kincheloe, the late co-founder of the project.

I have notes scrawled on a single piece of scratch paper – the back of electronics lab instructions – which represent the sum -total of knowledge I have on critical pedagogy. Steinberg was surprised that I was even familiar with the term. I explain I picked up the article pitch because after interviewing Denis Rancourt, former Ottawa physics professor who was fired in the spring of 2009 for giving a senior class all A-pluses, I have been curious as to how education can be restructured. How could science class go beyond the carrot-and-stick grading system, beyond professors who seem too wrapped up in research to freshen up their class notes from year to year?

Dismantling and reconstructing

Quebec has a secondary curriculum that won’t fit into a standard-sized binder. The curriculum consists of pages and pages of what topics teachers need to cover, and in what year students should learn what skills.

Critical pedagogy is in essence the opposite of the heavy and formal provincial outline. Pedagogy is the science of teaching – but critical pedagogy is not a method, not something which can be imposed or memorized. Furthermore, it’s not a one-size-fits-everyone-who-lives-in-the-same-boundaries-on-a-map mandate.

“You teach rich kids differently from how you teach poor kids. You just do. If you don’t, you’re a liar, as a teacher,” said Steinberg.

Critical pedagogy hangs on the idea that teaching happens within a social context, within a political context. Teaching may fall into power balances between students and teachers – this ought to be realized and fixed; and it has the power to examine power imbalances that students face in their own communities. Teachers need to understand where their students are coming from and incorporate this into the classroom.

“If I were trying to work with you – and in fact, I probably will do it before the interview is over – but since your area is science, instead of talking to you about my area, I would try to bring science into it, and discuss it from your point of view… It’s about, number one, contextualizing – nothing is learned in a vacuum,” she explained.

I think of the problems in an introductory mechanics class: massless pulleys, frictionless slopes, no air resistance – imaginary systems sheltered from even the slightest draft. But sometimes I like that politics – oppression, gender – have no business in the very fundamental laws of the universe. It makes physics class simple.

“Shannon, you are killing me here,” wrote Steinberg, when we were discussing the issue later in an email exchange. “How can politics and oppression be ignored in science? The rainforest? And in gender – the issue of females in science?”

Oppressed peoples and old ways

In the late 1960s, political activist Paulo Freire was teaching farm workers in Recife, Brazil how to read. He concluded that traditional education – the mere relaying of skills and facts – was not enough to get students out of poverty.

“He realized they had to learn how to name their own oppression, that people had to understand that they are oppressed, and most oppressed people do not know that they are oppressed,” explained Steinberg. In the interest of correctly naming oppression, she avoids terms like “socially-economically deprived kids.”  She explained later in an email that politically correct terms propagate a dangerous viewpoint: “Those in power do not want oppressed people emancipated”.

Henry Giroux – ”the modern father of critical pedagogy,” Steinberg called him – brought the critical pedagogy philosophy into a North American context. And now, decades after Freire invented the concept, critical pedagogy is applied to a context in which mass communication flourishes.

“We are a media world. We are TV, we are computer, we are internet, we are digital,” said Steinberg. “People have relationships this way. The entire world is now cyber,” she continued.

One of the centre’s recent projects is working with the Maison des Jeunes community center in Côte-des-Neiges, with whom they sponsored a conference last March on hip hop – how to use hip hop in the classroom toward media literacy. The centre has also done work with the Cree community on self-identity, and how First Nations people are portrayed in the media.

Staying sharp

Steinberg discussed how if she were teaching middle-school girls how to write an essay, she would ask them to write it about a topic like Miley Cyrus – to examine the marketing forces, do research on Disney, and on the depiction of teenage girls in the media.

“So how would you teach middle-school kids science?” I asked.

“Science has become consumerized, so much. Even something simple like ecology – saving the world – has now been corporatized,” she said. “In a science class – maybe if we’re talking about chemicals, along with teaching about chemicals, I would teach about chemical spills, and about social responsibility, about how that conversation happens.”

Critical pedagogy teachers should be scholarly, updated, the same way that dentists have to learn about new techniques for x-raying teeth, Steinberg explained.

“Professionals need to be constantly re-professionalizing,” she explained. “If someone is lecturing me with yellow notes that are falling apart, I think that person needs to stop lecturing.”

I tell Steinberg about a physics class last year where we used a textbook that had to be ordered in copied course-pack form because it was out of print. Our edition was from 1986.

“Students should just, en masse, drop the class. And make sure you always put out teacher evaluations. But you know, it’s just wrong. It’s wrong,” she offered. “Do we lose our souls just to get a class taught? I don’t think so.”

But as a student – as someone who is potentially marginalized, as someone with course requirements and tuition and a degree to earn – critical pedagogy does not seem to offer much of a solution. Changing the system – whether the goal is to get students out of poverty, or get them to do more creative physics – is still in the hands of  those in power. It doesn’t look like there is much support for departing from the standard curriculum. Rancourt didn’t have U of Ottawa’s support when he tried to remove the grading system. Steinberg emphasized that the current dean of the Faculty of Education does not support the Freire Project.

As for keeping students interested? During our conversation, Steinberg brought up a concept that didn’t require fancy textbook packaging, TV gimmicks, or even a well-researched philosophy: “If all teachers loved their jobs, they’d probably have better students.”