Sunday, October 6, 2013

Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change

In "Empowering Education:  Critical Thinking for Social Change," Ira Shor argues that students are empowered in the classroom when provided with opportunities to participate, argue, question, and negotiate information.  Traditional teacher-centric classrooms exclude many students from learning and by their nature, diminish the neutrality of a classroom setting, according to Shor.  Citing several educational theorists, Shor writes, "The contents included and excluded in a curriculum are political choices while the unequal outcomes of education are not neutral either."  Shor argues that teachers should keep their student population in mind when designing and administering a curriculum and encourage open discussion throughout the learning process.

Unlike the previous authors, Shor provides a how-to for teaching from the students' point of view.  Shor challenges the leader to look at the point of view from which any content is delivered:  does the curriculum reflect only one point of view?  Is it "balanced and multicultural" or is it "traditionally male-oriented and Eurocentric?"  Other questions posed by Shor are: "How much open discussion is there in class?... Is there mutual dialogue between teacher and students or one-way transfer of information from teachers to students? ... Do students feel free to disagree with the teacher? ...  Do students respond to each other's remarks?"   In other words, are our students being heard?  Do we take into account our own biases, or in the words of Delpit and Johnson, our own cultural capital versus that of some of our students, when presenting information to our students?

Shor reminds educators that action, or participation, is essential to gaining and maintaining knowledge.  Sadly, classroom discipline and learning erode when students feel excluded; when their own cultures and interests are cast aside by teachers.  How many times have we looked out at a sea of bored faces because our own students have "checked out"?  How can we engage students and encourage them to own the information with which we are presenting them?

Shor's how-to guide as modeled by the article shows how a democratic classroom looks and functions.  Shor begins by asking his college-level literature students to write their reasons for taking the class, their expectations, and their ideas as to how it should be run.  In one instance, he encouraged rich discussion around the idea of mandatory class attendance without offering up his own opinion.  He listened to students' arguments and posed a series of follow-up questions without ever overtly stating, "You must attend class."   After a rich debate, students accepted Shor's proposal for required attendance but built in guidelines for absences and tardiness.   Throughout the semester, students argued their points and occasionally stopped dialogue and discussion that bored them.  They engaged in after-class suggestions and complaints, and the author re-evaluated his own delivery of instruction.   This democratic give-and-take of information, according to Shor, is what helps to shape a lively, inclusive, non-neutral classroom.  It is much easier said than done.

To me, teaching is a fluid process in which we are constantly gauging students' level of interest and as needed, making changes.   It's almost instinctive when you're a teacher to want to stand in the front of the class, to run the show.  I used to think of myself as a sort of magician with a bag of tricks that I would pull out when introducing different grammatical concepts.   Now, after having taken several graduate courses and having some years behind me, I look to the students to guide me in curriculum choices; their voices are what shapes my teaching.  There are times, however, when I need to step back and take Shor's advice:  empower the students; listen to the students; let the students speak and internalize and process and agree and disagree.  More and more, I need to stop and check for their understanding.   It is always a work in process, but in an open and democratic classroom environment, the teacher benefits as much as the students.  As Shor points out, disciplinary issues tend to dissipate when every student feels engaged and valued.


  1. Hi Amy,
    I'm glad to hear that this has worked for you in your Spanish classes. What types of essential questions do you ask to encourage critical thinking in such a skills based subject area? I would love to hear what other teachers are doing to encourage student lead curriculum. I'm still wondering about how this looks and feels within a daily routine...Do you think it's easier at the high school level than it would be at the middle or elementary levels, seeing as high school students have a greater sense of independence and individuality?

  2. I'm so glad that you are able to see this as a How-To rather than as a Pie in the Sky Theory... I will try to post notes from our discussion this week on my blog so you can follow along! And I hope surgery went well!!!

  3. I recently went to a Tech Conference whereas their was a panel of students of all age groups expressing what they needed to support their education. It was very empowering to the students and the simple approach seems to be is just to ask the students what strategies they use to learn. The questions that you pose in your blog are very useful. What we do not really look at is why students misbehave in our classroom. Students who get frustrated because their inability to understand a concept tend to act out. Before we attack the behavior we should try to understand why they are misbehaving.

  4. I agree with you Amy, instinctively we as teachers want to take control...we want to show everyone how to do things. It is hard to let go. I know that it is for me. After most labs and after every project I have my students write reflections. They reflect on their strengths and where they could have improved. Also they reflect on the lesson and where I could improve it for the next time. Most times we either share out or I might meet with them one on one. My students also write reflections after each quarter and we talk about how things could improve. This has really helped me to be a better teacher.
    I hope that you are feeling well...we will miss you!!