Helping students understand themselves so they can understand the world
Allowing students to see perspectives other than their own is a critical component of transformative learning. In my current teaching environment, I get to see the results of this as students encounter other cultures through experiential travel and grapple with new perspectives in real time. Especially for younger students, traveling across the country, or to a different one, can provide the kind of “disorienting dilemma” that the pioneer of transformative learning, Jack Mezirow, prescribes as essential to creating new ways of seeing the world. But how can we foster these kinds of experiences and interactions from within the classroom?
The opportunities for making connections between local and global issues are endless, however, that is not what I want to focus on here. Instead, I am advocating for a holistic approach that engages students through deep, personal connections as a basis for tackling larger, global issues. As educators who work with younger students, we have a unique opportunity to awaken our students’ curiosity at a time when their world seems to center only around themselves. Instead of viewing this as an impediment, I argue that it can, in fact, be a positive that begins with this: In order to understand the world, students must first understand themselves.
I identify three main objectives for fostering transformation within our students.
- Help our students understand their role in society.
- Become aware of our own cultural assumptions and biases.
- Help our students identify and make connections.
Despite the ego-centric tendencies of young learners, the fact is, they are very much products of the society they live in. The corollary of this is that they also have the potential to change that very society. Our world is beautiful, and it’s convoluted. This complexity can be overwhelming and intimidating. But the revolutionary potential of education is that it provides agency, no matter how small we may seem. We are lucky to have the opportunity to convey this sense of wonder to our students. Understanding our collective, shared role as actors is the first step towards positioning our students to recognize their own agency and appreciate others’ roles and perspectives.
We must also become aware of our own cultural assumptions and understand the processes that explain our relationships. Another joy of teaching is constantly learning and growing alongside our students. We cannot begin to understand their struggles, their beliefs, and their worldview, without understanding our own. Consider the cultural “baggage” and biases you may bring to the classroom. What aspects of your own life influence the way you see your students and the kind of engagement you are attempting to facilitate?
Use this critical framework to help students identify and make connections between issues in their school, community, the nation, and beyond. In this stage, students are equipped to synthesize connections by analyzing their own life experiences within a cultural, political, and historical context.
Where Are Your Students Coming From?
One of the most fundamental actions as educators is to understand where our students are coming from—both literally and figuratively. Two important questions I always ask are, “Where has this student’s interest come from?” and “Why does this student have this level of skill and not another?”
Understanding your students’ socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds has implications in all aspects of teaching. Considering your students’ backgrounds can also help you engage them in issues that extend far beyond their community. For students who do not have access to travel, this can be challenging. But as I will show, utilizing aspects of transformative, emancipatory learning, we can empower our students to think critically and make global connections.
In his groundbreaking work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed—a book that has had a profound influence on my own teaching and worldview—the late Brazilian activist and educator, Paulo Freire, speaks of human consciousness as emerging from the world around it. Only by objectifying the world and naming it, can we begin to understand and transform it.
The critical component to understanding and empathizing with others, which can often get overlooked in the classroom, is the act of critical self-reflection. To understand other points of view, we first need to understand our own frames of reference and the assumptions that inform ours. These assumptions are simply another way of naming the social and cultural forces that shape our relationships to others in our community, our family structures, and our habits in thinking, which have, until now, remained unchallenged. These can lead us to view some groups of people in ways that do not foster compassion, understanding, and solidarity. Acknowledging their existence is key to honest critique.
Freire ascribes an almost revolutionary power to dialogue. The goal of reflective learning is not simply to reiterate facts and dominant narratives, but to reckon with and understand the structures that give rise to the world around us. Dialogue, in this sense, consists of two components, reflection and action, which, together, create opportunities for discovery and transformative change. In the classroom, this can take the form of simple actions like Socratic questioning and the iterative (back-and-forth) process of constructive critique.
Do not be afraid to challenge your students to clarify their views and justify their opinions. It is obvious that students want to discuss some controversial topics. Some of them may just need a little help articulating their point of view. Ask questions such as, “Why do you believe your opinion on this issue is just?” and “Why might those who disagree with you say their perspective is just?” This can open the conversation to all participants and build empathy.
One way to do this is to recognize and highlight students’ shared individual and collective experiences. What are the issues affecting them outside the walls of your classroom? Through the practice of dialogue, it is vital that we seek to understand our student’s struggles and the concerns that preoccupy them, however trivial, mundane, or exasperating they may seem to us. We might then be forced to confront the assumptions in our own lives that lead us to view our students’ problems and issues in this way.
If you have never attempted this level of dialogue and critical self-reflection with your students, this can be a daunting task. Perhaps at this point, you may need to step back and consider the role of trust within your classroom. Trust, like love, involves vulnerability and demands a horizontal relationship between subjects. Through a transparent process of critical self-reflection and inquiry, you can gain the trust of your students and begin to form the kinds of personal bonds that will encourage them to explore the more vulnerable aspects of their identity and sense of self. When a student is engaged in serious dialogue with a teacher or adult they trust, not only will they become more open with their feelings and opinions, but this also greatly increases the potential for examining and challenging the values they’ve previously taken for granted.
It’s not about being “cool.” Engaging students on their level means giving them a platform to express their own realities and having the level of awareness to acknowledge them and where they are. Establishing a horizontal relationship in the classroom is about democratizing the learning process through dialogue, not a total break with all established norms.
Empowerment & Action
By engaging your students in dialogue, you are empowering your students to take control of their learning and opening the possibility for meaningful connections. Only when our students’ personal experiences are validated and “legitimized” by adults, will they be prepared to extend the same respect and recognition to the experiences of others.
Through dialogue and empowerment, we can help students find their voice at a time when so much of their world is changing and evolving. The goal is to bring students to the intersection of reflection and action alluded to earlier, what Freire termed praxis, or informed action. At this point, you can begin to explore concrete connections. Encourage students to become involved in politics, whether that’s student council or city council. Ask your students what they would change in their community, if they could, and then research ways to turn this rhetoric into reality. Even if the odds are long, what can students do to inform and begin to build connections within their community? What are other groups and communities doing to confront similar challenges? Let us empower our students to sympathize with the struggles and perspectives of people from diverse backgrounds.
March for Our Lives and the recently re-energized climate debate sparked by young activists in the Sunrise Movement and the 16-year-old Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, have inspired similar movements across the world. Together, they provide an inspiring model for collective action in the face of daunting odds. By recognizing our shared humanity and naming the structural forces that underlie society, students can begin to make concrete connections with the experiences and lives of others.
Freire, P. (1996). The pedagogy of the oppressed. East Rutherford, NJ: Penguin.