An Exploration of the Learner's Responsibility in Progressive Education
The learner in progressive education
Top-down forms of discourse are prevalent in the traditional education system, while democratic forms of discourse are widely adopted in progressive classrooms. Regardless of the structure of communication, educators are responsible for nurturing learners. This implicit expectation is commonly held by the parties involved in the educational process. It contributes to the assumption, whether justified or not, that educators must be failing in some ways to educate students if the latter show a lack of enthusiasm for learning, display inadequate knowledge or understanding of the subject matter, or experience difficulty with applying the knowledge that they acquired. In response to these observations, educators are likely to reflect on and modify their teaching style. However, if teachers are changing the way they teach by adopting more progressive forms of pedagogy, will students change the way they learn? Will students also change their perceptions of teacher responsibility? I wish to explore the issue of student responsibility in progressive education, specifically in the context of dialectic classrooms. The writings of Freire, as well as one student's frustration with reading Beloved as a result of her teacher's failure to make the text accessible, led me to examine the responsibility of the teacher and student in education. Specifically, how does the student perceive his or her own role in the process of becoming educated?
Prior to attending college in the United States, I received my primary and secondary education in Singapore. The transition from a predominantly banking system of education to a progressive learning environment made it necessary for me to re-conceptualize my role as a learner. Speaking from personal experience, I learned how to study in Singapore and how to learn in the United States. For me, learning involves the cultivation of intellectual virtues and studying involves the mastery of information-processing techniques that enable one to succeed in a testing situation. I therefore drew on my experience through this transition, as well as my participation in an introductory education class that experiments with progressive pedagogy, to map out some ideas about the learner's responsibilities in progressive education.
To reform education is to change pedagogy and re-conceptualize the role of the learner
It appears that ways of teaching and learning are usually addressed in relation to the role of the educator. Consequently, the focus is on the responsibility of the educator to modify and improve their teaching practices to better facilitate the learning of students. The good intentions of educators and researchers who have written on different ways to refine teaching practice in the best interests of students might have ironically constrained the role of the student to a subject that is only acted upon, not a subject that is also capable of self-directed action. Reflective practice, as explicated by Carol Rodgers (2003), calls for educators to solicit feedback from learners as a means to refine teaching practice. Teachers are encouraged to perceive students as a resource that serves to inform and enrich their pedagogy. It follows that in order to empower students in their own education, it is necessary to revise current teaching practice to provide students with the opportunity to share their classroom experiences with teachers. By casting the spotlight on ways to improve pedagogy, the role of students in the educational process often goes unexamined. While reflective practice may help teachers become more responsive to students' learning needs, interests, and learning styles, it also increases student involvement in his or her education in an indirect way.
I question whether pedagogy is the only element in the framework of education that needs to be examined and changed in order to help students achieve their educational potential or their educational goals. Education consists of both teaching and learning. In a way, the emphasis that teachers reform their pedagogy—by observing and listening to students—without explicitly addressing the need for students to change their own involvement in the learning process, suggests that students can benefit from a new teaching practice without making complementary adjustments. If the educator is the active agent of teaching, then students are by default the active agents of learning. The two domains are interactive but separate. At present, the two domains seem to have become intertwined, such that teaching and learning are addressed as similar issues. It is often assumed that changes in pedagogy transform the way students learn. In reality, although changes in pedagogy make it essential for students to change the way they participate in the learning process, pedagogical reforms may not necessarily transform the way students learn and/or think about education. Educators might have the perception that students are just students.
As suggested by Cook-Sather, "we need metaphors that cast students as the active makers of not only their own meaning but also of their own selves" (17). The pervasive metaphors of education as production and cure, as well as metaphors of teachers as gardener or sculptor (see Cook-Sather, 2003), cast students as passive subjects incapable of initiating action and of actively fashioning their personal growth. These metaphors are incongruent with James Baldwin's conception of the purpose of education, which is to equip students with the necessary skills to create an identity for themselves. Ideally, education should help the learner develop "the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions" and "to ask questions of the universe, and then to live with those questions" (4). Given the guidance and support of educators, the learner as a passive recipient of knowledge could become more knowledgeable in the subject matter and acquire critical thinking skills with practice. Hence, Baldwin's focus may not be on the acquisition of skills per se but the importance of personal development, especially in terms of the cultivation of intellectual virtues. I understand Baldwin as describing a learner that possesses a genuine curiosity of the world and is motivated to "explore and examine" rather than "compete and complete" (Cook-Sather, 11). In a way, the process of education also entails a gradual moving away from dependence toward independence with regard to the student's role as a learner and an individual. I agree with Cook-Sather that "effective transformation is one effected by the self with the guidance and support of others" (18) (italics mine). Without learners taking responsibility for their education, it is difficult to imagine how education can accomplish the purpose of developing the "person" in the learner.
Metaphorically, we have to allow the learner to step out from the shadow of the educator and embrace his or her identity as an unfinished being capable of self-directed action. To achieve this end, how can teachers communicate the responsibility of the learner to their students and how may students assume more responsibility in their learning? I use the term responsibility to refer to two things: a sense of purpose in learners that direct them to be involved in their own learning, as well as to take charge of their own education. The former refers to the specific duties that learners fulfill to contribute to their own learning. The latter requires the learner to define for him or herself the value and meaning of education, integrate knowledge with experience, and consciously create coherence to facilitate self-development. It would thus be valuable to explore the responsibility of the student in his or her own education.
Exploring the concept of dialogue in progressive education
The form of discourse practiced in classrooms has a significant impact on the learning of both teachers and students. Paulo Freire opposes the banking concept of education, which is representative of top-down forms of discourse, advocating for a democratic form of discourse where teachers speak "with" rather than "to" their students. Class discussion is commonly used to facilitate a bidirectional exchange of ideas between teacher and students, as well as among students themselves. This structure of participation implies that the students' responsibility is to attend to the content of the discussion and articulate their perspectives, which are assumed to be informed by the act of listening as well. The concept of dialogue, however, may not be simple as it may seem. How is "listening" different in the context of a top-down discourse and democratic discourse? Are students consciously aware of this distinction, and how might this awareness influence their individual participation?
Generally, how should students participate in the dialogue in order to enrich their own learning and that of other students? What would it mean for students to speak responsibly? Clearly, different kinds of participation structures require different approaches to learning. Yet, educators seldom communicate such changes explicitly to students, many of whom may be more accustomed to top-down forms of discourse. How would the failure to address such implicit adjustments in student participation hinder the process of knowledge construction in a dialectic classroom? In view of these questions, it may be useful to consider the pattern of interaction among students in a dialectic classroom and examine how students attempt to make sense of an ongoing classroom dialogue to make the discussion informative and relevant to themselves.
The learner's responsibility, as a participant in a dialogue, to engage in reflective practice
As a student in Critical Issues in Education, I noticed two interesting characteristics of our class discussions, which were organized with students seated in a circle. Firstly, students may express their views and ideas about an issue without being engaged in a conversation with either the teacher or a student. The conversational space in the center of the circle becomes a "collection center" that holds seemingly scattered ideas, with the professor trying to pull some of our ideas together and challenging students to extend their thinking. Secondly, students may be in dialogue with one another, listening and/or speaking. In the process, students exchange views and explore ideas together, reconcile or embrace conflict, and build on one other's thoughts. The space within the circle becomes an "communal working space," with the professor trying to synthesize the major issues and posing questions that may advance students' thinking.
Both aspects of dialogue are played out during each discussion. However, one pattern of discourse may dominate over the other on some days. On days where the first is rarely followed by second, I found it difficult to articulate what I have learned from listening to the contributions of other students. Presumably, each student takes from the collection center whichever ideas provoke their thinking. The focus of the discussion may shift from one issue to another with a surface examination of interesting topics. The discussion is not anchored by a few thought-provoking questions or issues, but a breadth of issues from the readings are addressed or alluded to in passing. On days where the conversation transitions from this form of discourse to a more in-depth exploration of a few selected issues, I felt that the discussion was more directed and educative. Oftentimes, it is when some students actively defend their views or question other students' perspectives that a genuine dialogue occurs, and the discussion is made richer with fellow students raising thoughtful questions or offering new insights.
The quality of dialogue, which is contingent on the participation structure, affects what and how much is learned by the learners. In order to facilitate learning, teachers are often sensitive to the patterns of discourse that occur during discussion. Students, however, also have to aware of how dialogue is played out in the classroom in order to make a positive contribution to the conversation. They could be responsible for their learning by exercising metacognitive skills to examine and reflect on their classroom participation. What elements contribute to a productive dialogue? What makes another student think differently? "Did I respond to my peer's ideas constructively or did I share an anecdote that is interesting but does not serve to stimulate the discussion?" "Was I being defensive about my ideas (and why)?" When students engage in "reflective practice," they could learn to enrich the dialogue.
Becoming conscious of the ways in which one participates in a dialogue also elicits an integration of the "self" with knowledge, which is often de-contextualized. In top-down forms of discourse, knowledge is "factual and separate" rather than "personal and constructed" (Rodgers, 23). By examining their participation and reactions, students could learn more about themselves and the way they think. More importantly, students might use this self-knowledge to change their current style of participation. This form of reflective practice is complementary to the constructivist model for learning, as students actively intervene with the quality of dialogue through their participation and help create the conditions that would best facilitate learning.
The responsibility of the learner to create coherence
During a class discussion about multicultural education, a fellow classmate expressed her frustration of not being able to understand the book Beloved due to a lack of appropriate guidance and support from her high school teacher. The utility of reading works by non-white authors started a conversation among several students in an online forum on Blackboard that led to an examination of the teacher's role in making multicultural literature accessible to students. The general consensus is that teachers are responsible for helping students gain an understanding and appreciation of the text. Students become victims of poor teaching when teachers themselves feel uncomfortable addressing the historical context associated with the text. It is one thing, however, to say that the teacher's responsibility is to help students make sense of the reading, and another to say that students do not have the responsibility to make sense of it for themselves. The latter notion makes it acceptable for students to rely on teachers to manage their ignorance.
To become more involved in their education, students must first realize "connections between what they studied and who they are becoming" (Schubert in Lesnick, Bb posting). In the banking system of education, educators are not obligated to help students achieve coherence. The responsibility thus falls on students to make relevant connections between knowledge and their personal development; whether students are aware of this responsibility, which I conceived to be more of a shortcoming than strength of the banking system, is another issue. In progressive education, it appears to be solely the responsibility of the educator to help students achieve coherence. The pertinent issue here is not whether teachers or students are responsible for making the material coherent.
Education must enable the learner to develop both intellectually and as a person. However, the educator cannot effect this process of transformation alone without the cooperation of the learner, who also has to be actively involved in the process of making something coherent for him or herself. Most educators strive to teach in ways that students will learn but may be unaware of the effectiveness of their instruction until it may be too late for changes to be made. Students can therefore contribute to their learning by taking the initiative to ask questions of themselves and of their teachers to construct their own understandings. The responsibility of creating coherence must be shared between educators and learners in order for education to transform the learner and for the learner to develop as person.
Learners must perceive themselves as an unfinished being and eternal truth-seeker
"Education does not make us educable. It is our awareness of being unfinished that makes us educable" Freire, p58
It is necessary for both educators and students to be aware of their "unfinishedness," which makes learning an essential aspect of life and provides the motivation for individuals to search, learn, and create coherence. The concept of unfinishedness does not translate simply into ignorance that is reduced by the acquisition of knowledge. It relates to the person as a moral being and thus, positive self-transformation through the power of knowledge is necessary. Consequently, it is important to grasp the essence of knowledge in order to develop and flourish. I understand "essence" to mean the significance of things, an illuminating insight of how seemingly unrelated pieces of existing and new information fit together to form a more coherent whole. Educators can help students understand the content, but they may be incapable of revealing its essence to students. Hence, it is the students' responsibility to uncover this essence for themselves in and out of the classroom, drawing on the teachings of the educator. The failure to do so is likely to affect the quality of dialogue and hinder the application of learning. Freire points out that genuine communication between the educator and learner can only be established when students grasp the essence of the content (106).
As unfinished beings, students should feel compelled to search for knowledge and truth without being cajoled or pushed. However, they generally do not appear to recognize themselves as unfinished. With regard to education, it is not uncommon for students to think of themselves and others in terms of intelligence or ability, as reflected by their academic performance. To take agency of their own education, students may need to experience learning as life itself. They must create and maintain a flow or continuity among all their learning experiences, both in and beyond the classroom. Regardless whether the qualities and competence of an educator hinder or facilitate their endeavor to strive for completeness, students must view themselves as active and eternal seekers of knowledge.
The responsibility of the learner to nurture curiosity
"Is my curiosity able to express itself? Is it growing?" -Freire, p85
In Pedagogy of Freedom, Freire distinguishes between ingenuous and epistemological curiosity and underlines the need for teachers to promote epistemological curiosity in order to help students become active creators of their knowledge (112). Ingenuous curiosity is intuitive, spontaneous, and uncritical. Epistemological curiosity is deliberate, reflective, and critical. I suggest that students assume responsibility for nurturing their ingenuous curiosity. Ingenuous curiosity is the impetus behind a student's enthusiasm for learning, without which the student becomes disinterested in and disengaged from learning.
In dialectic classrooms, students accustomed to top-down forms of discourse may either be content to play the role of the passive listener or are zealous about voicing their views. Both forms of participation are unlikely to increase the ingenuous or epistemological curiosity of students. As it may be tempting to listen passively when others speak and engage cursorily in a discussion by articulating their pre-formed views, students who reflect on the growth of their curiosity across time may be more aware of audience inertia; if they are serious about learning, they would make an attempt to participate more actively in class discussions. To nurture curiosity, students also have to keep an open mind. An open-minded student realizes that "no matter how important the issue, [his or her] opinion probably will not be the one truth long and anxiously awaited for by the multitudes" (Freire, 105). With this realization, the zealous student is more likely to listen patiently and attend to the words of the speaker, instead of waiting anxiously for the speaker to finish so he or she may have a turn. It is only when we listen with patience and a genuine desire to understand the speaker that we allow ourselves to be open to his or her words.
Conclusion: Challenging the notion of student passivity and dependence
Education is almost always conceived in terms of the responsibility of the educator, as suggested by the array of metaphors created to describe the role of teachers (see Cook-Sather, 2003). With respect to the aims of education, it is not uncommon to view students as esteemed products of an educator's work. For students to take agency, it is necessary to "displace the notion that a student is ‘passive, isolated, and rightfully dependent on the expertise and experience of others'" (Cook-Sather, 2003). Both educators and students have to challenge the notion of student passivity and dependence in constructive ways that will empower students to contribute to their learning and education.
In Experience and Education, Dewey asks, "What does freedom mean and what are the conditions under which it is capable of realization? (10)" In writing this paper, I wonder if the conceptualization of teacher-student interaction in terms of authority and freedom adequately reflects the modern concerns of progressive education. While it is important to be conscious of power relations, it is perhaps necessary to conceive teacher-student relationship in terms of individual responsibility as well. In my experience, the notion of student responsibility in a traditional educational system involves the completion of assignments on time, diligent practice and revision in preparation for tests or examinations, as well as the attainment of satisfactory grades for promotion to the next level of education. In progressive education, the idea of student responsibility encompasses not only all of the above duties, but also new responsibilities which students may not be aware.
Baldwin, James. "A Talk to Teachers" Multicultural Literacy. Simonson, Rick and Scott Walker, Eds. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1988. 4.
Cook-Sather, Alison. Movements of Mind: The Matrix, Metaphors, and Re-imagining
Education. Teachers College Record 105 (2003): 946-77.
Dewey, John. Experience and Education. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1938.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of Freedom. Maryland; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2001.
Lesnick, Alice. Critical Issues in Education. Blackboard posting. 20 October 2004.
Rodgers, Carol. Seeing and Feeling Seen: The Central Roles of Description and Descriptive
Feedback on Reflective Practice. Chicago: American Education Research Association
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