The Scoop: Alternative News & Views

From Classroom to Radio to Sewing Collective: The Classroom as a Contradictory Space

Mireille Coral, Jeff Noonan

09 June 2016 in Education

Our article this month is divided into two parts. The first is a concise reflection on the principle of critical pedagogy; the second is an extended discussion of an attempt to put this principle into practice.

Unsettling Authority Through Asking The Question "Why"

Teaching is a contradictory practice. In so far as the aim of teaching is to expand and deepen students' understanding of the world, how it became the world it is, what possibilities for change exist, and what the possible grounds of justification for possible changes are, it rightly takes itself to be a liberatory art. At the same time, the dyad "teacher-student" implies an unequal power relationship in which the teacher is the active transmitter of knowledge and the student the passive recipient. This inequality is reinforced in the traditional classroom: in its spatial organization (teacher at the front, students lined up in rows facing her or him), in its disciplinary codes and rules, in the threat of sanctions for breaking the rules, in its curricula that are constrained and mandated by bureaucratic-political power. The aim of critical pedagogy has been to free teaching from the hierarchical structures of power in which it is embedded, often but not always by freeing teaching from the classroom.

From our perspective the real issue of critical pedagogy is not whether it occurs inside or outside the classroom. The teaching of team sports usually occurs outside the classroom, but typically in highly authoritarian contexts where the coach's word is law. Simply freeing teaching from a classroom does not guarantee that its methods or its result will be liberatory. Far more important is the practice and value-commitments of the teacher. In elementary and secondary schools it is almost impossible to deviate from the ministry-mandated curriculum, but nothing constrains the way in which the teacher engages the students or the scope of the conversations the material engenders. Even in the traditional classroom and with an assigned curriculum the teacher can prioritise discussion over transmission, focus on underlying themes and their implications for the lives of people rather than surface facts whose assimilation is easy to test but whose life-value is nil, and help lead the conversation towards refection on the ultimate problem of life: is the way we are living now the best way of living, and if not, why not, and what can be done about it? Underlying this complex of questions is a simple question that children are good at asking: "why?" The question "why" is perhaps the line that divides conservative from critical pedagogy. When the question "why" is asked of any practice, procedure, or conclusion, authority (including, especially, the authority of the teacher) is put on the defensive: it now has to justify itself, and if the justification is inadequate (if "why" can appropriately be asked again) it risks losing its legitimacy. Given the unsettling effects of "why" on power, it works to socialise children out of their natural curiosity and anti-authoritarianism. Conservative pedagogy is impatient with the student (at any level of the educational system) who persists in demanding reasons (which is what the question why demands). Hence, the first and most essential task of the critical teacher is to nurture in the students the confidence to ask the question why. If it cannot be asked safely in the classroom, students will not develop the courage to ask it in the "real world," where the consequences for challenging authority can be severe. In the second part of the article we will examine an attempt by Coral to put these principles into practice.

Putting the Principle to Work

In attempting to engage students in a critical pedagogy, the biggest challenge I have encountered is an attitude of defeat: students who believe that there is no point to fighting for better life since the poor never win; those with power and money will shape society as best fits their needs. "There’s nothing you can do about it" became a kind of mantra among these students. According to this view, fighting for justice takes too much time, is too dangerous, and produces too few results. Another challenge that I have encountered is a belief that nothing good can come from Windsor; after all, we live in the rectum of the world. The classroom seemed to me a good place to address these attitudes. Assigned to teach the Ontario Literacy Credit to adults, I began the course with a discussion about the loss of factories and jobs in Windsor, placing this phenomenon within the context of neoliberal policies such as free trade agreements. We didn’t stop being the Motor City because we’re losers.

We read about other municipalities who have had to redefine themselves as a result of deindustrialization. Often, cities turn to tourism as a way to reinvent their economies, tourism being a seemingly quick way of bringing cash into a community. We also read about the problems with tourism-based economies; for example, the work created tends to be low-wage non-unionized work. Towns and cities that do not already have natural attractions–beaches or mountains–must build tourist attractions and then hope that the tourists will come.

Of course, this has been the case in Windsor. The City of Windsor has responded to the loss of manufacturing jobs by building an aquatic centre that has cost a community its pool and taxpayers millions. It has not significantly improved the unemployment crisis in the city, and will now be closed three days a week. I asked my students, "Can we solve our own problems in Windsor without relying on outside advice?" We read about worker co-ops, and talked about the skills that people in the class had, skills that they had acquired in their lives through work and life experience. Out of this discussion, a sewing collective was born, but not without going on the radio first.

As a class, we decided that we would produce an edition of The Shake Up, a social justice radio programme at CJAM, the campus community radio station at the University of Windsor. The theme the students chose was justice, and the stories they told ranged from poisoned water in Flint and the implications for cities like Windsor, to the Raise the Rates campaign in Ontario. The students first had to overcome their fears about being on the radio, including, in some cases, traditional upbringing which taught women to be quiet. Being on the radio provided people with an opportunity to talk about their lives, their concerns, and what they saw as important. People who thought that they had nothing important to say about living in a city and province with (seemingly) dwindling resources read poetry, conducted interviews, and read from prepared texts. They accomplished something collectively, something that they thought that they couldn't do, and that's when women began to approach me about getting together to sew.

The fact that some of the women didn't know how to sew didn't seem to matter. Collective work now made sense, having come together on the radio. We’ve been meeting for a few Fridays, now, teaching each other to sew with our eye on creating items that we can sell perhaps as a worker co-op. It's been fun and exciting learning new skills and forming new friendships.