Dr. Evelyn Newman Phillips
Living in complex societies requires that students not only know information related to diverse disciplines but also be astute problem solvers. Corporate downsizing, computer technology and the reconfiguration of national borders remind us that today's relevant information may be obsolete tomorrow. The key to being an astute global citizen is being able to critically analyze situations, understand the context in which they arise and adjust as necessary.
Therefore, to prepare students to live competently in a complicated planet, my teaching philosophy is undergirded by the theoretical assumptions of critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy is methodology proposed by Paulo Freire. This approach suggests that teaching students tools of inquiry empowers them to investigate diverse situations when the teacher is no longer available.
For such learning to occur, certain conditions must be created in the classroom. The hierarchical relationship between the teacher and student is reconfigured. Learning should relate to students' world and allow them to find their distinct voices. Overall, a critical learning atmosphere must permit an open dialogue between teacher and students who bring diverse worldviews to the learning process.
I began this essay by discussing the need for critical pedagogy in helping students become proactive citizens in the world. In the remaining section of this paper, I will discuss how critical pedagogy became a part of my approach to facilitating knowledge. Later, I will explain how I apply critical pedagogy in the classroom and the implications for my approach with students here at Central Connecticut State University.
While a Peace Corps volunteer in the Gambia, I was confronted with the responsibility for developing a health education program for Mandinka women who were not formally schooled. This formidable task was eased as I encountered Paulo Freire's work for the first time. I was inspired by his conviction that "every human being, no matter how 'ignorant' or submerged in the 'culture of silence' he (sic) may be is capable of looking critically at his world in a dialogical encounter with others. Provided with the proper tools he can perceive his personal and social reality as well as the contradictions in it, become conscious of his own perception of that reality, and deal critically with it." Freire argues that each person has the capacity to analyze his or her world and to transform it. This outlook eliminated what could have been a dialectical and yet dependent relationship between me, as teacher, and the women as students. Instead it revealed that as a health worker I had to become an astute observer of the women's lives and understand how their actions were linked to their culture. This encounter led me to incorporate critical pedagogy as a part of my teaching experience.
The value of this approach was further affirmed when I studied for my doctorate. During this period I was trained to critically analyze others' positions and synthesize my own thoughts. My professors encouraged me to find my own voice without degrading the perspectives that I brought to the learning process.
As a professional I left feeling even stronger about problem- posing education. I believed that problem-posing education should be initiated in undergraduate training. Knowing that not every undergraduate has an opportunity to enter graduate school, I decided that in addition to helping students to understand the specific content of anthropology and social work, I was required to help them to explore why things occur in various contexts and what can be done to improve conditions.
To empower students to become problem solvers, I seek to demystify the learning process. The first aspect is to humanize the relationship between me and the students. I tell students that as a teacher, I am not an omnipotent being; my role is to help facilitate their learning. They are reminded that learning is a mutual relationship between teacher and student. To demonstrate this belief to the students, I negotiate with the students each syllabus. I want students to offer suggestions concerning topics and issues that interest them. I want students to know that I occupy the position as teacher simply because I have spent more years studying issues in anthropology and social work--not that I am better than they are. The second aspect of the demystification of the learning process involves eliminating the concept of intelligence. The construct of whose is smart and who is dumb often undermines one's passion to learn. As an anthropologist, I pose how different problems may be addressed in different cultures to show what may seem to be common sense and intelligent in one culture may be considered inappropriate and imbecile behavior in another. Furthermore, the context of intelligence tests are discussed and students are shown why anthropologists agree that intelligence can not be measured and is merely a social construct. Without an assumption of intelligence as a defining characteristic of one's capacity, I seek to motivate students to go beyond what has been typically expected of them. Proverbs and quotes are freely distributed throughout my syllabi to remind students that persistence rather than "intelligence" is a major key to achievement.
In addition to eliminating false assumptions about learning, I seek to draw on the students' world to link and teach new concepts. I often use journals, life histories, guest lecturers and field trips to remind students that constructs written about in texts are related in some way to their lives. In various classes, students are asked to document life histories of local community members in order for them to gain a better understanding of how historical events and conditions figure prominently in everyday life. In a social work class, when discussing different cultural perspectives toward health and healing, I introduce students to botanicas in New Britain and Hartford. To help them to understand the context and role of the botanicas, they are urged to link this resource to immigration, finance and spirituality in the Puerto Rican and Latino culture. These activities help students see that learning is not an abstract and sterile exercise but is related to their lives.
To further provide students learning experiences that they may apply in their everyday existence, I actively engage students in research, cross-cultural experiences and communities. In 1995, Maribel Santana, a social work student assisted me in documenting indigenous organizations in Hartford through a Faculty-Student Mentorship grant. During the 1997-1998 term, two students accompanied me to St. Petersburg, Florida. As researchers, they talked to residents, attended meetings and helped conduct archival research. Also, during the past two years with Professor Charles Mate-Kole, I have led students to Ghana for study tours. This year I was instrumental in creating opportunities for four students to spend spring semester at the University of Ghana at Legon. Recently, I developed an internship program in anthropology. I believe if students are permitted to apply their knowledge in settings outside of the classroom, then they are more likely to gain confidence and skills.
Integrating students' world views in the learning process is crucial in reducing cognitive dissonance when introducing new concepts. Proposed theories, assumptions and facts may challenge students values and beliefs. This issue often arises when teaching evolution. Before we discuss the data, some students will explicitly state that they do not believe in evolution. My purpose is not to convert them but simply to offer them information which they may integrate as they feel necessary. To show respect for students' beliefs and provide them concrete ways of considering the possibility of evolution, I share various creation stories from diverse cultures. Also, I may pose questions about how practices and appearances in their own families have evolved during the past hundred years. A review of family albums may indicate that height and size have changed significantly since their grandparents' generation, primarily due to nutrition and social conditions. Without denying students' beliefs, I encourage them to question how beliefs about evolution emerged and under what conditions people adhere to certain concepts. The answers that they find are generated by their investigations rather than my imposition as a professor.
My teaching philosophy encourages students to reframe learning experiences, observe, pose questions and analyze situations. If students are able to critically examine their world, understand contexts and the interconnectedness of life, then advanced technology, downsizing and people with different cultural views are not considered major threats but opportunities to explore new prospects. Data may become obsolete but the tools of inquiry will enable them to survive and help transform their world.
Dr. Evelyn Newman Phillips
DiLoreto Room 110C
Central Connecticut State University
1615 Stanley Street
New Britain, CT 06050-4010