5 Disruptive Pedagogy and the Practice of Freedom

Julie Fellmayer

“The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions… What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change and fight it — at no matter what risk. This is the only hope that society has. This is the only way societies change.”

~ James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”

Despite the edgy tone that accompanies ubiquitous calls for “disruption,” I have yet to hear any edtech expert or 21st century education guru refer to disruption in the transgressive sense that Baldwin was evoking 54 years ago. The difference, of course, is that Baldwin was not worried about preparing students for “the jobs of the future.” Too many modern educational calls for disruption tout themselves as progressive and revolutionary, and yet ultimately do not see students so much as they see future employees. Baldwin, on the other hand, was demanding the disruption of this “ideal citizenry” through transgressive education. This was well before any app, coding system, or pedagogical trend had come along and claimed to carve out a pathway to societal utopia.

Ultimately, what is missing from these modern calls for disruption in education is an acknowledgement of the humanity of students and the societal perils many of them have to negotiate.  Dissimilarly, in Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks urges teachers to contemplate “education as the practice of freedom” as their point of departure for praxis. A phrase originating from the work of Paulo Freire, hooks writes that “education as the practice of freedom” will come easiest “to those of us … who believe that our work is not merely to share information, but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” Transgressive education and disruptive thinking therefore begin with the soul, and not the prospective career opportunities, of students.

What does it mean, therefore, to care for a student’s soul in a disruptive sense? When I first read the hooks passage, I didn’t even stop to consider and contemplate the meaning behind it. I blindly believed I understood it — that educators should endeavour to practice freedom for all and if we care about students as individuals we can help them to be intellectually and spiritually free. I care about my students, I care about, understand, and respect them as individuals. I differentiate for their needs; surely I am engaging in education as the practice of freedom? Surely my inclusive and individualized practice is disruptive of traditional educational constraints?

One nagging caveat of my reading of hooks was the realisation that, for the past eight years, I have been playing it pretty safe in my career. If I as a teacher, an individual with more power than any student, have not been challenging myself to be intellectually and spiritually free in my practice, how much freedom can my students possibly experience?

In referencing Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh, hooks states, “teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.” One might ask, is this self-actualization only about self-care, mindfulness and full mental and physical health? Or does self-actualization demand something much deeper and more difficult to acknowledge?

I am a straight, white, cisgender, mostly able-bodied, “appropriately” secular, middle-age, middle class, highly-educated, married woman. For just about every element of societal interaction or social participation, I am the “default” or even the “preferred” option. One might think that, from the perspective of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, I am actually pretty close to self-actualization.

Triangle of stacked layers, from bottom up: Physiological needs, Safety needs, Belongingness and love needs, Esteem needs, Self-actualization
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

Much of my privilege provides me with considerable safety, of life, limb and personal property. Societal norms support and reinforce my accomplishments, choices and physical appearance, providing me with ample self-esteem. It appears that my “well-being,” as hooks puts it, is being met. It is important to acknowledge, therefore, that I can reach Maslow’s heights of self-actualization not only because I have a number of my fundamental needs met, but more importantly because I benefit from white supremacy, and from cis-het supremacy, and from the class system.

There isn’t much that stands in my way in life. I will never have to worry that my students or their parents might find out I am gay. I will never feel the anxiety of being the only person of colour in my school. I worry more about the number of steps I can accumulate in a day than I am concerned about negotiating physically inaccessible buildings. I walk into my gender assigned washroom confidently and without fear. I speak my mother-tongue in cities around the world with the assurance that someone will be able to communicate with me.  I always know where my next meal will come from.

I believe that to correctly understand bell hook’s conception of self-actualization one has to be willing to acknowledge their privilege. If I reap the rewards of an unequal society, I cannot, as hooks requests, “be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes [my] own well-being.” Without acknowledging my privilege, I can never be truly self-actualized. Without using my privilege to actively disrupt the status quo, I can never be self-actualized.

Therefore, I must admit to myself that my initial response to engaging in true disruption through “education as the practice of freedom” can be summed up as, “Well, that’s just too hard.” Ultimately, I am aware that to appropriately incorporate freedom in praxis is to be willing to take on some risk.

In my case risk relates to the potential sacrifice of privilege.  By demanding that education be the practice of freedom I risk rocking what is, for the most part, an extremely comfortable boat. The truth is, I don’t ever have to do anything to combat oppression, and my life will be just fine. However, for anyone marginalised by systemic oppression, incurring risk is an unfortunate but necessary element of speaking truth to power. On the daily.

For those of us on the frontline of K-12 teaching, “education as the practice of freedom” requires forthright discussion and action regarding subjects that are messy (at least in terms of their challenge to the agreed narrative and the cultural status quo) and this messiness can potentially make people uncomfortable, confused, upset, angry, and even potentially confrontational or worse, violent. Administrators and teachers and colleagues generally do not want to embrace the concept of education as the practice of freedom if it means rocking the boat too much.

Furthermore, it requires most of us to stop talking and to listen and promote the voices of people often marginalized in education. With the majority of teachers still being white women — and those in educational positions of power being mostly white men — the majority of us need to thoroughly educate ourselves in order to self-actualize. A small, but essential, first step is to immerse yourself in the work of as many POC, feminist, activist, and academic writers, bloggers, podcasters and tweeters as possible. I personally have been inspired by the work of educator and blogger Sherri Spelic, educator and author Rusul Alrubail, authors and journalists Ijeoma Oluo and Nikole Hannah Jones, podcaster and academic Dr. Hannah McGregor, and the authors and academics Dr. Roxane Gay, Dr. Adrienne Keene, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom and Dr. Robin Diangelo. Ideally, this self-education would also follow the lead of Dr. Erin Stutelberg — a professor of education who teaches about racism using the pyramid of white-supremacy — by making anti-white supremacy a core part of my teaching practice. This is the level of risk-taking in teaching that I’m talking about.

So be honest. It is much more comfortable to couch our true feelings in generalities that insinuate progressive ideals than to speak truth to power. We might believe we can incrementally move the conversation towards a brighter and more inclusive realm by incorporating some kind of “universal humanistic” approach to education. Unfortunately, in such a paradigm, it’s more important that people avoid feeling uncomfortable and avoid challenging the status quo until a moment arises that presents us with a real shot at “success.” One day we can truly practice freedom, but for now that freedom is still merely an aspiration.

Perhaps you think me cynical — even if I need to work on checking my privilege, I am ignoring the many well-intentioned, thoughtful, engaged educators out there that want to make the world a better place.  Many teachers make equity issues a core element of their teaching. Many schools consider equity to be their reason for being. I applaud their efforts and encourage them to push themselves to do even more. As Jesse Stommel stated in his keynote address, “Queering Open Pedagogy,” at the Vancouver Digital Pedagogy Lab, “There’s a shit-load more work to do… The point that you think you’ve made it an inclusive event is the point that you’ve just dead failed at making an inclusive event.” The same is true of schools and classrooms — to refer to oneself as inclusive without consistently challenging that assumption is to avoid hearing voices that may disrupt our belief that our inclusive values and good intentions are enough.

Freire writes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world.” If, as educators, our aim is to disrupt pedagogy and present our students with an authentic educational experience, then we have to be willing to name and attack patriarchy, white supremacy, and neoliberalism. In an interview with Robin Young from 2017, the incredible writer, poet and educator Clint Smith said,

I think I fell victim to the fear of wanting to create an apolitical space in the classroom and revisiting “A Talk to Teachers” served as a really important reminder that the very decision to not discuss certain things in your classroom, is in and of itself, a political decision. Because my students’ lives are impacted by political decisions every single day, and I think it’s important for teachers to think about ways to try to facilitate and create a space where they can engage in those conversations in a meaningful way. (“Why James Baldwin’s ‘A Talk to Teachers’ Remains Relevant 54 Years Later”)

I have fallen victim to the same fear. As a teacher in an international school, my privilege, and the privilege of my students, has made the discussion of social and political concerns seem to lack urgency. It’s not as though we don’t tackle serious world issues such as child poverty, slave labour, access to clean water and the Sustainable Development Goals. From the perspective of a good, liberal, international curriculum, a focus on such topics is unequivocally important. It is easy, however, to present such topics from the perspective of a saviour and never consider our roles as perpetrators of inequality. What a difference it would make if we talked to our students frankly about the globally damaging effects of patriarchy and white supremacy. What if we critiqued political or international action (such as the SDGs) through an examination of neoliberal policy? Imagine if it was common practice to teach K-12 history through the lens of post-colonialism. The typical response to such perspectives is to label them “too political” or “too agenda driven” — as though a universal humanistic approach provides a bias-less, agenda-free educational platform. If we are honest with ourselves, as Clint Smith is, to avoid openly speaking and acting against oppressive forces (patriarchy, white supremacy, neoliberalism) is not to be apolitical but rather to shore up such forces.

To interpret bell hook’s definition of “freedom” is to acknowledge that education in its current form advantages or disadvantages people to different degrees. Consider Kimberlé Crenshaw’s definition of intersectionality as a weight or influence originating from systems of power that affect individuals with varying degrees of pressure. From the perspective of intersectionality, schools, curriculum and pedagogy are bound to the same systemic forces that perpetuate systemic inequality. hooks and Friere’s understanding of freedom is an unparalleled level of disruption; it demands a de-centering of the standard narrative within society and education. Despite the best intentions of schools and individual praxis, without an acknowledged and proactive deconstruction of power structures, education cannot deflate the pressure of an oppressive system. “Education as the practice of freedom” demands that self-actualized educators open and centre the conversation and the cannon around marginalised voices and their narratives.

For those of us knowledgeable of bell hooks, Paulo Freire, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Clint Smith and James Baldwin, and who get the problematic strains within the business of education,” the ideas I am unpacking are nothing new. To embrace “education as the practice of freedom” is to understand that there is no legitimate conversation about disruption in education that doesn’t include a focus on fighting oppression. Ultimately, what all teachers want is to provide a profound educational experience for students. In order to genuinely pursue such a profound educational experience, those of us with considerable privilege need to heed Baldwin’s words and begin deliberately incurring risk.


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Critical Digital Pedagogy by Julie Fellmayer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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