Educating for Critical Consciousness

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Posted on April 10th, 2012 | Filed under Academic, Challenges, Community, Featured, Leadership, Learning, Philosophy, Social Issues

There is a crisis of higher education in Dhaka. The crisis is deep-seated, and not based on lack of resources, technology, or facilities. The crisis is a failure of human potential - a failure to capture the imagination of University students. A recent University graduate expressed the same sentiment as the “deprivation of the elation of learning.” This deprivation begins within the basic structure of the education system, extends through university, and ultimately impacts the future lives of students in both tangible and intangible ways.

Imagine you are born in Bangladesh. If born in Dhaka, at the age of three, your formal education begins with pre-kindergarten education (for children born in more remote villages, age seven). At the age of thirteen, you are tracked within the hierarchy of disciplines by a standardized test. If you score in the top tier, you are given the opportunity to study math and science, in the middle tier, you may study commerce, and if you score in the lowest tier you are locked into the arts and humanities.

In the first half of high school you complete your “O” levels, followed by an “A” level to receive a higher secondary certificate. Your education now diverges again. For university, you may sit for an exam to study at a public university, which is the most prestigious path. The exam again is memorization based and includes questions on Bengali, English, general knowledge, and topics from the specialty you wish to study. If you score well enough, you pay a nominal fee to study for four years. Conversely, you may enter a private university, at the rate of 6,000TK (100USD) per month.

By university, you have taken hundreds of tests, the majority knowledge based and standardized. Now begins your "higher education." At this point, the crisis is well underway. By the time you are 18, you may never have written a critical essay or been asked to defend your position on a topic. You may never have given a public presentation. The government recognizes the curricular problems in secondary education, and has a number of initiatives in the pipeline to change this. There are also great strides made in addressing early childhood development, and access to early education resources. The larger, unspoken crisis is the paucity of critical thought regarding the aims of university education. A hard-nosed economist or politician may frame the project of higher education as increasing "human capital," and improving the workforce. Yet this would fundamentally miss the point - to educate is about more than creating capital, human or otherwise.

The response to this crisis involves a willingness to redefine how we think about education. In my experience, the highest aim of university education is teaching for critical consciousness. This term comes from American progressive educators, and aims to capture a number of facets missing in the traditional education model. First, the word critical marks that something important is at stake in education. It also points to students as “critical” readers of texts, and critical thinkers. Second, the word consciousness marks that education is not about amassing facts, but changing how we see the world. An education aimed at teaching facts will ask students to solve traditional problems in text books, give these answers back on a text, and will have little interaction between disciplines. An education aimed at critical consciousness will ask students to pose new problems, seek out subtlety and conflict within a text, and to explore boundaries of a discipline and between classes. In short, it will ask students to re-imagine and recreate the world.

I will share my experience wrestling with this type of teaching, as an instructor of mathematic, physics, and philosophy. In doing so, I hope to convey the excitement, challenge, and dynamic nature of educating for critical consciousness.

I instruct a course in Science Studies, where students learn the foundation of the scientific method and explore connections between science and culture, gender and society. On my desktop, I currently have five separate syllabi for the remainder of the course. If I were following the traditional model of education, this would mark me as an utter failure as an instructor. After all, conventional wisdom say, “If you don’t know where you are going, how on earth are you going to get there?” In contrast, the objectives for the course develop weekly based on student dialogue and shared decision-making. A discussion on gender in science led to heated debate on innate difference in intelligence, which unexpectedly led to a unit on the science of intelligence testing. While the content of the course is dynamic, the skills required of the students – critical reading of scientific articles, classroom presentations, debate, and persuasive essay writing, run continuously throughout the course. This flexibility extends to student assignments, as students are required to write persuasive essays on different topics. While this is the norm within American Universities, it does not appear to be so in Bangladesh.

As an empirical question, the tangible educational gains of an open-ended, student-centered curriculum are unknown. May this lead instrumentally to higher GPA, greater persuasive writings skills, or higher student feedback? Regardless of the instrumental gains, I believe there is a strong inherent value in this approach to education. For instance, my student who designed a paper on Buddhist meditation and ethics recalled “After starting this paper, I noticed for the first time in my life the meditation center on my own street. Tomorrow I am going there for a class, and have an interview with the owner about their meditation techniques.”

Similarly, after a lesson on bias within science, a student came to office hours and asked, “What thought process is more dominant for you – to think like a physician or like a philosopher? Which thought process is better?” Note that both student responses involve a shift in how they perceive the world - in the former case, at the level of her street, and the latter case the level of the mind.

I believe this type of student questioning is both inherently and instrumentally important. It is inherently important because it cuts to the core what it means to be human – a desire for knowledge and to change the world. It is instrumentally important, but not in conventional sense of providing marketable skills, improving social relations, or giving access to political influence. In short, it is not instrumentally important for materialistic or capitalist ends.

Why then should we value students who critically think? In Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen presents a compelling case for defining human freedom as the ability to lead the lives we have reason to value. Similarly, educating students is about creating a nurturing environment that fosters investigation of what we should value and why. When education is opened up to permit such questioning, there becomes active debate on questions such as “What is the point of studying humanities?” or “How can we best communicate the principles of Islam to people of other faiths?” or “How can the study of Faraday’s law help me understand how to make a better ceiling fan?” While these questions may lead down the line to a growth in GDP or productivity, this misses the point. The questions are important because they create tension, growth, and passion within students. They combat the “deprivation of elation” in education.

There is a crisis of education in Dhaka. While increased resources, technology and facilities would certainly not hurt; they would not fundamentally solve the problem, as the root is a crisis of imagination. I propose that the first step to solving this problem is to debate the inherent and instrumental goals of a University education. I propose a model of educating for critical consciousness. This model demands three main activities:

1) Building a foundation of lifelong skills important beyond the university setting (i.e. public speaking, critically developing an argument, etc…)
2) Developing lesson objectives are not linear, but interwoven, dynamic and based on student-interest.
3) Active listening. Being honest about what students know and what is important to them.

While this methodology seems more amenable to humanities education, it can extend toward other disciplines. In a linear algebra class, this means asking students to go beyond asking questions of existing material. It means asking students to create their own problems, to explore how determinants can help solve problems in calculus, or how to teach their fellow students how to solve complicated proofs. In a physics class, it means taking the time to assess prior knowledge, and then establishing problem sets that combine different fields of study.

To adopt this model involves significant risk – that students will refuse to participate, that they will give less value to the Professor as an authority figure, or worse yet, that they will not show up. It is the job of educators not to see these as failures but as challenges, because in time, listening, persistence and continuous reflection will help rekindle their imaginations. Then anything is possible.

Photo: Tom Peteet (with permission)

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Tom Peteet is an internal medicine resident at Boston Medical Center. He studied philosophy and physics as an undergraduate, and was a middle-school teacher for three years before pursuing a career in medicine. His interests include medical ethics, palliative medicine, yoga, global health, medical education, and writing.


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