The path to practice

Aditi Dhammachakra

Every educator has core beliefs about what knowledge is, what the aims of education ought to be, and how learning takes place. These beliefs are the foundation of why they teach and they drive their pedagogy or how they teach. However, very few teachers have had the opportunity or the tools to reflect on what their own teaching philosophy is. Therefore, when I was asked to articulate some of my thoughts about my teaching philosophy I felt that this was a great opportunity for me to do something that I believe all teachers should be doing.

I currently teach undergraduates, at a large mid-Western university in the US, who are preparing to be teachers. Before elaborating on the course itself, I would like to highlight the fact that this is a required course for all teachers – not just teachers of social science. It is important for teachers of science and mathematics to recognize that the issues I will discuss in this article apply as much to them as they do to teachers of humanities and social sciences. Our course, Introduction to Educational Thought, introduces students to the social foundations of education. It focuses on the complex relationship between schools and society: between what occurs within schools and the larger social problems outside of schools. Understanding how social problems outside of schools either directly or indirectly impact education is essential for future teachers and concerned citizens.

aditi-1 My students are coming into the beginning stages of their professional educational preparation program at a moment when the conventional wisdom of school reformers is being challenged. Such challenges are being levelled at the very profession of teaching: teachers are both the scapegoat for all of education’s ills, and potential saviours of the educational system. We are simultaneously blamed for educational failure and regarded as the key to educational success. In large part, this is due to the fact that not everyone understands the underlying social issues that impact our educational system (such as how systems of oppression including caste, class, and gender work to systematically exclude some groups of people). The task of this course in particular and educational philosophy in general is to unpack commonly used ideas such as “equality” and “justice” before we think about proposing solutions to the educational issues we are currently faced with.

Aside from understanding the complex relationship between school and society, I’ve designed my class to help students become better democratic deliberators. Democratic deliberators are individuals who are well-informed, willing to revise their opinion in light of reasonable arguments and evidence, and capable of listening to and learning from diverse perspectives. Being able to engage in public deliberation is the backbone of democracy, and is vital to reforming our schools. Public deliberation over educational issues aims to bring all citizens together to reasonably deliberate upon and collectively agree upon solutions to educational issues. Sometimes, we deliberate as a large group; at other times, we deliberate in smaller groups. When we deliberate as a large group, we will occasionally interrupt the proceedings to see whether the deliberative process matches with what “people really think,” and we will explore the reasons for any disconnects that emerge. When we deliberate in smaller groups, it will be interesting to see how and in what ways the final decisions differ from group to group. The premise of our classroom deliberations is to understand the issues at hand, and to then think of how best to proceed in light of our research and collective wisdom. In other words, this class is both about the foundational content of education and the process of engaging with fellow citizens and colleagues about pressing educational concerns.

My classes are talkative ones, and for me the students’ presence and active participation are essential to the overall success of the course and to the success of each individual student. The difference between a deliberation and a debate is that the latter is about “winning” an argument, whereas the former is about coming to understand the many sides of an issue in order to arrive at a response that makes sense to all concerned. Deliberation requires that one take the perspectives of others into account. This means that we have to listen to the voices of others, but it also means that we have to add our voice to the conversation. This is the only way to avoid the problem of “one-sidedness”. Because each participant is expected to learn more from these conversations, it is crucial that their participation be informed by our shared readings, as well as by any additional research that may be assigned or voluntarily undertaken. Students in my class are expected to come to class having read and reflected on the assigned readings for any given day, and are expected to share what they’ve learned with others. Adding their voices to the conversation is important for learning to take place. I believe that the best environment for learning is where there is no fear, not even fear of making mistakes, and therefore I encourage all my students to fearlessly but thoughtfully express their views during the two deliberations that the course is built around.

I believe that teaching and learning is an interactive process. Knowledge is not something that I transmit to my students while they passively receive information. Learning requires active engagement between students and teachers, students and their peers, and students and the text. This means learning is a co-created process. As such, this requires that they be prepared to Think, Read, Ask Questions, and Contribute. The assignments and expectations of my course are designed to bring this philosophy to life over the course of the semester. Because I believe learning is an interactive process, I do very little lecturing; however, my teaching is aimed at creating an environment where students are gently guided to engage the course material in a personal and interactive manner.

How did my own teaching philosophy develop?
I will begin with the most personal influence on my teaching philosophy – my mother. Herself a much beloved teacher because she was able to bring out the best in her students while making them feel valued, what I learned from my mother’s teaching was, in retrospect, that it is necessary to demand high standards from your students while also providing them the intellectual and emotional support to achieve their potential. This necessity and the possibilities that arise from it, fit directly into my framework of asking students to think for themselves and develop their own voices.

My own teaching philosophy has been deeply influenced by several other experiences as well. In part, it has developed by observing and working with an outstanding philosophy professor I have at graduate university who has helped me to expand my thinking about critical pedagogy as well as deepen my understanding of how systems of power and domination work. While this is my most recent influence, my work with government schools and teachers in Chhattisgarh, has also shaped not just my teaching philosophy but also my beliefs about what the aims of education should be and how that manifests in both my teaching and research. In general, I believe that it is important to educate as a practice of freedom and that our work is not to merely share information but to share in the intellectual growth of our students. Throughout my years working with teachers in India and now in the United States, I have, as bell hooks said, “Never wanted to surrender the conviction that one could teach without reinforcing existing systems of domination.” In India, these systems of domination include Brahminical patriarchy and obscene levels of economic inequality. Therefore, I would say that one of the most important factors that has lead me to develop the teaching philosophy I have today is my engagement with anti-caste philosophers such as Jotiba Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar.

aditi-2 In my view, education will be able to fulfil its potential as a liberatory process only if it allows for a systematic critique of the traumatic history of caste and patriarchy on the majority of people in India, subsequently, providing a way of healing from this trauma, including, for a number of students, the trauma of having learned to see oneself as academically incapable. This process should not be mistaken as only an academic exercise; the aim of such an education is to move toward self-determination, claiming of an intellectual identity, and active participation in the transformation of material conditions.

As a teacher, how should I develop my own teaching philosophy?
I believe that although reading is important (and teachers should develop a reading habit), as a very wise mentor of mine once told me, engaging with the ideas that you are reading about is even more important. This means being able to think about and reflect on complex issues and develop one’s own perspectives on them. I encourage my students to do this and I think it is an important thing for teachers to do as well.

The best teachers, in my opinion, are those who are engaged in continuous reflection about systems of oppression, culture, and identity. They need to do this to come to grips with the impact of Brahminical patriarchy and economic inequality on their own perspectives and sense of self, and learn to take action individually and collectively towards social justice. Both teachers, who belong to oppressed communities and those who have caste and class privileges, need to engage in this process of critical self-reflection, but because they occupy quite different positions in our social hierarchy, the issues they must work on are significantly different. Although both must have a social action component that models activism toward social change, they will need to engage in different struggles.

Teachers from oppressed backgrounds must go through an intensive process to heal from their experiences. In addition, developing such a self-reflective pedagogy allows struggle, passion for social change, and empathy to be sources of knowledge. To critically understand and connect with their students with regard to caste and class oppression, they reflect on their personal experiences of marginalization. As one of the teachers I worked with in Chhattisgarh said to me, “Maine khud doosron ke ghar me bartan dhoke apna education poora kiya. Is liye mai chaahti hoon ki in bacchon ka bhavishya unke vartamaan se behtar rahe.” Through a process of critical self-reflection, these teachers will probably end up questioning the relevance of curriculum materials and challenging practices that would not be engaging to their students. Additionally, they are likely to understand how casteism impacts schools (even ones where overt discrimination is not visible), acknowledge and draw on the backgrounds of their students, and understand the value of culturally relevant pedagogies.

For teachers from privileged caste and class backgrounds especially, learning to recognize themselves as people benefiting from casteism are difficult and emotional processes, which require critical thinking of one’s history and culture in the context of systems of structural oppression. Such reflectiveness and pedagogy are not the norm for so-called ‘higher’ caste teachers. Often, they create a hegemonic story about how people from the so-called ‘lower’ castes should be able to pick themselves up by their bootstraps. In a misguided effort not to be casteist, such teachers often try to be caste blind and not see caste, creating an imaginary world where neither the concept of caste nor casteism exists presently or in the past. These beliefs and deficits must be confronted so that teachers can examine connections between their individual lives and identities, and broader social and political contexts.

The author is a Ph.D. student at a large Midwestern University in the United States where she studies the Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education. She also teaches an introductory philosophy of education course to undergraduates there. Before she started her doctoral program, she worked for 8 years with the government education system in India. She can be reached at aditi.t@gmail.com.

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