Holding the space

Reflecting further on the questions for the first week in #moocmooc, it seems to me that the basic idea enshrined in Freire’s chapter, of the contrast between the transformative or liberating model and the banking model is clear enough. There have been some good summaries posted. In the most simplified sense it brings us back to the Socratic notion of “not filling a vessel, but kindling a flame”.

But, as the second question indicates, the question is how to do this?

If it is not our task to “make deposits” into students’ minds, to reinforce learner passivity, but rather to spark inquiry, where is the best place to start?

The problem is, as some of the Twitter conversations have shown, that there is a double bind involved. If we aren’t revolutionary from the outset, then we will simply become instruments of the oppressor, but if we are, are we not simply imposing our own agenda, and thus becoming the oppressor. How can this be avoided? How can the necessary atmosphere of dialogue be achieved, when so few of us, even the “teachers”, actually engage in real dialogue (the deep listening, non-judgmental kind)?

I know a deeply sensitive educator who achieves this dialogic atmosphere quite remarkably. I have been exploring her approach (which is quite a challenging thing to do). Here are some my notes from that process, summarised a little.

  • Her central aim at the start for the learners to have the sense that the learning experience is taking place within a safe space.
  • A safe space is one where there is deep mutual respect, trust and compassion. Building this involves deep close listening, and accepting what others bring without judgment. A key element is that participants feel free to interact in any way that is acceptable to all the participants.
  • The central role of the ‘teacher’ is to create and “hold” the space in such a way that learning can take place within it. This is done principally by being fully present. To be fully present is to be there, with the other participants, in the moment, rather than thinking of the next activity, or lunch.
  • The verbal and non-verbal engagement of the teacher, and her responses to, and encouragement of, the verbal and non-verbal engagement of the other participants are also part of her presence. Transparency and dealing honestly with vulnerability are very important elements of this engagement.
  • Her presence is gentle. It is in the way she listens, the way she and others are ‘positioned’ in the space, how she sits and moves, the way she looks and sees, the way she speaks, how and when she is silent, in the words she says, and what she speaks of as well. I have noticed that participants come into this presence and respond to it, not mimicking it but settling into compatible states.
  • Her engagement, and that of the participants, is threaded through and around the ostensible themes of the interaction that takes place. In a sense it is built in the interstices of that conversation.
  • As it develops and grows, the way the space is held becomes more and more subtle (there are less evident signs of it) and the holding evolves into a shared endeavour, with the ‘teacher’ as one more participant.
  • It seems to work especially well, at least initially, in a physical space, but it is not bound to that space. It is more an emotional and attitudinal “space” where the learners’ voices, and their stories can be heard.

I am still working towards an understanding of it. It is hard to collapse it into a set of things that are done, much of it is intuitive, or tacit, and seems to relate to her personality, and the spirit in which she approaches the work. Other elements seem more transferable.

What is clear to me is that what she creates is a space where the seed of inquiry can and does germinate…

That kind of space might be a good place to start…

All of us are human…

I am participating in the #moocmooc, a six-week online exploration of critical pedagogy. This week, one of the questions for reflection is:

Is the primary effort of education bent toward the humanization of its participants (learners and educators alike)? If it is not, should it be? What does humanization look like as curricula, as syllabi, as lesson plan?

I would like to explore that notion of “humanization”.

Freire, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed Chapter 2 speaks of the way the banking model of education dehumanizes the individual. The term “dehumanization“, as Freire uses it, is associated with the capacity to “annul the student’s creative power”, the “effort to turn men and women into automatons”, and notions of dependence and passivity. The reference to automatons seems to link to a lack of “humanity”, but it is less clear to me that the other ideas do, and I would strongly resist calling even those who have been completely processed by the banking model of education anything less than human.

The opposite of “dehumanization” is termed “humanization” in the chapter. The aim of the revolutionary education that Freire describes is to “humanize”. Does this mean to ‘make human’? Or is it ‘make more human’? I am not sure that “humanization” is the opposite of “dehumanization”. We all start out human, and we may then be dehumanized in some way, but I am not sure how the movement in the other direction works. Is it possible to be more human than human?

Freire also refers to the “ontological vocation to be more fully human”. If the work of revolutionary education is to “humanize”, then the implicit assumption would appear to be that the student begins the process as something not fully human, or less fully human. The problem that arises here is that the term “humanization” risks the emergence of exactly the kind of dichotomy that Freire criticises. Some of us are human, others are still to be humanized. Or perhaps, ‘all of us are human, but some are more human than others’. I am not sure that the dialogue that is envisaged is likely to emerge if any of the individuals involved is implicitly viewed by the others as in need of “humanization”.

It seems to me that being human is not a question of shades or degrees. Each of us has an equal right to a voice and to participation, and most of all to autonomy, and the goal of education would be for individuals to develop this autonomy, which is what gives them the capacity to participate fully, and share meaning/fully. The goal is for the learner to find a more articulate voice with which to name the world, and to live more completely with/in the world. This is Freire’s view, but the notion of “humanization” seems to me to get in the way. I would suggest that it is is not the primary effort of education, nor should it be.