Democratic Thinking and Student-Centered Pedagogy: Bringing Equity, Autonomy, and Purpose to Online Learning

Democratic Thinking and Student-Centered Pedagogy: Bringing Equity, Autonomy, and Purpose to Online Learning

William K. Preble, Sharon Locke
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5085-3.ch003
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This chapter offers a set of philosophical, historical, and critical lenses to examine the U.S. educational system. The authors show how US schools have been built on philosophies and structures dating back to the earliest days of Western Civilization, and how many of these ideas and practices have perpetuated long-standing societal and educational inequalities. They also show how a set of more modern philosophies and pedagogical models can be used in schools to dramatically shift power relations and deepen student engagement. They discuss how the convergence of new thinking, new purposes, and the use of new twenty-first century educational technologies can help educational institutions and schools make the jump from traditional, inequitable educational systems, to more modern, empowering, and equitable institutions. The chapter concludes with a set of specific instructional strategies that can help schools and teachers effectively apply new learning technologies to amplify student voice and provide student-centered learning opportunities.
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Working hard for something we don't care about is called stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion. - (Sinek, 2016, p.105)


Introduction: Leading Schools Forward

We all remember how schools looked and worked when we were kids. Teachers talked, students listened. Teachers assigned work, students did the work, even though most of it was boring. Teachers set rules, students mostly followed them. Students memorized information from lectures and books. Teachers gave tests, some students passed, some failed. Some students felt smart, struggling students felt dumb. Who we became in life, and how we felt about ourselves as adults, was surprisingly connected to all those schooling experiences.

We, the authors, have collectively spent over six decades working inside schools as teachers, principals, and superintendents, and outside of K-12 schools and classrooms as teacher educators and school reformers, in roles such as educational consultants, student voice advocates, and school climate researchers. In each of these different capacities, we have had opportunities to listen to students’ voices and their perspectives on schools, schooling, and school change. One student recently voiced his thoughts about his school experiences on one of our school climate surveys in this way (Preble & Bryan, Manuscript in preparation): “I would rather collect the work, go home and teach myself. It would be more effective. Frankly, a computer would be an improvement over many teachers here who work off the method of tyranny to control students.”

While it is likely that most students who experience the educational system simply accept it, without question, as “normal,” the young man we cited above saw his school experiences through a different set of eyes. His perceptions of school were influenced by his understanding of the term “tyranny” and this shaped his thoughts about how he could gain freedom and autonomy and escape his tyrannical institution with the help of technology.

The educational systems that we educators are supporting, maintaining, and replicating each day can be viewed with fresh eyes, not unlike the eyes of the student cited above. When teachers and school leaders critically examine their educational systems through the lens of radical pedagogists like Paulo Freire, for example, it can help us reframe our thinking. Freire (1970) coined the term, “banking concept of education” to describe what he viewed as this flawed and “oppressive” system of teachers “depositing” information into the passive minds of their students (Micheletti, 2010). Critical pedagogists like Freire offer radical ideas for redesigning schools that challenge past traditions and practices. Critical pedagogy requires a shift in “power dynamics” such that, “both [student and teachers] are simultaneously teachers and students” (p. 59). When adults and students share in a common critical examination of their school experiences and systems through the lens of power relations and critical pedagogy, schools look different and can be reimagined by both students and adults.

This chapter will offer a set of lenses through which we will examine our current U.S. educational system and the underlying values, beliefs, and instructional practices that have served as its bedrock for generations. We will show how schools of the past and present have been built upon ideas, philosophies, and structures that date back to the earliest days of Western Civilization; how they have been well-preserved for centuries and woven into the fabric of US schools, and how many of these ideas and practices have perpetuated long-standing societal and educational inequalities. We will also show how a parallel set of more modern ideas, philosophies, and educational models offer exciting new possibilities for defining how we educate future generations of US citizens. Embedding these more modern traditions and models into our educational systems will make it more likely that these democratic ideals are preserved within our society.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Educational Philosophies: A set of values and beliefs referring to the application of philosophy that promotes a specific vision of education and its primary goals and purposes; ranging from teacher-centered philosophies such as essentialism and perennialism which tend to be more authoritarian or conservative, to student-centered philosophies, such as progressivism, constructivism, and humanism which are more focused on individual needs, relevance, and preparation for a changing future.

Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR): A research paradigm developed as an antithesis to dominant adult-centric research, views youth as assets, and gives those affected by research a voice in analyzing the conditions that affect them; designed to give youth voice and promote civic engagement and social action.

Student Voice: The expression of opinions, questions, suggestions and perspectives of learners, especially the young, related to their learning and schooling experiences.

Educational Inequality: The unequal distribution of educational opportunity, financial and educational resources, qualified teachers, or digital assets that results in lessening of a student or population’s educational, academic success, or performance.

Mental Models: Are psychological constructs that represent real or imagined situations, and may reflect deeply ingrained beliefs, assumptions, and values that affect thinking, perceptions and behavior.

Willful Blindness: The act of deliberately ignoring facts that may demonstrate liability, wrongdoing, or culpability.

Structure of Dominance: The disproportional and lasting negative effects of harmful societal ideologies, inadequate educational institutions, negative interpersonal relationships and psychological damage of students from less powerful social, economic and racial groups that limits life chances.

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