Posts Tagged ‘Paulo Freire’

Learning Forward Keynote: Autonomy, Accountability, and Professional Learning

Sunday, July 21st, 2013

Given the opportunity to speak at the Learning Forward Summer Conference, I asked myself, what would be the message I would consider most important to share with a large audience of educational leaders?  I decided that I should make my case that autonomy and accountability are both an important part of professional learning.

In my opinion, professional development that “holds teachers accountable” but doesn’t respect teachers as professionals and recognize their need for autonomy will not succeed. At the same time, professional development that honors teacher professionalism and autonomy but is not accountable will not succeed.  Effective professional development requires autonomy and accountability. To understand what this means, we need to answer two simple questions.

What is Autonomy?

For more than a decade, I’ve been trying to answer this question.  For me, when we respect teacher autonomy, we see teachers as full partners in their learning.  I’ve written about partnership principles that describe what such a partnership might look like.

You can download a research article about the partnership approach here

You can read more about the partnership principles and how they apply to presenting here

You can read an Ed Leadership article about partnership and coaching here

Voice:  If leaders and professional developers are going to honor teachers as professionals, then that begins with the simple notion that educators should have a say in what they do. Professional development that ignores the voices of teachers is dehumanizing.  However, when we seek out the truth and encourage others to speak, we engage in mutually humanizing professional learning.  Mr. Rogers is a great example of a person who truly wants other people to speak up and share their voice.

When professional development ignores teachers’ voices, it treats them like cogs in a machine, not people with knowledge, minds, and hearts.  Also, when leaders do not encourage teachers to speak up, they cut themselves off from the very people who spend most of their time with students, who in most cases know the most about students.

Equality:  The principle of equality is foundational to democracy, perhaps most clearly articulated in Martin Luther King’s magnificent I Have a Dream Speech, when he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.

Equality is about more than equal access and equity, though these are certainly important. Equality is about seeing others as of equal value to ourselves, seeing that others count as much as we do, and not seeing ourselves as better than others.

This is critical for leading change.  Edgar Schein in Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help, argues that people are always judging whether or not they get the status they deserve, and when they don’t, people resist help. Schein writes:

All human relationships are about status positioning and what sociologists call “situational proprieties.”  It is human to want to be granted the status and position that we feel we deserve, no matter how high or low it might be, and we want to do what is situationally appropriate. We are either trying to get ahead or stay even, and we measure all interactions by how much we have lost or gained.

During interactions, Schein explains, leaders can take on the role of being a parent and put other adults in the role of being a child, or they can see interactions as an adult to adult conversation.  If leaders see themselves as parents, to the professionals in their school or system, they usually engender resistance.

Choice: If I see teachers as equals, then I don’t make choices for them. But choice is a nuanced principle for many reasons.

First, telling someone they must do something (and ignoring their autonomy) almost always engenders resistance. As Timothy Gallwey has written in The Inner Game of Work: Focus, Learning, Pleasure, and Mobility in the Workplace, “when you insist, I will resist.” Ignoring a teacher’s professionalism and giving them no choice will often lead to resistance.

Second, choice does not mean that there are no non-negotiables.  In any organization dedicated to public service, there are going to be some things that have to happen.  The challenge is to respect teacher autonomy and clarify non-negotiables.

Third, as  Barry Schwartz and Sheena Iyengar have explained, too many choices is no better than no choice. Sheena Iyengar gave a famous Ted Talk where she explains her research on the topic:

Reflection: Choice is essential for reflection, of course because if I just have to do what I’m told, I don’t get to do much thinking. Reflection is largely about thinking about how I will do something.  Thomas Davenport in his book Thinking For a Living provides a second important reason for encouraging reflection.  Davenport used surveys and interviews to study knowledge workers, people like teachers, who think for a living.  He found that the defining characteristic of knowledge workers is a need for autonomy.  Knowledge workers are paid to reflect, and when someone else does the thinking for them, knowledge workers resist. Davenport writes

Thinking for a living engenders thinking for oneself. Knowledge workers are paid for their education, experience, and expertise, so it is not surprising that they take offense when someone else rides roughshod over their intellectual territory.

Dialogue:  Dialogue is the natural mode of discourse for partners.  During dialogue, I want to hear what you have to say, I want to engage in a mutually humanizing conversation in which we use words to think together.

I’ve written about Paulo Freire’s conditions for dialogue in other posts on this blog. They include humility, faith, hope, love .

What is Accountability?

For me, accountability means only conducting professional learning that makes meaningful, significant improvements.  When educators are accountable, their professional learning has an unmistakable impact on student learning.  In this way, educators are accountable to the process and especially accountable to children, parents, other stakeholders, and the profession of teaching.  Furthermore, at the individual or school level, accountability is a genuine commitment to learning and growth on the part of every educator, a recognition that to have learning students, we need learning teachers, coaches, and administrators who are also learning.

Robert Fritz has explained in The Path of Least Resistance about growth coming from a creative tension between a clear picture of current reality and a goal. Peter Senge nicely summarized Fritz’s ideas in his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline

The juxtaposition of vision (what we want) and a clear picture of current reality (where we are relative to what we want) generates what we call creative tension: a force to bring them together, caused by the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution.  The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives.

Current Reality: Getting a clear picture of reality is not that easy.  We misunderstand our personal reality because of habituation, confirmation bias, our inherent desire to feel competent, and other reasons.  (One study, for example, found that 93% of US drivers judge themselves above average).   For these reasons, real change begins with getting a clear picture of reality.  This can be done in many ways.

Video recording your class:  Learning Forward members can read an article about video and professional learning here

Gathering data:  I’ve written on this blog about gathering data on positive interactions, questions, learning time and student engagement. Many other data points could be gathered as well.

Looking at student work: Rigorously analyzing student work can also provide a clear picture of reality.

Setting a Goal: Effective goals are objective (that is you’ll be certain you have hit the goal when you hit it), measurable, and based on student learning (e.g. results on formative assessments), behavior (e.g. number of disruptions), or attitude (number of students who write about reading in their journals). A good book summarizing the power of goals is Heath & Heath’s Switch:  How to Change Things When Change is Hard

Instructional Coaching: One way to combine autonomy and accountability is through instructional coaching.

You can read a column about goal setting and instructional coaching here

You can download a study of the impact of instructional coaching here

You can download an article describing what instructional coaches do here

Creating An Impact School:  Another way to combine autonomy and accountability is to create an impact school.

You can download a presentation on the creating an impact school from Learning Forward 2012 here:

The book describing the impact process is Unmistakable Impact.

To sum up, teachers want to make a difference, and when their autonomy is respected and they are given the tools to make a difference, they will.  Teachers like Michael Covarrubias recognize that they are the ones that can ultimately have a profound impact on students:

You can see my full conversation with Michael on The Teaching Channel


Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

“Dialogue cannot be carried on in a climate of hopelessness. If the dialoguers expect nothing to come of their efforts, their encounters will be empty, sterile, bureaucratic and tedious.”  Paulo Freire

I learned about the power of hope the first year I taught at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario. I was a new teacher with few skills, but as luck would have it, I ended up co-teaching and being mentored by Dee La France, a wonderful, kind-hearted teacher, mentor and coach. Dee taught me about the Strategic Instruction Model, and in particular The Sentence Writing Strategy. I was so impressed by the power of the Sentence Writing Strategy that I moved to the University of Kansas in 1992 to do my doctorate with the developers. I am still at KU almost 20 years later.

What Dee taught me,  more than the finer points of using the Sentence Writing Strategy, was the importance of believing in students.  When Dee sat down to work with a student, her most important message was always, “You can do this.  You can master this.” Even students that many of us had given up on, Dee saw as being full of potential.

When we talk about believing in students, it can sound like a cliché or platitude … “Yeah, we all need to believe in kids.” But that was not the case with Dee. On the contrary, Dee taught me that believing in students is a core part of instruction and learning.  Dee believed deep in her heart that all her students could learn—it was evident  in her body language, her high standards and expectations, her kindness toward her students, her generous encouragement and support—and then, using powerful strategies, Dee delivered!  She showed her students every day through formative assessments that they were learning.

This is the powerful combination:  high expectations + effective instruction. Communicating to our students that they can succeed is important, but our words become empty if they are not backed up with real accomplishments.  Dee, because she had high expectations and because she knew effective instructional practices, was able to encourage and motivate her students and then deliver with proof that they could do it

There’s not much point in going into teaching if we lack hope for our students.  No doubt there are frustrations. No doubt there are children or families who disappoint us.  But a teacher who has given up on students is a teacher who needs a new career.  A minimum requirement for this work is to believe our students can achieve their goals!  Then it is up to us  to do the hard work of learning what we need to know and do to help them reach their goals.

Critical Thinking

Monday, November 15th, 2010

“Only dialogue … is … capable of generating critical thinking.” Paulo Freire

Of course we want out students to think.  Freire’s comment, though, is a powerful caution because he suggests that our students won’t think unless we, ourselves, approach them with openness and a desire to learn from them. We need to be, as David Bohm and others have said, thinking partners with our students.

We can ask one simple question to keep the focus on student learning, “am I letting my students do the thinking?”  There are many strategies we can employ to foster a thinking environment for our students.

Connect learning to student interests. Not much learning will take place if our kids don’t give a rip about what they are learning. For that reason, one of the most important places to start, if we want students to think, is by making sure what we offer is, whenever possible, of particular interest to students.

Much has been written about linking learning to student goals.  You can read a nice summary of much of this writing, here.

One particular program that guides students to identify goals, strengths, fears, and develop an action plan to make their dreams a reality is Possible Selves, developed by colleague Mike Hock.  You can download an article about Possible Selves here.

Ask good questions. E. E. Cummings beautifully sums up the importance of a good question

Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question

How, then, do we find beautiful questions?  Fortunately, the web is rich with resources to help educators craft questions that prompt thinking.  The following sites provide an overview of many good ideas related to levels of questions:

Bloom’s original taxonomy

The revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy

Art Costa’s Levels of Questions.

Lynn Erickson’s Know Understand and Do

My free manual on crafting and asking effective questions.

Use learning structures that prompt student thinking. One instructional approach that is designed to foster thinking is problem-based learning, pioneered at McMaster University.

Edward DeBono’s work has great potential for promote critical thinking in the classroom, in particular his Six Thinking Hats

Finally, I’ve written about thinking prompts previously on this blog.

These are only a few strategies, so I have a question for you, radical learner.  What do you do that works for you?  How do you prompt student thought? We want to know.


Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

If I do not love the world–If I do not love life–If I do not love [people]–I cannot enter into dialogue.  Paulo Freire.

What does it mean to teach with love?

The poet Margaret Atwood has famously said, “The Eskimo has fifty-two names for snow because it is important to them; there ought to be as many for love.”  As it turns out, there aren’t really 52 words for snow, but Atwood’s statement is nonetheless true.  Love has many colors and hues.  There is the love of a parent and child.  The love of a sibling.  The love we feel in an emergency room, worried about a loved one, and the love we feel at a wedding.  There is the love between lovers, the love of long-time friends.  There is the love of a married couple, which can include many of the other kinds of love.

I think we are afraid to talk about love, and I’m not sure why.  Maybe the word just sounds “soft.” Maybe the idea of love makes us more vulnerable than we want to be.  Maybe we just don’t understand it, so we avoid it. Maybe we have been hurt and don’t want to open old wounds. Nonetheless, if we are going to explore healthy relationships, we simply have to suck it up and talk about love, even love at school.

Many teachers I know recognize the importance of love in school.  In my work, I’ve had the  pleasure of talking with hundreds of teachers about their work, and again and again they talk about the primacy of a loving relationship.  Here are just one person’s comments taken from an interview I conducted, but I believe she speaks for many when she talks about how love stands at the heart of her work in schools:

I really came to teaching through the back door, watching what was happening with my kids.  I guess that’s why I became a teacher because watching them I realized that education should be an amazing experience.

At my school it’s been really wonderful, empowering.  I know I’ve made a difference, and I know I respect the kids that come into my room… to watch how kids have grown, that’s a magical thing to watch.

I feel privileged. I feel that seriously. It’s about the most important work a person can do.  I’m just one of the people who can wake up each morning and say, I love what I do and look forward to what I do.  I feel just really fortunate and it’s wonderful.  I think its critical how I react, and how I support the kids, help create an environment.

They are precious cargo.

This teacher’s comments capture how important it is for us to try and be more loving as educators. One way we can do that is by watching ourselves on recordings. Video helps us see the simple things we do that foster or inhibit emotional connections.  We can see whether we act in ways that destroy connection–rolling our eyes, making sarcastic comments, talking down to students, power tripping, cutting students off, looking uninterested in them.  Just as important, though, we can see the simple actions we do that encourage connection–simple praise, smiles, words of encouragement, simple signs of respect, genuine interest and concern. Then, with a clear picture of what works and what doesn’t, we can work to be more loving.

If we are more loving toward our students, it can only help them and us.  Most likely, it will help us with all of our relationships.  And who wouldn’t want to live in a world that is filled with more love?


Monday, November 8th, 2010

Faith in [people] is an a priori requirement for dialogue; the ‘dialogical [person]’ believes in other [people] even before [meeting] them face to face. Paulo Freire

What does it mean to teach with faith in our students? When I teach with faith, I truly recognize that the students I teach are equal to me, and I work from the assumption that they hold within them wisdom, knowledge, ideas, and gifts. Of course teachers have a structurally unequal position–the teacher holds tremendous power in the classroom. But if we confuse structural power with real power, that is, if we actually think we are better, more valuable human beings than our students, we do a great disservice to the children we have the opportunity to teach.

When we have faith in our students, we see them as autonomous individuals deserving of our respect. William Isaacs nicely describes respect in his book Dialogue.

Respect is not a passive act.  To respect someone is to look for the spring that feeds the pool of their experience… At its core, the act of respect invites us to see others as legitimate. We may not like what they do or say or think, but we cannot deny their legitimacy as beings. In Zulu, a South African language, the word Sawu bona is spoken when people greet one another and when they depart.  It means “I see you.”  To the Zulus, being seen has more meaning than in Western cultures.  It means that the person is in some real way brought more fully into existence by virtue of the fact that they are seen.

Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot, in her wonderful book, Respect, tells a story from her childhood that captures the impact we can have when we respectfully have faith in others. Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot describes how she felt and what she learned when a family friend sketched a picture of her as a young girl. At its heart, Dr. Lightfoot’s story also depicts why teachers should truly have faith in their students:

The summer of my eighth birthday, my family was visited by a seventy-year-old black woman, a professor of sociology, an old and dear friend. A woman of warmth and dignity, she always seemed to have secret treasures hidden under her smooth exterior. On this visit, she brought charcoals and a sketch pad. Mid-afternoon, with the sun high in the sky, she asked me to sit for her . . .

What I remember most clearly was the wonderful, glowing sensation I got from being attended to so fully. There were no distractions. I was the only one in her gaze. My image filled her eyes, and the sound of the chalk stroking the paper was palpable. The audible senses translated into tactile ones. After the warmth of this human encounter, the artistic product was almost forgettable. I do not recall whether I liked the portrait or not . . . This fast-working artist whipped the page out of her sketch pad after less than an hour and gave it to me with one admonition: “Always remember you’re beautiful,” she said firmly. To which I responded—beaming with pleasure and momentary embarrassment—“Now I know I’m somebody!”

In the process of recording the image, the artist had made me feel “seen” in a way that I had never felt seen before, fully attended to, wrapped up in an empathic gaze.

When we have faith in our students, there is a much greater chance that they will trust us.  And a trusting relationship is essential for opening the door to real, meaningful learning. More importantly though, by having faith in our students,  we can help them know for themselves, as Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot says, that they are indeed “somebody.”


Sunday, November 7th, 2010

[People] who lack humility (or have lost it) cannot come to the people, cannot be their partners in naming the world … Dialogue cannot exist without humility.  Paulo Freire

What does it mean to teach with humility?  I think more than anything it means to ensure that we approach our students knowing that teaching begins with them, not with us. Thus, humble teachers start by trying to understand their students.

The classroom, as I’ve written previously, can tempt us to power trip. It feels good to be in control, and it feels good to win.  If teachers aren’t careful, they can take advantage of their experience, education, and superior communication skills and overpower children.  An articulate, educated teacher, can defeat a child during a classroom discussion in the same way an adult basketball coach can defeat a child during a basketball practice.  And just as a too-enthusiastic, overpowering coach can deflate the enthusiasm of children playing sports, so too a too-enthusiastic, overpowering teacher can deflate the enthusiasm of children learning.

When we approach students with humility, we resist this temptation.  Furthermore, we look to our students with a genuine desire to learn from them.  How great it must feel for children to know that they taught their teacher something.  We love to teach, love to share ideas, whether we are in kindergarten or graduate school. Teachers  do a lot to engender students’ enthusiasm just by being humble enough to learn from them.

Humility, too, means that we ask questions, good questions, real questions, that we don’t know the answer to, and then we listen for our students’ answers.  When we approach teaching with humility, we see the classroom as a place designed to empower students to find their voice, not a place where our voice reins supreme.

Eric Liu, has written a wonderful book about people who mentor us, the Guiding Lights of our lives.  In the book he offers a beautiful summary of the importance of humility in teachers:

We have this notion of the great teacher as the Great Communicator. But the most powerful teachers aren’t those who speak, perform, and orate with the most dazzle and force. They are those who listen with full-body intensity, and customize. Teaching is not one-size-fits-all; it’s one-size-fits-one. So before we transmit a single thing, we must tune in to the unique and ever-fluctuating frequency of every learner: his particular mix of temperament, skills, intelligence, and motivation. This means, as teachers, putting aside our own egos and preconceptions about what makes this particular lesson so important . . . It means letting go of the idea of control.

To silence our self-interests so that children can learn sounds easy in theory, but it is not  so easy in practice.  And yet humility is essential.  If we want our children to learn, we must, in turn, enter the classroom as learners too. Ultimately, of course, that is best for for our students.  And for us.

Paulo Freire: Radical Learner

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

In his masterpiece, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire, describes the dialogical approach to learning that he developed while working mostly with the illiterate poor workers of Brazil.  Freire rejects traditional forms of teaching, which he calls banking education, and instead proposes problem posing learning where teacher and learner work together as partners. Problem posing learning is dialogical, designed to free the students through reflection, not fill them with facts. Freire puts it this way:

Problem-posing education affirms [people] as beings in the process of becoming—as unfinished, incomplete beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality… The unfinished character of [people] and the transformational character of reality necessitate that education be an ongoing activity.

Freire developed and applied his radical methods while working as the director of the Department of Cultural Extension of Recife University. In 1962 he taught 300 sugar cane workers how to read in only 42 days. His success won him acclaim, and Freire accepted a visiting professorship at Harvard. During his visit to the United States, Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was published.

Freire’s work soon was recognized as applicable to much more than literacy–Freire’s problem posing learning, his emphasis on dialogue, and many of his other ideas were explored, and continue to be explored in educational philosophy, methods, and literacy courses.  There is a good chance that if you consider yourself a radical learner, you have read and embraced Freire’s work at some time.

One of Freire’s central ideas is that dialogue is the natural mode of communication for learning because dialogue recognizes the learner as an equal partner.  Dialogue enables learning with, rather than teaching to, so to speak.  Dialogue begins with respect because we enter into a dialogue expecting to learn from those we teach.

In Pedagogy of Oppressed, Freire proposes five ideas he thinks are essential for dialogue:(1) humility, (2) hope, (3) faith, (4) love, (5) critical thinking. The description of the concepts covers only a few pages in the book, but I believe they are some of the most important and profound of Freire’s ideas, and they have implications far beyond being necessary conditions for dialogue. I believe they are essential for learning in its broadest sense.  Over the next five posts I’ll discuss each idea, using it as a jump-off point to explore its implications for learning more broadly.

If you wish, and if they ideas prompt you to think differently about learning, l hope you will join into the dialogue and share your own thoughts here as well.  What do humility, hope, faith, love, and critical thinking have to do with radical learners?  I’ll offer my own answer to that question in the next five posts.

The Five Temptations of Teachers, Temptation Five: Banking Education

Monday, October 4th, 2010

In his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire paints a picture of the kind of learning that most radical learners are striving for.  “Knowledge emerges,” Freire writes, “only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry men [and women] pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

Freire also paints a picture of education that is the opposite: Education that does not inspire “the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry” of students.  This he calls banking education.

During banking education, the teacher talks and the students listen.  Usually, the teacher talks about content that is “completely alien to the existential experience” of the students.  According to the tenets of banking education, the teacher’s job is to “fill” students with whatever he or she is teaching.

Banking education turns students

into “containers” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teacher.  The more completely he fills the receptacles, the better a teacher he is.  The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.

Students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.  This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. ….

Banking education is tempting because it is easier than creatively exploring each task every day and tweaking instruction to meet students’ needs.  Banking education is also, unfortunately, rewarded in some systems, making it more tempting.

Complicating matters a bit, there are times in a school year when students need to understand and remember content that is precisely explained, just as there are times when students should be let loose on a creative activity. Other posts at this site describe both precise teacher-directed instruction and more constructivist teacher-led learning and when each approach is appropriate.  But Freire’s description of banking education is a powerful check for all of us, whether we teacher kindergarten or graduate school.

What to Do

Freire’s description of banking education suggests a question we can all ask: Am I rewarding students for being passive receptacles, or am I am freeing them to pursue knowledge “in the world, with the world, and with each other?” By asking such questions, we move closer to designing the kind of learning we want for our students.