Twenty-five years ago, I was asked to debate with my classmates about whether my country should be a monarchy or republic, and have a parliamentary or presidential system of government. In 1993, Brazil was going through an intense political transition after decades of military dictatorship, and citizens were asked to vote in a plebiscite soon after the first president of its restored democracy had been impeached. I was just in the first grade, but looking back, it seems reasonable that my teachers had included our classroom in the national collective debate. However, it turns out that my early exposure to civic engagement didn’t happen for many other people of my generation. In fact, most of the Brazilians to whom I have mentioned my classroom memory, don’t remember that our country had a brief chance to have a Portuguese monarchy descendant reinstated to power in our recent history.
(This Article was originally written in October 2019 as a midterm paper for the Learning Sciences course. It was my first academic investigation about collaboration and civic engagement. See the next one)
We live in a very unique time. We never had so much information easily accessible in our pockets, just by the touch on our phones. And yet we still don’t know how to apply this information to respond to the complexity of our current challenges. Even when we see a president swears publicly to diminish investigations that could lead to his impeachment or another president offend the first lady of France, both on social media, we still move on with our lives as if those comments were not made in the public sphere. And the truth is, even if we could “fix Twitter”, we still would have to face the same underlying structural social, economic, and cultural challenges that allowed such episodes that diminish collective public democratic debate. As our world becomes more connected and complex, we also need more connected and more complex knowledge to be able to deal with its configuration. We may argue that “problem-solving skills” were probably needed in the last century as well, but we never expected it so much as an outcome of our education system as we do today. And what are “problem-solving skills”, anyway?
Researchers of the Learning Sciences have been studying for the past two decades the processes and conditions that promote deep learning by individuals, a learning that is most effective. In other words, how a learner can better understand complex concepts such as government systems or math equations without forgetting it right after exams, and better apply and connect this knowledge to new and unexpected situations. Deep learning is the understanding that leads to creative knowledge, a knowledge to approach new challenges, to think beyond the given information, and to find creative solutions to problems (Sawyer, 2019).
The Learning Sciences has demonstrated that social interaction and collaboration in the classroom have an important role in promoting deep learning, especially when learners, teachers, and community members work in a situated activity for shared understanding (Krajcik & Shin, 2014). When they actively work together on finding a solution for a complex real-world problem, they share their ideas, search and exchange information, negotiate among possibilities, argue with each other, reflect on the process, and construct shared knowledge. It is a rich ecosystem where learners actively construct their understanding, and teachers and community can also learn in the process.
Ideally, this is a great scenario for learning creative knowledge. But all those individuals involved in collaborative learning don’t leave their identities and prior experiences by the door when they enter a classroom. So how can we know that said collaboration is indeed fruitful and everyone was involved in the shared process? Although many learning scientists have been studying how people learn through interacting with others (i.e. learning that happens in apprenticeship settings), the mechanisms of social interactions in collaborative learning are still uncertain (Miyake & Kirschner, 2014).
By studying the concepts of engaged pedagogy for promoting critical thinking (bell hooks, 1994) and guided improvisation for teaching creativity (Sawyer, 2019), I intend to find some possible answers for that on the intersection of both proposals of rethinking teaching practices to promote collaborative learning environments. I hope that this kind of investigation that addresses multiculturalism, creativity and collaboration may help the development of engaged classrooms (or even engaged educational technology), in which we may prepare learners for civic engagement in the 21st-century society.
Creating deep knowledge for civic engagement
First, it is important to understand the reason why we need creative knowledge (or deep knowledge, that I am using here as a synonym) today. Why is the content we learn at traditional schools not enough anymore? The scenario where we have a teacher standing in front of the class and students taking notes, that most of us are familiar with, can be called instructionism (Sawyer, 2014). In instructionism, being able to memorize the information and repeat it later in tests is considered a sign of successful learning. As Sawyer (2014) describes, this idea of learning facts and procedures was useful for the industrialized economy of the 20th century, where memorizing information meant that an individual would have an economical and social advantage in comparison to others. However, today we have the technology to help us access the whole spectrum of facts and procedures we may need. We need to know more than remembering information.
In the current “knowledge economy era”, memorizing facts and procedures– shallow knowledge (Sawyer, 2019) doesn’t guarantee anymore that learners can participate in society, in a more technologically complex and economically competitive world. We need to know the information in a context, be able to adapt it to new contexts, and connect it to other bits of information. We need a contextualized, rich, connecting knowledge– creative knowledge, that will better prepare learners for the challenges of the 21st century.
For critically and actively participating in society today, learners need more than knowing unrelated historical and political facts, i.e. a succession of names and dates for presidents or systems of government. Some of the concepts that support the development of creative knowledge in civic engagement could be, for example: relating historical context and narratives to present history, understanding of democratic values, conflicting different individuals’ perspectives, and engaging in the community.
This kind of critical creative knowledge, however, is not a direct outcome of traditional schooling. We need a new approach to teaching that can address in the classroom the complexity of social interactions and multiculturalism that we see and live today, as pointed by hooks:
Despite the contemporary focus on multiculturalism in our society, particularly in education, there is not nearly enough practical discussion of ways classroom settings can be transformed so that the learning experience is inclusive. If the effort to respect and honor the social reality and experiences of groups in this society who are nonwhite is to be reflected in a pedagogical process, then as teachers– on all levels, from elementary to university settings– we must acknowledge that our styles of teaching may need to change. Let’s face it: most of us were taught in classrooms where styles of teachings reflected the notion of a single norm of thought and experience, which we were encouraged to believe was universal. This has been true for nonwhite teachers as for white teachers. (1994, p. 35)
Based on her experiences by teaching in diverse academic settings, and addressing the concepts of race, gender, and class in the classroom and in curricula, bell hooks describes the basis of engaged pedagogy, one that sees “education as a practice of freedom” (1994); a teaching strategy that aims to restore students’ will to think, and their will to be fully self-actualized (2009). In this pedagogy, the central focus is to support students in developing critical thinking.
For hooks, the effort necessary for building a learning community is not a one-way street from teacher to students, but rather a dynamic exchange in the classroom. The engaged classroom is always changing. Hence, there is not a default script to be applied to every class. There are, however, some goals, techniques and experiences that can help teachers in creating an engaged learning environment. For hooks, there are two main paradigms for an “engaged classroom”, excitement and acknowledgment of everyone’s presence: “Excitement is generated through collective effort” (1994, p.8).
Engaging learners in a collaborative community
As hooks explains, everyone in the classroom is able to act responsibly together to create a learning environment, but the professor will always be more responsible. Because “the larger institutional structures will always ensure that accountability for what happens in the classroom rests with the teacher (1994, p. 8).” Then, the teacher should assume a facilitator role in a performing act, being a catalyst that offers a possible space for change and spontaneity:
To embrace the performative aspect of teaching we are compelled to engage “audiences,” to consider issues of reciprocity. Teachers are not performers in the traditional sense of the world in that our work is not meant to be a spectacle. Yet it is meant to serve as a catalyst that calls everyone to become more and more engaged, to become active participants in learning. (1994, p.11)
Teaching an engaged classroom is hard because it demands the construction of repertoire to be used depending on the needs of the learners. But also because it can uncover biases that may have to be worked through. In an engaged classroom, there are two underlying concepts (1994, p. 7):
1. Excitement: hooks brings the notion of pleasure as fundamental to a learning process. For her, this excitement “could co-exist with and even stimulate serious intellectual engagement”. To be able to create an exciting classroom, the teacher has to be flexible to change and see the students in their particularity as individuals. “And if boredom should prevail, then pedagogical strategies were needed that would intervene, alter, even disrupt the atmosphere” (1994, p. 7).
2. Collective effort: “our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voice, in recognizing one another’s presence” (1994, p.8). Here, also, the teacher needs to use scaffolds to the ongoing recognition of everyone’s presence and the fluid dynamic in the classroom.
By telling the story of a specific classroom where there was resistance by the students on changing the traditional classroom norms, she explains that the responsibility for building an engaged classroom is not totally on the teacher:
One of the things that fascinated me about that experience is that we failed to create a learning community in the classroom. That did not mean that individual students didn’t learn a great deal, but in terms of creating a communal context for learning, it was a failure. That failure was heartbreaking for me. It was hard to accept that I was not able to control the direction our classroom was moving in. I would think, “What can I do? And what could I have done?” And I kept reminding myself that I couldn’t do it alone, that forty other people were also in there. (1994, p. 159)
As a way to start this collective effort towards learning, hooks also mentions that the physical position a teacher occupies in the classroom can define symbolically a position of power. For example, there is a difference when the teacher chooses to stay behind the podium and behind the desk instead of standing or moving closely to the students. “Acknowledging that we are bodies in the classroom has been important for me, especially in my efforts to disrupt the notion of the professor as omnipotent, all-knowing mind” (1994, p. 138).
Guiding learners with improvisation and openness
For the Learning Sciences, letting students talk and work together doesn’t mean that they will inherently learn something. Learning scientists have found that conversation and collaboration will not necessarily be effective in an instructionist class, to learn facts and procedures. But it will be effective for learning deep knowledge.
So how can we start on planning to create this collaborative community of learners, an engaged classroom? A rich collaboration is not a matter of putting people with different perspectives together (Miyake & Kirschner, 2014), but collaborative discourse can enhance deep learning if supported by guided improvisation (Sawyer, 2019). In “The Creative Classroom”, Sawyer calls guided improvisation the support for learning that balances structure and freedom. Based on his studies of jazz and improvised theater, Sawyer explains that creativity flourishes with freedom for creation dynamically combined with directive constraints. The design of this support with intentionality for deep learning is called scaffolds by the learning scientists.
In guided improvisation, scaffolds are represented by some classroom practices and curricula that can help teachers to create this collaborative learning environment that enables creative knowledge development.
In guided improvisation, students learn their subject while they also learn how to identify good problems, how to ask good questions, how to gather relevant information, how to propose new solutions and hypotheses and how to use domain-specific skills to express those ideas and make these a reality. (Sawyer, 2019, p. 40)
Even though the teachers are not solely responsible for the collaboration emergence (Sawyer, 2019) in the engaged or creative classroom, they have a fundamental role in supporting the development of a learning community. Improv techniques as followed by improv actors can be used by teachers to gain experience and learn to improvise in ways that foster discussion in the classroom and open space for collaboration and creativity (Sawyer, 2019). For example, the most known improv rule of “Yes, And” can be used to help teachers being open to new and unusual ideas and experiences. One person accepts what was proposed to the other on the improvised performance, and builds on it by adding something new.
An engaged classroom is exciting and should be creative. That’s why Sawyer’s guided improvisation can be powerful for starting the collective effort and excitement, as proposed by hooks. It is with creativity and the ability to imagine that learners can develop problem-solving knowledge, critical thinking and create new places of power and possibility.
Imagination is one of the most powerful modes of resistance that oppressed and exploited folks can and do use. In traumatic circumstances, it is imagination that can provide a survival lifeline. Children survive abuse often through imagining a world where they will find safety. Within white-supremacist culture, black folks began a “black is beautiful” movement to resist the continual onslaught of negative representations of blackness. (hooks, 2009, p. 61)
The guided improvisation for an engaged classroom is important because it supports the collective development of creative knowledge when it opens space for excitement and imagination. But I want to highlight here that it open space for reflection on the learning process as a whole, helping it to make it more collaborative and inclusive.
Challenging biases for an engaged classroom
As I mentioned before, collaborative learning can be challenging because we don’t leave our identities and prior experiences by the classroom door. It is important to acknowledge that when we talk about collaborative environments, and common assumptions about a “neutral” or “safe” learning environment, those aspects are subjective and can reflect different individual perspectives.
Hooks (1994) points out that there is an unwillingness of some teachers to include awareness of race, sex, and class, because of “fear that classrooms will be uncontrollable, that emotions and passions will not be contained (p.39)”. And this way, a traditional and instructionist environment might be more “neutral” or “safe”. But “the experience of professors who educate for critical consciousness indicates that many students, especially students of color, may not feel at all “safe” in what appears to be a neutral setting” (p.39).
This “safeness” often leads to a reproduction of bias where the white male students continue to be the most vocal in the classroom, and some students of color and some white women don’t feel comfortable to collaborate out of fear to be judged intellectually. Another common example of bias in “neutral” classes is the “tokenism”– when a person of color might be objectified by the others, and forced to assume the role of “native informant.” “For example, a novel is read by a Korean American author. White students turn to one student from a Korean background to explain what they do not understand. This places an unfair responsibility onto that student” (hooks, 1994, p. 43).
It is part of the responsibility of the teacher to scaffold collaborative learning in situations. Examples on how to do that:
1. Starting with the feeling of community: “Rather than focusing on issues of safety, I think that a feeling of community creates a sense that there is shared commitment and a common good that binds us. What we all ideally share is the desire to learn” (hooks, 1994).
2. Intervening directly on a class discussion: In the case as of the student from Korea, “the teacher should make it clear that the experience of one person doesn’t make one an expert, and perhaps even by explaining what it means to place someone in the role of “native informant” (hooks, 1994).
3. Being open to flexible grading: Grade can also be a way in which teachers exercise control or over script (give an excess of structure). “A more flexible grading process must go hand in hand with a transformed classroom. Standards must always be high. Excellence must be valued, but standards cannot be absolute and fixed” (hooks, 1994). That’s why, again, the balance of freedom and structure of guided improvisation is so important!
4. Being open to challenge personal conceptions: That may seem easier on theory than practice. For some people, teachers, or students, it might be easier to accept diversity in the curriculum, but not of the nature of the pedagogical practice. As an example given by hooks (1994): a white female English professor is “more than happy” to include Toni Morrison on her syllabus but does not want to discuss race when talking about the book. How can we debate on Toni Morrison’s work without talking about her perspective of the world?
Each engaged classroom might have different settings that need different scripts to scaffold collaborative learning. That’s why guided improvisation helps in dealing with the collaboration emergence. Because even though everything is flexible and dynamic, there’s one underlying premise that won’t change: that every engaged classroom has a learning goal where students and teachers aim an effective and inclusive collaboration.
An engaged classroom fosters a creative knowledge with a central focus on critical thinking by building a learning community. It is:
. a dynamic building process of a collaborative learning community;
. an exciting place, where there is a pleasure in the learning process;
. a collective effort, where the teacher is a catalyst of change, but everyone is responsible for the engagement;
. an open space for creativity, where imagination creates new places of power and possibility;
. an open space for reflection on different individual perspectives, where biases are challenged;
. a collaborative learning space where students, teachers, and community members aim to create a deep shared understanding.
Teachers are the starting point for building a learning community. They provide support along the process to help students collaborate and confront biases. For being able to do it, they should also challenge their biases and be open to a dynamic learning process. In this type of learning environment, diversity in social interactions is acknowledged and incorporated not just as part of the curricula, but also in pedagogical practices.
Engaged classroom settings are not fixed and are always changing, as it is based on social interactions, recognizing individual’s backgrounds, identities, and prior experiences. It shifts accordingly to the interactions among students, between teachers and students, and their relationships with the community. Each engaged classroom might create new ways of knowing and different strategies for the sharing of knowledge. But all engaged classrooms have the main learning goal of teachers and students being actively changed by the knowledge building.
By working collectively on a situated activity that addresses the 21st-century challenges, learners will 1) create together a shared content knowledge that addresses their working problem, and 2) will develop deep collaborative knowledge on how to engage critically and creatively in society.
(This Article was originally written in October 2019 as a midterm paper for the Learning Sciences course. It was my first academic investigation about collaboration and civic engagement)
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hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.
hooks, b. (2010). Teaching critical thinking: practical wisdom. New York: Routledge.
Miyake, N., & Kirschner, P. (2014). The Social and Interactive Dimensions of Collaborative Learning. In R. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 418-438). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sawyer, R. K. (2014). The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. In R. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, p. Iii). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sawyer, R. K. (Robert K. (2019). The creative classroom: innovative teaching for 21st-century learners. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.