A growing movement in higher education seeks to bring “critical digital pedagogy” to college classrooms. But the idea can seem a bit abstract and, well, academic. So we invited two proponents of the approach to explain what it is and how to put it into practice.
"In some ways it's about showing them the Matrix code behind education, letting [students] see how education works."
—Jesse Stommel, director of teaching and learning technologies at the University of Mary Washington
The goal of critical pedagogy is to encourage students to think about the way they are being taught and how they, as students, fit into broader social and cultural context. Or, as one of our guests put it: “in some ways it's about showing [students] the Matrix code behind education, letting them see how education works.”
The conversation took place last week on the latest session of our monthly online town hall about the future of education, called EdSurge Live. More than 80 people tuned in and had a chance to bring their questions and perspectives.
Our guests were Jesse Stommel, director of teaching and learning technologies at the University of Mary Washington, and Martha Burtis, director of the Digital Knowledge Center at the University of Mary Washington.
The discussion quickly turned to grades, with both guests calling on colleges to stop using letter grades, which they argue send the wrong message to students about what their time in the classroom is all about.
Listen to the conversation here, or read highlights below, which have been lightly edited for clarity.
How would you define critical pedagogy?
Jesse Stommel: Critical pedagogy has been my background since when I first started my graduate program at the University of Colorado Boulder, back in 2001-2002. Essentially, critical pedagogy comes from the ideas of Paulo Freire and bell hooks and Henry Giroux and others. And it's interested in context, having us think about who our students are, think about the sort of communities that they live in, think about them as more than just bodies in a classroom, but think about how they actually engage with their world. And it's really focused on not only having them learn knowledge in a classroom, but also learn how to read their world and be participants in the communities that they live in.
And so from a practical perspective, I think what it's primarily focused on is one, getting to know who our students are, what's motivating them, what are the worlds that they live in? And [two], figuring out ways to engage their full selves in the classroom, and to bring our full selves to the work of the classroom.
So increasingly, as I've also focused on digital pedagogy as well, I've been thinking about this idea of “critical digital pedagogy.” Essentially, what does that look like when we're engaging students online? How does this interface change the way that we relate to one another? How does it limit our ability to bring ourselves and find agency in the space and also in some cases, how does it enhance it or how can we work with the tools in ways that help enhance it?
Martha Burtis: My background really came out of academic technology and moved from that into teaching. My perspective has always been kind of critiquing digital within the context of education, not necessarily explicitly around pedagogy until more recently, but really questioning our institutional adoption of coded spaces that promote certain values and that push us in certain ways that may be opposed to what we say we stand for in higher education. And then more and more, as I have begun to teach at my institution, I’ve seen how that ethos and that perspective and approach is really much more deeply embedded in my approach to pedagogy as well.
Higher education is facing so many issues these days, with the recent admissions scandal and the increased attention to high levels of student debt. How do you make the case for why critical pedagogy should be front and center with all the things going on with higher ed?
Stommel: We work currently at a public liberal arts institution, and I would say that regardless of where I've worked, the value in the liberal arts has been super important to me and my career and the way that I've thought about the work that I do. The piece that's at the center of that is helping students to think more deeply about both the content and also the containers that we're learning within. So it's about not only helping them learn the sort of stuff of education, but also helping them think critically about their education and about learning itself.
And so to me the word “critical” means to engage digital technology and our own teaching practices with one eyebrow always raised. And it's not with one eyebrow always raised with critique, but one eyebrow raised with both critique and also curiosity—sort of a wonder and a marveling at this thing that we do when we come together as human beings and learn in an environment together.
[Audience question]: What would distinguish between a course that was having a digital pedagogy and a critical digital pedagogy? And could you also talk about the differences in outcomes you actually see when this happens?
Stommel: I often push back on the notion of “best practices”—the idea that there is some secret practice that I do that you should then do and it'll work for you. Instead, it's really about finding what practice works best for us, and so you're probably already doing some amazing things in your classroom that are different from what I do, and I think that that's a good thing.
I will say one thing that I do, which I find really valuable in my digital courses—and I do this in my face-to-face courses, too—is I do a lot of meta-level work with my students, which means we do a thing and then we talk about the doing of the thing. We have a conversation in class, and then we have a Twitter chat, and then we have a conversation about what's possible in a Twitter chat versus what's possible in a classroom. My students are then reflecting on what they just did in sort of a [recursive] process that I find brings more students in. In some ways, it's about showing them the matrix code behind education, letting them see how education works.
Jesse, you’ve talked a lot about how grades and the system of letter grades that most colleges use is a problem, and that they are “patronizing.” Are you actually suggesting that higher education do away with grades?
Stommel: Another word I would use is paternalistic. I find that grades are essentially a way of controlling students, and they're a way of controlling the output that the teachers expect of students, even when that isn't the intention of the teacher.
Even if I don't grade in my particular classroom, my students still come in with a lot of baggage of having been graded throughout most of their lives. They're still influenced and impacted by grades even when they're in a grade-free environment. My daughter, who's two-and-a-half years old, is already being graded. She's already being graded left and right, and I don't necessarily mean letter grades in her day care, but I mean that our whole system is set up around grading students' performance, grading kids' development, grading their performance on particular tasks. She doesn't quite understand it yet, but she very quickly will, I'm guessing, and I'll notice a shift in where, and how, and when she learns because she starts to internalize some of that, some of those mechanisms.
Would I eliminate grades all together? Yes, I would eliminate grades all together. What we want is students to be engaged and thoughtful participants in their own learning. Grades are not helping us toward that.
Burtis: Yeah, the language that we speak to students is grades. And then we try and understand why we're not getting through to them. It sort of drives me crazy sometimes when I'll hear people bemoan the fact that students are just performing to the rubric or the test. The students will say, what do I need to do to get an A on this? And I'm like, well that's because the language we're speaking to them as languages of A's, B's, C's, D's and F's, and so they're simply trying to speak that language back to us. If we actually want to change that, if we actually want to change the way they talk to us about their learning, I think that means we have to change the thing that's underpinning all of that, which is the grading, and the way in which that influences the practice in the classroom
In a world where grades are the norm, is there anything you could suggest to people to get at the kind of critique in a practical way?
Burtis: I would say, so I have under Jesse's tutelage, I’ve begun to do ungrading. It doesn't mean that you don't assign a grade at the end of the semester, but what it does mean is that you rely more on students' self-evaluation and reflection, and their assessment of their progress and their work as opposed to this objective assessment. One of the things that I think has been most eye-opening for me is having those meta conversations that Jesse mentioned with students about the work of the class, about what is good work for this class, what does that look like. And unpacking that as part of the work of the class, so that when they write those self-evaluations, they are not writing that in a vacuum, they're writing it in response to a larger conversation that we're having as a classroom community about what excellent work looks like. I think that's something you could do even if you continue to assign letter grades, you still could have those meta conversations with students about what is it that we're trying to work toward together.
Stommel: And this is just one tip, but there was something embedded in your question, which was this sense in which my institution requires me to do X, my institution requires me to do Y. What I found over years of speaking about this at multiple institutions and talking to teachers all around the country and all around the world about this particular topic, is that oftentimes when someone says, but my institution requires me to do X, I say, let's look it up. Let's go look at the policies. Let's read the actual policies. Let's figure out what your institution actually requires of you. What I find is that institutions require a lot less of teachers on this particular issue than the teachers think that they do. Because teachers have internalized this kind of culture of assessment.
So when I sort of came out, if you will, and started talking about grading and approaches to grading publicly, part of the reason I did is because any other conversation I was having about education, about the future of education, about digital pedagogy, about critical pedagogy, the teachers would say, "Yeah, except for I have to grade students. How am I going to do any of this?" And so the grade almost became an elephant in the room of every other conversation that I was wanting to have. In some ways, grades can almost be a lever to get us to some deeper, more important conversations, but they can also be a sort of fog in our way that we have to at least kind of push the fog out of the way.