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best practices for teaching with emerging technologies


Michelle Pacansky-Brock had my attention from the first paragraph of the introduction, where – in response to comments like, “Students today are so unmotivated,” “Students today don’t care about anything but their grades,” and “Students today feel entitled and aren’t willing to work hard” – she asks, “Are our students the problem? Or is it our [higher education’s] instructional model?” By shifting the responsibility to us, teachers and colleges, she wins an ally with me.

The foundation of her work is the idea of moving from “teaching to learning,” a phrase taken from a 1995 article by Barr and Tagg that, in part, means students learn more when they are active participants in their learning, rather than passive listeners to their professors. In addition, Pacansky-Brock leverages John Medina’s Brain Rules, focusing on three that she believes are “relevant for 21st-century college educators”: exercise boosts brain power; sensory integration; vision trumps other senses.

Not only, she argues, can technology help make learning more “brain-friendly” through strategies like those, it’s also the language that today’s college student speaks. Citing numerous statistics – like, 85% of 18-29 year olds in the U.S. have a smart phone – Pacansky-Brock supports the idea that “’online’ is a culture to young people. Yet to most colleges, it is a delivery method.” In sum, teaching with emerging technologies makes sense on a lot of levels and most colleges are behind the curve.

What follows is mostly practical advice for getting on the technology bus, based in experience and experiment. As a classroom teacher at both community college and state university levels, Pacansky-Brock been willing to try a lot of things. Readers benefit by learning from both her successes and failures.

Chapter one discusses the basics of preparing your students for a participatory classroom that uses significant technological tools. Because “students are trained to expect” a hierarchical classroom environment, “when an instructor embarks upon an instructional model that assumes a flattened relationship between student and instructor, like the flipped model, the must be communicated and discussed so it’s clear to students.” They need to understand why you are doing what you’re doing and how the pieces fit together to create the community of learners that you are trying to create.

This first chapter also includes issues like classroom philosophy, community ground rules, student privacy, copyright in the electronic world, and even a bit on the linking versus embedding in your online materials. Chapter two spends more time on participatory pedagogy and some basic tools you can use to foster it. In chapter three, she spends time on the “essentials” – smartphone, webcam, microphone, screencasting software, online content hosting, and more. Chapter four goes into more detail about tools for creating compelling visual content, from infographics to video conferencing to a “liquid” syllabus. Chapter five delves into the tools for participatory learning, including social media, online bulletin boards, online meetings, digital polling, and more on content curation. Through it all, Pacansky-Brock shares what she does, elaborates other options, and discusses the pros and cons of both. Her ideas, tips, and stories make what might seem like a list of apps into something like an annotated bibliography.

The book’s last full chapter is an extended argument for the potential of the internet to innovate and create new and better learning opportunities for students. Pacansky-Brock advocates against using your college’s Learning Management System (LMS) and describes her own evolution on this topic:

When I started teaching online in an LMS, I was disappointed in the quality of the learning environment I had developed for my students and felt constrained by the features available to me. By experimenting with new tools, I discovered different ways of engaging my students and opportunities for being present in their learning. But I still felt the need to use an LMS, largely because of concerns about violating the license for the images included in the textbook I was using, as well as my (former) institution’s expectation for faculty to teach with institutionally supported technologies. I imagine many instructors can relate to that experience.

I certainly can. But there is more. The extensive use of the LMS in higher education, she writes, “may be contributing to a gap between the skills college graduates need and the skills they have.” The LMS provides privacy, control, and less distraction, but it cannot keep up with the speed and scale of innovation on the open internet. Using an LMS also prevents students from developing a professional web presence. In fact, content developed by students during the course disappears when the course is over – essentially, their work inside the LMS is disposable. Working in the open internet can motivate students to produce higher quality work, because after all, “the internet is forever.”

Pacansky-Brock does not think the internet is a panacea for educating students. She sees the advantages and disadvantages of learning through the internet and believes that technology can be used to make learning more human and more participatory. She is thoughtful and thought-provoking – as a teacher, I was constantly taking notes for my own classes, sparked by ideas and stories in the book. I will be referring to it frequently as I continue to refine my teaching practice.

You can find out more at: http://teachingwithemergingtech.com/

humanizing online learning

As part of my research, I’ve stumbled across the work of Michelle Pacansky-Brock and what she calls “humanizing” online learning. She has created an infographic summarizing “How to Humanize Your Online Class“:

Humanize Infographic PDF.jpg

Pacansky-Brock’s work dovetails nicely with the work of Drs. Luke Wood, Frank Harris III, and Khalid White. In their book, Teaching Men of Color in the Community College (there’s also an online course with the same name), they stress teacher-student relationships that include positive messaging, authentic care, and intrusive interventions. They also point to the importance of high expectations and high support in the context of relevant content, critical reflection, collaboration, and performance monitoring. While that’s a lot to take in, I thought Michael Smedshammer’s approach in his Online Teaching Conference presentation, Five Ways to Leverage Your LMS to Improve Student Equity, put it succinctly: “Put relationships before pedagogy” and use “intrusive pedagogy.”

For me, this means it’s the teacher’s responsibility to reach out to our students. We cannot just offer to meet with students or put the invitation out there. We need to schedule times with our students and seek them out if they don’t show up. This is especially important for those students who need the most help and may be most embarrassed to asked for it.

In my own experience as an online and hybrid teacher building the relationships is the most difficult part, particularly because it’s one of the strengths I bring to my face-to-face classroom. Online and hybrid instructors typically see our students much less often than our in-the-classroom colleagues. We have to create human presence through the internet. When I started teaching online, I not only didn’t know how to be “present” remotely, I wasn’t very comfortable with trying. It felt completely alien and weird and the opposite of personal. I had to learn to get over myself. No matter how accomplished I was in the classroom, I had to adapt to the new environment. I had to get out of my comfort zone and do the things that my students needed. The resulting experiments have not been perfect, but I’ve learned a lot.

Here’s some concrete ways you can make your presence more real for your students online. You can use these to show who you are and to demonstrate your passion for your subject and for teaching. (Many of these ideas are gleaned from Pacansky-Brock and Smedshammer, as well as Fabiola Torres):

  • Embed video of yourself in your syllabus
  • Use icebreakers
  • Offer online office hours using Zoom or Google Hangouts
  • Use a texting service like Remind:
    Email is old-fashioned. There’s no better way to reach your students than on their phones. I now require my online and hybrid students to sign up to receive texts from me. Even though I give them the option to talk to me about why they don’t want to get those texts, not one student has asked to get out of the requirement. Far from being intrusive, most students seem to appreciate my texts and see it as sign that I care about their success.
  • Post weekly or more frequent videos in your course:
    Encourage students and let them see your normal or even geeky self. Torres calls these “learning nudges.” You can use QuickTime or iMovie or any number of other applications.
  • Respond to student work with a video — this is really easy inside Canvas. There should be a button to press under the box for assignment comments that allows you record and post a private video right inside the LMS.


mathematics education for a new era: video games as a medium for learning


Before the 13th century AD, math was done in sentences, sometimes called “rhetorical math.” The symbols we currently associate with math began to emerge in the Arab world during the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. By the 16th century, French thinkers were developing a fully symbolic system.

The advent of symbolic algebra changed the way we think about, learn, and do math. It also changed the kinds of problems that were doable by the lay mathematician with a basic education. Electronic calculators made arithmetic with large numbers more accessible, but didn’t fundamentally shift the way we think about math or learn it. (There is still plenty of debate in math education circles about the appropriate use of calculators in the curriculum.)

Today, computer technology is slowly altering math and math education, but especially in math education that potential is only beginning to be realized. Much of what we do with computers in math education mimics books, except in more color and with occasional hyperlinks. While there are folks taking advantage of multimedia presentation (think video, interactive sliders, etc. – for instance, the folks at Desmos are doing some great work), I have yet to see computers fundamentally and broadly change the way we teach math in the way that symbolic manipulation on paper did.

One option is to let the internet provide the kind of instructions that we’re used to seeing from teachers. Sites such as Khan Academy and publishers like XYZ Textbooks provide videos with multiple examples worked out slowly and carefully. Students can watch them on their own time, as many times as they want, stopping and starting and rewinding as they need. In class, teachers can clear up misconceptions and extend ideas already developed at home.

This “flipped classroom” model, however, assumes students can access the internet at home, an assumption that is often wrong and disadvantages those with the least (Is Digital Equity the Civil Rights Issue of the Day?). Add to that the fact that desk tops are giving way to small screens and it’s clear we must make sure we are making mobile-native, or at least mobile-friendly, education sites and activities. Even then, folks living in or on the edge of poverty often lose their access.

With this as context, consider Keith Devlin’s Mathematics Education for a New Era. In it, Devlin pulls together a career as a math educator and a love of video games to suggest a way for math and math education to evolve for the 21st century and beyond.

Devlin starts by discussing what he calls eleven principles of an ideal learning environment – like “the learning environment should be as similar as possible to the environment in which people will use what they learn” and “there should be sufficient ‘cost’ to getting something wrong to motivate correction, but not so great that it leads to the student losing heart and giving up” – ideas I think most people would agree with. With that basis, he tries to show how video games fit the principles very closely, even to the point of calling the next chapter “Euclid Would Have Taught Math This Way.” Part of this argument involves discussing the 36 principles of education that go into video games according to James Paul Gee (professor of education at Arizona State University) in his book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Devlin goes on to discuss various aspects of math education and finishes by advocating for a math pedagogy that is part “flipped” and all carefully thought out to create optimal learning for each individual student, taking advantage of whatever methods are best for what’s being taught.

I find Devlin’s ideas compelling. Use computers and computer games to do the things they are good at: repetition and drilling (when appropriate); motivation and story. Continue to respect the relationships between teachers and students in a thoughtful system that supports students in the ways that they most need it. He is not arguing that that video games should be the sole way to teach math, or even that it is the best way. Instead, he believes that well-designed math education video games could be a powerful addition to school, home, textbooks, and the rest of the math educational apparatus.

He also makes some useful observations and distinctions for math teachers (like myself):

  • The phrase “’do math’ is all too frequently taken to mean mindless manipulating symbols, without the full engagement that comes with genuine mathematical thinking.” In fact, Devlin points out, “skills are much more easily acquired when encountered as a part of mathematical thinking.” But he reminds us, “mathematical thinking is not something the human mind finds natural.”
  • Anyone trying to teach math should design situations for students that promote mathematical thinking and expect to need to help them, while always remembering that “attempts to understand what it all means at too early a stage can slow the learning process.” In fact, “full conceptual understanding, while desirable, is not strictly necessary in order to be able to apply mathematics successfully.” Often what is needed in the short term is “functional understanding”:

    Calculus is in many ways a cognitive technology – a tool you use without knowing much, if anything, about how it works. For example, few people know how an automobile engine or a computer works, but that does not prevent those people from becoming skillful drivers or computer users. Successful use of a technology does generally does not require an understanding of how or why it works.

I realize all of this is a pretty big pill to swallow for many of us, especially those, like me, raised on endless worksheets of drill, without motivation except a task master with a real or metaphorical ruler ready to slap the idle hand. But computers are changing many aspects of our life, for better or worse, and I don’t think that’s going to stop. Instead let’s figure out how to use them well, for the good of the generations to come. I think that’s what Devlin is trying to do. If it’s not the “right” answer, then it’s a pretty good try.

I’ll leave you with a long quote from the book’s opening chapter that I think captures some of Devlin’s vision and passion:

When people made the first attempts to fly, the most successful machines for transport were wheeled vehicles, and the only know examples of flying creatures were birds and insects, both of which fly by flapping wings. . . but that doesn’t work for humans. The key to human flight was to separate flying from flapping wings, and to achieve flight by another means more suited to machines built from wood or metal. . . .

Putting symbolic expressions in a math ed game environment is to confuse mathematical thinking with its static, symbolic representation on a sheet of paper, just as the early aviators confused flying with the one particular representation of flying which they had observed. To build truly successful math ed video games we have to separate the activity – a form of thinking – from its familiar representation in terms of symbolic expressions.

Mathematical symbols were introduced to do mathematics first in the sand, then on parchment and slate, and still later on paper and blackboards. Video games provide an entirely different representational medium. As a dynamic medium, video games are far better suited in many ways to representing and doing middle-school mathematics than are symbolic expressions on a page. We need to get beyond thinking of video games as an environment that delivers traditional pedagogy – a new canvas on which to pour symbols – and see them as an entirely new medium to represent mathematics.


sabbatical project – 1

I am currently on sabbatical till January, 2018. During my sabbatical my primary work-related responsibility is to complete a research project.

In my research project I’m trying to pull together three areas that I have worked in over the course of my career as a community college math teacher: math education, multicultural education, and online education. My initial research has found that, while there is literature in the overlap of pairs of these (math and multicultural, math and online, multicultural and online), there is little where the three areas intersect.

If further research confirms that little or no work has been done in these area, then this niche needs to be filled. The importance of better math education is well-documented. As our college student population increasingly diversifies, the need for the still majority-white teaching profession to understand how to better communicate with students of all backgrounds is more crucial than ever. And, though I don’t think technology is the answer to all educational problems, we would be foolish to think that online education is going away; on the contrary, the private-sector is pushing that way, legislatures have visions of the savings it can produce, and students are demanding the flexibility of learning on their own time and from where ever they happen to be.

I’d love to collaborate with others on what I think is a critical confluence of research and practice. If you’d like to work together, or if you know of work in the intersection of math education, multicultural education, and online education, I’d like to here from you. Please comment here or contact me at: hhuntsman@gmail.com.

the importance of listening to students

Good teaching is as difficult to define as other arts and the debate over how teachers should be evaluated and what it should mean is raging all over the country. While reading a paper on teacher evaluation put out by Accomplished California Teachers, I realized that, though the study is useful and the recommendations good, it misses a fundamental issue. Too often, in the discussion among professionals about teaching and learning, we neglect the voice of students.

That’s one of the reasons I like the draft study done by James W. Stigler, Karen B. Givvin, and Belinda J. Thompson, “What Community College Developmental Mathematics Students Understand About Mathematics.” In it, they try to eplore what students get wrong and what they don’t and why. They listen carefully and respectfully to students, thoughtfully writing about what they find.

One of the most profound questions that students pose when asked to solve a problem during the interview is, “Am I supposed to do it the math way, or just do what makes sense?” The question reveals a fundamental disconnect between what students experience in their lives and what they experience in the classroom. Not a revelation: the disconnect is completely consistent with my experience listening to community college students in developmental math classes. Any teacher paying attention is aware of it. However, as I read this question and the rest of the study, I began asking a series of different questions:

  • Is the math we teach connected to students’ lives?
  • Is the math we teach connected to our own lives?
  • Are we, as math teachers, so indoctrinated into a mathematical perspective that we force the connections between math and our lives?
  • Would it be beneficial to math students for teachers to call out the cultural framing that we are bringing to the subject and that we are trying to help them assume?

Clearly, I’m not going to answer the first three questions here. People make variously good and bad arguments about math’s “utility” that are usually circular, starting from the assumption that math applies to most, if not all, the natural world. Rather, I think we must continue to ask them of ourselves and of our curriculum. The question of perspective and acculturation is complex and probably unanswerable. Philosophers of science, much smarter and more capable than I (e.g., Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn, and Paul Feyerabend) have been arguing about it for years without full resolution.

But the last question is easier for me. Cultures around the world do math, so math seems to be a fundamentally human activity. However, that math is not usually what we’re teaching. As such, I firmly believe it is helpful for students to see that the math we teach in our classrooms is a cultural construct and not necessarily “natural”; in fact, the math in our modern textbooks is a carefully contrived version of math. It is made to appear smooth, a straight line of development from numeration, to fractions, to factoring, to graphing, to functions, to differentiation, to integration, and beyond. If students don’t see how smooth and “obvious” it all is, then it is their fault. And when the story isn’t quite so smooth, we just pretend it is — “don’t you see?”

Acknowledging the culture of math and its interplay with the other parts of our culture is an important step to demystifying math and to being intellectually honest, toward having students realize that they can bring all their intuitions, experience, and knowledge to bear on problems, both in and out of math class. At the same time, it helps remind us, as teachers, to listen to students, because their experience of math is part of what math is in our classrooms. More, their experience of math will survive us, long after we’re retired, helping to create the culture of math in the world to come.

As teachers, we have spent years mastering our content and working to be better teachers. Yet, students still sometime disparage our work and/or our chosen field of study. Working with as many students as we do, it is often hard to see what we can learn from the next batch. Truly listening to our students takes effort and focus. I frequently fail to do it well, but every time I do, I am rewarded with a better connection and a better class. Listening to our students is part of the art of teaching. We fail to listen at our own, our profession’s, and our culture’s peril.

the art of critical pedagogy

Let us begin by rethinking the position that urban schools are failing. . . . When one set of schools [in high-income communities] is given the resources necessary to succeed and another group of schools [in low-income communities] is not, we have predetermined the winners and losers. . . . Urban [low-income community] schools are not broken; they are doing exactly what they are designed to do.

This in the second paragraph of Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell’s brilliant book, The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools. It’s brilliant because it is based in the experience of actually teaching our country’s youth, on working day in and day out with high school students in Los Angeles and Oakland. Most of the book is Duncan-Andrade and Morrell detailing several educational projects on which they’ve worked, describing their experiences as they try to put their belief in critical pedagogy into practice, and explaining what they learned.

As grounded in experience and practice as they are, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell know the theory, too. In chapter two, they give the best overall summary of the work and writing of the major names in critical pedagogy—Freire, Shor, Darder, McLaren, Giroux, hooks—I’ve seen. In addition, they discuss the efforts of a few “lived examples of critical pedagogy to emphasize that critical pedagogy is more than just a teaching strategy—it is a personal, financial, political, emotional, and spiritual commitment to prioritizing the needs and liberation of people who are suffering under various forms of oppression”: Carter G. Woodson, Lolita Lebrón, Franz Fanon,Reies López Tijerina, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Subcommandante Marcos. (If this list and the words used to describe these people intimidate you, you’re a normal human being. The authors make it less intimidating as they describe how they put those words into practice in the work they have done and continue to do.)

Before they do that, they lay out their understanding of the urban public school context in which students try to learn and in which teachers try to teach. They argue that “urban school failure is tolerated because deep down our nation subscribes to the belief that someone has to fail in school,” belief supported by racist and classist ideology. Currently, the line is that “educational failure is the result of cultural deficiencies on the part of the student, the family, and the community—de facto, educational attainment is attributed to cultural superiority or assimilation into culturally superior ways.” Regardless of the reasons, the result serves the dominant culture in our country, because “some people must fill the least desirable places in society, and it is important that they feel they deserve to be in those positions or, at the very least, that there is a formal mechanism to justify their place there.” The attack on students’ esteem and confidence is self-perpetuating and circular: if you’re made to feel stupid, you do worse on tests because of your lack of belief in yourself.

But, according to Duncan-Andrade and Morrell, the equation of performance in school and intelligence is false. For, if

school achievement were an accurate measure of intellect, achievement patterns would more closely mirror the random distribution of intellect that genetic scientists report in human populations. Instead, the results of schools are quite predictable. . . . With remarkable consistency, schools serving low-income, non-white children disproportionately produce the citizens who will spend most of their adult lives in the least desirable and least mobile socioeconomic positions (prison, low-ranking military positions, and service labor).

The few urban students who do well are “asked (sometimes tacitly, sometimes explicitly) to exchange the culture of their home and community for the higher culture of the school in exchange for access to college.” Therefore,

urban education reform movements must begin to develop partnerships with communities that provide young people the opportunity to be successful while maintaining their identities as urban youth. This additive model of education focuses on the design of urban school culture, curriculum, and pedagogy that identifies the cultures and communities of urban students as assets rather than as things to be replaced.

This “approach provides pedagogy and curricula that lend immediate relevance to school in the lives of urban youth. It also works to break the cycle of disinvestment of human capital in urban communities by crating graduates who recognize their potential agency to improve urban centers, rather than seeing them as places to escape.” Duncan-Andrade and Morrell see critical pedagogy as a win-win for students, teachers, and society as a whole, because “rather than presenting the community as a place to rise above, schools must equip themselves to draw from the knowledge that students bring with them to school—knowledge that is often not in their textbooks but is acquired from the streets, family cultural traditions, youth culture, and the media.”

They are critical of the results we’ve seen so far from multicultural education because it has “failed to deal with the conditions of modern urban life.” They argue persuasively “for pedagogical practices situated in critical analyses of the role of urban schools in social inequality.” We should “shift the rhetoric of failure from young people and caring teachers onto an inequitable system designed to concretize failure in poor communities.”

Finally, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell “believe that urban students should go to college at rates equal to their more affluent counterparts” and that a

schooling environment that foregrounds the relationship between education and the most pressing conditions in the community, an education with relevance, is most likely to produce notable increases in college eligibility. . . . [T]he desired outcome in critical pedagogies in urban education is multiple and . . . it must impact academic achievement, identity development, and civic engagement. . . . To often, we believe, critical pedagogies focus on the rhetoric of social critique to the exclusion of the development of sophisticated literacy and numeracy skills.

These academic skills frequently come “at great personal and social costs that include alienation from family, language, community, and progressive social values.” Therefore, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell’s work focuses maintaining a sense of community and culture for students, while still promoting rigorous academic skills, by setting those skills in the community and cultural context. Literally, they ask the students what problems or questions are important to them and then develop the curriculum around those issues.

All this made connections for me with the writing of bell hooks, especially in Where We Stand: Class Matters in which she talks about her experience of going to college and being alienated from her home culture by the college culture and the resulting disorientation of being caught between two the two. (For more, see my entry on hooks’ book.) The connection is expected, since Duncan-Andrade and Morrell begin their work with hooks and other related writers as the foundation upon which they build. Indeed, they are trying to do the work that such writers recommend.

As I mentioned above, after contextualizing their work, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell spend the bulk of the book describing their work with students in urban schools. In the final chapter, “Toward a Grounded Theory of Praxis,” they try to draw conclusions from their experiences, point to areas that need more research and exploration, and make suggestions about teacher education. Importantly, they also talk about love. In a section called “Pedagogy, Love, and Revolution” they write about “revolutionary love” and its potential to change both students’ lives and the larger world. From my perspective, real love—that includes celebrating successes and correcting errors and facilitating the development of the person each student wants to be—for your students is the foundation of good teaching. It doesn’t mean that you like every student the same or that every student likes you. It means that you love them and treat them with the respect and compassion you treat all your loved ones. It means that you treat your students the same way you treat your own children. This is a beautiful, dangerous, and somewhat radical stance—and that is right where I want to be.

gansta, wanksta, rida

“All the research shows the same thing: the bottom line is that good teaching is about relationships. The best teachers come in to their classrooms every day ready to be vulnerable to their students. Therefore, to be a great teacher is to deny your human instinct to protect yourself.”

These words from Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade, Professor of Raza Studies and Educational Administration at San Francicso State University, during his standing-room only talk at the City College of San Francisco on February 25. The title of the talk—“The Gangsta, Wanksta, Rida Paradigm: Urban Youth Culture and Learning”—is a reference to common elements he found in the best teachers in his study of urban schools. The few great teachers are “ridas” in that they “ride” with the community. On the other side are the handful of “gangsta” teachers that don’t like the students they work with and act as barriers to, rather than enablers of, those students. In the middle and on the fence are the “wankstas” who mean well and do a lot of talking about what they are going to do for students, but rarely, if ever, follow through.

Duncan-Andrade sought to normalize the teachers he studied who produced student success by every measure, including good grades, high test scores, increased self-confidence, and sustained engagement with school and learning. “Being successful with our students is not heroic, not exceptional. We make it heroic to excuse ourselves” when we are not successful. According to Duncan-Andrade, great teachers have or create the following five qualities:

  • Critically Conscious Purpose — great teachers are teachers because they want their students to change the world
  • Duty — great teachers understand that it is a privilege to teach, that they serve the students and their communities, and that the students are more important than the job
  • Preparation — great teachers meticulously prepared for class and take a great deal of ownership for their work and for the success of it in the classroom
  • Socratic Sensibility — great teachers know that they don’t know, are self-critical without doubting their ability to succeed
  • Trust — great teachers engender the trust of their students, choose solidarity over empathy, and know that loving their students means holding them to high expectations

Duncan-Andrade is author of The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools. He has lectured around the world about developing classroom practices and school cultures that foster self-confidence, esteem, and academic success among all students. His research interests and publications span the areas of urban schooling and curriculum change, urban teacher development and retention, critical pedagogy, and cultural and ethnic studies.

another look at theory

Like good mathematical theorems, which usually, once you understand them, seem entirely obvious, bell hooks’ prose so rings with large-scale truth that it feels virtually tautological. Almost always firmly rooted in her own personal experiences, it still has a revelatory power that transcends her individuality. I find her conclusions so obvious and compelling that I often wonder why someone didn’t write them down sooner. The answer, of course, is that they weren’t so obvious until she pointed to them.

And so some reflections as I read “Theory as Liberatory Practice” from hooks’ Teaching to Trangress.

The essay begins by surprising me.

I came to theory because I was hurting . . . . I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend . . . . I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing.

Many people think of theory as navel gazing, the privilege of coffee shop philosophers and ivory tower academics. I, too, after having spent perhaps too much time on theory in my younger days, have now possibly gone too far toward the side of action, rather than theorizing. But this is the beauty of hooks’ opening and of her title: they speak of the power of theory to bring action into being, of theory as a location for action, for praxis.

Praxis is not automatic. “Theory is not inherently healing, liberatory, or revolutionary. It fulfills this function only when we ask that it do so and direct our theorizing towards this end.” It takes focus and discipline, because it is, as I know only too well, easy to theorize for the fun of it only. I have spent many hours reading and thinking and talking and writing about theory, with little thought to putting it into practice. There were vague fantasies, perhaps. But no plans of action. Not even manifestos written. I was lazy—not intellectually, but lazy in my privilege, not needing to act; I already felt free to do whatever I wanted so I had little motivation to act on liberatory theory. I was content to know the words; yet, “possession of a term does not bring a process or practice into being.”

Further, it is possible to “practice theorizing without ever knowing/possessing the term, just as we can live and act in feminist resistance without ever using the word ‘feminism.’” Paradoxically, it is often the people who use such terms the least that act the most—and vice versa. So it is easy to think of theory as not so useful, “politically non-progressive, a kind of narcissistic, self-indulgent practice.” It can even be counterproductive, since theory is so often used to “create a gap between theory and practice so as to perpetuate class elitism.”

Many have responded to this issue by

trashing theory, and, as a consequence, further promoting the false dichotomy between theory and practice. Hence they collude with those whom they would oppose. By internalizing the false assumption that theory is not a social practice, they promote the formation . . . of a potentially oppressive hierarchy where all concrete action is viewed as more important than theory written or spoken.

In other words, to reject theory altogether is to reinforce the separation of theory and action. hooks wrote those words in the specific context of feminist political work, but the point is much broader. hooks confirms its power with another example: “some elite academics who construct theories of ‘blackness’ in ways that make it a critical terrain which only the chosen few can enter” have something in common with “those among us who react to [those academics] by promoting anti-intellectualism by declaring all theory as worthless”; both are denying “the power of liberatory education for critical consciousness, thereby perpetuating conditions that reinforce our collective exploitation and repression.”

She goes on to talk about the “struggle to discuss issues of gender and blackness” and tells a beautiful story of the way naming and theorizing can ease pain and do real work in the world. After a heated discussion of race, gender, and class with a diverse group of black women and men in a restaurant in the South, a woman approached hooks and thanked her for the discussion. Hearing the words spoken out loud, helped this woman name her pain—pain she had been carrying for years—and moved her on to do more work in the world. “Holding my hands, standing body to body, eye to eye, she allowed me to share empathically the warmth of that healing. She wanted me to bear witness, to hear again both the naming of her pain and the power that emerged when she felt the hurt go away.” The experience engages the whole person for hooks, for the other woman and for the reader.

The power to engage all of us—body, mind, and spirit—is the potential of theory and the promise of truly liberatory education. If all human experience was fully understood, perhaps we would not need to theorize further. But that is not possible. As hooks reminds us, Catherine MacKinnon has written that “‘we know things with our lives and we live that knowledge, beyond what any theory has yet theorized.’” I am inspired to help create theory that makes space for all the experiences in the world, to theorize in the context of working to end oppressions of all kinds.

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