Reality Pedagogy (a critique)

My last post didn’t occasion the engagement I had hoped for. But I did learn something new, namely, that there is something called “reality pedagogy”, which was developed out of culturally relevant pedagogy and critical pedagogy by Christopher Emdin (2011). Though native to urban primary and secondary science education in the United States, it is (my critics rightly point out) a direct challenge to my approach to the classroom. As far as I can tell, it is being embraced well beyond this narrow context and I would disagree with its application even there. What is at issue is the nature of the of classroom and, therefore, the nature of teachers and students. In this post I want to offer some initial reactions to mark the crux of the disagreement as I see it.

I think Emdin and I could agree to approach the problem in broadly “constructivist” terms. Students and teachers aren’t natural kinds, but social constructions, and the construction site, if you will, is the classroom. The classroom is defined by the positions we assign to students and teachers; students and teachers are, in turn, defined by how we organize the classroom. This is, in part, what I was after in my defense of “the academic situation”: I think the classroom is a good place for certain kinds of activities, it is a context within which students and teachers can be “good” at what they do, namely, learning and teaching, respectively. It is not the only place where “learning” goes on, however. It is only a particular setting for learning and, I fully grant, not ideal for learning everything. Certain objects of knowledge are easily constructed in a classroom, we might say, and others not so easily.

But Emdin doesn’t let what Berger and Luckmann famously called “the social construction of reality” go deep enough. He believes that, in a crucial sense, the students are a “reality” that is given to the teachers and that their first duty is to understand this reality as given, to get to know “where they are coming from”.  He rightly emphasizes that this cannot be known in advance of the students’ arrival in the classroom. That is, you can’t just operate with some general understanding of “urban youth” and treat every class, year in and year out, according to this caricature. But he does seem to harbor a great deal of optimism about building “camaraderie” between teachers and students and proposes to devote significant energies to this end. Indeed, he seems willing to explicitly place course “content” at the bottom of the list of priorities and devote a great deal of time to letting students teach their teachers who they are and how they might be best learn. “The student,” he declares, “[is] the expert at pedagogy (the person who knows most about how to deliver information to other students) while the teacher [is] the novice who is learning how to teach” (2011, p. 288).

Emdin, it should be noted, is an engaging and charismatic thinker. I have no doubt that he has inspired both teachers and students to reach beyond what they thought themselves capable of. In fact, if this is realism it might best described as magic realism. In one TED talk he argues that education students are too often mired in meaningless scholarship when what they really want to do is “spark magic and change lives”. This magic, he suggests, is a teachable, transferable skill and could be part of the curriculum of teacher education. Specifically, he suggests that aspiring teachers should develop a “Pentecostal” or “Hip-Hop” sensibility  by attending churches and concerts and learning from people who truly know how to engage their audiences.

I believe that this sort of pedagogy arrogates* at once too much and too little power to the classroom setting. Too much because it imagines that the “whole person” of the student can be constructed (re-constructed?) within the confines of the classroom; it demands that students leave no part of themselves, as it were, “at the door”. It then proposes to transform this whole person, of whom it expects, I suppose, a full, authentic engagement with the learning process. But it is also too quick to declare the classroom powerless to extricate the students from whatever social conditions might be interfering with their learning and to protect them from them. It doesn’t grant that the classroom can impose an “order” for the 45 minutes the class lasts, suspending the social chaos that the student might otherwise be embroiled in among friends and family. Instead, it lets all of that material into the classroom and takes it upon itself to leverage it in the learning process.

I think this is a fool’s errand. No matter how much time you devote to “co-creating” the classroom with your students, you will never fully understand who they are or whether they’re really getting what you’re trying to teach them. Indeed, your students aren’t a knowable reality at all. They are, I want to say, an ideality. We should always direct our instruction at “the ideal student”, the subject of a learning process that most effectively delivers the content that we, the teachers, not they, the students, master. The ideal student reads their homework and sits still in class and raises their hand when they have a question. They do their assignments and clean up after themselves in the lab. They take careful notes, they devote a measured but intense amount of themselves to trying to understand what you’re teaching them. I’m not addressing the “whole person” of the student in my classes. I only talk to them as though I have their full attention for 45 minutes.

The real magic of the classroom lies in the order it imposes willy-nilly on everyone that enters, not in the charisma of the teacher or the sincerity of the student. Pierre Bourdieu has a very useful concept of “social magic” which depends on the misrecognition of the conditions that produce the social categories we then take for granted as “real”. Think of a magic act which depends on the audience remaining seated for the duration of the performance. We have to obey this rule in order to enjoy the show; but we also have to forget that we are obeying it. Likewise, the student knows that the classroom is an artificial simulation of the real world of numbers and letters, forces and masses. But there is a moment, for some students while reading a poem, for others while solving an equation, for yet others while conducting an experiment, where the whole of reality seems to rush in and assert itself. After much struggle with a particular set of carefully chosen materials, the student finally gets it. The ideal student leaves that other “reality” at the door.


*Update (26/02/2020): This was a poor word choice. Leaving aside its now obsolete senses, it implies that the power is unjustified. Not only is it needlessly confrontational to insinuate arrogance in the person you’re criticizing, I end up suggesting that we’d be justified in “arrogating”, i.e., justified in claiming without justification, a different kind of power in the classroom. 

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