Relaxed Pedagogy: Relaxing Teaching and Learning in the University

Kelsie Acton and Dieuwertje Dyi Huijg

Digital and distance learning in the pandemic university has created access to higher education teaching (HET) for disabled[1] students – and staff, to some extent – where this was not offered before by Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). Despite disabled learners’ need for proper digital access, HEIs insisted for years that digital learning was impossible. When faced with the pandemic, they rapidly pivoted; within weeks they transitioned to digital and distance learning. After years of debates about mobile phones and computers in the classroom, all of a sudden students were ‘allowed’ to always use their digital device; and, at least hypothetically, learning and teaching while lying down became an option. At the same time, disabled students and staff, as well as disability practitioners, have addressed the access gap in the pandemic university, which nevertheless seems to have low priority in policy. Unsurprisingly, there are concerns how this will develop in the post-lockdown university.

This blog post, though, is not concerned with either the pandemic or digital learning as such. Speaking as disabled and neurodivergent university teachers, rather, we take this moment of rupture created by the pandemic as an invitation to consider how ‘relaxing’ pedagogy can improve the teaching and learning experience for disabled – including neurodivergent[2] and sick[3] – as well as other marginalised students and teachers. We have a twofold objective here: first, we problematise, what we call, the Uptight Pedagogy of HET; and, second, we propose a Relaxed Pedagogy as an alternative approach. 

Uptight Pedagogy (UpPed)

With Uptight Pedagogy (UpPed) we refer to the current predominant pedagogical approach in HET. When we think of UpPed, we immediately think of the ‘banking system of education’ (cf. Freire and hooks): the system through which knowledge is ‘deposited’ by teachers ‘into’ learners, and which, in doing so, re/produces a hierarchy of teaching and learning. Highlighting pedagogical ‘uptightness’, we specifically draw attention to HET’s often ‘vertical’, linear and disciplining, or even controlling and punitive, orientation. For instance, critical pedagogical approaches, such as developed by Freire and hooks, argue that it is not possible to achieve social transformation by merely teaching about social transformation, i.e. without the teaching itself being socially transformative. Our attention here goes specifically to the intersectionally ableist and in particular neuro-ableist principles and practices of HET’s UpPed, which, in turn, reproduce norms of abledness and neurotypicality and interrelated exclusion mechanisms. These principles and practices create norms of how bodies and minds are supposed to learn, teach, and generally act and interact in higher education. This raises questions about how we – as teachers and students – are expected to be and to behave, to learn and to teach.

We understand UpPed’s ‘vertical system of learning’ in light of social hierarchies, relying on and reproducing various social inequalities and norms – e.g. in terms of race, gender (identity) and class, as well as neuronormativity and abledness. However, we also want to point to the often uptight bodymind quality of this verticality: think of the lecturer standing and talking, students sitting still, ‘paying attention’, quiet, with eyes fixed on the teacher; the teacher teaching linear ways of thinking, analysing, writing and, generally, developing; or the student ‘progressing’ upwards, from module to module, from year to year, up to the diploma – perhaps anticipating ‘social mobility’. These UpPed assumptions make the classroom a hostile place for a variety of students and teachers. For instance, Touretters, ADHDers and autistics might not be able to move, communicate and otherwise function in non-linear ways, which would support their learning and teaching. Teachers and students who experience pain and fatigue might teach and learn better if they were able to lie down in classrooms. And expectations of continuous and consistent progression do not account for variation in one’s capacities.

These and other ableist and neuro-ableist underpinnings are not only grounded in abledness and neuronormativity. For instance, we can trace back our cultural understanding of how people ‘pay attention’ to the 1860s, when art and education were advanced as ‘civilising forces’: the creation therein of norms of stillness and quiet, accompanied by an emphasis on (masculine) physical fitness and ‘correct’ posture, served to distinguish the upper and emerging middle classes from the lower classes and exclude the latter from art and education. These understandings of stillness and ‘paying attention’ in performance contexts can also be thought of in terms of the (re)inscription of whiteness, mobilised, for instance, through the policing of Black audiences’ expressions. Similarly, we suggest to reflect on how UpPed builds on an intersectional legacy of neglect, exclusion and detention in primary and secondary education (e.g. see here and here), and specifically of ‘special needs education’ and the school-to-prison pipeline. Challenging UpPed, then, aims to uproot norms of being and behaving, and teaching and learning, which are grounded in abledness and neuronormativity as well as in – interrelated – norms of, for instance, middle classness, masculinity and whiteness.

Relaxed Pedagogy (RelaxPed)

Against this background of UpPed, we propose to imagine HET grounded in a Relaxed Pedagogy (RelaxPed). With RelaxPed we think about an intersectional approach that draws together principles and practices from disability and neurodiversity culture and critical pedagogy; one that is specifically grounded in neurodivergent and disabled learners’ and teachers’ ‘being and behaving’ inside and outside the classroom. Grounded in our own (intersectionally) neurodivergent and disabled teaching (and learning) experience, we imagine RelaxPed to be critical, solidary, engaged and hopeful, as well as formed by decolonial, black disability, queer and feminist pedagogies; an approach that crips the classroom, and that embraces “unruly bodies,” horizontality and non-linearity.

To understand ‘relaxedness’ we turn to ‘relaxed performances’. Relaxed performances – also called autism-friendly, sensory-friendly or sensory adaptive performances – are a type of ‘access performance’. They were initially developed in the UK, but are practised worldwide. Relaxed performances seek to address the access needs of neurodivergent people and other disabled audiences and performers. They begin with an introduction to explain to the audience that the rules of how we pay attention have been relaxed; it often involves an invitation to audiences to come and go as they need to, to move, flap and tic, make noise, sit or stand as they wish, and to eat and drink. In other words, acknowledging that all of us have bodyminds that have needs, relaxed performances “give everyone permission to relax and respond naturally.” In doing so, they can enable us to reimagine what paying attention and respect can look like, and how we can be, teach and learn together, in a relaxed classroom.

This transformation is not just for students. For both of us, as neurodivergent and disabled teachers, opening up our classrooms to allow students to be themselves, instead of performing as normative learners, also opens up the ways that we ourselves can be neurodivergent and disabled. In the classroom, we both discuss our access needs with our students, and ask our students to accommodate these: think of difficulties with remembering names and dates; asking students to send email reminders; requests to talk loudly and clearly, but not all at the same time, and repeat as and when necessary; waving to get attention; or accommodating energy limitations. To do this, we have to engage with our own bodyminds, rather than trying and failing to perform abledness. By normalising our bodyminds, we normalise how students can be: whether this refers to taking a rest during the break; having alarms go off to take medication; drinking water and having a snack; losing our train of thought and asking students where we were; being comfortable with non-linearity; or sitting on desks or walking around. In turn, we put an effort in normalising the diverse ways that students can be and behave in the classroom: by not cold-calling students; not shaming students who need to attend to their phone, or just need distraction or a break outside; by repeating (over and over) that there are a variety of ways to think, analyse and write and that sometimes it is best to end with the introduction if that is how it works best; or even by offering students a set number of days that they can use throughout the term to extend due dates for assignments, no questions asked. These are examples of how we try to build principles of relaxedness into our teaching.

At this moment, when our usual ways of being together has been disrupted by the pandemic and social distancing, and the move to online teaching and learning is forcing us to re-evaluate our pedagogical engagements and the norms of the classroom, we urge you, our fellow HE teachers, to take this opportunity to move away from the ‘uptightness’ that characterised the in-person classroom – intersectionally marked by impossible as well as undesirable demands of abledness and neuronormativity. We hope that you imagine with us a classroom that can be transformed and transformative, one that embraces relaxedness. And if we relax our teaching and learning and fundamentally rethink our pedagogy we can collectively develop a Relaxed Pedagogy for the post-pandemic university.

[1] Throughout this article we use disabled, by which we refer to the social model of disability. As opposed to the medical model, in which disability is an individual or medical problem, the social model highlights that society creates barriers to participation through, among others, inaccessible architecture, policy and attitudes. In this blog post we work specifically from an intersectional approach to disability – recognising the interrelatedness of disabling barriers with other social categories, such as race, gender, sexuality and class.

[2] ‘Neurodivergent’ refers to people whose brains function in ways outside medical and societal definitions of normal – e.g. ADHDers, Touretters, dyslexics and autistics. It is used in opposition to ‘neurotypical’.

[3] Sick is often used by people who are chronically ill to refer to themselves.

Photo by Akshay Chauhan on Unsplash

Kelsie Acton recently completed her PhD from the University of Alberta (Canada), where she researched timing and access in integrated dance rehearsals. A neurodivergent choreographer and access consultant she currently works as the Inclusive Practice Manager at Battersea Arts Centre, the world’s first Relaxed Venue.

Dyi Huijg recently finished her PhD on intersectional agency (Sociology, University of Manchester). As a disabled ADHD woman herself, she soon starts a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship with an intersectional project on ADHD women and neuronormativity (Social Sciences, Roehampton University). She runs the Neurodiversity Reading Group London and, together with Kelsie, the Disability & Feminism Reading Group


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