Classrooms as a space for imagination and hope

Patric Wallin

This is part of a special collection celebrating the centenary of Paulo Freire’s birth.

Where do we go from here? From a situation where students shop courses, teachers measure satisfaction, and everyone complains about everything. From universities that proclaim that they are at the forefront of working with the UN sustainability goals, while at the same time contribute to the marketization of higher education that increasingly positions students as consumers and follows the imperatives of market logic, efficiency, and value for money. 

I argue that at the intersection between teaching and research, activism emerges as praxis that aims at challenging neoliberal ideas of higher education. I further argue that teaching can create opportunities for students to learn how to ask difficult questions about the status quo and re-imagine a different kind of society and way of being. What this requires is that we need to reclaim our classrooms as co-creating spaces for imagination and hope. As bell hooks pointed out in Teaching to Transgress: “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy…Urging all of us to open our minds and hearts so that we can know beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable, so that we can think and rethink, so that we can create new visions…” 

At the heart of this idea that classrooms can be co-creation spaces lies the work of Paulo Freire and other critical pedagogues. Paulo Freire emphasizes that teaching and learning are never neutral processes. They always have a political and ethical dimension and thus cannot be viewed in terms of methods and skills alone. Furthermore, teaching is always connected, and needs to be considered in relation, to the world around us and being human. Following this line of thinking, humanization stands at the core of education – humanization as a process of becoming more fully human through critical, dialogical praxis. Rather than suggesting that teaching itself should be considered as academic activism, I will build an argument around the potential that teaching has to create opportunities for students to engage in central processes that precede and underly activism.

To discuss how teaching can create opportunities for students to question the status quo and act upon these questions, dialogue and praxis are two central ideas. Dialogue describes structured and purposeful communication between human beings to explore a topic from diverse perspectives. In contrast to discussions, dialogues do not aim at convincing someone else, but rather invite humans to understand a topic more fully. A moment to reflect on subjective realities in the making and remaking. Following the main argument that teaching is more than methods and skills, dialogue should not be understood as a mere technique, but as part of the historical progress in becoming human beings. With praxis, Paulo Freire describes the process of reflecting and acting on the world with the aim to transform it as it unfolds continuously and simultaneously. The engagement in reflective, transformative action, with others, is a lifelong pursuit and what is needed to counteract dehumanization in teaching and change oppressive structures, practices, policies, attitudes, and social relations. 

I argue, building upon these ideas, that teaching as a dialogic praxis can create an opportunity space for students and teachers to learn with and from each other by acknowledging everyone as humans in the making. It opens opportunities to encourage critical thought and questioning or what Paulo Freire calls ‘conscientização’ – the process of deepening one’s understanding of the social world. The aim is not to have students fight someone else’s fight, but for them to have the opportunity to discover their own fights worth fighting for. Imposing political positions on others denies the possibility of dialogue, but teaching students to hope is deeply needed in a time where it is increasingly difficult to think radically and dream of a different society.

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

Patric Wallin is an Associate Professor at the Department of Education and Lifelong Learning at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). In his research, he uses critical pedagogy as an entry point to explore how to create educational spaces in higher education that enable students to make meaningful contributions to research and society, and in how traditional student teacher positions can be challenged through partnership. By re-considering the relationship between undergraduate teaching and academic research, he wants to re-establish the university as a place for collaboration between students and academics with the common purpose to co-create knowledge and meaning.


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