2 Finding a Voice

Arcie CJ Lim, Chantal Broughton, Carlo DeFazio, Jennifer Lee-Smith, Vicky Liu, and Dr. Charles Bingham

Finding a Voice

The Speakers (l to r: Jennifer Lee-Smith, Carlo DeFazio, Arcie Jr. Lim, Vicky Liu and Chantal Broughton) at the Designing the SFU Educational Experience event on March 23, 2013.

EDU 240: Social Issues in Education

Education tends to conceptualize what a student or learner should be. Students are often considered to be blank slates, incapable of autonomous learning and devoid of an active voice. The structure of education itself, along with the curriculum and instruction, continues to develop the idea of student and to establish a hierarchy of knowledge. Instruction further reinforces this hierarchy as teachers gain recognition as benevolent scholars, willing to provide students with their “proper fill” of knowledge. Teaching is often one-directional, with the teacher talking and students expected to listen. Students are rarely given the opportunity to engage in their own critical thinking and creativity, and learning is hardly ever taken out of the classroom. Since students are assumed not to possess their own voice, they are given permission to respond only when their hands are appropriately raised and they are acknowledged with a nod, at which point they proceed to make “noise.”

When we enrolled in Dr. Charles Bingham’s “Education 240: Social Issues in Education” (EDU 240) class, we were immediately recognized as individual human beings with a voice, regardless of our social status as “students.” It was acknowledged that our voices had the same competence, influence and potential as our professors’. This experience taught us that we not only make “noise”; we have a voice. We have the ability to speak and we do not need permission to do so; we are speakers.

The term speaker was coined by Bingham and Biesta to describe “subjects of education” that have traditionally been named students or learners (Bingham and Biesta, 2010). By calling students speakers, one acknowledges that all people are capable of thinking, doing and speaking, and that there should be no distinction between one class of persons (normally called teachers) and another class of persons (normally called students). All people communicate by speaking and, in doing so, rebut the idea that one group possesses more or less intelligence than another group. The term speaker is thus a constant reminder that we are all together in this project of thinking, doing and speaking. No matter what educational institutions tend to practice, there is no actual difference between people, and no difference should be implied when members of these institutions speak.

After completing EDU 240, all students in the course were invited to retake it as speakers by applying for Education 490 (EDU 490), a directed studies course monitored by Dr. Bingham. Five of us who had performed well academically in EDU 240, demonstrated a passionate interest in the course and its subject matter, had a minimum GPA of 3.0 and 60 credits, and expressed the intention to pursue a career in education, were chosen to participate in EDU 490 as speakers. All of us were also between 20 and 28 years old. We were excited by the opportunity to retake the course, but uncertain about what to expect.

As speakers, we were required to sign up for one tutorial and to attend all EDU 240 lectures in the spring 2013 semester. We also held weekly meetings with students, serving as peer mentors. These meetings gave us the opportunity to share the knowledge that we had acquired from our own experience in EDU 240 with other students. We discussed subjects, course materials and concepts that were explored in tutorials and lectures and that inspired us. The content of the course became more meaningful as we gained a new perspective by rereading the materials (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed; Wayne Au, Rethinking Multicultural Education; Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying) and exploring them with our peers. We were also assigned additional readings, including Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich. After lectures we met with Dr. Bingham and his teaching assistants, Jason Carreiro and Emily Sadowski, to discuss materials, the course and our role as speakers.

Both EDU 240 and EDU 490 embody the ideas of the speaker as a whole. Certain concepts that were familiar to us only from books, such as open dialogue, cooperation and cultural synthesis, became real—they became our experience. When we discussed our speaker experiences as a group, we found re-occurring themes within all of our stories. We discovered that our shared memories illustrated mentorship and dialogue, freedom and autonomous learning, meaningful experience, challenge and recognition.

Mentorship and Dialogue

Our weekly meetings with peers were wholly focused on mentorship and building a sense of community. From the beginning, we were upfront with our fellow students in emphasizing our accessibility for guidance and questions. Nevertheless, our first encounters with them felt a little awkward as we could sense their hesitation to engage in conversation. Once our peers were able to abandon the assumption that we were another form of authority there to judge them, we were able to connect on a personal level and construct friendships. People opened up to us. During a single meeting, we met from one to 10 students at a time. The larger the group, the more stimulating the dialogue was; everyone was engaged, thinking critically and offering comments, novel ideas and constructive criticism about one another’s work. It was fascinating to see how students interpreted the course content and how their understanding was reflected in their final projects.

Freedom and Autonomous Learning

The main requirement for students’ final projects was that they needed to serve as an educational source of resistance from which others could learn. Dr. Bingham and the TAs provided various options for the projects (e.g., a unit plan, a critical analysis of a curriculum, a YouTube video, etc.), but students were also given the opportunity to choose the direction of their own projects. They were asked to be creative and to engage in critical thinking. Initially, many students were intimidated by the lack of specific guidelines and restrictions. Students were so used to detailed course directives that they were scared of the freedom to learn, to experiment and to experience. In the first month, we heard a lot of complaints and questions from the students, such as “What is expected of us?” and “I’m not creative enough.” However, once students took the leap, we saw ideas germinate and flourish into many amazing and inspiring projects.

Within our own EDU 490 course, we were similarly given free rein to design our final project and learning experience. Dr. Bingham invited us to an inspirational meeting of SFU professionals and faculty who were seeking tangible ways to incorporate experiential education in the classroom. The Experiential Education Project had been ongoing since 2010, led by Deanna Rogers and Jennifer McRae. It defined experiential education as “the strategic, active engagement of students in opportunities to learn through doing, and reflection on those activities, which empowers them to apply their theoretical knowledge to practical endeavours in a multitude of settings inside and outside of the classroom” (see sfu.ca/experiential/). This meeting immediately sparked our interest in contributing to the Experiential Education Project, and we decided to place it at the core of our final project. We furthered our involvement with the project and participated in a five-hour Saturday evening event hosted by the SFU Change Lab, the Experiential Education Project and the Vancouver Design Nerds. The event gathered like-minded students to brainstorm about ways in which SFU could implement experiential education and redesign and improve education. Other students’ ideas aligned with ours; they wanted mentorship, dialogue, meaningful learning and the dissolution of a knowledge hierarchy. At the event, our team collected raw data from small groups to give to the organizers. The raw notes and themes that we drew from the event will be used to develop a report for senior faculty and administration to bring change to SFU. The last piece of our final project, monitored by Vivian Neal, is this case study describing our amazing experience as speakers!

Meaningful Experience

Our final project meant a lot more to us than merely a passing or failing grade. We had a heart-felt conviction that experiential education needed to be experienced by all university students and that it was our purpose to share our knowledge with our peers. We wanted to create change in the way learning takes place and actively promote “real-world” experiences at SFU. Students deserve more of these opportunities to restore their love of education; everyone should have the opportunity to feel connected, engaged, motivated and inspired by the work they do. Collectively, the many components of our experience—our meetings with students, post-lecture discussions with TAs and Dr. Bingham, the introductory Experiential Education Project meeting, the Designing the SFU Educational Experience event and this case study—all connected to our passion of expanding experiential education at SFU. We felt empowered to participate in and contribute to initiatives that not only interested us, but will, we hope, have a lasting impact on our school and our peers.

New Perspectives and Challenges

Our readings and discussions with Dr. Bingham constantly piqued our curiosity and provoked our desire to inquire about education and the world around us. Our perspectives on education, learning and schools shifted as we were exposed to new ideas and possibilities for the form they could take. For example, during our first experiential education meeting with Dr. Bingham, we saw how SFU faculty members and professionals were working hard to exchange and develop ideas to help students learn. This was the first time that we understood that there are many people with a passion for education and a real concern for students’ learning experiences and school lives.

When we entered EDU 240 we all felt like ordinary students despite our designation as speakers, but we quickly found that we were being challenged to find our voices and become comfortable within them. As a result of our immersion in an initially intimidating environment that demanded strong conversational skills, our confidence in speaking grew slowly but surely. For one of us (Vicky), the learning process was already stressful because of her challenges as an international student. The stress became even greater when she found herself in a position that required her not only to speak, but to encourage dialogue among her peers. In her view the experience challenged her to become more outgoing and positive, even when she felt shy and lacked confidence in speaking English. All of us, by confronting and conquering our fear of awkward conversations and our own insecurities about speaking, developed more confident voices. We all felt recognized for the guidance we offered to peers and we felt validated by the support and encouragement we received from them, Dr. Bingham and the TAs. The experience we gained in conversing and connecting with students will be valuable to us in our future roles as teachers.

The concept and presence of speakers in EDU 240 broke down the barriers that so often prevent meaningful learning among peers: alienation of students, discouragement of dialogue and focalization on standardized tests (which engenders competition instead of cooperation). Learning was extended beyond the classroom. We concentrated on connecting with students by encouraging thoughtful dialogue and sharing and by exploring social issues in education. We designed our own learning experiences and final projects by exploring ideas that were meaningful to us and by engaging in considerate and democratic discussion with Dr. Bingham. We participated in experiences that we were passionate about and that fully engaged us. New challenges such as speaking to others, sharing our ideas and guiding our peers shifted our perspectives of what education is really about. Most importantly, Dr. Bingham and the TAs assisted us in finding and strengthening our own voices, and in turn we were able to connect with and encourage our peers to find theirs.

This course was more than just another four credits toward our graduation requirements; it was a truly life-changing experience. As the term ends, our aspiration is to continue advocating for the inclusion of experiential education and the liberation of the student voice in the classroom. In the words of Freire, “those who have been denied their primordial right to speak their word must first reclaim this right and prevent this dehumanizing aggression” (Freire, 88).

We would like to thank Vivian Neal, Deanna Rogers, Jennifer McRae, Charles Bingham, Jason Carreiro and Emily Sadowski for their guidance and involvement in making education more meaningful to students at Simon Fraser University.

Instructor

CharlesBinghamDr. Charles Bingham, Professor, Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University, charles.bingham@sfu.ca

 

 

References

Bingham, C. & Biesta, G. J. J. with Jacques Rancière (2010). Jacques Rancière: Education, Truth, Emancipation. London/New York: Continuum.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London/New York: Continuum.

 

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