Transformative pedagogy

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By Alain Senteni, University of Mauritius, slightly adapted by Daniel K. Schneider, 2007.


What is learning in a knowledge society ? The question was raised at the UNESCO round table on "Education and Knowledge Societies", during the first World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS, 2003). The core changes brought by ICTs in society and in education, call for research on specific new forms of learning and epistemological issues regarding how learning occurs and how knowledge emerges, beyond the borders of traditional systems of education, thus opening a creative space where learning, innovation and work can be integrated (Senteni, 2004, 2005a; Senteni & Taurisson, 2005, Hakkarainen et al., 2004)(Brown & Diguid, 1991, 2001).

Education has long been recognized as a critical mechanism for achieving development goals: it is generally agreed that many problems in the world, like the population explosion and the climate crisis, are connected with education. In the transition process towards economies increasingly based on knowledge creation and dissemination, higher education institutions are urged to change, pressed by a sense of competitive urgency and the fear of being left behind in these knowledge-based economies. When an institution is committed to change, it usually means a long term commitment to sustainable transformations of its system of activity.


In nowadays moving reality, the term pedagogy - the art or science of being a teacher - refers not only to strategies or styles of instruction but also to the facilitation and management of sustainable transformations, whether individual, social, structural or institutional. In this respect, most pedagogies should be regarded as inherently formative with respect to the role they play in the development of individuals, but their trans-formative dimension deserves to be clarified, revisited and eventually bent with regard to a) the responsibility of educators to transcend their traditional role and expand the scope of their work towards an active participation to knowledge advancement, and b) the role given to information and communications technologies (ICT) to act as mediating artifact of emerging networked educational systems, supporting peer-to-peer collaboration as well as learners' autonomy and responsibility for learning :

(1) the responsibility of educators, practitioners, teachers, academics or stakeholders, to question, transform and expand the scope of their work towards an active participation to knowledge advancement. Expanding the mandate of educators requires proactive policies aiming at a flexible redistribution of roles in schools and classrooms, departing from narrow transmissive models of teaching and learning. On the other hand, it requires an open vision of the curriculum.

As Parkes (2000b) rightly points out “what Freire (1970) calls transmissive "banking" pedagogies [...] presupposes docile human beings, constructed as receptacles for the grand narratives of the official curriculum”

Far from this conception of the curriculum based on a "mind-as-a-container" vision strongly criticised by many researchers in education (Bereiter, 2002) (Paavola et al., 2004), transformative pedagogy advocate an evolving, socially constructed curriculum, understood as a set of values and beliefs reflecting power relations between competing cultures. The consequence of this change of standpoint is the re-introduction in pedagogy of new forms of subjectivity, based on a multi-voiced, negotiated vision of knowledge, subject to power relations that determine what is to be considered the truth (Foucault, 1977). In such perspective, knowledge can no longer be considered as the neutral content of pedagogy. Transformative pedagogies must have on their agenda the process of knowledge creation, its facilitation, and its relation to power, at the periphery of "knowledge-as-a-product" based curricula.

(2) the role of information and communications technologies (ICT) to serve as the mediating artifact of emerging networked educational systems, supporting Open Distance Learning (ODL). Nowadays, ODL is presented to developing countries as the panacea allowing to democratise education; ODL systems are seen as the most viable means for broadening educational access while improving the quality of education, advocating peer-to-peer collaboration and giving the learners a greater sense of autonomy and responsibility for learning (Calvert, 2006). However, as Virkkunen argues(2003), although ICT opens a wide range of possibilities for the enhancement and support of learning, its effective impact is restricted by narrow conceptualizations of learning that are based on three pervasive but problematic dichotomies: the one between informal and formal learning; the one between individual and collective learning; and the one between learning and the development of societal practices. Overcoming these problematic dichotomies forms part of the research agenda on transformative pedagogies.

The intentions of critical educators have not changed much in the last decades, but the context of their action is no longer the same. The purpose of the current article is to revisit transformative pedagogy in order to redefine its units of analysis, its objects and its methodologies, in a way that would make it more meaningful in the context of nowadays knowledge-driven society. Postmodern pedagogical agency needs to keep the spirit and intentions of transformative and critical pedagogies while discarding the dogma. It is the objective of the paper to examine a post-critical pedagogy, taking advantage of the possibilities offered by ICT to support innovative conceptualizations of learning in emergent globalised economies, particularly those of developing countries. Adopting a Foucauldian perspective on knowledge and its relation to power, we strive to address the difficult challenge pointed out by R. J. Parkes (2000a), that is to get rid of a meta-narrative of liberation without abandoning a notion of the political in pedagogy.

This article owes to Jaakko Virkkunnen for having introduced me to Developmental Work Research and Change Laboratory methodologies, developed in Finland at the Centre for Cultural Historical Activity Theory of the University of Helsinki. I am also indebted to R.J. Parkes whose enlightening paper on the crisis in pedagogy (2000b) is providing a posteriori a philosophical foundations to the work, often pragmatic and intuitive, done at the VCILT during the last six years. By questioning the activity that takes place in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in terms of strategic encounter with the Other through which the Self is transformed, Parke's definition of the pedagogical relationship allows us to re-state the pedagogical role and implication of developing countries knowledge communities, such as VCILT's, in the global context of large scale technology-enhanced educational projects. As suggested by Parkes, the definition of Other and Self can be broaden from individuals to conceptual entities, such as communities, educational institutions or educational structures, so that one can extrapolate the strategic relationship to societal issues. In this regard, the ZPD provides emerging countries pedagogues with a powerful tool to master educational transformations in their countries, in fair strategic interaction with more capable developed countries.


Critical and radical pedagogy

Transformative pedagogy - close to critical pedagogy (Giroux, 1997, Giroux et al., 1999) and radical pedagogy (Gore,1993; McWilliams, 1997; Parkes, 2000ab) - finds its theoretical roots in the neo-Marxian critical theory of the Frankfurt School. The emancipatory work of Paolo Freire, known as the pedagogy of the oppressed (1970) is certainly the most famous example of application of this school's critical theory. A comprehensive online resource on critical pedagogy, its definitions, its history, its theories and other related links, can be found on the university of Iowa's website. When browsing this site, one notices that TP is still an ongoing process shifting over time to follow social transformation:

Although there is no static definition of "critical pedagogy," as the term has undergone many transformations as educators have deployed new strategies to confront changing social and historical contexts, the term has traditionally refered to educational theory and teaching and learning practices that are designed to raise learners' critical consciousness regarding oppressive social conditions. [...] Critical pedagogy is particularly concerned with reconfiguring the traditional student/teacher relationship, where the teacher is the active agent, the one who knows, and the students are the passive recipients of the teacher's knowledge (the "banking concept of education"). Instead, the classroom is envisioned as a site where new knowledge, grounded in the experiences of students and teachers alike, is produced through meaningful dialogue (dialogical method).

[1], retrieved 19:40, 10 July 2007 (MEST).

However, the underlying appeal to a meta-narrative of liberation omnipresent in critical pedagogy makes it unsuitable for learning discurses in the context of so-called "globalised knowledge economies". At the beginning of the XXI-st century, the trend would rather be to use reflection, dialogism and critical consciousness as the vehicle of an harmonious evolution towards a global knowledge society in which conflict resolution would take precedence over the struggle against oppressive social conditions. Though, getting rid of a meta-narrative of liberation without abandoning a notion of the political in pedagogy is not an easy task. As the saying warns, "one needs to be careful not to flush out the baby with the water in the bathtub".

From liberation to collaboration

As explained by R.J. Parkes (2000ab), the concept of ZPD was developed by Vygotsky as part of an answer to a crisis in psychology that had arisen, as radically different psychologies competed for legitimization as the way forward. Parkes argues that there exists another crisis to which a textually resurrected Vygotsky might respond: a crisis in pedagogy. Rather than abandon a notion of the political in pedagogy altogether, he suggests possibilities for a post-critical pedagogy, inspired by Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (1978) and grounded in an ethical/dialogic view of relations between the Self and Other. By placing social interactions at the root of the individual development process, Vygotsky's ZPD opens a space for subjectivity, where ethics, values, beliefs and attitudes can be questioned and eventually bent. - In that sense, the ZPD concept preserves a notion of the political defined as a set of socially negotiated meaning-making practices, a central issue in the objectives of post-modern transformative pedagogies.

Both Piaget and Vygotsky acknowledge the intertwined nature of social and individual dimensions of development: “Individual cognitive development is seen as the result of a spiral of causality: a given level of individual development allows participation in certain social interactions which produce new individual states which, in turn, make possible more sophisticated social interaction, and so on.” (Dillenbourg, Baker, et al., 1996, p.3)

The spiral of causality suggests an idea of developement and expansion process at its outer edge, but it does not provide much indication about its centre. What comes first ? Individual development from a piagetian viewpoint, social interactions from Vygotsky's. Where the piagetian socio-cognitive perspective (Doise, 1990, quoted by Dillenbourg and Baker, 1996) see social interaction as a catalyst for individual change, dependent upon individual development (individuals master new approaches by coordinating their pre-established respective approaches to reality), the vygotskyan socio-cultural approach focus above all on the causal relationship between social interaction and individual cognitive change : “Every function in the cultural development of the child comes on stage twice... first in the social, later in the psychological, first in relations between people as an interpsychological category, afterwards within the child as an intrapsychological category” (Vygotsky, 1978:163).

The ZPD is also presented by Vygotsky in an attempt to resolve problems relating to the relationship between learning and development :

Vygotsky claimed that there are always two steps in acquiring a new ability: first, the ability emerges as distributed between people (i.e., it exists as an "inter-psychological" function) and, second, it is mastered by individuals (i.e., it becomes an "intra-psychological" function). Having acquired a new ability, the individual can contribute more to socially distributed processes. Therefore, intra-individual and inter-individual functions mutually constitute each other. In other words, not only does collaboration between the learner and other people change some pre-existing individual phenomena, but it also directs and shapes both the general orientation and specific content of individual development.

Participation in a collective activity lays the foundation for the next step in individual development or, according to Vygotsky, creates the Zone of Proximal Development, which is defined as "the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (Vygotsky, 1978).

(Kaptelinin & Cole, 1997, p.1)

By playing the role of a mediator between individual and social phenomena, the ZPD helps to bridge the gap between the individual and the social, introducing a mechanism of their mutual determination. As Cole (1985) defines it, the ZPD is a place "where culture and cognition create each other". However, new tools are required for developing a better understanding of learning mechanisms within the ZPD. According to Dillenbourg and Baker (1996), these tools should allow for shifting to a process-oriented account of social interactions and collaboration, to analyse and model these interactions and finally, to make social interactions the unit of analysis. For many years, theories of collaborative learning tended to focus on how individuals function in a group. The group itself is now taken as the unit of analysis, focussing less on establishing parameters for effective collaboration and more on trying to understand the role which such variables play in mediating interaction.

The unit of analysis, from set of discrete entities to system as a whole

Vygotsky observes that previous study of the thought-language relationship considered the genesis of each side of the relation in isolation and, assumed that the relation between the two was invariable; or alternatively, mechanically identified the two. On the contrary, Vygotsky proposed the necessity of conceiving of the object of investigation as a unity of opposites, whose very essence was the inherent genesis of the relation : In our opinion the right course to follow is to use the other type of analysis, which may be called analysis into units. By unit we mean a product of analysis which, unlike elements, retains all the basic properties of the whole and which cannot be further divided without losing them [ ... ] What is the basic unit of verbal thought ? [...] word meaning [...] The conception of word meaning as a unit of both generalising thought and social interchange is of incalculable value for the study of language and thought. Thought and Language, Chapter 1 (Vygotsky, 1934)

The analysis into units advocated by Vygotsky can be closely related to systems thinking, particularly to the work of Gregory Bateson (1972) to extend the theoretical model of systems theory and cybernetics into the social field, in order to describe and explain the formal dynamics of social behaviors. Systems thinking helps get a better grip of social interactions by using the vital notion of difference. Bateson demonstrated the presence of recursive processes or self-corrective systems across domains, he proposed a minimal set of characteristics of a system, whether biological, mechanical or social:

  1. the system operates on differences defined as deviations from a threshold that constitutes information;
  2. the system consists of "closed loops" or circuits along which differences or transforms of differences travel;
  3. events in the system are energized from within the system rather than impact from the triggering part (when you touch a snail it recoils through its own energy rather than energy from your touch);
  4. systems show recursivity or circular causality, which means that the system uses the results of its own operations as the basis of further operations.

The substrate of "educational system thinking" is complexity considered as an inherent part of social interactions, and therefore of transformative pedagogical interventions. The system (as unit of analysis) is holistic, it cannot be reduced to its parts without altering its pattern; it is self-regulating, stabilizing itself through negative feedback loops; it is as well self-organizing. The first thing Bateson warns us against is asking what he calls "the oversimplified question" in life and therefore in education : systems thinking needs a fundamental shift in our epistemologies which have been, and continue to be, dominated by Cartesian oppositions. Oversimplification says Bateson (1991), results in vulgarity and is sacrilegious; it is "against aesthetics, against consciousness and against the sacred" dimensions of life (p.212).

A pedagogy of work, co-operation and enquiry

Another significant example of transformative pedagogy is the approach defined in France by Celestin Freinet in the middle of the twentieth century, not only theoretical and political but also practically integrated into the daily work of the classroom (Freinet,1970, 1990,1993)(Clandfield & Sivel, 1990). Freinet's movement culminated in 1947, in the founding of the Cooperative Institute of the Modern School1 whose role was to develop ideas for pedagogical resources and activities.

The classroom as community of practice

Long before the advent of computers and the internet, the essential concepts of his pedagogy were very close of those of communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) and knowledge building communities (Bereiter, 2002; Hakkarainen & Sintonen, 2002; Hakkarainen et al., 2004). The principles remain the same, only the scale of communities have gained the potential to increase, thanks to ICT, from the modest scale of the classroom to large-scale global ones :

  • pedagogy of work (pupils learn by making useful products or providing useful services);
  • co-operative learning (based on co-operation in a productive process);
  • enquiry-based learning (a trial and error method involving group work);
  • the "Natural Method" (based on an inductive, global approach);
  • centres of interest (based on children's learning interests and curiosity).

Freinet's concept of "learning through work" focuses on work as the process of spontaneous re-organization of life in school and society, a conception which is close enough to the one conveyed by the Developmental Work Research (DWR) approach discussed in the next section of the paper. Work is the basis of every human activity, of the development of human beings, and therefore productive work is an ongoing principle of teaching and learning, to be brought closer to the idea of object-oriented human activity and knowledge creation that are discussed in further sections of the paper.

The printing press as a mediating artifact

Freinet used the printing press as the priviledged mediating artifact of his pedagogy. In 1924, he introduced the Learning Printing Technique, in which the children use a printing press to reproduce texts that they had composed freely, out of their own personal adventures, the incidents that they had experienced inside and outside the classroom, and so on. Usually these texts are then presented to the class, discussed, corrected and edited as a collaborative endeavour by the class, before being finally printed by the children themselves working together. Freinet called this approach Free Writing. Later these texts are assembled to create a Class Journal and a School Newspaper2. While the children are developing their texts with the techniques of Learner Printing, and producing their journals and exhibitions, they are in a constant learning process.

The objects and instruments of transformative pedagogies

Transformative pedagogy considers co-evolving social and technical processes from a systemic viewpoint in an evolutionary perspective of education and culture, allowing to build meaning and capacity through community development, support and networking. Capacity emerges from a synergy between availability of resources, commitment to meaningful projects and human communities to bring these projects to life. In this regard, the objects of transformative pedagogies take essentially the form of innovative methodologies (acting as conceptual artifacts) for crossing boundaries between strategies of instruction on the one hand, and management of sustainable transformations at the three levels of the individual, the group and the organisation, on the other.

Post-modern transformative pedagogy draws upon integrative models, such as Bruno Latour's actor-network theory (1987), Yrjö Engeström's expansive learning model (1987), Nonaka's and Takeuchi's model of knowledge creation (1995), Etienne Wenger's communities of practice (1998)(Wenger, McDermott & Snyder, 2002) and Carl Bereiter's theory of knowledge building (2002). All these models have in common to propose the integration of learning with the systemic reconstruction of social contexts in which they operate.

Read on ...



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