In my mind, it’s never a bad idea to return to Freire’s ideas of liberatory pedagogy:
The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being. They discover that without freedom they cannot exist authentically. Yet, although they desire authentic existence, they fear it. They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized The conflict lies in the choice between being wholly themselves or being divided; between ejecting the oppressor within or not ejecting them; between human solidarity or alienation; between following prescriptions or having choices; between being spectators or actors; between acting or having the illusion of acting through the action of the oppressors; between speaking out or being silent, castrated in their power to create and re-create, in their power to transform the world. This is the tragic dilemma of the oppressed which their education must take into account.
Paulo Freire The Pedagogy of the Oppressed
In this passage, these dualities stand out:
- . . . the choice between being wholly themselves or being divided; between ejecting the oppressor within or not ejecting them; between human solidarity or alienation; between following prescriptions or having choices; between being spectators or actors; between acting or having the illusion of acting through the action of the oppressors; between speaking out or being silent, castrated in their power to create and re-create, in their power to transform the world.
In California’s contemporary community colleges, this language may seem a bit archaic. Our idealized professional selves find it hard to think of ourselves as “oppressors” as we work to teach linguistic patterns and conventions that we ourselves mastered to join our profession.
But if we work ourselves a little further through the passage, we find the key word, “choice.” We ourselves made choices as we entered our career, and those choices sometimes depended on factors we did not control. Most notably, we were likely to have had parents with educations, or parents who at least made sure we had plenty of books to read. We were likely to be raised in families with higher standards of living, or families who supported and encouraged our educational efforts. We had social, familial and economic capital that built a linguistic foundation for our ability to enter the professional world.
Many of our students lack much of this capital, and hence may be categorized as “oppressed” in Freire’s terminology. My eyes land on these phrases in particular:
- between following prescriptions or having choices
- between being spectators or actors
- between acting or having the illusion of acting through the action of the oppressors
- between speaking out or being silent
In my mind, much of the writing pedagogy described as “developmental” fails because it is prescriptive. It fails to see the process of writing as a process of choices: audience, structure, sentence structure, words. Students struggle because they see them selves as “good students” trying to follow the rules of the writing game, and they become anxious when they are asked to make their own writing decisions. Student feedback in The Persistent Writer reveals that this anxiety starts with their choice of a subject, and continues through their word and sentence structure choices.
To return to Freire, they have the “illusion of acting through the action of the oppressors.” They feel the need “follow the rules” rather than make their own writing choices because they are primarily motivated extrinsically by the prospect of a “good grade.” In short, they are “spectators” not “actors” in their writing education and they will often opt to “remain silent” rather than “speaking out.”
Because of this “oppression,” they find it difficult to reach what eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a “flow state” in their writing. From his perspective, flow happens when the student has a high level of both interest or “arousal” and “control” or “skill.” Flow, from this point of view, depends on both skill and interest. In his words,
- Arousal is still good because you are over-challenged there. Your skills are not quite as high as they should be, but you can move into flow fairly easily by just developing a little more skill. So, arousal is the area where most people learn from, because that’s where they’re pushed beyond their comfort zone and to enter that — going back to flow — then they develop higher skills. Control is also a good place to be, because there you feel comfortable, but not very excited. It’s not very challenging any more. And if you want to enter flow from control, you have to increase the challenges. So those two are ideal and complementary areas from which flow is easy to go into (17:09).
In creating pedagogy, writing teachers walk this delicate line. Too much control—emphasis on rhetorical structures, grammar, and sentence style—and we risk losing students to boredom. This is exactly what caused the long-standing system of developmental writing to collapse in California because the curriculum called for mastery of the rules of writing before students could engage in compelling subject matter. To counterbalance this, many skilled teachers turned to the very effective pedagogical strategy of theme-based courses to increase student engagement. However, here skills and control are sometimes at risk since the limited amount of course contact may be devoted to the interesting subject matter rather than the essential elements of writing well.
A true “liberatory pedagogy” should lead students to finding joy in their writing and learning. “Joy” is not a particularly familiar word in the academic world, but a self-actualized student, in Maslow’s terms, experiences joy when they manifest both the interest and control needed to write effectively. Csikszentmihalyi insists that the source of this “joy” or the flow that allows students to write as actors in control of their rhetorical choices, to acquire the power to “create and recreate” in order to “transform the world,” lies in allowing students to maintain “the spontaneous interest of the child,” as psychologist Teresa Amabile calls it. Csikszentmihalyi summarizes Amabile’s assessment of the challenges we face in intrinsically motivating students to “spontaneous learning.”
- Teresa Amabile, who has researched the matter extensively, concludes that there are four main ways the spontaneous interest of the child can be destroyed. One is for adults to attempt to control child’s performance as much as possible, by imposing strict rules, procedures, time constraints, and so forth. The more the child’s attention is drawn to external rules, the more difficult it becomes to experience the intrinsic rewards of flow. The second way to kill interest is through emphasizing evaluation. Excessive concern for rewards or punishment distracts from the task at hand and disrupts the concentration necessary for sustaining flow. Too much emphasis on competition has the same effect. The Latin roots of this word, conpetire, or “to seek together,” point to the idea that people can best find out the limits of their ability by matching performance against other persons’. But when attention shifts to winning rather than doing one’s best, competition also endangers flow. The last prescription Amabile gives for disrupting intrinsic rewards is to make the person self-conscious. Because everyone’s priority is to keep the self safe, whenever danger or ridicule threatens it, we lose concentration and focus attention on defending ourselves rather than on getting involved with the task. Schools follow very closely Amabile’s prescription of how to disrupt enjoyment. Formal education thrives on external controls, evaluation, competition, and self-consciousness. Yet as long as this is so, it will be difficult for children to be motivated to learn spontaneously for the sake of learning.
In short, Amabile identifies four blocks: attempting to control performance by evoking rules, destroying interest by evaluation, emphasizing extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation, and creating a self-consciousness that destroys focus. Traditional writing pedagogy fails on all four counts. So as we approach language equity in our classes, we also need to reconsider motivational strategies because those strategies make everything else possible. Our challenge lies in our ability to create classes where we present “rules” as linguistic choices students must make as they learn to write for an academic audience, where students see feedback as information rather than evaluation or criticism, where they achieve a balance of control and interest necessary to achieve flow, where they engage in metacognition rather than experience self-consciousness. How can we best convince them that the learning matters more than the grade? Please share your strategies.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. “Literacy and Intrinsic Motivation.” Daedalus, vol. 119, no. 2, The MIT Press, 1990, pp. 115–40, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20025303.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. “Flow, the Secret to Happiness.’” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading Feb. 2004, www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_flow_the_secret_to_happiness/transcript?language=en.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin Classics, 2017.