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Educating for Democracy: Elijah Snow-Rackley ’20 at Critical Exploration Press

What do we value most in education today? What does it mean to be smart? A lot of children might respond that what’s important are the answers. They might suggest that knowledge, fundamentally, is simply knowing the answer to a problem. In education, our focus as a society is largely centered on knowing the correct answers to complex problems. We educate so that people know, but there’s something crucial that’s lost when all you’re focused on is the end result. What we don’t seem to focus on, and maybe what’s most important in any classroom is the development of independent thinking, confidence and consistent engagement with lessons and classroom materials, and the growth of intellectual autonomy.

I wasn’t a teacher over this past co-op (though I did get to spend some time in schools). Instead, I was a web development intern at Critical Exploration Press. My focus was on developing a website using a content management system (CMS) that my employers could take over using without their having to have a substantial background in web development. While I spent countless hours over this co-op focused on WordPress development, I started off this co-op in an MIT classroom here in Cambridge, MA where, through my employer, I got to take a class over their Independent Activities Period (IAP) term. All of us had come to class having done our readings and sat down and waited expectantly for our professor to start guiding the conversation. Instead of lecturing or pitching her ideas on the readings, it was up to class to decide what they wanted to talk about. The discussion didn’t center around the teacher as an authority, but rather a teacher responding carefully to the thoughts and ideas of the students in the classroom.

While I can’t do it justice, I’d like to try to explain what that means in the classroom.

The pedagogical approach our professor took is known as Critical Exploration in the Classroom (CEC). Rooted in the thought of Jean Piaget, CEC is built on the desire to understand how students understand a concept, material, or problem. Eleanor Duckworth, an educational theorist and student of Jean Piaget became a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she formally developed Piagetian theory and the work of associated scholars into a pedagogical approach. Critical Exploration Press internally describes this approach as:

“Listening-focused practices such as CEC position student thinking center stage. Such practices are designed to slow discussions down and to complicate them by welcoming unanticipated questions, by opening topics up to the ideas of all, and by probing for the thinking underlying much of what students say and do. In addition, experiences with CEC are designed to challenge students in two distinctive ways: Students are given responsibility both for framing the questions that structure their investigation and for evaluating the ideas and theories that emerge (Mayer, 2012).

Although enactments of CEC can vary in a number of ways, the underlying dynamic always involves:

  • Engaging students with an intellectual challenge;
  • Providing them with the materials they will need to pursue that challenge themselves
  • Following their thinking
  • Insisting that they also follow each other’s thinking;
  • Insisting that everyone refer back to the shared materials in order to support all claims and arguments they make.”

Not only did I get to see this kind of pedagogy in action for myself, I had the opportunity to sit in at a local middle school and observe it being put to use with a sixth grade class. The experience of getting to wonder and engage with the class was exciting at MIT, but even more thrilling was the look on these students faces as they picked apart maps of the Holy Roman Empire completely engaged in what might have otherwise been a mundane geography unit had it been taught any differently.

The mission of CEPress is broad, but it isn’t vague. Their goal is to spread the work of CEC, engage and connect a disparate professional community, consult with schools and engage more teachers with the CEC approach, publish theory and research in the community, and serve as a focal point in the continuing development of education that serves a democratic society.

Even though I’m moving on from this co-op at the end of March, I know I’ll be carrying a lot of what I learned along the way with me. This co-op experience really solidified my interest in education and I think I will continue to explore my options in the field.

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Elijah T. Snow-Rackley is a first year student at Antioch College. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he's currently studying political economy with the intention of going into education. He is currently working with Chroma Technology Corp, an employee-owned biotechnology company based out of Vermont.

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