You’re probably asking yourselves what does this title mean, activist pedagogy? Well, I’m here to try and answer this question through a series of articles. But before I start with the explanations, I’d like to share my own personal experience that led me to explore and promote this area. About two years ago I received an invitation to an international conference on activist pedagogy at Seminar Hakibbutzim. The context was promoting coexistence and ‘tikkun olam,’ i.e. reforming social order. Prof. Nimrod Aloni who invited me thought that the conference would be a good fit for me for two reasons: First, because of the activities that I promote as a social activist. Second, because I am an educator. I was happy to go to a conference on activist pedagogy and was very excited. Also, by happenstance there was a window of opportunity, when a lecturer was late and there was time for a discussion – I introduced the Dialog Together blog and my educational activities, that naturally corresponded to the conference subject. Maybe because this was all done spontaneously and the responses were very encouraging, or maybe there were other factors at that conference and the encouragement from the academics, the professors and PhDs who were there, something unusual happened to me. As usual at high level conferences, I listened to interesting lectures in the fields of education and the promotion of important social issues, particularly coexistence but also social reform in other subjects; but this time it made a different impression. I felt like I was missing something, I wanted to understand something more basic about activist pedagogy, and the conference title drew me and made me curious. All this, plus the excitement and great intensity of taking part in a conference on the subject of both education and activism – impacted me greatly on the one hand, and on the other hand led to something very focused and precise, and I made the decision then and there to sign up for doctoral studies in activist pedagogy.
As a first step on the road to a PhD, I had to write a research proposal. This meant conducting a mini research project about activist pedagogy. Searching for material and writing the proposal required from me much time and other resources but was also very enjoyable. I began with searching for reading material in Hebrew, and despite finding a fair amount of material close to the subject at hand, like critical pedagogy, I couldn’t find research and professional experience material about activist pedagogy in Israel. So, I ordered research texts in activist pedagogy, also books about activist teachers and activist teaching and activism in education from Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada and the UK. I found quite a few articles in English and continued reading a lot of material. You could say that I was drawn to this subject that both fascinated me and widened my horizons. The feeling I had, of great insight when suddenly things come together and all the points connect and lead to one path, was a great feeling. The big revelation that happened to me at that conference and continued with me further, was that all of a sudden I understood that I could connect the two areas of life that have always engaged me, activism as a social proponent, a member of my town’s council and of course, education, as an educator in various roles (teacher, subject coordinator, district manager of the “Junior Achievement Young Enterprise Israel” foundation, director of a community center (Matnas), moderator and supervisor at the social and youth administration of the Ministry of Education, councilor and developer of educational programs). Until this point, when I was invited to lectures to speak about the ‘Dialog Together’ website initiative, I used to introduce myself regularly as an educator by day and activist by night. And this insight, wherein both fields coexist within me and are actually connected, changed my world. The fact that I can both explore the field and develop activist pedagogy was also a new discovery for me and affected the course of my life. +
So, what’s activist pedagogy? To explain its essence, we must go back to the ideas behind critical pedagogy (for those interested, there are important and significant Hebrew books and articles about this as well.) Critical pedagogy was developed in the 1960s-70s. Paulo Freire, the author of the well-known book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” together with other researchers of his time, generated hope for a change in educational systems through the liberating ideas of critical pedagogy. It’s difficult to describe the central theme of critical pedagogy as the subject is massive and as I said, I want to focus on activist pedagogy. I’ll just say that generally speaking, critical pedagogy focuses on not accepting things necessarily ‘as written,’ it encourages skeptical teaching and learning, learning to ask questions, deep research, creating dialog between people who are part of the educational process, but also having an interchange with texts, especially trying to understand the apparent and hidden power sources in educational contexts. All for the purpose of liberating weak and oppressed groups and changing the power of structure of society.
Criticisms of conservative pedagogies were getting stronger – they indicated that educational systems are fixed and mechanical, they do not encourage creativity and inspiration and work without global human objectives. It seemed like critical pedagogy would instigate the needed change. And truly, in certain cases, educators who chose to teach critically created important changes throughout the world. Private schools opened, like the Democratic school; but in hindsight, education systems did not change. Different reforms that were implemented over the years did not lead education to new territories, and the system remained as conservative as ever. For example, monitoring teacher performance, submitting countless reports on grades and averages and maintaining technical objectives of teaching and learning outputs, etc. The brunt of educating for values and morals is placed time and again on the homeroom teacher, who usually has only one hour per week with his class as an opportunity to pass along moral educational motifs. But even homeroom teachers oftentimes find themselves busy mediating between parents, students and the professional teachers in the context of teaching, disciplining and fulfilling objectives. There are also the social coordinators and the social participation coordinators who lead their school communities in the social-moral arena. Nevertheless, school growth and effectiveness measures, matriculation tests and the general school agenda that’s dictated by a conservative system that’s dedicated to testing and educational achievements, leave the moral and social objectives of education behind.
For two decades in Israel, between 1994-2014 there were eleven education reforms implemented, and despite that, there’s been no significant change in education policy. Among my other teaching activities, I’ve also been a literature teacher for over a decade. I’ve taught students in 1996, and am teaching today in 2020, and I myself have studied literature for matriculation between 1985-1988…well, you know where I’m going with this, the content and testing processes haven’t changed significantly in the past 35 years. I can only imagine that you too have similar stories.
Considering all this, 21st century researchers have called for the need to develop and grow activist pedagogy. Research in this area focuses on a new definition of the function of the educator, as the person responsible for and having the ability to encourage activist citizenship. The educator can also – and there are some researchers who claim that it’s their vocation as teachers and agents of change – encourage independent, critical and motivated learners to be catalysts of social change. There were also those who said that the activist theory is important to critical pedagogy, like adding meat to the bone (Palmer & Frey, 2014.) I agree that activist pedagogy is not completely separate from critical pedagogy since the critical theory generally teaches us to question, and subverts the existing social order, activist theory also emphasizes pushing for actions to cause change. Presently, I’m learning and specializing in activist pedagogy and want to promote it in Israel.
I feel that in Israel, we are ready to deal with this and with the talk surrounding activism in education or activist education. The term activist pedagogy concerns several directions and paths and has different interpretations. My focus, research and training are on the path of activist education in the classroom and beyond. In other words, activism in what the teachers are teaching in school, in the classroom with their students, at the annual trip, at recess, at the football or basketball tournaments taking place among the different age levels, and in each and every lesson – yes, not just during citizenship and education classes, but also during math and science lessons. The change in activist pedagogy in class is related to many cultural and social theories and to working on changing awareness and changing perspectives through education, by means of working on moral issues. In the next articles I’ll delve deeper into the role of activist teachers and the training meant to encourage and advance them on this important level.