I have been in classrooms of varying size, topic, and context for the past eight years. From an expensive international school in Shanghai, to an after-school center in Roxbury, Massachusetts, to the campus of a mid-sized public university—I’ve encountered as many diverse learners as context-specific challenges and opportunities. These diverse learners and contexts have helped to push the boundaries of my practice as I continuously revaluate what it means to teach. Over these years I’ve utilized a student-centered pedagogy that supports learners’ processes of orientation and self-discovery. Critical pedagogy, social-justice, and civic engagement also play important roles in the decisions I make in the classroom, encouraging learners to critically question not only the materials in our class, but also the world around them.
I feel that the term “student-centered” has lost some meaning over the years. For many it means lecturing less and using more group-work to achieve learning objectives. Student-centered learning certainly takes shape in these ways in my classrooms, but it also means much more. For me, a student-centered pedagogy focuses the relationship between epistemology and responsibility. For a student to take responsibility for their own learning, they must first question what it means to learn. This, of course, requires questioning what it means to know. I craft lessons, units, and syllabi to explore the intersections of personal experience and the wider established “knowledge” of a field to interrogate how life experiences are both representative and limited. This allows learners to honor their experiences, identities, and intersectionalities while also questioning how these identifications communicate with issues and ideas larger than themselves.
This focus on student-centered learning connects to my pedagogical aims for learners to engage in self-discovery. Human development is a dynamic process and classrooms are crucial catalysts. I mix a Freirean, critical pedagogy approach with existentialist philosophy to decolonize learning spaces. Freire criticized the “banking model” of education, urging educators to acknowledge the expertise learners already possess as co-creators in the learning process. Existentialist philosophy calls on each person to define their own meaning, to take responsibility for those decisions, and to evaluate what they’ve been taught (through family, culture, media) in light of new experiences and knowledge.
These approaches support the unfolding of self-and-culture discovery: encouraging a learner to question ready-made markers of identity, to reject unquestioning participation in their own subjectification, and to take ultimate responsibility for the life they choose to lead.