Some notes from Free University: at Madison Square Park. Occupy University’s workshop on Horizontal Pedagogy.
In a sunny afternoon in Madison Square Park, Free University event was happening as part of 2012 May Day in NYC. I had a luck of sitting in with the Occupy University’s Horizontal Pedagogy Workshop, which was an ongoing conversation with thirty about persons coming in and out of the circle, with one or two facilitator leading the discussion. I sat in for less than an hour until I had to go meet with The Public School New York’s class ‘On May Day General Strike: The Precarious Picnic’. This note is a very rough document of the conversation I heard and participated.
Some of the terms that were cleared as we exchanged thoughts: What is Horizontal Pedagogy? Knowledge is valuable, intelligence is something every individual have in them. The traditional education system is one about productivity. Thus qualitative assessment such as grading and standard exam are the sole measurement of teaching and learning. The school systems, from grade school to higher education, are based on the individual’s ability to master the system of assessment, not necessarily on the ability to make use of the knowledge they have gained. Value in knowledge is valid more so than ever and knowledge should not be monetized, closed from public access, and used as a mechanism to create power dynamics, the reproduction of power in a capitalist society. Education is passing on of knowledge from a generation to another, the kind of knowledge that is necessary for the community to survive, a fishing community will teach fishing. Unlearning is an important part of Horizontal Pedagogy, it is questioning the way in which the knowledge was learned.
An elderly woman, who said she has been a public school teacher for nearly three decades, said she has experimented with self evaluation method that grants control of grading to the students. Her method is based on trusting the students to grade themselves, and only in the case that the grade is radically different from the teachers grades, they invite a third party, another student, to mediate a discussion about the grades. The process is time consuming but it has been fruitful for her students and herself. She raised a concern that grading and evaluation practically shapes the student’s future. Therefore the teacher has a power over student’s life and that dynamic does not help classroom to become a space for an effective learning. This method of collaborative grading has given agency to the students and freedom on teacher’s part from the responsibility of the student’s future and doubts over their own subjectivity influencing the student’s grades.
from Explicator to Connector:
When Occupy University members were explaining their interest in Horizontal Pedagogy, an unfamiliar term ‘Explicator’ had to be explained. Traditionally teachers are in a position to ‘explain the student’s place in the society’. That is through the classroom dynamics and pedagogic structure. Questions were posed: Can teachers become a node of connection between information? basing the thought on the assumption that information is relatively more accessible to the general public. However, information in not knowledge. Teacher as connector also needs to be communicating with other teachers, an English major will need to understand Physics major teacher’s approach and agenda. Someone else mentioned using methods developed by Jacques Lecoq. Also celebrating failure of students and teachers is an effective way of opening up the space for learning. Another person mentioning their University system and how teachers are tied to the curriculum. It is not only the students but the teachers who are oppressed by the institution and system of reproduction of power. Can there be a disruption in the system, an open space for connection and transfer of knowledge?
from Vertical to Horizontal and back:
An elderly man who taught science in colleges for twenty some years was explaining his life long devotion to alternative ways of teaching. When he began experimenting with horizontal pedagogy, it was not called as such, but was explained as ‘giving more responsibility to the students’, which was intended to appeal to a larger mass of teachers. He also mentioned finding relevance in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the difficulty of exercising an idea in a real world classroom setting. He mentioned such practice sometimes lead to jeopardizing teachers academic career, and also utter failures within the classroom. The essential key in such practice is our ability to shift from learning and teaching, that one needs to be learning every moment of teaching. Also there can not be a pure horizontal pedagogy, there always needs to be constant shift between vertical learning and back. Discussion continued over advantages of vertical learning that can not be underestimated. For example, technical skills, scientific formula, and other subjects can be more efficiently learned through vertical pedagogy. However, an important point he stressed again was that the teacher should always be learning from the students and from the act of teaching. Thus, passing on of knowledge, should be a form of mutual support other than that of transmission of knowledge.
Economy of attention:
I made few comments, one about the Public School New York as an experiment in cooperative learning and community building, not necessarily a horizontal pedagogy. The classes are clearly curated by a team of ‘facilitators’, an alternating group of volunteers who find joy from running the school. The Public School do not pose as an alternative to accredited institutions or community centers, nor an artist collective. The facilitators try to facilitate only the class that they are interested and have time to support. There is no money involved in the school, and we keep it so for many good reasons. We also survive because we try to make no money, and thanks to friends who support our work. Therefore The Public School may appear to be a kind of horizontal pedagogy, but I see it more as an invitation for more cooperative platforms and friendship to grow. I dream of many schools like The Public School and Trade School and Occupy University to pop up in city like New York and in small towns, because every school has their purpose for the time it operates. The second comment was about my experience with teaching high school students in after school program in museums and art institution setting. Horizontal pedagogy is a very difficult idea to practice in real life, in a real education program. It works much better in simulated environments, like in a protest, occupation, camp, art exhibition, etc. Even though the program I taught had a very healthy ratio of students and teachers, about 4 to 1, there was a scarcity of time and attention for horizontal pedagogy that we hoped for. It can not be enforced, as most students are more comfortable with traditional educational format and passivity. Students and teachers must be emotionally and culturally ready for horizontality and only then it can occur naturally. On the other hand, since the aspect of very community is important for this to happen, we can think of the smallest form of community; that of lovers and family, and extended family and neighbors and friends. If an individual, say a teenager, has a community that respect certain values, their expectations in a horizontal environment will demand the values. The conflict of values in an open space, like horizontal pedagogy, may leave some students hurt and others taking advantage of it. While the idea of decentralizing education in order to decentralize power is a very attractive thought, the execution of such idea costs much attention and trust between both parties of learners.
There were much more insights and comments, the voice came from wide range of learners including young public school teachers, doctoral students, teachers with many years of experience and many curious onlookers. A person from Occupy University videotaped much of the conversation. Hopefully more of these pop up classes happen in near future and online!
This is a sign of my weak Capitalist addiction for coffee. I got the water for free. Not sure if that makes any difference.
My friend Amanda Matles had ‘critical figure drawing’ class. Soon it got turned into another cop drawing session. Way to go!
The free sandwich I gave to friends as part of the Precarious Picnic. had avocado, mozzarella, turkey, olives on multigrain bread. They said it tastes good, it must mean something.