Freire, Ayers & an Economic Lesson for Fifth-Graders

July 23, 2011

The theories of Freire and Ayers--and the Massachusetts curriculum framework--guide Emma Rose Roderick in creating a unit plan for fifth-graders on work (Freire, Ayers & an Economics Lesson for Fifth Graders).

By Emma Rose Roderick

 
The following, adapted from a paper by Emma Rose Roderick, was written in conjunction with a classroom activity that is available on this website, Work, Workers & the U.S. Labor Movement.
 
 
In an effort to meld the two passions of my life—social justice organizing and young children—into something coherent that I can work with, I've recently made a study of 1) the theories of Paulo Freire and William Ayers, and 2) the Massachusetts State Curriculum Frameworks for Fifth Grade Social Studies. Using Freire and Ayers as my guides, how can I engage students in the topics of economic justice and workers' rights?
 
Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is widely regarded as the father of the "critical pedagogy" perspective of education. Ayers, a scholar of Freire, picks up where Freire leaves off: in his book Teaching Toward Freedom, he examines how Freire's ideas (and the ideas of other like-minded scholars) can be concretely integrated into the classroom. Both agree that the methods with which teachers teach are at least as important as the content of what they teach; in fact, the methods are perhaps even more important. Both stress the importance of the breakdown of the subject/object relationship between teachers and students; the dangers of the "banking" method of education and the potential that lies in a "problem-posing" method; and the close connection between students and the world around them, which, they argue, should consistently be emphasized across the curriculum. 
 
Many of their theories conflict directly with the standards set forth in the Massachusetts State Curriculum Framework, both in content and in method. In designing my two-week unit plan, "Work, Workers, and the U.S. Labor Movement," I kept Freire and Ayers in mind, and came up with something which, while it may fit under the "economics" subtopic heading of the curriculum framework and does seem to be age-appropriate according to their framework, differs greatly from the expected standards of economics set forth in the document. 
 
As Ayers argues, deciding how to teach is a moral choice. Every teacher teaches for something and against something else—there is no neutrality. Ayers writes that many teachers unknowingly teach for obedience and against freedom of thought, and that he tries to do the opposite: "I want to teach against oppression and subjugation, for example, and against exploitation, unfairness, and unkindness. I want others to join me in that commitment. I want to teach toward freedom, for enlightenment and awareness, wide awakeness, protection of the weak, cooperation, generosity, compassion, and love. I want my teaching to mean something worthwhile in the lives of my students and in the larger worlds that they will inhabit and create. I want it to mean something in mine."
 
Each teacher must decide what s/he is teaching for and against, and must make a commitment to hold fast to that decision, even in the face of pressure from the outside. Sticking to generic curriculum frameworks and teaching directly from the textbook is certainly a form of teaching for something and against something else, despite the fact that most would regard it as simply following the status quo. Every decision a teacher makes is a moral decision, and every decision must ultimately be made by her/himself.
 
So once one has decided to teach for social justice and against maintaining the status quo, how should one teach? For a large part, the answer lies in Freire. Of course, Freire does not write Pedagogy of the Oppressed with a fifth-grade classroom in mind. Instead, he writes about the education required for the oppressed to realize their full humanity and potential, and provides a model of what such education would look like. In the Freire model, "revolutionary leaders" work on educational projects, or investigations, with the oppressed. The revolutionary leaders become teacher-students, and the oppressed become student-teachers. To apply Freire to a classroom setting, we need to replace "revolutionary leaders" with teachers, and "the oppressed" with students-who of course, become teacher-students and student-teachers, respectively.
 
Freire argues that for education to be truly revolutionary, the teacher must cease to be the subject and the student must cease to be the object. Instead, students must be regarded as subjects and as agents of their own destiny. The teacher does not teach the student; rather, the teacher and student teach each other, and both become students and teachers. It is only through this process that the student—or, the oppressed—can realize his or her full humanity (and, in doing so, realize the historical conditions that have crushed this humanity and the necessity of fighting against it) and can conceptualize him or herself as an agent in the struggle for change. Freire emphasizes the need for dialogue, and the importance of letting the oppressed decide for themselves what their needs and demands are. He argues that the revolution cannot be bought and sold with slogans or catch phrases; instead, it has to come from the people themselves, and the most the revolutionary leader (teacher) can do is to help create the space for that to happen. Whether the teacher believes her students to be "oppressed" or not, one can certainly argue that such a teacher-student relationship is necessary in order for students to see themselves as agents of revolutionary change.
 
Ayers extends Freire's thinking into the classroom, asserting that while breaking down the subject/object relationship between teachers, a teacher must have an unshakeable commitment to loving and respecting each of his/her students, and of discovering their unique strengths and potential. Ayers argues that making a commitment to the humanity of students is an act of great resistance in a society such as this, and I'm inclined to believe that Freire would agree. Both scholars stress the need for truly revolutionary education to free the hearts, minds, and souls of the people, and to reassert their humanity, in an attempt to undo the dehumanization that has been done to them and to make them effective agents for social change.
 
While Freire argues for educational "projects" over traditional schools, believing schools to be largely a product of the oppressive society and therefore not a good site for revolutionary change, Ayers believes that, despite these constrictions, schools are still probably the best place available for such change to happen. He agrees that schools reflect the societies they exist in, and that, as we live in an unfair, rapidly corporatizing, and increasingly violent and authoritative society, our schools reflect those values. But he also argues that they can be a mirror back on the world: that when schools change, society changes along with them. When one teaches for fairness and equality, when one teaches toward freedom, spaces in our society are opened up, and change starts to occur. 
 
Both Freire and Ayers offer the problem-posing method of education as an effective model for humanizing students and leading them to a true "revolutionary praxis" (as Freire would say). They argue against the "banking" model of education, which views students as empty vessels waiting to be filled up, and instead assert that students come into the classroom with their own unique strengths, interests, and talents. As Freire writes: "Banking theory and practice, as immobilizing and fixating forces, fail to acknowledge men and women as historical beings; problem-posing theory and practice take the people's history as their starting point." 
 
Ayers agrees that the banking model of education disregards an extremely important facet of education: helping students to realize their place in history; explore their own lived experiences; and recognize the problems and challenges they face as human beings in a particular historical moment. He provides several examples of teachers who bring the outside world into their classrooms in a variety of ways, and who invite students to figure out innovative responses to societal problems. Through posing the right problems, teachers open up potential in students that the students didn't know they had, and provide space and support for students to act in ways they didn't think possible. 
 
The two scholars emphasize the need to bring in the outside world over and over again in their texts. Freire's theory of revolutionary praxis requires the interplay of theory and action; he argues that the two cannot be separated. Students need to be engaged in both reflection and action. Their thoughts will necessarily lead to action, and their action will necessarily lead to thoughts. If this is not happening, then neither true thought nor meaningful action is occurring. Freire writes that human beings are categorically different from other animals in that they have the capacity to reflect on their actions and change the world around them. Students should not be expected to learn about the world from a textbook. Ayers writes that this would be as ludicrous as asking a fish to learn to swim by reading the newspaper. They must explore, try new things, and reflect on their experiences. Ayers writes that "Activism, then, is at best a pedagogical event, and activism and education are connected. Activists try to teach; teachers open the possibilities of greater choice." 
 
In Freire's model, questions are posed by the teacher and soon by the students as well, and the curriculum is shaped by the interests of the students and what is happening in the world around them.
 
However, in the contemporary public school setting, such an approach is almost impossible. Free schools and a few private or charter schools notwithstanding, the vast majority of American students attend schools in which the curriculum is written in advance, there is a fixed set of material they are expected to have in their heads by the end of the semester (the banking method Freire and Ayers condemn) and they are tested on this knowledge repeatedly from a very young age. Students are often "tracked" into different levels, with the "smart" children in one room and the "regular" children in another room. Such designations are often shaped by the factors of race and class (which also affect which schools a student can attend and how many resources those schools have). As Ayers says, educational institutions are a mirror of our society. The question then becomes, how do we use these schools to create sites for change? How do we turn the mirror back, and reflect these new possibilities outward?
How does the Massachusetts State Curriculum Frameworks for Fifth- Grade Social Studies fit into the Freire/Ayers perspective of critical multiculturalism and pedagogy?
 
To begin with, the overall emphasis of the framework seems to be on facts rather than concepts. The concepts that are stressed throughout the framework are buzzword concepts we all hear in the United States constantly: individual responsibility, personal freedom, the strength and knowledge that has enabled our nation to succeed. Little mention is made of the perspective of historically disenfranchised groups: in an entire unit on explorers, Native Americans are mentioned only once; and similarly, there are only two mentions of slavery in an entire unit on antebellum society.
 
The parts of the framework that seemed to depart most from Freire and Ayers' theories, however, are the standards for economics. While Freire and Ayers might try to engage students in a discussion about why some people have money and other people don't; the increasing amount of power corporations have in our society, and the economic structure of capitalism that has led to both of those things, the Massachusetts framework does none of these things. Instead, it asks simple questions designed to lead students to view money and class issues in purely individualistic terms—not as structures.
 
The first item of the economics framework asks students to "give examples of the ways people save their money and explain the advantages and disadvantages of each." Such a question leads only to answers that at best sidestep the real questions surrounding who has money and who doesn't. At worst, the question leads to an answer such as this: people who do not have money are simply bad at saving it. A defender of the framework might argue that fifth-graders are too young to absorb and process those larger questions. But Freire and Ayers would say that it is ludicrous to wait until one is "old enough" to discuss the truth of the world. Young people know there is poverty in the world. A single classroom may contain students from a range of economic classes, with a range of life experiences that shape their perspectives. They may all be able to learn from each other's experiences and perspectives. We'd be doing them a disservice by giving them what is essentially a superficial lesson about frugal spending.
 
The next question in the Massachusetts framework asks students to define what an entrepreneur is, and to give examples of colonial entrepreneurs. This approach to the questions surrounding those who start businesses gives them an almost heroic status, and completely ignores the other half of the equation—those who work to produce for these businesses. Coming up with a list of colonial entrepreneurs is most likely an activity that is far removed from most students. 
 
The next question asks students to define "profit" and describe how profit is an incentive for entrepreneurs. This could be a good Freirean problem-posing question, if handled as such. Profit and what corporations do to maintain large profits are extremely relevant questions in any discussion of the U.S. economy. However, the question focuses on how profit affects entrepreneurs and not those who might be hurt by profit-taking. Given this and the nature of the other questions in the framework, I doubt this question will incite Freirian problem-posing. More likely, students will wind up discussing strategies for how to make and maintain a profit-turning the lesson into a "how-to" guide for becoming a money-maker.
 
The last question, similarly, could go either way ("Give examples of how changes in supply and demand affected prices in colonial history"). But I think what is most telling about all the questions is not what they say, but what they don't. Concepts and aspects of capitalism which have existed since our society started—workers, inequality, the pros and cons of capitalism as a distinct ideology—none of those concepts make an appearance in the framework. 
 
In designing my curriculum, I knew I would put workers—a historically disenfranchised group—at the center of all the questions I posed. I tried to use the methods Freire and Ayers discuss: drawing from the students' experiences by first asking for their opinions about work and their experiences surrounding it; posing problems throughout the unit and framing them as solvable through collective action; using the immediate and broader community by having students interview those who work at the school; bringing in articles from the outside world and discussing how work and workers are viewed by the media; and using activities that put the students at the center and designate them as change agents. I also tried to integrate other forms of media into the unit: writing, reading, artwork, critical investigation, and interview skills.
 
Of course, as Freire and Ayers would point out, no lesson plan should be seen as static or fixed. Instead, it should be viewed as a jumping-off point from which the students and teacher together can begin to explore these complex, yet relevant and important, issues. A teacher who keeps Freire's and Ayers's principles in mind when teaching this topic will leave students with much more than a new set of facts floating around in their heads. By having an opportunity to be subjects and to integrate action and reflective thought, perhaps students will achieve the revolutionary praxis that will help them act as change agents for many years to come.
 
 
Emma Rose Roderick is a workers' rights activist and a student at Smith College.