||This article may be too technical for most readers to understand. (April 2013)|
Feminist pedagogy is a set of epistemological assumptions, teaching strategies, approaches to content, classroom practices, and teacher-student relationships grounded in feminist theory. This pedagogical framework is particularly challenging as it encompasses varied complexities, while bringing a critical perspective to the classroom. Feminist pedagogy involves more than teaching; it creates a scholarship of teaching because it brings “connected learning” into the very heart of women’s studies as a research field. It identifies the practical applications of feminist theory, while promoting the importance of social change, specifically within the institutional hierarchy found in academia.
Feminist pedagogy is a form of critical pedagogy with an explicit foundation in feminism. Like all forms of critical pedagogy feminist pedagogy aims "to help students develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, and connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action.". What makes feminist pedagogy unique is its emphasis on gender. With origins in the women’s studies movement it is no surprise that women are at the center of feminist pedagogy. Feminist pedagogy aligns itself with other forms of critical pedagogy including those focused on race and ethnicity, class, postcolonialism and globalization.
This pedagogy is a method of instruction which encourages the transformation of students from passive recipients of knowledge to active knowers who see themselves as agents of social change. It is employed most frequently in Women’s Studies classes, which aim to transform [students] from objects to subjects of inquiry. To apply this philosophy in the classroom, feminist scholars must critically engage in dialogue and reflection about both what and how they teach, as well as how who they are affects how they teach. Feminist educators are driven by a vision of “a world which is not yet.” The standpoint of a feminist teacher is of the political nature and to help develop feminist analyses to inform and reform teachers’ and students’ ways of acting in and on the world.
The theoretical foundation of feminist pedagogy is grounded in the critical theories of learning and teaching such as Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Feminist pedagogy is an engaged process facilitated by concrete classroom goals in which members learn to respect each other's differences, accomplish mutual goals, and help each other reach individual goals. This process facilitates participatory learning, validation of personal experience, encouragement of social understanding and activism, and the development of critical thinking and open-minds.
Researchers state that classrooms built upon feminist pedagogy integrate the learning and experiences of participants. Feminist pedagogy recognizes power imbalances and limitations of traditional westernized learning praxis in school systems. Many instructors believe this style of teaching empowers students to a degree only possible with a sense of mutuality.
- 1 Qualities of feminist pedagogy
- 2 History
- 3 Principles of feminist pedagogy
- 4 Influential figures
- 5 Practical implementation
- 6 Feminist Assessment
- 7 References
Qualities of feminist pedagogy
Distinctive qualities of feminist pedagogy are the tradition of focusing on gendered subjects, and the opening of taboo topics for discussion. It is, at its core, about the feminist critique. Feminist educators work to replace old paradigms of education with a new one which focuses on the individual's experience alongside acknowledgment of one's environment. It addresses the need for social change and focuses on educating the oppressed through strategies for empowering the self, building community, and ultimately developing leadership.
The introduction of the book Feminist Pedagogy: Looking Back to Move Forward explains the qualities, and distinctions from critical pedagogy, thus: "Like Freire’s libratory pedagogy, feminist pedagogy is based on assumptions about power and consciousness-raising, acknowledges the existence of oppression as well as the possibility of ending it, and foregrounds the desire for and primary goal of social transformation. However feminist theorizing offers important complexities such as questioning the notion of a coherent social subject or essential identity, articulating the multifaceted and shifting nature of identities and oppressions, viewing the history and value of feminist consciousness-raising as distinct from Freirean methods, and focusing as much on the interrogation of the teacher’s consciousness and social location as the student’s."
Feminist pedagogy is an interdisciplinary effort to challenge assumptions about teaching and learning; it positions issues of gender and power as central themes. The neologism feminist pedagogy was coined by feminist artist Judy Chicago in the 1980s, as an effort to develop new teaching models that challenged dominant educational approaches. Feminist pedagogy was adopted by feminists in women studies programs and later adopted by people teaching various disciplines. For example, John Kellermeier has written about successfully using techniques of feminist pedagogy to teach mathematics.
Principles of feminist pedagogy
In Feminist Pedagogy: Identifying Basic Principles, Myria W. Allen, Kandi L. Walker, and Lynne M. Webb devise a comprehensive overview of feminist pedagogy and identify its six principles. They state that, “The purpose of the present essay is to review the extant literature on feminist pedagogy to distill its basic principles.” These principles consist of:
- a reformation of the relationship between professor and student;
- building community;
- privileging voice;
- respecting the diversity of personal experience
- challenging traditional pedagogical notions
This way of teaching offers reformation of the typical relationship between an instructor and student, where the teacher is perceived to be an omniscient and authoritative figure and the student as the passive recipient of knowledge. Feminist pedagogy is displayed when power and control becomes shared between the students and teacher. It is an active, collaborative classroom where risk-taking is encouraged; where intellectual excitement abounds; and where power is viewed as energy, capacity, and potential, rather than domination.
Empowerment is said to be the primary goal of feminist pedagogy. Empowerment involves the principles of democracy and shared power. Feminist pedagogy challenges the view that education is a neutral cognitive process . Education either functions as an instrument facilitating students' integration and conformity into the logic of the present system, or it becomes "the practice of freedom" teaching men and women to deal critically and creatively with reality and to learn to participate in transforming their world. The practice of freedom emerges through empowerment, yet the patriarchal model generally neglects issues such as empowerment, feelings, and experiences.
Feminist pedagogy is concerned with building community and cooperation within the classroom as well as between the classroom and its broader environment. Developing a community of growth and caring is a key to critical/feminist education. Since feminism values community and equality, building a trusting environment in which all members are respected and have an equal opportunity to participate is at its core.
Feminist pedagogy views knowledge as constructed and culture-bound. It fosters multiple authorities, which allows different classroom dynamics and voices to emerge. As authority shifts from student to instructor, students can interact and ask questions as their feedback is actively sought and incorporated in the classroom dynamic. As such, the relationship of student and instructor is less intimidating and more equitable.
Respecting the Diversity of Personal Experience
A community of students and teachers who work closely with one another and respect one another's sociohistorical development challenges hierarchical relations of schooling and involves social bonding within more democratic relations fundamental to schooling as a forum for critical democracy. Feminist theory privileges personal lived experiences as the basis for analysis, theory generation, activism, and research. Thus, a feminist pedagogy involves an emphasis on personal experience and validation, such a perspective results in several positive outcomes, that including increased respect, enhanced empathy, better critical thinking skills, and broader understanding of truths.
Challenging Traditional Pedagogical Notions
Embedded within the previously discussed five principles is a sixth principle: challenging traditional views and practices. Feminist pedagogy challenges the notion that knowledge and teaching methods can be value free. Schools reproduce and reinforce the social construction of gender through the dichotomization of nurturance and autonomy, public and private, and masculine and feminine. Further, feminist teachers challenge the origins of ideas and theories, the positions of their promoters, and the factors influencing how knowledge comes to exist in its present form.
The theorist Paulo Freire is known for his works in the area of critical pedagogy. He penned Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968 (written in Portuguese, later published in English in 1970).
Freire believed that "education makes sense because women and men learn that through learning they can make and remake themselves, because women and men are able to take responsibility for themselves as beings capable of knowing — of knowing that they know and knowing that they don't" (Freire, 2004, p. 15)
Freire is also known for his disdain of what he called the "banking" concept of education, in which a student is viewed as an empty account waiting to be filled by the teacher. He said that "it transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power" (Freire, 1970, p. 77)
His love for teaching, knowledge, the student, the student/teacher relationship, and the educational process has led to his heavy influence on present feminist educators.
Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name bell hooks, is an accomplished writer and educator.
In Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, she argues that a teachers' use of control and power over students dulls the students' enthusiasm and teaches obedience to authority, "confin[ing] each pupil to a rote, assembly-line approach to learning.” She advocated that universities encourage students and teachers to collaborate, making learning more relaxing while simultaneously exciting. She describes teaching as “a catalyst that calls everyone to become more and more engaged”.
Patti Lather has taught qualitative research, feminist methodology, and gender and education at Ohio State University since 1988. She is the author of Getting Smart: Feminist Research and Pedagogy With/in the Postmodern and Getting Lost: Feminist Efforts Toward a Double(d) Science.
Henry Giroux is a leading expert in the field of critical pedagogy in the United States. He is an accomplished author, penning over 50 books and 300 academic articles on the subject of pedagogy and cultural studies. Giroux's most recent work focuses on public pedagogy, a term he coined to describe the nature of the spectacle and the new media, and the political and educational force it has on global culture.
Ileana Jiménez is a high school teacher in New York City who teaches courses on feminism, LGBT literature, Toni Morrison, and memoir writing. She is nationally known for her writing and speaking about inclusivity in high schools, her work to make schools safer spaces for LGBT students, and has won numerous awards for curriculum development. She was heavily influenced in her feminism and her pedagogy by bell hooks.
Feminist pedagogy creates spaces where student values and lived experiences are respected, especially those of women and marginalized students. At its core, feminist pedagogy aims to decenter power in the classroom to give students the opportunity to voice their perspectives, realities, knowledge, and needs. This section outlines some practical methods to help teachers enact feminist pedagogy in their classrooms. The act of decentering power in a classroom is difficult, but methods such as active learning, and activist projects can help students collaboratively create knowledge, question patriarchal structures, and participate as agents of social change.
One of the main tenets of feminist pedagogy is transforming the teacher and student relationship. Under this teaching method, educators seek to empower students by offering opportunities for critical thinking, self-analysis, and development of voice. Above all, feminist pedagogy challenges lectures, memorization, and tests as methods for developing and transferring knowledge. One practical application of feminist pedagogy is evident in the power and authority of the feminist educator. Feminist pedagogy maintains that power in the classroom should be delicately balanced between teacher and students in order to inform curriculum and classroom practices. The sharing of power creates a space for dialogue that reflects the multiple voices and realities of the students.
By sharing the power, to promote voice among students, the educator and students move to a more equal position in which students produce knowledge. The shared power also decentralizes dominant traditional understandings of learning.
Feminist teachers employ active learning activities as a way to reframe the relationship between the student and the instructor, to encourage students to deeply explore and question issues, and to help them achieve mastery of the material on their own. [ Parry] The teacher shares authority and asks students more questions, and can employ classroom activities to spur discussion, rather than lecture. [45 Accardi] List below are some practical examples of active learning exercises that can be used in the feminist classroom: Quick Writing - a quick reflective writing exercise given after an exam that asks students to discuss what they did to improve their test score/grade. This can be read aloud, or written, and aids the teacher in assisting students individually after the exam. [Parry] Journals - Journals allow students to track their thoughts on a particular topic. There are many approaches to using journaling in the classroom. Students can write about personal situations that explore how issues related to gender affect their everyday lives. They can also use journals to respond to readings, or classroom discussions. [Parry] Imaginary Writing - Students write a letter to either an imaginary person, or to a relative to explain a concept, or tell the person something about themselves. [Parry] Interviews - Students can interview someone, asking them questions that ask them to explore their experiences related to gender or sexual orientation. [Parry] Think/Pair/Share - Present students with a problem or issue, have them think individually, then pair off to discuss with a partner, then at the end, share their response with the entire class. Expanding on this can create exercises that promote critical thinking in students. [Parry] Group Teaching - Students work in groups to teach the class an assigned topic/subject. [Parry]
Activist projects encourage students to identify real-life forms of oppression, take action against them, and recognize the potential of feminist discourse outside of the academic realm. Several feminist teachers in higher education have written about their experiences assigning students activist projects.
Students’ activist projects have taken a variety of forms, including organizing letter-writing campaigns or writing letters to the editor, confronting campus administration or local law enforcement agencies, organizing groups to picket events, and participating in national marches.
Feminist teachers who have written about their experiences assigning activist projects recognize that this non-traditional method can be difficult for students. Since they want students to have a positive, yet challenging (often first) experience with activism, they often give students a great deal of freedom in choosing a project. Rose asked her students to develop a project that would “protest sexism, racism, homophobia, or any other ‘ism’ related to feminist thought in one situation” (487). By allowing students to choose any topic of interest, she put more power in their hands. Similarly, Dean asks her students to develop either an awareness campaign or a project that takes direct action on a feminist issue they discuss in an introductory women’s studies class (354).
Teachers also often discuss why they chose to do these projects with a certain level of students: Rose chose an upper-level class because she felt students would be more emotionally equipped to handle potential difficulties, as well as better-grounded in academic feminist thought. Ryan, on the other hand, chose to do an activism project with lower-division undergraduates because she thought they would appreciate an experimental, hands-on assignment (15).
In the end, the goals of this practical application of feminist pedagogy include raising students’ consciousness about patriarchal oppression, empowering them to take action, and helping them learn specific political strategies for activism (Rose 489). Teachers report mixed results with these types of projects. Rose noted difficulties along the way, including students who resisted putting themselves in a controversial position (488), and students who had trouble dealing with backlash (490). But ultimately she thought the assignment was effective at helping students speak out against specific oppressive circumstances (490). Dean, on the other hand, thought students were largely unable to recognize the intricacies of the patriarchal system and their subject positions within it, instead tending to see themselves as simply doing good deeds for unfortunate “Others.” (355)
Literature on feminist assessment is sparse, possibly because of the incongruity between notions of feminism and assessment. For example, traditional assessments such as standardized tests validate the banking model of learning and the concept of assessment in the form of grades or ability to advance within a structured curriculum is a form of power held by an institution. Nonetheless, literature on feminist pedagogy does contain a few examples of feminist assessment techniques. These techniques decenter the power structure upheld by traditional assessment by focusing on student voice and experience, which allows students agency as they participate in the assessment process.
The use of journaling is considered to be one feminist assessment technique  as well as the idea of “participatory evaluation”, or evaluations characterized by interactivity and trust. Assessment techniques borrowed from critical pedagogy should be considered when thinking of feminist assessment approaches. These may include involving students in the creation of assessment criteria or peer/self assessment. Finally, Accardi argues feminist assessment approaches can be embedded into more traditional forms of assessment (such as classroom assessment techniques or performance assessment techniques) if students are allowed to reflect on or evaluate their experience(s). Surveys, interviewing and focus groups, too, could be considered assessments with a feminist approach provided that a student voice or knowledge is sought. These assessment strategies should be tailored to the type of instruction taking place; performance assessment techniques may be more appropriate for short term instruction. If the instructor has more time with the learner, then the opportunity for more in-depth, reflective feedback and assessment is possible.
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