Education as Pedagogy of Possibility: Shedding Dogma through Reciprocal Learning
By Colin Jenkins /
Jun 5, 2015

Co-authored with David M. Fields


Like a snake that sheds its skin periodically throughout its lifecycle, the human mind must develop and shed itself of intellectual skin. Its evolution is characterized by cyclical bouts of learning, reflecting and reconsidering; however, unlike the snake, which is genetically inclined to molting, the mind may not mature and regenerate without being subjected to antagonistic curiosity. This may only be accomplished through frequent and consistent mental cultivation, whereas knowledge is acquired, ideas are processed, and intellectual fruit is born. This process is cyclical in its need for reflection, but most importantly, it is evolutionary in its wanting to refine itself; and it is this constant pursuit of knowledge and validation that drives the mind to absorb substantial information and secrete insignificant data.

Human intellectualism is inherently anti-dogmatic in its need for constant reflection. This is not to say that substantive beliefs can't stand the test of time, but only that they cannot do so without being incessantly validated along the way. In spite of this, and throughout the course of history, humans have shown a tendency to submit to the crude nature of indoctrination in order to appease their subconscious desire for simplicity. And herein lies the fundamental paradox of the human race: intellectualism is naturally fluid, yet human nature is innately simplistic. We are all blessed with a mind that is essentially limitless, yet we are at the same time limited by our instinctive nature to simplify matters of complexity. And without adequate motivation, the means to confront complex issues become nothing more than a tragedy of unrealized potential.

The process of learning, whether in a formal setting or through private exploration of curiosities, is a key motivator and major catalyst in the development of intellectualism.

Critical Pedagogy and Collaborative Inquiry

Society is an immensely complex entity, the broad functioning of which cannot be captured by obscure models of positive and normative simplification. As such, it is pertinent to recognize that the art of teaching should informed by Aristotle's conviction humans, by nature, have a desire to have a complex canonical knowledge of the social world. In this sense, the social practice of education is to both encourage and equip learners with the requisite tools to express and satisfy this desire. Although this desire to know is innate, it is more-or-less shaped by social structure, which suggests that satisfying it cannot happen in isolation. With this in mind, the classroom should be a place of collaborative inquiry requiring the full participation of both students and the instructor.

The intention is to construct pedagogy of possibility, a philosophy of praxis that that attempts to build the social conditions for a reconstruction and reconstitution of social imagination. This requires an approach to teaching that does not incorporate a 'knowledge from above' perspective, which establishes a pernicious division between 'expert' and 'novice". Rather, through what C. Wright Mills defined as the sociological imagination (i.e. the linking of individual biographies to great historical events) it is necessary to instill a critical macro-structural historical orientation such that students are enabled to question what is take for granted in society, so that underlying barriers which stifle human potential are broken down.

How is this to be accomplished? Cognition requires a shift in perception such that the understanding of a concept moves beyond initial appearances. In order to concretize what might initially appear as vague and indistinct, it is quite crucial to place classroom inquiry on a foundational basis that is infused with shared understandings, wherein the "teacher" learns a bit about the background of the student body, but also brings them to the same point of entry. In this sense, any real and perceived social relations of domination and inferiority between the teacher and student, which oftentimes undermine the capacity for knowledge absorption, is systematically negated. It can be said that ideas are learned when students have rescued it from a haze of abstraction and made it concretely his or her own.

In this process of taking ownership of not only the product of knowledge, but also the process of learning, the student's former subservient state is transformed into a partnership with the instructor. "In this way," explains Paulo Freire, "the problem-posing educator constantly re-forms his reflections in the reflection of the students. The students - no longer docile listeners - are now critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher. The teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and re-considers her earlier considerations as the students express their own." [1] This reciprocal process is the essence of critical pedagogy.

Rejecting Authoritative Learning and Standardization

It is contended that the simplicity of relative assessments. e.g. testing, does not allow for the opportunity to learn what a student does or does not know, but, in the final instance, fosters rankism, which inevitably undermines the positive social welfare outcomes of collective learning. It is of much greater significance, thus, to enable students to own ideas with which they become familiar, such that they are encouraged to collectively share their thoughts in a way that intellectual conversation and critical examination is encouraged and maximized; this is the process by which new ideas and discoveries about the social world are engineered. Hence, the objective is to assure that misunderstandings are revealed and thus resolved, which otherwise would not be possible in a traditional classroom where collective student participation is neither promoted nor embraced. This approach is vital because it helps students develop the social consciousness necessary to understand and effectively participate in what we often colloquially define as the "real world", despite the consequences of inequality derived from the social locations of class, race, gender, etc.

The purpose of education is to strive to resolve the inherent problem of the relationship between abstract phenomena and concrete realization, not via a top-down general form of logic, but through a dialectical mechanism of motion and contradiction that elucidates the philosophical, metaphysical, epistemological, ephemeral, and ontological qualities that altogether condition the human lived experience. What is necessary is pedagogy of possibility that inculcates into the minds of students the necessary methodological lens and working concepts needed to construct critical assessments and arguments with respect to subject matter, which may, in the end, ideally, provide the effective solutions that challenge the nature of current world dynamics. The strategic goal is to transform the classroom into an arena that delves deep beneath surface meaning and received wisdom, such that percipience of the conditions that shape manifest social phenomena is holistically cultivated.

This pedagogical approach "enables teachers and students to become Subjects of the educational process by overcoming authoritarianism and an alienating intellectualism; it also enables people to overcome their false perception of reality." "No longer something to be described with deceptive words," the world "becomes the object of that transforming action by men and women which results in their humanization." [2]

Cultivating Ideas and Unlocking Potential

Even with a predisposition that governs mental potency, human intellectualism has spawned many wondrous ideas in an effort to broaden the scope of existentialism, societal living and human interaction. Throughout history, these ideas have been pushed and prodded in every direction, constantly changing and evolving through a series of metaphysical connections that flawlessly pass from one generation to the next. Those who are bold enough to push the envelope of ideology beyond accepted norms are the ultimate drivers of human civilization; for regardless of how such ideas may be embraced by the dominant culture, they are at the very least invaluable catalysts for the constant development of the human mind. And while these ideas may be abused or misinterpreted at times, they are ultimately defined by their transcendent immortality - always readily available and accessible for reconsideration through an ongoing process of learning.

The suppleness that creates such durability also leads to a vulnerability that is characterized by our subjective nature, which is limiting in its penchant for simplifying complex matters. Since the human mind is built for the fundamental purpose of troubleshooting problems that, in the most basic sense, threaten our survival, analytical skills often become secondary to the primary function of simplification. The brain confronts matters in the most efficient manner possible; so much so that it often becomes counterintuitive to undergo analysis which extends beyond the simplest explanation, even if that explanation is suspect. It is in this inherent method where dogma is born. However, the process of edification has the power to overcome innate tendencies towards reductionism. If we are to present education as a "humanist and liberating praxis" which "posits as fundamental that the people subjected to domination must fight for their emancipation," then this predisposition towards apathy - which is intensified through systems of coercive, disconnected, and hierarchical instruction - must be challenged with pedagogy that is cooperative, critical, and collaborative. The shedding of dogma is a key development in this application.

John Dewey once warned that, "Any movement that acts in terms of an 'ism becomes so involved in reaction against other 'isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them." The result of this hyper-focus on opposing views creates ideas that are formed in reaction to other 'isms "instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems and possibilities." Our "banking" system of education which focuses on the memorization of narratives and which "achieves neither true knowledge nor true culture," consequently shapes minds that are susceptible to such reactionary thought. Because of this, the broad stigmatization of "Socratic questioning" that stems from our utilitarian nature has made the simple act of thinking quasi-revolutionary in itself.

The most obvious deterioration is related to an abandonment of critical thinking. Ironically, the arrival of a technologically-advanced, information-based society has paralleled a pedagogical culture that is enamored with the mundane nature and meaningless pursuit of encyclopedic knowledge. This corollary development is the result of a neoliberalized trifecta of corporate education models, standardization, and a total reliance on the narrative/lecture-based "banking" approach to schooling. Freire tells us:

"A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient listening objects (the students). The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified. Education is suffering from narration sickness." [3]

In a corporate-dominated society where human beings are only valuable in a dehumanized state (as workers and consumers), intellectualism has given way to task-mastering. Responsible thought has been replaced by a demand for quick and unrelenting decision-making. Critical thinking and thorough analysis are relegated as a sign of weakness in a society that rewards those who develop speedy conclusions, regardless of accuracy, truth or consequences. The state of our education system -increased privatization, the implementation of standardization and "common core" models, and a gradual rejection of humanities - reflects this. If education is to realize its fundamental role as "pedagogy of possibility," we must not only redirect our current path, but also steer it towards an increasingly critical and collaborative nature which empowers students through reciprocal interactions and ownership of the learning process.

Work Cited


[1] Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Books, 1993. Accessed on

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

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Education as Pedagogy of Possibility: Shedding Dogma through Reciprocal Learning