Steven D. Chase (PhD)Core Faculty, Director of Advocacy for Social Justice and Sustainability Concentration
Department of Environmental Studies
Before I became a professional teacher of graduate students at Antioch University New England, I already had a long history as a volunteer workshop facilitator and study group leader for concerned citizens, grassroots organizers, and public interest advocates. While my teaching philosophy, goals, and methods have certainly deepened and developed over the years, at their core, they remain remarkably similar to what they have been since the early 1970s.
I still want to facilitate the learning of “activists” of various sorts and within various spheres of influence. I also still want to help students develop the critical knowledge, wisdom, and attitudes; the organizational and social action skills; as well as the emotional and interpersonal intelligences and competencies that will increase their effectiveness in leading a transition towards--in the words of the Department of Environmental Studies vision statement--“a sustainable society that embodies respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, social and economic justice, democracy, nonviolence, and peace.”
Where I have evolved the most over time is in my teaching methods. In the epigraph quoted above, John Hurst wisely points out that there are many different educational methods that educators can choose to enhance the learning of their students. He also cautions that some approaches may not be as effective or as conducive to their student’s long-term interests as others. For the purpose of training effective organizers, advocates, and concerned citizens, Hurst goes on to argue that activist educators should rely most heavily on the principles and methods of “popular education.” As Hurst notes, “Popular education is at its heart the empowerment of adults through democratically structured cooperative study and action, directed toward achieving more just, equitable, and peaceful societies,”
As part of this “democratically structured cooperative study and action,” popular educators typically employ a wide variety of participatory, dialogic, problem-posing, and experiential learning methods, including discussions, one-on-one coaching, storytelling, case studies, exercises, role-plays, and the actual practice of skills through simulations and engaged service learning in the wider community. At its best, popular education methods are designed to serve multiple learning styles, including the needs of visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and emotional learners. Good popular educators also tend to focus on the following seven elements in their work:
- Building relationships and getting started as a learning community;
- Focusing on the experience and knowledge of participants;
- Looking for relevant patterns in their experience;
- Adding new information and theory;
- Practicing skills, strategizing, or planning for action;
- Applying learning in action settings outside of the classroom or workshop; and
- Reflecting on and evaluating the teaching and learning experience to support continuous improvement.
Personally, I have focused much attention on this seventh core element as I have tried to integrate popular education approaches into a formal academic institution of higher learning. This synthesis is not always easy or obvious. As former President of the National Labor College, Susan Shurman, notes, “Because popular education has been associated almost exclusively with nonformal education, its application to formal degree-based study has been neglected.” This neglect of popular education approaches within the larger academy means that--in the absence of the careful attention, experimentation, and coaching--academic educators often default to more conventional, lecture-based teaching and testing strategies. This is often even true when faculty members are teaching radical democratic or progressive course content. It can even be true when these educators theoretically embrace the value of popular education, as described by educational theorists such as Paulo Freire, yet cannot match their own “know why” with “know how.”
My own early experiments with translating my popular education “know why” into “know how” as a key part of my work in a formal academic setting are chronicled in my essay “Changing the Nature of Environmental Studies: Teaching Environmental Justice to ‘Mainstream’ Students,” which was published in the 2002 anthology The Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics, and Pedagogy. While my theoretical influences as a teacher now include more academic approaches such as constructivism, critical pedagogy, civic education, and community-based service learning, my bedrock approach is still grounded within the activist tradition of popular education. The adventure continues and, for me, teaching is a deep calling, not a mere career option.
I am humbled and delighted to stay in touch with my students after they graduate and to hear about their many contributions, experiments, and ongoing reflections on how to organize and conduct our economic, political, and cultural lives in more creative, courageous, and positive ways.