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Michael Alex


Two Approaches to Teaching and Learning: Compare… Most important person in class/centre of class focus Classroom organization/ Class looks like…

Traditional/Banking • Teacher at almost all times; teacher as ‘font of all knowledge’ and students as empty vessels to be filled. • Teacher at front, students in ordered rows.

• Focus on teacher/board/ projection screen. • Ordered and quiet (proof of ‘rigor’ and control). • One speaker at a time (frequently a few ‘strong’ students) with many others disengaged and/or bored. How course of study is designed and by whom

• Teacher only, with reference to official curriculum. Students not involved in process – simply informed what they must learn with little context or relevance offered. • Course of study is largely inflexible – does not change in response to ongoing class discussion or relevant current events.

Purpose of studying course material

• Accreditation. • Achievement of a high grade is the foremost goal – material can be forgotten as soon as tests are completed. • Course/grade only valuable as a means to gain entry to next school/program (financial motive is primary).

Progressive-Democratic • Shared by all participants – teacher is facilitator, students work cooperatively as learning evolves. • Teacher often circulates through classroom, students in pairs/ groups – lots of activity and movement. • Focus varied throughout class. • Frequently noisy (proof of actual learning). • Learning scaffolded for inclusivity and effectiveness: solitary-pairs-group-class. • Class, negotiates democratically – within bounds of official curriculum + individuals often design or adapt projects to own particular interests. • Course of study is highly flexible – changes with reference to ongoing class discussion and relevant current events. • Self/Other Actualization. • Usefulness to one’s own personal development and contribution to the larger community – i.e. ‘making the world a better place.’ • Students encouraged to take control of their own education – endless uses for course learning! (financial motive is secondary). 1

Michael Alex


Compare… Role/ Expectations of Teacher

Difficulty of Work/ Amount of Work for Teacher

Traditional/Banking • Source of all (valued) knowledge. • Must always have the right answer (this makes teachers insecure since nobody always knows the answer – thus most discourage critical questions from students, use excuse of ‘staying on topic/covering the material’). • Preparation of lecture notes (to deliver ‘at’ students for later, largely irrelevant testing). • Bureaucratic management & classroom discipline – managing students to meet expectations of school system or for teacher’s benefit.

Progressive-Democratic • Experienced/engaged guide who helps students to derive meaning from study. Must be willing to constantly adapt – organizing and supporting student learning (and learning her/himself!).

• Very little once courses designed and planned – possible to teach on ‘autopilot’ (students not even required for daily performance!). • Use of discipline/coercion to ensure class runs smoothly even when majority is bored stiff – any hint of rebellion (even if geared to learning) must be crushed lest the teacher ‘lose control.’

• A great deal since course changes constantly with reference to students – extra work to collate and respond to student learning. • Use of student interest and engagement makes most discipline unnecessary, though teacher retains responsibility for ensuring classroom is safe and effective learning space.

• Preparation of course themes and structure with room for student involvement and contributions. • Getting to know students and working to ensure that school system serves their needs above all else.



Michael Alex

Compare… Role/ Expectations of Student(s)

Difficulty of Work/ Amount of Work for Student(s)


Traditional/Banking • Follow course material obediently and quietly (even if you are being patronized or ignored).

Progressive-Democratic • Take an active role in: (1) designing the course material collaboratively and democratically, (2) class discussion, while remaining respectful of others and leaving sufficient room for others’ contributions.

• Look busy (even if you aren’t thinking too hard).

• Think hard, reflect and get busy.

• Learn by rote and regurgitate faithfully on tests.

• Practice critical and creative thinking (no rote learning or regurgitation required).

• Complete homework/ reading even if it is ‘busy work’ or of questionable relevance.

• Complete course work that is deemed relevant by all because of group ownership, relevance and context provided by teacher.

• Accept without complaint that only a very few students will be well served by existing system (and earn high grades that reflect this).

• Reject the myth that academic success is determined solely by ‘merit’ – instead, approach learning as a collaborative, communal enterprise that improves overall experience for others and for one’s self. • This model demands a great deal more work from all students – since students are responsible to each other, it is difficult to ‘hide’ in these classes.

• Very easy for students who have mastered the ‘game’ of school – difficult to impossible (and rarely supported) for all others.

• Little work that challenges students • Work is often challenging to students (most work apes all work done in personally – can be emotionally all classes already completed). difficult, hard and disruptive to one’s presumptions (but is ultimately more rewarding and meaningful as a result). • Very little need to work hard to actually learn in class – possible to • Students who are (1) lazy and/or (2) earn high grades without much real benefit in terms of high grades from learning OR to sit for entire traditional classrooms are often class/term without any active resistant to this type of classroom – thinking or engagement. will often attack on the basis that “I learned nothing” or “this class wasn’t about anything” (similar to arguments about so-called rigor used by old-school teachers and admin.). 3

Michael Alex


 Compare… The “Skills vs. Content” Debate

Position on politics in the classroom

Traditional/Banking • Focus on content above all – skills are paid lip service, i.e. teachers say they value them but do little actual work with students to develop them (you got what you came in with). • Generally, overtly political discussion is discouraged – politics portrayed as something that occurs outside the classroom, only in the ‘real world.’

Progressive-Democratic • Content is negotiated which opens space to focus on skill development. Content studied is a location for skill development rather than a destination for its own sake. • The political implications of course content is explicitly tackled, as are the interpersonal politics that affect learning in the classroom itself – the classroom is part of the ‘real world.’

• Political tensions in/implications of • Politics/power is actively investigated class content is ignored, as is the by students in all aspects of course question of whose politics the learning (critical thinking). content supports (i.e. status quo).


• If any political position is allowed explicitly, it tends to be the teacher’s own that is privileged (and questioning it is implicitly forbidden through use of grading and/or classroom discipline). • The myth of objective study is dominant and unquestioned – power of teacher’s bias to shape course content through subjective choice conveniently ignored.

• All participants are encouraged to think and act politically and all work actively to ensure that no one position is privileged over others – teacher does not use grading or other coercion to enforce their own politics. • Objectivity is openly rejected as a misleading, even impaired way of approaching learning – interrogating one’s own/others’ assumptions key to class discussion.

• Teacher is left open to charges of bias in grading because they have denied existence of personal biases in teaching.

• Teacher openly acknowledges own biases while ensuring: (1) space for students to hold contradictory opinions, (2) they encourage study and discussion of varied opinions and perspectives, (3) that they are committed to fairness in teaching and marking (since objectivity is acknowledged as an impossible and dangerous myth).


Michael Alex

Compare… Application/ Learning beyond the classroom?


Traditional/Banking • Rare or largely coincidental.

• Course assignments sent to recycling bin upon completion – not shared (beyond grader), not useful, not relevant.

Note taking

• Little or no interaction between classroom learning and ‘real world.’ • Only what teacher writes on board/in power point (and to a much lesser extent) says is deemed relevant and recorded by students. • Frequent question: “will we have to know this on the exam?” Answer ‘yes’ = make notes. Answer ‘no’ = ignore and forget.

Tests/ Evaluation

• Frequent use of multiple choice and other pedagogically indefensible questions. • Material tested is hidden from students to keep them insecure – ‘trick’ questions and mastery of trivia prevalent. • Largely used to discipline students (and their thinking) rather than extend and support their learning - this a huge power play by teachers and schools.

Progressive-Democratic • Lessons without application beyond the classroom = lessons not worth wasting time/energy on. • Students encouraged to engage in course/assignment design, therefore assignments more likely to be personally relevant. • Action projects require students to apply classroom learning to community beyond the classroom. • Students take own notes based on teacher directed content + ideas from video/readings + classmates contributions + personal questions and reflections. • No two people in class have identical notes but support each other’s learning by sharing – teacher also makes notes about student contributions (as a gauge of learning and for contribution to debriefs/ further study and class evaluation). • Questions designed to be meaningful and not based on rote regurgitation. • Material to be tested is shared with/designed in consultation with students to increase value and allow all to best demonstrate their learning. • Teachers devise (meaningful) evaluations of student learning collaboratively and in consultation with student interests, individually and as a group. • “Cram-and-Forget” exams are not used!

• Exams are used frequently and weighted heavily despite abysmal record of pedagogical effectiveness. 


Michael Alex

Compare… Grading Practices

Existence of engagement, interest or fun in class


Traditional/Banking • Grading is an ‘end process’ – i.e. a grade ends the learning process rather than acting as a point for further development (rewrites rare or not allowed).

Progressive-Democratic • Grading is ideally not an end but a means for feedback students can use to improve work/skills (rewrites encouraged).

• Rationale for grade is often unclear or not communicated.

• Rationale for grading is clear, communicated and authentic.

• Grading cannot be questioned by • Grading based on teacher’s students, or often takes the form of professional expertise but is open for lobbying for marks rather than discussion with students. Less concern with actual quality of work – emphasis on calculating grades or through official means only (e.g. (instead, grading students on petition) that creates adversarial progress/improvement over the relationship. academic term rather than weighting early work equally with that completed after learning – something which improves accuracy of grades and increases student motivation). • Grading is frequently arbitrary – not just what is graded and how, but • Each student is assigned grade they through use of Bell Curving. have earned without reference to Departments build shaky case for classmates’ work, class averages or their own rigor by determining department expectations of grade maximum averages and/or grade distributions. distribution in advance of class and with no reference whatsoever to quality of student work actually delivered!!! • Engagement or interest – for • Yes, required. exceptional, self-motivated • Yes, better chances of. individuals only. Fun? Rare (or at • Yes, frequent. the expense of others).


Michael Alex

Compare… Overall effectiveness of pedagogical approach


Traditional/Banking • Studies show that this way of learning is effective for about 10% of the population.

Progressive-Democratic • Studies show that this is the most effective way of learning for a majority of people who are different types of learners.

• Very, very effective at maintaining the status quo.

• Effective for waking students up – engaging them in solving the problems that we face collectively.

• Equally effective for stifling the intellectual growth of all students (or learning is incidental to class itself). • Lesson learned best: class/ learning/school is boring and irrelevant – something to be escaped/skipped or ended as soon as possible.

• Effective means of proving to students that they can learn from each other/themselves. • Lesson learned best: education can be a rewarding, life-long process that grants power and meaning to students in the classroom and their lives beyond the classroom.


Michael Alex: Two Approaches to Teaching & Learning  

This document compares and contrasts traditional "banking" style education with progressive/democratic methods.