Teaching to transform: bell hooks and her influence for our classrooms

A presentation given at the Learning and Teaching Conference of the University of Chester, 30/6/21. Grateful thanks for Luke Jones and Gordon Baillie for comments on early drafts of this paper.

Let me begin this paper with an admission and challenge. I have to admit that I don’t know what your classroom is like and so I may be preaching to the choir. The challenge I have is that however your classroom fits, or doesn’t fit, with what I’m going to suggest can I invite you to reflect on why you agree or disagree with me? Through that process, whether it inspires you to change something or whether it makes you more secure in your approach, the consideration of the discussion will, to a small extent, transform our teaching.

As a child, I considered a classroom of whatever level to be a neutral, safe space where information was transmitted, and skills developed. Some of the classrooms I have been in, either as a student or as an observer have striven to be such places. Teachers might want consider themselves to be completely neutral and that their role is to pour water into the vessels that the students carry with them. This is very much the knowledge transmission model of education. Even though I would largely reject this model, I still accept hooks’ suggestion that even “with all its limitations [it] remains a location of possibility” (hooks, 1994: 207). What is this possibility? In this sense, while hooks would see it as a positive arena of possibility, it might be a place to retain the possibility of the status quo. 

Before considering the work of bell hooks and how we can work together in our classrooms to “move beyond boundaries, to transgress” (hooks, 1994: 207), it is useful to look at some of the work of Paulo Freire, whose writings inspired hooks, but also she went beyond him in the critique of existing education systems. Freire suggested the banking model of education, which very much sounds like the pouring of water into the vessels that students bring to our classroom. The idea of the banking model of education is shown by the accompanying illustration.

Freire suggests:

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated account. Worse yet, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teachers. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teachers she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system.

It is a means to reinforce the status quo, to initiate the learners into ways of thinking and ways of knowing. For Freire, this was not a liberating system but a system of oppression. This has links with Dewey who warned that warned that the education system and the curriculum has “influences which educate some into masters, educate others into slaves.” Knowledge is very important and lays the basis for all learning but we need to consider, as Michael Apple suggests, ‘whose knowledge?’ it is that we are sharing:

Whose knowledge is it? Who selected it? Why is it organized and taught in this way? To this particular group? The mere act of asking these questions is not sufficient, however. One is guided, as well, by attempting to link these investigations to competing conceptions of social and economic power and ideologies (Apple, 2019, p. 6).

Let me share two examples of the power of education and the regulation of knowledge from literature.

Firstly, Children’s Story by James Clavell. This story was inspired by his child coming home from school, reciting the pledge of allegiance, and asking for a monetary reward. This worried Clavell; upon further questioning, he found that the teacher had promised each child they would be rewarded for learning the pledge, but his child did not understand what she was reciting. It led to the writing of the very short story where a country is taken over, and it shows that within the space of just a few minutes, how easy it is to create a narrative that establishes a ‘party line’. 

The second example is perhaps more worrying because it is real. It comes from the story, The Bookseller of Kabul, which is based on the experiences and interviews of the author. Speaking of the textbooks that were used in school, the bookseller reflects:

War was the central theme in maths books too. Schoolboys- because the Taliban printed books solely for boys- did not calculate in apples and cakes, but in bullets and Kalashnikovs. Something like this: ‘Little Omar has a Kalshnikov with three magazines. There are twenty bullets in each magazine. He uses two thirds of the bullets and kills sixty infidels. How many infidels does he kill with each bullet?

These are both extremes but highlight how the classroom and our teaching is not neutral. As Freire suggests:

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

This all seems very sensible, and we can perhaps see how this affects children in a school classroom, but in the teaching of adults in higher education, surely we are teaching those with more critical minds, who do not just accept blindly the things that we teach? That may well be the case, but bell hooks, who moved beyond Freire, has taught in university settings, and the way that she develops teaching to transgress shows that this awareness of who we are, how we teach, whom we’re teaching, and what we’re trying to achieve is just as important when we teach adults.

The transformative nature of education is outlined in the first chapter of Teaching to Transgress:

To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.

Throughout my years as student and professor, I have been most inspired by those teachers who have had the courage to transgress those boundaries that would confine each pupil to a rote, assembly-line approach to learning (p. 13).

We might read or hear this and baulk at the language that hooks uses- she speaks of teaching as sacred vocation and teaching in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students. We might be non-religious and such terminology is anathema to our worldview and how we approach teaching. However, I would suggest that teaching as a vocation – something that we are ‘called to’, fills us with joy and enjoy is something that many of us can connect with. As for spiritual growth, I like to use David Hay and Rebecca Nye’s definition of the spiritual to ensure that it can become inclusive for all. They construct four ideas of consciousness based on the premise that spirituality and spiritual development is natural and biological. It cannot be taught because it is “more about the realities of human relationships than it is about detailed lesson plans” (p. 162). The relational consciousnesses that they develop are 

Self-consciousness (I-self)

People consciousness (I- others)

World consciousness (I- world)

God consciousness (I- God) (see 1998, Chapter 7).

In this relational view of spirituality, maybe we can, as teachers, be aware of and the relational aspects of learning that each of our students is understanding. This, again, may build on the work of the educationalist James Comer. He suggested: “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” Contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t just talking about a teacher-student relationship. It is also, and perhaps mainly, about meaningful relationships with material and experiences that are remembered and applied more than others. If we think about our students as developing different aspects of relational consciousness with themselves, the world around them, and the material they are learning, and the experiences that they are having, this might move us into a different way of teaching.

We might give students opportunities to engage with the ideas that we are exploring- not in a mere abstract way but in a way that enables them to fully reflect on their place in relationship to them. I will return to this idea of a relational and transformational third space after further exploration of some of bell hooks’ ideas.

Hooks suggests that in the banking system of education, she was often bored:

The banking system of education (based on the assumption that memorizing information and regurgitating it represented gaining knowledge that could be deposited, stored and use at a later date) did not interest me. I wanted to become a critical thinker.

The banking system of education is seen to reinforce the status quo, and that any attempt to diverge is to subvert it and is viewed with suspicion. One of the things that she notes in her experiences is that those from ‘marginal’ communities were less likely to be allowed the freedom to transgress and move away from the status quo. As an aside this is very much prevalent in schools at the moment with knowledge rich curricula and retrieval practice. 

Hooks also draws on aspects of intersectionality in her writings. Drawing on the work of people like Crenshaw, she can recognise that the experience of individual students and people differ because of the various aspects of their identity and experiences. It, therefore, becomes essential that the curriculum that we teach recognises diverse voices. In the language now being used to decolonise the curriculum, hooks suggests that we work “to transform the curriculum so that it does not reflect biases or reinforce systems of domination” (p. 21). We might also find an element of tokenism in our attempts to decolonise the curriculum we have in place:

All too often we found a will to include those considered “marginal” without a willingness to accord their work the same respect and consideration given other work.

What does this mean in practice? Maybe it means that we include ideas that may challenge the accepted narrative- but there can be a danger in that. In the sense that we’re giving airtime and legitimacy to things that really only divert us from the narrative, for example climate change denial. Recognising that there is creativity in different ways of thinking and different ideas on what we’re teaching can be liberating. What that means for me is in exploring methods of assessment in the classroom, I have very definite ideas about what is and what is not good practice, but we interrogate the different models, and students are able to bring their own experiences and thoughts to bear in constructing their approach to assessment when the teach.

In teaching student teachers their responsibility regarding Prevent, I am faced with a similar issue. There are elements of Prevent that have been interpreted badly and seem to reflect the bias of a certain group within society. This was shown to me when attending a training session where the facilitating organisation had added an individual group that didn’t appear in the official guidance. In teaching the Prevent strategy, which all teachers have to follow, I purposefully problematise it so that student teachers are prepared to follow it in a way that is sensible and non-problematic. What is important is that the voices of the students are involved and that those voices whose experiences are shared are recognised and integrated into our discussions rather than rejected because they don’t fit our narrative or experiences.

The inequalities and prejudices are both historical and systemic. Being a part of the system means that sometimes/oftentimes, people of all colours are blind to the injustices that are faced. Black people may just accept things as ‘just the way things are’, and white people may not recognise their place in the power dynamic. This was brought home to me in a non-racial situation when I read Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey. He writes about his experiences in Pollok, Glasgow, in the early 1990s. I did missionary work in Pollok around that time, but on reading McGarvey’s book, I recognised some things, but I did not recognise aspects of his experiences where he felt ‘acted upon’ and isolated from the system within which he lived and was set up to support him. I didn’t question his experience but realised that my experience was limited to one of those ‘in power’ and that I did not truly understand the reality in which he lived. 

People who do not experience the reality of the oppressed or the minority need to step outside of their own experience and really listen to the voices of those for whom a minority expression is real. I realise I need to stop trying to help in the way that I think works but listen to how others feel things can be mended and society overhauled so that all have a voice and are heard.

I don’t know what this discussion will mean within your classroom, but a truly relational classroom ensures that all people are heard, and all relationships are important. This is a challenge; bell hooks suggests:

In the classes I teach, students are often presented with new paradigms and are being asked to shift their ways of thinking to consider new perspectives. In the past I have often felt that this type of learning process is very hard; it’s painful and troubling. It may be six months or a year, even two years later, that they realize the importance of what they have learned. That was really hard for me, because I think part of what the banking system does for professors is create the system where we want to feel that by the end of the semester every student will be sitting there filling out their evaluations testifying that I’m a “good teacher.” It’s all about feeling good, feeling good about me, and feel- ing good about the class. But in reconceptualizing engaged pedagogy I had to realize that our purpose here isn’t really to feel good. Maybe we enjoy certain classes, but it will usually be difficult. We have to learn how to appreciate difficulty, too, as a stage in intellectual development.

This teaching is a risk but is rewarding. The classroom becomes a transformational third space. As such, it draws all learning back to the learner and the teacher, and the interaction with other voices and materials becomes a conversation that leads to understanding. It becomes a dialogic third space between the two parties, which constitutes “holy ground.” This third space enables a place where a participant can meet the‘other’, whether that is material or a person, which can transform their understanding of the other, but also their understanding of themselves. The concept of a dialogical third space borrows heavily from the work of Homi Bhabha but diverges from the resultant hybridity models that he suggests such spaces would create. Engagement with a third space as a place of “radical openness”  provides a perfect description of the type of space needed for learning within the classroom to be successful. The way that this space can be “radical” and transformative at the same time is in engaging in a dialogue that is grounded in the participants’’ own experience.

Engagement with the ‘other’ thus becomes a “dialogic transaction” whereby people may begin to change some of their understandings and behaviours. The “dialogic transaction” of engagement enables greater development of one’s own belief, and practice can be more deeply understood. This is illustrated in terms of material when we consider our engagement with story. In reading stories in this way, the intention of the author is secondary to the experience of the reader; Philip Pullman has suggested: 

As a passionate believer in the democracy of reading, I don’t think it’s the task of the author of a book to tell the reader what it means. The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind. So when people ask me what I meant by this story, or what was the message I was trying to convey in that one, I have to explain that I’m not going to explain. Anyway, I’m not in the message business; I’m in the “Once upon a time” business. 

Essentially this could be seen to be a prism – where the reader/listener is the prism with all of their life experiences that make sense of the material or person they are engaging with. Orson Scott Card has called this an “epick” approach to criticism where a person or group finds relevance for themselves in a particular story.  

This refers back to bell hooks and her use of intersectionality. In recognising the individual backgrounds of the students that we teach, and also the diversity of the world in which we live, we will be able to create an engaged classroom experience where we all (students and teachers) will be able to transform the learning. The relational problematisation of learning will enable the banking system to be challenged, and if aspects of the status quo remain, it will be because they have been proven useful in the crucible of risk and exploration. 

Again, I don’t know how this will work in your teaching- but hopefully, the thoughts I have shared will begin a process of reflection on how our classrooms can be transformational, and in the words of bell hooks, a place of community and transgression.