Nikki Morgan on Critical Pedagogy and Nonviolent Communication

Nikki Morgan explains the revolutionary ideas behind critical pedagogy and how nonviolent communication improved her personal and professional life.

Nikki Morgan explains the revolutionary ideas behind critical pedagogy and how nonviolent communication improved her personal and professional life.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

If I could pick anyone, alive or dead, to by my teacher for a year, I would pick Paulo Freire, the educator and philosopher best known for writing and lecturing on critical pedagogy. I would choose him because I think his teachings on education and critical pedagogy would revolutionize the education system in the United States and empower our students to create substantial change in our country and the world. Freire states that the top-down approach to education, with lessons coming from the teacher (seen as beacon of knowledge) to the student (seen as an empty vessel), propagates hegemonic ideologies in our capitalist society, maintaining power for some while keeping others oppressed.

Our education system in the U.S. has been fashioned in this way from the inception of our nation. Educators who subscribe to critical pedagogy know Freire's philosophies on education, and how he would say that educators should engage students in thought that causes them to question inequality and its causes, as well as the myths of mainstream society and how they are perpetuated and internalized. I would like to know what Paulo Freire would have prescribed today in classrooms around the nation in order to empower our students to grow into adults who seek emancipation from the status quo, recognize injustices, and work to change them.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

For this most recent chapter in my life, in which I am a wife and a mother of two young children, a piece of advice that has had a major impact on my life is that language is powerful. It is powerful because how we communicate with others affects the way we are perceived by our loved ones, and how we communicate with ourselves internally affects the way we perceive ourselves, those around us, and our environments. The same words can carry different meanings and connotations to different audiences.

One key person that has been influential in this area of my life is Marshall Rosenberg, who is known for "nonviolent communication." This model of communication focuses on how language shapes and is shaped by our culture and how this in turn affects our relationship with others. Since trying to adopt non-violent communication, my personal and business relationships have improved tremendously. The idea that language is powerful has enabled me to critically reflect on how the language I hear and use has influenced my life and worldview and given me the insight to move in a direction that I believe is more in line with my personal values and ethics.

Where would you send a student who hasn’t traveled before?

This really depends on who the student is and what the student hopes to gain through traveling. Before making a decision, I would think about the individual student's needs, goals, aspirations, and what I think would most help the student to grow. For someone who has never traveled before, I would suggest starting by visiting a place where the student is familiar with the language primarily spoken in the area. For example, if the student only speaks English, I may suggest traveling to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or England. I would put Australia and New Zealand at the top of that list because I lived in Australia for five years, am married to an Aussie, and can offer sound advice for traveling in those countries.

For those not able or willing to travel so far from home, I would suggest spending some time with an indigenous tribal community within the U.S. or Canada to gain insights into different cultural traditions and get a better understanding of how the legacy of colonization still affects communities in the U.S. and Canada today.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

My first semester of college was a bit of a shock for me. Not only did I attend college on the opposite side of the U.S. from where I was born and raised, but I found out quickly that I had not adequately prepared myself for the rigor and pace of my college courses. I had chosen to be a biology major, even though I had not taken any advanced science classes in high school. I had a lot of catching up to do to get to the point where my college professors expected biology majors to be.

When I entered college, I excitedly joined three student organizations on campus and the cheerleading squad. After my first semester of college coursework, I found that my grades were suffering because I was overcommitted and already feeling burned out. My biggest failure was my C- in Calculus I, which was almost low enough to cause me to lose my scholarship. I knew that my study habits had to change, and so did my priorities.

The next semester, I quit the cheerleading squad, took a step back in the clubs I was in, and made my coursework my top priority. I visited my professors during their office hours for extra help, sought out help from classmates and peer tutors, and spent more time preparing myself for class by reading assigned texts more carefully. Because I changed my study habits and priorities, my second semester grades were excellent, and despite my disappointing grade in Calculus I the previous semester, I passed Calculus II with an A.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I went into the field of education because I thought that it was the best field to be in if I wanted to create serious change in the world. I did not expect the field to be as controlled by the world of politics. This was a disappointment for me, because after studying teaching and practicing my techniques through tutoring, I found that the outcomes for our students, after receiving an education in many U.S. schools, is incomplete and inconsistent with the goals we have for our children.

We place our children in school hoping they will become independent and critical thinkers with healthy self-esteems who are compassionate and ethical individuals. Many students, however, come out of school feeling lost because of their lack of academic preparation for the working or tertiary education worlds and our schools' failure to foster emotional intelligence in the classroom. There are some schools that do consider the whole child when creating curriculum (e.g. Waldorf education), but these still can fall short in bolstering students' self-esteems and individuality because of the nature of teaching larger-than-optimum class sizes (seven students is ideal according to some research) and the conditional behaviorist techniques rampant in American culture.

I still think that fostering critical thought and confidence in children so they are empowered to create change in the world is an important facet of education, but I think our current mainstream education system is, generally-speaking, not meant to create critical thinkers who create change, but actually is meant to create adults who will work within the system and maintain the status quo.

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