Engagement, School Community, Teaching

The Pedagogy of the Margins

On a recent trip to Chicago, I toured an old church built in the late 1800s. At the front of the church, an ancient Bible lay open. The pages of the Bible were decorated with intricate pictures and calligraphy. Looking at it, I marvelled at the detailed work, the perfection and visual beauty of the pages that lay before me. According to theological historians, the first copies of the Bible were created by monks who would spend up to five years transcribing older copies. These monks worked in seclusion, developing ornate and detailed calligraphic fonts and artwork to decorate their transcription of the text. A lesser known detail surrounding this work is the human weariness the monks experienced in transcribing the biblical texts. Apparently when they grew weary of rewriting the Bible, they used the margins of the pages to express themselves. The monks were known to write complaints about their tired hands, compose poetry to the monastery cat, release “less-than-holy” thoughts, and poke fun at themselves and their worlds. Through the margins, the monks expressed themselves and their personhood. The margins offered a space where the “hidden” voices of these monks could come to fullness.

Educational researchers Denzin and Lincoln suggest that over the last decades, education and educational research has moved from embracing a dominant narrative to a broader acceptance of a variety of narratives – narratives that are drawn from what was once considered the “margins” (the immigrant experience, Aboriginal voices, queer and “othered” stories, to name a few).[1] This shift, they say, is consistent with society’s (and education’s) evolution from post-modernism to post-experimentalism.

According to Denzin and Lincoln, the task of post-experimentalism is to imagine appropriate pedagogies that will allow us to embrace and work with the rich variety of narratives in the post-modern world. However, the difficulty within an educational context becomes readily apparent. How do these narratives become authentic voices within education? How do educators develop pedagogies to support non-dominant narratives? How does education move from centred and traditional pedagogies to decentred ones? A variety of educators offer suggestions to move education forward on this journey.

In their Handbook of Public Pedagogy, Educators Sandin, Schultz, and Burdick explore the idea of public pedagogy and its influence on our educational life.[2] Public pedagogy, they say, acknowledges that much of how we are educated occurs outside of our traditional educational institutions (within the margins). They suggest that the hierarchy of traditional education – housed in standards, traditionalism, and academic rhetoric – should be countered by the more progressive nuances of public pedagogy, which offers opportunities for personal and public transformation, democracy, and social justice less readily available through traditional pedagogies.

A variety of authors featured in the Handbook allude to the powerful discourses evident within the margins of society. Williams discuses the idea that hip-hop’s “nonsensical” form of entertainment, which glorifies violence, consumerism, and hyper-masculinity, offers counterhegemonic voices, autobiographical memory, and a variety of youth narratives. Sandlin and Milam suggest that “culture-jamming” (the act of resisting and recreating commercial culture in an act of reform) is a form of political theatre and discourse for society. MacGillivray and Curwen discuss the idea that tagging (or graffiti art) is a social practice with its own literacy. Springgay and Freedman discuss the relationship between artistic space and the ability to live fully in everyday life. Intrinsic to the work of these educators is the idea that non-traditional and non-centred pedagogies can provide important insights into how we can embrace narratives from the margins.

On the same trip to Chicago I visited the inner-city community where I began my teaching career. I wandered under the El Train tracks and examined the colourful and graphic graffiti that covered the dark under-sides of the concrete bridges. I explored the industrial area by my old home where depictions of urban life covered factory walls and abandoned storage containers. I wandered through the community, imagining the lives of the “taggers” (graffiti artists) who crafted this graffiti and our human need for voice and place. Many schools move by bells and schedules, curriculum documents, and standardized assessments. Many schools operate within the centred and traditional pedagogies. Movement within the margins is reserved for social justice clubs or for the occasional teacher who adopts alternative strategies.

As our society evolves, I wonder who we would attract to school and what colourful and graphic voices (both teacher and student!) would emerge if we were to decentre our educational methodologies and let the margins become centre.

[1] N. Denzin and Y. Linoln, eds., The Landscape of Qualitative Research: Theories and Issues. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003).

[2] J. Sandlin, B. Schultz, and J. Burdick, eds., Handbook of Public Pedagogy: Education and Learning Beyond Schooling (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009).

Meet the Expert(s)

Sheila Giesbrecht

Student Success Consultant, Manitoba Education

Dr. Sheila Giesbrecht is an educator who is interested in program evaluation, social innovation and supporting students within low socioeconomic contexts.

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