This year, Victoria University has begun offering a Graduate Certificate course in Restorative Justice. Last week, Dr. Tom Noakes-Duncan delivered a fascinating class on Restorative Pedagogy, raising the question, “How should restorative practices be taught?”
He introduced the old paradigm of teaching, often referred to as the Transmission Model. The teacher transfers knowledge to the students as if he/she were “pouring water into an empty vessel.” Advancements in teaching have certainly been made, but interestingly this still describes the model of teaching used at many major universities around the world, with the professor at the front of the classroom delivering a lecture to a group students who diligently take notes, recording the transmitted information.
From the viewpoint of a restorative framework, there are a few problems with this education model. The first is that it is hierarchical. Whereas restorative approaches prioritize equal voice and emphasize the facilitation of a space where all voices are valued, the traditional classroom values and creates space for the teacher’s voice above all others. Additionally, the traditional classroom structure encourages a passive role for students, a conformist approach to learning, and sometimes an adversarial sense of competition resulting from the grading structure of the course. All of these qualities contradict the participatory, individualized, and collaborative nature of restorative processes.
If you look at the structure of a traditional classroom, there are several similarities to a courtroom. The structure of each room reinforces relationships of power. In both rooms, there is one person of authority (the judge or teacher) who determines what is relevant and what is correct. In both structures, a limited number of people are given the opportunity to speak, and all communication is addressed to the authority figure, not to peers.
Personally, I have been fortunate to receive a different sort of education, one in which student creativity was prized and I always felt there was a space for my voice in the classroom. I attended a Waldorf school as a child and went to a small Liberal Arts college in Colorado. However, the majority of educational experiences, particularly at the university level, are still characterized by a more traditional lecturing method.
As the restorative justice movement increasingly expands to touch additional areas of civil life, it is necessary for us to re-think the structure of the learning environment. What learning structure would communicate and reinforce the restorative values of respect, equal voice, and relationship? How can we better value the perspectives of the students in the room in addition to the teacher? How can education encourage the development of empathy in students? In the words of Dr. Noakes-Duncan, how can we develop a “proactive relational pedagogy?”
This is a big question, but I think it lends a helpful value structure and a basic framework to the task of educational reform. A good starting point is in the integration of circle practice in classrooms. Circles are used to build relationships, to establish classroom norms, to respond to issues, and also to deepen learning and promote reflection. Circles bring student voice into the learning experience.
We have historically shaped our education system to fill societal needs (here is a great TED Talk on how education has been shaped by the need to produce factory workers). I would argue that our greatest societal need at this point in history is empathy and a restorative lens offers tools and guidance to re-shape our education system to meet that need.
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