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At dinner last night, a dear friend who has read The New Education:  How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux, said, “I loved the book–but it really didn’t tell me how to teach Martin Heidegger tomorrow.”

Reading at Regulator Bookstore, Durham, NC, Oct 12, 2017

He’s right.  And that’s intentional.  I want each prof to be inspired by the models in the book but also to adapt those to their own classrooms, institutions, and students.

The book ends with “Ten Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your College Experience” (for students anywhere, any time) and “Ten Tips for Transforming Any Classroom for Active, Student-Centered Learning” (for profs, with methods and techniques), but the tips for profs don’t make that final connection between the methods of egalitarian, participatory, radical, active, student-centered, engaged (all synonyms) pedagogy, and actual course content. That’s up to each prof, in each discipline.

But . . .  it’s hard to get started.

It’s daunting to turn a lifetime of assumptions about teaching and learning around, even when you know the research about effective learning.

When you have been trained to be at the head of the class, the font of knowledge, it is difficult to believe that, if you let students take the lead, not only will they deliver good, sophisticated insights to one another–they will all (a) learn more (b) pay more attention (c) retain more and (d) be able to apply it beyond the classroom to their lives far more effectively later.

We have lots of research on this.  This is responsible teaching but, to most of us, it feels irresponsible.  As if we are “not doing our job.”  As Freire and other progressive educators have said “scaffolding” learning–providing the structure in which others learn best–is hard work, conceptually and emotionally–but it is (we all know this) the way we learn everywhere outside of school, it is how we learn our own professorial route to expertise, and, when we are teaching our children anything new, it is how we teach them.

Formal education is not a “natural” way to learn.  It is an authoritarian way.  The last thing the world needs now is classrooms that preach progressive ideas and model authoritarian methods.  Making our classrooms both more effective learning spaces and more equitable–where every student has the opportunity to learn–is the ideal and the idea. 



So let me return to my dear friend at dinner and give some examples of what I might do if I wanted to use radical pedagogy in a class where I was teaching Heidegger, one of the most difficult and oft-debated modern philosophers.   My friend said he had 40 students so these are designed for classes of that size or smaller, although I’ve done all of these in huge groups (including 6000+ IB teachers in the Philadelphia 76ers auditorium for #3 and #4).


Here are SEVEN easy, effective, tested ways to use activist pedagogy teaching, yes, even Heidegger–five of mine plus two more bonus methods sent in by readers:

(1) KEYWORDS:  Assign a Heidegger essay.  Along with the essay, give students a worksheet with, say, twenty words that Heidegger uses in the assigned essay–say, Being, Time, Temporality, Authenticity, Enframing, Being-Towards-Death, etc.; in other words, key concepts or “keywords” that are in Heidegger’s work and that philosophers of Heidegger have spent a lot of time discussing, debating, arguing over–the exceptionally difficult and contested concepts (and Heidegger is always difficult and always contested).

Divide up the words so that each one is assigned to two students who each, independently, write a definition based on the essay.   Keep it easy and low-stakes, 100-200 words at most, and make it clear that, if they give it a decent shot, they will receive credit for the (credit/no credit) assignment.

For the next class, have students bring in their definition of their “keyword.”  Pair them up by keyword and have them read each other’s definition and discuss for 20 minutes, ending with a collaborative, edited definition that they will both sign and turn in.  (“No credit” is reserved for plagiarism, with both parties getting the same “no credit” if the work is not their own:  they will take care of the issue.)

In class, have each pair read their essay out loud to the class and use that definition as the basis for the day’s discussion.  I promise it will be the liveliest conversation on Heidegger all term.

Plus, if you really must lecture, for the next class, you will have their twenty definitions and their discussion and you can have your lecture be a response to their own conversation.  This is engaged, active learning.

Heidegger would be pleased. Remember that in his 1951 book “What Is Called Thinking?” he discussed the principle of “letting-learn.”   He said:  “Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn. The real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than — learning.”

And this: “The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the students. The teacher is far less assured of his [or her] ground than those who learn are of theirs”.



Index card variation: I’m particularly fond of using index cards. Example: You could prepare 40 index cards, two for each keyword and distribute those randomly. Have students write their definitions on one side only, sign their names. In class, they read their definition. Then the other student with the same word reads. You give light feedback. The whole class works in pairs and edits their definition on the back of the index card and you go around again and have one person from each pair read their revised definition.  Let them hand in the cards and you then can see what they wrote and what they revised together.

Lecturing:  If you want to give your Heidegger lecture, the students’ reading and revising and then re-reading of their keywords gives you have a perfect jumping off place for a formal lecture, if you want to give one.  From these 20 keywords that they have defined, you can give your lecture and they will hear it in a new way from having interacted with the material independently, presented their ideas to their classmates, honed them by partnering with another student, and so forth.

Assessment:  If you want to build this method into the structure of the course, you can tell students that, for the midterm (or whatever assessment structure you have set up), you will choose three of these keywords and ask them to define those words.  I promise you will have attentive, engaged discussion.  Bonus:  Even a Heidegger specialist might end up learning something they haven’t thought about before.

Technology:  If you are tech savvy or want to teach digital collaboration and online interactivity, you can use a collaborative, online tool such as a Google Doc, put up the 20 words, and let two students work on each word on the Google Doc and then, the next day, you can still go through and discuss each definition.  Again, it will be a lively class because the students have staked their own claim to defining Heidegger–no small task

This exercise can be adapted to virtually any difficult text in any field with difficult texts! I guarantee this will be a lively discussion.  You can adjust this to any class size.

(2) SIMPLEST INVENTORY METHOD:  A student taught me this method last year and I have since used it many times in different situations–in program meetings, in consulting work, in classes, in lectures.

It is surprisingly effective and moving and helps the shy student and calms down the extrovert and makes the case that even when we think we read the same “text” we all actually read differently.   It takes 2 minutes at the beginning of a class.

Have students write down, from the Heidegger essay (or any text assigned), the one sentence that they are still thinking about—they could like it, hate it, or be baffled by it but for some reason it is memorable to them.  Do this rigorously: they have to physically write out one sentence on an index card that they will sign and hand in.  It has to be legible.

Go around the room and have everyone read their card out loud, no interruption, no interpretation.  If two people have the same sentence, no matter.  Let them read it out loud.  Everyone has a voice.

It’s a remarkable experience.   Students rarely listen to one another.  Their ears are trained on their prof.  That means they miss a lot.  They filter a lot.  Including themselves.  And that means (we have the data) they tend to hear mostly white, male, affluent, graduate-school bound fellow students who most resemble their prof.

After each student reads, leave a pause,make sure everyone is listening. Then go to the next one.  Prof can take notes.  Or have each student hand in the card after they read theirs.  This emphasizes the listening.  It also means you can arrange the cards and base what you, as a prof, say based on what your students have written.  Again, you are disrupting hierarchies and attending.  They will read differently.


(3) THINK PAIR SHARE  The old stand by.  Prof asks a specific question about the Heidegger reading and sets a timer for

(a) 90 seconds (no more) and has everyone write out an answer that they will read.  That’s think.

(b) Each student “pairs” with another.  They take turns.  One person reads only what is on the card.  The other is utterly silent.  The second person reads to silence.  Then they put their cards down and revise, combine, collaborate, and come up with one statement, written out, that one or the other (they need to toss a coin or only the white, male, affluent, grad-school heading partner will read, statistically that is:  sociologists of education have studied all this).  90 seconds.  2 minutes tops for who exercise.  If it is longer, it becomes high stakes and is not inspiring but intimidating and power dynamics take over in a bad way.

( c)  Go around the room and have winner of coin toss read the card ourt loud.

Prof collects cards again–once again they are signed–and can use those to respond.


(4) EXIT TICKET.  After traditional lecture or discussion, everyone takes 90 seconds and, before they leave they classroom, they write on index card “The one thing we talked about today that will keep me up at night.”  If there is nothing they’ll be thinking about after they class ends, then they need to write: “What we should have talked about today and that would have kept me up tonight.”   90 seconds.  Signed.

Think about the learning psychology of this exercise.  It’s profound.  Your point in teaching Heidegger (or any text you choose) is to make a difference in the way they think.  If you aren’t reaching them, you are giving the opportunity to contribute an idea that would make a difference.  If they have nothing, they receive nothing–but you have offered them a precious opportunity that we rarely offer our students.

In all of these methods:  (1) Everyone has a voice.  (2) Everyone is responsible for participation in a low stakes way  (3) The prof has an inventory of all ideas in the class  (4) Mechanically, the signed cards are roll.  You don’t need to do that tedious task separately.  (5) The shy student can shine  (6) Also, statistically, minoritized students will be represented and we know that can be life-changing  (7) You have great starting places for your next lecture or discussion or assignment: you have a way to see what they understand, what they don’t, what they are missing, what matters to them, what does or does not make Heidegger “count” in their lives, what they are passionate about.

It all motivates. It all works.  It’s all good.   Enjoy.  And here’s one more . . .


(5) LET THE STUDENTS COME UP WITH THE NEXT RADICAL PEDAGOGY IDEA.  THEY WILL!  After you do the first four, hand out index cards and use TPS or Exit Ticket to have them invent the next participatory exercise the class will do together.   It works brilliantly.  That’s how I came up with all of these!  🙂



I inked to this blog on Facebook and some other profs offered their exercises.

(6) THEMATIC REMIX OF A SYLLABUS  From Prof Elizabeth Freeman, UC Davis: This quarter I am teaching a kind of generic American Novel to 1900 class. I could have made it thematic, and maybe I will in the future, but I wanted them to track changes in the form of the novel. So for thematic material, I had them use our first novel to generate 6 themes to track across the remaining 6 novels and then created a Google doc for each theme group to log their reading notes. My hope is that each document will yield both a sense of how a particular theme changes over 100-ish years and a sense of how differently each novel can be interpreted. We shall see!

(7) BURNING QUESTIONS:   From Prof A. G.: “My variation on TPS for challenging readings (no Heidegger for me, but lots of poco theory for undergrads with no or limited exposure to theory before): write down the one burning question you feel like you need an answer to in order to continue reading this text. Then we go around the room, read the questions aloud, and answer/discuss them one by one. Sometimes I have one student transcribe the questions. Once or twice I’ve entered them into our class blog on the computer in the classroom while students watch me type, and then they can reference those questions later. I facilitate the conversation, draw connections, provide historical background as necessary, but students help each other out too and also take great comfort in the realization that they’re often working through the same issues. Of course this only works with a small-ish class. I really, really struggle with larger numbers when it’s no longer possible for me to interact with each and every student during a class session. I’ve had much less success with Google Doc group note assignments – still thinking through how to execute them as successfully as you and others have.”



As I’ve said many times:  “You cannot counter structural inequality with good will. You need to create new structures that support equality.”  That is as true in the way we structure our classrooms as anywhere else; if we were doing a great job at communicating our vaunted “liberal” and “progressive ideals,” the leaders of our profession would not have the same racial and gender demographic as do Fortune 100 companies. Why is this happening–and what can we ourselves–each and every one of us, do to rethink how we teach to ensure our classrooms are not key sites of inequality?

Recommended reading on this larger topic:  Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of Meritocracy; Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al, Presumed Incompetent.

And for a round-up of forty studies specifically about gender and inequality in higher education, here’s our annotated bibliography: “Gender Bias in Academe”

(“You cannot counter structural inequality with good will. You need to create new structures that support equality.”)



Special thanks to Professor Eileen Chow of Duke University for the photograph taken during a reading at The Regulator.








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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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