Where we are now: Flux Pedagogy

April 7, 2020
An illustration of key points in this article.

Illustration by Dr. Jane Shore

“Everything is in a state of flux, including the status quo.” Robert Byrne

Students have unprecedented concerns about their academic lives and career trajectories. They are worried about their well-being and that of their families and communities. Many have had to move under duress, some are in interim housing, others are unable to return to their states or countries given travel restrictions. Some are separated from their loved ones. Concerns about coursework and research include participant health, issues of access and recruitment, lost ability to travel, funding, and library access.

How can we shift our practice to support our students’ whole selves as they work their way through the rest of the semester? Penn GSE’s Sharon Ravitch has been thinking about what she is calling flux pedagogy: the integration of relational and critical pedagogy frameworks into a transformative teaching approach in times of radical flux. If you are curious, Ravitch wrote a blog post where she begins to explore these ideas in depth

None of these are new concepts are new—Trauma-informed pedagogy; emergent design, student-centered, active teaching; inquiry as stance; critical pedagogy; racial literacy pedagogy; and brave space pedagogy. When integrated, they constitute a responsive and reflexive pedagogical framework during this moment of pandemic crisis.

Here Ravitch shares the model she has just developed for this critical time, and suggested practices to try this week and beyond:

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy

During the pandemic, it’s vital to understand that while our students are collectively traumatized, all traumas are not the same and do not land the same ways. While the pandemic is shared trauma, it lands into the lives of already-vulnerable populations (including some of our students and their families and communities) in ways that can cause more severe diffusion effects. As well, some students already have trauma histories separate from COVID-19 that must be considered in relation to current shared challenges. 

Right now students need a place to name and process their trauma in community. This is a necessary foundation for all other kinds of learning and thought partnership to happen—so create the conditions for this each session with a warm check-in, compassionate hellos, and state the need for everyone to engage in self-care.

A responsive approach to communication with students about our classes and collective situation is vital right now. For example, look at these suggested revisions to a syllabus from Brandon Bayne, Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:   

No one signed up for this.

Not for the sickness, not for the social distancing, not for the sudden end of our collective lives and collaboration together on campus.

Not for an online class, not for teaching remotely, not for learning from home, not for learning new technologies under duress, not for limited access to learning materials.

Need advice for moving a college course online? Here are the basics.

The humane option is the best option.

We will prioritize kindness and supporting each other as humans.

We will prioritize simple solutions that make sense for the most.

We will prioritize sharing resources and communicating clearly.

Don’t try to do the same thing online.

Some assignments are no longer possible.

Some expectations are no longer reasonable.

Some objectives are no longer valuable.

Foster intellectual nourishment, social connection, and personal accommodation.

Accessible asynchronous content for diverse access, time zones, and contexts.

Optional synchronous discussion to learn together and combat isolation.

Remain flexible and adjust to the situation.

No one knows where this is going and what we’ll need to adapt.

Everyone needs support and understanding in this unprecedented moment.

Other Suggested Practices:

  • Notice students’ body language, eye contact, and general state of wellness and engagement. Check for signs of self-care, anxiety, withdrawal.
  • Send brief, open-ended questionnaires or a single writing prompt asking students to prioritize their most pressing questions, needs, ideas, concerns, etc. Follow up with individual students as needed.
  • Work to familiarize yourself with trauma-informed pedagogy so that you come to understand trauma more complexly.
  • Attune yourself to trauma—your own trauma, students’ trauma, and the vicarious trauma that some of our students face in their community-based research and practice in schools or other internship sites.

Emergent Design, Student-Centered, Active Teaching

For the social-emotional health and well-being of your students, actively consider stress levels and life changes while planning each class, sending out communications about changes in the syllabus or assignments judiciously and with empathy. Specifically, be mindful of how a student’s situation may influence their ability to collaborate on group projects.

Suggested Practices:

  • Engage in active listening and perspective-taking.
  • Re-envision communication and process norms to push into power asymmetries.
  • Ask students what they need as a group. Group discussion of online norms is helpful.
  • Discuss reciprocity of efforts and supports within the group to set norms for groupwork.
  • Learning is embodied. Remember to breathe, give breaks, honor physicality even when the class is online. For me, I began my classes this week for the first time ever with a deep breathing and visualization exercise.
  • Consider students with learning differences and physical disabilities and check in with them proactively and ongoingly. Be sure to do your ethical due diligence.
  • Provide structure amidst chaos. Abide by start and end times, share a clear agenda, set up breakout rooms and other formats that support collaborative learning (do so ahead of time). It is your responsibility to seek out the technical support you need ahead of time. Don’t ask students to take on these responsibilities.
  • Re-assess assignments. Ask: What is the most responsive way to achieve equally valuable learning outcomes given current challenges students face?
  • Re-calibrate the structure of sessions. Discuss: Talk with students (and colleagues) about new ideas, watch videos of different teaching approaches, re-imagine new ways of teaching (e.g., break-out rooms, using chat and screen share functions strategically).
  • Re-imagine assessment. Ask students (and colleagues): What bespoke evaluation frameworks make sense in this moment? One way to do this is to examine the syllabus with students as an artifact of a pre-pandemic mindset in the field and to chart what’s shifted and how these emergences can be addressed as a collective.

Inquiry as Stance

Now more than ever, it’s important to situate yourself as a learner, to examine yourself and your practice through a reflexive lens that helps you to engage, understand, and relate with others through your own curious humility about yourself and your ever-changing practice.

Suggested Practices:

  • Situate yourself as a learner in relation to becoming an online community of practice. Introduce and ongoingly communicate your learner stance by trying phrases such as, “I don’t know,” “thank you for teaching me that,” and “we’re all learning.”
  • Listen carefully to a range of students to understand the macro and micro socio-political forces present in their educational experiences during COVID-19. This means focusing on issues of structural inequity and intersectional social identities and how they are lived and playing out right now, including in schools and workplaces.
  • Consider your own communication style to gain deeper insights into how others perceive you. Remember that understanding has less to do with what is said or intended as it does in how the messaging is perceived, which is mediated by culture and context.
  • ALWAYS REMEMBER: To be aware of and sensitive to possible mental health issues given their ubiquity as well as to the suffering and alienation that students may feel related to the imposter syndrome. 

Critical Pedagogy

Critical pedagogy positions students as learner-citizens who can critically evaluate the political nature of knowledge, education, and pedagogy and develop critical consciousness as well as the skills and tools of emancipation from oppression in their own and others’ lives (Freire, 1970; hooks, 1993).

Suggested Practices:

  • Start and/or end sessions with semi-structured storytelling. What connections can the class find between the course material and the pandemic through personal narratives?
  • Remember, storytelling can be a means of learning, confirming, and/or contesting reality, building and preserving community, and conveying knowledge, values, beliefs, and emotions in real-time. Storytelling allows us to co-construct the conditions in which we and our students can consider re-storying ourselves by learning to re-frame and re-index this current COVID experience with ever-new and more critical insights generated by equity-focused dialogue and reflection.

Racial Literacy

Everyone’s experience of the pandemic is shaped by pre-existing social identities. Don’t assume your experience is similar to your students, or that their experiences are similar to each other. That makes this a good time to engage the work Penn GSE's Howard Stevenson has done on racial literacy, which is the ability to read, recast, and resolve racially stressful encounters and identity-related stress more broadly (Stevenson, 2014).

Suggested Practices:

  • Introduce storytelling as a useful method for practicing recasting and resolving identity-related stress stories and experiences. Create a forum for shared storytelling in relation to identity-related stress and COVID. As a class, reflect on the process and see what it helped the group to develop in terms of 1) self-awareness and reflexivity; 2) inter- and intra-personal insight; 3) relational acumen and authenticity, 4) comfort ambiguity and discomfort, 5) mindfulness and presence, and 6) empathy, perspective-taking, and compassion.
  • Model and teach racial literacy no matter what else you’re teaching. For example, attune yourself to the norm that students of color are often expected to do emotional labor for white people in classes, the imposition of white fragility, and so on.
  • Address inequities and microaggressions—including new kinds that stem from COVID-related assumptions—as they arise during a course session (e.g., one student makes an assumption about another student based on social identity). If you realize this happened after a session ends, be sure to bring it into the group in the next meeting.
  • Work to learn in each class, from each student, where you may be missing the mark. This requires opening yourself up to feedback. For example, share that you’re working on your non-binaried gender language or language to refer to minoritized populations and invite students to correct you.

 Brave Space Pedagogy

Brave spaces refer to a set of communication and process norms that invite authentic and critical dialogic engagement. When discussing issues that some may find difficult, uncomfortable, or challenging or in which people tightly hold onto strong beliefs, a typical response is to create “safe spaces” for dialogue—which is thought by some to mean a place where everyone feels comfortable enough to share their opinions and experiences, feelings, ideas, concerns openly. However, the concept of “safe spaces” is often not what it seems; what feels safe to one person might feel overly polite, inauthentic, invalidating, or negligent to another.

In strong contrast to safe spaces, brave space pedagogy requires more authentic dialogue and the co-construction of equitable and critically inclusive norms from and for the group (Arao & Clemens, 2013). Brave spaces require group bravery as well as ongoing instructor modelling and engagement so that groups can discuss issues at the heart of education in ways that go deeper than what is typically shared and discussed given that institutional communication norms are typically built upon Western, white middle-class sensibilities (Ravitch & Carl, 2019). 

Comparing Safe and Brave Spaces

Safe Spaces

Brave Spaces

Prioritize notions of politeness of some

Prioritize honesty and authenticity for all

Place primacy on a socially -and positionally-constructed idea of comfort when discussing difficult issues, comes with invisible rules

Acknowledge discomfort is inevitable in discussing difficult issues and invite it into the space as a constructive process/experience

Can lead to defensiveness, lack of authenticity and reflexivity, and deflection

Value risk taking, vulnerability, learning and being challenged to reflect

Narrowly define safety, usually stemming from a dominant White male middle class ableist perspective that is imposed as a normative backdrop

Contend that safety means different things to different people/groups and attend to the ways individuals see/experience it in order to reach group understanding and norms

Tend not to prepare participants for engaging in difficult conversations, reinforce “taboo topics” and marginalization of POC

Prepare groups for difficult conversations, develop understandings of critical dialogic engagement as professional development

(Adapted from Ravitch & Carl, 2019)

The very act of exploring the concept of a brave space marks the beginning of a new group dynamic as it brings an acknowledgement of what anyone who’s marginalized in the room already knows: only people with more social and/or institutional power get to decide what constitutes appropriate communication (Arao & Clemens, 2013).

Suggested Practices:

  • Move away from the inauthentic language and concept of safe spaces, explicate to students why you are choosing to take this equity stance.
  • Introduce Brave Space Pedagogy: Have students read “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue around Diversity and Social Justice” and come to the next session prepared to co-create inclusive and affirming group norms together.
  • Prepare to facilitate Brave Space norm-setting with the group. Understand that changing norms requires emotional and cultural intelligence, which require practice.
  • Foster critical dialogic engagement and authentic collaboration by promoting opportunities for structured collaboration on and offline that approach equity and power as central to all conversations, learning, and dynamics. Model this.

Our students’ learning experiences and well-being during COVID-19 are our responsibility. It’s vital that we 1) approach our students’ (and our own) emotional well-being as central; 2) help students to traverse complex systems; 3) work to build relational trust with and between students; and 4) view pedagogical flexibility as an ethical stance, wherein everyone’s knowledges and insights are actively called into play in this time of chaos and collective vulnerability. This vulnerability, if we harness it with clarity and vision, can help us to move ourselves and each other into our most flexible and humanizing pedagogies—the pedagogies of hope and love (Freire, 1970; hooks, 1993). It is this ethic that will carry us all through, together.

“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” Thich Nhat Hanh 



Arao, B. & Clemens, K. (2013). “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue around Diversity and Social Justice.” In The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Educators, Ed. Lisa M. Landreman (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2013), 135-150.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research for the next generation. New York: Teachers College Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (MB Ramos, Trans.). New York: Continuum, 2007.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ravitch, S.M. & Carl, M.N. (2019). Applied research for sustainable change: A guide for education leaders. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Stevenson, H.C. (2014) Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences that Make a

Difference. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

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