Beyond traditional pedagogy: A critical approach to student meaning making

Melinda Lawlor Skrade, Marquette University


In Wisconsin, every high school student is expected to take a state-mandated American History course as a graduation requirement. Yet, despite the enormous effort invested in teacher preparation, curricular standards, textbook writing, and assessment strategies, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that 60% of American high school students have failed "abysmally" to demonstrate "basic knowledge" and historical understanding of American History. In this qualitative study, I examine my own attempt to develop a critical pedagogical approach, as well as the meaning students made from this pedagogical approach and the ways they acted on their meaning making. This study centers on a one-semester history elective called "The American Dream" and the ways students made meaning from the course one year later. One implication of this study is that a one-semester course situated in a critical approach is too constrained by time to promote extended reflectivity or support long-term change in thinking. Overall, students indicated that grasping and integrating a critical approach took time and each might have benefited from a longer course experience. Further, students noted a lack of curricular cohesion when they moved back into traditional history instruction after the course was completed. Secondly, this study suggests that teachers need to rethink the methodological assumption that meaning making moves in a linear process from "ignorance" to "enlightenment." Thirdly, this study indicates that although a critical approach promotes personal understanding of historical social issues as well as varied levels of reflection, critical awareness did not necessarily lead to enacted change during the span of this project. Much effort was invested in facilitating personal understanding of the social realities behind tacitly accepted democratic principles. Yet, students struggled to act on that understanding. Finally, this study points to the contradictions inherent in the false dichotomy of "traditional pedagogy" vs. "critical pedagogy," by exposing the inherent flaws in conceptualizing traditional pedagogy as dogmatic and critical pedagogy as emancipatory. Without deeper consideration, instructional means, such as journaling, autobiographical projects and circle discussions, may support equally dogmatic ends. Authentic efforts at critical pedagogy by teacher-researchers must be approached with sensitivity to real forces that inhibit action. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)

Recommended Citation

Skrade, Melinda Lawlor, "Beyond traditional pedagogy: A critical approach to student meaning making" (2004). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3133743.