My introduction to feminist pedagogy took place as an undergraduate student in an upper-level geography class at the University of British Columbia. The final assignment for this class involved conducting a community-based research project. Students were assigned small groups, in which they partnered with community organizations to design and carry out research based on the organization’s needs. My small group partnered with a local food bank, which asked us to investigate how the food bank could partner with community gardens in order to contribute to food security in Vancouver.
This learning experience was transformative. Ultimately, it shifted my thinking about social life in Vancouver and motivated me to pursue my interests through research. Importantly, through this class, I was introduced to spaces within the university that were orientated towards building community and social action. This is one explicit intention of feminist pedagogy. In classrooms grounded in feminist values, “there is a need and desire to move learning beyond the walls of the classroom” (Shrewsbury 1993, p. 171). Students are encouraged to extend theory to action, and then action is brought back into the classroom in order to inform theory.
What is feminist pedagogy?
My initial experience with feminist pedagogy not only shaped my research, it laid the foundations for my approach to teaching and learning. Broadly, feminist pedagogy is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that is grounded in feminist values. It is therefore more appropriate to speak about feminist pedagogies, and then to highlight what these different approaches to teaching and learning have in common. Common principles of feminist pedagogies include:
- Resisting hierarchy and empowerment: In a traditional university classroom, the instructor holds power over the class and knowledge is passed from instructor to students. In contrast, feminist pedagogy involves the de-centering of power. Instructor and students exist in a “symbiotic” relationship and knowledge is constructed through discussion, dialogue, and critical inquiry. Importantly, students are also invited to play a role in influencing the design of the class and to participate in the delivery of content.
- Building community and using personal experience as a resource: Like a traditional university classroom, many classrooms grounded in feminist values continue to rely on traditional sources of information, such as textbooks and academic journals. However, feminist pedagogy also involves drawing on students’ and teachers’ own experiences as learning materials. This promotes critical thinking, as students are challenged to bridge scholarship with “real-life.” Drawing on personal experience in order to deepen and widen understanding of course content also encourages students to value difference and diversity.
- Transformative learning: This is the principle that was put into action in my first experience with feminist pedagogy as an undergraduate student. Traditional university classrooms may provide limited space for critical thinking and problem solving. However, in classrooms grounded in feminist values, teaching and learning aim to shift thinking in new directions. Students are asked to examine either their own experiences or social phenomena in new and critical ways. This often involves creating learning experiences that draw attention to real world problems or power differences that contribute to inequality.
Importantly, feminist pedagogy is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that shapes both what we teach and how we teach it. But how can this translate into classrooms that might, at first glance, not appear conducive to such approaches? In other words, are there practical applications of the principles of feminist pedagogy in all university classes? Or, is feminist pedagogy best reserved for certain levels of learning and certain disciplines?
Feminist pedagogies in practice
Research suggests that there is space for feminist pedagogy in all university classrooms and at all levels of learning; however, what this looks like in practice is likely to vary significantly. Here are some examples of feminist pedagogy in practice, along with links to research in support of this practice:
- Feminist pedagogy can be used to change teaching strategies and deepen learning outcomes in engineering. For example, Cashman and Eschenbach (2004) use labs to teach students how to work in small-groups to design their own approach to solving real-world problems. They ask students to solve problems that are community-based or locally relevant. Cashman and Eschenbach (2004) have found that this empowers students to extend their classroom learning into the community – some students even become involved in community projects or local politics. This approach also encourages students to approach exams and homework assignments using real-life scenarios.
- Feminist pedagogy can be used in psychology education to de-centre power in the classroom, contribute to more diverse curriculum, and to guide students in developing their feminist consciousness. For example, Robinson-Keilig et al. (2014) adopted the photovoice research methodology for a classroom project on violence against women. The project encouraged self-disclosure of students’ own lived experiences, as a means of integrating student knowledge into classroom content. The authors of this study found that this particular project facilitated critical consciousness, as students became more aware of the multiple systems of oppression that exist in society and became empowered via new insights and self-reflection to make change.
- Feminist pedagogy can be integrated into economic classrooms to include students in the learning process and urge students to grow as critical thinkers. For example, Nelson and Goodwin (2005) argue that economics learning materials often do an inadequate job at integrating feminist concerns into introductory economics courses. Accordingly, they have published alternative learning materials that introduce students to neoclassical economic principles but also make room for ecological and feminist concerns. They argue that this deepens students’ understanding of economics, as they are exposed to less mainstream debates about the interconnection between economics, gender, and the environment.
Ultimately, if we understand feminist pedagogy as a way of teaching and learning that empowers students to be reflective and critical learners and to apply their learning through social action, it is possible to imagine how this approach is relevant across the university and beneficial to students, regardless of discipline.
Crawley, S. L., Lewis, J. E., & Mayberry, M. (2008). Introduction—feminist pedagogies in action: Teaching beyond disciplines. Feminist Teacher, 19(1), 1-12.
GEA – Gender and Education Association (n.d.). Feminist Pedagogy.
Shrewsbury, C. M. (1997). What is Feminist Pedagogy? Women’s Studies Quarterly, 25(1/2), 166-173.
Charis Enns is a Graduate Instructional Developer in CTE and a PhD Candidate at the University of Waterloo and the Balsillie School of International Affairs.
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