The Radicalization of Pedagogy: Anarchism, Geography, and the Spirit of Revolt

The Radicalization of Pedagogy: Anarchism, Geography, and the Spirit of Revolt


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The Radicalization of Pedagogy: Anarchism, Geography, and the Spirit of Revolt by Simon Springer

How do activists learn radical politics? Does the increasing neoliberalisation of education limit the possibilities of transgressive pedagogies? And in what contexts have anarchist geographers successfully shaped alternative pedagogic practices?

Pedagogy is central to geographical knowledge and represents one of the key sites of contact where anarchist approaches can inform and revitalize contemporary geographical thought. This book looks at how anarchist geographers have shaped pedagogies that move towards bottom-up, ‘organic’ transformations of societies, spaces, subjectivities, and modes of organizing, where the importance of direct action and prefigurative politics take precedence over concerns about the state. Examining contemporary and historical case studies across the world, from formal and informal contexts, the chapters show the potential for new imaginaries of anarchist geographies that will challenge and inspire geographers to travel beyond the traditional frontiers of geographical knowledge.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783486700
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 06/16/2016
Series: Transforming Capitalism Series
Pages: 290
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Simon Springer is Associate Professor of Geography at University of Victoria, Canada

Marcelo Lopes de Souza is Professor of Geography at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), Brazil.

Richard J. White is Reader in Economic Geography at Sheffield Hallam University, UK

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The Radicalization of Pedagogy

Anarchism, Geography, and the Spirit of Revolt

By Simon Springer, Marcelo Lopes de Souza, Richard J. White

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2016 Simon Springer, Marcelo Lopes de Souza, and Richard J. White
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-671-7


Towards a Radical Theory of Learning

Prefiguration as Legitimate Peripheral Participation

Joe Curnow

When students enter my classroom in September, they rarely enter as radicals. They are young. They are curious. They have lived in this world for eighteen (or nineteen and sometimes more) years, and they have a nascent understanding that things are not fair, that everyone does not play by the same rules or have access to the same field. Often, by the time they finish university, their worldview is transformed. I wish I could say it is my teaching that rocks their world, but I know that is not where their politicization is rooted. For students who become activists, their political education is in the movement.

So how do people become politicized? How does their engagement in radical politics enable them to develop a critical systemic analysis? More often than not, people become politicized through engagement in communities where particular political analyses and actions are valued and performed collectively. This is certainly true in my own experience of student activism. Sure, course work bolstered my thinking, but the bulk of my learning came through work with fellow student activists as we experimented with new ways of working together to shape policy on our campus and internationally. But how, exactly, did that learning happen?

This chapter starts from the question of how political transformation occurs, both individually and collectively. More significantly, what does this tell us about what and how people learn through their participation in social movements? How does this inform how we, as activists and teachers, think about learning, praxis, and transformation?

In the essential book Anarchism and Education, Judith Suissa (2006) argues that anarchists have not done enough to attend to questions of pedagogy. I agree with her premise and extend it further — I believe anarchists have not done enough to attend to learning itself. Any discussion of pedagogy must begin with questions of learning. Schooling, education, and pedagogy are not the same as learning, and each of these has a unique history and connotation. Anarchist scholars have recently built on decades of critical scholars (Illich 1971; Bowles and Gintis 1976) who have established how schooling and education have been used in the interests of the state and capital rather than in the interests of student learning (DeLeon 2008; Haworth 2012; Armaline 2009). Pedagogy, too, has been implicated in exercises of building compliance in order to rank students for future exploitation. Certainly there are antiauthoritarian and democratic approaches to pedagogy that work to subvert this tendency, including democratic and critical pedagogies that seek to educate and empower generations of critical and engaged community members (White 2010; McLaren 1989; Giroux 1983). Recent scholarship on anarchist pedagogies has highlighted a variety of approaches to anarchist schooling and pedagogies, from the Ferrer school (Suissa 2006) and Paideia school (Fremeaux and Jordan 2012) to Free Skools (Motta 2012; Shantz 2012) and other deschooling experiments (Todd 2012; Noterman and Pusey 2012). These vivid examples of creative work on the ground illuminate possibilities for alternative approaches and start to open space to see that political transformations can emerge through engagement in radical processes. This work is necessary but not yet sufficient for explaining the process of how people learn and transform themselves and their communities.

However, in order to truly theorize an approach to enabling radical praxis, we have to start with an understanding of how people learn. We cannot build effective strategies for enabling critical analysis in action unless we understand how learning happens. Without this foundation, we tend to develop pedagogical strategies that are convenient, rather than effective. Our pedagogical tools tend to be instrumental to other goals. Or worse — we do not attend to any learning process among new participants. Many movements I've been part of expect new members to join up and take on an active role without supporting their integration into the movement or providing them with the information, skills, or community support they need in order to be successful. These are easy mistakes to make, but also easy to avoid by centring pedagogical approaches in a theory of learning that explains how people become able to participate well in the work of building radical alternatives.

In this chapter, I argue that situated learning theory effectively describes learning in social movements and I weave socio-cultural theories of learning together with the concepts of praxis and prefiguration to articulate a theory of learning, radicalization, and transformation that serves anarchist visions of the future. I bring situated learning theory together with theories of praxis and prefigurative action in order to understand how activists learn through legitimate peripheral participation. I argue that through their embodied engagement in prefiguration, understood as a process of enacting the values and political analysis of the group in the day-to-day and strategic processes of the community, movement participants come to understand the underpinning philosophies of their networks, which lead them to engage in increasingly critical forms of action. Prefiguration, then, becomes an active catalyst for shifting strategies to a focus on anti-capitalist and non-hierarchical approaches to justice. In this way prefigurative action can be seen as a type of praxis that occurs through legitimate peripheral participation. This extends academic discussions of praxis to include prefiguration and offers some of the strengths of learning theory to anarchist and other prefigurative social movements.


In activist circles, when we talk about teaching and pedagogy, we tend to gravitate toward the work of Paulo Freire. Discussions of Freire's work and philosophies circulate widely, though unevenly. In activist and social movement work, people often draw on Freirean discussions of praxis, conscientização, and popular education. In the circles I have organized in and conducted research in, praxis is often reduced to the cyclical process of action and reflection. In other cases, it is understood as the popular education spiral (Arnold et al. 1991). These discussions often use praxis as a stand-in for what is understood as radical action. In other activist spaces, we may reduce praxis to a linear process of action and reflection, repeated but not fully integrated into our practices.

In academic spheres, discussions of praxis are de rigueur, but with widely variant application and philosophical attention. Many political theorists have taken up ideas of praxis and political action, including important contributions by Arendt (1958), Castoriadis (1998), Habermas (1973), and many others. Within geography, praxis usually denotes the relationship of theory and practice, particularly in regard to the ways that we know, ask, interpret, and write our research. For decades, feminist geographers have articulated praxis as a process of not only describing and analyzing social relations but also transforming them through research and political engagement (Madge et al. 1997; Nagar and Swarr 2010). Critical and radical geographers build on feminist theorization of praxis, working to produce knowledge that actively challenges relations of oppression and domination (Fuller and Kitchin 2004). Geographic approaches have largely theorized the implications of praxis in terms of our research, rather than our pedagogies, and do not theorize the learning processes of praxis, but rather use it as an aspirational benchmark of radical and accountable scholarship. In recent anarchist scholarship, there are many references to praxis (DeLeon 2008; Haworth 2012; Armaline 2009; Luchies 2014; Springer et al. 2012), but, again, we tend to use praxis as a catch-all to signify that people are learning and becoming more radical and democratic in their work. We do not yet have the tools to understand the process, trace learning, or fully account for the radicalization of participants through social action.

Let's begin, then, by clarifying what we mean by praxis, particularly in the context of learning and teaching. As a starting place, Marx's articulation of praxis holds that consciousness and action are dialectically related as a unity of opposites; they are internally related, mutually determining, and co-constituting (Marx and Engels 1991). This vision of learning challenges views that artificially separate people's thoughts from their experience of the world and instead argues that thought and action are inextricably linked. Praxis is a necessarily social theory that understands the individual and the community as dialectically related and brings a more nuanced view to the social aspects of knowledge production. Within this articulation of thought and action, both are internally related and are spread across people and the material world. Marx and Engels's focus on praxis enables us to think about learning for transformation dialectically, seeing the ways individuals and collectives work to co-produce each other's thoughts and practices and analyzing how they can shift in response to the material conditions locally and trans-locally (1991). Above all, Marx and Engels's theory of the dialectical relation of consciousness and action is about social change; as Marx argued in his theses on Feuerbach, the point of theorization is not just to interpret the world but also to change it (Marx and Engels 1991).

In the seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire builds on Marx's articulation of consciousness and expands it throughout his works (1988). Freire argues that 'people's activity is theory and practice; it is reflection and action' (1988, 119) and defines praxis as 'reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it' (Freire 1988, 36). Freire uses the metaphor of banking to critique cognitivist views of learning that assume teachers can and should benevolently deposit knowledge (a fixed 'thing') into the minds of compliant students. His vision of praxis, by contrast, situates learners and teachers as partners in the joint production of knowledge, which is dynamic, emergent, and rooted in people's lived experiences. Throughout his many works, many of which are mainstays in Leftist (and left-ish) circles, Freire builds upon Marx's notions of praxis, extending them and applying them to political education among oppressed peoples. He argues against the artificial separation of reflection and action, or consciousness and activity, and claims critical reflection is, in itself, action (1988). He calls for education that takes seriously the relationship between people's daily, lived experiences and structures critical reflection in order to sustain further critical reflections that are mobilized to ameliorate systemic oppression in their communities. His vision of praxis has been taken up widely across the field of education, but there is much variation in the way his concepts are implemented.

Paula Allman (2001) argues that many of the authors who claim to integrate Freire's theory of praxis into their analysis and/or teaching miss the mark because they lack a fundamental understanding of the dialectical relationship that underpins the concept of praxis. Praxis in these liberal discussions of learning is often described as reflection and action, where the relation is understood as external and linear, where thought precedes a person's actions (Allman 2001; Carpenter, Ritchie, and Mojab 2013). This vision mistakes thought and action as separate categories that influence rather than mutually determine each other. Thought and action cannot be disarticulated from one another. Freire states clearly that 'praxis implies no dichotomy by which this praxis could be divided into a prior stage of reflection and a subsequent stage of action. Action and reflection occur simultaneously' (1988, 123). Dialectics are of central importance to understanding praxis and the unity of consciousness and action.

Dialectical articulations of praxis are foundational to discussions of learning in action, and in particular, learning political analyses. However, it is hard to operationalize the idea of praxis. As a concept, it does not give us the concrete tools to understand how action is transformed through reflection, to understand when it happens and when it doesn't, or to account for the times when what we talk about it is still not borne out in our actions, either within a campaign locally or extra-locally through our strategies. How, then, can we explain the learning process itself? In the next section, I look to socio-cultural learning theories rooted in the same epistemologies in order to articulate a theory of praxis rooted in learning and transformation.

Socio-cultural Theories of Learning

Socio-cultural theories of learning attend to the actual mechanisms that enable and constrain learning in communities. They focus on the social relations that produce and reproduce the practices of a group of people, as well as the ways people understand the work they are doing. In socio-cultural and situated frameworks, learning can be understood as a process of becoming, both individual and collective, that is always in relation to the practices one learns (Saxe 1991; Nasir and Hand 2006; Esmonde, Curnow, and Riviere 2014).

Many socio-cultural theories of learning share philosophical roots in the work of Lev Vygotsky (1978, 1986). As an early learning theorist and developmental psychologist, Vygotsky theorized the learning process, centring on the social production of meaning. One of his most enduring contributions is the idea of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) (1978), which explains learning as a collaborative process wherein members of the community become able to do things and understand things they could not do independently previously through their engagement in the applied practices in the community. The ZPD is conceptualized as the transitional space where a learner who nearly understands a concept or is almost able to complete a task learns through their co-participation with more competent peers. The collaboration then enables the less experienced learner to master new skills or concepts that had previously been out of reach. For socio-cultural theory, this idea is taken up in different ways (Wertsch 1984; Moll 1992; Chaiklin 2003; Lee and Smagorinsky 2000), but it remains a significant underpinning logic of learning that is driven by collective activity and joint participation as the foundation for building and bolstering skills.

Within the body of socio-cultural learning theories, I have argued that situated learning and legitimate peripheral participation theories offer significant explanatory power for social movement learning (Curnow 2013, 2014a, 2014b). These theories centre on the ways the community creates the conditions for learning, how ideas travel across a group, and how activist identities are continually shaped and reshaped. They are useful conceptual frameworks for social movements because they account for the ways movement actors learn though interactions with the collective of participants, both new and experienced (Kirshner 2008; Ebby-Rosin 2005; Curnow 2013). In social movements, most of what participants learn, in terms of both political philosophies and the tactical approaches, is tacit learning rather than explicit training on the ground. Legitimate peripheral participation provides a conceptual framework for this process of becoming an activist within a particular context. For these reasons, I focus on situated learning as a particular approach within socio-cultural learning in activist communities.


Excerpted from The Radicalization of Pedagogy by Simon Springer, Marcelo Lopes de Souza, Richard J. White. Copyright © 2016 Simon Springer, Marcelo Lopes de Souza, and Richard J. White. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Transgressing Frontiers through the Radicalization of Pedagogy, Simon Springer, Marcelo Lopes de Souza, and Richard J. White / 1. Toward a Radical Theory of Learning: Prefiguration as Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Joe Curnow / 2. Radicalizing Pedagogy: Geography and Libertarian Pedagogy Between the Nineteenth and the Twentieth Centuries, Federico Ferretti / 3. Zapatismo Versus the Neoliberal University: Towards a Pedagogy Against Oblivion, Levi Gahman / 4. Pedagogy in Geographical Expeditions: Detroit and East Lansing, Ronald J. Horvath / 5. Fuller Geographies And The Care-Ful Co-Production of Transgressive Pedagogies, Or ‘Who Cares?’, Kye Askins and Kelvin Mason / 6. Anarchism and Informal Informal Pedagogy: ‘Gangs’, Difference, Deference, Richard McHugh / 7. Destroy the School and Create a Free School: Digging up the Roots of Dominant/Submissive Complexes and Planting the Seeds of Cooperative Social Interaction, Erik Taje / 8. Educating for Earth Consciousness: Ecopedagogy within Early Anarchist Geography, Francisco Toro / 9. Cycling Diaries: Moving Towards an Anarchist Field Trip Pedagogy, Ferdinand Stenglein and Simon Mader / 10. Learning Through The Soles of Our Feet: Unschooling, Anarchism, and the Geography of Childhood, Simon Springer / Index / Notes on Contributors

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