Funds of Knowledge


by Aaron Vanderwerff -
Families Building Circuits

Both Papert and Freire truly resonate with much of what I find myself thinking and talking about when I think about my own philosophy of teaching; it has been refreshing to read both of these reflections on education and think about how they reflect my own thoughts and practices. 

The video that Susanna shared also showed this intersection, although I find it interesting that even those who deeply believe that lecturing should not be the core of our teaching still end up giving "speeches" to each other to share their points.

We still use the banking model of education as our dominant model - with teachers depositing knowledge in a students' mind.  Papert asked us to think about who defines what constitutes a discipline, in other words, what is Physics and how is it taught.  He posited that we continue to teach (even 30 years later) the same Physics courses that were developed around the technology of paper and pencil which are focused on solving word problems and carrying out labs with already identified answers.  Instead, he challenges us to reimagine our disciplines and what students can now do because of new technology so that students both lead the vision of what they are studying and so that they will deeply understand what they are learning.  Too many students are learning algorithms and skills without understanding the true meaning of what they are learning because that learning is decontextualized.  Contextualized student driven learning will be the driver for students to understand the math that surrounds us.

I read Freire in my teacher education program, but it took on a much deeper meaning now that I have been a teacher for many years; I have worked with low-income students for over ten years but I still have questions about how this looks in my own school setting.  As a part of my credentialing program, we completed a "Funds of Knowledge" project which asked us to interview/observe/visit a student and their family to learn more about their own knowledge of the world and learn to see the assets they have.  Clearly this project was created to help us to reject the deficit model that many people have about the poor; in addition, the project was intended to help us to see that our students and families had resources that related to our content.  For me, the connection to the humanities and the more philosophical and political issues Freire discusses was clear, but what about Algebra II and Physics? 

After visiting and talking with my student and his family, it was clear that they had a strong fund of knowledge, that education was extremely important to them, and that the deficit model was indeed faulty.  I believe now, as I did then, that all of my students can learn Physics and in general my classes are taught in a way that encourages collaboration, critical thinking, and conceptual understanding.  Students learn by doing and learn through understanding not memorization or algorithm.  But the family that I visited did not know too much about Physics and I would guess that if asked (for example), they would have had Aristotelean models of motion, not Newtonian models and that without my  guidance their son would not have come to understand the Newtonian model of motion.  So, my question is, how do areas of study like Physics and Algebra II fit into a Pedagogy of the Oppressed? My student had a strong knowledge of the world around him, but he would not have learned about much about Physics without my guidance - even if that guidance is minimal and values my student's own construction of knowledge rather than just transmitting it.

In Freire's description of a problem-posing education he states that students and teachers must learn from each other.  It is through activities like open-ended design and making where I have seen this happen most clearly.  With 25+ students in a class pursuing different projects with different areas of focus, it isn't long before they exceed my understanding in many areas and I start to learn from them.  In addition, these projects drive them to pursue understandings of more formalized knowledge (e.g. engineering, math, physics) so that they can better design their next project or so they can explain what they are doing to others. 

"For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, men cannot truly be human.  Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restles, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other."

Finally, Freire says that "Liberation is a praxis" and this makes me think about how we can push our students to truly "[reflect] upon their world in order to transform it".  How can students use what they have learned to bring about changes to our society to lessen oppression?  In today's context it seems that part of changing that equation is about technology; but it isn't just about access to technology, it is about who controls the technology.  The activities that we are embarking on with our students allow them to own their technology and use it to level the playing field.  In my own microcosm, thinking back to the funds of knowledge project, I think that I also need to do a better job of pulling parents into our program.  So much of what we do in our design and making program plays into strengths that our families have as well as areas that they would be interested in learning more about if opportunities were presented to them.