Student-Centered Pedagogy’s Activist Roots

For at least 150 years, Black and feminist educators understood that how one is taught effects how one participates in society.

In 1968, Toni Cade Bambara made a radical decision. At the time, Bambara—writer, activist, and more—was teaching a remedial writing class at the City University of New York. There, she met students who had been subjected to years of educational racism: underfunded schools, substandard conditions, outdated textbooks, and instructors more interested in disciplining students than nurturing their creativity or intellect. (She called this the “criminality of education”).

These students deserved more. They deserved learning that would teach them to navigate an unjust and unequal society, and to transform it. That semester, in a stuffy classroom equipped with minimal resources, Bambara decided to turn the “content, direction, and goals of the course” over to her students. In doing so, she placed her so-called “remedial” students in charge of determining not only what they would learn, but also how and on what terms they would participate in the course.

This decision was shaped by Bambara’s involvement with the movement for community control, whereby Black and Puerto Rican parents seized control of their local public schools in order to change the schools’ racist, colonial, and paternalistic policies. By transferring decision-making power to students, Bambara was an early practitioner of what Cathy Davidson and Christina Katopodis call “cocreating a syllabus with students.” And what was true in Bambara’s classrooms remains so today: as Davidson and Katopodis write in their new book, The New College Classroom, involving students in this planning process allows them to rethink “the assumptions of the educational system they have inherited.”

As Bambara’s teaching makes clear, the student-centered classroom is anything but new. In fact, many of the practices for which Davidson and Katopodis advocate—such as cocreating courses with students and incorporating group projects—have a much longer history. The collaborative classroom was shaped by struggles for social justice, in which women and people of color take center stage. Its history in this country extends back to the Jim Crow era, but its philosophical roots stretch even further back, to precolonial societies.  It became especially popular amidst the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, when activist educators like Bambara drew on the critiques of power emerging from the era’s social movements to develop creative methods for teaching students to advocate for social change. Understanding this vast, liberatory history is crucial for contemporary educators making difficult decisions not only about what to teach, but also how.

“My sister started teaching her first college class,” read the email I received, “and she has no experience/training.” Understandably, this fledgling instructor was having a hard time. The sender wanted to know if I had any resources to help her navigate this new landscape, especially thorny logistical matters like grading. Had The New College Classroom been available at the time, I would have recommended, without hesitation, that she start there.

Beginning to teach college courses with little to no preparation is hardly an anomaly. In fields like history, only 50 percent of PhD students report receiving any pedagogical training in their graduate programs.1 Anecdotal evidence, informal Twitter surveys, and crowdsourced Google Docs suggest that, in many fields, the number formally prepared to teach is much lower.

Enter The New College Classroom, a practical and useful handbook of concrete, everyday teaching practices. In the book’s nine chapters, Davidson and Katopodis guide readers through the nitty-gritty logistics of teaching: things like creating a syllabus, designing assignments, encouraging participation, incorporating group work, and, of course, grading. They demonstrate how educators (across a range of disciplines) can approach these tasks in ways that encourage active, participatory, and student-centered learning. These characteristics are, we’re told, the hallmarks of “the new college classroom.”

As the authors compellingly argue, lectures and exams are 19th-century relics, hangovers from a bygone industrial era in which education was used to turn farmers into white-collar workers. Worse, extensive research has found these antiquated methods to be ineffective, uninspiring, and inequitable. They are effective only for a select handful of students: those from particular socioeconomic backgrounds; those good at memorization; and those who are bold, outspoken, or entitled enough to raise their hand and ask a question.

That’s why Davidson and Katopodis put students at the center of their “new” classroom. They advocate for activities like coauthoring a class constitution, assigning collaborative projects, incorporating peer review, and using contract grading—all of which place students at the helm of their own learning. These student-centered methods encourage deep learning, of both course content and fundamental life skills. They increase motivation. And they create equitable and inclusive learning environments that promote the success of all students.

The student-centered classroom is anything but new.

“Student-centered” refers to the idea that students learn best not when they are following a pre-established course laid out by the instructor, but when they are involved in making decisions about their learning and when course content is connected to their ideas and experiences. The term emerged in the 1920s to describe a paradigm shift away from memorization, discipline, and lecturing toward, instead, prioritizing the interests and needs of students.

Traditionally, student-centered learning is traced back to the Progressive Era, and the work of John Dewey. In his books Democracy and Education (1916) and Experience and Education (1938), Dewey argued that learning should emerge from students’ observations and experiences. He advocated for a pedagogical approach that focused on problem-solving, hands-on activities and projects, and critical thinking.

Recent research has revealed that such methods also have long-standing roots in Black educational history. In Black Women in the Ivory Tower (2008), Stephanie Y. Evans shows how, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these methods were developed and theorized by Black women educators like Anna Julia Cooper, Mary McLeod Bethune, Fanny Jackson Coppin, and Lucy Laney. These women developed innovative educational philosophies grounded in applied learning, recognition of cultural and social differences, critiques of American ideals, and a sense of communal responsibility. In fact, Coppin’s calls for active learning and Cooper’s philosophies of relevant, applied, and practical education both predate Dewey’s more famous philosophies (in Coppin’s case, by a quarter of a century).

Throughout the Jim Crow era, Black educators saw empowering their students as key to broader struggles for racial justice. At a time when school systems were primarily controlled by white people, many Black students were subjected to what Carter G. Woodson famously called “mis-education”: a racist curriculum that erased Black history, culture, and creativity, and was designed to disseminate white ruling-class ideology.2

However, as Jarvis R. Givens’s new book, Fugitive Pedagogy (2021), demonstrates, Black K-12 schoolteachers developed a range of transgressive teaching strategies to counter this miseducation. Though didactic learning was an important feature of their “fugitive pedagogies,” educators like Ira B. Bryant blended conventional methods with more open-ended, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching methods. Students in Bryant’s 1936 course on “Negro History” worked on group research projects analyzing Black housing conditions in Houston. In classrooms like Bryant’s, such projects taught students about the social, economic, and political conditions of oppression in order that they might resist and transform them.3

Some aspects of student-centered pedagogy can be traced back even further. Educational paradigms grounded in “collective responsibility”—explain Oliva N. Perlow, Durene I. Wheeler, Sharon L. Bethea, and BarBara M. Scott, the editors of Black Women’s Liberatory Pedagogies (2018)were present in precolonial Africa, Asia, and the Americas.4


The Best Classroom Is the Struggle

By Joshua Sooter

The 1960s and ’70s were a critical flashpoint in the history of student-centered pedagogy. During this period, activists in the civil rights, Black liberation, antiwar, and women’s movements understood education as a key battleground for transforming an unjust society. While the National Higher Education Act of 1965 foregrounded questions of access, this era’s struggles for educational and social justice extended also to what was taught (curriculum) and how it was taught (pedagogy). At the same time that activists criticized mainstream education as a tool of white supremacy, patriarchy, and imperialism, they also used it as a weapon to challenge these practices of domination.

Take the example of civil rights activist Septima Clark, who developed a network of citizenship schools and adult-literacy programs to counter the racist literacy tests that sought to curtail Black voting. Not only did Clark understand reading and writing as key to Black people’s liberation and political participation, she also knew that conventional methods like lecturing and memorization would not suffice. Under Clark’s direction, the citizenship schools utilized a “non-directive approach” that replaced teacher-student hierarchies with mutual colearning relationships.5

Perhaps the best example of the student-centered pedagogies that emerged from the civil rights movement are the Mississippi freedom schools. In the summer of 1964, activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) enrolled 2,000 Black students— preschoolers through high schoolers—in the 41 schools they had organized throughout the state. These freedom schools had a major impact on the development of student-centered pedagogy throughout the nation.

Unlike Mississippi’s underfunded and oppressive public schools, which taught Black students to be submissive and obedient, freedom schools prepared students for activism, citizenship, and political participation. As documented in Jon Hale’s Freedom Schools (2016), educators recognized that liberatory education necessitated a break with inherited teaching methods predicated on “rote memorization and a passive acceptance of the way things were.”6 Such methods neither met students’ needs nor prepared them to address political, economic, and social injustice. As one teacher and coordinator, Liz Fusco, explained, “Authority wants … a fact you can memorize. So you learn to copy, you learn not to think, you learn not to ask a question.”7

Instead, freedom school instructors “fully engaged students in the learning process.” Classes were organized around dialogue, critical thinking, and hands-on activities like debates and mock panel discussions. At schools like the one in Meridian (which served nearly a third of the freedom schools’ 2,000-strong student body), students even had a hand in designing the curriculum. As Hale writes, involving students in decisions about their learning “cultivate[d] a sense of agency, advocacy, and critical awareness.” The idea was that students would use what they learned in freedom school to join the movement and change the world.

And they did. The participatory democracy students practiced in the classroom translated to actual participation in the era’s social movements. For many of its members, this innovative school system resulted in a lifetime of community organizing and active, democratic citizenship.

Just six years after that transformative summer, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) was translated from Portuguese into English, catalyzing a sea change in educational philosophy and practice. Grounded in Freire’s experiences teaching peasant farmers to read and write, Pedagogy of the Oppressed drew widespread attention to the political implications of different teaching methods.

Freire took aim at foundational assumptions about learning. He argued that traditional, hierarchical teaching methods—lecturing students, then testing their comprehension—constitute a “banking” model of education, which trains students to be passive, obedient members of society. Instead, Freire advocated for “problem-posing” and “consciousness-raising” methods that encourage students to become empowered actors.

Freire’s ideas spread like wildfire among US activists and educators. They found fertile ground, for instance, among instructors in the era’s Black liberation schools. As historian Russell Rickford writes, while some instructors at these schools used techniques that more closely resembled indoctrination, many vehemently rejected hierarchical teaching methods as both the product of and mechanism for maintaining a racist, stultifying society. Some thought mainstream education’s emphasis on liberal individualism worked to bolster capitalism and white supremacy.8

As an alternative, educators like those at the Black Panther Party’s Oakland Community School developed teaching methods that emphasized communitarian values.9 As Donna Murch demonstrates, Ericka Huggins and Elaine Brown ran the school using the hands-on, curiosity-based pedagogical approaches typically reserved for affluent, white students.10 Oakland students were encouraged to “openly critique all areas of the school” and make decisions about their learning, from the design of daily menus to lesson plans.

Throughout the Jim Crow era, Black educators saw empowering their students as key to broader struggles for racial justice.

Though student-centered teaching transformed many mid-century K-12 classrooms, its implementation in higher education was slower and more sporadic. According to Jonathan Zimmerman, the 20th century’s increasing college enrollments combined with the lack of incentives for good university teaching meant lectures and exams remained predominant, despite research showing active and participatory methods to be more effective.11

Exceptions, though, could be found in the era’s newly established fields of Black studies and women’s studies. University courses like “Race and Sex in America” and “Contemporary Issues in the Black Community” explored the unequal power structures—of racism, patriarchy, and imperialism—that shape our everyday lives. And many professors recognized that they could not confront these practices of domination using teaching methods predicated on the tyranny of instructors over students. Challenging social hierarchies, they saw, required remaking the classroom, too. Amid calls for the radical redistribution of power and resources in society, professors in these fields developed teaching methods that redistributed classroom power to students.

Though Black studies is better known for its curricular interventions, the field’s contestation of Eurocentric knowledge and foregrounding of African and African diasporic history and experience also produced changes in classroom practice. As Manning Marable, Helen A. Neville, Sundiata K. Cha-Jua, and Carmen Kynard have demonstrated, Black studies scholars often eschewed banking models of education and monologic lectures in favor of active learning techniques like discussions, peer review, writing groups, projects, debates, and community studies.12 In Neville and Cha-Jua’s words, Black studies teaching methods “decenter the instructor” and instead treat “teaching/learning” as “a participatory, student-centered, social process.”13

Around the same time, women’s studies scholars brought the critiques of power then emerging from the women’s movement to bear on college classrooms. As women took to the streets to protest oppressive policies that kept men in positions of power over women, professors were concerned with the ways classrooms reproduced these conditions by placing teachers in positions of authority over students. Just as a patriarchal society dictates strict rules and expectations for women’s behavior without ever consulting them, so, too, do conventional classrooms teach obedience and conformity, rather than collective decision making.

In her notes on the proceedings from the 1969 Female Studies Conference at Cornell, Sheila Tobias writes, “It was agreed that women’s studies programs must not fall into the authoritarian patterns of most classroom work. Because women have been an ‘out-group’ they have developed different styles from men and a shared consciousness. Women’s studies also must be truly coeducational, in that women students participate actively.”14 Or, in Adrienne Rich’s more succinct words: “The feminist teaching style is … by nature antihierarchical.”15 In courses like “Women as Creative Artists,” professors drew on movement practices like consciousness-raising groups to develop small group discussions, journal assignments, and student research projects (involving, for instance, interviews with female relatives). Some of these practices—such as the use of popsicle sticks to ensure equitable distribution of speaking time—appear in The New College Classroom.

Considered together, these methods challenged students to make decisions about their learning and become active knowledge producers. Today, we would call this feminist pedagogy.

How to understand the student-centered teaching methods that emerged from these decades of social upheaval is the focus of my current book project, Insurgent Knowledge: The Poetics and Pedagogy of Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich in the Era of Open Admissions. Today, the writers at the center of this project—all major figures of second-wave feminism—are best known for their contributions to literature and their insights into race, gender, and sexuality. But Insurgent Knowledge recovers the untold stories of their classrooms. It focuses, in particular, on their overlapping experiences teaching at the City University of New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s—some of the most controversial years in US educational history.

What brought these writers together was not merely fate but the college’s new policies that expanded access to higher education for the city’s working-class students, many of whom were students of color. Unlike authors who teach advanced creative writing seminars to a select handful of affluent students, Bambara, Jordan, Lorde, and Rich all taught introductory and remedial writing courses to students whose underfunded schools had failed to prepare them for college.

As we saw in Bambara’s co-created classroom, these authors and their coconspirators taught in ways that centered students’ curiosities, desires, and intellectual interests. In fact, it was in their CUNY classrooms that both she and Jordan began to experiment with the practice of publishing student writing. Instead of assigning traditional term papers, they organized their courses around the production of texts (anthologies, plays, broadsides, and magazines) that could circulate beyond the classroom. Students’ work appears, for example, in Bambara’s groundbreaking anthology The Black Woman and in Jordan’s widely praised poetry collection Soulscript. Amid the dominant deficit paradigms of the 1960s, which emphasized the reading skills such students lacked, these authors saw their students as capable of not merely reading complex literature, but writing it. In the years to come, as these two authors went on to teach at other institutions—such as SUNY Stony Brook and UC Berkeley (Jordan) and Livingston College, the University of Delaware, and the Scribe Center (Bambara)—these early experiments would evolve into a collaborative, public-facing, and project-based pedagogy, which encouraged students to use what they had learned in the service of social change.

As educators, these writers helped students explore how they could use their knowledge, resources, and skills to create something useful—or beautiful—that could make an impact on the world. Davidson and Katopodis call this making “a public contribution to knowledge.”

Some recent critics have dismissed student-centered pedagogy as the product of an increasingly neoliberal, corporatized, and consumerist university ethos. But the history of activist teaching suggests otherwise.

Look to the fugitive and Black feminist pedagogies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the communal teaching of the citizenship, freedom, and liberation schools; the active (and activist) college classrooms of the 1960s and ’70s. For some 150 years, at least, educators have long understood that how one is taught can affect how one participates in society. Whether you’re lectured at or encouraged to make collective decisions about your learning shapes how you understand yourself – as passive recipient or active changemaker – in the world.

Though the methods in The New College Classroom may not be novel, that does not mean they are any less valuable. Quite the opposite. A pedagogical treasure trove, Davidson and Katopodis’s new book illuminates exciting and inspiring ways we can build on these histories of activist teaching. It is required reading for educators who aspire to follow in the footsteps of our predecessors by teaching students not only to navigate the world, but to change it.


This article was commissioned by Roopika Risamicon

  1. Colleen Flaherty, “Required Pedagogy,” Inside Higher Ed, December 13, 2019.
  2. Carter Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933).
  3. Jarvis R. Givens, Fugitive Pedagogy Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching (Harvard UP, 2021), p. 182.
  4. Black Women’s Liberatory Pedagogies: Resistance, Transformation, and Healing within and beyond the Academy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), pp 5–6. The authors cite Interrogating Critical Pedagogy: The Voices of Educators of Color in the Movement, edited by Pierre Wilbert Orelus and Rochelle Brock (Routledge, 2014); Asa G. Hilliard III, SBA: The Reawakening of the African Mind (Makare, 1998); Joyce E. King and Ellen E. Swartz, Re-Membering History in Student and Teacher Learning: An Afrocentric Culturally Informed Praxis (Routledge, 2014); King and Swartz, The Afrocentric Praxis of Teaching for Freedom: Connecting Culture to Learning (Routledge, 2016); and Timothy Reagan, Non-Western Educational Traditions: Indigenous Approaches to Educational Thought and Practice (Routledge, 2004).
  5. Septima Poinsette Clark and Cynthia Stokes Brown, Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement (Africa World, 1996), p. 64.
  6. Jon N. Hale, The Freedom Schools: Student Activists in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement (Columbia University Press, 2016), p. 122.
  7. Ibid., p. 122.
  8. Russell Rickford, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 90.
  9. Ibid., p. 16.
  10. The Oakland Community School was shaped by “progressive models of non-authoritarian, hands-on approaches to learning” and explicitly repudiated Booker T. Washington’s vision of “industrial-style education, which they blamed for reproducing racial and class disparity.” Donna Jean Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), p. 182.
  11. Jonathan Zimmerman, The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020).
  12. Manning Marable, “The Modern Miseducation of the Negro,” quoted in Gerald A. McWorter and Ronald Bailey, Black Studies Curriculum Development in the 1980s: Its Patterns and History,” Black Scholar, vol. 15 (1984). Helen A. Neville and Sundiata K. Cha-Jua, “Kufundisha: Toward a Pedagogy for Black Studies,” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 28, no. 4 (1998). Carmen Kynard, Vernacular Insurrections Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacies Studies (SUNY Press, 2013), p. 133.
  13. Neville and Cha-Jua, “Kufundisha,” pp. 451, 459.
  14. Sheila Tobias, “Report of Female Studies Conference,” May 21, 1970.
  15. Adrienne Rich, “Toward a Woman-Centered University,” On Lies, Secret, and Silence (Norton, 1979), p. 145.
Featured Image: Thanksgiving Day lesson at Whittier. Photograph by photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston, [1899 or 1900]. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division / Unsplash (CC0 1.0)