Drawing Critical Lessons

A Note on Concepts from an Experiment in Pedagogy

Judy Meltzer and Jai Sen, November 2007

“Most crucially, the term open space is suggestive of freedom and liberty – on the one hand, of freedom of access and entry (and therefore without boundaries or gates), freedom of use, freedom of association and of exchange, freedom of expression, and freedom to leave (and to re-enter) at one’s free will; and on the other of an indeterminate openness and elasticity. It is therefore suggestive of a condition of a certain kind of liberty, safety, and inclusiveness that is rare..... These qualities therefore also tend to make open space a space for learning – where we ourselves become more open, more receptive....”

(From : Jai Sen, May 2007 - Opening open space: Notes on the grammar and vocabulary of the concept of open space)

“.... and thank you for encouragement. I certainly found your class refreshing as it is plugged into a living movement, living theory and practice. I don't think we communicate with living, breathing things much in academia...”

(Anonymous comment from a course participant)

In 2006, two new “critical courses” were offered at Carleton University (in Ottawa, Canada) within the Institute of Political Economy (one cross-posted with the Departments of Sociology and Political Science): Challenging Empires—Open? Space and Dissent in Movement and Other Worlds, Other Globalizations. These courses were based on an experimental pedagogical approach to knowledge and learning that drew upon the concept of ‘open space’ [1] to creatively innovate, in terms of :

  • The ways in which courses are developed and taught;
  • The roles and relations between ‘teacher’ and ‘student’;
  • Opening up the scope and spaces for learning; and –
  • In attempting to foster norms of critical engagement, collaboration, inclusion, and respect for difference and dissent.

The critical courses were a pedagogical experiment that unfolded within an otherwise normal, traditional academic setting. Fortunately, the course process encouraged a great deal of reflection on the process as a whole, including mid term evaluations by the course participants - and which were in turn collectively documented and discussed in a joint paper, by two students (one from each course) and the course facilitator[2]; and a Symposium was organized in Ottawa in June 2007 with the course participants as well as international scholars from South Africa, India, the United States, and Canada.

Using the web as an extension of the courses was an important (though not key) part of the experiment. Although this part of the experiment was not so successful (as discussed in the joint paper), the content of the courses and symposium are made availabe here @ www.critical-courses.cacim.net. (external link)

The Symposium provided a space in which to critically reflect on the content and conceptual dimensions of both the ‘critical courses’ and also the pedagogical possibilities they opened for future initiatives. The fact that so much interest and enthusiasm was expressed at the Symposium, both about the courses and towards extending the project to new contexts, and particularly by the international scholars, seemed to us to be significant enough to suggest preparing a Note that could draw out and put forward what were perhaps the key features of this experience.

In this Note therefore, we attempt to outline some of the key innovative processes of the critical courses that took place at Carleton. [3]

Five Innovative Elements for Creating Critical Courses As ‘Open Space’

1. A new ethic towards knowledge and knowledgeable participants....

In contrast to traditional approaches to learning that prevail in academia, the critical courses at Carleton were based on certain assumptions [4]: That everyone has knowledge; that every knowledge deserves respect; that knowledge is contextual and is therefore continually reconstructed; and related to this, that every knowledge is partial and incomplete and therefore that all knowledge can, and should, be questioned and other possibilities explored, all in a context of tolerance, respect, and openness to diverse perspectives.[5]

Starting from these assumptions, the courses challenged the traditional hierarchical relationship between closed categories of teacher and student that persist in academia. At the outset of the course, Jai Sen positioned himself “not as professor but as co-researcher and learner, and perhaps as facilitator”. He self-identified as a ‘scholar-practitioner’ (vs a traditional academic), and attempted to be open about the ways in which his own experiences (as architect, activist, campaignist, and independent researcher in civil politics) would colour the course.[6] Similarly, “students” were constituted not only as learners but also as knowledgeable participants who brought their own unique experiences – thereby effectively blurring the sharp distinction between teacher and student.

Also important to this ethic and approach was the argument in the Course Outlines that it was a responsibility of all participants “… to struggle to conduct ... research and study as non-violently as possible and to ‘pay back’ to ‘the communities’ studied, who are in many senses our real teachers”, to avoid the extractive nature of traditional research and relationship between those ‘studying’ and ‘the studied’.

2. Collaborative course development and creative curricula

The aims of the courses went beyond the actual substantive topics and included a broader invitation to participants to critically locate themselves - as individuals - with respect to the course material; to improve their abilities in critical thinking, reading, writing, and presentation; and to develop bibliographies that would be used/useful beyond the courses themselves. Moreover, resources for the courses were not confined to traditional textual materials but could also include web spaces, films, plays, poetry, art and other literature; and overall, the participants were encouraged to creatively and critically explore the course themes.

The courses were developed through dialogue and discussion and included lectures, seminars, and independent research (with emphasis on the latter two), as well as attending outside events (identified by the participants). Course participants were equal partners in planning their respective courses, selecting materials (although an initial list of suggested readings was provided), leading sessions, defining their own research projects, and reviewing the course during the term and afterwards.

The courses also went beyond the limits of the existing university web structure to experiment with a wiki-based web space for the course. This was used both to post and to develop the course outline (as a live document), and made it possible for course participants to add readings and also any additional material they felt would be useful, e.g. recordings or photographs related to the themes. It was also planned to be a public site for participants to post material and a space for exchange (in contrast to the top-down management of web-content of traditional courses).[7]

The courses prioritized collective processes, and asked all participants to actively engage not only by reflecting on their own experiences in relation to the course themes, but in demonstrating ongoing curiosity and a willingness to “take risks and explore”, to combine independent work and reflection with a commitment to sharing, cooperation, and collaboration in developing and formulating ideas.[8]

3. Creating new tools and outcomes

The process gave rise to concrete new tools that were developed through the courses. These included new ‘assessment matrices’ used to fulfil the requirements of formal grading of the university; and creating a forum to reflect and build upon the courses (both conceptually and the content covered) by holding a Symposium on the Critical Courses in which the ‘students’ presented their work as well as reflections on the courses themselves, and received feedback and reflection from scholars from around the world. The Symposium also provided the space to imagine how these types of critical courses might be extended to other contexts and fields both within Canada and beyond.[9]

4. Mobility: Implementing critical courses in new contexts...

The success of the critical courses at Carleton University provides a precedent or open template for implementing other critical courses not only at Carleton but other institutions within Canada and beyond. Carleton University, and in particular its Faculty of Public Affairs and Management (within which these courses took place, officially hosted by the Institute of Political Economy), relies primarily on ‘traditional’ pedagogical approaches, with fixed curricula and formal grading schemes. That these critical courses were successfully implemented in this context speaks to the possibility that they can be implemented in any type of institution i.e. they do not necessarily require a pre-existing experimental disposition within the institution or Department.

Most significantly, this pedagogical experiment was instituted within an existing department and programme/course framework without an overall shift in departmental or institutional pedagogical approaches. In other words, it was inserted rather than developed as part of a broader process of transition and change. In principle, this – the idea of insertion or injection - makes the idea/s very mobile, and capable of being applied and developed elsewhere.

On the other hand, whereas this makes it/them eminently mobile, it also comes at the expense of sustainability, i.e. it tends to remain as a ‘one-off’ experiment rather than a part of progressive and institutionalized change; though, again in principle, it can always be – and be seen as - a potential catalyst for sustainable, longer-term shifts.

A second disadvantage of the ‘insertion’ of critical courses into existing curricula / programmes is that they are circumscribed by traditional grading structures. Although there is increasing flexibility and innovation even with traditional evaluation mechanisms, the formal evaluation process required of the (critical) courses by university rules was to some extent counter to its very approach.[10] Ideally, a participatory evaluation process in keeping with the purpose and principles of the critical courses would be preferable – one that moves away from the standardized ‘benchmark’ approach of formal mechanisms.

Some academic institutions with more progressive grading schemes (such as the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University in Canada) are likely more amenable to the more innovative forms of evaluation that would be more appropriate to this type of course. (As one example, graduate students at FES at York - rather than follow a set required curricula - collaboratively develop a customized ‘plan of study’ that sets out learning objectives tailored to their interests, based on the view that no single programme design suits all students.)

5. The potentials (and limitations) of insider/outsider (dis)positions…

This particular experience of implementing critical courses in Political Economy and Sociology at Carleton University required that an ‘outsider’ (to the institution and in this case also to formal academia) be ‘brought in’ to develop and implement the critical courses. Although members of such institutions are not prohibited from initiating this type of experiment, for them to try to do so would likely involve a much more formal, painstaking, and longer administrative process.

In short, one of the reasons for the success of these particular courses was perhaps the ‘outside perspective’ that was brought in – and raises the question of whether this idea of inviting outsiders to come in on a short-term basis, and through them to insert / inject ideas into institutions, cannot itself be an approach towards introducing innovations and undertaking experiments.

Once again, this approach of course poses a limit to sustainability – in this case, once the visiting prof left the course was no longer offered, and even though it was very positively valued by participants and therefore, in principle, opened the possibility for future experiment. Its continued implementation required people within the institution who were open and amenable to initiating such a course and to providing support for it – this was of course crucial to its success. So simply bringing in an outsider is perhaps not enough; other than whatever takes place through a more generalised, cloud-like diffusion of ideas – within the given institution and beyond -, it also seems to require some element of formal collaboration.

On the other hand, one of the advantages to this ‘one-off’ success was that it provides a potential way to ‘jump start’ a broader pedagogical shift outside of the long formal channels for reform. Also, the positive experience generates a ‘demand for more’ – i.e. as the interest in critical courses develops among the participants, it promotes a push for pedagogical change ‘from below’.

Judy Meltzer, Ottawa, with Jai Sen, New Delhi

We invite your comments on the above. Please send them to us @ and @ . Please also visit the Critical Courses website @ www.critical-courses.cacim.net (external link) and feel free to make and leave comments and suggestions there.

Finally, here are a few additional resources for those interested in pursuing these ideas further (NB : Further suggestions are always invited / welcome !!) :

Institutions ...

CACIM @ www.cacim.net (external link)

Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice, at the School of Politics and International Relations at University of Nottingham, in the UK; @ www.nottingham.ac.uk/cssgj (external link) and http://www.osdemethodology.org.uk (external link)

Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University @ www.yorku.ca/~fes/ (external link)

The Transformative Learning Centre at OISE (Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, in the University of Toronto) @ http://tlc.oise.utoronto.ca/about.html (external link)

Research and publications ....

New journal: Critical Literacy – Theories & Practice @ http://www.criticalliteracy.org.uk/journal/ (external link)

Pedagogical tools from OSDE methodology, @ www.osdemethodology.org.uk/keydocs/tools.pdf (external link)

Vanessa Andreotti, forthcoming (2008) - ‘Creating Open Spaces’, in Jai Sen, ed, forthcoming (2008) - Imagining Alternatives, Book 3 in the Are Other Worlds Possible ? series. New Delhi : OpenWord?

Vanessa Andreotti and ors, nd, c.2006a – ‘Critical Literacy & Global Issues’. OSDE (Open Spaces for Dialogue and Enquiry) Methodology, Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice, The University of Nottingham, @ http://www.osdemethodology.org.uk (external link)

Vanessa Andreotti and ors, nd, c.2006b – ‘Critical Literacy – Independent Thinking – Global Citizenship - Global Issues’. OSDE (Open Spaces for Dialogue and Enquiry) Methodology, Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice, The University of Nottingham, @ http://www.osdemethodology.org.uk/keydocs/osdebooklet.pdf (external link)

N Burbules and R Berk, 1999 – ‘Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Relations, Differences and Limits’, in T Popkewitz and L Fendler, eds, 1999 - Critical Theories in Education: Changing Terrains of Knowledge and Politics. New York: Routledge

Paulo Freire, 1973 - Education: The Practice of Freedom. London: Writers and Readers.

N Florence, 1998 - bell hooks’ Engaged Pedagogy: A Transgressive Education for Critical Consciousness. Westport, Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey

H Giroux and P McLaren?, eds, 1989 - Critical Pedagogy, the State, and Cultural Struggle. New York: SUNY

Emilie Hayes, Mat Nelson, and Jai Sen, December 2007 – ‘Open Space as a Learning Environment : Engaging Critically with the Pedagogical Aspects of Critical Courses @ Carleton’. Paper presented at ‘Revisiting Critical Courses @ Carleton’, a Symposium in Ottawa, Canada, during June 20-22 2007, around the work done by participants in two courses at Carleton University, Ottawa, in the Fall Semester 2006 : ‘Other Worlds, Other Globalisations’ and ‘Open Space and Dissent in Movement’

C Luke and J Gore, eds, 1992 - Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy. New York: Routledge

P McLaren?, ed, 1995 - Pedagogy, Culture and the Body. London: Routledge

S Steiner, H Krank, P McLaren?, and R Bahruth, eds, 2000 - Freirean Pedagogy, Praxis, and Possibilities: Projects for the New Millennium. New York & London: Falmer


1. For discussion of this concept, see Jai Sen, May 2007 - Opening open space: Notes on the grammar and vocabulary of the concept of open space. Available @ http://www.openspaceforum.net/twiki/tiki-read_article.php?articleId=429 (external link) (jai.sen@cacim.net).

2. Emilie Hayes, Mat Nelson, and Jai Sen, December 2007 – ‘Open Space as a Learning Environment : Engaging Critically with the Pedagogical Aspects of Critical Courses @ Carleton’. Paper presented at ‘Revisiting Critical Courses @ Carleton’, a Symposium in Ottawa, Canada, during June 20-22 2007, around the work done by participants in two courses at Carleton University, Ottawa, in the Fall Semester 2006 : ‘Other Worlds, Other Globalisations’ and ‘Open Space and Dissent in Movement’. Available @ http://critical-courses.cacim.net/twiki/tiki-index.php?page=RCCSHome. (external link)

3. JS : We author this as a joint paper, but the following was basically prepared by Judy Meltzer as a outsider to the courses (but an insider to the Symposium, as participant and as assistant to one of the co-organisers), following a preparatory discussion between the two authors and with subsequent comments and suggestions by Jai Sen.

4. These assumptions are drawn from and reflect Vanessa Andreotti’s work as part of the Methodology for “Open Spaces for Dialogue and Enquiry” (OSDE), @ http://www.osdemethodology.org.uk/. (external link)

5. The course outline for the Carleton Courses made clear that ‘open spaces’ also have their limits and their rules; the courses gave “no space for racist or sexist content, or for domineering behaviour.”

6. JM : This was particularly innovative insofar as a teacher’s own experiences and research interests, which inevitably always shape the way in which courses are designed and material presented, are rarely acknowledged.

7. The actual experience and use of the web spaces created was different; see Hayes, Nelson, and Sen, 2007, as above, for details.

8. See, however, Hayes, Nelson, and Sen 2007 for a presentation and discussion of critical reflections by course participants of their experiences of this participatory approach to learning.

9. For the programme and full proceedings of the Symposium, including the papers presented, and for an Account of the meeting, again see http://critical-courses.cacim.net/twiki/tiki-index.php?page=RCCSHome. (external link)

10. For the rules, see http://www2.carleton.ca/shared/shared_fpafaculty/docs/TeachregFPA_07-08.pdf (external link); and for a discussion of the application of the rules in this case, see Hayes, Nelson, and Sen, 2007, as above.