Faulty Education Theories Oppress Disadvantaged Students

June 19, 2019 Updated: June 19, 2019

Is dodgeball a harmless game or legalized bullying?

This was the riveting topic of a paper three education professors presented at the Canadian Society for the Study of Education’s 2019 annual conference in Vancouver earlier this month.

Shortly after the National Post published a story about this presentation, media outlets across the country picked it up and the debate went viral. The three co-presenters, Joy Butler of the University of British Columbia, Claire Robson of Simon Fraser University, and David Burns of Kwantlen Polytechnic University, appeared on multiple radio and TV stations defending their critique of dodgeball, often in the face of incredulous interviewers.

Much of the debate revolved around dodgeball itself. Many fans were dismayed at how their sport was attacked by educational theorists. The head of Dodgeball Canada, in fact, penned an opinion piece for the National Post defending dodgeball as “built on the foundation of teamwork, inclusiveness, and trust.” Meanwhile, Toronto Star columnist Emma Teitel took a contrary view in a column titled “Maybe getting rid of dodgeball isn’t such a bad idea.” Clearly, the battle lines have been drawn.

However, focusing on the merits and demerits of dodgeball as a sport misses the point because it overlooks the authors’ thesis.

According to the conference website, Butler, Robson, and Burns examined dodgeball through “the ethic of anti-oppressive education” and concluded that “the hidden curriculum of dodgeball reinforces the five faces of oppression.” In other words, the authors used a particular ethical framework to examine dodgeball as a game. This means the validity of their conclusions depends on the reasonableness of their framework.

The abstract of the paper notes that Iris Marion Young’s 1990 book, “Justice and the Politics of Difference,” provides the theoretical basis for the authors’ understanding of the five faces of oppression—exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural domination, and violence. In many ways, Young’s emphasis on group identity was a precursor to today’s identity politics, where a person’s membership, or lack of membership, in a marginalized group takes precedence when evaluating ideas.

By tying their critique of a children’s game, dodgeball, to Young’s radical theory, Butler, Robson, and Burns set dodgeball up to fall short on ethics since no competitive sport could emerge unscathed under this theory. Instead of asking whether dodgeball is a healthy activity for children to enjoy, the authors focused on whether marginalized students were picked last for teams and if other students targeted them while playing the game. Obviously, this critical approach assumes that bullying behaviour is caused by the game of dodgeball rather than being an unfortunate, yet common, reality of childhood.

In contemporary identity politics, phrases such as “check your privilege” accuse entire groups of benefiting unfairly from their race and/or gender even when this isn’t true of all individuals within the group. As a case in point, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may be a privileged white male, but an unemployed fisherman in rural Newfoundland is probably not.

Accusing well-meaning people of being oppressors solely on their membership within a group is hardly conducive to productive dialogue. In fact, it is prejudice because it attributes the general characteristics of the group to the individual when there is considerable variability between individuals even within the group.

Interestingly, even the admission policies of many education faculties reflect an obsession with group identity. For example, the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Education reserves nearly half its spaces for students from five diversity categories—Indigenous, racialized, LGBTQ, persons with disabilities, and disadvantaged. This sends the unfortunate message that membership in one (or more) of these groups trumps the qualifications and merit of the individual.

Sadly, an obsession with group identity is now the norm rather than the exception within Canadian faculties of education. In their courses, prospective teachers often learn more about promoting social justice than about effective ways of teaching reading, science, and math. Even though there is a wealth of evidence backing up the importance of ensuring students acquire subject-specific content knowledge through teacher-led instruction, education professors typically dismiss these in favour of trendy child-centred approaches.

This explains why education students typically spend so much time reading and discussing Paulo Freire’s 1968 book, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Like Iris Marion Young, Freire assumed that capitalist societies oppress minority and marginalized groups. Freire’s critique of the so-called “banking model of education” advances his view that students should co-learn together with their teachers rather than have knowledge transmitted to them by knowledgeable teachers.

The problem with this approach is it hurts the students it intends to help. By de-emphasizing the importance of content knowledge, Freire’s modern-day disciples make it nearly impossible for students from disadvantaged homes to close the knowledge gap between themselves and students from upper-class homes. One could even argue that education faculties are systematically oppressing disadvantaged students when they promote misguided theories about teaching and learning.

Stories about the oppressive nature of dodgeball may provide comic relief for readers, but this concern reflects a real problem with education faculties. Faulty education theories do a lot of harm to students, particularly those from disadvantaged homes.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of the forthcoming book, “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.