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03
Nov
2015

Addressing Ageism in the 21st Century Classroom

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Written by
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Reviewed by Daniel Lynds and Jessica Knott
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Vinyl rocks!” by David J; CC BY 2.0

“It makes no more sense to wish for age than to fear it.” – Gloria Steinem

When I entered my Introduction to Women’s Studies class in the fall of 2014 and saw an “older” female student I thought ‘Oh good, she will be more focused and will do well in the class because she is older.’  At that moment I became very aware of my thought and my very next thought was ‘That was ageist.’  As educators we must continually self-reflect on how we perceive student abilities based on their age-range, and yet there is very little scholarship that discusses pedagogical practices which might encourage or steer us to think about ageism within our classrooms.  When topics surrounding ageism are considered they are more likely to focus on old(er) people, rarely touching on notions of ageism moving in both directions, affecting young(er) and old(er) people.  In addition to ageism being a marginalized topic within the classroom, pedagogical philosophies are also lacking in discussions of ageism within our teaching practices.  To date most of the research concerning ageism in higher education discusses how to teach students about ageism with little discussion about how to reduce ageism inside the classroom.  When pedagogical practices that explore ageism are brought to our attention they also often focus on old(er) individuals.  Both young(er) and old(er) students can experience ageism; therefore as educators we need to consider our entire student population in order to create new spaces for thinking about the larger spectrum of ageism within our classrooms.  I feel a combination of critical and feminist pedagogies can prove useful when thinking about reducing ageism in the classroom, regardless of the age of our student populations.  

Through a combination of pedagogical practices we can learn how to be self-reflexive and critical in our teaching, reducing ageism within our classrooms, helping to shift discourses about age, and challenge notions of authority and power within spaces of higher education.  Specifically, by applying a combination of self-reflexive critical and feminist pedagogies in the classroom we can begin to carefully assess our role(s) as educators, and how knowledge and authority can reproduce ageism within our classrooms. Self-reflexivity concerning assignments, activities, lessons, and prejudices that we all carry into the classroom concerning both younger and older students can help to alleviate ageism in the classroom, and ultimately impact larger social constructs concerning age in higher education.

A key aspect of both critical and feminist pedagogy is self-reflexivity, and as pedagogical practices they also encourage us to challenge notions of power.  Jennifer Gore recognizes that to be self-reflexive is in part to recognize the embedded power structures within our classroom that we (re)produce through discourse, and knowledge.  Through self-reflexivity concerning our positionality in the classroom we can open up new spaces for everyone to participate in the construction of knowledge. Power is not unidirectional and in my experience students typically adhere to bifurcated notions of teacher/student so it is important to challenge these notions by recognizing the power in which we hold, and making the construction of knowledge more inclusive.  By challenging the binary of teacher/student through feminist and critical pedagogy, ageism is addressed via the recognition that, no matter the age, students’ stories are valid, important, and can contribute to the conversation.

In addition to challenging notions of power and authority in the classroom, we must remain self-reflexive and hyper-aware of our own biases and prejudices within (and outside of) the classroom.  In “Critical Pedagogy: Intention and Realities,” Maha Bali discusses issues of ageism as being directed simultaneously at both young(er) and old(er) people.  For example, as a young instructor, she was thought of differently and not necessarily in a positive way. She also points out that other instructors and professors “come in with the view that the younger members are better with technology by default.”  According to Carol E. Kasworm, entering traditional four-year universities presents unique identity issues for old(er) adult students. Grappling with prejudices and preconceived notions about both young(er) and old(er) students is key to formulating solutions concerning issues of ageism within and beyond our classrooms, and into higher education as an institution.  Recognition of and self-reflection on our own biases against student populations based on age must happen before we can begin to assess and implement tangible solutions.  Only when we call out our own prejudices against students — both young or old(er) — can we begin to implement solutions.  

One example of teacher prejudice that I have encountered at my current institution is what I refer to as “student bashing.”  From graduate students to full professors, I hear a lot of complaining about our undergraduate students at my institution, and I have a feeling this is not isolated to Northwest Ohio.  Some of the comments I hear — and admittedly have engaged in myself — include that younger students “refuse” to read and they do not want to learn, but rather just want us to hand them an A.  Recognition that we are participating in the (re)production of ageism directed at young(er) students allows us to grapple with these prejudices and shift our mindset, ultimately creating a more inclusive and safer space for students to learn in, in whatever way they choose.  When we bash undergraduates, we limit our ability to engage with students because we have already pegged them as failures.  In our positions of power, we have the ability to shift discourses surrounding our young(er) students and become more aware of how we speak about them and what “isms” we might be enacting with and outside of our classrooms.  

While both populations can and do experience ageism, young(er) people are rarely considered when talking about ageism.  While being “young” in our culture does provide certain privileges, it also presents certain challenges and comes with its own set of ageist notions. As educators we often assume a lot about our young(er) students.  When we stop and reflect on what assignments/readings and grades mean, we cannot fully blame the students — many of whom come from banking model systems of education — for wanting a good grade or for not wanting to fully engage with course material that we have chosen.  We should be attempting to incorporate student voices into our class designs, asking them how they learn, and what they want to learn in order to help shape our agendas.  In doing so we can begin to deconstruct notions of authority, and provide spaces that encourage and nurture collaborative learning between student and teacher.

In Listening for Student Voices,” Chris Friend and Sean Michael Morris state, “when we tell students explicitly what they should learn for our courses, when we establish requirements or procedures for their learning, we aren’t functioning as teachers; we aren’t allowing students to engage in genuine, self-directed, natural learning.” While we should not be asking students to construct their learning agendas on their own, by being self-reflexive towards how students learn, what we assign, and our expectations of learning, we are providing an active space of collaboration that in its own right can reduce systems of oppression and domination (including but not limited to ageism) within our classrooms.  In “Learning to Let Go: Listening to Students in Discussion,” Friend states that “the moment we attempt to set the conclusion of a discussion before it starts, we cheat our students out of an opportunity for honest engagement, and we fool ourselves into thinking we let our students learn things for themselves.”  As educators we can approach ageism within the classroom by carefully looking at the assignments and activities assigned within our classrooms and whom they are designed for.  By using either digital tools or traditional assignments such as exams and research papers we are limiting not only how students can and do learn, but we are also potentially reproducing notions of ageism.  Even unconsciously we may be assuming young(er) students are more interested in non-traditional assignments, and/or that old(er) students will resist engaging with new technologies.  In an attempt to alleviate some of these issues I often offer multiple assignment options for students to choose from.   

Offering different assignments for students to choose from, including traditional assignments such as exams and research papers alongside various digital assignments, has seemed to be beneficial for students in my classroom.  They are not only able to choose the type of assignment they are most interested in (and perhaps will be most invested in) they also get to choose their topic(s) and by doing so practice some agency regarding what and how they learn within my classroom.  I have found that by allowing students to choose from multiple types of projects and topics they are able to assess and engage with materials in a way that best suits them and it simultaneously requires that I challenge my own ageist notions of learning and interaction.  It is by no accident that I am surprised at least once a semester by who picks what based on their age.  While offering a variety of assignments is a step in the right direction, it is also important that I am self-reflexive concerning the parameters I set on what assignment options I offer.

We can never create a one-hundred percent prejudice-free environment for all of our students at all times.  However, by recognizing the power dynamics happening within our classroom and self-reflecting on what, how, and why we adapt certain assignments, activities, and assessments and how they impact students of all ages we can begin to resist traditional models of learning and teaching. In doing so, we can also address issues of ageism both inside and outside of the classroom.  This in turn challenges Foucault’s notions of authority, power, and regimes of truth concerning diverse populations of students and can reshape power dynamics in the classroom, creating a more inclusive environment for all students.

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