In her TeachTalk, Mieke Lopes Cardoso from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands talks about how her teaching is informed by her personal yoga and reiki practice, leading to an embodied approach that translates into conscious co-creative classrooms. With her research and pedagogical work on the transformative and regenerative potential of education and experimental work with MA students, Mieke's interview relates especially to the whole-person learning strand of critical-creative pedagogy. You can watch an interview of the video here.
This image is from Mang and Haggard's book on Regenerative Development and Design. They write that “an old Sufi story beautifully captures our historic moment: There once was a man who was renowned in his village and the surrounding region for his wisdom. Two young jackanapes decided to test him. “Let’s catch a small bird,” said one to
the other. “We’ll ask him if it’s alive or dead. If he says it’s alive, I’ll crush it in my
hands. If he says it’s dead, I’ll let it fly away and prove him wrong.” When they
approached the sage, the youth called out, “Old man, hidden in my hands is a
bird. You have great wisdom. Can you tell me if it is dead or alive?” The wise man
looked him in the eyes, and with a gentle smile replied, “It is in your hands.”
Our destiny? It is in our hands.”
Where, what and who do you teach?
Where is in the city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, which is also the place that I call home. Amsterdam attracts a wide range of international students, also because I teach in international development studies, who are mostly European international. But we do also have some non-European students from really different parts of the world and of course we have some Dutch students, but all of our teaching is done in English. The students I work with mostly are in their Masters stage, but I also work with some undergraduate students, as well as PhD researchers and postdocs.
My research has focused on the transformative role of education in inclusive development and, more recently, in regenerative approaches to development. I've had the honor to do research in a number of contexts around the world, especially in conflict-affected regions in Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bolivia and got a lot of inspiration from working in those contexts, with teachers, students and policymakers. I draw on the stories, insights and wisdom when I design teaching here in the Netherlands, and when I work with this international body of students.
What does critical creative pedagogy mean for you, and how does it relate to your own teaching practice?
Besides my role as a lecturer in international development studies, I want to tell you a little bit more about the rest of who I am, because that is very much grounding the way I engage as an educator with students and colleagues. When I get up in the morning, the first thing I am is a reiki and yoga practitioner; that has been a daily practice for quite a long time and how I start my day. My next activity is being a mother and a family member in my home. The next thing I do is teaching, which is something I'm passionate about. Since my research focuses on the role of education in development and transformation processes, I study, research and teach and spend a lot of my thinking time on what transformative, social justice, critical-creative education can look like.
I realized a number of years ago that I had been trained myself to teach from an expert role and to teach topics content-wise. But I realized that in actually making education more transformative and trying to attempt to walk the talk of what it means to become an educator who engages with critical transformative pedagogy and with regenerative approaches to education and considerations of social justice, that meant that I had to change the way I was understanding and designing education.
That shift in my understanding originated in my work with the Regenerative Development and Design School (Regenesis Institute) over the last six years. This really helped me to bring all of those versions of myself together – Mieke the yoga-trained teacher, Mieke as a mother and Mieke as a citizen in Dutch society. It has also allowed the classroom to become a space where students do not just absorb traditional banking-style education but engage in a co-creation process, focusing our collective learning journey on the formation of the agency of students and of myself as an educator.
That co-creation process has been instrumental to how I'm thinking about critical, transformative and more creative forms of education, in terms of bringing creative, alternative pedagogy and the arts into the classroom. But it is also about looking at the root of the term creative to allow students to connect to their own unique creative essence, which is what brought them in the first place into such a privileged position of being at university. Because it is only a few people that we actually get to work with and so it's really building on that incredible talent and unique kind of intelligence that all of these students bring with them and all of their various backgrounds and all of their very interesting identities, to co-create the learning space together.
What are some concrete practices in your classrooms and how your students are learning from those?
I've experimented with a small group of students over the past five years, in a space we call Critical Diversity and Development Explorations (CDDE) where motivated MA students have been self-selecting to become part of a teaching innovation project. They did that in their portfolio time, so they received some study credits for it, and together we explored bringing alternative pedagogy and approaches into the classroom. One of these approaches is to co-create the sessions, choosing themes that students really wanted to work on. So, for instance, there has been a session on academic activism because students wanted to reflect together what it means to engage in academic activism in their respective thematic interest areas.
What I then brought in as a trained yoga teacher was a short guided meditation reflection exercise to set the scene. I usually design a couple of warm-up questions, oftentimes drawing on living system frameworks that I derived from the regenerative development work. That then sets up the group up for a conversation, starting from a completely different starting point than as if people come in with all of their to-do list and scattered minds and unfocused states. So we start with a couple of minutes of focused breathing techniques, training the mind to become an observer of what we notice in terms of our bodies and allowing, from that state of focus, to then reflect individually through journal writing on a couple of questions, and then from there engaging in debate.
This usually creates a different atmosphere for students to work in. Because I could do that work for the first couple of years in the small CDDE group with motivated students who were really open to do these exercises, we could test and design them together, including the boundaries about what is useful. I've also started to reflect on how to connect that to bring in students’ own sense of agency by building on the reflective journal questions, bringing in structured living systems frameworks more continuously so that the more senior students are able to design sessions themselves. So it's really about trying to ensure cooperation and preparation processes so as not to just do it all myself and deliver something and leave it there, but to engage students.
I also try to move from that smaller group, working with a couple of students that have been part of the CDDE or MA courses, so they co-design those courses with me, to translate that pedagogy into larger classrooms. There are differences between this small group of highly motivated students who are really up for radical change, whose motivation is very high and so their commitment to the co-creation process is also very enthusiastic, and the larger groups where there has been some initial hesitation or even a bit of tension with the contemplative practices.
That has been very helpful in trying to design them in such a way that is not meant to convince anyone of these practices or that everyone should be doing them, but it's to invite learners into that setting. And I've now applied this work to groups of up to 70 or 80 students in the undergraduate courses in both online and in-class variations. And even there it's always about trying to design it in such a way that it's open for those who want to try it out. But for people that might feel uncomfortable about closing their eyes, I always give options to not close them or to just listen to what is being said. So, I try to invite people in such a way that they can try it out without forcing people to do so.
I remember in the first year I used to do most of those exercises in break time so that students could either choose to be there or not, but I realized that that wasn't necessarily generating a shift in energy in the way the group was working together, so it's been a bit of trial and error. And I've had only few responses from students who really found it very challenging, some of them came back later and mentioned that they were very grateful for the opportunity because actually it had helped them. I'm thinking back to one student in particular who said that she really felt that the guided meditation moments in class were the hardest for her but that she noticed that, even though it was so hard for her to pause and to really check in with how she was doing, they did provide her with the opportunity to experiment with it, and from there she started to develop her own practice of meditation. But I know that for some people going for a run is as meditative as being still and doing a breathing exercise, so there are so many different ways of shifting the state of mind and that really the purpose is about becoming more conscious.
I have also tried to become more understanding of how to connect these contemplative practices to our work on inequalities and social justice, so that we tie the inner work we do, looking at our patterns of thinking, observing how we feel when we engage in conversations about positionality in the field of development studies, to also reflecting on what they mean for how we then interact with the outside world, in our conversation with partners in the classroom and beyond the classroom in our research engagements. So it's really trying to connect the reflections on our inner work and changing the workings of our mind, so that who we can be in the outside world becomes more conscious and aware.
And here are some more co-creation reflections and resources.