FLUX Pedagogy: Transforming Teaching & Learning during Coronavirus

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Throughout March we explored research design, with a focus on theory and conceptual frameworks.

In March we were just beginning to realize the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic. This post from the Mentor in Residence for March, Dr. Sharon Ravitch, catalyzed new thinking. She went on to develop a Flux Pedagogy course, and has a must-read new post on the Harvard Business Publishing Education page: “Why Teaching Through Crisis Requires a Radical New Mindset: Introducing Flux Pedagogy.

Find more about teaching and learning  here.

Changing Teaching
in Changing Times

 “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh

Many instructors have experienced the 1st week of classes since the outbreak of COVID-19 forced us inside and apart. Coming together in our virtual “classroom” is emotional. So much has changed. Our lives are different. The world is different. Our minds have been transformed into a kind of shock-induced survival mode, our best laid plans are unraveling before our eyes. What we see now in technicolor is our shared humanity, laid bare before us through a haze of disorientation. Our lives have changed in immeasurable ways, most of which we don’t yet even understand.

We are feeling individually and collectively vulnerable, which while difficult, brings possibilities for societal transformation as well as new connections and creativity in teaching and learning.
– Sharon Ravitch

In this moment of the COVID-19 pandemic, life is in an indefinite state of flux. Students have unprecedented concerns about their academic lives and career trajectories—what will happen to them? How do we try to allay their fears? They’re concerned about their families and communities, their lives are disrupted in ways that affect their livelihoods now and for the foreseeable future. Many have had to move under duress, some are in interim housing, others are unable to return to their states or countries given travel restrictions. Some are separated from their loved ones. Concerns about coursework and research include participant well-being, issues of access and recruitment, lost ability to travel, funding, library access.

These are embodied concerns in a time of radical flux—global displacement, universities shut down, people looking for jobs, juggling family responsibilities, worried about their own health, family health, and public health. The lines between well and sick, healthy and unhealthy have blurred, as have other suddenly-irrelevant binaries like safe and unsafe, productive and unproductive, distancing and connection. From this moment of relational and educational uncertainty, upheaval and reverberation, of taking everything we do in person online, arrives the dire need for an emergent and humanizing education approach—flux pedagogy.

Flux Pedagogy

‘Pure experience’ is the name I gave to the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories.
– William James

Flux pedagogy is a term I’ve come up with to refer to the integration of relational and critical pedagogy frameworks into a transformative teaching approach in times of radical flux. It is constructivist, student-centered, relational, and reflexive; it’s a humanizing pedagogy that examines the goals and processes of education in moments of uncertainty with a goal of mutual growth and transformation.

Some of the main purposes of our courses have shifted seemingly overnight—from specialized teaching and learning to more broadly solutionary and connective in both humanitarian and pedagogical ways. Flux pedagogy supports an inquiry-based, emergent design teaching mindset that is adaptive, generative, and compassionate; it is a framework for balancing radical compassion for students with high-yet-humanistically-calibrated expectations for learning in our courses. This global moment requires us to learn a set of new skills for designing and enacting humanizing and transformative pedagogy with our students as we teach them specific content areas.

Flux pedagogy integrates critical relational frameworks into a complex adaptive pedagogical approach that identifies and addresses lived problems as a form of radical action.  Developing your class as an online community of practice that pushes against real-time inequities in relation to COVID-19 can be the beginning of a critical literacy for social and educational transformation—an extension of Appiah’s (2006) cosmopolitanism as a literacy of human interdependence—a universality of concern for all people coupled with the belief that people are entitled to live into their own priorities and ideals without the imposition of what others would choose for them.

The key primary dimensions of flux pedagogy are:

1) Trauma-Informed Pedagogy;
2) Emergent Design, Student-Centered, Active Teaching;
3) Inquiry as Stance;
4) Critical Pedagogy;
5) Racial Literacy Pedagogy; and
6) Brave Space Pedagogy.

In this post, I discuss each of these dimensions of flux pedagogy in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. I then offer strategies to help engage flux pedagogy with students to co-construct your courses to be an online brave space community of practice.

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy

“My lifetime listens to yours.” 
– Muriel Ruckeyser

In this moment of collective trauma—both our own trauma and vicarious trauma—instructors must attune ourselves to possible student trauma (both past and present) as a necessary first step to co-creating online communities of learning. Trauma-informed pedagogy foregrounds understanding trauma—personal, communal, and generational—and its social and emotional reverberations, cultivating a learning environment comfortable to those who’ve experienced trauma, and recognizing the resilience and resources of individuals and communities who have experienced or are experiencing trauma (Pak & Ravitch, in review).

Right now students need a place to name and process their trauma in community. This is a necessary foundation for all other kinds of learning and thought partnership to happen—so begin each class with a warm check-in, compassionate hellos, and state the need for everyone to engage in self-care.

Trauma-informed pedagogy foregrounds the affective dimensions of teaching and considers possible trauma histories as they play out in learning. Right now during the pandemic, it’s vital to understand that while our students are all traumatized, all traumas are not the same and do not land the same ways. While the pandemic is shared trauma, it lands into the lives of already-vulnerable populations (including some of our students and their families and communities) in ways that can cause more severe diffusion effects. As well, some students already have trauma histories separate from COVID-19 that must be considered in relation to current shared challenges.

Instructors must educate ourselves so that we can identify possible signs of trauma and not assume disengagement or apathy. Further, it is important to be intentional with language around student distress and traumatic events. Below is an example of proactive communication that is compassionate and trauma-sensitive.

Examples for Communication to Students:

Principles (Adapted from a piece by Dr. Brandon Bayne, Associate Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

1.    No one signed up for this.

  • Not for the sickness, not for the social distancing, not for the sudden end of our collective lives and collaboration together on campus.
  • Not for an online class, not for teaching remotely, not for learning from home, not for learning new technologies under duress, not for limited access to learning materials.

2.    The humane option is the best option.

  • We will prioritize kindness and supporting each other as humans.
  • We will prioritize simple solutions that make sense for the most.
  • We will prioritize sharing resources and communicating clearly.

3.    We cannot just do the same thing online.

  • Some assignments are no longer possible.
  • Some expectations are no longer reasonable.
  • Some objectives are no longer valuable.

4.    We will foster intellectual nourishment, social connection, and personal accommodation.

  • Accessible asynchronous content for diverse access, time zones, and contexts.
  • Optional synchronous discussion to learn together and combat isolation.

5.    We will remain flexible and adjust to the situation.

  • No one knows where this is going and what we’ll need to adapt.
  • Everyone needs support and understanding in this unprecedented moment.

A second communication, this one to teachers, written by Chris Lehmann (@ ChrisLehmann), the principal of my sons’ high school, Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, captures the blended ethic of flexibility and care that both teachers and students of all ages need in these times: https://practicaltheory.org/blog/

Suggested Practices

  • Notice each student’s body language and eye contact during each class session. Check for signs of self-care, shame, or withdrawal.
  • Create pathways for students to communicate trauma and distress (e.g., in a google doc, open office hours online).
  • Be sure to model self-care and well-being for your students.
  • Attune yourself to trauma—your own trauma (which is important to be in touch with right now), students’ trauma, and vicarious trauma that some of our students face in their research in communities and practice in schools or other internship sites. Work to familiarize yourself with trauma-informed pedagogy so that you come to understand trauma more complexly. Be mindful of deficitizing language and trigger words. (See: Focusing on Student Well-Being in Times of Crisis and Social and Emotional Well-Being. )
  • ALWAYS READ THE FULL CHATS CAREFULLY AFTER CLASS, students sometimes share distress, even veiled in humor. (Note: In most videoconference platforms, chats can be downloaded.)

Emergent Design, Student-Centered, Active Teaching

“Everything is in a state of flux, including the status quo.”
– Robert Byrne

Learning happens best when it is active, responsive, and contextualized. In this moment of global, institutional, and personal flux-induced stress, instructors must pause to consider the ways this crisis lands into each student’s life, how it may land differently given status and finances, whether or not students have family or community supports, and how students (like us) have unique coping mechanism formed from past experiences that may or may not be serving them well.

For the social-emotional health and well-being of your students, actively consider their level of stress while planning each class, sending out communications about changes in the syllabus or assignments. Specifically, be aware of how a student’s situation may influence their ability to collaborate on group projects. To co-create a supportive learning environment with students:

Learning experiences during COVID-19 must approach emotional well-being as central to learning, help students traverse complex systems in difficult times, build relational trust, and view pedagogical flexibility as an ethical stance, wherein everyone’s knowledges and insights are actively called into play, thereby shaking hierarchical norms to become more of a collective in a time of chaos and shared vulnerability. This applies to changes in assignments, responsibilities, and presentations that were assigned prior to the pandemic.

Suggested Practices

Re-Envision and Co-Construct

  • Re-assess assignments with your students.
    • Ask: What is the most responsive way to achieve equally valuable learning outcomes given current challenges students face?
  • Re-calibrate the structure of sessions with students.
    • Discuss: Talk with students (and colleagues) about new ideas, watch videos of different teaching approaches, re-imagine new ways of teaching (e.g., break-out rooms, using chat and screen share functions strategically).
  • Re-imagine assessment. Ask students (and colleagues): What alternative or bespoke evaluation frameworks make sense in such a dire moment?
  • One great way to do this is to look at the syllabus with students as an artifact of a pre-pandemic mindset and note what has shifted and how to address that.

Become an Introspective Ethnographer

  2. If/how students seem engaged, excited, agitated, or withdrawn and in which moments and activities. Work to be curious, not judgmental.
  3. Non-verbal communication, verbal statements and interactions, group dynamics, emotions, and assumptions that seem to go unnoticed.
  4. Emotional reactions as windows into what people value and care about, what they are stressed about and why.
  5. Engaging in meta-analysis of class interaction is useful to build a more critical and compassionate interpretation of students and situations.
  6. Schedule informal conversations with individual students soon. Try to feel into for whom this might be a burden and work around their needs.
  7. As well, you can send brief, open-ended questionnaires or a single writing prompt that asks students to prioritize their most pressing questions, needs, ideas, concerns, etc. 
  8. Foster dialogic engagement and collaboration by promoting and supporting opportunities for structured collaboration on and offline in small and large groups.

Inquiry as Stance

“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

– Paulo Freire

Inquiry as stance is a reflective learning stance on ourselves, our practice, and the contexts—near and far—that shape our practice through engaging in intentional, continuous self-reflection. An inquiry stance situates practitioners as “legitimate knowers and knowledge generators, not just implementers of others’ knowledge” (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009). Inquiry as stance is a continual process of making current and typically dominant arrangements problematic. Four central dimensions of an inquiry stance are:

  1. Rejecting the dualistic divide of formal knowledge as different from practical knowledge to instead focus on local knowledge in global contexts.
  2. Practice as the interplay of teaching, learning, and leading, as well as an expanded view of who counts as a practitioner.
  3. Views practitioner communities as the primary medium for enacting inquiry-as-stance as a theory of action.
  4. Seeks to provide and position education for a more just and democratic society.

While these are evergreen values, in these fraught COVID-19 times, prioritizing relational authenticity, validation, and care for our students (rather than sustaining hierarchies that can be distancing) is everything. By situating yourself as a learner, which we all are in such unprecedented times, you open up possibilities for dialectical growth and reciprocal learning and transformation with your students in and beyond your classes (Nakkula & Ravitch 1998).

Suggested Practices

Situate Yourself as a Learner

  1. Situate yourself as a learner in relation to becoming an online community of practice. Introduce and ongoingly communicate your learner stance by trying phrases such as, “I don’t know,” “thank you for teaching me that,” and “we’re all learning.”
  2. Listen carefully to a range of students to understand the macro and micro socio-political forces present in their educational experiences during COVID-19. This means focusing on issues of structural inequity and intersectional social identities and how they are playing out right now, including in schools and workplaces.
  3. Consider your own communication style to gain deeper insights into how others perceive you. Remember that understanding has less to do with what is said or intended as it does in how the messaging is perceived, which is mediated by culture and context.
  4. ALWAYS REMEMBER: To be aware of and sensitive to possible mental health issues and to the suffering that students feel related to the imposter syndrome.

Critical Pedagogy

“Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future.”
– Susan Sontag

Critical pedagogy situates students as agentic knowers who can investigate, question, and critique the construction of societal and educational norms in relation to their own experiences; it challenges traditional educational practices that serve to reinforce hegemonic ideas such notions of students as passive recipients for teachers’ knowledge transmission. Critical pedagogy positions students as critical citizens who can act as agents of social change. Cultivating students’ critical consciousness is part of the process of building education as a practice of freedom (Freire, 1970). Right now, this stance helps to create the conditions for students to cultivate a sense of agency in relation to what many experience as individual and collective helplessness.

Education for critical consciousness refers to the intentional development of critical understandings of social life that enable reflection on social and political contradictions as grounding for taking systematic action to improve life conditions as they are illuminated by emergent understandings. As applied to teaching during COVID, critical consciousness creates openings to cultivate more critical understandings of the arrangements and limitations of our own educational experiences and to transform them as part of social and educational disruption and reinvention during a pandemic (Pak & Ravitch, in press). This means, I believe, that we must move into our most flexible and humanizing pedagogies, which are pedagogies of hope and love (Freire, 1970; hooks, 1993), as we work to minimize opportunity costs in our courses by supporting abundance in critical learning. This is the heart of critical pedagogy, and it’s vital to show our students active compassion and care.

Suggested Practices

Critical Storytelling Use the participatory approach of semi-structured storytelling to start sessions and/or end sessions. Can relate the pandemic to course material through personal narratives.

Critical re-storying is a form of critical pedagogy, an intentional approach to cultivating intra- and inter-personal awareness and reflexivity. The intentional process of telling and listening to stories helps us to examine the roots of our ideologies, examine our belief systems and the broader social, cultural, and political spheres that shape them. In these moments of disorientation, storytelling can be a means of learning, confirming, and/or contesting reality, building and preserving community, and conveying knowledge, values, beliefs, and emotions in real-time; it allows us to co-construct the conditions in which we and our students can consider re-storying ourselves by learning to re-frame and re-index this current COVID experience with ever-new and more critical insights generated by equity-focused dialogue and reflection.

Racial Literacy Pedagogy

“The lion’s story will never be known as long as the hunter is the one to tell it.”

– West African Proverb

Racial literacy is the ability to read, recast, and resolve racially stressful encounters and to consider and address identity-related stress more broadly. Reading means decoding racial subtexts, sub-codes, and scripts. Recasting means reducing stress in racially stressful encounters using racial mindfulness. Resolving means negotiating racially stressful encounters toward a healthy conclusion. Racial literacy means that you are able to read, and thus experience, interaction through an active empowerment framework (Stevenson, 2014). It enables people to see the specific tools and coping strategies they can immediately employ if they find themselves stressed or tense during conversations about identity and equity (and then throughout their everyday lives). It is of the essence to remember that there are always varying levels of racial literacy and identity-related self-awareness as well as different levels of tolerance for tension and disagreement about these realities and issues (Stevenson, 2014).

While there is no panacea for handling the identity-based stress—your own and others’—that can emerge during conversations about topics related to identity and inequity, building racial literacy helps you to facilitate discussions (and teach others to) in ways that contribute to 1) a more open and communicative milieu, 2) a safer emotional environment, 3) helping people feel less helpless and alone, and 4) preventing or de-escalating tensions or heated disagreements. Improving your own racial literacy is necessary in order to be able to support others to do the same. It helps to build and sustain a course culture that is not afraid to examine issues of social identity and racialized stress and inequity (especially right now) and that can do so productively.

Storytelling is a means of learning, confirming reality, preserving community, and conveying knowledge (Khalifa, 2018) and it allows educators to “ease into self-reflection and become self-critical without public scrutiny” (Stevenson, 2014). Through stories, we can reflect on and reexamine what we know, explore and challenge the authenticity of the information we have, reflect on our own actions and their root motivations, and reflect on the ways that context and history inform patterns of discrimination in the present (Stevenson, 2014). Storytelling is a central tenet of critical race theory, as counter-storytelling serves to cast doubt on the accepted truths told through majoritarian narratives of minoritized communities (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002). In these crisis times, wherein social identity shapes many facets of people’s pandemic experiences, storytelling is a powerful tool to build understanding; it creates the conditions for students to share about what’s happening for them right now in relation to COVID-19, to learn from each others’ experiences, and over time, to more critically understand the impacts of broader social, cultural, and political spheres around our lives.

Suggested Practices

  • Introduce storytelling as a useful method for practicing recasting and resolving identity-related stress stories and experiences. Create a forum for shared storytelling in relation to identity-related stress and COVID. As a class, reflect on the process and see what it helped the group to develop in terms of 1) self-awareness and reflexivity; 2) inter- and intra-personal insight; 3) relational acumen and authenticity, 4) comfort ambiguity and discomfort, 5) mindfulness and presence, and 6) empathy, perspective-taking, and compassion.
  • Model and teach racial literacy no matter what else you’re teaching. For example, attune yourself to the norm that students of color are often expected to do emotional labor for white people in classes, the ways that white fragility plays out, and so on.
  • Address inequities and microaggressions—including new kinds that stem from COVID-related assumptions—as they arise during a course session (e.g., one student makes an assumption about another student based on social identity). If you realize this happened after a session ends, be sure to bring it into the group in the next meeting.
  • Work to learn in each class, from each student, where you are missing the mark. This requires opening yourself up to feedback. For example, share that you’re working on your non-binaried gender language or language to refer to minoritized populations and invite students to correct you.

Brave Space Pedagogy

“If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.”
– Paulo Freire

Brave spaces refer to a set of communication and process norms that invite authentic and critical dialogic engagement. When discussing issues that some may find difficult, uncomfortable, or challenging or in which people tightly hold onto strong beliefs, a typical response is to create “safe spaces” for dialogue. The term “safe space” generally means a place where everyone feels comfortable enough to speak openly about their opinions and to share their experiences, feelings, ideas, concerns. However, the concept of “safe spaces,” is often not what it seems; what feels safe to one person might feel aggressive, overly polite, inauthentic, or negligent to another. In strong contrast to safe spaces, brave spaces require and create more critically authentic dialogue and the co-construction of equitable norms from and for the group (Arao & Clemens, 2013). Brave spaces require group bravery as well as ongoing instructor modelling and engagement so that groups can discuss issues that live at the heart of education in ways that go a layer deeper than what is typically discussed given that these safety rules serve to uphold white male middle class values and norms of communication (Ravitch & Carl, 2019).

We need to develop our own and our students critical competencies to enact asset-based pedagogies, to foster the conditions for brave spaces over safe spaces. Importantly, the very act of exploring the concept and meaning of a “brave space” marks the beginning of a new group dynamic because it begins an acknowledgement of what anyone who is marginalized in the room already knows: only people with more social and/or institutional power get to decide what constitutes appropriate communication (Arao & Clemens, 2013).

Comparing Safe and Brave Spaces

Safe Spaces Brave Spaces
Prioritize notions of politeness of some Prioritize honesty and authenticity for all
Place primacy on a socially -and positionally-constructed idea of comfort when discussing difficult issues, comes with invisible rules Acknowledge discomfort is inevitable in discussing difficult issues and invite it into the space as a constructive process/experience
Can lead to defensiveness, lack of authenticity and reflexivity, and deflection Value risk taking, vulnerability, learning and being challenged to reflect
Narrowly define safety, usually stemming from a dominant White male middle class ableist perspective that is imposed as a normative backdrop Contend that safety means different things to different people/groups and attend to the ways individuals see/experience it in order to reach group understanding and norms
Tend not to prepare participants for engaging in difficult conversations, reinforce “taboo topics” and marginalization of POC Prepare groups for difficult conversations, develop understandings of critical dialogic engagement as professional development

(Adapted from Ravitch & Carl, 2019)

Suggested Practices

1.  Move away from the inauthentic language and concept of safe spaces.

2.  Introduce Brave Space Pedagogy: Have students read “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue around Diversity and Social Justice” [RSM6] (it’s brief) and come to class prepared to co-create inclusive and affirming group norms. Prepare to facilitate Brave Space norm-setting with the group.

Conclusion: Moving into Flux Pedagogy

Contemplating these emerging realities, the words of bell hooks (1994) call to me,

The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created…. with all its limitations, [it] remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.

– bell hooks

I believe that even with its limitations and constraints, education a location of immense possibility, especially right now in the world. The possibility we need right now lies precisely in finding, creating, and recreating the desire to view working towards freedom as an opportunity. The work of demanding of ourselves, our students, and our colleagues, an openness of mind and heart can help us to face the realities of the less-than-ideal society in which we live as we strive to move beyond the borders that confine our lives and our work. While the work of socially transformative teaching requires considerable focus and energy, our freedom, borne of growth, is truly what is at stake. We are in this together, and the teachers of the world need to teach that way and support each other.

If you’d like to stay in touch, or have questions, follow me on Twitter @SharonRavitch.


Appiah, K.A. (2006). Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of strangers. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Arao, B. & Clemens, K. (2013). “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue around Diversity and Social Justice.” In The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Educators, Ed. Lisa M. Landreman (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2013), 135-150.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research for the next generation. New York: Teachers College Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (MB Ramos, Trans.). New York: Continuum, 2007.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.

Khalifa, M. (2018). Culturally responsive school leadership. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Nakkula, M. J., & Ravitch, S. M. (1998). Matters of interpretation: Reciprocal transformation in therapeutic and developmental relationships with youth. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pak, K. & Ravitch, S.M. (in review). Critical Leadership Praxis. New York, NY: Columbia Teachers College Press.

Ravitch S.M. & Carl, M.N. (2020). Qualitative research: Bridging the conceptual, theoretical, and methodological. (2nd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Ravitch, S.M. & Carl, M.N. (2019). Applied research for sustainable change: A guide for education leaders. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Solórzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J. (2002). Critical race methodology: Counter-storytelling as an analytical framework for education research. Qualitative Inquiry, 8(1), 23-44.

Stevenson, H.C. (2014) Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences that Make a Difference. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

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