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Resisting neoliberalization of education as a humanizing pedagogy

Dr Rohit Mehta

Abstract: In designing online spaces for teaching and learning that foster diverse creative human expression, it is crucial to carefully create opportunities for students to be, know, and do in socially and culturally inclusive ways. This can be established through inclusion of multiple epistemologies and methodologies to confirm ontological diversity. A challenge to inclusive and creative pedagogy are neoliberal influences in education that continue to suppress diversification through standardized and idealized curricula and instruction. To resist market forces that prefer students to be trained as new labor for the extant and future markets, I offer design and instructional changes to resist dehumanization and promote creativity and play in the classroom.

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Dr. Rohit Mehta is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction, Kremen School of Education and Human Development at California State University, Fresno. He participates in transdisciplinary educational scholarship with an intention of designing humanizing and inclusive learning experiences for students and teachers. Dr. Mehta teaches educational psychology courses from critical and humanizing perspectives. He writes on the intersections of education and colonization, oppression, creativity, and technology. His collaborations with colleagues from across the world have been published in academic journals like Thinking Skills and Creativity, Tech Trends, Journal of Technology and Teacher Education (JTATE), Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education (JDLTE), and Journal of Media Literacy Education (JMLE).

Resisting neoliberalization of education as a humanizing pedagogy

Commonplace presence (though not yet omnipresence) of digital, internet-enabled devices (tablets, laptops, smartphones) in education can be credited to a push from big tech corporations like Google, Apple, and Microsoft who have been trying to penetrate the educational sector as a potential free market. With this push, a rhetoric of technology as a panacea for pedagogical challenges is being sold, accepted and widely adopted in educational settings. Through tool-specific training, conferences, professional development, educators are being trained as users of rapidly changing technologies, entangling them with a culture of constant “upgrading” and a manufactured need for newer, faster, better tools. With this culture, values of digitality, efficiency, productivity, standardization have been normalized in education, shrouded in the rhetoric of creativity and innovation. With the increasing influence of neoliberalism in education, however, creativity, play, and curiosity in the classroom have seen a constant decline; mental health issues have been rising, which evolutionary psychologists like Peter Gray (2011) have connected with a culture of standardization and normalization that suppress diverse ways of being, knowing, and doing.

Concepts of efficiency and productivity are socially constructed to measure human labor like machine output. Measuring human output helps with the calculation of the least amount of time to do the most work. These constructs are useful to businesses today. Employee productivity and efficiency could be measured to inform how to get each employee to do their most work in the least amount of time. Daily reports of productivity are desirable. Even better if the employees monitor themselves—keeping track of the quantity and quality of the work they do in a given amount of time. Here, standardized expectations can be powerful tools in implementing a culture of productivity and efficiency. Standardizing norms helps businesses keep employees accountable for their productivity. This culture benefits corporations who deal with a large number of employees. More capital and wealth can be generated from more efficient systems, of which labor gets minimal.  

We live a global neoliberal economy where big corporations have control over capital generation and wealth across the world. This is not very different from big company’s driving colonization across the world. Wealth accumulates inequitably at the top, reaching rarely if at all to the people who do the actual act of labor in creating the tools and artifacts, a system of products and services that are exchanged in the market. A neoliberal economic system benefits from the impression of a free market for all people, luring individuals at the lower strata of social class into thinking that social mobility is possible through participation in the market. Those privileged can enter the market at a higher social class from where garnering, controlling, and maintaining social power is easier. Those disadvantaged by the social class systems that are often distorted by humanmade constructs of oppression such as race, gender, caste, sexuality have their paths to social mobility riddled with obstacles.

A neoliberal economy benefits from labor ready to participate in the free market, who believes in the values of the system. In this system, schools—that are also an open market waiting for privatization—have an important role to play in training the labor force for neoliberal interests. Standardization of ways of knowing and doing further standardizes ways of being. To succeed in this system is to let go of the cultural ways of knowing that do not fit in the white and Eurocentric norms. Sciences, arts, philosophies, values, beliefs, realities, stories, histories of cultural knowledge systems that do not fit the needs of the market are pushed aside, ridiculed, and erased. Marginalization of cultural ways of knowing and doing further pushes people from historically oppressed communities to adopt whiteness in an attempt to succeed in society.

As an educator and researcher in educational psychology and technology, I have been critically engaged in unpacking the involvement of technology in the process of teaching and learning. From non-digital tools like pencils and books to digital technologies like tablets and laptops, technological affordances and constraints are at the root of better understanding the educational potential of each tool or technology. Knowing the potential of technology helps repurpose it for educational spaces. However, each technology comes with its own political background. With digital tools and technologies that are shaping the online teaching and learning experiences during the pandemic—such as Zoom, Canvas, Google—technological corporations have a lot to gain from user (student and teacher) data, which raises concerns about data privacy, surveillance, security, automated patterning of user experience and behavior, among other issues around citizenship.

Given the unchecked involvement of profit-driven neoliberal corporations in educational spaces through proliferation of digital technology use, values of efficiency, productivity, and performance are being coopted as goals of teaching and learning, shifting the emphasis further from curious engagement, creativity and diverse expression. This rapid shift calls for more critical scrutiny of the intentions of tech companies, the benefits and side-effects of heavy digital technology use, and the long-term implications of data-oriented approaches in education.

To counter the dehumanizing colonial and neoliberal influences in education, I intentionally design humanizing practices that pushback on the myths of efficiency, productivity, and performance (Mehta & Aguilera, 2020; Shelton, Aguilera, Gleason & Mehta, 2020).  I counter timed tests, quizzes, deadlines, power structures, through simple curricular design changes that allow students unlimited attempts, revisions, collaboration, use of references, multimodal creation and production, and most importantly provide them with lenses to see our world with criticality to power. Humanizing pedagogy helps me counter oppressive norms in education. I see its biggest challenger today in the inevitable neoliberalization of education. Humanizing pedagogy is empathetic to students and their histories, stories, cultural knowledge systems and praxis. Through it, my goal is to be inclusive of diversity of sense-making, expression, knowledge, and existence. This could be achieved by fostering educational environments that are free of judgment and measurement, that allow students to explore, create, and share their understanding of the world as they be/become, know, and do as they deem necessary through their own unique lived experiences.  


Gray, P. (2011). The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents. American Journal of Play, 3(4), 443-463.

Mehta, R., & Aguilera, E. (2020). A critical approach to humanizing pedagogies in online teaching and learning. International Journal of Information and Learning Technology, 37(3), 109–120
Mehta, R., Creely, E. & Henriksen, D. (2020). A profitable education: Countering neoliberalism in 21st century skills discourses. In J. Keengwe & G. Onchwari (edits), Handbook of Research on Literacy and Digital Technology Integration in Teacher Education(pp. 359-381). Hershey, PA: IGI global. 

Shelton, C., Aguilera, E., Gleason, B., & Mehta, R. (2020). Resisting dehumanizing assessments: Enacting critical humanizing pedagogies in online teacher education. Teaching, technology, and teacher education during the COVID-19 pandemic: Stories from the field, 125-128.



Posted on 03 December 2020 08:30:00

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