Notes on: Zembylas M and McGlynne, C. (2012) 'Discomforting pedagogies: emotional tensions, ethical dilemmas and transformative possibilities'.  British Educational Research Journal 38 (1): 41-59.

 Dave Harris

A discomforting pedagogical activity designed to teach students about social injustice, 'an adaptation of the classic "Blue-Eyed, Brown-Eyed" exercise', was tried out in an integrated school in Northern Ireland with 10 and 11 year old students.  An ethnographic study offers an evaluation showing mixed results, and some risks.


There is a common assumption that social injustices are taught meaningfully by engaging students emotionally, as in Boler's [and Zembylas's] pedagogy of discomfort.  Participants move outside their comfort zones and this helps them challenge dominant beliefs habits and practices that sustains social inequalities.  But how effective are discomforting pedagogies? How should teachers deal with discomforting emotions?  One issue concerns the difficulties of establishing boundaries to limit the discomfort and pursue the implications.  The case study of a Northern Ireland school is contexted, page 42, showing the importance of the history of recent conflict as likely to produce particular dilemmas.  The study focuses on the emotional experience of students and teachers, how teachers operated with a pedagogy of discomfort, and how the children responded.


As background, we can see emotions as involved in relations of power, and is crucial in forming social norms.  Emotional expressions and conduct are themselves normative.  Disrupting the norms will change the emotions associated with them and question attachments.  A particular interest is in being able to reflect on 'norms and practices that sustain inequities'(43).  Encountering injustice usually evokes emotions such as 'anger, outrage or sadness', but it would be a mistake to identify [the perception or definition of] injustice with these emotions.  For example, compassionate feelings for children who are treated unjustly 'do not guarantee activism to transform the structures of oppression'.  Nevertheless, emotion is a significant component in justifying oppressive structures.  We need to understand how emotions are reproduced and connected to values and beliefs: exploring injustice is a good way to do this.  However, an appropriate pedagogy needs to be thought out, together with its risks.


Nevertheless, there is a 'pivotal role of emotions and disrupting hegemonic perceptions and feelings', and if teaching is to challenge these feelings, it must involve some discomfort.  Felman, who teaches about the holocaust, says that teaching should produce emotional volatility, even a crisis in students, although without driving them crazy.  But is this ethically responsible?  Can the topic be taught without discomfort?  However, in principle, Boler and Zembylas (2003) argue, there are no safe places in classrooms, since they are always the subject of power and privilege.  Conversely, it should always be possible to create 'some sort of safety in the classroom', (44) even when deliberately discomforting, and this is necessary to engage in critical enquiry of students' own beliefs.


A pedagogy of discomfort might be necessary to deconstruct conventional ways of thinking and feeling.  This in turn will help educators 'begin to identify the unconscious privileges as well as the invisible ways in which they comply with dominant ideology'.  However, this might not always be the consequence, and some privileged students might be able to rationalise or develop a sentimental reaction, or even reinforce their own identity, or just get depressed and overwhelmed [citing Wang 2005].  Sometimes, apathy can be pierced, and transformation catalysed.  However, each pedagogy of discomfort 'is singular and unique' (45), and context is crucial: effects can not be known in advance.


The case study is then described.  It is a liberal mixed school, committed to ending sectarian and racist prejudice.  Classroom activities often challenge these head on.  The surrounding community is not divided by religion or social class.  There is a high proportion of SEN children, one of the school's specialities.  There is an emphasis on 'child focused practice'(46), listening to children's needs, representing their views on a junior board of governors, and prioritising children's interests in development.  The teacher had chosen for the study had used discomforting pedagogy already, and was mentioned as being particularly willing to tackle difficult issues.  He was known to the researcher (McGlynn) and there was a good level of communication and trust. Zembylas acted more as a critical outsider.


The intention was to look at the ways in which students reflected on 'their discomforting emotions' and how the teacher managed his 'emotional investment in relation to his pedagogical goal'; how ethical and practical dimensions of discomfort was managed; how the pedagogical approached was justified to challenge sectarian prejudice.  Qualitative ethnography was pursued.  McGlynn had worked with the school already.  There was the usual ethical permissions [with a rather vague description of what the team were doing, 47].  The team interviewed, observed the classroom or over a week, and collected documents, four student focus groups were also organized, one immediately after, then five months later.  Everything was tape recorded and transcribed.  Questions focused on feelings and aspirations related to this particular exercise.  The teacher was asked frequently to describe the emotions he was experiencing and how these might be connected to student emotions.  Zembylas helped to code the responses.


The pedagogical exercise followed on from reading The boy in the striped pyjamas.  Children were allocated groups according to how they chose a playing card, and in the teacher rewarded 'good' ones and punished 'bad' ones [excluded them from freely chosen activities].  The teacher chose in particular some well behaved children who seemed able to cope and play along, and put them in the bad group.  He hoped that children would rebel against injustice and report him, or ask to leave the classroom.  Observations fill out the details, 48.  [It seems that the majority good children are the only ones who are supposed not to know what is going on—the bad group is simply taken out of the classroom and not allowed  free activity].  After a while, the teacher confesses that his actions are random, and later, that it is false, and connected to the book they have been reading.  Then they have a 'full and interactive discussion'.  The teacher checks that the children are not too upset, asks them how they felt ['anxiety, fear, shock, confusion and anger', but it is not clear whether this is from the activity or from reading the book, 49] and affirms their feelings.  They wind up with 'an extended circle time'.


'Evident anxiety' was observed as the children turn their cards over.  As the bad group were excluded, one kid was particularly 'outraged' and protested out loud.  Others resisted the challenge.  It is possible that these reactions were induced by the presence of the researcher.  Most children told the protester to shut up and put up with it, and most ignored the bad group.  Teacher confessing it was a random choice produced more shock, and more protest about it being not fair, although some girls attempted to justify the teacher's action.  Revealing the purpose of the whole thing produced relief, and some 'heated debate' about who was right and who had seen through it already.


In the circle time, some of the good group showed behaviour which implied  'perhaps, some degree of satisfaction at classmates discomfort' (50).  Only two felt guilty.  There was recognition that children would require courage to challenge the teacher.  One did not want to get the teacher into trouble, especially if the researcher was writing it down.  However, this 'may also be a convenient excuse for not challenging the teacher's action'.  Some of the stooges were disappointed that no one had supported them.  Fear of teacher’s reaction if anyone had questioned him persisted in the focus groups, although some realized that they should stand up for their friends.  They did seem to see a connection between the activity and the book, 'and hence met the teacher's objective regarding injustice'.  [allegedly direct speech is recorded, 50].


Follow-up interviews after five months with focus groups of mixed good and bad children explored any long-term implications.  All the children remembered the lesson, and described 'a much wider range of emotions than they did five months earlier' (51), probably because they had been able to 'narrativise' their emotions better after a lapse.  Some children were confused about why the others were put into a bad group.  Not all the bad group do seem to have been wised up, and some were scared.  More expressed feelings of guilt, including gilts that others had been selected for the bad group.  The good group 'reported a deep empathy' for the bad group, and imagined their feelings of fear or confusion.  Both groups were afraid of the teacher shouting at them, including the bad group who were really worried about punishment.  Two good group children said it was a memorable and different lesson: others were less sure and had to be encouraged to comment.  Some good group children were 'more confident in expressing feelings of discomfort' about the pedagogy, and only one disliked it because of an adverse personal reaction—she was a relatively isolated child anyway.  Three children said they now have learned to stick up for their friends.  Some in the good group felt proud that they had been considered 'mature enough to cope'.


The teacher had warned that the lesson might be controversial, but felt justified.  He saw discomfort as a deliberate strategy and said it helped to create the sense of moral justice: the researcher adds it can provide concrete insights about what it is like to be a victim.  Controlled discomfort was to challenge and provide the possibility of alternatives.  It was necessary to actually experience some degree of injustice 'in order to fully empathise with those who are subject to it' (53).  He claimed some former pupils had to challenge sectarianism in their secondary school.  No one had ever actually reported him, however, although he thought that long-term consequences might be more important.  He had planned to minimise 'serious upset', by selecting the bad group carefully, for example: they were rapidly informed that the activity was fake, but they might have suffered for a couple of minutes.  However, the risks were outweighed by the 'potential learning'(54): knowing the children was crucial, as were subsequent activities to let them express their feelings.  The teacher recognised that less reasonable comments might have been made outside the classroom.


Overall, the pedagogical exercise had different impacts.  Emotional reactions were better developed after a lapse of time.  There were several risks, including those produced by the differences between teacher and students.  A variety of emotions were indeed expressed.  Except in one case, although students thought that the activity was valuable.  However, discomforting pedagogy might have different results in different circumstances.  Safety nets might be inadequate—for example, some of the children researched were still showing discomfort after a period of several months.  Further, 'it is not always clear that all the students are engaged in meaning for learning about social injustice'(55) —for example, the differential power between teacher and student subdued the reactions.  However, one student did take the risk of disagreeing with his teacher, and students were still thinking about injustice even after five months.


So is this an appropriate level of discomfort?  How can excesses be avoided?  Were the safety nets in this case adequate?  It seems that we must always have 'mechanisms to debrief children' (56) in particular.  Pedagogical effectiveness is also unclear.  Some children only got the purpose of the lesson following discussion with peers.  Some children showed only 'passive empathy…  [which] …  runs the risk of ignoring active responsibility to one another or taking action to reduce injustice'.  The children might well end up simply 'in "the no win trap of guilt vs. innocence"'[citing Boler 1999], with no positive results for themselves or for others.  The positive results after a lapse of time might simply reflect the ability to narrativise emotions.  Time lapses can both heighten and reduce emotional intensity.  'Retrospective reflection in itself may generate passive empathy and runs the risk of embellishment'. Teachers have to encourage active empathy instead: discomfort can have an initial effect of breaking with accustomed ways of thinking and feeling.


Anyone using discomforting pedagogy needs to be clear about the ethical and pedagogical responsibilities.  Teachers require 'an ethic of empathy and caring', and to provide a safe space.  Students may confront each other in very different ways, and they need to be supported if they are trying 'to gain greater clarity about their emotional investment and increase their ability to account for their values and their effects on others' (56-57).  Student-teacher relationships are complicated, and not all teachers can do it.


The context of this particular case study makes it particularly valuable, and there is a clear awareness of the need to manage conflict.  In this case, the teacher, children, parents and the school community in general seem able to 'determine the levels of acceptability and appropriateness of such a pedagogy' (57).  The real issue is how [to create such a context and] to enable teachers and students to demand justice and managing any possible discomfort that might be required.


The useful references include:


Boler, M.  (1999) Feeling power: emotions and education.  New York: Routledge

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