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Life-Changing Courses: Pedagogy and Power: An Introduction to Education

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This is the fourth profile in a series on transformative courses at the College. To nominate a course to be profiled, email

What, really, is the purpose of education? How should we “do” education? Pedagogy and Power, the Introduction to Education course taught by the Educational Studies Department, is an ever-popular course that uses historical and current texts, as well as student reflections on their own experiences, to question the nature of education.

This past spring, three sections of the course were offered respectively by Associate Professor of Educational Studies and Latin American & Latino Studies Edwin Mayorga, Henry C. and Charlotte Turner Professor Lisa Smulyan ’76, and Visiting Assistant Professor Roseann Liu, one of which was taught in a first-year seminar format.

Many are aware of the opportunities that a successful education might bring, including social mobility, new avenues of career opportunities, and fulfillment. This, however, is a drastic simplification that overlooks the landscape of educational context, policy, and theories. 

“Education has, historically and in the present, served to reproduce inequality,” says Smulyan, “and it has the potential to contribute to resistance, transformation, and liberation.”

In this course, students spend the first few weeks studying the sociopolitical and historical contexts of education and the policy landscape, raising important questions on the social reproduction of inequality, the school-to-prison pipeline, state standardized testing, and education’s long-standing history of oppression and marginalization. Students then turn the lens to learning theories and pedagogy, developing an understanding of the potential social justice mission of teaching and learning. 

Outside the classroom, the students engage in fieldwork experiences that allow them to explore the intersections of theory and practice. Despite the difficulties of online education, last spring students were placed in different programs across the U.S., ranging from a math classroom at Strath Haven High School, a mile away from campus, to an English-language learning center in New York City and an ESL class in California. 

Students wrote fieldwork reflections and even designed their own curriculum by incorporating extant theories on learning and pedagogy. In one semester, the course raises fundamental questions of the Swarthmore experience. And, through learning by doing, students are empowered to continue their intellectual and personal pursuit for educational justice. 

“Intro to Education was life-changing, because it helped me visualize the power of education,” says Yifan Ping ’21, an honors anthropology & sociology major and honors education studies minor from Yangzhou, China, who will next attend the University of Oxford to pursue a Ph.D. in international education. “It’s not about abstract theories of power in a sociological sense; it is a praxis that changed students’ perception of learning.”  

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