Monday, 13 February 2017

Critical Pedagogy: A Brief Introduction

For me, the purpose of education should be to develop critical, creative, thoughtful and reflective individuals who can contribute positively to society and challenge systems of injustice and inequality. Kincheloe and Weil (2004) argue that during this time of unprecedented opportunity and accelerating change we must take seriously the challenge of developing children’s criticality. Indeed, ‘criticality is a practice, a mark of what we do, of who we are, and not only how we think’ (Burbules and Berk, 1999, p. 62). Broadly defined, critical pedagogy is a philosophical approach to education which is concerned with the creation of a more socially just and equitable world (Breuing, 2011).

Much has been written about critical pedagogy’s aim to integrate a vision of human equality and justice into teaching and learning (hooks, 1994; Kanpol, 1999; Kincheloe, 2011). However, Freire (1970) argues that in order to achieve this justice-orientated vision students need to have their critical consciousness developed. Critical consciousness is not only ‘developing a language of critique but also a vision of a better world for which it is worth struggling’ (Moen, 2010, p. 10). Critical pedagogy sees society as being divided by unequal power relations which should not be ignored. Teaching, when viewed through a critical pedagogical lens, should be seen as a political act where educators have a responsibility to pursue social justice (Deleon, 2006). The focus here is on developing a democratic culture which inspires and empowers students to analyse the social, economic and political underpinnings of society (McLaren, 1998; Cho, 2010). Furthermore, the task of critical pedagogy is to bring members of oppressed groups; whether through class, gender or race to a critical awareness of their situation (Burbules and Berk, 1999; Breuing, 2011). Critical pedagogy is ultimately about equality, liberation, freedom from oppression and anti-marginalization.

Historically, critical pedagogy is rooted in the literature of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School where it was ‘argued that schools provide a distorted view of history…that in turn, undermine the kind of social consciousness needed to bring about change and social transformation’  (Beuring, 2011, p. 4)  During the early part of the twentieth century the influential philosopher Dewey (1910) wrote about the importance of democracy in schools and the need for education to promote values such as justice and equality. Throughout the 1970s Freire developed a critical pedagogical approach which was borne from his experience of teaching adult literacy programmes in the slums of Brazil. Critical pedagogy has since been developed by educators such as Henry Giroux,  bell hooks, Michael Apple, Peter McLaren and Joe Kincheoloe. While approaches and discourses may vary a central component of critical pedagogy is the role that schools play in conveying information about social and political life (Beuring, 2011). Indeed, critical pedagogy is not about developing a set of teaching techniques but rather a philosophical underpinning which places social justice and equality at the very heart of education.

Teachers who wish to become critical pedagogues must also begin to question how the traditional model of education cements the teacher/ pupil power relations. Within critical pedagogy ‘the authority of the teacher is dialectical…they assume the mature authority of facilitators of student inquiry and problem posing’ (Kincheloe, 2011). Through critical pedagogy the teacher no longer acts a transmitter of knowledge but instead becomes a learner too through open and meaningful dialogue with their students (Freire, 1970; Kincheloe, 2011). Consequently, critical pedagogy is the antithesis of ‘knowledge banking’ and didactic teaching as it aims to provide opportunities for students to develop their critical consciousness through discussion and debate (Burbules and Berk, 1999; Breuing, 2011). Shor (1992, p. 17) describes critical pedagogy as an approach which, amongst other things, is ‘participatory’. ‘problem-posing’, ‘dialogic’ and ‘democratic’. This critical pedagogical approach ensures that students are not simply passive consumers of knowledge but are instead active learners. Not only does this develop students’ love of learning but also encourages them to become active democratic citizens. Hence the focus is on fostering criticality in order for students to question authority rather than simply kowtow to the whim of those in power. As Shor (1992, p. 22) argues, critical pedagogy ensures that ‘meaning and purpose are constructed mutually, not imposed from top down as orthodoxies’. Furthermore, for critical pedagogy, knowledge is not presented as universal truths but rather as a problems that need to be solved through inquiry (Freire, 1974). This negates the dogmatic imposition of pre-determined knowledge and culture. It also enables students to see themselves as knowledgeable individuals rather than ‘cultural deficits’ (Shor, 1992, p. 37). However, in order for this to occur requires teachers to adopt a pedagogical approach that situates and relates learning to students' everyday lives.

One of the main goals of teaching and learning is to provide students with opportunities to develop their own criticality and creativity. An effective way to achieve this objective is through open dialogue between the teacher (or facilitator) and students (Shor, 1992; Beuring, 2011). According to Freire, dialogue is the only way to understand and answer political questions and truly grasp the nature of one’s being. This pedagogical approach is rooted in the idea that learning should be participatory and not passive. As such, ‘critical pedagogy can offer a set of tools to help students become critical readers, researchers, and producers of the word and the world’ (Gurn, 2011, p. 151).  This is hugely important as ‘the classroom with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility’ (hooks, 1994, p. 207). 


Breuing, M. (2011), ‘Problematizing Critical Pedagogy’, International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3. No. 3, pp 2- 23.

Burbules, N. Berk, R. (1999), Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Relations, Differences, and Limits. In Popkewitz, T. and Fendler, L.(eds) Critical Theories in Education. New York: Routledge. Pp. 45 – 66.

Cho, S. (2010), ‘Politics of Critical Pedagogy and New Social Movements’, Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 42, No. 3. pp. 310-325.

Deleon, A. (2006), ‘The time for action is now! Anarchist theory, critical pedagogy, and radical possibilities’. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 72 – 94.

Freire, P. (1970), Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Freire, P. (1974), Education for Critical Consciousness. London: Continuum.

Gurn, A. (2011), ‘Critical Pedagogy in the Classroom and the Community’, Curriculum Inquiry, Vol. 41, No. 1. pp. 143- 152.

hooks, b. (1994), Teaching to Transgress; Education as the practice of freedom. London: Routledge.

Kincheloe, J. and Weil. D. (2004), Critical Thinking and Learning: An Encyclopaedia for Parents and Teachers. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

McLaren, P. (1998), Life in Schools: An introduction to critical pedagogy in the foundations of education. New York: Longman.

Moen, D. (2010), ‘Ethical Responsibility as Educators to Not Pretend to be ‘Objective and Value Free’: Inculcating a Critical Political Consciousness’, The Journal of Engaged Pedagogy, Vol 9, No. 1. pp. 3 – 19.

Shor, I. (1992). Empowering Education; Critical teaching for social change. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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