Critical Pedagogy

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Critical pedagogy is a teaching approach inspired by critical theory and other radical philosophies, which attempts to help students question and challenge posited "domination," and to undermine the beliefs and practices that are alleged to dominate. In other words, it is a theory and practice of helping students achieve "critical consciousness."

Critical pedagogic educator Ira Shor defines critical pedagogy as:

Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional cliches, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse. (Empowering Education, 129)[1]

In this tradition the teacher works to lead students to question ideologies and practices considered oppressive (including those at school), and encourage "liberatory" collective and individual responses to the actual conditions of their own lives.

The student often begins as a member of the group or process he or she is critically studying (e.g., religion, national identity, cultural norms, or expected roles). After the student begins to view present society as deeply problematic, the next behavior encouraged is sharing this knowledge, paired with an attempt to change the perceived oppression of the society. A good picture of this development from social member to dissident to radical teacher/learner is offered in both Paulo Freire's book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and bell hooks' book Teaching to Transgress. An earlier propenent of a more active classroom, where students direct the epistemological method as well as the actual object(s) of inquiry is the late Neil Postman. In his Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Postman suggests creating a class where students themselves are entirely in control of the syllabus, class activities, and grading.

Topics Introduced

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To help encourage students to change their view from accepting the social norms (viewed by critics as being gullible) into being independently critical (viewed by mainstream society as being cynical) the instructors often introduce challenges to heroic icons and self-edifying history using contradictory reports or external points of view of the same subjects.

Generalized Examples

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To encourage students to become critical the instructor might use these tasks to challenge the generally accepted paradigm of the student's society:

  • Prompt the student to investigate a war that his or her society has waged and considered just and critically evaluate if it meets the criteria of a just war.
  • Encourage students to explore issues of power in their own families.
  • To lead students to examine the underlying messages of popular culture and mass media.
  • Require the evaluation of existing controversies in contemporary society, such as the relative merits of U.S. government spending on atomic weapons versus international health programs.
  • Ask whether the metaphoric emperor is, in fact, clothed.

Real-world examples of concepts often introduced to generate critical thinking:

  • A challenge to the reverential mythology around Christopher Columbus and leading students to investigate primary sources by and about the historical figure. One might possibly suggest sources such as the Black Legend, or other sources that cast more disconcerting views on the legacy of his efforts.


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A prevalent result of critical pedagogy is that students view certain aspects of their lifestyles, nation, or culture critically for the first time.

As an example, someone who follows this means of learning about the United States culture may develop a view that most people in Western society are sleepwalking through a banal existence of consumption, obedience, and propaganda, and that they need to be awakened.

Call to Action

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Most instructors of critical pedagogy encourage students who have reached the cognitive state perceived as "enlightened" to share their knowledge in an attempt to reveal perceived failings of society with the goal of fostering what critical pedagogy regards as positive change. Other critical pedagogues, however, are suspicious of the claims encountered in certain modernist emancipatory discourses. Rather than seeking to 'enlighten' the 'gullible,' these instructors explore concepts of identity, history, desire, etc. with learners, and any subsequent calls to action are made by learners.


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During South African apartheid, legal racialization implemented by the regime drove members of the radical leftist Teachers' League of South Africa to employ critical pedagogy with a focus on nonracialism in Cape Town schools and prisons. Teachers collaborated loosely to subvert the racist curriculum and encourage critical examination of political and social circumstances in terms of humanist and democratic ideologies. The efforts of such teachers are credited with having bolstered student resistance and activism.[2]


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"Famous" authors of critical pedagogy texts include Paulo Freire, Rich Gibson, Michael Apple, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, Joe L. Kincheloe, Howard Zinn, Antonia Darder and others. Famous educationalists including Jonathan Kozol and Parker Palmer are sometimes included in this category. Other critical pedagogues more famous for their anti-schooling, unschooling, or deschooling perspectives include Ivan Illich, John Holt, Ira Shor, John Taylor Gatto, and Matt Hern. Much of the work draws on feminism, marxism, Lukacs, Wilhelm Reich, post-colonialism, and the discourse theories of Edward Said, Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault. Radical Teacher is a magazine dedicated to critical pedagogy and issues of interest to critical educators. The Rouge Forum is an online organization led by people involved with critical pedagogy.


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A number of motion pictures have been used as case studies or object lessons in critical pedagogy, but this does not necessarily imply that the writers and directors of these films endorse radical left-wing politics, or that the films are necessarily allegorical.

  • In the movie The Matrix, the setting is an artificial construction of oppression that instills complacency in its captives through a form of virtual reality, much like the World Wide Web you are currently immersed in. The movie's initial conflict sees the protagonist Neo coming to grips with this truth by suspending belief of the reality he has accepted as unquestionable.
  • In John Carpenter's "They Live" special sunglasses help the protagonist see the hidden messages that lull the population to sleep and seduce them to obedience. These special sunglasses are regarded by someTemplate:Who? as a visual metaphor for critical consciousness. But this sort of consciousness is disturbing, and the protagonist has to fight to get someone else to put the glasses on.
  • In the biographical film Stand and Deliver Jaime Escalante challenges urban students to excel at math.
  • Dead Poets Society, a Peter Weir film, is set in a 1950's American prep school. Teacher John Keating encourages students to think freely, challenge social norms and "seize the day."
  • In the movie "Accepted", when faced with cultural and parental pressures to attend college, a group of non-admitted recent high school graduates creates a fictitious college. Obstensibly a teen comedy, accepted is said by someTemplate:Who? to exemplify Freire's notion of critical pedagogy by showcasing the learning that takes place when students are confronted with the question "What do you want to learn?" while they are exhorted by an iconoclast academic to question various societal assumptions.


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When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all.
Paul Simon, Kodachrome
We don't need no education, We don't need no thought-control. No dark sarcasm in the classroom - Teacher, leave those kids alone! All in all, you're just another brick in the wall.
Pink Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall part 2

Interestingly though, all the surviving pupils who took part in the Pink Floyd recording collectively agree they would not now support as radical a position as the sentiments expressed by the composers in this song. [1]

The teacher stands in front of the class, but the lesson plan he can't recall. The student's eyes don't perceive the lies bouncing off every fucking wall. His composure is well kept, I guess he fears playing the fool. The complacent students sit and listen to some of that bullshit that he learned in school.
— Zack de la Rocha, Rage Against the Machine, Take the Power Back

These are a few examples of musical artists who have explored the world of critical pedagogy. Artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Public Enemy, System of a Down, Propagandhi, The Beatles,dead prez, the coup and Eminem have been viewed as raising critical consciousness and challenging authority through some of their works.

Other media

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Critical pedagogy is used throughout Grant Morrison's comic book The Invisibles. It is a major theme and plot device through out the series, particularly in the first few issues and the final series.

Also, the book intended for adolescents, "The Giver" by Lois Lowry, depicts an apparently utopian society that is gradually revealed as dystopic. Jonas, the story's protagonist, becomes the "Receiver of Memory" and undergoes a process that someTemplate:Who? argue is comparable to the development of critical consciousness. Despite the criticisms of various conservative groups who cite that the ideas in the book are inappropriate for children, the book is still included on the middle school reading lists of many school districts.

Critiques of Critical Pedagogy

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Critical pedagogy has its critics. They attack the methodology, the goal, and appearances. Below are some contrary views.

  • Teachers that use this method will often bias the class towards an anti-status quo position instead of allowing students to decide if they agree or disagree with the situation at hand [ref?].
  • This approach to understanding the nature of society is often presented in a very intellectual fashion. When an individual attains the interest to find out the validity of the statements they inherently must consider themselves separate from the rest of society. Critics will describe such a self-image as being elitist in a way which excludes the bulk of society thus preventing progress [ref?].
  • The goal exceeds the desire to instill creativity and exploration by encouraging detrimental disdain for tradition, hierarchy (such as parental control over children), and self-isolation [ref?].
  • Such a high degree of distrust in generally accepted truths will create or perpetuate conspiracy theories [ref?].
  • Critical pedagogists selectively pick icons to interrogate and subvert: for example, Thomas Jefferson but not Martin Luther King [ref?].
  • Many people involved in critical pedagogy have never been involved in serious struggles and have used the field to build themselves and a small publishing cabal rather than a social movement. Paulo Freire, for example, can be criticized for being for revolution wherever he was not, and for reform wherever he was [ref?].
  • Critical pedagogy is, in many instances, a movement in opposition to revolutionary or marxist movements as easily seen in its roots in Catholic base communities of Latin America, created to stave off the potential of class war. Much of critical pedagogy focuses on culture, language, and abstractions about domination rather than criticizing the centrality of class, alienation, and exploitation [ref?].
  • Rather than "liberating" student thought, teachers replace a cultural bias with their own bias [ref?].

See also

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  1. Shor, I. (1992). Empowering education: critical teaching for social change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Wieder, Alan (2003). Voices from Cape Town Classrooms: Oral Histories of Teachers Who Fought Apartheid. History of Schools and Schooling Series, vol. 39. New York: Peter Lang. ISBN 0-8204-6768-5.

A great deal of this content is currently an adaptation of the Wikipedia article on Critical pedagogy.