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What the Hell is Critical Pedagogy?

Sorry for  the crude title of this post, but it's a phrase that I often get when I mention critical pedagogy with other educators. I'm a big believer in the idea of 'praxis' as coined by Paulo Freire, which states that understanding theory is essential to our practice as educators. I remember being in teachers college and having conversations with classmates about how they didn't think theory had any value to us. I must admit, when I first started, I also thought that the time we were spending in philosophy class was taking up valuable time that I could have been using in the classroom to learn 'how to be a teacher'.

However, my appreciation of the theory of education drastically changed while in a philosophy of education class and I learned about Paulo Freire and critical pedagogy. At first, I wasn't immediately drawn to Paulo's ideas of critical instruction and his critique of the banking theory of education, as I could barely understand what he meant. I must have read his famous book, 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed', three or four times before I started to connect the dots and understand how the theory I was reading was starting to impact my practice. I began thinking that if I wanted to be an educator that stood for a socially just and equitable world, I needed to understand that the contradictions that are within our world impact the education system and the direct way that I teach.

I knew that I did not want be the authoritarian and (mostly) lazy teachers that I had in my high school experience (I had a couple of great teachers along the way too!). The main reason I wanted to be a teacher is that I believed I could be a much better educator than the ones I had in high school. (I know, I know, I'm working on my inflated ego here). I started to take the theories I was learning from Freire, as well as Dewey, Giroux, McLaren, Hooks (amongst others) and apply them to what I was doing in the classroom.

I think it's important that at this point that I clarify what exactly critical pedagogy is and how I use that theory to inform my practice within my classroom. Critical Pedagogy does not have one universal definition, but I do like how the late Joe Kincheloe framed it as the understanding of how the issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and colonialism impact the purpose of education. In our current world, market placed ideas dominant most of our institutions. Critical Pedagogy challenges the capitalistic notion that education is training to get a job. Critical pedagogy forces educators to understand the purpose of what they do and how that applies to the world they, and their students, live in.

Within the classroom, my practice is informed by the multitude of theories that I have read, and continue to read and attempt to understand. Here are a few of the assets that critical pedagogy and other critical theory provides me:

1.Theory allows me to understand that students are not merely passive receptors of knowledge and actually have the capability to create knowledge within the classroom.

2.Theory informs me how race, class, gender, sexuality and colonialism can impact a students ability to have a positive experience in school. 

3. Theory provides me with the tools to understand the world and its contradictions and how those contradictions are perpetuated within the education system and classrooms!

4. Theory forces me to be reflective and critical of my practice to ensure that I am not acting in an oppressive manner. 

5. Theory pushes me to continually strive to be a more critical, engaging, and positive educator for the youth I serve. 

These are just a few of the reasons of why I value theory and why I think it's essential that every educator has a basic understanding of how theory impacts their practice. After all, teachers always have a theory of why a student is misbehaving, receiving bad grades, or bullying other kids. We just have to make sure that our theory is an informed one. 

I'm still and will be constantly working on perfecting my 'praxis' is it is a constant work in progress. But, to give you a more concrete example of how theory informs my practice, I'll describe a number of the assessments that I have in my class. I work in inner-city Edmonton at a school for at-risk youth. 95% of my students are of Aboriginal descent and many are firmly entrenched in hip hop culture. In order to have an equitable relationship with my students and to engage them in the learning process, I must begin by embracing their culture (traditional and hip hop) within my classroom. Once that has been embraced, we can begin critically engaging with knowledge and building it together. 

Here are a few example assessments for a grade 11 social studies class: 

Projects: Each unit, you will complete 1-2 major projects about an issue we are solving. The purpose of your project will be to come up with a solution to a problem we are studying. All students will propose solutions and complete a physical project (poster, PowerPoint, presentation, essay, report, etc.). Further details will be explained during class time.
Freestyle: Throughout each unit, you will be asked to write/draw 1-2 short (1 page) written responses/rap/drawing about any topic that relates to what we have been studying. In class, we will discuss ideas for you to write about, however, the purpose of the assignment is write/rap/draw about something that you’re passionate about. It could be your own personal experiences or your opinion on a social issue that we discuss. The point is, the choice is yours!
Mic Checks: Throughout each unit, students are responsible for completing 2 paragraph reaction papers. You will react/respond in written form to selected class readings, songs, cartoons, photographs, quotes or documentaries. The mic check should consist of a summary of the reading/song/movie as well as your reaction/opinion to the text.
Socratic Seminar: Each unit, you will be asked to read an article, listen to a song, watch a movie, or read/watch a speech by a historical figure. You will then be asked to participate in a seminar in which you discuss the given text with your fellow classmates. Details of this assignment will be given out before each seminar.
The Class MC: Each student will have the opportunity to lead a segment of class discussion based on an assigned reading, song, video or quote once each unit. You can work individually or in a crew to lead your discussion. You will present your reading/song to the class and then lead a discussion, with interesting questions, to stimulate a good conversation around your assigned reading/song.

These assessments are only the beginning to infusing hip hop culture with academic rigour. The day to day interactions with my students must be non-authoritarian, but not forgetting that as a teacher, I do have authority in the classroom to make it a safe and engaging place for learners.

Theory can be intimidating and even frustrating at times. However, it is essential that teachers are engaged with theory in order to inform their practice for the better. If we believe in a healthy democracy, then we must practice those principals in our class if we want our students to improve the state of our world for the better. Teachers are intellectuals, it's time we remind ourselves, and the public, of our capabilities and impact on society.


  1. Dan, with all your student lead activities and conversations, how do you account for the population we work with and the high probability that they won't read the readings or, more likely, be absent during them? How can these students be expected to become Class MC?

  2. Great question!

    With anything with our students, I find the best approach has been to do everything within the class. A big part of it is for me to model and demonstrate the "how to" of any assignment. It requires direct instruction on how to create different question styles, write a paragraph, and lead a discussion. Teaching these basics is a big part of the beginning of each course I teach and then reviewed regularly for about 2-3 hours per week.

    The class mc has been the only one of the assignments that has had some major hiccups. What I've found to be the most successful is that students complete the reading as a class in the morning, with the MC of that day preparing afterwards to create a list of questions to lead a discussion afterwards. Music Videos have worked better in this sense, but often students need help finding a music video that relates to the topic. It's something I need to revisit for next semester! I've only done this for one semester so far but what was interesting is that the student performing the MC class always showed up, but then the rest of the students did not, leaving the MC with no one to discuss their reading or song with.


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