Critical Pedagogy: One of Many Educational Paths

I was introduced to the educational path known as “Critical Pedagogy” by my fellow Alternative Education Resource Organization member John Harris Loflin, an activist for educational alternatives, particularly for urban, at-risk minority communities. John argues persuasively that a mostly white, privileged, middle-class alternative education movement would be benefited by finding common ground and allying with efforts in urban minority communities to challenge the conventional approach to schooling in those communities. The focus of that challenge is a curriculum, plus methods for teaching and learning known as “Critical Pedagogy”, that is designed to deconstruct the inferior position of the minority community relative to the dominant culture and identify ways to take action to change that power differential.

Ira Shor, a proponent and practitioner of this educational approach, defines Critical Pedagogy as…

Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional clichés, 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.

His definition is a lot of words and clauses strung together, but I see it as essentially what I try to do in my own writing, which is challenging conventional wisdom that is inaccurate, inappropriate, or otherwise holds back our continuing development as human beings and our ability to construct a humanistic society that best supports that development. As an educational path, it is more community directed (rather than the more learner directed paths that I resonate with), but I think it has great validity as one among many educational paths, particularly for urban neighborhoods and their schools that are labeled as “failing”.

The Wikipedia article on this educational approach identifies its roots in the successful effort to challenge apartheid in South Africa…

Teachers collaborated loosely to subvert the racist curriculum and encourage critical examination of religious, military, political, and social circumstances in terms of spirit-friendly, humanist, and democratic ideologies. The efforts of such teachers are credited with having bolstered student resistance and activism.

Not unlike the “liberation theology” that has been practiced by some Catholic clergy in Latin America, Critical Pedagogy is put forward as a sort of “liberation education”…

For both educator and student, this means discarding the framework of meritocracy and critically embracing the role of the underdog. It means framing a classroom and school culture that utilizes critical pedagogy to critique notions of equal opportunity and access, making education a weapon to name, analyze, deconstruct, and act upon the unequal conditions in urban schools, urban communities, and other disenfranchised communities across the nation and the world.

Admittedly, as a methodology for say a public charter school, it can obviously be problematic, vulnerable to the criticism that it is advocating a particular (even radical) political point of view, rather than giving its students a neutral and unbiased body of skills and knowledge. But does there really exist an unbiased body of knowledge? For example, is the traditional framing of American Colonial history from the point of view of the colonists (rather than the native inhabitants) considered “neutral and unbiased” because it has become the conventional approach?

But for advocates of Critical Pedagogy, perhaps their most powerful argument is that the conventional educational curriculum and methodology (including its supposedly unbiased body of knowledge) has repeatedly failed in at-risk, urban minority communities.

In their book, The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities of moving form theory to practice in urban schools, Jeffery Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell argue that…

This is the paradox facing urban school reformers. On the one hand, urban schools are producing academic failure at alarming rates; at the same time, they are doing this inside a systematic structural design that essentially predetermines their failure. This is where the urban school reform rhetoric has missed the mark. It has presumed that urban schools are broken. Urban schools are not broken; they are doing exactly what they are designed to do.

This is a damning charge that there is “design” involved and not simply neglect and denial. But perhaps it is part of our ancient patriarchal legacy, reinforced by historically more recent underlying Calvinist ideology that it is the natural order of things that there will always be winners and losers in a hierarchically organized society.

The need for winners and losers is a classic argument that is put forward by American conservative thinkers, that government does too much in terms of entitlements and social programs to keep people who make the wrong choices from suffering the consequences of those actions. So the argument goes, if we don’t let these people fail, then what incentive is their for them and others to make the right choices to succeed. How can our team win if there is no other team that is willing to lose?

As Duncan-Andrade and Morrell frame it…

Perpetual urban school failure is tolerated because deep down our nation subscribes to the belief that someone has to fail in school. In fact, this quasi-Darwinian belief system is built into most schools through the existence of a largely unchallenged pedagogical system of grading and testing that by its very design guarantees failure for some. For some time, this system for perpetuating unequal educational outcomes has been justified by racist and classist pseudo-scientific theories… The most notable recent resurgence of the theory of cultural deficiency came with the publication of The Bell Curve, whose authors suggest that blacks and Latinas/os are intellectually inferior to whites.

We have an ideal in our country of having a meritocratic society. But is this a belief in letting talent shine in a society framed as a circle of equals or as a hierarchical pyramid where those with demonstrated talent rightfully occupy the superior positions. According to Duncan-Andrade and Morrell…

The fact that opportunity exists (currently defined as all children having access to public schools) helps maintain the rhetoric of a democratic and meritocratic society where competition churns the cream to the top, ultimately benefiting society as a whole by rewarding the most deserving. And it just so happens that the overwhelming majority of those who benefit most from this sorting process are those who look, talk, think, and act most like those who already have power. And it just so happens that the overwhelming majority of those who benefit least from this sorting process are those who come from different backgrounds and communities than those who already have power. This is not by chance, and it is not democratic. It is inequality by design, it is well documented, and schools play a central role in the perpetuation of this rigged social lottery.

So what are the aspects of Critical Pedagogy that address a solution to this societal structural problem? Duncan-Andrade and Morrell state that…

To be effective, urban education reform movements must begin to develop partnerships with communities that provide young people the opportunity to be successful while maintaining their identities as urban youth. This additive model of education focuses on the design of urban school culture, curriculum, and pedagogy that identifies the cultures and communities of urban students as assets rather than as things to be replaced.

So rather than framing the goal of education to “rise above” their failed community, the goal is to embrace their community, understand the problems that afflict it, and learn the tools to address and resolve those problems. Considering this as a school’s curriculum is as good as any “unbiased” or “politically neutral” curriculum that might be the conventional default. Particularly in my mind, if the school adopting Critical Pedagogy is one of several choices that families in the community have for their kids.

The unique lives and conditions of urban youth deserve an education system that accomplishes two goals in concert with one another: preparation to confront the conditions of social and economic inequity in their daily lives and access to the academic literacies (computational and linguistic) that make college attendance a realistic option.

So the more conventional school goal of preparing kids to be successful in college (and go on to be contributing citizens achieving economic success) is mixed in with building the youth’s engagement with their community of origin (and encouragement presumably to return after their education is complete). This to me seems very consistent with the holistic education model of John Dewey that features a social studies curriculum built around the student understanding ever larger circles of community, starting with themselves and their family, and then broadening to include neighborhood and beyond. According to the Wikipedia article on Dewey

In addition to helping students realize their full potential, Dewey goes on to acknowledge that education and schooling are instrumental in creating social change and reform. He notes that “education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction”.

Of course Dewey’s philosophy is trashed by conservative critics to this day. Given that, Dewey seems pretty consistent with the goals of Critical Pedagogy, for Duncan-Andrade and Morrell argue for such a curriculum that is based on the culture embraced by urban youth…

While youth will need to learn about world history, and while they will need to be exposed to the literary canon, they can learn most of the core academic skills that they need by engaging their own social worlds. We will show throughout our descriptions and analyses of the pedagogical interventions how youth developed sophisticated academic skills while being involved in this sort of work.

A key problematic element here is who is setting the curriculum, the neighborhood or some state or even national body that is putting forward a standardized curriculum. Heavily standardized state or national mandated curricula are identified as problematic to the realization of a school employing Critical Pedagogy. Duncan-Andrade and Morrell acknowledge that…

Some have argued that the increasing standardization of pedagogy through undue attention to scripted curriculum and standardized testing threatens to reduce dramatically these opportunities to contest… We agree with these concerns and believe it is imperative that teachers and teacher educators develop a concrete counter-strategy to these increasingly popular state and national reform policies.

This speaks to what I see as the teacher-centered approach of Dewey, or as my mom used to argue, “The teachers should run the school”.

But Duncan-Andrade and Morrell also acknowledge the need to transition from hierarchical to more egalitarian relationships between adults and youth at schools, arguing that Critical Pedagogy…

Breaks down the inherent power relations in traditional pedagogy and identifies students as collaborators with adults. This does not negate the important and crucial role that educators play in this process (we discuss this important role throughout the book), but it fundamentally repositions students as actors and as contributors to the struggle for social change.

I certainly resonate with that! And I resonate with Critical Pedagogy as a compelling methodology for some schools as an alternative to the conventional generic academic model. I firmly believe that most (if not all) real learning is self-initiated or at least engaged in by conscious choice rather than external compulsion.

3 replies on “Critical Pedagogy: One of Many Educational Paths”

  1. Lisa… Thanks for your comment and your follow-up email indicating which name I had misspelled! I fixed the spelling of Jeff Duncan-Andrade’s name!

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