Issues in Critical Pedagogy

Photo of Paulo Freire
  • Thoughts on Teaching, Learning, and Pedagogy
  • Thoughts on Political Liberation and Oppresssion
  • Biographical and Philosophical Info on Freire
      Critical pedagogy takes its inspiration from the work and words of Brazilian education Paulo Freire, (1921-97) shown in the photo at the right. An amorphous range of approaches and methods, it's worth a few minutes contemplation by any teacher that takes his/her craft seriously. CP raises more questions than it provides answers, but then so do many of the more interesting questions we face.

      Definitions and Links

    1. Critical Pedagogy, A definition
    2. Alternative Modes of Teaching and Learning: Alternative modes to delivery: Critical Pedagogy
    3. 21 st Century Schools View of Critical Pedagogy
    4. Critical Teaching Newsletter
    5. University of Colorado at Denver School of Education: Corollary Links: Critical Pedagogy
    6. Critical Pedagogy Glossary

      Interpretive Essays

    7. Journal of Critical Pedagogy
    8. Tied Knowledge: Power in Higher Education by Brian Martin "First published in 1998 on the web, Tied Knowledge is a book designed to provide a practical conceptual framework for understanding the dynamics of higher education. Using examples primarily from Australia, Britain and the United States, it examines power structures both outside and inside academia and how they interact and shape knowledge. These structures include hierarchy, disciplines, patriarchy, the state, capitalism and professions. Academia as a system of power itself both resists and accommodates these other power systems. The key resource used by the academics to promote their interests is the power to create and legitimate knowledge. By its form and content, this knowledge is tied to both the interests of academics and to those of powerful groups in society."
    9. Teaching critically as an act of praxis and resistance by Mary E. Boyce, Ph.D.
    10. Storming the Citadel: Reading Theory Critically by Stephen Brookfield From Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995.
    11. Theological and Pedagogical Praxis; Revolutionary Theories of Social Empowerment and Political Oppression by Craig Pendleton
    12. Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Relations, Differences, and Limits by Nicholas C. Burbules and Rupert Berk Published in Critical Theories in Education, Thomas S. Popkewitz and Lynn Fendler, eds. (NY: Routledge, 1999).

    Paulo Freire, Letters to Cristina: Reflections on My Life and Work (trans. By Donald Macedo, 1996)

    These excepts reveal something of Freire's childhood, education, and other formative life experiences.

    Importance of Critical Pedagogy: Heloisa and I visited each of the SESI clubs [social action agencies] throughout the city in order to prepare for our first meeting. On our visits we talked about the importance of the increased participation of the SESI clubs in shaping the destiny of the social nuclei. We spoke of the leadership's need for information and training so that they could more effectively participate in the democratic process.

    I was convinced during that time, and my lived experience later confirmed my belief, of the fundamental importance of education in the process of change. In other words, knowledge guides change. Thus, it became necessary to add educational practice to our attempts to expand the sphere of decision making within the SESI clubs. This educational practice was informed by the stimulus of epistemological curiosity. It was necessary to keep our eyes open to avoid the development of dichotomies between doing and thinking, between practice and theory, between acquiring skills and knowing the raison d'etre behind the technique, between politics and education, and between information and education.

    In reality, all information holds the possibility of expanding into education if the information is critically received by the informed and not simply swallowed by him or her. Information should communicate through words as a link between the content of the communication and its receiver.

    Information is communicative, or generates communication, when receivers learn the content of what was communicated in such a way as to transcend the act of receiving. They do this by recreating the received communication and transforming it into knowledge concerning what was communicated. The receiver becomes the subject of the process of communication, which, in turn, leads to education as well. Education cannot take place within the suffocating limit of specialization. Education can only take place when we go beyond the limits of purely utilitarian knowledge.

    For this very reason, educators who are mesmerized by the neoliberal pragmatic discourse are not educating in the full sense of the concept. When these educators accept the notion that what is important is the acquisition of facts without the educational background to critically analyze these facts, they produce a type of training that reduces students to narrow technical professionals. It is worth saying that an educational practice void of dreams, dissent, and pronouncements is neutral and accommodating.

    On the other hand, we should highlight what is also true. That is, an educational practice reduced to only dissent and pronouncements and the inspiration of dreams while minimizing the technical preparation of students for work readiness is not worth much.

    The goal should be toward information that is educational, which leads to critical knowledge, which implies the technical domain as well as political reflection, which asks the following: for whom, for what, against whom, and against what will these technical instruments work?

    One of our problems is relying on memory when discussing the details of our past practice so that we are prone to minimize those details.

    We cannot escape this process. Even when I write today about the past, I recognize the temptation to overlook some details. However, I want to be loyal to my past educational practice. I am talking now not only about what I did but also about what moved me. I was moved by the growth of my institution and the knowledge guaranteed by our rich practice. I never rejected those institutions as impure even though I never took them as absolute truths. I always put my institutions to the test by critically analyzing and evaluating them. I incessantly searched for the raison d'etre of the institutions in order to determine what had caused them. My epistemological curiosity was always at work. Let's now return to discussing the relationships of the SESI clubs.

    Once my work proposal was accepted by the director of the clubs throughout the city of Recife, I wrote a letter inviting all the directors of the divisions and nuclei to attend a meeting at my house at 8:00 P.M. on a Friday. The office of the superintendent would provided transportation to facilitate the success of the meeting. In the letter I proposed an agenda of five topics.

    1. The meeting would open with a brief description of the spirit of the project by the superintendent, brief since the project had already been discussed at preliminary meetings in each office; practice—given an educational situation—as the object of our curiosity and to seek, by unveiling it critically, to detect its necessarily constructed elements.

    Let us engage in an exercise. Maria is a teacher. As a teacher, she feels and knows herself to be an educator. She works three times a week with a class of thirty students to whom she teaches Brazilian history.

    The first observation is that education takes place in a given space, to which, customarily, little or no attention is paid. In reality, the space in which the educational experience is lived is just as important for educators and learners as is my house or place of work. For me, this would be the space where I write or read. The apparent lack of order on my writing desk might become real disorder if anyone other than myself tried to organize it. After all, the setup in the room or on the desk has to do with what I do and what I do it for—it has to do with my own self. It has to do with my taste, or lack thereof, which I may not have worked on to turn into good taste. We need to associate our workspace with certain qualities that are extensions of ourselves. We make a space that will either remake us or will help us accomplish our tasks. It is in this sense that what may seem circumstantial, mere accessory in the educational space, ends up becoming as essential as the space itself. Beauty and care for the space is necessary to connect with the frame of mind needed for the exercise of curiosity. A good starting point for the school year may be a discussion among educators and learners about their space and how to make it or maintain it as a happy and pleasant place. There is a necessary relationship between the educator's body, the learner's body, and the space in which they work. No living body fails to experience its space. Care for space reveals a willingness to fight for it and an understanding of its importance. It also reveals that a conscious body refuses and resists fatalist indifference, the idea that nothing can be done.

    It is for a reason that animals always mark their space, in defense of which they will fight to the end. It is for a reason that, while sitting on a park bench, we react if a stranger sits too close. I am convinced that the lack of interest in space denotes a certain "mental bureaucratism" about the task to be accomplished in the space. It does not seem to me that care for what we do can coexist with indifference or disregard for the space in which we operate. . . .

    Principles of Pedagogy: Instead of criticizing teachers, the families of students should fight against the state, which, historically, has failed in its duty to offer quality and quantity education to its population. It is not with make-believe salaries that we can achieve quality education. The struggle of teachers is fair, and it will be all the more beautiful the less it hurts ethics in the course of its implementation.

    If the first basic principle of educational practice is the importance of pedagogical space, the second basic principle is the existence of subjects, educators and learners, which does not mean they are equal to each other. The fact that both are subjects of the practice does not nullify the specific role of each one. The former are subjects of the act of reaching; the latter are subjects of the act of learning. The former learn as they teach; the latter teach as they learn. They are all subjects of the knowing process, which involves teaching and learning.

    A third principle is the importance of content or the object of cognition; given that practice is cognitive by nature, it cannot exist without the object of knowledge, which must be taught by the teacher and learned by students.

    On the other hand, and now I speak about the fourth principle, there can be no educational practice that is nor directed toward a certain objective, which does not involve a certain dream, an idea of Utopia. The direction of educational practice explains its political nature, and this is the fifth principle: the impossibility of an "asexual," neutral endeavor.

    That educational practice cannot be neutral, however, must not lead educators to impose, subliminally or not, their taste on learners, whatever those tastes may be. This is the ethical dimension of educational practice, the sixth principle.

    Finally, a fundamental starting point is respect for the learner's cultural identity and the aspects of class that mark this identity: the learner's language, syntax, prosody, semantics, and informal knowledge, realized through the experiences the learner brings to school.

    For all these reasons, I based my adult literacy practice—following research and experiments (anchored in a critical understanding of education that started in the founding days of SESI) I carried out at MCP—on the following points:

    1. Literacy education is an act of knowing, an act of creating, and not the act of mechanically memorizing letters and syllables.

    2. Literacy education must challenge learners to take on the role of subjects in learning both reading and writing.

    3. Literacy education must originate from research about the vocabulary universe of the learners, which also gives us their thematic universe. The first codifications to be "read," decodified, by the learners offer possibilities to discuss the concept of culture. To understand culture as a human creation, an extension of the world by men and women through their work, helps to overcome the politically tragic experience of immobility caused by fatalism. If men and women can change, through action and technology (whether incipient or sophisticated), the physical world, which they did not create, why can't they change the world of history— social, economic, and political—which they did create?

    4. Literacy education must be characterized by dialogue as a path to knowledge, which does not invalidate informative discourse, without which there is no knowledge.

    5. Literacy education must codify and "read" generative words, allowing for the creation of a number of sentences with the words. Only after long experimentation with sentence creation, using generative words in different positions and functions, can the work of decodifying words into syllables begin, followed by combining syllables into new words, and from there to new sentences.

    6. Literacy education must not dichotomize reading and writing. One does not exist without the other, and it is fundamental to exercise both systematically. Moreover, learning to write and read must also help improve oral expression, thus the need for exercising both.

    7. Literacy education must be premised on remembering what it means for thirty- or forty-year-old adults, used to the weight of work instruments, to manipulate pencils. At the beginning of this new experience, there may be some discrepancy between the strength exerted and the strength of the pencil. Adults must become reconditioned, little by little, through repeated practice.

    8. Literacy education must also be premised on remembering the insecurity of illiterate adults, who will become upset if they feel they are being treated like children. There is no more effective way to respect them than to accept their experiential knowledge for the purpose of going beyond it. Working with learners to create a climate of confidence in which they feel secure is beneficial to the learning process.

    For instance, discussing the statements that "nobody knows it all" and "nobody misunderstands it all," if enriched with concrete examples, may contribute to learners taking a more critical position, which in turn reinforces the previous discovery about culture.

    Considering the political-pedagogical principles on which I based my work, as well as certain epistemological principles I have addressed in other texts, I have no reason to disavow my propositions. They remain as valid today as they were yesterday, from a progressive perspective. From a literacy point of view, however, the present studies in sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics as well as the contributions of Piaget, Vygotsky, Luria, Emilia Ferrero, Madalena Weffort, and Magda Scares, can, if well applied, rectify and improve some of my propositions.

    Although my intent in writing about MCP was to talk about my passage through it, I am not satisfied with talking just about the processes in which I was involved. A special importance is attached to everything (or almost everything) that was done in the short time the movement existed. I have mentioned, for example, the value given to popular festivals, which filled the Bom Jesus Village (or Trindade Ranch, as it also is known) with simple people singing, dancing, playing, and being. I have also mentioned the artistic experiments of Abelardo da Hora, who believed that the taste for beauty must be challenged, worked, and was not the property of a few. . . .

    The teaching of democracy requires discourse not about abstract democracy, but about it as practiced and experienced. It requires a critical discourse, well founded, and which concretely analyzes its disjunctures and incoherences, as well as a theoretical discourse that emerges from a critical understanding of practice and is ethically based. We cannot reconcile the democratic radicalism for which we fight with a gray, tasteless, and cold understanding of educational practice, an understanding that takes place in classrooms isolated from the world, with educators who merely deposit content into the supposedly empty heads of submissive learners.

    Considering the lack of democratic experience in which we grew up, we must be careful in teaching democracy never to have an opinionated manner or to say, "Do you know who you are talking to?" or "Because I said so, there's nothing more to discuss."

    Our democracy, in the developing stages, has to avoid both authoritarianism and permissiveness, to which our democratic inexperience always exposes us. We need not the insecure teacher who cannot assert authority, nor the arrogant teacher who abuses authority, but the teacher who never denies either authority or learners' freedom.

    Authoritarianism and permissiveness are not paths leading to democracy or its improvement.

    Teaching democracy is possible, but it is not a job for those who become disenchanted overnight just because the clouds turn heavy and threatening.

    Teaching democracy is possible, but it is not a job for those who, too patient, wait for so long that they miss the train of history, or for those who, too impatient, end up spoiling their own dreams.

    Teaching democracy is possible, but it is not a job for those who perceive and act mechanistically, the willful owners of history.

    • Engaging in democratic experiments, outside of which there is no teaching of democracy, is the permanent job of coherent progressives, who, understanding and living history as a possibility, never tire of fighting for democracy.

    This is what is demanded of us progressives in contemporary Brazilian society, a movement that embraces, contradictorily, antidemocratic traditions and popular traditions while overcoming the cycle of military governments that started with the coup d'etat of April 1,1964.

    This is the demand of present Brazilian society: that we not waste time, that we not leave for tomorrow what we can do today when it comes to the democratic, ethical character of our practice. The more dramatically we live the contradiction between our antidemocratic heritage and our recently acquired taste for freedom, the more competently and responsibly we stimulate the taste for freedom.

    The fight for democracy in Brazil is measured by a number of political and pedagogical rights—the right to justice, without which there is no peace; to life, which implies the right to be born; to eat; to sleep; to have good health; to have clothing; to pay respect to the dead; to study; to work; to be a child; to believe or not to believe; to live one's sexuality any way one deems appropriate; to criticize: to disagree with the official discourse; to read; to play regardless of age; to be ethically informed about what happens on a local, regional, national, and world level; to move, both to come and go; and to not be discriminated against, whether on the basis of gender, class, race, or any other reason, such as being too fat or too thin.

    There is a fundamental duty that relates to all of these rights: the duty of being committed to making them viable. Once these rights are recognized beyond a doubt, we must fight incessantly for them, regardless of our role or occupation in society. Critically implemented educational practice makes an indispensable contribution to this political struggle. Educational practice is not the only key to the social transformation required to gain human rights, but no transformation will take place without it.

    The greater clarity that education gives the popular classes to "read the world" may bring political intervention that advances the democratic learning process.

    What progressive educators need to do is bring life itself into their classrooms. They need to critically read day-to-day life and analyze, with learners, the shocking facts and disjunctures of our democracy. They need to expose learners to examples of discrimination taken from daily experience (race, class, and gender discrimination), and examples of disrespect for public things, examples of violence, examples of arbitrariness. These examples should be analyzed to reveal their aggressive contradiction of what I have been calling men and women's orientation toward being more, which has been constituted as our nature throughout history. Also, they contradict the authenticity of democratic life. In fact, a democracy where discrimination and disrespect occurs without punishment still has a great deal to learn and to do in order to purify itself.

    Not that I believe it possible for there to be, some day, a democracy so perfect that such disrespect will not exist.

    The possible dream is that of a democracy where disrespect occurs, but its perpetrators, whoever they may be, are severely punished according to the law. The value of democracy lies not in the sanctification of men and women, but in the ethical rigor with which deviations are dealt with, deviations that we are all capable of as historical and incomplete beings. No democracy can expect that its practice will have sanctifying power.

    A good democracy warns, clarifies, teaches, and educates. It also defends itself from the actions of those who, by offending their human nature, deny and demean democracy.