A Critical Pedagogy View

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27th Apr 2017 Education Reference this


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This paper, as its title suggests, introduces some reflections about the importance critical pedagogy as well as awareness-raising practices have in education today, especially in language teacher preparation programs, and how they provide a new opportunity for pre-service teachers to re-think their pedagogical experiences for social transformation. Critical pedagogy (CP) as a philosophy of life helps teachers achieve a better understanding of what teaching really entails and raising awareness fosters reflection regarding our practices at educational settings, starting in the language classroom, exploring on the one hand, what pre-service teachers think and perceive about teaching and learning in the context they are involved in, and on the other hand, how those perceptions might influence their educational practices.

Key words: Awareness-raising practices, critical pedagogy, pre-service and in-service teacher education, reflection, transformation

Este artículo, como el título lo sugiere, presenta algunas reflexiones acerca de la importancia que la pedagogía crítica y las prácticas de sensibilización y concientización tienen en educación hoy, especialmente en la preparación profesional de los docentes de lenguas, y cómo estas tendencias brindan a los maestros en formación la oportunidad de repensar sus experiencias pedagógicas para la transformación social. La pedagogía crítica como filosofía de vida nos ayuda a entender mejor lo que el proceso de enseñanza realmente significa, y las prácticas de sensibilización y concientización tienen el propósito de promover la reflexión de nuestro quehacer diario en nuestros salones de clase y explorar por una parte, lo que los futuros maestros piensan y perciben sobre el proceso de enseñanza en el contexto en el cual ellos se desenvuelven, y por otra parte, cómo esas percepciones pueden influir en sus prácticas educativas.

Palabras clave: formación de docentes, maestros en formación, pedagogía crítica, prácticas de sensibilización y concientización, reflexión, transformación


Pre-service teachers’ conceptions about ELT teaching and learning comprise several perspectives. Some of them relate particularly to the subject matter knowledge (Richards, 1998) language teachers might have to teach their classes as well as the methodology to be implemented in order to create learning environments to encourage communication. Others give more importance to supply learners with a number of grammar structures to understand the language. The main concern here is that these perspectives tend to view classrooms as “closed boxes” and “form only a small part of what we need to understand in terms of what matters in language education” (Pennycook, 2005, p. 467). Therefore, it would be significant to embrace CP as an alternative approach that relates the school context to the social context in a reciprocal relationship, as everything we do in the classroom is related to broader concerns (Pennycook, 2005)

This view might take prospective teachers to rethink their daily experiences in order to identify, on the one hand, the strengths they find in their pedagogical process, with clear objectives supporting them, and on the other hand, those weaknesses which affect this process, with the purpose of trying new ways to transform weaknesses into strengths. In this sense, CP has sparked an array of possibilities to start for those who have not done it yet, or maintain, for those who have begun this process, rethinking our classrooms in terms of empowering teachers and learners to think and act critically with the aim of transforming their contexts.

When I read Pennycook (2001) for the first time, I had not understood his purpose of talking about the politics of pedagogy, but when trying to understand his ideas, through another writer, Wink (2000), I realized that this is a significant issue that encompasses a pedagogy of change that will allow learners to gain social skills to actively participate in a transformed and inclusive democratic community (Kincheloe, 2007). Firstly, because it is necessary to reflect upon who we are as well as what we do as teachers. Secondly, because it includes the importance of learning from and about our students and their contexts; this is how “liberatory education is fundamentally a situation where the teacher and the students both have to be learners, both have to be cognitive subjects, in spite of being different”. (Freire, 1987, p. 33). Regarding this, Wink (2000) supports Freire’s idea by stating that “critical pedagogy asks us to accept, respect, and even to celebrate the other” (p. xiii). Thirdly, because it makes teachers reflect on assumptions and paradigms teachers still have, as I mentioned above, in relation to the teaching and learning processes. Hopefully, it will help us experience new changes in both our personal and professional life.

Therefore, this paper is a reflection on the importance critical pedagogy and awareness-raising bring today for pre-service teachers in terms of rethinking language classrooms leading to social transformation. In order to do this, I will start by addressing some ideas on what rethinking our classrooms implies. Then, in the same line of thought, I will define critical pedagogy from the perspectives of Wink (2000), McLaren (2003), Shor & Freire (1987), Giroux (2006) and the critical applied linguist Pennycook (2001, 2004, 2005). I will also present my understanding of what CP entails. Afterwards, I will define awareness-raising and discuss how it becomes an exploration of what pre-service teachers think and perceive about teaching. Some research studies on these concerns will be cited through the document. Later on, I will address some pedagogical implications that necessarily go towards the complex role teachers and learners are facing today in our society.

Rethinking our Classrooms

Rethinking our classrooms [1] is an idea I took from the book called by the same name (2000), which has made me consider the prefixes RE, and UN in order to analyze and value what I have been doing in several years as a teacher and a teacher educator. We sometimes forget that our classrooms and the outside world have a reciprocal relationship: Even though classrooms are not totally determined by the outside world, they are part of it and are affected by the real representation of our society, where friendship, love, responsibility, loyalty, as well as violence, arguments, conflicts, sadness come to pass. It is because our learners express who they are, what they have learned in their families, therefore, in the society they belong to.

This idea has helped me clarify that rethinking our classrooms is not only about describing what is happening there, but interpreting critically and proposing possible paths to make of classrooms, “places of hope, where students gain glimpses of the kind of society we could live in and where students learn the academic and critical skills needed to make it a reality” (p. 4). These become thought-provoking ideas for prospective teachers who want to transform their school settings by working on values such as respect, tolerance, justice, equity. Regarding this Freire (as cited in Rethinking our classrooms, 2000) suggests that teachers should attempt to “live part of their dreams within their educational space”. (p. 4). It is worth noting that activities where students represent roles allow them to climb into themselves and explore their feelings from the inside.

This is a challenging idea, in the sense that traditional paradigms had emphasized only the way in which teachers should teach, by implementing the methods that best support language teaching, instead of concentrating their attention on classroom students’ learning process as well as socio-cultural classroom practices that have to do with students’ lives, their needs and experiences. These classroom practices should be: critical, socially participatory, experiential, academically rigorous, activist, joyful, visionary, and culturally sensitive:

Critical, socially participatory and experiential as pre-service teachers might foster reflection (theme of further discussion in this paper) among students about their experiences as well as question their realities by debating critical topics and developing real world projects that move them outside the classroom setting, through which students might be provoked to develop [2] “their democratic capacities to question, to challenge, to make real decisions, to collectively solve problems” (p. 4).

Academically rigorous and activist as students need to be inspired to achieve levels of academic performance through which they can write and speak to real audiences, read books and articles that really matter in their local, regional, national and international contexts in order to become agents of change who are not only reflecting and assuming critical positions but also acting upon by giving them opportunities to do that.

Joyful, visionary and culturally sensitive as the classroom life should make students feel involved as well as cared about, “pre-figure the kind of democratic society we envision and thus contribute to building that society” (p. 5), as well as understand that the school context is culturally diverse and accept the difference. Consequently, students should understand the ways their lives connect to the broader society they belong to. This is one of the most important issues that critical pedagogy addresses, to start rethinking education from students’ points of view, and their contexts to reach the goal of social transformation.

In the following lines, the discussion will go around the relation between critical pedagogy and awareness raising that becomes the platform underpinning rethinking our classrooms.

Critical Pedagogy

First of all, it is worth emphasizing that critical pedagogy is directly concerned with social transformation and educational change. It has caused us to reflect on what teachers do every day in our school settings: the teaching practices and experiences, we as teachers handle everyday with our students, our colleagues, our language classrooms, even with ourselves. Regarding this, Shor and Freire (1987), two of the most important authors within critical education, explain that it is imperative to integrate teachers and students into a mutual re-creation of knowledge framed in dialogic pedagogy. In addition, Shor and Freire (1987) add to this perspective the idea of creating different possibilities to help teachers reflect on their professional development, and not merely establishing a set of techniques for “gaining literacy or expertise or professional skills or even critical thought” (p. 13). Being so, these critical pedagogues, who are interested in dialogue and reflection by which teachers can become more active participants in education, affirm that “through critical dialogues about a text or a moment in society, we try to reveal education, unveil it, see its reasons for being like it is” (p. 13).

When we refer to the word “critical”, we have the tendency to adopt a negative view in any topic or situation. Nevertheless, Pennycook (2001), a critical applied linguist, defines this term, within pedagogy as “doing something with careful analysis”, and being critical as “being engaged with social change” (p. 11). As I interpret this definition, I find that “critical” involves a permanent inquiry about what teachers have been, what we are, and what we will become in the future as teachers as well as how pre-service teacher education may help accomplish this goal. Furthermore, Pennycook (2001) adds two other meanings of “critical”: important and crucial, and these words referring to pedagogy, cope with “some of the central issues in language use that may finally move into a new state of being” (p. 21). Moreover, Wink (2000) asserts that critical means “seeing beyond, looking within and without and seeing more deeply the complexities of teaching and learning. Then, pedagogy is seen as the interaction between teaching and learning” (p. 30).

Thus, the concept of ‘critical’ is particularly significant for language teachers as claimed by Hawkings and Norton (2009), because the subject matter we teach ‘language’ serves as a mediator in how learners might construct their identity, cultural and social relationships in the world surrounding them. This is to say that, language is a primary means through which representations and meanings should be deconstructed and negotiated as language is not neutral, it explicitly or implicitly conveys meanings, intentions and assumptions.

By bringing these ideas together, we can conceptualize what critical pedagogy is. Wink (2000) argues that the most important legacy she has received from her study of critical pedagogy is that “all of us need to reflect critically on our own experiences and those of others” (p. 15). But, Are we able to do so? Do we have time to do it? Do we find it necessary? I think that the answers to these questions depend on the commitment we have concerning who we are as teachers. It is not easy to change paradigms that tie us to old ways in education, or, in our lives. It is much easier to teach a subject, eight hours a day, five days a week, 4 weeks a month, without worrying about the situations that may happen around us.

Wink (2000) illustrates that it is critical pedagogy what makes us reflect and read for more understanding of our past and future. The same author complements her definition by describing critical pedagogy as “the impetus that causes people to reflect and read for more understanding of their past and future, it gives us the courage to learn, relearn, and unlearn what I used to know about teaching and learning” (p. 23).

Similarly, McLaren (2003) points out that CP is “A way of thinking about, negotiating, and transforming the relationship among classroom teaching, the production of knowledge, the institutional structures of school, and the social and material relations of the wider community, society, and nation-state” (p. 35). He clarifies that critical pedagogy does not constitute a homogeneous set of ideas. It deals with empowering the powerless and transforming social inequalities and injustices.

Through this last statement I can understand that critical pedagogy has a strong basis on social change, and transformation for our communities; there is an urgent need to foster reflection about these issues in our classroom settings, and become committed in our roles as facilitators, guides in the daily processes our students follow at school; we do not just teach a subject, it is not only about completing a program, it goes beyond that. Being a teacher implies time to listen to our students’ problems, to make them feel loved and accepted, above all, to make them feel that they are not alone to solve any problematic situation they might live at school or at home. We need to consider the different conditions, contexts, and individual characteristics our students face.

He provides a clear description of the three foundational principles for critical pedagogy. The first is related to politics, the second concerns to culture; and the third deals with economics. He understands curriculum seen from two points of view: a theory of interest and a theory of experience, and concludes by mentioning that critical pedagogy deals with numerous themes situated in distinct fields of research and criticism, such as, feminist pedagogy, critical constructivism and multicultural education. He also makes a difference between schooling and education. The former is mainly a mode of social control; the latter has the potential to transform society with the learner functioning as an active subject committed to self and social transformation.

In an introduction to critical pedagogy at a National Congress of Research in Bogota in September 2006, Professors Peter McLaren, Michael Apple and Henry Giroux mentioned that this philosophy of education has definitely political roots emerging from social and economic difficulties the working-class society has lived in the USA, challenging education from its traditional practices on the way to social change. Hence, these ideas have nurtured my vision of critical pedagogy. I realized that we teachers ought to be more reflective, critical and sensitive upon the educational, social and political changes we face in our country, as well as how these changes may affect our communities.

Likewise, Pennycook (2004) introduces a critical view to pedagogy, in the sense of critical analysis of classrooms where learning takes place; he also presents different relationships (power, discrimination, racism, and so forth) among people within an academic community, based on the roles they play in it. He asserts that “The classroom is a microcosm of the larger social and cultural world, reflecting, reproducing and changing the world” (p. 479). Understanding these pedagogues’ thought, we teachers are invited to continue reflecting and discussing critical issues to pedagogy that go beyond the instructional aspects of teaching that unveil “the political content of everyday situation that happens in the classroom” (Benson, 1997, as cited by Pennycook, 2001, p. 16)

To conclude, CP can be considered as an opportunity to re-evaluate what we teachers are doing in our classrooms, how we are treating our students, how we are implementing methodologies and strategies that really fit in our students’ contexts, how we are integrating teachers and students into a mutual re-creation of knowledge framed in a dialogic pedagogy (Shor, 1987). As teacher educators we are not only sharing knowledge and understandings, but engaging our pre-service teachers in permanent reflection as a starting point of transformation which may develop, as Shor (1987) remarks, in the long run into their choices for social change.

Making Sense of What Awareness-Raising Entails

Up to this point, I have presented important insights about critical pedagogy in accordance with theoreticians such as Wink, McLaren. Giroux, Shor and Freire, as well as Pennycook. Now, I will discuss, awareness-raising and reflection, as exploration processes underlying pre-service teacher education programs that have to do with the continuum preparation that begins from initial teacher preparation (pre-service teachers) and continues with in-service teachers courses (Carter & Andre, 1996).

As a starting point towards reflective teaching, awareness arises to bear in mind the aspects I mentioned above, through an exploration of what pre-service teachers think and perceive about teaching as a concept. Ellis (1997) argues that awareness-raising practices “are intended to develop the student teacher’s conscious understanding of the principles underlying second language teaching and/or the practical techniques that teachers can use in different kinds of lessons” (p. 27). Gebhard and Oprandy (1999) believe that awareness is related to discovering and rediscovering teaching beliefs and practices. More so, Clavijo (1998) asserts that “teachers’ beliefs are an important consideration in understanding classroom practices” (p. 4).

Likewise, Richards and Lockhart (1995) suggest that teachers’ beliefs are derived from different sources, namely: teachers’ own experience as learners, experience of what works best, through which demonstrate our thoughts about teaching as a profession. Gebhart and Oprandy (1999) consider that pre-service teachers have participated in teaching “as students in classrooms since they were very young” (p. 3), therefore, the authors, invite them to “rediscover classroom life, so that they “might have opportunities to become aware of new things in a very familiar place” (p. 3). It is worth highlighting that pre-service teachers need to reflect about the responsibility they have on their hands and teacher preparation programs need to prepare them for the reality of their job. The purpose in developing awareness-raising practices is to provide pre-service teachers a better basis for understanding how and to what extent their perceptions play a role in their thoughts and in their teaching.

By the same token, Richards and Lockhart (1999) mention some findings in a study of teachers’ beliefs carried out in 1991 with teachers of English in Hong Kong. They express that their primary role in the classroom was: “(1) to provide useful learning experiences, (2) provide a model of correct language use, (3) answer learners’ questions, and (4) correct learners’ errors” (p. 37). There have been other research studies in terms of assuming new challenges and characterizing pre-service teachers’ perceptions of effective teachers.

For example, Lin, Gorrell, and Mason (2001), in a study about the road to pre-service teachers’ conceptual change, compiled the experiences of a series of seminars to test that learning to teach is improved though the application of a constructivist orientation. The purpose of the researchers was to observe how external events challenge pre-service teachers’ ideals about teaching and learning by a seminar structure in helping them construct knowledge, engage in reflection, and affect a conceptual change. The authors concluded by stating that a constructivist approach to teacher education provides changes in the pre-service teachers’ views about teaching and learning which influence their teaching practice. The authors also underline that student teachers may construct their own learning through an interaction among their beliefs, their prior knowledge and their experiences.

Viáfara (2004) in his Master’s thesis showed important findings concerning the role of reflection in pre-service teachers’ development in the Licenciatura Program at Universidad Nacional. The research attempted to explore how the student teachers’ constant reflection on their practice interacted with their pedagogical knowledge and so they rebuilt, and produced new knowledge. A reflective cycle was developed, in which student teachers seemed to become aware, revise and update their pedagogical knowledge. The findings pointed out to self-appraisal as one of the most meaningful patterns element in this reflective process. One of the implications the author stated was that as teacher educators, we need to assume an open attitude to provide conditions in the teaching practice so students can benefit and learn from this reflection.

Furthermore, the conclusions of a study carried out by Wood (2000), regarding the experience of learning to teach, brought to light, on the one hand, that the problems such teachers are likely to encounter include inabilities to respond in a meaningful way to their students’ learning needs, to develop meaningful assessment, or to adapt easily to curriculum change. On the other hand, teacher educators need to review the objectives of initial teacher education programs, and the ways they asses the performance of student teachers.

Finally, we cannot get away from the fact that CP is present in the contextual understanding of schooling and helps pre-service teachers become aware of the need to create a wide diversity of ideas and approaches in the language classroom where learners and teachers have the opportunity to interact spontaneously, recreate their world and see schools as places “where students can find their voices, reclaim and affirm their histories, and develop a sense of self and collective identity amidst the language of larger public loyalties and social relations” (Giroux & McLaren, 1989, p. xii)

It is necessary then, to engage both pre-service in self-reflection for examining and confronting beliefs and perceptions they have towards teaching as a concept and as a practice. I consider that teachers should be open-minded to learn (Wink, 2000) new trends, apply them according to the context they are immersed in, and see if those trends go well with their students’ learning process; to relearn (Wink, 2000) what we at once thought it was appropriate to be developed with our students, and that maybe now, it does not suit our students’ interests and needs at all, and finally to unlearn (Wink, 2000) traditional paradigms, which have tied us regarding our real mission in the process of helping our students be themselves, of reading the world that surrounds them, and finally, of learning from mistakes.

The Role of Reflection

Regarding the previous ideas I have stated, it is important for teacher educators in undergraduate programs to create spaces for reflection about teaching and learning processes. Loughran (2002), states that for understanding the nature of reflection and the value of reflective practice it is important to see it as the notion of a problem, a puzzling, curious or perplexing situation. The author analyzes the value of reflection as a meaningful way of learning about teaching in order to understand what teaching entails, and reminds us the importance of reflective practice and how it influences the subsequent actions in practice. An important issue he emphasizes is that experience alone does not lead to learning, reflection on experience is essential to make meaning from the situations that enhance understanding of teachers’ experiences from a variety of points of view.

The author supports his research on reflective practice, which furthers practice through reflection, and which involves careful consideration of both “seeing” and “action” to enhance the possibilities of learning through experience. Through tasks based on student-teachers assertions about practice, the author compares traditional teaching with reflective practice, and how practicum experiences become more meaningful when student- teachers reconsider their experiences not as isolated events, but as events from which common understandings might be reached. He concludes by stating that an appropriate focus on experience in teacher education can be influential in the development of effective reflective practice and how it might be important in the development of student-teachers’ professional knowledge. Reflective practice becomes then a way of beginning to help teacher preparation programs integrating theory and practice in meaningful ways.

Pineda (2002) points out that reflection entails two issues, the first one is thoughtfulness about educational theories and practices, that has to do with the “permanent critical analysis of educational traditions” (p. 12). It involves seeing ourselves to improve our teaching performance, adopting a critical position. The second one is “an in-depth exploration of one’s teaching practices as a means to construct a solid conceptualization of teaching. It implies analyzing one’s view of teaching and learning, because exploring one’s teaching experiences helps understand the nature of teacher development” (p. 13).

In the same train of thought, Gilpin (2001) considers reflection as a way of thinking and interpreting in order to improve our pedagogical experiences. Dewey (1933, as cited in Gilpin, 2001, p. 111) asserts that reflection “begins from a felt difficulty and then leads to analysis and generalization”. Schon (1983, cited in Gilpin, p. 111) comments that “it is not static: implicit in its meaning is action”, for Zeichner (1983, as cited in Gilpin, 2001, p. 111) “it is a process of informing practice with reason”. Likewise, Gilpin (2001) lists five essential components when doing reflection. They are: noticing, reasoning, change of some kind, questioning, and affective involvement. When I refer to reflection, I mean to think about an issue or a situation, to analyze how that situation occurs, its implications, to assume a position, and to take an action towards it.

Barlett (1997) refers to “the relation between an individual’s thought and action” as a fundamental idea of reflection. Therefore, when we talk about reflective teaching, it is worth noting that we teachers can improve our daily experience through reflection, this is why this author claims that “reflection is more than thinking and focuses on the day-to-day classroom teaching of the individual teacher as well as the institutional structures in which the teacher and student work” (p. 204). It is through reflection that pre-service teachers start becoming aware about their role as teachers and learners. They require a personal and influential attitude to constantly examine their ideas and actions about teaching and what encircles it.

Nowadays, reflection in my university context is an enriching process that involves teachers and students; it has started since early semesters and goes until they finish their research projects in tenth semester. Some of my colleagues, who belong to the pedagogy and research areas, work together in this line of thought with their students on research projects that have gone beyond language teaching instruction, addressing themes such as students’ voices regarding their language learning process, as well as other projects related to gender identity, gender positioning, social exclusion, ecological awareness, educational policies, among others. Hopefully, these teacher educators will guide prospective teachers towards a critical understanding of teaching.

Several teacher researchers have focused on these concerns, and have obtained interesting findings that have helped to foster pre-service teachers’ reflection of their roles as future teachers. In a study developed at a University in Southern Georgia by Minor, Onwuegbuzie, and Witcher (2002), about pre-service teachers’ educational beliefs and their perceptions of characteristics of effective teachers, researchers suggested the need for teachers to challenge their own beliefs when these beliefs contradict what they experience in their field (p. 116). Grounded on researchers such as Doyle, the authors of this study stated that the characteristics pre-service teachers bring with them (experiences, knowledge, disposition, beliefs and perceptions) upon entry into formal preparation programs, greatly influenced their development as both, students and practitioners of teaching. Their findings fell into three factors that dealt with instructional and management skills, ethical and well-tempered behavior, and knowledge and enthusiasm of/for the subject and the student. According to the researchers, this study constitutes a basis for engaging pre-service candidates in self-reflection for the purposes of examining and confronting entering beliefs and values they hold regarding various aspects of teaching.

In Colombia, Castellanos (2005) carried out a research project that focused on how pre-service teachers construct their image as teachers. Four student-teachers from eight semester of a TEFL teacher education program participated in this study. The findings revealed that pre-service teachers created identifications with certain role models of professional teaching and benefited from the collaborative interaction with their professors, peers and cooperating teachers. Their images reflected the beliefs they held about teaching and learning. The researcher concluded by mentioning that it is important to raise awareness about collective and dynamic views and experiences related to language teaching and learning.

Another interesting study which shows how three pre-service teachers from the program of Philology at Universidad Nacional de Colombia reflected upon their practicum was developed by Ayala (2006). His purpose was to evidence how such a reflective process is carried out, and to reveal the topics considered. The analysis of the data collected through journals, lesson plans, and interviews, demonstrated that pre-service teachers thought about their teaching considering different issues such as suggestions from others (critical people),

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