Critical Theory: Freire's Critical Pedagogy and 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed' Lecture
This chapter explores the theory known as 'Critical Pedagogy' and considers where it comes from and how it links with education. It then explains Freire's 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed', which is an example of one specific and highly influential critical pedagogy. There is some consideration of the role of power and authority in education and the hidden assumptions and values that influence teachers and constrain or enhance opportunities for learners. Examples are provided to illustrate how the theory has been applied to different educational settings. As in previous chapters, the strengths and limitations of this theory are explored and the reflection sections are designed to help you use this theory when thinking about your own experience in teaching.
Learning objectives for this chapter
By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:
- understand and explain clearly what Critical Pedagogy means
- appreciate how Critical Pedagogy links with education
- understand the main ideas in Freire's 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed', and explain why this approach makes an important contribution to education theory and research
- understand and explain how Freire's this theory applies to education, both in its original context and in other contexts across the world
- critically evaluate and discuss the strengths and limitations of this theory
- link this theory to educational practice
Critical theory emerged in the early twentieth century and was applied across the social sciences, including economics, sociology criminology, history and many others as well as education. It has its origins in the work of a group of radical thinkers who came to be known as the Frankfurt School including Habermas, Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse and who questioned the growth of capitalism, and its effects on society (Giroux, 2009, p. 27). These thinkers were heavily influenced by Marxism, but having observed the kind of communist ideology that had been introduced in Russia after the revolution of 1917, they were also critical of the authoritarianism that characterised Stalin's rule. The Frankfurt School also questioned the assumptions of positivism, which is the reliance on the observation of phenomena and the collection of scientific facts, and the assumption that science is neutral and objective. These thinkers argued that there is no such thing as objective fact, because there are always underlying social, economic and cultural conditions and assumptions that lie behind the data. Context is important, and many factors will influence human behaviour.
A key element in critical pedagogy is the idea that human society is imperfect and needs to be subjected to quite radical change. It focuses on power and authority, and the hierarchies which can assert ideological positions and confine people to defined roles in life, and limit their freedom. As such, critical pedagogy is necessarily political, and it faces up to the social realities that constrain people's lives, and the uncomfortable outcomes of systems which are designed to benefit the few at the expense of the masses.
In general usage, the word "critical" often has negative connotation, as for example in the case of giving feedback after a visit to a restaurant: a critical review evaluates the restaurant badly, pointing out all its negative points. This word, however, can also be used positively, in the sense that it describes a careful evaluation that takes the time to weigh up the pros and cons of something. In educational theory, the term "critical pedagogy" means a questioning and reflective pedagogy that is carefully thought out, and not just a pedagogy accepted unthinkingly after many decades or even centuries. It is designed to challenge the status quo, and assumes that improvements can and should be made so that pedagogy becomes better, and above all, fairer to all learners.
A key element of critical pedagogy is dialectical thought. This sounds like a difficult concept, but it just means challenging given situations, asking questions and considering other possibilities that might enable positive changes to be made. Critical theory re-examines the basic assumptions that people make about the world, and especially about society and all its institutions, roles and structures. It asks not only what is happening, but also why things are set up this way, and what the consequences of concepts, practices and experience might be. Giroux (2009, p. 47) notes that critical theory "offers new concepts and categories for analysing the role that schools play as agents of social and cultural reproduction."
Applying critical theory to education involves re-examining basic concepts and asking questions. One might start by re-examining the nature of childhood, and the expectations that adults have of children in a particular time and place. It has been noted that "childhood is a construction that arises from historical, cultural and economic conditions … and that educators can hold multiple views or constructions of children. Practitioners can recognise both the child in need of nurture and the child as agent of their own learning" (Miller and Pound, 2011, p. 5). This means it is not possible to provide an absolute or universal definition of childhood, but it is necessary to take into account many contextual factors, such as past history and present socio-economic conditions and so arrive at different definitions, depending on the context in question.
Different cultures view childhood in different ways. In some countries, such as Japan for example, parents generally have small families. Young children are lavished with material possessions, and nurtured in kindergarten to prepare for formal education aged six. Teaching methods become increasingly strict and didactic, and from late primary school onwards, children are prepared for highly competitive examinations. These examinations open the way for children to access the best schools and universities, many of which are privately run. Education is the main priority for most parents, and they will often invest in private tutors to ensure that their children achieve the best possible academic results. Many Japanese parents view childhood in these traditional ways. They treat boys and girls differently, and place a great emphasis on preserving Japanese cultural values. Critical pedagogy encourages researchers to examine the reasons why childhood is viewed in this way, and the impact it has on people's lives. Critical theory might argue that because Japan is a relatively wealthy and homogeneous society, with few ethnic minorities, there has not been very much effort to challenge Japanese culture or demand a different approach. Comparison with other cultures reveals that the lack of choice for children creates great psychological pressure, and this results in mental and physical health problems, as children feel increasingly unable to live up to the high educational expectations placed upon them. Critical pedagogy examines these assumptions, and the socio-economic conditions that caused them, and that still sustain them in modern Japan. It goes further than that, and enables researchers to understand why the system has developed in this way, and what factors might need to be changed in order to improve outcomes for learners and for society as a whole.
In contrast to this view of childhood, there are other cultures, such as the subsistence farmers in large parts of India, where many children spend much of their time working in the fields, or helping with domestic tasks, such as fetching water and wood or looking after younger siblings or animals. Families are generally large and poor, and schools are not well-equipped and often expensive in comparison with the typical income levels of subsistence farmers. One child in a large family may benefit from primary and even secondary education, while several other children, including especially girls, are educated mainly or solely in the home with an emphasis on practical skills rather than reading, writing and academic subjects. The prevailing view of childhood in such a society is that children should support the family unit, and there is pressure on those who are educated to pay back this investment in the form of support for their relatives. Many girls are married at a young age, and the majority of children are prevented by a lack of education from escaping the grinding poverty that characterised their childhood. Critical pedagogy considers the wider social structures, such as the lack of pension and healthcare provision, the general weakness of the regional economy, and cultural values such as fatalism and collectivism as factors which influence the view of childhood that prevails.
These two rather generalised examples demonstrate that there are always many factors that influence the concept of childhood that people have in their minds. This concept, along with all the other factors mentioned above, then influences the kind of teaching that is provided (or in some cases not provided, or only selectively provided). No matter what kind of culture and socio-political regime is in place, there are bound to be aspects that are discriminatory or restrictive for some, or even for most children. Critical pedagogy insists that the negative and unfair aspects of education can and should be removed, reformed or replaced with something better.
Think about the historical, cultural and economic conditions in 19th century Britain. Think about children growing up in the Victorian era. How was childhood constructed by Victorians, and how is it constructed now? What has changed and why do you think these changes have taken place?
Research a social, religious or cultural group that is different from your own. Compare and contrast your own representation of childhood with the way childhood is represented in this group? What similarities and differences do you see? How do you think these representations affect parenting styles?
Paulo Freire (1921-1997) was a Brazilian philosopher and educationalist who developed his own theory called "the pedagogy of the oppressed" (Freire, 1996). This theory was explained in a very readable book which was first published in 1970 and has since been translated into many languages and re-published many times over. It is a book that many regard as a key text that all teachers should read, in order to gain an insight into the nature of teaching and learning and the role of education in society and in the lives of individual learners. At the time of writing, Freire was already an experienced educator who had witnessed the struggle of many poor people to make their way through a rigid and traditional education system in Brazil which was not fit for purpose. A key element in this theory is that it analyses the social, political and economic factors, and the ideologies that lie behind any national education system. Freire was not impressed with a national school system that appeared to be designed to produce passive learners who were being prepared for boring jobs in the service of capitalist mass production and mindless service industries (Barrow and Wood, 2007). He thought that education should be a much more positive and dynamic force in society, and that it should not simply support an unfair class system that disadvantaged the majority of learners.
Freire's theory examines the role of education in the life of each child, but also considers the wider context of the nature and purpose of education within society as a whole. It is underpinned by Marxism, an ideology which questions the right of elite cadres in society to reserve the best of everything for themselves. In Brazil of the 1970s, as in many other countries, the school system excluded working class people and the poor from accessing fundamental avenues of development including higher level school and college education, as well as professional training that opens up the possibility of professional jobs and fulfilling careers. Freire was passionate about the notion of justice. He wanted to unlock the potential of education to transform children's lives, and was frustrated by the conditions that prevented him from doing this.
The most famous example that Freire suggested to describe his pedagogy of the oppressed is an extended metaphor that likens education to a traditional banking system. We must remember that Freire was writing in Brazil, which was a relatively poor country, and in a period before the invention of computers and digital money transfers. Banking in this context is a bureaucratic institution, based on millions of routine paper transactions, since every banking process involved filling in forms, filing multiple copies of papers and keeping a huge store of records. In this metaphor money is knowledge. He describes teaching in terms of active depositors (i.e. teachers) putting knowledge into students, who are just passive recipients. The bank is the school or educational system that provides the administrative framework for these transactions, imposing its own bureaucratic rules and regulations on depositors and recipients alike.
The students take in this knowledge, but they have no say in what the teacher gives them. The system is set up in such a way that it benefits those who have more knowledge given to them, and the wealthiest students receive more and better deposits than the poorer students. On the basis of the paper qualifications that wealthy students receive, by regurgitating this knowledge, they have a much better life. Meanwhile, the majority of poorer students leave school early and have few options available to them. Freire concludes that the system is designed to preserve social privileges for the few.
This memorable example is a good way of describing the stultifying effect of some types of teaching. It describes a closed system which does not permit any creativity or exploration, but rather insists on a dry exchange of information that has little or no inherent value for the students. What is valuable is the piece of paper at the end of the course which opens up career options and privileges that are graded according to the amount of teaching that a student has been able to obtain.
In response to the banking view of education, Freire suggests a very different model that removes some of the power vested in teachers, and in the system, and gives it instead to the students. Freire recommends a more equal relationship between teacher and students, in which learning is negotiated between them, rather than decided by the teacher or imposed by the system. He contrasted the banking model of education with a problem posing education, or in other words, a rejected a learn-and-repeat approach and recommended with a questioning approach. The first approach accepts the status quo, while the second approach challenges it. It is important to note that "Freire uses the term 'problem posing' rather than 'problem solving' since, in his view, the latter term still accepts the status quo" (Jarvis, Holford and Griffin, 2003, p.70). Defining the nature of the problem is a crucial element in critical pedagogy, because this re-sets the starting point for any debate, and permits different understandings to be included from the beginning.
Think about one country that you know well (it could be the UK, or it could be any other country). Are there any oppressed people in this country? Can you identify institutions, or social and cultural practices that remind you of Freire's pedagogy of the oppressed?
What is the criminal justice system like in your chosen country? Are people always treated fairly, or are there any examples which show the system treating people differently according to their social class, economic position or political affiliation? Do you think anything could or should be changed to make this society fairer to the all?
All of Freire's critical pedagogy is relevant to education in some way or other, although his focus switches from micro- to macro-level issues from time to time. All teachers should have an awareness of the potential for injustice to arise in teaching and learning, and although schools are not responsible for the majority of injustices that exist in the world, they have an important role to play in the emancipation of oppressed groups. Teachers also have a contractual obligation to carry out their work in non-discriminatory ways, so that all children and parents are treated equally, regardless of demographic differences such as gender, social class and economic or cultural status. Most teachers are aware of obvious ways to avoid oppressing anyone in school, but critical pedagogy asks teachers also to examine their own practice, and their own organisation, looking for unconscious assumptions and traditional practices that might have unintentionally oppressive effects.
One of the implications of Freire's critical pedagogy is the idea that when a society undergoes significant change, the educational system must also be changed in order to take account of new sources of injustice are bound to arise. Here are just a few areas where in Western Europe and the United States there has been very significant change over the last fifty years or so:
- Deindustrialisation: many jobs in manufacturing have disappeared, and there has been growth in service industries.
- Globalisation has increased cultural diversity in education: there has been a huge amount of migration which increases the mix of different cultures present in any one classroom.
- Feminism has been very influential and women's rights are now enshrined in law
- The invention of the internet and digitalisation have transformed childhood, bringing a whole new set of tools and techniques for learning, and for play and socialisation.
- The gap between rich and poor appears to be widening, and privatisation raises the cost of many social and cultural services, including schools, colleges and universities.
Choose one of the dimensions of change from the bullet points above and use Freire's theory of critical pedagogy to identify the kinds of injustice that might arise as a result of these large-scale societal changes, and the groups of people who might be most negatively affected. Are there some educational practices that are contributing to this injustice? How could education change in order to address these injustices and emancipate those who are disadvantaged or oppressed?
Are these changes feasible or likely? Why or why not? See if you can identify at least one example of an educational policy or practice that is currently addressing an injustice you have identified, and one that has so far failed to address it.
Two parents are discussing the issue of grammar schools in England. Joan thinks that comprehensive schools are bad because they force teachers to find the lowest common denominator, or in other words, to teach undemanding material so that every student can keep up. She herself went to a private girls' school and supports the expansion of the grammar school system because she thinks her daughter Emma would have a more demanding curriculum that will maximise her potential for high achievement. It might be difficult for Joan and her husband to finance Emma's attendance at grammar school, but Joan thinks they could manage to pay part of the fees, and that Emma would do well in an entrance examination and hopefully win a scholarship that paid the other part. Even if they had to pay full fees, Joan reckons they would just about manage this, by making sacrifices and asking the grandparents to help.
Sandra is fundamentally opposed to the selective entrance policy of the grammar school system. She thinks it is elitist, and fosters social divisions and snobbery. Her son Joe is attaining average grades at the local comprehensive school, but she thinks he is immature and will realise that he needs to work harder by the time he reaches his A level year. Sandra is the only breadwinner in her home, because her husband is currently unemployed. There are two other children in the family, and grammar school fees would be out of the question. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether Joe would pass the entrance examination. Sandra thinks the government should stop experimenting with grammar schools, and focus on investing more on comprehensive schools, so that all children can benefit equally.
This example shows how different ideological positions and contextual factors affect the way in which people view education. The first mother is influenced by her own middle-class experience of private schooling and seeks to enhance the academic achievement and rewards for her own child. She values status and qualifications very highly. The second mother is concerned about academic achievement too, but she also considers social values such as egalitarianism and social harmony.
Critical pedagogy could be used to explore the reasons behind these two different views of education. By asking why the mothers have such diverging opinions, it might be mentioned that notions of class and status lie behind both of their views, since one approves of privilege and seeks to gain some for her daughter, while the other rejects the idea of privilege, and approves of fairness instead. The first mother clearly has more economic flexibility, and this gives her the option of considering a fee-paying school for her child. The second mother has fewer options, because she is restrained by financial considerations, and this may at least partly influence her view. One would need to talk to both parents in more depth in order to find out whether their view would change if financial considerations were removed from the picture, or if some aspects of the comprehensive school were to be improved.
Critical pedagogy could also be used to examine and improve a) access barriers to grammar schools and b) curriculum and teaching methods in comprehensive schools in such a way as to enhance equality of opportunity and academic achievement levels. It would advocate in this case that Emma and Joe should be consulted before any decisions are made by their parents about the choice of school. Exploring what their aspirations are would be a first step towards working out what kind of education would be best for them. They might also have some surprising comments to make about the values that they have, and the good and bad features of their current, comprehensive school experience. No one should assume that they know what is best for everyone, and critical pedagogy suggests that talking through such issues, and listening to alternative views is the only way to understand the underlying assumptions, values, motivations and aspirations that are involved in educational matters.
This example has examined factors such as social class and economic status in relation to education. Can you think of situations or issues where other factors such as gender, race and sexual orientation might be relevant? How could critical pedagogy help in thinking about these issues and making improvements?
The main strength of this theory is that it provides a framework for continuous re-evaluation and improvement in both pedagogical theory and teaching practice. It encourages creativity and innovation, both of which are positive attributes for individuals and for society as a whole. One critic notes that it has a transformational aspect, that is not just a vague aspiration for some future utopia, but rather "it is informed by a sharpened experience of the actual and intolerable injustice of the world as it currently exists" (Blake and Masschelein, 2006, p. 55).
One negative aspect of critical pedagogy is that it can sometimes turn into a dogmatic ideology that is used in a negative and destructive way. If it is used to find fault in everything, and not as a way of clarifying issues and identifying strategies and solutions, then it can destroy morale and encourage complacency. Every educational situation has both positive and negative features, and critical pedagogy should explore answers as well as raise questions.
Another relevant point is the fact that Freire's critical pedagogy represents only one application of critical theory, and it is clearly rooted in one particular time and place (Brazil in the 1970s). It is not necessarily applicable in detail to other situations, and there are other critical pedagogies which may be more suited to different social and political contexts, such as feminist pedagogy for example.
Finally, there is some substance in the view that Critical Pedagogy can be unrealistic, or even utopian. The principles of dialogic instruction, individual learning and open-ended or problem-solving approaches to teaching and learning are time-consuming and therefore expensive. It is much cheaper and easier to give a lecture to 500 students than to arrange practical seminars with demonstrators, equipment, and plenty of time and freedom to experiment and discuss ideas freely between students and teachers. It is all very well to question the value of rigid teaching methods, and transactional forms of assessment that are reminiscent of depositing information into student minds and then checking that they have received it and filed it properly. In practical terms, however, it may be impossible to replace this rather rigid system because of financial constraints and because so many of our social institutions are geared up to depend upon it.
What do you think about Freire's critical pedagogy? Are you convinced by it, or do you think it is unrealistic? Perhaps there are some parts of it that you find more useful than others. Perhaps you can see some potential applications for critical pedagogy in your own lesson planning and assessment practices.
Write down one action point that you will carry out in the next month as a result of applying critical pedagogy to your current teaching and/or learning role. [Note: this could be a plan to research an area of injustice that you think might be occurring in your context, or a decision to change the way you plan lessons, or teach your subject, or a commitment to start a dialogic discussion with someone about a key issue or problem in education and some potential solutions].
One of the most obvious ways in which critical pedagogy can be linked to practice is that it can be used as a tool for raising awareness of the impact of one's own teaching on all learners. Teachers should not just teach automatically, assuming that what they are doing is fine, so long as it fulfils basic managerial requirements. There is always a need to reflect on how one can improve one's teaching, learning from experience and the impact that it is having on individual learners.
This reflection can include, for example, the kinds of teaching and learning materials that are used in class. Very often these materials will reflect the dominant culture, and suppress minority cultures, so that members of the class who come from the dominant culture feel their identity reinforced and strengthened by its high visibility, while others feel excluded and invisible. Freire (1996) believed that the discourse of schooling, which means the type of language used and the way discussion is framed and focused, is constrained by ideological factors and designed to preserve an unfair social status quo (Tyner, 1998). This has quite serious implications for teachers, since teachers are bound to promote unfairness and disadvantage if they only use the dominant discourses, and do not value other discourses that children experience in the home and in the local community. On the other hand, if they do not teach the dominant discourses, then children will not learn to communicate successfully in situations where the dominant discourse very powerful.
Malcolm is preparing a literacy session for a group of seven-year old children. The children are from a diverse range of cultural origins and social backgrounds, and they include both girls and boys. He has decided to read a story to the children, and ask them to act out the story using costumes from the dressing up box, and phrases from the story which he has printed out on cards. In the next lesson, he plans to have the children write out the story with illustrations so that they can tell it to a real or imagined little brother or sister.
At first, Malcolm had trouble choosing a suitable story. He is aware of critical pedagogy and he decided to tell the story that was modelled on the traditional fairy tale of George and the Dragon. He told the story in his own words, and made it clear that when the children acted out their own version, the hero, dragon, and royal family members could be male or female. He created a number of additional characters, with a range of names that included traditional names chosen by minority ethnic groups. Malcolm also made sure that there was a wide range of costumes and visual material available for the children to choose from.
In this example, it is interesting to note that Malcolm is using a very traditional story with English cultural material but adapting it for the more diverse class that he is teaching. He does not impose gender roles, but offers the children choices in how they will re-tell the story. In teaching this class, he explores with the children what they think it would be like to be a prince or princess, or a dragon. Children can experiment with the costumes to help them play different roles, and they can use a mix of their own dialogue and the phrases that Malcolm has written out to help them structure the story. When they write up the story for their little brother or sister, Malcolm will praise them when they use idioms and styles that are commonly used in their family context, and not just formally correct versions that are part of Standard English.
At higher levels, for example in universities, teachers should evaluate the choices that they make when they cite examples or recommend textbooks and further reading. Where possible, they should offer alternative opinions, and not just one position that is dominant. Different authors, both male and female, and originating in different parts of the world, will add valuable insights that are not available in the mainstream textbooks.
Think about your own experience of teaching. Is there anything that you have found inadequate or dissatisfying in that experience? Think about the discourses you have observed or participated in while working or learning in an educational institution.
Critical pedagogy sees this kind of personal reflection as the starting point for change. Is there anything you could do to improve the situation? Think about the way school improvement is handled. Whose voice is listened to? Who has the power to suggest change? Who has the power to enact change? What efforts are being made to ensure that justice and emancipation are on the agenda?
This chapter has introduced the concept of critical pedagogy, and explained its origins in the Frankfurt school of the early twentieth century. It explored Freire's theory of the pedagogy of the oppressed, and considered how this applied to education in Brazil in the 1970s and how it can still be applied to many other contexts in the contemporary world. Finally, this chapter has emphasised power, authority and change in education, and has challenged you to think about all aspects of your role as a teacher, especially in relation to issues of justice and emancipation.
By the time you have finished reading this chapter, and thinking about the issues raised in the examples and reflection sections, you should
- understand what Critical Pedagogy means in the context of educational research
- understand Freire's 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed' including its origins and its relation to other theories
- understand and explain clearly how this theory applies to education
- relate this theory to educational practice at different levels from infancy to adulthood, and to educational systems and contexts across the world
Now you should complete the 'hands-on scenario' at the end of this chapter. Use what you have learned in this chapter to complete the short task described there.
Barrow, R and Wood, R. (2007) An Introduction to Philosophy of Education (4th Edition) London: Routledge.
Blake, N. and Masschelein, J. (2006) Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy. In N. Blake, P. Smeyers, R. Smith, R. and P. Standish (Eds.). The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Education. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 38-56.
Freire, P. (1996)  Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by M. B Ramos. London: Penguin.
Giroux, H. A. (2009) Critical theory and educational practice. In A. Darder, M. Baltodano and R. D. Torres (Eds.) The Critical Pedagogy Reader. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 27-51.
Jarvis, P., Holford, J. and Griffin, C. (2003) The Theory and Practice of Learning. Second edition. London: Kogan Page.
Miller, L. and Pound, L. (2011) Taking a critical perspective. In L. Miller and L. Pound (Eds.), Theories and Approaches to Learning in the Early Years. London: Sage, pp. 1-18.
Tyner, K. (1998) Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information. New York: Routledge.
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