Critical Pedagogy Brings New Teaching and Learning Challenges

It’s not always easy to differentiate between critical pedagogy, active learning, and the learner- or learning-centered approaches. Each is predicated on the notion of student engagement and proposes involvement via such strategies as collaborative and cooperative learning and problem-based learning. All recommend a move away from lecturing.

Critical pedagogy is the most extreme of the three and has some unique characteristics. The authors below describe its basic tenets as eradication of the teacher-student contradiction “whereby the teacher teaches and the students are taught; the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing; the teacher talks and the students listen; and the teacher is the subject and the students are mere objects.” (p. 26) Critical pedagogy also has a political agenda; it views education as a means to achieve social justice and change.

Whether or not a teacher is philosophically comfortable with the principles of critical pedagogy, implementing it in the classroom presents teachers with the same dilemmas that emerge when using active learning or learner-centered approaches. The article referenced below does an excellent job of articulating some of these challenges and offering advice on how instructors might respond.

One problem that becomes clear early on is the discomfort students feel when teachers solicit their opinions and acknowledge the relevance of previous experiences. More students prefer traditional approaches—those that have them record and then regurgitate information. They aren’t used to having their voices recognized and respected, but they do quickly adapt. The next challenge for the teacher is to ratchet up the ante so that the opinions students express are informed, their views are supported, and they learn to tolerate ambiguity more constructively.

As soon as students are recognized for what they can teach (as they do in most group work settings), a whole set of challenging questions emerges for the teacher. “How do we invite students to be co-teachers if we … begin from a position of intellectual authority?” How can we let students have a say about what they learn when there is a discipline-specific body of knowledge we are expected to cover in the course? “How do we de-center authority when we are working to gain authority?” (as might be the case with new teachers, especially persons of color or women in male-dominated fields). (p. 28)

The answer here is sanguine whether an instructor is using groups or giving students some say over course policies and procedures. “The goal is not to abdicate responsibilities or to deny or conceal our knowledge but to create a genuine space for students to contribute to the curriculum: ‘to teach is not to transfer knowledge but to create the possibilities for the production or construction of knowledge.’” (p. 28-29—the internal quote is attributed to Paulo Freire.)

If students now have a role in making some of the decisions about learning, and teachers use authority more sparingly, what happens when it’s time to evaluate student work and assign grades? And right behind that question is one relating to appropriate assessment measures. These instructional approaches make some of the traditional assessment strategies quite inappropriate. You can’t be expecting and encouraging students to collaborate and work cooperatively on projects if the grading schematic is competitive. It is possible, though, to begin to involve students in both the generation and the critique of those rubrics that will be used to assess their work. Their involvement helps to create clear expectations and makes the whole assessment process more transparent.

Reference: Fobes, C., and Kaufman, P. (2008). Critical pedagogy in the sociology classroom: Challenges and concerns. Teaching Sociology, 36 (January), 26-33.

Excerpted from Critical Pedagogy: Challenges and Concerns, The Teaching Professor, March 2008.