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Critical Theory Pedagogies Guide

Critical Pedagogy

Critical Theory

Critical pedagogy is based in critical theory. Critical pedagogy connects the concepts of critical theory with education.

“Many “critical theories”...have emerged in connection with the many social movements that identify varied dimensions of the domination of human beings in modern societies. In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms" (Bohman, J., Flynn, J., & Celikates, R., 2019).

Critical Pedagogy Influences

Critical pedagogy originates especially from the work of Paulo Freire, an educator and philosopher whose work Pedagogy of the Oppressed formed the basis for critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy overlaps with pedagogies such as feminist pedagogy, anti-racist pedagogy, and inclusive pedagogy. These three pedagogies strongly pull from key theories introduced by critical pedagogues. 


Education as Political

Critical pedagogy identifies education as being inherently political, and therefore, not neutral (Kincheloe, 2004, p.2). Critical pedagogy encourages students and instructors to challenge commonly accepted assumptions that reveal hidden power structures, inequities, and injustice in society. 

Critical pedagogy acknowledges education is political; education has a history of inequalities, oppression, and domination that need to be recognized (Kincheloe, 2004). Likewise, education can become a way in which students are equipped to engage against systems of oppression when existing structures in education are challenged.

"A central tenet of pedagogy maintains that the classroom, curricular, and school structures teachers enter are not neutral sites waiting to be shaped by educational professionals" (Kincheloe, 2004, p.2). 

Education and Social Justice

Critical pedagogy connects social justice and teaching/learning. Students are seen as active participants in the classroom, and students, alongside teachers, have power.  

Critical pedagogy at its core seeks to recognize systems and patterns of oppression within society and education itself, and in doing so, decrease oppression and increase freedom. As such, social justice is at the core of critical pedagogy. 

"Questions of democracy and justice cannot be separated from the most fundamental features of teaching and learning” (Kincheloe, 2004, p.6). 

Empowering Students

In order to decrease oppression and domination, critical pedagogy seeks to empower students through enabling them to recognize the ways in which "dominant power operates in numerous and often hidden ways" (Kincheloe). Students and instructors alike are empowered through their knowledge of the hidden influences and politics within education and throughout society that lead to oppression and domination.

In this system, teachers become students and students become teachers. Paulo Freire introduced the concept of the "banking model of education" as a criticism of passive learning (Freire, p.72). Critical pedagogy pushes against passive learning, which places the instructor in a position of much higher power than the student. Active learning is one method in which the instructor can become less powerful in the classroom by having students collaborate in creating the content of the course. Dialogue is also used as a form of education. By allowing many perspectives, students' and instructors' perspectives can be changed and learning takes place. 

“We must expose the hidden politics of what is labeled neutral” (Kincheloe, 2004, p.10).

Putting it into Practice

Encouraging Dialogue

  • Focus on providing activities that encourage dialogue among students and instructor.
  • Dialogue is an area in which students can offer perspectives and contribute to the instruction as active participants. 
  • Dialogue treats individual voices on an equal plane, where the instructor also becomes a learner in a dialogue and students can become instructors. 
    • Incorporate discussion-based activities into instruction. 

Active Learning

Active learning gives students an opportunity to engage in the course using their own knowledge and personal experiences, as well as to learn using multiple methods of engagement. Active learning strategies such as group activities need to have clear expectations and roles, and instructors can check in to make sure students understand the expectations and roles. Brown University provides several examples of active learning strategies outlined below:

Small Discussion

  • Low-Stakes Writing Exercises 
    • Entry/Exit Tickets - short prompts that provide instructors with quick information. Entry tickets can help students focus on a particular topic. Exit tickets can help determine students' understanding of the material or allow students to think about what they've learned. 
    • Minute Paper/Free Writing: Short, 1-2 minute writing exercises where students can share their thoughts or provide feedback. Can also focus on a particular topic and have students make predictions about a topic.
  • A Gallery Walk: Prompts are placed around the room (or in a Google Doc if online) and students can go from station to station and answer the prompts.
  • Think-Pair-Share: Students are given a question or problem to consider on their own. Then, students are grouped into pairs to discuss and share their responses before sharing with the group. 
  • Team-Based Learning
    • Jigsaw: Students are grouped into teams to solve a problem or analyze something. The teams can work on separate parts of an assignment before sharing to the whole class, or each student in the team can be assigned with a different part of the assignment. The puzzle pieces come together at the end to share a solution or conclusions. 

Large Groups

  • Incorporate pauses: Incorporate pauses into lectures to give students time to take notes or compare notes with peers.
  • Clicker Questions / Polls: Can help increase participation in the class and facilitate active learning methods. Can be incorporated with other activities (e.g. clicker question, discussion with a peer, large discussion). 
  • Carousel Brainstorm: Students are separated into small groups, and a piece of paper is passed along from group to group with responses being written down. Students vote on the "best" responses. 
  • Role Playing: Role playing can be used to provide a new perspective. Students take on the perspective of historical figures/authors or other characters and interact from that figure's perspective. 
  • Sequence of Events: Students can work together to put a process into the correct sequence of events. This can test their understanding of the process. 

Diverse Perspectives

  • Incorporate diverse perspectives into instruction content, combined with inviting dialogue. 
    • Activities which allow students to experience alternative perspectives can also help invite dialogue and critical thinking.

Key Figures & Theorists

  • Paulo Freire (1921-1997) - Paulo Freire was a philosopher of education whose work became the foundation of critical pedagogy. Read more about Paulo Freire at the Freire Institute.
  • Henry Giroux (1943-Present) - A founding theorist in critical pedagogy, professor, and scholar. Read more about Giroux on Henry Giroux's website.
  • bell hooks (1952-Present) - A scholar, feminist, and activist whose work focuses on intersectionality, feminism, and critical pedagogy.
  • Peter McLaren (1948-Present) - A leading scholar in critical pedagogy whose work relates to Marxist theory, critical literacy, and cultural studies. Read more about McLaren at his Chapman University faculty profile.
  • Ira Shor (1945-Present) - A scholar and professor whose research is based in Freire's critical pedagogy. Read more about Shor on his faculty page at City University of New York.  
  • Antonia Darder (1952-Present) - A scholar whose work covers issues of pedagogy, race, and culture. Darder's work is based in Freire's theories. Read more about Darder. 
  • Joe Kincheloe  (1950 - 2008) - Joe Kincheloe was a scholar whose work focused on critical pedagogy, cultural studies, and urban studies. 
  • Shirley Steinberg - A scholar, activist, and author whose work focuses on critical pedagogy, cultural studies, and social justice. Read more about Steinberg at her faculty page at the University of Calgary. 

Key Readings

Paulo Freire Key Terms

Key Terms Introduced by Paulo Freire:

Banking Model of Education - On the banking model of education, students are empty receptacles and teachers hold the source of knowledge. Students are treated as passive and as lacking knowledge themselves. "Knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing" (Freire Institute).

Praxis (Action/Reflection) - "It is not enough for people to come together in dialogue in order to gain knowledge of their social reality.  They must act together upon their environment in order critically to reflect upon their reality and so transform it through further action and critical reflection" (Freire Institute).

Dialogue - "To enter into dialogue presupposes equality amongst participants.  Each must trust the others; there must be mutual respect and love (care and commitment).  Each one must question what he or she knows and realize that through dialogue existing thoughts will change and new knowledge will be created" (Freire Institute).

Conscientization - "The process of developing a critical awareness of one’s social reality through reflection and action.  Action is fundamental because it is the process of changing the reality.  Paulo Freire says that we all acquire social myths which have a dominant tendency, and so learning is a critical process which depends upon uncovering real problems and actual needs" (Freire Institute).

Additional Readings & Resources