What is “Critical Pedagogy”?

In an earlier post, I presented an overview of the literature on critical literacy and how it informs my perspectives on my work, research, and thinking. This was motivated by discussions in which colleagues and students indicate that they know/understand critical literacy, and then go on to equate it with critical evaluation. I think the two are linked, but to me critical literacy is much broader, and (IMHO) much more important.

In this post I want to expand from the earlier post on critical literacy by folding in pedagogy, or the science of teaching and learning. For me, literacy is all about reading, writing, communicating, and socializing. It is also about identity construction and the ways in which I think, and view the world. As such, when I think about critical literacy, I can easily indicate that this perspective frames the ways in which I write this post, talk to my children, or watch television. Critical literacy does not have to include pedagogy. But, since a lot of my identity involves teaching, learning, and assessment (pedagogy), critical literacy plays a large part in framing my thinking there as well.

As such, this post will detail the literature around critical pedagogy. We’ll examine this mostly from my perspective as an educator and researcher that studies literacy and technology. But, you should be able to relate most of this to your own work and field. I’ll also include some thinking about how I embed it in teaching & learning…but will try to (for the most part) keep the remainder of my perspectives out of this.

Defining Critical pedagogy

From an educational perspective, critical literacy has demonstrated that some areas of thought, opinion, and study are consciously or unconsciously accepted, rejected, or omitted because they do not emanate from the ruling or elite class (McLaren, 1988a). In this process, only the particular elite class knowledge was legitimized (McLaren, 1988b). Other groups were unable to contribute to the process of operationalizing or applying knowledge (Hirumi, 2002).

Critical literacy was brought to the educational context through the writings of Paulo Friere (1970). His work, situated in the midst of postcolonial “third-world” determinism and influenced by the civil rights movement, best espoused that theory called “critical pedagogy” by speaking with the voice of those groups who have been marginalized throughout history (Luke, 2002). Critical pedagogy is a philosophy that “applies the tenets of critical social theory to the educational arena and takes on the task of examining how schools reproduce inequality and injustice” (Beck, 2005). Beck believed students were able to learn by critiquing multiple texts and examining the injustices that existed amongst them (Simpson, 1996). He explored the role that language had in establishing inequities and argued that those with power were able to “name the world” (Friere, 1972). Through their language, the elite group imposed their will on those without power. Friere used a broader approach because he viewed students as valued participants in the learning process as opposed to “vessels to be filled” only by what the teachers were able to supply (Friere, 1970). He viewed the “vessel” model as being akin to a “banking concept of education” (Friere, 1970), which he considered too restrictive.


In moving away from this banking model of education, Friere envisioned schools as critical spaces where students would be empowered to interrogate and question social conditions through the use of discourse about issues of high interest and relevance to their lives (Dewey, 1910, 1916; Marzano, 1991). He further transformed instructional practices with the concept that critical theory could separate theoretical endeavors from practice through the concept of “praxis.” Freire (1970) defined praxis as “the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it” (p. 91). In this model, educators sought to synthesize and critique power systems and to dissect the truths upon which these systems were based while facilitating discourse in the classroom. His model posited that “knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (Friere, 1970, p. 72).

With the transition from oppression to critical consciousness as a goal, Friere suggested that pedagogy be imbued with a critical reflection process he called “concientización” (Friere, 2005). This process marked a shift in critical theory from a critical reflection on societal mechanisms that make social justice impossible to a call to action for social justice. Using this shift as guidance, educators created spaces in which the traditional roles of power relations could be examined, and teachers and students collaboratively critiqued, interrogated, and constructed theories of knowledge (Van Sluys, Lewison, & Flint, 2006). This pedagogical model has been viewed as “one of the most dynamic and controversial educational schools of thought of the past 30 years” (Fischman & McLaren, 2005, p. 426).

Opportunities to question power

Critical pedagogy as developed by critical literacy elements in the classroom invites and encourages students to question issues of power. These issues include multiple indicators: socioeconomic status (SES), race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and age (Cervetti, Pardales, & Damico, 2001). This technique requires students and teachers to master the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to read and critique messages for understanding why certain knowledge belonged to the privileged class (Street, 2003).

Knobel and Lankshear (2002) argue that when students become critically literate, they were able to “examine ongoing development, the parts they play in the world, and how they make sense of experiences.” Further facilitation of critical literacy skill development promotes the examination and reform of social situations and exposes students to “biases and hidden agendas that exist within texts” (Simpson, 1996). In addition, Morgan stated (1998, p. 157), “Critical literacy teaching begins by problematizing the culture and knowledge in text — putting them up for grabs, critical debate, for weighing, judging, critiquing.” Eventually, educators are responsible for developing a student’s understanding of how inequalities and injustices are socially constructed (Luke, 1999). Thus, students and teachers are challenged to question previously accepted truths to determine their current efficacy.

Hopefully this post was valuable for you. Subscribe to my weekly newsletter to learn more about how to embed this in your own practices.

Read more

Alvermann, D. E. & Hagood, M. C. (2000). Fandom and critical media literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43, 436–446.

Alvermann, D. E. (2004). Media, information communication technologies, and youth literacies: A cultural studies perspective. American Behavioral Scientist, 48(1), 78–83.

Anderson, G., & Irvine, P. (1993). Informing critical literacy with ethnography. In C. Lankshear and P. McLaren (Eds.) Critical literacy: Politics, praxis, and the postmodern. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Beck, A. (2005). A place for critical literacy. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 48(5), 392–400. doi: 10.1598/JAAL.48.5.3

Browne, M. N., Freeman, K. E., & Williamson, C. L. (2000). The importance of critical thinking for student use of the Internet. College Student Journal, 34(3), 391–398.

Cervetti, G., Pardales, M., & Damico, J. (2001, April). A tale of differences: Comparing the traditions, perspectives and educational goals of critical reading and critical literacy. Reading Online, 4(9). Available: http:// readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF/articles/cervetti/index.html

Cook-Sather, A. (2002). Authorizing Students’ Perspectives: Toward Trust, Dialogue, and Change in Education. Educational Researcher, 31(4). 3–14.

Duncan-Andrade, J. M. R., & Morrell, E. (2008). The art of critical pedagogy: Possibilities for moving from theory to practice in urban schools. New York: Lang.

Fabos, B. (2008). The Price of Information: Critical Literacy, Education and Today’s Internet. In D.J. Leu, J. Coiro, M. Knobel & C. Lankshear (Eds.). Handbook of Research on New Literacies. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Giroux, H. (1987). Literacy and the pedagogy of empowerment. In P. Freire & D. Macedo (Eds.), Literacy: Reading the word and the world (pp. 1–29). Westport, CT: Heinemann.

Giroux, H., & McLaren, P. (1989). Critical pedagogy, the state, and cultural struggle. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Kellner, D. & Share, J. (2005). Toward critical media literacy: Core concepts, debates, organizations, and policy. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 26(3), 369–386. doi: 10.1080/01596300500200169

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (1998). Critical literacies and new technologies. Paper presented at the American Education Research Association convention in San Diego, CA.

Lewison, M., Flint, A. S., & Van Sluys, K. (2002). Taking on critical literacy: The journey of newcomers and novices. Language Arts, 79(5), 382–392.

Luke, A. (1994). The Social Construction of Literacy in the Classroom. Melbourne: Macmillan Australia.

Luke, A., & Freebody, P. (1999, August). Further notes on the four resources model. Reading Online. Retrieved January 26, 2003, from http://www.readingonline.org/past/past_index.asp?HREF=/research/lukefreebody.html

Luke, A. (2000). Critical literacy in Australia: A matter of context and standpoint. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43(5), 448–461.

Myers, J., & Beach, R. (2001). Hypermedia authoring as critical literacy. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 44(6), 538–546.

Myers, J. & Beach, R. (2004). Constructing critical literacy practices through technology tools and inquiry. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education [Online serial], 4(3).

Pickerill, J. (2003). Cyberprotest: Environmental activism online. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Robinson, E. & Robinson, S. (2003). What does it mean-discourse, text, culture: An introduction. Sydney, Australia: McGraw-Hill.

Shor, I. (1999). What is Critical Literacy? Journal for Pedagogy, Pluralism, & Practice, 4(1). Retrieved December 1, 2011, from http://www.lesley.edu/journals/jppp/4/shor.html

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Originally published at W. Ian O’Byrne.