Becoming a Critical Educator: Critical Pedagogy in Community Colleges

By Lina Jawad

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

This piece is a part of our Spark series: University Faculty Are Change Agents

I was concluding my lecture for a course session at the community college on a Tuesday afternoon. As the session ended and I attempted to leave the classroom, I overheard a student expressing frustration to her classmate about a course in which she was enrolled. The student was concerned that the professor does not provide sufficient class time for dialogue and discussion of course topics. The student’s comment made me pause and think of my own pedagogical practices. Rethinking these practices reminded me of the crucial impact of Critical Theory on pedagogy in higher education. I discuss Critical Pedagogy practices here, drawing from essays in the book, The Critical Pedagogy Reader (2009).

Critical Theory encourages educators to self-critique and question their ways of teaching. Giroux (2009) explains that personal criticism constitutes a significant aspect of Critical Theory. Viewing pedagogy from a critical perspective leads educators to question practices they never doubted before. As a result, educators implement strategies that promote a holistic view of education in consideration of the effects of race, culture, class, gender and language on student learning experience.

In his chapter in the same book, Friere (2009) claims, “only through communication can human life hold meaning” (p. 55). Thus our duty as educators in higher education is to help students think for themselves and encourage dialogue within our pedagogical practices. To advocate for student voice, we should avoid forcing thoughts and ideas upon our students. Friere believes that an educator “must be a partner of the students in his relations with them” (p. 44). Friere opposes the concept of “banking education,” which only involves narration by the teacher and limits teacher-student dialogue. Friere also promotes problem-posing education, which encourages critical thinking and considers it the only way that leads to transformation and decision making. To Friere, “To alienate men from their own decision making is to change them into objects” (p. 59).

Our world is understood through the symbols and contexts of social interaction such as history, culture and customs (McLaren, 2009). Based on critical theory, pedagogical practices should be relevant to students’ cultural backgrounds and historical experiences. Learning should be grounded in the culture, experience and language of the student. For example, if students want to voice their frustrations and concerns with the healthcare system rather than follow your planned discussion topic in medical ethics for that day, then let them do so. Identifying with student language at the community college is an equally impactful tool for critical educators. Giroux (2009) provides examples of working-class students who cling to their cultural experiences by using their language or dialect. Students manifest group identity by using the dialect that allows them to relate to their community (Delpit, 2009). As critical educators, we should recognize the dialect used by our students and avoid continuous correction in speech (the writing assignments however should always require students to use Standard English). According to Delpit, constant correction of student language promotes an affective filter that hinders student learning and language acquisition.

Critical Theory aims to empower students from disadvantaged backgrounds and inspire them for change. According to critical theorists, the purpose of education is to make marginal students aware of their positions in society as they belong to a specific class, race, ethnicity, or gender group. This awareness is the initial stage that leads to empowerment. Because schools reinforce class relations and bias, class origins can determine the educational outcome of college students. In a critical analysis of class structure in higher education, bell hooks (2009) states that the materially privileged classes simply force on others their own pedagogical practices. Reflecting on her personal experience in college, hooks states, “We were encouraged, as many students are today, to betray our class origins….During my school years and now as a professor, I see many students from ‘undesirable’ class backgrounds become unable to complete their studies because the contradictions between the behavior necessary to make it in the academy and those that allowed them to be comfortable at home, with their families and friends, are just too great” (p. 137).

Similar to hooks, I witnessed many working-class college students who are forced to have multiple jobs to stay in school, who lack the social, cultural and economic capital that the middle and upper class possess, and who struggle to assimilate in the world of higher education. This lack of assimilation profoundly impacts the academic performance of these students, their level of immersion, and their active participation in the learning experience. Critical pedagogy here becomes a tool that can help empower students so they can persist in higher education. For pedagogy in community colleges to be successful, I find it imperative for educators to instill in students the ability to feel that they have control over their own lives and their destinies. Students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds strive for a better life and a brighter future for themselves and their families through finishing their postsecondary education. Their busy schedules and their cultural backgrounds heighten their doubts in their ability to succeed in the college culture. Educators can help students overcome their fears through encouragement and assurance that they can succeed if they have the will and the motivation to do so, regardless of their class origin or cultural background.

Of equal importance in critical analysis of higher education is the factor of race. According to Critical Race Theory, “Whiteness” is considered a privilege and a property (Ladson-Billing and Tate, 2009). Whether we acknowledge it or not, race and racism exist in our society and influence our educational practices. Scholars discuss race extensively but shy away from discussions of racism. Darder and Torres (2009) assert that “if race is real, it is so only because it has been rendered meaningful by the actions and beliefs of the powerful, who retain the myth in order to protect their own political-economic interests” (p. 157). The term “race” can sometimes be applied to mean ethnicity, but racism is often more tied to political agendas than to cultural differences. Promoting multiculturalism or cultural diversity by educators in higher education should be a strategy that embodies respect and tolerance for the different others in race, language, ethnicity and gender.

Finally, a profound concept that should be emphasized as we critically look at pedagogy in higher education in general and in community colleges in particular is that teaching should be regarded as an act of love. Teaching, according to Friere (2009), requires that those who teach are in love with the very act of teaching. Friere invites educators to rethink their practices through the concept of love for their profession and contends that tolerance, expressed in terms of respect, discipline and ethical responsibility, is inevitable to achieve democracy (Darder, 2009).

Part of a series, University Faculty Are Agents of Change.

Lina Jawad is a lecturer in the College of Education, Health and Human Services at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She is also a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity.

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National Center for Institutional Diversity

National Center for Institutional Diversity

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