Why knowledge beats critical pedagogy

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A foundational text of ‘critical pedagogy’ is Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It is a curious, largely abstract book. However, it does lay down a few absolutes. Freire argues against the ‘banking model of education’ where a teacher apparently assumes that his or her students know nothing and then tries to rectify this by making ‘deposits’ of information. This is clearly a pejorative description of explicit teaching. Teachers who teach explicitly do not assume their students know nothing. In fact, they use a range of formative assessment strategies throughout the teaching process to assess exactly what their students know, making explicit teaching highly interactive. It is therefore a description that fits Barak Rosenshine’s fifth meaning of ‘direct instruction’ which is, ‘Instruction where direct instruction is portrayed in negative terms such as settings where the teacher lectures and the students sit passively’.

Freire’s alternative to the banking model is what has evolved into critical pedagogy. According to Henry Giroux, critical pedagogy is about creating interdisciplinary knowledge, examining power relationships through the lenses of race, gender, class, and ethnicity, rejecting the distinction between high a low forms of culture and illuminating ‘the primacy of the ethical’. For his part, Freire envisioned this as a process of ‘problem posing’ where teachers seek problems to present to students for discussion; problems that are derived from their students’ experiences and not from what the teacher thinks his or her students should learn.

There is an interesting paradox at the heart of critical pedagogy: What if you reject its premises? If we are to question everything, can we not question critical pedagogy? And if so, what then? Maybe critical pedagogues simply believe that their assumptions are correct and will withstand such scrutiny. However, I am highly sceptical of the postmodern strain in critical pedagogy that tends to view everything through the lens of power because I think there are other drivers of human behaviour that are often as strong, if not stronger, than the drive of power. In my view, critical pedagogy and postmodernism more generally have driven us down an intellectual cul de sac.

Critical pedagogues are also prone to assert the following logical fallacy:

  1. Critical pedagogy teaches students to question power structures and challenge assumptions
  2. Alternative approaches therefore do not do this
  3. We need critical pedagogy if we wish students to be critical thinkers

The flaw is in assertion 2. Just because critical pedagogy teaches students to question, it does not necessarily follow that alternatives do not. Critical pedagogy has no monopoly on critical thinking. And this stubborn fact remains true no matter how much rhetoric about factory schools producing automatons you throw at it. In fact, there is a far better candidate as a route to the development of students as critical thinkers and that is a knowledge-rich curriculum.

In many instances, knowledge leads to spontaneous critical thinking. Picture the student in history class who, upon hearing that traitors used to be hung, drawn and quartered, declares, ‘that’s sick!’. As a physics teacher, I have often told the story of the development of nuclear weapons; of the letter sent by Einstein to Roosevelt urging the U.S. to pursue nuclear weapons research, of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Without exception, the story sparks a lively discussion. Why did Truman not drop the bomb on a sparsely populated area of Japan? Why did he drop it at all?

When students possess knowledge, they can start to question it. If students do not engage in this spontaneously then of course it is the teacher’s job to scaffold this with prompts and questions, but the knowledge needs to come first. And it’s worth remembering that knowledge is not just names and dates. You can have knowledge of the opinions of historical figures, for instance, drawn from first-hand sources. With knowledge available for us to think about and to think with, we can develop a much more powerful critique of the world. If we want young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to forge a better future, and if we believe that involves them questioning the past and present, then a knowledge-rich curriculum seems a far better bet than critical pedagogy.


36 thoughts on “Why knowledge beats critical pedagogy

  1. A generalisation for sure, but on the whole, most teachers are not that interested in the works of Friere. Therefore, “critical thinking”, alongside all the other demands of the current curriculum, does not extend beyond introducing students to the possibility of more than one perspective. Despite the authors of the current AC curriculum having a political agenda, I don’t believe this is played out in mainstream primary and secondary schools.

  2. Trying to be fair to the proponents of critical pedagogy and look at their best point is it the concern that with the view of the expert teacher and novice student DI leads to a closed mind on the part of the teacher about what is important to the student?

    I think it is quite fair to say not addressing items important to some students has been a problem and likely still is. One answer to this is to be sure the expert teacher is influenced by experts representing all the students. That is the best people to address the needs of say minority students are other experts not students.

    Then there are cases where even that may not be sufficient. In Canada recently the topic has been student membership in LGBT alliances. The idea behind these is to allow students to provide support for LGBT individuals amongst them. The issue being debated is rights of parents to know their child is doing this verses the danger that we can’t trust all parents to see this as a positive thing.

    In my view student activities such as LGBT alliances provide just the answer to the critical pedagogy proponent. Within a classroom the role of teacher as expert is valid as long as some other expert is ensuring that. Within a school there should be support not barriers for students to practice advocacy and expression of diverse views. Perhaps I am wrong but I don’t need to quote anyone to see there is a tradeoff here between parental rights and government agencies as knowing better that requires looking at the details to resolve.

    1. What a weird way to look at schooling–the child as an activist. Maybe we’re just a tad backward here in England, but LGBT alliances are the least of the problems faced by our teachers. Apathy and anarchy are a bit closer the mark. The only thing that’s ‘relevant’ to most of our pupils is getting out the door at 3.15. However, they do respond fairly well to a teacher who knows things that they don’t and is good at teaching them. They’re not always easy to find; once when I was doing youth and probation work, I asked one of my charges what he thought about his school; his reply was “They don’t teach you nothing”. Even though they’d never taught him about double negatives, he picked up critical thinking skills entirely on his own.

  3. I think you’re throwing the baby out with the bath water here, and that the text isn’t free of fallacies. Still, it’s good to see these “unfashionable” views get a coherent airing.

  4. I have barely begun to get my head around critical pedagogy so I may be way off the mark. I think critical pedagogy via Friere came out of critical theory. This was originally something called the Frankfurt School, and this form is a proper noun (Critical Theory, kind of like how Direct Instruction refers to a specific form). This inspired another example of critical theory which are in lowercase. Quite surprisingly when I read up on it there was clear acknowledgment that this approach would prevent objective data and it was done precisely to emphasis the context and interplay above all else. If I am correct then the very purpose of this approach to data is antithetical to what I would consider the scientific method.

    I know this supports Greg’s conclusion but it is quite illuminating to realise that the other side might not just understand our point but in fact deliberately reject it.

  5. My science department head recently mentioned (hoped) that, with NGSS, our state (NY) would move toward a single science assessment instead of the individual end-of-course exams we currently have. She thinks this would be good because it would allow for project-based learning in what are now rather explicitly taught classes. I think, if were to happen, it would spell the end of quality public school science education. But there’s no telling her that.

  6. I was regaled with Freire’s work in post grad work I did in adult education…I think Greg is pretty right in his view of it. But important to see where the work began: with adults in marginalised areas of Central or South America (can’t recall which). His approach might work there, but being cast in a pop-marxist mold runs the risk of leading to poor outcomes…which any marxian twaddle usually does. It is completely inapplicable to children who by comparison know nothing…not even enough to be able to make meaningful enquiries. Inquiry learning requires substantial knowledge of a field to be able to identify something to enquire into…typically something that even graduate students need to be coached through.

    1. That knowledge is needed to initiate Inquiry Learning is so clear one wonders no-one notices it. But it does go unknowticed. I was trained to teach this way and it took me years to realise it was a busted flush (and bored the children after a while).

    2. I think that is the strength of the approach and it’s weakness. It is only relevant in the original context and it struggles to generalize or rank options by usefulness.

  7. Like David, I would also point out that context is everything. Freire’s work, often impenetrable, is also awash with nonsense about the need for leaders and this sort of stuff. But…Freire is not without value. The main point he was making was that education has the potential to allow people to overcome the cultural boundaries that were holding them back. By giving a voice to people who were denied a voice (by themselves as much as by their oppressors), it was possible for them to make connections between what they were learning and their own nascent sense of agency in the world. When people begin to understand that there are no natural conditions that mean that it is their lot to be on the bottom rung, then people can participate in society more fully and understand that they are shapers of that society. Given the particular context upon which Freire made his case (teaching literacy to the peasants of a large agricultural country where religion and local culture held people in their places), I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss him out of hand.

    To suggest that the banking model of education is utterly without foundation is to reveal too much naivete or too much ideological interference. When you say, “Teachers who teach explicitly do not assume their students know nothing”, what you really mean, I would suggest, is “SOME teachers who teach explicitly…”

    For me, Freire taught us that students need to be actively involved with the curriculum and that the curriculum needs to be relevant to the students. It was a reminder to teachers that they were not charity workers being bussed into local communities with the gifts of insight and knowledge. It was a recognition that people could be guided to a personal understanding of the relevance of the discoveries made by the giants upon whose shoulders they stood. It acknowledged that what was being learnt had a practical value that went beyond just being Stuff That You Should Know. That a lot of what he wrote was irrelevant to teachers who are mandated to teach certain stuff in an educational system that compelled children to attend and teachers to work in settings that were not always supportive of learning…all of this is true too. I take what I like and leave the rest for the adolescent guerrillas.

    1. Some teachers who teach explicitly might teach too much towards the “banking method”.

      But some teachers who teach by indirect methods might give insufficient support.

      It’s unfair to suggest alternative methods as if they would be applied 100% properly, while contrasting that with the actual performance of the rejected method.

      Experiments performed seem to show that, in practice, explicit methods perform better. No amount of arguing the alternative does better in theory beats that.

      If teachers are presupposing too little knowledge, then the cure is better training. Not ditching the method because you prefer the politics of another way.

      Too often validations of Freire involve agreeing with some or all of his *political* aims, while contrasting that with the *pedagogy* of the alternatives. It’s unfair argumentation. Political aims need to be compared to political aims, and pedagogy needs to be compared to pedagogy. Then we need to look at their effectiveness at delivering one from the other.

      For me it’s irrelevant that Freire might have good political aims, because his suggested pedagogy is largely ineffective at delivering them.

      1. What if I call my political aims Critical pedagogy, as Humpty says my words mean whatever I want them to mean.

    2. But I think part of the problem is that a lot of the people who lap up Freire in adolescent-guerrilla fashion now hold responsible positions in university education departments.

      1. people who lap up Freire in adolescent-guerrilla fashion

        A considered, even-handed description, sir. Wonderfully objective!

      2. it’s Guevaras all the way down.

        I love how people use his name in this way, as if he were some kind of all-powerful despot. Castro disowned him and he was executed in Bolivia. Some powermonger.

    3. But the issue is that people use is work to make bold general comments on education and not specific insights.
      For example it is a truisim that students must be engaged with the curriculum and it must be relevant but in what way? What one student considers a disengaging curriculum would be seen as illuminating and world changing by another.

      1. Ah! I really must figure out were my comment will be placed. This was a reply to the long comment by SecretDoS.

      2. Truisms are only truisms to people to whom they are truisms. Sometimes the reader has to do a little work to try and understand the point the writer is trying to make. In this case, Freire’s teachers, going into the villages where the peasants live and talking to them about the challenges they faced in their lives and then designing materials around those problems before then working with their students to equip them to use their newfound skills to overcome the challenges from where they had begun is an example of how he made the curriculum relevant.

        How you transfer that insight into the context within which you find yourself is not something that I -or anyone else- can prescribe. If nothing else, an exploration of what Freire might have to teach you is a worthy endeavour in and of itself because it provides you with a tool for a critical exploration of your own practice rather than simply assuming that you are doing it the correct way. I guess this is the same kind of thinking that underpins action research.

      3. The irony is that some, in the way they promote Freire’s ideas, are excluding a part of the audience whose point of view they are unwilling to try to understand or address in a way that could bridge any gap.

  8. If we are to question everything, can we not question critical pedagogy?

    What makes you think that this is not possible? Do you think that no one ever challenged Freire to his face? Or Giroux? If so, is there evidence that they did not engage with the challenge?

  9. I would say the purpose of critical pedagogy the way Freire intended it was to allow for students to develop an understanding through an inquiry based approach. Educating by tapping into student’s lived experience allows for students to connect with the activity and be engaged to learn. When students are given procedural worksheets (especially in the case for math), students lose that intellectual spark to discover why the problem works the way it does rather than focusing on obtaining an answer. If we want marginalized students to forge a better future, we need to allow them to engage in critical pedagogy or else they won’t know how to question the world around them outside of the classroom.

  10. “If we want marginalized students to forge a better future, we need to allow them to engage in critical pedagogy or else they won’t know how to question the world around them outside of the classroom.”
    There are many things you could add to this sentence after ‘we need to’, that would probably have better results than ‘engage in critical pedagogy.’ How about . . “ensure they know more about more things”?

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