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:
- Critical pedagogy teaches students to question power structures and challenge assumptions
- Alternative approaches therefore do not do this
- 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.