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Critical Pedagogy: Intentions and Realities

Written by
Reviewed by Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris
night in mirror” by Victor Bezrukov; CC BY-NC 2.0

This article is a response submitted for our series about critical digital pedagogy. See the original CFP for details.

It is one thing to read about critical pedagogy in the abstract, but I believe there is much more to learn from contextual understandings of how the philosophy of critical pedagogy works in practice. When I first started reading about critical pedagogy I found the scholarship interesting but too abstract. I understood that it was intentionally non-prescriptive, but it also seemed impractical to me. Elizabeth Ellsworth’s article was enlightening in her criticism of critical pedagogues for “consistently strip[ping] discussions of classroom practices of historical context and political position” (300), a view also held by Catherine Cornbleth, who suggests that a better approach to a critical curriculum would be to include both the macro issues (traditionally tackled by critical pedagogy scholars) and the micro-contextual issues of the lived experience of teachers.

I teach at the American University in Cairo (AUC) as a part-time teacher educator with no K-12 teaching experience (I am a full-time faculty developer, i.e. my day job is to support AUC faculty, and I’d had experience as a TA for undergraduates, and as a teacher of adults before). I teach educational technology to in-service school teachers who are either close to my age or much older. This means my students often have much more teaching experience than I do! Most of the experiences described below are from teaching a course on ethical, legal, social and human issues in educational technology. Teaching this course before Egypt’s January 2011 revolution, some students had been more cautious about critiquing the Egyptian public school system; they have since felt more comfortable doing so. But their willingness to critique me does not come naturally to them, given the strong culture of respecting authority in Egypt.

In our first class meeting, I explain my teaching philosophy, though not in the elaborate and elegant detail Kris Shaffer has done. I do not make everything explicit on the first day because I am aware much of it will sound foreign to my students. I do, however, clarify the importance of learning from each other, that my syllabus is flexible and negotiable, that I want us all to learn from each other, and that I hope they can apply everything we learn in the course in their own context. I emphasize the importance of dialogue and talk about respectful disagreement and the importance of class participation. I mention the concept of “digital agnosticism” to encourage them to avoid the technopositivist attitude many of them come to the class with. None of these things directly describe the social justice orientation behind my teaching approach, but most of what I do say is completely new pedagogy for my students, and it usually takes them awhile to absorb it as they live through it in the class.

Critical pedagogy, for me, is not about knowing how to do everything right, or getting it right the first time, or every time. It is about putting faith in our learners to take control of their learning, and teach us, each other, and themselves in the process. Very often, we become better pedagogues by learning from our mistakes (see Clarissa Bezerra’s heart-wrenching piece), accepting and even embracing the uncertainties, unpredictability, the messiness of learning. Understanding the contextual experiences of other pedagogues helps us reflect on our own practice.

Departing from the more prevalent sharing of good practice, I am sharing some of the unexpected consequences of my own attempts to implement critical pedagogy in my classes over five years of teaching in-service teachers about ed tech.

Intention A: treat students as peers in a learning community. Ellsworth critiques critical pedagogues for discussing this in a paternalistic manner, where “treating” students as peers is a means to “empower” them so they can reach the level of knowledge of the teacher. But I truly believe each of them has valuable experience from their own context to bring to the classroom (that the rest of us have little knowledge of) and I hope my class is a place for them to learn from each other, for me to learn from them, and for them to reflect on their own experiences in ways they can take with them beyond the class so they can keep developing long after I am gone from their lives, continuing to “explore the dungeon” as Jeff Everhart recently wrote. In my first day of class, I quote Jesse Stommel’s online learning manifesto, “Content-expertise does not equal good teaching…. Once a course begins, the growing expertise of the students, and not the teacher, should be the primary focus.” Making students believe this is a different matter.

Reality #1 some students think I am “withholding” knowledge from them and not sharing it, when I try to decenter my own knowledge while foregrounding theirs. They usually do not realize that information, content, knowledge, are not the point. It is the process of creating that knowledge that matters, because that’s what they will take with them for the rest of their lives. They don’t realize that the knowledge I have isn’t inherently more valuable than the knowledge they have. Part of my point is for them to understand that they can build from their own situated knowledge and not have to rely on theories that some other person (unaware of their context) has developed previously. Last semester, I introduced my students to MOOCs, then assigned them to read two different posts I had written about them. The key was to let them see how I, the same “authority” figure, could write about the same topic (MOOCs) very positively, and yet also very critically, all in the space of one week!

Reality #2 a student once commented that they thought i was using the class environment to learn FROM the students rather than to help THEM learn. Like I was doing some sort of covert research or something. It stems partially, I think, from an underlying skepticism towards anything affiliated with America. I had never thought of myself as affiliated with America just because I worked at an American institution. Ummm. Thankfully, that student later changed her mind about this. In hindsight, I am glad she brought it up so that we could discuss it, so I could explain myself, and so we could discuss her critique in more detail and unpack it.

Reality #3 I discovered the limitations of my collegiality with my students when one of them plagiarized, and when I felt that student was lying when confronted. I immediately went into power/authority/paternalistic mode. I spoke with sharpness and derision and started exerting my power in ugly ways. Ellsworth was right about the institutional authority of teachers always remaining in the background of any attempts at equitable classroom relations. In this case, it came to the fore. Even when I recognized this, there was no way to “take back” my initial reaction, it had already happened. I have apologized to my students in the past for some of my spontaneous reactions (and they usually consider it a valuable learning experience when I do). However, in this case, an apology would have been transparently disingenuous, and I just gave the student a second chance. But it made me think that I might need to rethink my entire attitude towards plagiarism (which I have done a little on inadvertent plagiarism and on the role of empathy and social justice in what we perceive as cheating).

Reality #4 (on an upbeat note) at the end of one of my classes, several students commented on how they appreciated what they termed as my “modesty” in treating them as peers. This was slightly funny for me because I do not do it out of any sense of (false) modesty. I really do respect my students’ experience and knowledge that they bring to class and I truly do think they can learn from each other (and I from them) much more than they can learn from me alone. I don’t just believe it, I have seen it time and time again.

Intention B: use the class to promote social justice, and a stance towards social justice and challenging the status quo. The subjects of some of my classes help with this as I can cover topics like gender and access issues in educational technology.

Reality #1 I discovered that in being an authentic non-neutral teacher on the topic of gender, I can end up responding pretty strongly to chauvinistic male opinions on gender issues. One semester, male students asserted their views as fathers, that it was justifiable to limit girls’ internet access lest they come across x-rated websites, but that there was no need to exert such control or censorship over their sons. My response to this was emotional, vehement, and I will admit, not a thought-out devil’s advocate strategy. Thankfully, female students were also able to respond. I can never be sure why my strong reaction did not silence the male students: maybe they trusted me enough not to harm their grades? Maybe it is simply because they are the male (and therefore dominant) members of society as a whole, and felt no such threat. In any case, I thought that in the future, I would make my stance clear to students (no way could I hide my upper-middle class slightly Westernized feminism) BUT try not to get too involved in their arguments and see what came out naturally… Which led to…

Reality #2 I ended up getting a few responses that fell into two dangerous camps. The first was that educated folks nowadays no longer discriminate against girls with regards to technology (which is problematic in that it misses subtle forms of discrimination) and the second was male opinion that men are inherently better/more interested in certain computer things and it’s FINE that girls don’t want to. So I showed them some research. Then I went one step further and asked THEM to do research and find out in their own contexts whether there were gender differences. I let them choose whether to survey/interview other teachers, students or parents. I got interesting results from diverse research projects. Mainly, that most of their research confirmed what they already believed. Ahem. Well, this could mean one of two things: One, as novice researchers, their own bias got in the way of objective data collection, interpretation and analysis. Or two: Their environments truly are how they told me they were, and I am the one who is “biased” in trying to find gender issues in places they don’t exist! I am still undecided. I am reminded, though, of Ellsworth’s point about our individual inability to truly understand the suffering of others not in our place, and that it would take a lot of time and exposure (not merely a few weeks in my course) for men to start to understand how women feel in our society. And as bell hooks points out, males are almost encouraged to not empathize with females in issues of patriarchy (though she speaks of American society, the case is similar here). Hooks also talks about how some women adhere to patriarchal discourse themselves and reproduce it. But it is also possible that coming from my own upper middle class (slightly Westernized) privilege blinds me to other contexts, has me looking at things from a different lens than my students.

Intention C: equal participation for students, which includes students calling me by my first name, and calling each other by their first names; it also includes everyone feeling they have a voice in class, that their contribution is equally valued and equally valuable. But even though Freire suggests that “dialogue cannot exist without humility”, Ellsworth is more realistic about the illusions of equality in dialogue. I experienced this firsthand.

Reality #1 pre-existing hierarchies. Some of my students are each others’ superiors at work or in other contexts outside of class. This means there are all sorts of sensitivities I am unaware of and considerations during classroom discussions where some feel uncomfortable disagreeing with others in public; and issues during group projects where someone would “delegate” work to another.

Reality #2 Ageism. In a society where respecting one’s elders is drilled into us from childhood, some students come in with the view that the older more experienced teachers in the class should be given more weight for their opinions (one student once told me, on the side, that “it is OK, you are just not a very experienced teacher”; another young colleague has similar experiences). Others come in with the view that the younger members are better with technology by default. Some students felt, as older members of the class, that they had the right to speak to me individually on behalf of the rest of the class and I had to explain to them why they should stop giving themselves that right.

Reality #3 and this one should not be surprising: equality does not work with a magic wand. As Mary Stewart recently wrote,”collaborative communities construct their own power dynamics that necessarily privilege particular individuals or groups over others.” Some students who are more eloquent, louder, more aggressive, more confident, willing to take more risks than others often get “heard” while others do not. When I was doing my masters, we were once asked at the beginning of a module if we wanted to work with particular people. I said outright who I wanted to work with. Another person was offended that I had spoken my mind (even though we were invited to do so) because she tried to be polite by not doing what I did! It occurs to me that whenever I try to invite students to participate and have an equal say, only some of them will participate fully while others’ voices get lost. There are personality issues, but also complex underlying power dynamics within and beyond the class itself.

Having said all this, I am not claiming that the critical pedagogy approach does not work, nor that I have tried every aspect of what critical pedagogy entails. Every group of students is different, and what works for one group might not necessarily work for another. I have had much more success trying out Culturally Relevant Pedagogy in my classes (documented in an upcoming publication), for example. I have had multiple students get “aha” moments midway through a semester and acknowledge that most of the learning in this class is from the process and not just the content. I have had students who say they have gone and tried what we do with their own students and had great responses. I have had final projects from students that showed growth in gender sensitivity from our initial discussions. I have had students call me months after our last classroom meeting to reflect on their learning from that class, often telling me stories about things they have done that demonstrate the long-term impact of the course on them. So sometimes I am fortunate that things work out better than I had imagined. Teaching is a humbling experience; what sounds good in theory may not work in practice. But we keep trying, and we keep reflecting. I do not claim that a few weeks will necessarily transform every single student, the practice of critical pedagogy is a journey that we start together, empowering one another to learn and grow.

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6 Responses

  1. hey Paul-Olivier, thanks for your comment. It also made me realize the numbering makes it easy to discuss the article with little text 😉 Should work great for twitter 🙂

    I think I can more readily answer this for C 1 & 2. I think online, particularly if people don’t know each other at all (and in the old school discussion boards also could not see each other’s photos readily) the hierarchies, ageism and such power differentials were less clear. There was literature to show that minorities, women, shy students were more able to participate online than f2f. However, we cannot deny that online there are other power issues at play, like the strength of one’s digital literacy, and fluency and eloquence of written language. And if you move into open learning, there come in the other factors like comfort with platform and willingness to make oneself vulnerable openly.

    For A 1 & 2 – that’s a tricky one 😉 but maybe kind of an expectation in some cMOOCs? Needs a longer conversation, this question!

    Would love to hear what you think…

  2. “…It is about putting faith in our learners to take control of their learning…”

    One thing a critical pedagogue might want to be critical of is the way the world has become a global manifestation of the will to power. In that context surely we need to counterbalance the emphasis on control (i.e. power) with something that speaks against it. Surely the really important education in this context is an education in the untruth of power.

    This ties in with the very brief reference to humility and to the problems you experienced after declaring all forms of hierarchy to be null and void. That humility would involve a certain renunciation of the will to power. How? Surely some sense of truth has to become evident that speaks against all power play – including the play of the student dictatorship.

    And there is a reason here to be hesitant, perhaps, about embracing the custom now firmly established online of addressing everyone by their first name. The risk is that rather than advancing genuine critique, we end up affirming the trend towards an unleashing of egos clamouring to assert themselves and hog the limelight, with each believing they have an equal right to have a social profile as high as anyone else. If liberation starts to look Hobbesian, then something has gone wrong.

    A genuinely critical concept of truth would point towards the untruth of that egoism and that drive for power. And my suspicion is that it might indicate a need to reappraise forms of civility and hierarchy that help to keep the clamouring ego in check.

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