Image courtesy of Nick Page

Have you ever had one of those days where a certain topic keeps coming up over and over again in completely different situations? Yesterday was like that for me. The completely random topic? Critical pedagogy. Not sure why, but I’m not complaining. This is a topic that I have really started to sink my teeth into, even if I am still working out all that it encompasses and how it plays out in my language classroom.

For those not entirely sure about what critical pedagogy is, here is a really, really simplified (perhaps oversimplified?) version. In the beginning, there was Paulo Freire, a philosopher and educator from Brazil who wrote this amazing, albeit somewhat dense, book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. By the sounds of the title, I am sure you can probably start to guess where this is going. Freire believed that education should allow those who find themselves oppressed and cut off politically to gain a voice and be given the tools and space to transform their situation. Freire also fought against the traditional dispensing of knowledge by the teacher, instead giving the students the means to direct and create their own learning especially through social interaction. Basically, critical pedagogy levels the playing field by stripping away the hierarchical structure so prevalent in education. Students take what they learn in the classroom and transform their world outside of the classroom. There is so much more than that, so if you would like to understand it better, go here.

Okay, before anyone starts blasting me for missing important components of critical pedagogy, the purpose of this post isn’t to be a treatise on all things critical, but I simply want to provide a foundation to explain what I have been thinking about. In this case, three different things arose from the conversations and texts I read.

The first was a discussion I had with one of my Brazilian students here on a study program. He told me after class that he isn’t a very good student since he doesn’t like to study, he is more interested in learning. Bang! His insight into his ability to learn a new language was so spot on. The conversation quickly moved on to the topic of Paulo Freire which he is very proud of as a Brazilian. This student was actually a social studies teacher in a high school before re-entering university to study chemistry. We had a fairly deep talk in a short time that encompassed the need to provide students with the tools to make a difference in their lives and not just to impart knowledge. He so gets it.

The second was a discussion I had in the ‘hoteling suite’ (our shared office) with a teacher from the English Literature department as he was clearing out his locker and desk for the summer. We were talking about why we teach and he brought up the desire to make a difference in the lives of the students he teaches. He is a PhD candidate that is defending his dissertation at the end of the summer (hence the reason for the summer clean up) and wants to get into higher level teaching. The conversation quickly moved into what it is that we want to see most from our students. He mentioned how he loves to hear students challenge him on what is happening in class. He feels that he has provided a safe environment for them to think and act critically. He doesn’t see it as a confrontation, instead he sees it as meaningful dialogue. Fantastic! That is so important for students, especially those that haven’t been given the freedom to challenge those who have a stake in their education.

The final was a text that I read from a professor in Egypt who was talking about critical thinking and pedagogy. What was funny was that I wasn’t looking for this article, it just came up in my normal cycle of reading. The article was on the growth of critical thinking amongst students in Egypt as illustrated by the Arab Spring uprisings. What struck me was this statement:

Advocacy on the street succeeds in toppling regimes: first Mubarak’s, then Morsi’s. But that kind of citizenship, based on opposition, seems unable to change tactics and work towards reconciliation and reconstruction. It just recreates the protest cycle over and over again (Bali, 2013).

Wow. I hadn’t really thought of it in that manner before. I suppose it is what I have been thinking, but to have it put so succinctly, my mind was really starting to see the pieces come together. It isn’t just about fighting against something, it is about transformation, reconciliation, and rebuilding what has been taken down. We have become so good at ‘poking holes’ in ideals, but we aren’t very good at building bridges and working together for positive change. We have become backseat drivers telling others where to go and how to do it, and bleacher coaches screaming at the coaches, players, and fellow spectators. It’s time we take the wheel. Better yet, we need to help our students become the agents of change.

Over the years, I have become better at finding what is wrong in not only what I do, but also (maybe especially?) in what other teachers do. I have tried to focus on my classroom and what I need to change in my role as facilitator, but I often get distracted by others. What I need to do is to get away from being the ‘dispenser of knowledge’ and work on becoming a better ‘agent of change’. I think this is what most people hate about things like worksheets, grammar quizzes, and so forth. The role of teacher takes on the role of information distributor instead of that of guide and supporter. I get it. It is hard not to start doling out the information since it is something we already know, they don’t and they want it. Since students spend most of their time learning away from us, shouldn’t we be focusing on helping them take control of their learning and helping them to develop into ‘agents of change’? Easier said than done, but critical. Learn, not study; that is the key.

9 thoughts on “Changing

  1. Thanks for another thought-provoking post Nathan.

    I also want to “work on becoming a better ‘agent of change’” or even better to “to help our students become the agents of change”. I want to help students to think critically about their own language learning, and try to explain why we’re doing something, and love when students challenge me with questions about why we’re doing a task or activity. But I think some students wish I’d just get on with it, and sometimes I just want to get on with it too, so still working on getting the balance right!

    1. It is so true, Lesley. There are so many pressures on us and on them. That is what Freire was addressing and what makes this so difficult to do.

      I have a lot to learn in this area.

      Thanks for your comment.

      1. I have a lot to learn too!

        Your might be interested in this resource which is related to some of the issues you mentioned in your post, especially students taking responsibility for learning. It certainly made me sit up and notice when I heard the authors introducing their research project at a conference. Unfortunately the DVD isn’t available online, as I think it’s a good PD resource used along with the book.
        Clearly teaching: Explicit ESL pedagogy in action. Anne Burns and Helen de Silva Joyce

      2. Oops! I made it sound like I don’t like Anne Burns. Actually, quite the opposite. That is why you didn’t have to sell it to me. 🙂

  2. This really struck me: “We have become so good at ‘poking holes’ in ideals, but we aren’t very good at building bridges and working together for positive change.”
    I think that is a very important thing and I agree that I see more holes poked than bridges built, especially within my own thinking.

    Odd how your post ties in in a totally different way to my own reading. I’m currently reading “A Place to Stand: Essays for educators in troubled times” by Mark Clarke. It is (so far) about being an agent of change – and he says the since the only thing we have a measure of control over is ourselves, we are the ones who have to change first. Which is not an easy process.

  3. Hi Nathan! Critical Pedagogy I can never get my head around it as a concept as being critical seems to mean different things to different people. It could mean for example to contradict the system. Pedagogy of the Oppressed can only be read if taken into consideral the social moment we were living regarding education and politics which Freire stressed was highly political even more than pedagogical. It took me years to understand that. Especially because if it was methodological the whole things would be solved quick with his method as you know highly effective for Brazilian literacy.
    I created a summary for you and anyone else interested in Freire’s work of the historical events that helps understand the time and place we were living back then and the consideration that although the numbers got higher (more children in school), we still face humongous challenges in Brazil related to literacy hence social change. One of them being the formation of educators and the concept of what literacy is, the curriculum being about the content and not the process of learning, among other things.

    Let me tell you that I had read this post days ago and did not comment because coincidently this is the subject I’m taking in university about adult education (I’ve studied other aspects of adult education before, but this one is mainly about the historical implications for literacy). So as I read the articles and put the pieces together, I ended up writing this post where I share my own story about pursuing higher education after long time that I had dropped out of school (high school).

    Thanks for this post. It helped me tons during this study and I hope that my summary helps you and others to understand better where Paulo Freire was coming from with his fight for literacy and how much his contribution still ecos in the heart of those who care.

    The school I am observing this semester provides education for poor children and I’m learning a lot. I am already amazed of the material they created themselves to work with the kids and how they plan their classes. The theoretical basis of course is not only based on Freire’s method and sociolinguistics, but consider the enourmous contribution of Emilia Ferreira’s psychogenesis of the written language. Well, as you can see I could go on forever. What I’d like to point out is by opposing to bank education he was not opposing to the act of teaching and nor giving students that kind of autonomy that they can learn by themselves. Quite on the opposite, he stressed that consciousness took place through dialoguing. The method of literacy he proposed was to use vocabulary that was meaningful to the people. Before that, just one more piece of information for this puzzle you are working on is that before the method used was “Ivo viu a uva.” which means that Ivo saw the grape. As you can see the objective was to work on the letter v. There are many more of those disconnected from reality sentences and that was how it was taught. By making it mechanical and repetitive. Needless to say that those people found no reason to read anything other than just learn to sign their names once they lerned to write down the alphabet and put the letters together to create sillables and words. No wonder my people are not readers. TV is much more attractive for them. Mass media is another way to keep the dominated class dominated. As a professor in my university put, in Freire’s time the adult not only learned how to read “Ivo viu a uva.” but also that why he saw it and couldn’t buy it which is the reason for the social inequity. Isn’t that amazing? By the way, my president is on TV right now reinforcing the dualist school by saying how important it is the technical schools in our country. This is the new educational policy for youth and adults. That isn’t so new actually. Are we going back to the industrial revolution times? 😦 I certainly hope not. But as you saw in the summary, any attempt to change the mindset ends up with some new political plan that takes us back to the past instead of forward to equity.

    A line from an awful movie I watched couple of days ago (snowpiercer), and I don’t recommend it. The line is “I’m sure you know everyone got a place to fill.” Arghh what kind of idea is that! As old as the globe goes around. 😦 sadly though.

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