Critical Pedagogy: Be Helpful, Be Honest, Be Human

I was surprised to learn this week that critical pedagogy is kind of already what I do in my classroom. I pride myself on teaching my students to question the world around them and to apply the material we are covering to potentially controversial topics in the news rather than focus on lifeless “stock” examples. For example, this semester I am teaching a class that focuses on classical and operant conditioning. For the midterm project, I asked students to critique an advertisement and break down the classical conditioning being used in the ad to get consumers to purchase the product. To go beyond this, I asked them to spend time in class discussing how conditioning might be used in presidential campaign and attack ads (how is conditioning used to “sell the product” of one candidate or block the “sale” of another?). I think having to discuss such a fresh and controversial topic was challenging for some students, but many of them did give me insightful, thorough written responses that pertained to both major political parties. My students are the architects of their own learning, although I am there to provide blueprints for them. I find myself repulsed by the notion of Fromm’s “necrophilous” person, who thrives on control and believes that education begins and ends with passively transferring knowledge into student receptacles. I note, however, that I could be doing more to encourage students to question the material itself, not just the potential limits of its application, and this week’s readings helped me realize that I could still grow.


Kinchloe’s overview of Freire’s life and work brings up an interesting effect of classrooms based on critical pedagogy, which is that people from diverse and traditionally oppressed walks of life who may have previously been denied access to the academy can find a new, hopeful place in higher education. In such a classroom, these students would be encouraged to apply the course material to their own struggles and engage in problem naming, critiquing and solving in a way that can benefit their corner of the world. A teacher with a better grasp of critical pedagogy than I might be able to understand how the individual perceptions of these students impact the teacher’s delivery of the material and make some adjustments. A classroom like this would be inclusive and collaborative, with diversity playing a starring role rather than being tucked away in a corner and forgotten. Naturally, this brings up some of our previous discussion on how to construct an effective “brave space” to facilitate healthy, challenging student engagement. It seems that building a successful “brave space” is necessary for allowing students to confront real issues in their communities and feel comfortable and confident enough to challenge the status quo of the material.

I had a couple thoughts on how these two topics might intersect, drawing from Shelli’s slides on critical pedagogy. One is that I think we have to establish the classroom as “ground zero” for making these changes. I’ve used this term before, but what I mean here is that students need to feel safe and at home in your classroom before they will feel comfortable using that space to create and work on difficult problems. I draw an analogy to the adoption system: if you adopt a child, one critical step to helping him or her feel “at home” living with your family is to allow him or her to help create a room of his or her own. This may involve picking out a paint color together, buying sheets and curtains, and choosing furniture. This is a space in which the child has had some input, sending the message that his or her ideas matter. In the same sense, you can allow students to play a role in establishing an atmosphere of respectful and contemplative discussion, and this will give them a “base” to work from when critically evaluating and applying course material. In other words, students ought to feel safe speaking up and sharing their opinions on a topic in your classroom, so that they can feel more comfortable doing so out in the world.

Another thought I had was about unpacking and reconsidering power dynamics in the classroom. To be honest, it takes a lot of pressure off me (especially as a graduate student) if I can admit that I don’t know everything about a subject and allow there to be room for questioning what is covered in the textbook. Over the years, I’ve gotten more comfortable with asking a student to let me go out and do some independent research about a question, rather than saying “I don’t know” or “that’s not on the test.” Freire makes the point that teaching and learning have to occur together to foster critical pedagogy. My experience is that taking off my “instructor hat” and just being more of a guide to my students by asking the questions that will help them work through their own thought processes is effective for helping students settle into the course, and it also seems to make me more approachable when they need help. This practice may help level the playing field for students who are underprivileged or at a disadvantage.

Another of Shelli’s points is to allow personal and political aspects of the material to seep into the room. Part of this process, which goes along with my above point about power dynamics, may be to allow students to see the “human” side of their instructor. I had an unexpectedly emotional moment like this a few weeks ago, when I took Christian’s advice and brought up the recent police shootings to my students. I started out by saying that I was available if anyone wanted to talk about what had happened, and I ended up making the point that a lot of what we talk about with conditioning is used when prejudice and discrimination occurs and students should think about what we’ve discussed when they watch the news. It was interesting to see my students’ faces as I talked about this topic, which has never impacted me directly but does bring up an emotional response because of my commitment to social justice. I could tell that they were really listening to me in a way that they hadn’t before, even as I transitioned somewhat awkwardly into my lecture. After class, a student even asked me if my research was about racial violence, and remarked that I seemed to know and care a lot about the topic. This was unexpected and touching. I’ve talked about the judicious use of self-disclosure before, and I think a little of it goes a long way.

The more I think about it, it seems like critical pedagogy–especially when combined with both deep and broad knowledge of the subject matter–is essential for distinguishing ineffective from effective teachers. I hope that I can continue to grow in my effectiveness by using what Freire wrote so passionately about.


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy, Diversity

18 Responses to Critical Pedagogy: Be Helpful, Be Honest, Be Human

  1. Alley Broomell

    Great post, Amanda! It’s awesome to realize that you’re doing something right in the classroom. I think that critical pedagogy begin by being self-critical as an instructor, which a lot of teachers (including myself sometimes) are unwilling to do.

  2. Jyotsana

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts Amanda. I am glad that some of the connections being made in the class and transitioning to your praxis and some of what you do, we as your colleagues get to learn about through the give and take in the GEDI classroom. I agree that students do need to see the “human” side of their educators and also that one person cannot possibly know everything…we may have an idea but not entirely. Just as you discovered that you were doing so much of what Freire talks about.

  3. Thank you, Amanda, for showing us a great example of critical pedagogy in an actual setting.
    Freire also said that the true pedagogy (which free the minds) is the pedagogy of the encounter, where teacher and learner meet together in a space where both grow towards more freedom. This romantic notion has been really hard for me to accomplish. I agree that we should put the effort to make meaningful connections between our content and students´ reality, but we also have the mission to prepare them for a new reality that maybe they don´t know, a reality that is highly uncertain. I understand that learning is also an emotional process and we want to “touch” people´s hearts, but we also want them to gain discipline and self-awareness of their own learning process. We want them to enjoy the learning process, but we also want them to be perseverant and hard workers.

  4. judsonabraham

    I like that you brought in Fromm to this discussion of critical pedagogy. I think that when teachers talk about critical thinking, they are often too vague about what it means to be “critical.” We should talk more about actual critical theorists (Fromm, Freire, etc) so that we’ll have a more specific grasp on what we mean be the term “critical.”

  5. Mary Ryan

    I really appreciate this reflexive post. One thing I’m curious about is what you do with such honesty and authenticity in the classroom with students who are resistant to critical thinking or perhaps do not seem to appreciate this in the classroom. Part of effective teaching is being able to transform the classroom by bringing students along. I value the nod to judiciousness that you make in your post, and I’m wondering what other tactics could be used to influence student skeptics.

    • That’s a good question. Although I’ve had students who don’t seem to care as much as I do about the class, I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone who actively fought back against my exposure of critical issues. Perhaps this would be more of an issue in a course that was more discussion- or critical reading-based, as I might be seen as less of an overt authority in the room. If I did, though, I would try to engage that perspective and encourage the student to share it, and offer it to the other students to help this student see their points of view or understand why the topic is important to discuss. I sometimes find that they do a better job than I could. For me, it is not about coming down on a side or changing a perspective, just mere exposure to the discussion.

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  9. I think having to discuss such a fresh and controversial topic was challenging for some student

  10. I pride myself on teaching my students to question the world around them and to apply the material we are covering to potentially controversial topics in the news rather than focus on lifeless “stock” examples.

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