The What and the How of Critical Pedagogy

This blog post was a conjoined effort among group members. Table 2 consisted of:  Nicole, Kaisen, Alex, Sofia, Amy, Anurag, and Robert

What does Critical Pedagogy mean to you and your group?

Our table discussed the different approaches to critical pedagogy, and arrived on a series of terms that captured the essence of our articles. Each of these terms related to the significance of empowering students to “take ownership” over their learning process.


Empowerment is essential to critical pedagogy, given that the students are meant to play an engaged role in the learning process. A few of the articles mentioned the limits in top-down teaching, but the goal should be to facilitate student learning rather than merely teaching content. This space for student engagement enables students to personalize the learning experience and to connect the topics or themes in the course to their lived experience. This breaks down the boundaries between inside and outside of the classroom, and fosters student agency in the learning process.


The notion ofcomplexity was essential to the Kinchloe. He argued that complexity was often removed from the classroom, and therefore complexity was to be embraced as a productive tool for learning for each individual.


The classroom cannot be a one-way transfer of knowledge. The transmission model dehumanizes the students, limits creativity, and destroys their self-worth. Instead, we must engage with them as peers, fully capable of contributing to the classroom, and worthy of respect and empowerment.


Acknowledging that people have individual needs and that “one size fits all” is not always effective. Students may have different learning styles, backgrounds, previous schooling/experiences, etc.


Recognizing that the students are more than just receptacles and can’t be treated as such, One must recognize their agency, their need for creativity, their strengths and capacity for problem-solving, and their worth.


Seeing one’s position and others’ positions through multiples lenses, gaining new vantage points, acknowledging how something came to be. Reflexivity is essential to the classroom setting as learning and being cannot be separated from one another (ontology).

cooperative and decentralized

Where the teachers act as facilitators and relinquish their authoritative position to a more engaged and inclusive classroom. By decentralizing learning, the door is opened to learning from each other.

Have you ever think that it is impossible to apply critical pedagogical practices with your learners/students? Watch this video to get inspired:

And how may you apply it to your specific fields and educational settings?

Each of the table members hailed from different disciplines and will be teaching different types of courses. This section outlines the different ways critical pedagogy was or could be applied in each of our specific fields.

Robert: For someone teaching a political science or history course, the ambiguity of core terms can see frustrating, but are actually quite productive for critical pedagogical practice. One example of this productivity was in the international security course I taught last spring. In the first session, I gave students the space to define precisely what “security” meant for them and to explain how it was achieved. The diverse array of answers was particularly eye-opening. Some students explained that security related to the state and the role it plays in the security it provides for them to live a life free from encountering violence. For these students, security was about protection by a threat of violence. Other students explained that they defined security as something related to living in the that their family provided. That feeling of security came from other family members able to fulfill different functions essential to life. These different definitions demonstrated that students have very different interpretations of a foundational term, and it prompted reflections on the limits of dictionary definition of terms as space for a deeper student engagement. 

Pyrros:  In simplest terms, we can apply it by treating the students as humans, rather than automatons ready to receive their  programming. We cut them down, treating them as ignorant and worthless, dependant upon the professor, and force them to accept delivery of our knowledge deliveries. Instead, we recognize their prior skills and strengths, and empower them to solve their own problems. — In my specific field of spatial epidemiology, this would involve switching from lecture dominated classes to problem-based learning. Allowing the students to realize that they can critically solve their own problems. We can offer them tools, and a bit of guidance, but not dictate to them or guide them to specific solutions. It is a daunting prospect though, our existing “transmission system of education” has so much momentum, and most of us were trained in this system, breaking free of it will have to be done piecemeal. Still simply recognizing the students have their own agency and should be encouraged to embrace it, will go a long way.

Nicole: I am a student in the field of Food Science and Technology. I would facilitate a discussion about the scientific method. This could first begin with providing information/ a refreshing about what the scientific method is and its specific steps. Then, in a discussion-based format, I would ask students to reflect on who created this/how it came to be. Why is this the standard? Does the scientific method work for all types of scientific research? What are the requirements for journals students in our field would submit to? Who created these standards? Do they work for all types of research? These questions set up a platform to talk about the construction and deconstruction of knowledge, gatekeepers, and how it is healthy to question the “norm.”

Kaisen: I am a student in Environmental Engineering and would like to teach an Intro class in the future. In the syllabus I wrote couple weeks ago, I have a group project arranged, aiming to let the students apply the knowledge they learn from my class and help them think actively. After our discussion today, I think a good “tailored” approach is instead of assigning one same project to each group, I can let the students determine the topic of their projects. In this way, they are given freedom in learning the topics that they are interested in further by spending time on it and working together. As the instructor, I will have additional office hours for each group to help them on their group projects. I think that is something that I can do to make my class a little bit “customized” by students.

Amy: I am in Engineering Education, and my background is in Mechanical Engineering. I would love to engage students in thinking critically about engineering design. In engineering, we often talk a lot about the design process and incorporate design classes and design projects. However, at least in my own education, I rarely thought about the broader impact of engineering design. I didn’t really think about who was deciding what problems engineers solve and the implications of having a small group of people finding “solutions” to these problems. Therefore, in these engineering design contexts, I want to engage students in thinking critically about which problems are being focused on and the perspective from which these problems are being approached. I just want to end with this short clip:

Anurag: I am in Civil Engineering, and have not had any teaching experience until this point, but that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about the way my classes have been taught and what I would want to change. Engaging students starts on the first day and I completely agree with my reading that we should not assign anything that we are not prepared to do ourselves. Small exercises in the beginning of the class to help students get to know each other will go a long way in getting them engaged in class. It helps humanize us and develop respect for each other as we know something about them.

Sofi: I am a PhD student at the Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise department. For me equity in education is very important. I would try to design the lectures with different types of materials and sections (e.g. power point, video, discussion, reading and writing). These materials would help visual learners, auditory learners, reading/writing-preference learners, and kinesthetic learners. Specifically, in food policy is necessary to understand the different stakeholders and their role. Readings before the class are always very helpful to take the class discussion to the next level. A power point can be used to map the different stakeholders in order to visualize them. Then a video with  the stand position of policy makers regarding an initiative can be showed. Finally, writing a blog, tweet, commentary with the take away point of the class and final conclusion.

25 Replies to “The What and the How of Critical Pedagogy”

  1. “Recognizing that the students are more than just receptacles and can’t be treated as such, One must recognize their agency, their need for creativity, their strengths and capacity for problem-solving, and their worth.”

    — Students, also, must recognize these things in themselves if we are to succeed as teachers.

    1. Brandon – I wholeheartedly agree with you. I think it is the instructor’s responsibility to assist students in seeing their own potential and unique skill sets. My part of the jigsaw puzzle was about Paulo Freire’s teachings, which is very much related to the description you picked out from my group’s blog post. Freire preached education as a pathway for social change, which obviously cannot take place if mind “banking” is occurring. The instructor would need to empower the students themselves in order for them to go on to make societal changes on their own. His teachings also incorporated the idea of “critical consciousness” which relates to your statement as well. Critical consciousness is what I would call a personal “recognition” in itself.

    2. I agree with you Brandon, this was a very good point to remember. Sometime I need to remind myself is that if I accept that students have their own agency in my class, they likely will not be as passionate or value my subject as much as I do. I am not trying to recreate myself in my students. This is hard to accept because I do care deeply about what I study and teach, but if I can accept that my students bring and will have different life experiences, I can do a better job teaching them what they do need to know about soil science for whatever they end up doing in the future.

      1. Agree with previous comments, and as already mentioned, the course content is important, but also it is important to provide spaces for the students to challenge themselves. For instance, how about removing required textbooks for class and instead leave the student the freedom to find a textbook, open access book or internet material when needed for reference? This could be a way of learning to select what works better for them and be critical about their reading, if something is different from the lecture then hopefully discuss it with professor to see if the reference they were looking at was wrong…it could be a double edge sword, but if it works in other countries, why not here?

    3. now youre getting back to grades and reward systems and how students shouldnt be learning just to get graded, but for want of learning. so if we solve that we solve education?

  2. I thought the two videos included in this post were great illustrations. The one with Ellen was funny, yet so very sad. The context in which problems are posed and solutions are derived need more dissecting. I admit that I have thought about where solutions come from, but not as much for the problem itself. It’s something that may have been mentioned in my engineering education, but unfortunately not emphasized enough. So I definitely learned something from this post.

  3. Great post! I like Kaisen’s idea of “customized” learning. It is very important that we help learners build a strong foundation in the beginning, but once they have a strong base, we can provide them freedom to build on the foundation on their own and explore their interests. Letting students determine the topics of their interest for projects is a great idea to engage students and facilitate critical thinking.

  4. Thanks all for sharing your experience in classes. It is fascinating, and I know more organized in different courses. I also like the highlight keywords. In my opinion, engagement is the most critical aspects of the art and design class. Teachers transfer the knowledge in course, but the students not only need to understand what the teachers educated but also combine with the individual educational background to develop for the important thing. It is a challenge for both educator and students, which to dialogue and engaging in both ways.

  5. For me, equity is more related to diversity. When developing a course, we have to research our students to figure it out how diverse they are. By understanding their academic skills, background, or previous experiences we can create a more inclusive course that fits students needs.

  6. It’s really great to read everyone’s stories in this post!
    I totally agree “Reflexivity” is very important in the learning process. By reviewing the things you have already know, both students and teachers could gain more comprehensive understanding.

    1. I also find reflexivity as an interesting part of the learning process. I’ve TA’d a class for the last two years with the same professor. This happens to be the same class I took as an undergrad over ten years ago, taught by the same professor. On the first day of class, I remind the students of this to share with them that I’ve sat in their literal seats before. I’ve had several students tell me know that they appreciate my experience and found it easier relate.

  7. I really enjoyed reading all of the individual thoughts on how critical pedagogy could be applied to your groups different fields. It’s interesting to see how the same concepts can be applied across disciplines that don’t seem to be very similar.

  8. I agree with the redundancy of the one size fits all policy. I have wondered how to implement this in classes. For example in smaller classes where I can work closely with students, I encourage them to bring real world problems to solve (problems that interest them). Their individual interests take precedence and I can help them learn skills that will help them address their particular problem. However in larger classrooms, I have struggled to replicate this formula.

  9. I enjoyed your group post this week. There were a couple of points made that really struck a chord with me:

    Nicole, the last sentence of your paragraph “These questions set up a platform to talk about the construction and deconstruction of knowledge, gatekeepers, and how it is healthy to question the “norm”” really hit home with me. I love the idea of guiding our students through the process of questioning the status quo. Even if there is nothing to “be fixed” at the end of this line of questioning, I think it is healthy to engage in this line of thinking and reasoning. So thanks for bringing that up!

    Anurag, I liked what you said about engaging your class in icebreakers so that students get to know each other. When you said “Small exercises in the beginning of the class to help students get to know each other will go a long way in getting them engaged in class,” I was thinking YES! More of this! Thinking about the dynamic in our Wednesday night class vs the dynamic in other classes I am in is like night and day. I have experienced other attempts for students to get to know each other (everyone writes an “about me” on the class Canvas page and everyone has to comment on everyone’s writing… OR everyone films a 2-3 introduction video of themselves talking about their interests) and by far, the face-to-face activities seem to help the most. I appreciate the digital methods–which were the instructor’s strategy for getting around the physical barriers of an online course–BUT–for a class where you’re in the same room with your cohort, well, I agree-having activities in place in the beginning so that everyone is “humanized” I think makes for a better experience for all.

    Amy-thanks for sharing the Ellen clip. I’ve seen that before and it brings up some very valid points about problem solving and gender issues. I think sometimes we all take for granted how far our society has come in general, and at the same time we become so used to what’s normal that we aren’t pushing as hard as we should on important issues. Pens for Her. Ha! What’s funny is that I had someone gift a pack of those to me when I was coming up here to VT. Even before I saw the Ellen clip, I thought “oh these are pretty, but how silly is this marketing as if I hadn’t been using sex-less pens with no problems my whole life.” (Can I admit that I’m carrying around the pink one at this present moment. Ha!)

    Kaisen–I love your idea of letting your students choose the topics in their projects so that they are more invested and interested in the work. I am going to offer the same thing to my students in the spring as well! I hope it turns out well for you–I am excited to try it!

    Robert, thank you for this closing sentence “These different definitions demonstrated that students have very different interpretations of a foundational term, and it prompted reflections on the limits of dictionary definition of terms as space for a deeper student engagement. ” I am all the time reminding myself this about myself, my students, my professors, and my peers…. I think the longer we spend in education, we tend to forget what we don’t know or how things were before we learned what we know now. It’s important to approach the classroom with this open, mindful mental state. For instance, a lot of the frustration we may experience with our students may be traced back to some point in their past where a lesson or idea was missed–so it is important to stay continuously curious–about what we are learning with our students and helping to sure-up whatever foundational knowledge our students might have missed. Perceptions of students and teachers has a lot to do with this and I think having a mentality of openness and kindness helps with that as well.

    And Pyrros, you come out swinging with your first sentence! “In simplest terms, we can apply it by treating the students as humans, rather than automatons ready to receive their programming. ” Thanks for just putting that right out in the open. To have engaged students, we have to be engaging as instructors–and we can’t do this if we ignore the HUMAN element!

    I so enjoyed this blog post. Thank you all for your thoughtful insight and for sharing your experiences.

  10. I like the idea of tailoring by Kaison. The teaching materials should not be rigid. Instead, teachers should tailor it along the semester to fit students’ interests and level.

    1. Agreed. Rigidity is incredibly detrimental. But flexibility in teaching is easier said than done. It takes incredible planning, and I would guess experience. It’s something we should always strive for, but likely will never fully attain.

  11. The idea of critical pedagogy was explained critically. I liked how the group considered so many facets of this and that was followed by specific examples from each of the individuals.

  12. It excites me that everyone found such great images for critical pedagogy! Hello, visual learning. Also, I LOVE the first point of empowerment. I think this is so important, and an aspect of education that so many people take for granted.

  13. YES to decentralization and cooperation. This reminds me a lot of how a cooperative business entity works- especially worker owned cooperatives. The whole management structure is flipped on its head. Instead of a couple of executives making all the decisions, the whole team including all of the employees has to come to a consensus. While this is beautiful in theory, it can often be very frustrating in implementation- especially if you need 100% consensus before making any moves. The solution is a balance between decentralized learning and the authority to make educational decisions efficiently. Decentralization is definitely going to be a theme in my Teaching Philosophy. Thanks for this post and the video link. More to come!

  14. Complexity never crossed my mind as a notion for critical pedagogy. How do you think this is applied when teaching, (since a single concept often presents a set of different complexity levels to different students)?

  15. I’m glad you highlighted the ‘humanizing’ aspect of CP. Reading last week about the ability of educational institutions to suppress the masses gave plenty of 1984 flashbacks: –

    Freedom is Slavery
    Ignorance is Strength

    We must acknowledge the power we have as educators. Further, we should relinquish some of that power, as the CP approach advocates, to avoid any Distopian-style futures.

  16. Nice post. I like the structure of your post. The equity picture is a good representation of the unique teaching/learning interface for different people.

  17. I believe cooperative learning, collaboration in essence, is important to critical pedagogy, as you say. I say this because feedback from my students on their cooperative group work exercises centers around the understanding, and different points of view, that they learn from their fellow classmates – ideas and slants on the material they did not think about on their own. Opening students to different ideas in a safe, low-stakes environment is a way to help facilitate the critical learning process.

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