Critically Thinking About Critical Pedagogy

After having read a number of my peers’ posts and having read several different perspectives on Critical Pedagogy, I thought I wanted to spend my writing time this week thinking through a concrete application for Critical Pedagogical theory. I generally find that I’m unhappy with the work I am doing when I don’t have a grounding theory or an approach I can be proud of, but I also think it’s ultimately important, as I’ve seen several other posts calling for, to go beyond the abstract and have a plan to put it into practice.

So. Structure.

Structure is one of those aspects of classroom management that I often struggle with. I want discussions to be student-led, I’ve always been a hands-on, ask-wild-questions kind of learner, and I’m instinctively drawn to teaching that way. Sometimes this means taking too long rambling about minutia of points that were meant to be quick. I have to repeatedly remind myself to start lectures (and essays, and papers, and blog posts…) with an overview of the points I intend to cover. I have zero interest in doling out punitive actions or quibbling about grades, proper paperwork for sick days, other classroom policies… these have always felt like wastes of my time at best or, at worst, things that actively obstruct the entire class’s focus on the subject at hand. I still remember, when I was a university chemistry tutor as an undergraduate, the day that I was being observed by my supervisor and the student I was tutoring, in the middle of the session, just pulled out his phone. I stared, dumbfounded, as he continued to look at it and we sat in relative silence for about five minutes while I waited for him to put the phone away, my supervisor sitting right there. Even the debrief with my supervisor where she attempted to politely ask me why the #@*$ I didn’t say anything about the cell phone has not made me more interested in drawing lines in the sand to force students to focus. Maybe it’s the flipside of having had things that help me focus be derided as distractions and “bad behavior” in favor of a model of sitting still and listening that I cannot possibly follow whilst doing anything else–least of all learning.

And yet, I know that structure is an important aspect of running a classroom, and that students need to have enough of a routine and enough consistency of expectations to be able to know where to focus their attention, how to move on. I want to make an environment that is stable enough for my students to succeed and thrive, but I don’t want to rob them of the equally important lesson of how to create that environment for themselves.

So what solutions might the lens of critical pedagogy provide?

Freire writes that his goal is to foster in his students a sense of “autonomy, laboriousy constructed, that freedom will gradually occupy those spaces previously inhabited by dependency.” He writes of leaving behind authoritarian practices to focus on democracy and giving the students agency, and in doing so building the kind of self-discipline that students will be able to take with them into the chaotic world outside the classroom. So I think we’re on the same page about what kind of structure we want to create in our classrooms, but what are some ways I can actually do so?

Perhaps I can ask the students at the start of the semester what their goals are in the class, and have them write those down, and when they do things that seem to me contrary to those goals–like turning assignments in late, or coming to talk to me only after a test when they find themselves confronted with results they don’t like, or shopping online in class–ask them to explain to me how they feel they’re making progress towards those goals. In doing so the students would have to confront cognitive dissonance and practice setting priorities that align with professed goals, without having it punitively imposed from the top.

Perhaps I can work to both model the structuring of ideas in my presentation of them–roadmapping what we will do at the start of every lesson and ending with a summary of what we have done, tying it all to an overarching picture of the course objectives–and have the students practice the arcane art of organizing ideas themselves. I can stress that in grading or critiquing their own writing or presentations, and instead of waiting for students to inevitably ask me for study guides before tests, I can create an assignment for them to make their own and then share the resources they’ve made together.

Perhaps I can have each class have a parallel structure, and consistent due dates, but within those I can build in times that are explicitly unstructured and/or student-led like class discussions, or problem sessions. I’ve found so far in teaching that the unstructured goes over much better with students when they learn to expect it as part of the class from the beginning.

Perhaps I can be honest with my students about the research I base my pedagogy and course planning upon, and have repeated surveys or other chances for student feedback about how and why the class is structured.

Maybe a dedicated scholar of Critical Pedagogy would take umbrage with some of my proposals here, but I find it helpful to start with small steps. I can focus on the kind of teacher I’d like to become, and imagine what it would look like to model certain ideas in the classroom–like to trust in my authority without having to constantly prove it, and to focus on student-led rather than top-down motivation and structure–in concrete ways.


Freire, P. (1998). Teaching is a Human Act. In Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Quinn, R. E., Heynoski, K., Thomas, M., and Spreitzer, G. M. (2014). The Best Teacher in You: How to Accelerate Learning and Change Lives. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


  1. The structure of a class is very important as it enables students to go through the class smoothly. As an instructor for an undergraduate course, I often suggest students read the syllabus as it tells the structure of the course. Without a solid structure, students can not follow or anticipate how the class goes.

  2. I love your practical approach to critical pedagogy. I want to highlight the relationship between the strategies you are mentioning to the theory behind critical pedagogy. First of all, your open ended and highly discussion based approach shows how far away you are from the banking concept of teaching! I struggle to do that in the class that I teach! Also, all of your strategies clearly show how you treat your students as humans, avoiding the objectification usually found in traditional teaching styles. Great job on building your teaching style in a contemporary way!

    1. Thank you, that’s very kind! Although, to be clear, just because I tend towards more open-ended teaching methods doesn’t mean I’m good at them! I’m still trying to figure out how to get students to really buy into discussions, although some of the other theory-driven changes I’ve made have gone over much better. I like the Quinn et al. book I linked for thinking through how to put teaching theory into practice, because it essentially preaches starting with the things you’re good at and slowly implementing the parts you struggle with. I’m sure there are things in your current teaching style that would serve you very well in grounding some steps further away from the banking approach. 🙂

  3. Your post makes me wonder how your ideas would apply to the grade school context. Where I grew up, there was a school that sounds like it provided the learning environment you would have loved – no grades, outdoor hands-on projects, freedom to design your own experiments, questioning the teacher encouraged, etc. In contrast, I went to a more “traditional” school and like it, and my brother switched to a school that went in the opposite direction – military-like structure. And he thrived. That made me realize that everyone has a different level of structure that works for them. That said, once you’re in college, everyone *should* be more on the less end of needed structure, since entering adulthood is about taking control and becoming self-driven. But freshmen in particular aren’t quite there yet. Regardless, I like your idea of finding out what the class wants, since that may get them more invested and more likely to autonomously function in the classroom.

    1. One of the books in my references, the book by Quinn et al., is actually based in a study of what they call “highly-effective” grade school teachers. They propose a framework of 4 different areas that all of the effective teachers, which are two pairs of “opposites”–the one I struggle most with is stable environment vs continuous improvement, which is all of the useful structures vs the adaptability and more student-led/unstructured aspects to teaching. It’s always about finding a balance, and I focused a lot on structure here because providing structure comes much less naturally to me. But it’s a good reminder that students also need different amounts of structure (even within the same grade level)–makes the balancing act even trickier!

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