Critical digital pedagogy: Education as the practice of freedom

Update (22-02-17): This post has been modified from the original. Changes include updated in-text citations, minor grammatical improvements and an added reference list.

This is the third section of my CPN book chapter on critical digital pedagogy. You might want to read the first and second sections before this one but if not, here’s the story so far: I started by making the case that education as it is currently implemented is an oppressive system aimed at inducing compliance and conformity in students more than embracing any sort of real learning. In the second section I showed how the dominant use of educational technology reinforces that system of oppression in digital and online spaces.

In what I hope is a more uplifting turn, this post suggests critical pedagogy as an alternative to the status quo. It’s a bit shorter than the other sections and is probably more in line with the final word count that I need to aim for. After I’m done posting the book chapter sections, I’ll write a few posts on how I’m changing my teaching practices based on what I’ve learned during the writing process.

“The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility.” (bell hooks)

Education is fundamentally a moral and political enterprise, meaning that we must reject the notion that it can be reduced to a private good, available almost exclusively to those with the financial means. Critical pedagogy offers the best chance for students to develop and assert their rights and responsibilities so that they are not simply being governed (Giroux, 2010; 2011). Through a critical pedagogy we can show students that the system of oppression is “not closed with no exit and that it is only a set of limiting circumstances that can be transformed through action” (ibid.). In other words, we can show students how to change the system. But to do so, teachers must first work to shift the balance of power away from themselves, so that students are able to take action within the curriculum and undermine the beliefs and practices that are designed to silence them.

Critical pedagogy encourages students to act on the knowledge, values, and social relations they acquire by being responsive to the most important problems in society (Giroux, 2011). It moves students beyond familiarity with and demonstrates how classroom knowledge, values, desires, and social relations are implicated in power. Guided by passion and principle, critical pedagogy “helps students develop a consciousness of freedom, recognise authoritarian tendencies, empower the imagination, connect knowledge and truth to power as part of a broader struggle for agency, justice and democracy” (Giroux, 2010). But it is not an a priori method of teaching and learning that can be applied regardless of context and it cannot be reduced to a set of instructions. Critical pedagogy isn’t a prescription – it is a continuous moral project that enables students to develop a social awareness of freedom (Coles, 2014).

Freire (2005) believed that education offered students the conditions for self-reflection, a self-managed life and critical agency and Giroux suggests that a critical pedagogy encourages students to read texts as “objects of interrogation” (2011) rather than unquestioning acceptance; to “read both the word and the world” (2010). In this sense, pedagogy connects learning to social change, challenging students to critically engage with the world in order to act on it (Giroux, 2010). Under these circumstances, knowledge is not simply received by students but actively transformed, open to challenge and related to the self as an essential step toward learning how to govern rather than be governed (Giroux, 2010). In this context, students learn how to expand their own sense of agency, recognising that to be voiceless is to be powerless. Central to this approach is the shift of emphasis from teachers to students, and making visible the relationships between knowledge, authority and power (Giroux, 2010).

Teachers must connect classroom knowledge to the experiences, histories, and resources that students bring with them but also link that knowledge to the goal of increasing their capacity to be critical agents, responsive to social problems of the time, and to recognise the importance of collective struggle (Coles, 2014). At its most ambitious, critical pedagogy helps students learn how to lead a meaningful life, hold power and authority accountable, and develop the skills, knowledge, and courage to challenge commonsense assumptions while all the while being willing to struggle for a more socially just world (Giroux, 2011). This kind of problem-posing education only works by breaking the contradiction of the “teacher-of-the-students” and the “students-of-the-teacher”, and embracing the notion that education concerns “people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.” (Freire, 2005; 90). Students are not passive listeners but rather, critical co-learners in dialogue with the teacher. To achieve this, they must be partners of the students in their relations with them (ibid.).

“Teaching is deeply personal and political work, through which pedagogues cannot and do not remain objective. Rather, pedagogy, is work to which we must bring our full selves, and work to which every learner must come with full agency” (Stommel, 2015). The role of the problem-posing teacher is to create with students the conditions under which knowledge can be constructed by students (Freire, 2005). A classroom informed by critical pedagogy is a continuing, unfinished project aimed at helping students develop meaningful lives where they actively transform knowledge rather than simply consuming it (Giroux, 2011). An education in the practice of freedom consists of acts of cognition that lead to change in the world, and not merely transferrals of information. It is about developing independent thinkers who will not bend to the will of teachers (Laurillard, 2007).

“Giving students the opportunity to be problem posers and engage in a culture of questioning in the classroom foregrounds the crucial issue of who controls the learning environment, and how specific modes of knowledge, identity and authority are constructed within particular sets of classroom relations. At the same time students also learn how to engage others in critical dialogue and be held accountable for their views” (Giroux, 2010). Schools must develop a commitment to civic courage and social responsibility that ignites bravery and moral courage in students to realise that they have the power and opportunity to challenge the status quo. Critical pedagogy is therefore a praxis that counteracts the dominant message that students receive during their schooling; that their voices and their lives are meaningful and powerful, and that by questioning the taken-for-granted assumptions that drive much of society – including higher education – they have the capacity to change the world.

bell hooks (1994; 207) retains her optimism even in the face of all that is problematic in education, calling the classroom a place of possibility where – through a critical pedagogy – “we labor for freedom, and demand of ourselves an openness of mind and heart, collectively imagining ways to move beyond boundaries”. To transgress.