education technology writing

Critical digital pedagogy: Command and control

Update (12-02-18): You can now download the full chapter here (A critical pedagogy for online learning in physiotherapy education) and the edited collection here.

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.

Yesterday I shared the background for this short series on critical digital pedagogy, as well as the initial abstract I submitted for the chapter. Today I’m sharing the first complete draft of the first section of my CPN book chapter on the topic.

“There is no such thing as a neutral educational process.”

Freire (2005)

As society and the health systems within it become increasingly complex and the needs of populations change accordingly, we are seeing increased calls for transformation, not only in how health systems are managed but in how health professionals are prepared to work in those environments (World Health Organization, 2013). The ability to drive change in complex systems is a function of the ability to generate and connect ideas, and then implement new processes based on them. Not only do these activities take time but they are highly social, as success often depends on who we work with. In other words, teams are not only important for effective work but also for the kinds of generative, creative work that 21st century problems require (Jarche, 2016). And yet health professions education continues to follow traditional lines of thinking and implementation, based in a pedagogical model that not only ignores our understanding of how people learn best, but also fails to consider the changing needs of the communities we serve (Frenk et al., 2010). The knowledge and skills required to work with wicked problems in complex systems are so diverse that it is impossible for a single individual or profession to make any appreciable impact (Fraser & Greenhalgh, 2001). Taking this into consideration, it seems pertinent to ask if our current education system is capable of preparing physiotherapy graduates to not only work in such environments, but to thrive.

The positivist ideology that permeates all levels of education can be seen in the way that teachers view knowledge, the way that knowledge is mediated through teaching methods, and the way students are taught to view knowledge. In this paradigm, knowledge is seen as being objective, bounded and something “out there” that can be neatly packaged and delivered to students (Giroux, 2011). Specifically, knowledge is treated as an external body of information that is produced independently of human beings; universalised, ahistorical, and expressed in technical language that is value-free. Knowledge is therefore not only measurable and decontextualised but also impersonal. From a positivist point of view, knowledge is defined in terms that are verifiable and aimed at achieving goals that are unquestioned. Teaching in this positivist paradigm is usually discipline- based and categorises content into discrete compartments; domains of objective facts that can be collected and arranged in the interests of empirical verification (ibid.).

Ilich asserted that schools initiate students into a world where “everything can be measured, including their imaginations” (Illich, 1970; 29). The message we send our students is that what counts is measured, and anything that is not measured does not count. This approach sees our students “reduced to cheerful robots” by an instrumental rationality that removes notions of justice, values, ethics, and power from the classroom (Giroux, 2011; 3). Efficiency and control are uncritically accepted as appropriate educational goals and then used to promote curriculum models that enshrine them as guiding principles. The objectification of students through measurement and their reduction to numbers in a spreadsheet by a positivist pedagogical model leaves them with little reason to generate their own meaning in the curriculum, or to evaluate their own learning experiences. When this point of view is used to guide curriculum design, our pedagogies are necessarily informed by the same notions (ibid.).

Teachers working from a positivist perspective tend to see teaching as an act of depositing information into the minds of their students. When we confuse teaching with talking to students who passively receive information, the content of the narrative is lifeless and decontextualised. Freire (2005; 71) says that our “words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity”. This pedagogical approach emphasises the sonority of the words, rather than their transforming power and turns the student into a container to be filled. The more the student meekly allows themselves to be filled, the “better” they are. Education is therefore an act of depositing, where the teacher issues facts that are received, memorised and repeated by the student (Freire, 2005). In this banking model of education, Freire describes knowledge as a gift to be given to those who do not have, by those who do. The teacher is presented to the students as their opposite – knowledgeable, authoritative and powerful – and students must then begin working to imitate and resemble their oppressors. Having been inducted into this system, students believe that the more treatment there is the better are the results. They begin to “confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.” (Illich, 1970; 4). Once they have allowed their imaginations to be dulled by the curriculum, they are conditioned to accept – maybe even need – institutional planning on their behalf, leading to stagnation through education (Coles, 2014).

Education has long been used as a tool of oppression in society and it is no accident that classrooms resemble prisons. In addition to the physical appearance, schools mirror prisons in other ways too. Students are kept under observation, classified and tracked with numbers, and required to conform to professional and disciplinary norms that limit expression of their personal identity. In addition, there is no copying, no noise, and no chatter; the crowd is abolished (Foucault, 1977). hooks (1994) has suggested that teachers’ power over students dulls their enthusiasm and cultivates an obedience to authority, where students are managed in an assembly-line. Indeed, classrooms seem designed and optimised to keep a population under control, and Illich went so far as to describe schools as places of confinement, “preparing students for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.” (Illich, 1970; 34). In the classroom, knowledge and authority rest within the teacher who stands at the front of the class. Students are arranged in rows, and must listen to the teacher who is the source of (the right) knowledge. Occasionally students may raise their hands and ask to be allowed to speak. Once these lessons are learned, students lose their incentive to develop as independent beings.

In order to better understand how the system manifests power in the classroom it is useful to consider Jeremy Benthem’s notion of the Panopticon, a building with a tower at the centre from which it is possible to see each cell in which a prisoner is incarcerated. Power should be visible but unverifiable, so that individuals always see the tower but never know if, or from where, they are being observed. The Panopticon therefore guarantees the functioning of power, even when there is no one actually asserting it (Foucault, 1977). Over time, we develop passive learners because this is the only option available to them. There is no possibility of expressing oneself or of questioning the status quo. Most students (and teachers) accept this situation as an inevitable aspect of the system, coming to believe that they are impotent to control or change it in any way. The layout of the classroom and the way that control and authority are vested in the teacher seems purposively designed to develop within students an awareness that “their words have been stolen from them” (Freire, 2005) and that the system – including teachers – cannot be trusted.

Health and education systems are increasingly recognised as complex adaptive systems that are characterised by high levels of uncertainty and constant change as a result of rich, non-linear interactions that cannot all be tracked (Bleakley, 2010). This means that complex systems are inherently ambiguous and uncertain, and that they lack predictable outcomes or clear boundaries. As systems have become more complex and integrated at the beginning of the 21st century, it is no longer possible for single individuals or even single disciplines to work effectively within these systems (Frenk et al., 2010; Bleakley, 2010; WHO, 2013). We must therefore ask if our classroom pedagogies – rooted in a positivist paradigm that sees knowledge as objective and independently verifiable – are suited to prepare graduates to thrive in complex, adaptive systems. Our pedagogies are instrumental, geared toward memorisation, conformity and high-stakes assessment, leading to classrooms that are what Giroux (2010) has called “intellectual dead zones”, as far removed from expanding the imaginations of students as one can imagine. If the positivist view of the world is assumed it leads to a perception of teaching and learning as objective and value-free. When this point of view becomes a guiding principle of the curriculum, it influences our pedagogy so that teaching and learning practices are inherently bound by the same notions.

Education should be aimed at cultivating “…citizens who are critical, self- reflective, knowledgeable, and willing to make moral judgments and act in a socially responsible way.” (Giroux, 2011; 3). It must therefore be understood as a process of emancipation guided by a pedagogy of liberation, as well as the cultivation of the intellect. But instead, teaching and learning have become fragmented processes reduced to a series of predetermined and lifeless gestures, stripped of it’s moral component, striving only for accountability and measurement. Institutions of higher education are increasingly associated with “market competition, conformity, disempowerment and uncompromising modes of punishment”, informed by corporate ideologies, standardised, managed, and reduced to job training sites (Giroux, 2010). Educators are increasingly frustrated by “a system that values assessment over engagement, learning management over discovery, content over community, outcomes over epiphanies. Education has misrepresented itself as objective, quantifiable, apolitical.” (Stommel, 2015).

Where some have suggested that the use of technology in the classroom is an opportunity for educational transformation, others have argued that we have missed that opportunity and have instead used technology to further reinforce our authority and control over student learning. The use of technology has simply become a more powerful and efficient means of oppression in the classroom.


  • Bleakley, A. (2010). Blunting Occam’s razor: Aligning medical education with studies of complexity. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice,16(4):849-855.
  • Coles, T. (2014). Critical pedagogy: schools must equip students to challenge the status quo. The Guardian.
  • Fraser, S.W. & Greenhalgh, T. (2001). Coping with complexity: Educating for capability. BMJ, 323(7316):799-803.
  • Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Edition. Continuum. The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX.
    Frenk, J., Chen, L., Bhutta, Z. A., Cohen, J., Crisp, N., Evans, T., … Zurayk, H. (2010). Health professionals for a new century: transforming education to strengthen health systems in an interdependent world. Lancet, 376(9756), 1923–58.
    Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish.
  • Giroux, H. (2010). Lessons to Be Learned From Paulo Freire as Education Is Being Taken Over by the Mega Rich. truthout.
  • Giroux, H. (2011). On Critical Pedagogy. Continuum. The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX.
  • hooks, bell (1994). Teaching to Transgress. Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017.
  • Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society.
  • Jarche, H. (2016) Valued work is not standardized.
  • Stommel, J. (2015). Critical digital pedagogy.
  • World Health Organization (2013). Transforming and scaling up health professionals’ education and training.

By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.