The author wishes to thank ATS instructional designers Michael Hernandez and Joe Olivier for their excellent feedback and suggestions, which helped him to improve this article. He remains solely responsible for any errors or omissions therein.

Introduction: Series Aims

This post is the first installment of a projected series dealing with the pedagogical approach known as critical pedagogy, which we will define below. Its principal focus will be on the intersection of critical pedagogy with various digital tools. This intersection may take the form of cooperation, in which digital tools help you to achieve your pedagogical goals, or conflict, in which those same tools constrain the pedagogical possibilities available to you and/or hinder your reaching your goals.

Our overall goal will be to present what critical pedagogy theorist Jesse Stommel has dubbed a “pedagogy of care” – that is to say, a pedagogy that foregrounds compassion for students, understanding of their needs and concerns, and learning as a shared enterprise, rather than a unidirectional transfer of information from instructor to student. Throughout the series, we will return to the theme of digital pedagogy and consider the best space for digital technologies to occupy within this pedagogy of care.

Critical Pedagogy: Definition and Benefits

Critical pedagogy originated in the application of the broader field of critical theory to classroom teaching. Its foundational text is Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by the late Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire, first published in English translation in 1970. In his book, Freire challenged the unspoken assumptions of “traditional” pedagogy and offered core ideas upon which educators could build a new, more humane (and human) pedagogy. These ideas include:

  • Seeing students “in the round.” For Freire, instructors should consider students in their full human complexity, rather than simply as consumers to be provided with a set of facts and then sent on their way. He, and subsequent theorists in the field, argued that instructors should privilege flexibility over rigidity, accommodating the external pressures and obstacles that students face in their daily lives.
  • Compassion, not coercion. Freire was deeply skeptical of “surveillance technologies” deployed by instructors to compel “correct” student behavior. He regarded punishment, or even the perpetual threat of punishment, as a distinctly poor tool for behavior modification, and wished to replace it with a model of understanding and mutual connection between instructors and students.
  • Collaborative knowledge construction. Along the same lines, Freire rejected what he termed the “banking model” of education–wherein the student “stores up” knowledge provided by the instructor–in favor of a collaborative model, wherein both instructor and students work together to shape the body of knowledge in the field they are investigating.

There are many concrete benefits for students when their instructors implement critical pedagogy (whether in whole or in part) in their courses.

  • Heightened engagement. When students feel that their instructors care for them as people and are actively working to meet their needs, they are more likely to pay attention in class, to seek help when they encounter difficulties, and to relate the material in the class to their broader educational goals.
  • Decreased anxiety. Feelings of anxiety and depression are very high among college and university students today–a circumstance exacerbated, though not solely caused, by the pandemic. By moving away from surveillance and coercion, faculty and instructors can help students cope with common concerns such as test anxiety and help them to feel supported during times of stress.
  • Improved knowledge retention. Making the pursuit of knowledge a shared endeavor helps address the common problem of students who retain material until they need to deploy it in an exam or other summative assessment, only to forget it afterwards. Students who take an active part in the work of discovery, rather than simply being fed facts, feel a sense of ownership over their hard-won knowledge that helps it to “stick” well after they have left the setting of a specific course.

Critical Pedagogy and Digital Tools

Freire lived and wrote prior to the advent of contemporary digital technologies, but his intellectual heirs (notably the aforementioned Jesse Stommel and Audrey Watters) have given much thought to how those technologies factor into his pedagogical arguments. Speaking in broad terms, critical pedagogy advocates maintain a considered skepticism toward the claims made by educational technology companies. This is not to say that the philosophy encourages a Luddite stance, but rather that each technology should be judged on its merits and demerits, taking into account both the pedagogical possibilities it affords and those it precludes.

If there is one takeaway to which we will return time and again in this series, it is that critical pedagogy calls for a “pedagogy-first,” not “tool-first,” approach. Simply put, you will have the greatest chance of succeeding in your pedagogical goals if you first formulate those goals and then find the tools or tools that can help reach them, rather than choosing a tool for its own sake and then crafting your pedagogy around it.

Common Concerns about Critical Pedagogy

In the remainder of this article, we will consider some common concerns that faculty and instructors express regarding critical pedagogy and attempt to provide answers to those concerns.

Maintaining Academic Rigor

It is sometimes thought that critical pedagogy is incompatible with academic rigor. After all (some argue), academic coursework is meant to challenge students, and if those challenges are removed, so too is educational merit.

The best answer to this is to separate internal rigor from external rigor, as other theorists of critical pedagogy have done. The critical pedagogical approach aims, not to make coursework easier, but to address the external hindrances students have to learning, whether these be disabilities, economic pressures, unavoidable time commitments, or the like. Removing these hindrances, so far as is possible, can actually enhance rigor by giving students the freedom to focus more closely on the core learning goals of a course.

Upholding Instructor Authority

Secondly, some instructors worry that a collaborative knowledge construction model may erode their classroom authority.  Pointing to their extensive subject matter mastery, they ask whether it is fundamentally fair to put themselves on the same level as their students.

In response, it may be pointed out that the traditional model of the “sage on the stage” has certain pedagogical disadvantages. Students may be impressed by an instructor’s depth and breadth of knowledge, but they may also fail to absorb it fully, due to lack of meaningful engagement beyond simply taking notes. A constant, unidirectional flow of information may even intimidate students, making them feel that they have nothing worthwhile to contribute to the conversation in their discipline. To address these challenges, we might instead consider a “guide at your side” model, in which instructors are mentors who use their undoubtedly greater subject matter knowledge to guide their students through the intellectual work at the core of their discipline. Such an approach can deepen students’ engagement, making them feel respected and free to express themselves meaningfully.

Managing Time

A very practical concern that comes into play when implementing critical pedagogy is the allocation of time. An instructor might reasonably say, “It’s all well and good to get to know ten students closely and tailor the course to their needs, but what can I possibly do in a lecture course of 50?”

There is no easy solution to offer here. It cannot be denied that critical pedagogy is more time- and labor-intensive than traditional pedagogical models. However, in future installments, we will suggest short-term, simple strategies that can be implemented even in large classes. A fundamental rethinking of an entire course or discipline may not always be possible, but it doesn’t follow that nothing can be done.

Coming Up

Our next installment will address the strategy of ungrading – assessing students in ways other than the traditional letter grade. We will explore how faculty and instructors can best implement this strategy with existing digital tools, and we will also consider how best to overcome the hindrances to ungrading that some tools present.

Getting Help

If you have questions about any of the material covered in this series, or if you have any other questions about any aspect of teaching with technology, Academic Technology Solutions is here to help. You can attend one of our online workshops, drop by our office hours (11:00 A.M.-1:00 P.M. Mon.-Thurs., in-person and on Zoom), or request a consultation with an instructional designer.

(Cover Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash)