Basic Principles of Critical Pedagogy
Mohammad Aliakbari1 and Elham Faraji
Abstract. This article is intended to give some context to the discussion of critical pedagogy (CP) as one
of the post method approaches to language teaching. It adopts the Frankfurt school principles as its main
source in search for a more just society. It relates the school context to the social context in which it is
embedded. It stresses empowering learners to think and act critically with the aim of transforming their life
conditions. Although this approach has recently gained momentum, few studies have exclusively addressed it.
Therefore, the present study aims at exploring major themes in CP including the libratory and problem
posing education, teacher and student roles, praxis as the reflection on the world, and dialogism and to make
suggestions for application of this approach in ELT classrooms. To achieve this aim, available books and
articles written on the subject were scrutinized. The results showed that the transformative CP, despite being
a new and useful approach, is barely explored and attended to in Iranian educational system.
Key words: critical pedagogy, post method approach, critical theory, history of language teaching,
political education, praxis.
Critical Pedagogy (CP) is an approach to language teaching and learning which, according to Kincheloe
(2005), is concerned with transforming relations of power which are oppressive and which lead to the
oppression of people. It tries to humanize and empower learners. It is most associated with the Brazilian
educator and activist Paulo Freire using the principals of critical theory of the Frankfurt school as its main
source. The prominent members of this critical theory are Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas. Critical theory is
concerned with the idea of a just society in which people have political, economic, and cultural control of
Thinkers of critical theory believe that these goals are satisfied only through emancipating oppressed
people which empowers them and enables them to transform their life conditions. It is actually the starting
point for critical pedagogy. The major concern of CP is with criticizing the schooling in capitalist societies.
As Gor (2005) puts it, the major goals of CP are awareness raising and rejection of violation and
discrimination against people.
CP of Freire like critical theory tries to transform oppressed people and to save them from being objects
of education to subjects of their own autonomy and emancipation. In this view, students should act in a way
that enables them to transform their societies which is best achieved through emancipatory education.
Through problem posing education and questioning the problematic issues in learners’ lives, students learn to
think critically and develop a critical consciousness which help them to improve their life conditions and to
take necessary actions to build a more just and equitable society. Thus, it can be said that CP challenges any
form of domination, oppression and subordination with the goal of emancipating oppressed or marginalized
people. As Kessing-Styles (2003) points out, CP is an educational response to inequalities and oppressive
1 + Corresponding author. Tel.: (+988412223399); fax: (+988412238528).
E-mail address: (email@example.com).
2011 2nd International Conference on Humanities, Historical and Social Sciences
IPEDR vol.17 (2011) © (2011) IACSIT Press, Singapore
power relations which exist in educational institutions. Majore authors associated with CP include Paulo
Freire, Wolfgang Klafki, Michale Apple, Peter McLaren, Ira Shor, and Henry Giroux.
According to Hall (1995), language learning theory and teaching should focus on larger sociohistorical
and political forces which reside in the social identities of people who use them. However, recent research on
SLA, as Okazaki (2005) argued, has shown that classrooms are far removed from historical and social
conditions. He also maintains that, as a consequence, researchers advocating examining sociohistorical and
political aspects of language learning including, Benesch, 2001; Canagarajah, 1999, 2002; Morgan 1998;
Norton, 1997; Norton and Toohey, 2004; Pennycook, 1999, 2001; Ramanathan, 2002, proposed an
alternative approach- critical pedagogy- which they believed should be the heart of language teaching. It
seems that CP in recent years has gained momentum. Evidence also comes from the large amount of practice
done in this area, a large body of texts that explore it and the creation of a doctoral degree in CP (Brookfield,
2005). Despite receiving so much attention both in the past and recent years, it seems that few studies have
exclusively aimed at examining major themes in CP. Thus, the present study aims to shed more light on
major themes in CP including, education, teacher and student roles, praxis, and language and dialogue in CP.
2. CP and the Educational Process
The major goal of CP, as Vandrick (1994) claims, is to emancipate and educate all people regardless of
their gender, class, race, etc. Gadotti (1994) also notes that pedagogy is of major interest for Freire by which
he seeks to change the structure of an oppressive society. Critical pedagogy in Kanpol’s (1998) terms rests
on the belief that every citizen deserves an education which involves understanding the schooling structure
by the teacher that would not permit education to ensue.
Freire (1970) distinguishes between banking education and problem posing education. In the traditional
view of education, teachers are pillars of knowledge; they know everything and students know nothing.
Teachers deposit knowledge in students and never ask them to question that knowledge. The teacher thinks,
the students don’t. The teacher chooses the content, students comply with it. Teacher is authority and
students are obedient to authority. Students in this model are receivers of knowledge. They receive,
memorize and repeat. They are not asked to relate this knowledge to the current problems and injustices in
society with the aim of improving the society. Accordingly, they get a passive role in this view. Freire (1970)
refers metaphorically to the traditional view of education as banking model of education because it is like
depositing of money in a bank. This model mirrors the structure of an oppressive society in which the
oppressed and the oppressors are divided. It advocates fixation of reality. So it is a vehicle for continuing the
political oppression and working against liberation or emancipation (Joldersma, 1999).
This model is rejected because teachers should concern about society and to give human beings the
opportunity to critically reflect and act on the position within society. Joldersma (1999) criticizes this model
on the ground that here knowledge is too packaged, complete and objective and easily transferable into
passive students and depicts the world as static and unchangeable. In this model, students believe that power,
authority and activity are held by the teacher and students are viewed as objects rather than human. So in
Joldersma’s (1999) term, this model is dehumanizing because it creates oppressive passivity in students.
As an alternative to the banking model, Freire (1970) proposed a problem posing education which can
lead to critical consciousness. According to Joldersma (1999), good teaching or problem posing pedagogy
leads to the development of knowledge by the students themselves. Freire, in the 1960’, suggested that
through a problem posing process literacy becomes immediately relevant and engaging by focusing on
problematic issues in learners’ lives. Problem posing education, according to Freire (1970), involves
uncovering of reality, striving for the emergence of consciousness and critical intervention in reality. This
consciousness allows students to take the necessary actions to improve their life conditions (Freire, 1970). It
is based on the realities of learners and their life situations. It shows people that they have the right to ask
questions. In this process of problem posing, the teacher listens to students, then, he selects and brings
known situations to students in codified forms, finally he asks a series of inductive questions regarding the
discussion of the situation (Muhammad Kamarul Kabilan, 1999). Moreover, Nixon-Ponder (1995) maintains
that, the learner undergoes five steps of problem posing respectively ; describing the content of discussion,
defining the problem, personalizing the problem, discussing the problem, and discussing the alternatives of
the problem. In different terms, Elias (1976) confirms that in problem posing model students are closely
equal to their teachers regarding the problem under analysis and the developing knowledge. They exercise
freedom and together with the teacher control the educational process. To Freire (1970), both students and
the teacher are subjects in this process. The teacher uncovers reality and creates knowledge of the world.
Students in this view develop power to critically reflect on the way they exist in the world and they "come to
see the world not as a static reality, but as reality in process, in transformation" (Freire, 1970, p. 71).
Education in CP is thus a libratory process. It means that it raises students’ consciousness, it prepares
students to engage in a larger struggle and it also helps students develop a more accurate perception of their
experiences, and it empowers students to challenge oppressive social condition and to work toward a more
just society (Foley, 2007). The aim of education, according to Ares (2006), is not learning but learning that
comes from critical examination of the social order which leads to action in service of social justice as the
result of school learning. As Giroux (1998) suggests, education should make the students critically thinking
citizens who can take their place in the conduct of democratic life. So it should occur in an environment
connected to everyday life encouraging discussions conducted within the language and knowledge of the
students (Foley, 2007).
3. CP and Politics
The most important theme in CP is the belief that education systems are political (Freire, 1970; Freire &
Macedo, 1987; Giroux, 1997; Shannon, 1992; Shor, 1992). As McLaren (1989) asserts, the major concern of
CP is the centrality of politics and power in our understanding of how schools work. To Freire (1985),
education should lead to transforming action and it is a political praxis which constantly serves to liberate
human. Good teaching should aim at political transformation for the purpose of justice (Joldersma, 1999).
Kessing-Styles (2003) also confirms that CP is concerned with social justice and develops practices capable
of transforming oppressive institutions or social relations largely through educational practices. Freire (cited
in Gur-Ze'ev, 1998) views education as political practice in the control of language and consciousness as a
condition for the subjection of individuals and groups by the rulers. To him, education is an aspect of the
relation between critique and domination. He refuses the ruling group’s claim that schools distribute
knowledge in an objective and neutral manner. To Giroux (1997), it is essential to make everyday experience
problematic and critical by revealing its hidden political assumptions. He maintains that, this critical
understanding by empowering students to develop the courage to participate in their self formation has a
libratory purpose. He also asserts that higher education should engage in political education by “teaching
students to take risk, challenge those with power, honor critical traditions, and be reflective about how
authority is used in the classroom” (p. 265). Needless to say that, the political view helps learners’ growth in
society. “Lacking a political project, the role of the university intellectual is reduced to a technician engaged
in formalistic rituals unconcerned with disturbing and urgent problems that confront larger society” (Giroux,
1997, p. 265). Norton and Toohey (2004) also point out that in ESL context both language learning and
language teaching are political processes. Similarly, Kessing-Styles (2003) asserts that social and political
analysis of life should be at the center of curriculum. That is, all decisions regarding the sort of curriculum
that should be followed, the kinds of books, language used and people hired are all political (Degener, 2001).
4. Curriculum and Authentic Materials
Curriculum in CP is based on the idea that there is no one methodology that can work for all populations
(Degener, 2001). As Bartolome (1996) also maintains, there is no set curriculum or a program because all
decisions related to curricular and material to be studied are based on the needs and interests of students
(Giroux, 1997; Shor, 1992). Degener (2001) also points out that the curricular is framed through the use of
student experiences and realities of their lives. This curriculum is transformative, that is, it fosters students’
acquisition of the necessary strategies and skills that help them become social critics who are to make
decisions which affect their social, political, and economic realities (Giroux & McLaren, 1992). Kessing-
Styles (2003) also confirms that CP covers understanding curriculum as political text at the center of which,
she believes, lies the social and political critics of everyday life.
CP lesson plan should be based on authentic materials such as TV, commercials, video movie, etc. which
are representative of the culture that are to be examined by the students and which serve as the basis for
discussion and critical reflection of the culture (Ohara, Safe, & Crookes, 2000). Kincheloe (2005) points out
that texts and their themes should be provided by both teachers and students who bring their experiences for
study and place that knowledge with the context in which it was taken place. In their assignments students
are able to pick up these themes that are most meaningful and most relevant to their own lives and the
content in which they work (Kessing-Styles, 2003). According to Okazaki (2005), the content should be
immediate and meaningful to students in order to make them aware of both the reproductive nature and the
possibility of resistance to problematic content. The authentic materials help students link their knowledge to
existing problems in society and take necessary actions for its improvement. This transformation practices
help students develop skill in reflection and action that allows them to recognize and work against oppressive
conditions in society (Ares, 2006). Ares further goes on to say that in enabling transformative practice
special attention is paid to students’ cultural heritage, practices, knowledge, and languages. It is also stressed
that the aim of transformative practice is social transformation.
5. CP and the Role of Teacher and Student
Teachers in this approach are viewed as problem posers. As a pioneer to this approach Dewey (1963)
believes that, learning through problem solving and practical application leads students to take a more active
role in determining their experiences and positions within society. Kincheloe and McLaren (1994) maintain
that teacher must empower his or her students by raising their awareness of reproducing process of an
inequitable status quo in schooling and offer societal institutions. So teachers, in Giroux’s terms, are
Transformative Intellectuals who have the knowledge and skill to critique and transform existing inequalities
in society (Sadeghi, 2008).The role of this transformative intellectual, she maintains, is to learn from students,
appreciate their viewpoints and to take part in the dialogical process. According to Giroux (1997), by
creating appropriate conditions, teachers enable students to become cultural producers who can rewrite their
experiences and perceptions. They also help students learn from each other and to theorize and understand
how to question the authoritarian power of the classroom. According to Paulo Freire (1998), classroom
experiences, with the help of the teachers, should become situations in which students are encouraged to act
as active agents in their own education and to develop a critical consciousness that helps them evaluate the
validity, fairness, and authority within their educational and living situations. He goes on to say that
“teaching that does not emerge from the experience of learning cannot be learned by anyone” (p. 30).
Teachers, according to Degener (2001), have a central role in CP because they spend the most time with
students and have the greatest impact on students and program and how learning occurs in the classroom. He
suggests that a critical teacher should be able to elicit student opinions about program structure and
curriculum, to set up a classroom that is involved in dialogic interaction, and to find a way when class
discussions are obstructed. Teachers have also a critically reflective role, that is to say, for producing an open
and equal environment, they must engage in deep self-reflection about their position and the affects of their
authority in the classroom. According to Crabtree and Sapp (2004), self-reflection is “the form of
questioning one’s motives, purpose, ideology, and pedagogy as informed by theory and habit” (P. 110). Self-
reflection enables teachers to make their classes student-centered by accepting unsuccessful educational
ideas and oppressive forms in their own educational practices (Higgins, 1996). Degener (2001) states that a
critical educator helps students to understand the reasons behind the facts.
As Horton and Freire (1990) believe, a teacher in CP has to be an authority on her/his subject matter but
at the same time should be open to relating what he knows through interaction with students. Teachers in CP
communicate with students about the society and culture to help them reflect critically on various aspects of
the culture they are studying about and preparing to enter into. This way, students through reflection can
determine the necessary types of action that they should take in order to improve the life conditions of the
oppressed groups (Ohara et al., 2000). Students and teachers should engage in questioning knowledge but it
is the teacher who helps the students to identify how to move forward critically in their practice (Kessing-
Styles, 2003). Teachers should challenge the current structure by rejecting long standing cultural
expectations and mores of their own and the system, additionally, they must give up much of the power
which is given to them through their titles (Foley, 2007). Critical educators are concerned about
emancipatory knowledge that helps students understand how relations of power and privilege distort and
manipulate social relationships and help oppressed students by identifying with them.
Students, as Giroux (1997) puts it, are active participants in that together with the teacher they correct the
curricula and that they share their ideas and learn to challenge assumptions. According to Degener (2001),
students contribute to curricular decisions and determine areas of study and the associated reading materials.
Critical learners, as Moore and Parker (1986) maintain, are those who can accept, reject or suspend judgment
about a claim. They can also offer good reasons for their ideas and can correct their own and others’
procedures (Lipman, 1988). They should engage in social criticism in order to create a public sphere in
which citizens can exercise power over their own lives and learning (Giroux, 1992). Degener (2001) believes
that by enabling students to reflect on their commonsense knowledge, they learn how to transform their lives.
This is a shift, in Freire’s term, from naive consciousness to critical consciousness. To help students engage
in critical consciousness, educators should empower students to reflect on their own worlds, and to self-
assess in fact. Guthrie (2003) views both teachers and students as co-agents, that is, teacher’s authority
directs the class but this authority differs from that in the traditional pedagogy. This is in line with what
Freire (1970) proposed in that there is a fluid relationship between teachers and students, that is, teachers are
learners and learners are teachers. Therefore, learners are not recipients of knowledge rather they become
creators. Friere also confirms that “no one teaches another, nor is anyone self taught, men teach each other,
mediated by the teacher” (p. 67). Guthrie goes on to say that teachers are in a hierarchical position above the
students with regard to the existing knowledge and institutional authority. However, Dheram (2007) suggests
that both students and teachers should act like awareness raising critiques who aim at identifying positive
and negative aspects of education. He believes that by turning verbal and nonverbal means of education into
effective instruments of self-affirmation, students and teachers will understand their roles as subjects of
research and agents of change.
6. CP and Marginalization
Marginalization is avoided in CP. The aim of CP, according to Freire (1970), is to return to marginalized
groups their lost voices and identities. When students gain their lost voices and resist unjust reproduction,
they become active agents for social change. Freire also points out that marginalized students should be able
to reflect on their concrete situations to find out why things are the way they are. They should be aware of
the factors that contributed to their position in society. In a similar position Degener (2001) asserts that
teachers should help marginalized students to recognize the need to change their conditions that prevent them
from socioeconomic success.
7. CP and Levels of Consciousness
Boyce (1996) reports that critical consciousness is central for Freire because the focus of CP is on the
development of critical consciousness. Freire (1973) distinguished three stages or levels of consciousness
namely, intransitive, semi transitive, and critical consciousness. In the lowest level or intransitive, the
individuals accept their lives as they are and the change that might happen in their lives seem to be the result
of magic or miracles. They do not make any attempt to change their life conditions and injustices done to
them. The next level or stage of consciousness is semi transitive consciousness which is above the previous
level. People with this kind of consciousness are aware of their problems and can learn to change one thing
at a moment. They cannot make any connection with outside world and they consider their problems as
something normal or accidental. Actions that are taken with this kind of consciousness are often shortsighted.
The third level is critical consciousness or critical transitivity which is the highest level of consciousness.
People with this kind of consciousness view their problems as structural problems. They can make
connections between their problems and the social context in which these problems are embedded. People
with this consciousness can interpret the problems and analyze reality. To gain this sort of consciousness, as
Heaney (1995) argued, learners must reject passivity and practice dialogue. He also believed that critical
consciousness is the result of collective struggle and praxis not individual or intellectual effort.
8. CP and Praxis
The purpose of the educator and the educated, the leader and the followers in a dialogue between equal
partners is called praxis (Gur-Ze'ev, 1998). It is defined as “the self-creative activity through which we make
the world. The requirements of praxis are theory both relevant to the world and nurtured by actions in it, and
an action component in its own theorizing process that grows out of practical and political
grounding”( Buker, 1990, cited in Lather, 1991, pp.11-12). In education praxis aims at bridging the gap
between theory and transformational action. That is, praxis connects education which is libratory with social
transformation (Boyce, 1996). Praxis for Freire is both reflection and action, both interpretation and change.
As he puts it, “Critical consciousness is brought about not through intellectual effort alone but through
praxis_ through the authentic union of action and reflection” (Freire, 1970, cited in Burbules & Berk, 1999).
Boyce (1996) also asserts that learners equipped with praxis are well prepared to participate in collective
actions. Praxis is critical reflection and action the purpose of which is to implement a range of educational
practices and processes with the goal of creating not only a better learning environment but also a better
world (Kessing-Styles, 2003). Admitting the importance and the effects of praxis Sadeghi (2008) maintains
that only through dialogical process, the practice of praxis is likely to happen.
9. CP and Dialogism
CP involves reading the world as well as reading the word (Freire & Macedo, 1987). As Skutnabb-
Kangas and Phillipson (1995) maintain, in observing one’s human right and dignity, the first step is to
respect their linguistic human rights. Giroux (1997) maintains that with the help of a critical, oppositional,
and theoretical language, teachers can move toward a discourse by which they seek educational criticism.
Degener (2001) confirms that even when the same language is spoken in the class, teachers should be
sensitive not to favor one kind of interaction over another. Because it is the educator who decides whose
voices will be heard and whose will be submerged in the classroom (Giroux, 1997; Lankshear & McLaren,
1993). To Degener (2001), language is important in two ways; first, language needs and curriculum should
be grounded in students’ language in order to actively involve students in learning and second, to be able to
read the world and transform it, students need a form of discourse. Language is a practice that constructs and
is constructed by how language learners understand their social surroundings, histories, and their possibilities
for the future (Norton & Toohey, 2004). An individual’s L1 is part of his or her identity, so if the aim is to
empower and respect people’s voices, there should be respect for who they are and what values they
represent. That is why for marginalized groups language is an important refuge (Baynham, 2006). It is the
power of language that enables students to enlarge their scope of understanding (Dheram, 2007). Akbari
(2008) points out that, the first step towards empowerment and positive transformation is for the teacher to
establish a context in which more of the learners’ first language is included in L2 settings as a teaching aid.
But there is a need for some sort of dialogue through which meaning, reality and experience is negotiated if
the aim is a libratory one.
To Freire (1998), dialogism is the base of critical education in that it is one means of actively involving
students in their own education. The use and practice of dialogue limits teacher talk and encourages learner
voice (Shor, 1992). As Freire (1970) puts it, dialogue “is the encounter between men, mediated by the world
in order to name the world” (P. 69). He also adds that “only the dialogue, which requires critical thinking, is
also capable of generating critical thinking. Without dialogue there is no communication, and without
communication, there can be no true education” (P. 73). The use of dialogue, as Freire claims, implies the
use of a language similar to the one the individual is familiar with. That is why establishing dialogue with a
community is important. Freire’s (1985) classification considers context of dialogue and context of fact,
which he believes are necessary for learning to take place. He also believes that by dialogue education
becomes pedagogy of knowing because authentic dialogue engages teachers and students in a relationship
where one knowing subject is encountered with another knowing subject (Freire, 1985). In a dialogic
classroom, teachers are supposed to listen to their students and learn about their problems that are important
within their communities and ask questions that raise students’ understanding of these problems from a
societal perspective and then finding ways to take political actions to solve them (Degener, 2001). In Shor’s
(1992) opinion, dialogue must balance teacher authority with student input. There should be an environment
of equality for dialogue to be liberating. Higgins (1996) stresses Freire’s position in that in a situation where
teachers and leaders place themselves above others dialogue cannot take place. In a true dialogical relation
there is equal opportunity for all members to speak, everyone respects another’s right to speak and all ideas
are tolerated (Robertson, 1994). Robertson goes on to say that via dialogue the teacher empowers students
and gives them voice, which ends students’ oppression, and enables them to decode the hidden codes and
power relations and to reconstruct reality. In other words, in dialogue supported by CP there is equal, open,
and critical inter-subjectivity between students and their world and between teachers and students. There is
also a mutual acceptance and trust between the teacher and students (Heaney, 1995). It is through this
dialogue, namely, reflecting on what one knows and what one does not know that one can take critical
actions to transform and change reality (Kessing-Styles, 2003). This emphasis on dialogical relations as the
center of any educational experience is also recognized in the fact that it is via communication that the
meaning of human life is transferred (Kessing-Styles, 2003).
10. CP and Educational System in Iran
Unlike traditional approaches, education in CP tries to have transformational effects on learners. This
approach aims at changing the point of view of people through which they are used to look at different social
problems. It seems that in the Iranian educational system no place is given to such an approach. This
approach can enable EFL learners to develop their speaking skills by focusing on their real life problems and
at the same time to understand and diagnose their own problems. This way, they can be motivated to speak
more and more since they are living with their problems and talking about authentic issues gives students
insights to the nature, origin, and possible solutions to their problems. The application of this approach can
make teaching sessions more enjoyable by focusing on what the students really need to talk about, letting
them discuss their issues of interest, helping students to move forward critically and consequently enabling
students to change the structure of their society. This process, no doubt, can lead to improving their life
conditions. It is, thus, strongly recommended that this approach be used in EFL classes for the two reasons.
First, it motivates students to speak their ideas, that is to say, to develop speaking skills and second,
application of its use leads to transformational activities.
The authors would like to express their gratitude to all those who helped us with this study. We are also
grateful to anonymous reviewers for their useful comments.
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