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What is Critical Pedagogy?

By G. Wiesen
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Critical pedagogy is a form of education in which students are encouraged to question dominant or common notions of meaning and form their own understanding of what they learn. This type of approach is especially popular in potentially subjective fields of study such as literature, art, and even history. One of the central ideas of this teaching method is that students are able to build their own meaning when learning and teachers should facilitate that process rather than “force” meaning upon the students. Critical pedagogy tends to accomplish this end by striving to help students “unlearn” previous lessons that may enforce dominant thought and “relearn” their own ideas.

In education, pedagogy refers to educational schools of thought or philosophies regarding how people learn and how teachers should assist in that learning. It can range from traditional forms of pedagogy where the teacher acts as a “sage on the stage,” standing at the front of the room and telling the students what they should know to less traditional methods of teaching in which students build meaning for themselves. This latter category would include critical pedagogy, as it seeks to allow students to create meaning in what they learn outside of what others have said something should mean.

One of the easiest ways to consider critical pedagogy is in the field of literature, where it can be applied quite effectively. In older forms of education, students would often read a work of literature and the teacher would then inform them of what the story or poem meant. Students would be expected to learn and remember this “correct” interpretation of the work and then repeat this answer on a test in order to demonstrate learning.

Critical pedagogy is driven by the desire to demonstrate that there is not a single “correct” interpretation or reading of a work of literature. The students are encouraged to build their own meaning based on their own experiences and views, and this type of personal reading tends to create a stronger connection between a reader and work of literature. Rather than demonstrating knowledge of a “correct” answer, the student instead must be able to support his or her reading of the work using text from the story or poem. In this way, learning and understanding is demonstrated by the student’s ability to show critical reading of the work.

This type of critical pedagogy can also be extended to other fields of study such as history. While history may have certain facts, such as dates or names of people, an effort can be made to move away from dominant views of history and build new understanding of historical events. This is often achieved through efforts to examine the roles of minorities or women in historical contexts, rather than reading history as the tale of “old dead white guys” as it can often be portrayed in American and European schools.

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