Critical Pedagogy: How to respond to ‘future-focused’ discourse

“So it was an instrument of radical change, that’s what they thought it was. And then around about the middle of the 1980s …this computer got into the hands of school administrations and the ministries and the commissioners of education, state education departments. And now look what they did with them … The establishment pulls together and now they’ve got … a computer curriculum, and there’s a special computer teacher. In other words, the computer has been thoroughly assimilated to the way you do things in school.”  — Papert, in Papert & Freire, late 1980s via Milne (2013).

In my last post (‘Why we need a fresh view on future-focused education‘), I laid out thoughts on why we might reframe future-focused conversations from one driven by/not just economic urgency to one that privileges human connection and personal wellbeing.

In a recent discussion, I used the term ‘critical pedagogy’ and a couple of people said that had not heard of it before. This week, I saw that Ann Milne wove it through her recent keynote, ‘Colouring in the White Spaces’, at the ULearn17 conference.

So, let’s revisit what it means — because, in my view, critical pedagogy is the approach that offers us the best pathway into ‘future-focused’ educational discourse, and one that is likely to be most transformative in the face of uncertainty.


What is critical pedagogy?

Critical pedagogy is variously described as an approach, a way of being, a moral purpose. It is most strongly associated with Paulo Freire and pivots on the view that education is a vital way to help people self-determine and be empowered as themselves, rather than be oppressed or controlled by the knowledge or hegemonic systems around them, such as those which define privileged views on race, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability and so on. Freire suggested that traditional models of education are like a ‘banking’ model, in which educators (and school systems) hold all the power and knowledge, and students are passive recipients.

He espoused an alternative view: that learning should be based “on the realities of learners and their life situations. It shows people that they have the right to ask questions…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.” (Aliakbari & Faraji, 2011)

Other proponents of critical pedagogy include bell hooks, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, Joe L. Kincheloe, Patti Lather, Antonia Darder, Gloria Ladson-Billings.


What might it look like in practice?

“Critical pedagogy is… a continuous moral project that enables young people to develop a social awareness of freedom. This pedagogy connects classroom learning with the experiences, histories and resources that every student brings to their school. It allows students to understand that with knowledge comes power; the power that can enable young people to do something differently in their moment in time and take positive and constructive action (Coles, 2014)

So, while critical pedagogy is not a prescriptive list of actions, it might include:

  • real-life calls to action in learning experiences, that invite students to be citizens now, to make a difference to their world around them; driving to uncover actual problems and needs;
  • identification of a problem, inquire into the problem, develop a shared plan of action to make a change, enact the plan, evaluate it and check in again with the problem (Freire called it critical praxis);
  • teachers continually self-reflecting on how they are identifying and challenging accepted norms that might be oppressing students and others around them. Check out the Action Continuum from the StepUP programme as a starting point.
  • mutual respect for each other, between and amongst teacher and students;
  • discussion to which everyone can contribute equitably to create shared, new knowledge;
  • curriculum experiences and resources derived and drawing on students’ own identities and realities;
  • opportunities to question and critically evaluate norms and assumptions around them;
  • time to self-reflect on assumptions;
  • crucially, continually asking: who benefits? when critiquing and setting up systems and structures.

By way of example, schools that operate as meritocracies, where they test, rank and homogenise students underscores the fact that the society in which they must make their way will rank some against others, and that those who are ‘excellent’ are worth more than those who are not. Moreover, this is the destiny for which you are being prepared so suck it up!  And we see that, in many countries, government policy is a key enabler of this position.

For a recommended discussion of this idea in the UK context, check out this post: ‘Social Mobility: An Undeserving Philosophy’ and also, closer to home, Kirsty Johnston’s investigation into NCEA disparity in New Zealand, NCEA: The only brown kid in the room.



Why is critical pedagogy important for ‘future-focused’ education?

The World Economic Form recently noted that “inequality represents the greatest societal concern associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution” (Schwab, 2016). Much has been written about neo-liberal, competitive, ‘GERM‘ economics on education systems around the world (consider Blakely (2017) and Crawshaw).

It is hard to push for equity in an economic environment that offers a race to the bottom in terms of automation, low wages, and precarious employment. Those jobs that don’t exist yet? They may never exist.  And arguably, if schools are already frogs in a slowly warming pot, aren’t we just howling into the wind to try and change what we do, if the environment around us is at odds with our mission?

My view would be that schools can — and should — offer some of the few stable community islands in an increasingly complex world. Educators may be holding the line on what it means for young people to become, to know themselves and feel that they can participate meaningfully in the world around them.

Critical pedagogy can help us describe how we want to create spaces for young people to find what’s important in terms of their cultural identity, the social systems that bind or empower them, their place in our complex society – and ultimately, so that they can make a difference for themselves and others. Places where they learn that, regardless of what society might be telling them, they matter.

As Schwab (2016) concludes:

In the end, it all comes down to people and values. We need to shape a future that works for all of us by putting people first and empowering them. In its most pessimistic, dehumanized form, the Fourth Industrial Revolution may indeed have the potential to “robotize” humanity and thus to deprive us of our heart and soul. But as a complement to the best parts of human nature—creativity, empathy, stewardship—it can also lift humanity into a new collective and moral consciousness based on a shared sense of destiny. It is incumbent on us all to make sure the latter prevails.” [my emphasis]

What might this look like if we harness and act with critical pedagogy? In her ULearn17 keynote, Milne shared her story of the Warrior Scholars from Kia Aroha college. Check it out below – and you might also enjoy the interview she gave with Alex Hotere-Barnes of CORE Education in 2016, too:


Further references

Image source: ‘Dead Zones of the Imagination’ by Jared Rodriguez / Truthout under CC BY-NC SA 2.0

8 thoughts on “Critical Pedagogy: How to respond to ‘future-focused’ discourse

  1. Thanks Karen, I get frustrated with the concept of future focused learning. All learning is future focused. Additionally, such language assumes that the future is set and we can not determine it. We are the future and that includes our kids. Be the change you want to see.


    1. That’s right – and I’m fishing around to find a frame that works to take another view of the perennial ‘world is changing so you must change’ model;)


    2. Hi, I’ve been doing some work around neoliberalism, citizenship and educational policy with particular reference to Foucault, your comments about language/discourse setting the future resonated with something that I have been working on recently:

      In our current epoch, there are many interdependent factors and influences that compete to shape a specific narrative of the future, consequently shaping educational policy and creating the kinds of citizens that will maintain and conform to the envisaged future. This becomes a perplexing issue of circular causation where citizens are constructed for an unwritten future, but this as yet unknown future is constructing specific citizens that shape it. It is here then that education becomes the setting for the construction of the future narrative of society that predicts the needs and security of the future population and, it might be argued, normalises fatalistic behaviour. It is important to question the taken for granted ideas and modern certainties about established knowledge, education, politics and mediasation, so as to disrupt our acceptance of what we constitute as normal and to challenge our attachment and conformity to it.


      1. That’s really interesting, Camilla, and chimes with the concepts behind critical pedagogy, I think. One idea that strikes me as of interest in the narrative is that of the individual being expected to take personal responsibility as the default over and above any responsibility from the wider system, community or citizenry – for example, online it’s up to the individual to keep themselves safe is the dominant message, your own wellbeing is largely a personal issue and so on. Being aware that these ideas are shaping policy is interesting and I’m exploring how groups can impact wider systems such as those of schools, as we discuss here:) Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!


  2. Karen, this is magic! You’ve eloquently and concisely explained so many thoughts whirling in my head. Anything that begins with Papert and Freire and ends with Milne is just awesome. Thank you!


    1. Appreciate you engaging with the post and sharing a thought 🙂 This is still a developing train of thinking for many of us, definitely for me, so glad it has struck a chord with others too.


  3. Great post Karen, if you believe that ‘critical pedagogy’ is as Friere describes ‘self-determination’, then I think that the ‘time to reflect’ could be greatly expanded on, for example:
    -a focus on students understanding who they are through self reflection
    -challenging students to not only consider ‘who they are’ and ‘what they did’ but whether this is aligned or not/etc.

    I like how you’ve identified citizenship as a key part of this. To me the issue of ‘global citizenship’ is a key element of this kind of way of being (as an educator and learner) because it places us as a key part of the solution and the problem.

    Keep up the great thinking and writing!
    Rob 😉


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