Beyond Caricatures: On Dewey, Freire, and Direct Instruction (Again)

A former colleague while we both taught high school in rural South Carolina, Ed Welchel, and I addressed [1] the continuing importance of both John Dewey and Paulo Freire, despite the decrease in requirements for education philosophy in certification and degree programs, in “The Practitioner Has No Clothes: Resisting Practice Divorced from Philosophy in Teacher Education and the Classroom” for Kincheloe and Hewitt’s Regenerating the Philosophy of Education.

While Dewey (Progressivism) and Freire (Critical Pedagogy) share significance for how we should implement universal public education, they also share a pattern of being discounted and discredited through caricature more often than through valid criticisms of their faults.

I have noted several times the work of Lou LaBrant, who I would identify as a “true” progressive, specifically her own efforts to unmask misguided and mislabeled progressive practices (see “Masquerading”). LaBrant’s work and career help expose (i) that progressive claims have often been misrepresentative of progressivism and Dewey and (ii) that some progressives (LaBrant) offer more accurate representations of just what being a progressive educator looks like in the real-world classroom.

Complicating the matter is the century-plus struggle to reform education, which I have represented as four competing arenas (also well teased out by Jack Hassard):

Education reform camps fall into two broad categories—Mainstream and Radical—with two divisions within each broad category: Mainstream Reform includes bureaucratic reformers and technocratic reformers; Radical Reform includes libertarian reformers and critical reformers.

Whether debates are addressing Dewey/progressives or Freire/critical educators, the issues tend to focus on the role of the student, the role of the teacher, the nature of curriculum, and the nature of instruction.

As a thirty-plus year educator who has worked through my progressive stage and settled solidly into critical pedagogy, I want to highlight the central misrepresentations of Freire with the following excerpt from the co-authored chapter noted above:

“My theoretical explanation of such practice ought to be also a concrete and practical demonstration of what I am saying,” Freire (1998) explains, thus connecting the philosophical with the practical (p. 49). Without a careful consideration of what we believe about teaching and learning, we are ill equipped to measure what we do with any precision, a precision unlike the traditional view of the term (not mechanistic quantification, but holding the real against the ideal as an act of qualitative validity). Teaching and our classrooms, then, must be “something witnessed, lived” (Freire, p. 49).

The progressive challenge that pushed against the traditional and mechanistic assumptions of teaching and learning offers practitioners a consideration of alternative views of education, but without a critical perspective, practitioners are left vulnerable to a dualistic and thus incomplete understanding of a classroom that creates the conditions necessary for the pursuit of democracy and freedom. Here, we find the necessity for the critical perspective that becomes a way of being, one that is “ethical” as teaching and learning are acts of empowerment—“to ‘spiritualize’ the world, to make it either beautiful or ugly” (Freire, 1998, p. 53).

The most damning result of either/or thinking is believing, falsely, that classrooms must be either authoritarian or chaotic. Freire (1998) explains the critical alternative:

“It is in this sense that both the authoritarian teacher who suffocates the natural curiosity and freedom on the student as well as the teacher who imposes no standards at all are equally disrespectful of an essential characteristic of our humanness, namely, our radical (and assumed) unfinishedness, out of which emerges the possibility of being ethical.” (p. 59)

The empowering classroom is far more complex than any either/or dynamic as such dynamics oversimplify and necessarily distort human endeavors (Kohn, 1993). But it is Freire’s recognition “of being ethical” that poses the greatest argument for the need to explore philosophy fully and rigorously.

A wrestling with the ethical implications of teaching and learning exposes “the dilemma arising from the tension between authority and freedom. And we invariably confuse authority and authoritarianism, freedom and license” (Freire, 1998, p. 60). And this, I believe, is the crux of why practitioners balk at any pursuits they deem impractical. They are trapped by the false dichotomy of what a classroom can be, primarily because they themselves have experienced and excelled in those exact settings that critical pedagogy challenges for being mechanistic and oppressive. When practitioners call for “practical” over “philosophical,” that call is masking a fear of deconstructing the exact assumptions that housed their own success as students—and often their own physical and psychological safety as professionals.

The practical becomes in effect a perpetuation of the status quo, a fixed thing. A philosophical perspective, one augmented with a critical lens, however, is an embracing of a state of flux: “This permanent movement of searching creates a capacity for learning not only in order to adapt to the world but especially to intervene, to re-create, and to transform it” (Freire, 1998, p. 66). With the practical, we have a sense of security; with the theoretical, a sense of risk. The classroom that seeks and embraces risk is a classroom that confronts authority; thus, the practitioner trapped by dualistic assumptions believes confronting authority can only lead to chaos. Without a critical perspective, the practitioner is left without the possibility of authoritative (instead of authoritarian), without the possibility of freedom (without slipping into license).

Classrooms guided by practitioners who have ignored a careful consideration of philosophy—of progressivism and critical pedagogy—slip into an authoritarian, and thus oppressive, dynamic that contradicts democratic ideals by silencing students. The mechanistic assumptions of these classrooms embrace a traditional view of objectivity as both attainable and preferable to the contextual arguments made by critical pedagogy: Freire (1998) maintains “that the school. . .cannot abstract itself from the sociocultural and economic conditions of its students, their families, and their communities” (p. 62). Education without a rich philosophical understanding embraces a clinical view of humanity—oppressive in its narrow view of “scientific.” [2]

And thus we come to some clarifications:

  • Progressive educators and critical educators—while embracing many overlapping concerns, beliefs, and practices—are not the same as unschoolers, exsitential educators, and “naturalist” educators.
  • For critical educators, a teacher seeks to serve as teacher/student while a student serves as student/teacher. Key here is where authority lies (not that it is absent). Authority for a teacher should grow from that teacher’s expertise, and not primarily or solely from that teacher’s status as “teacher.” Critical educators are skeptical of authoritarianism, but embrace their authoritative status.
  • Progressive and critical educators do not reject direct instruction, but are skeptical of direct instruction that is isolated and determined for students without any evidence of student need/interest or input. Again, the problem is isolated direct instruction, and the question is not if we use direct instruction, but when, how, and why. (Read carefully again the quote from Freire [1998], p. 59.)

So rejecting Dewey/progressivism or Freire/critical pedagogy with caricatures ignores the need to criticize both on substantive grounds (bell hooks has taken Freire to task well, and Lisa Delpit has dismantled failed progressivism, for example) while also perpetuating a reality that I find most troubling: Neither progressivism nor critical pedagogy has ever had any real and substantial place in U.S. public education.

The irony of this is that those who are most apt to criticize both progressivism and critical pedagogy by relentlessly calling U.S. public education a failure are in fact criticizing the policies and ideologies they claim will “reform” schools because those classrooms have been dominated by transmissional practices, content- and teacher-centered commitments, and technocratic policies driven by prescriptive standards/curriculum and high-stakes testing.

I end, then, with the final paragraphs in the essay excerpted above:

The empowered student necessarily requires the classroom offered by the empowered teacher. Any who teaches must first work through the philosophical evolution that Dewey and Freire represent—as well as continuing beyond the possibilities offered by Dewey’s progressivism and Freire’s critical pedagogy. The pursuit of an educational philosophy, then, is a journey that inseparable from being a practitioner—not something we “finish” in undergraduate courses and then mindlessly build upon.

Choosing between the status quo (norms and traditions) and progressive as well as critical possibilities is a choice between the moribund and the fecund. Norms and traditions are moribund—but the mind requires the fecund classroom that works against norms and traditions (thus progressive and critical) instead of bowing mindlessly to them. Philosophy is not something merely academic, something that wastes a teacher’s time better spent on the practical. Again, as Freire (1998) argues, “Critical reflection on practice is a requirement of the relationship between theory and practice. Otherwise theory becomes simply ‘blah, bah, blah,’ and practice, pure activism” (p. 30). The soul of teaching, then, is an act of the mind and the heart that rises above the limitations falsely separating theory from practice.

[1] Co-authored with Welchel, E. (2011). The practitioner has no clothes: Resisting practice divorced from philosophy in teacher education and the classroom. In Eds. J. Kincheloe & R. Hewitt, Regenerating the philosophy of education: Whatever happened to soul (pp. 43-54). New York: Peter Lang USA.

[2] See Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. (Trans.) P. Clarke. New York: Rowman & Littlefield;

Kohn, A. (1993, September). Choices for children: Why and how to let students decide. Phi Delta Kappan. Retrieved from


  1. Allan Katz

    Your description of the role of the teacher reminds me of a saying by the Talmudic Sage Rabbi Hanina – I have learnt much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and most from my students.
    I like what you write ‘ The soul of teaching, then, is an act of the mind and the heart ‘ and imho the ability of kids’ learning to touch their hearts. Unfortunately the focus is on test scores, achievement, success and overcoming failure ‘ touching the heart ‘ of kids

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