Last week, I began my fall semester a few weeks before my university because we place our teacher certification candidates in year-long placements, including the first couple weeks of school, during their senior year. As a result I conducted four school visits to talk with our candidates and their cooperating teachers about the program and what to expect over this academic year that culminates in the spring with an extended practicum experience that looks a great deal like student teaching.
While walking out of one school, I noticed a series of posters hanging from the ceiling, and the final one facing me as I was heading out read “Find a way to think critically.”
I turned and noticed the back of the same slogan was “Find a way to be on time.”
Throughout my 18 years teaching public high school, I resisted the focus on school and classroom rules; we were supposed to post them in our room prominently, we had to lay them out for students on the first day, and our students had to pass a school handbook test before they could begin their classes each year (which meant we spent days reviewing the handbook with our advisees).
Part of my resistance included that instead of posting rules in my room, I made my own poster announcing:
Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.
Henry David Thoreau
The reality is that if we consider the front-and-back poster above, schools (and businesses) do not really want critical thinking from students (workers), but instead want compliance.
After teaching and resisting for over a decades, I discovered in my doctoral program William Ayers’s To Teach, which was the first organized confrontation of education-as-compliance I had ever read and likely my first step into critical pedagogy.
As I have discussed before, the term “critical thinking” and its companion “higher order thinking skills (HOTS)” are in fact not about being critical, but are technocratic ways of defining and thus controlling what counts as appropriate thinking. “Critical thinking” as a learning objective in formal schooling is an ironic term, much like the two-sided poster stressing punctuality on the flip side of thinking critically.
Critical pedagogy is a wholesale rejection of those technocratic approaches to teaching (objectivity, behaviorism, high-stakes testing, prescriptive standards, rote lesson plans) that requires each of us to investigate, interrogate (see Ta-Nehisi Coates), witness (see James Baldwin), challenge, and confront knowledge, claims, texts, people, and even (or especially) ourselves about the nature of power being served.
Unlike the systematic “critical thinking,” a critical perspective asks, “Whose interests are being served by punctuality and what power dynamic does that punctuality preserve or create?”
In other words, a directive—”Find a way to think critically”—can never be critical since the essential critical pose is the question.
2015 is the twentieth year of my critical journey as an educator, student, and person—marked formally by beginning a doctoral program in 1995.
This year has been punctuated by an ongoing discussion with Angela Dye on Twitter about what it means to be a critical educator.
Dye and I have been joined lately by Sherri Spelic while we all wrestle with holding critical perspectives in the midst of education reform wars that demand somewhat extreme binaries , both of which struggle under the bright light of critical investigation
As we struggle through social media with critical pedagogy in practice, I have stated to Dye directly that being critical puts anyone always in the position of the Other, and that necessity is alienating, isolating—suggesting the possibility of futility since large-scale change in a democracy tends to require numbers, some sort of collaboration.
Being critical is essential for social and education justice and equity, but I can also attest that maintaining a critical grounding creates tension among those on the so-called “both sides” of traditional and progressive arguments—such as the current education reform war.
I’m afraid I do not yet have a solution to this problem, except among Dye, Spelic, and me, while we likely have substantive disagreements about this or that, we have found community in the struggle itself.
And that in fact may be the answer, but even so, we must continue to question even that.
 See Dye’s The Need for a Deeper Dive and Reformers and Anti-Reformers: An Underwater Perspective, Spelic’s Knee-Jerk vs. A Stone’s Throw, and my Beware the Roadbuilders Redux: Education Reform Wars Fail Race, Again, which is strongly influenced by Andre Perry’s Education reform is working in New Orleans – just like white privilege.