More on Critical Pedagogy, Critical Thinking, and the Other: “Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom”

Students at my university are required to attend Cultural Life Programs (CLPs) as part of their graduation requirements. Once several years ago, I was the featured speaker at a CLP on education reform, and during that talk I noted I was against accountability.

The Q and A prompted by the talk was vibrant, but after the talk, I was approached by a colleague who asked if I were being provocative—not serious, in other words—about being against accountability. I assured him I was in fact against accountability, which left him so frazzled the discussion ended there.

After posting a blog about critical pedagogy and the Other, I received similar and numerous comments about critical thinking—educators who likely believe that they and I are mostly in agreement on education but cannot fathom my rejecting how traditional schooling approaches so-called “critical thinking skills.”

As well, the Twitter conversation among Angela DyeSherri Spelic, and me exposed the need to examine more fully the concept of the Other.

First, there is no way to frame identifying and teaching (as well as lessons involving worksheets and testing) critical thinking skills and remain critical.

The essential flaw with critical thinking skills (see HERE and HERE) is, as I noted in the previous post, the reductive nature of a technocratic approach to knowledge, teaching, and learning. In other words, to isolate (and thus, approach analytically) a series of “critical” skills in order to deposit them in students in the hopes that those skills added up equal critical thinking is the problem.

And as I have noted about accountability, that skills approach is at least the dominant, if not the only way in which “critical thinking” is framed in traditional schooling.

Being critical is not a collection of isolated skills, but a way of being that can be fostered, not imposed (see Paulo Freire on the banking concept of education). Therefore, at best we can model being critical and provide for students examples of critical confrontations such as Ta-Nehisi Coates on the film Crash or Son of Baldwin on Straight Outta Compton.

Let me stress, then, that my rejecting the technocratic approach to “critical thinking” cannot be solved through technocratic means: defining, teaching skills, etc.

Next, and more complex, I think, is the concept of the Other in terms of how that relates to critical pedagogy.

My critical scholarship and my critical public work prompt oddly parallel responses, for example.

Traditional scholarship frames my critical work as the Other because critical perspectives reject the norms of the academy—quantitative data and objectivity most significantly. Instead, critical pedagogy starts here:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer

The claimed apolitical pose of traditional scholarship marginalizes as the Other critical perspectives. However, Kincheloe explains:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes.

But my public work is often challenged for being too academic, too scholarly since critical perspectives are prone to wax philosophic (using “the Other,” for example) or depend on terms such as “hegemony.”

Regardless of the context, then, critical perspectives are themselves likely to be marginalized (not rigorous or too esoteric), ignored, or silenced—especially as Dye and Spelic have stressed if you are a woman, or even more significantly, if you are a black woman.

And therein lies the next level of the Other I haven’t teased out well enough so far.

Yes, critical perspectives are brushed off as the Other, but more importantly, to be critical means to always listen [1] to, consider, and be empathetic to the perspective of the Other.

Being critical means that we take the pose of the Other in all the forms that exist. This requires the setting aside of ones privilege and even ones status as the Other.

It is in that context that Paulo Freire confronts how norms act against the Other:

To the extent that I become clearer about my choices and my dreams, which are substantively political and attributively pedagogical, and to the extent that I recognize that though an educator I am also a political agent, I can better understand why I fear and realize how far we still have to go to improve our democracy. I also understand that as we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against the myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology. (p. 41)

Being critical is about self-awareness, empathy, and the perpetual state of questioning the nature of assumptions in the context of how those assumptions work to perpetuate power as well as to deny power.

Being critical becomes in traditional contexts, both academic and public, simultaneously the state of being the Other as well as assuming the perspective(s) of the Other.

Posters, worksheets, skills lists, and tests—none of these address being critical because all of these are trapped inside the so-called objective and analytic assumptions about knowledge, teaching, and learning.

They are as lifeless as they are void of critical—and they do not serve students or anyone well.

Any questions?

See Also

“Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the 1% Always Wins

Revisiting “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes

[1] For example, in whose interest is it to shame a writer for splitting an infinitive? And what is the historical and linguistic context of that so-called rule? How does focusing on a linguistically questionable construction allow the masking of the substance of the claims?

9 comments

  1. Peter Anderson

    Dr. Thomas, thank you for this post.

    As I head back to the school in a few weeks, I must admit that I’m more than a little nervous. I’ve evolved as a teacher in the last nine months to the point where I’m uncomfortable with many of the beliefs and practices I held dear at the beginning of the 2014-15 SY. While this is fantastic, it’s also scary.

    This post, along with one of the linked posts on the Reading Wars, opened my eyes to the limits of the banking approach to education. I know that my late August in-service professional development will talk a lot about teaching critical thinking skills in a manner akin to the two links at the beginning of the sixth paragraph. It’s one thing for me to sit at home and read revelatory articles such as this one, and an entirely different one to be face to face with professionals whom I respect and let them know I’m not interested in following certain administrative edicts.

    I guess it’s actually not all that different; it’s more like varying degrees of the same type of critical resistance.

    So, as I return this year and undertake the essential yet terrifying work of standing up for my beliefs, I will use this page (and others) as a reminder of what matters in education.

  2. edifiedlistener

    Thank you for expanding on our conversation. And thank you, Peter, for offering us a view into your personal journey in this new realm. School starts tomorrow for me and I know well how quickly my default patterns of operation will surface and prepare to take over. I think the potential and real disconnect between what we espouse here in digital spaces and how we actually behave and carry out our jobs on a day-to-day basis needs to be acknowledged. We need to recognize how often we live and work in and with cognitive dissonance – perhaps see it as the norm, rather than the exception.
    I constantly question my own commitment to critical pedagogy. As a student, I strive to ‘get it right’ and at the same time try to work it so that I don’t offend anyone in the process. In the teacher role, I have strong feelings about control and it shows in the way i structure my instruction. And in *seeing* all this I put myself in a position to rethink my doing and being – with great effort and frequent setbacks. My love of big academic words will not help me much when I need to meet Pre-K where they are. What does serve me well in both the classroom and in these very special forums is presence – the capacity to be alert to and available for the Other. Listening is my tool of choice, coupled with reflection, a good dose of humor and I suppose, a fair amount of good faith – these allow me to be present and aware.

    Thinking about the name of this blog: Radical Scholarship, a place for a Pedagogy of Kindness, I see the very foundation of what you are suggesting. Kindness at the center of pedagogy? What could be more radical? I don’t think I realized how deeply I cared about these themes until I found the right conversations here.

  3. howardat58

    What you have written about “teaching critical thinking skills” mirrors the arguments in math education regarding “teaching problem solving skills”. Basically it can’t be done by the simplifying, codifying and packaging approach. The only successful way to get good at solving problems is to solve, or fail to solve, lots and lots of problems, and to see how others have solved some problems, not just what were the solutions. The teacher’s role is as a guide.

  4. lizmurray08

    Reblogged this on La Pluma Poderosa and commented:
    Reposting from P. L. Thomas re critical pedagogy.
    The thoughts that come to my mind are that it’s horrific to think CC$$ backers actually think they can throw out the term ‘critical thinking’, and that it’s swallowed by uncritical minds who likely fill in a rubric to show how each child ‘thinks critically’. There’s a fear of the unknown, and a fear that students may actually reach their full potential if assessment lines become fuzzy.

  5. Pingback: Critical Pedagogy: The Struggle and the Community | The Empowerment Network
  6. Pingback: The Empowerment Network: Social Studies without Desks! | The Empowerment Network

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