Restoring Humanity to...Teaching (Critical Pedagogy) Script

The following is (likely a poorly written) transcript that served as the script for our podcast:

The founder of critical pedagogy, Paulo Freire wrote:

“[T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

Freire’s experience was unique for an educator. Born in 1921, he was raised by a middle class family albeit in one of the poorest regions of Brazil, and quickly became infatuated with educating those who were marginalized. Central to Freire’s understanding of education was his father, who taught him about his culture with authority, but remarkably with compassion and understanding.

During the Great Depression, the Freire Family struggled and moved to a poorer neighborhood in another area of town. Freire lost multiple years of secondary school in this struggle, and in general he was considered a mediocre student. Even when transitioning to law school at age 20, he struggled to maintain high grades as he had to work to help provide for his family.

Education was core to Freire, so he began to teach a Portuguese language class shortly after obtaining his law degree. At the same time, he began to lecture trade union members on their rights and responsibilities. Soon after, his work became recognized and he was appointed to the Social Service for Industry as chief of the Department of Education and Culture.

In the Social Service for Industry position, Freire constantly involved parents and children into his conversations. He worked with families to solve issues of malnutrition and child labor and empowered families to take charge of their own problems, rather than rely on his organization. These were called “worker’s clubs” and were almost like small governments within themselves aimed at solving the needs of the working class. That being said, Freire was forced to resign after criticism of his open, democratic leadership style which was considered to be too soft.

Despite all this, he began to work with Alceu de Amoroso Lima and “new school” teacher Anisio Teixeira in building glass-roots schools. Together, they worked together to build K-Adult learning programs. They brainstormed a new system...aptly titled the “Paulo Freire system” - which utilized the again, aptly titled “Paulo Freire Method” where teachers, students, and families would build curriculums together, as well as use methods such as action groups, debates, and roundtable discussions to work through content as well as pedagogical problems.

This work brought Freire to teach part-time at the Universidade de Raceife, where he became involved with the Catholic Student’s Club, which was deemed a radical organization who fought for health, social services, housing, and more for the working class. They met with those living in slums to talk about their problems, help educate them for speaking up for themselves, and bring their issues to the proper authorities. Freire was determined to find a solution to his core issue: how to education all people.

Freire began to observe and write about one of his core problems with the educational model: people are being manipulated by their education - education isn’t coming from what they want, but rather the government or someone with something to gain. This will later translate to the “banking model” - which we’ll talk about in a second.

He continued to find ways to reform education and speak out about issues with the dominant culture controlling educational systems. He wanted to educate the illiterate to take charge of their own problems - by teaching them directly about what those problems were and giving them the voice to do so. Reformists and leftist groups helped Freire form the National Plan of Literacy Training, which had overwhelming financial support. However, in 1964, Brazil faced a military coup which ended all potential success of this program.

Freire was sooned arrested for his “subversive teachings” and exiled. He visited Chile, the United States, and Geneva to lecture on education and what was now deemed “critical pedagogy.” Returning to Brazil after some government issues were solved, he lived much of his life lecturing as a Brazilian professor, continuing to push for a “reinvention of power.” Often to the dismay of the government - who criticized him, among many others in a position of power.

Freire published many books in his life, most notably Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and served as an inspiration for many great writers, professors, and thinkers such as Henry Giroux, Antonia Darder, bell hooks, Paul Willis, Peter McLaren, and Shirley Steinberg. His connection with those who struggled the most - and his unwavering support even in his own personal struggles - has led many to appreciate and follow his teachings, even though his work has never been explicitly fundamentally supported by school systems, at least not on a large scale or for a long period of time.

So what IS critical pedagogy? Now that we know a little about the guy who started it, let’s analyze what’s all involved. If you’ve ever read Freire, you’ll know that it’s incredibly hard to follow - it’s been interpreted in different ways, it changes from book to book, it’s translated, and frankly, it’s very dry and academic. It comprises elements of Marxism and anti-colonial thinking, but it doesn’t support any particular point of view. And it doesn’t offer any explicit methods for schools to follow.

That being said, there’s so much we can learn from Freire’s ideas which have been built upon over the years. I’m going to attempt to define some of the key points:

The Hidden Curriculum:

These are the unwritten or unintended rules and lessons of schools. We often talk about the curriculum: lessons, activities, teaching methods, and more - but the hidden curriculum is what students may learn about themselves and others as a result of this work.

  • For example: School often teaches students that to be a “good student” is to become uniform and do what you’re told. Meet the rubric exactly, don’t talk when you’re not told to, and partake in a certain number of required courses, extracurriculars, and sports. The overall lesson may have been to prepare someone for college, but was the hidden message that you should never rebel? Never question anything or never find something you truly love to do?

  • One could think about how you’re not allowed to ask for help on a test, or work with others (that’s cheating) - but in the real world isn’t this normal?

  • Or perhaps you could go through an entire history class and only hear one or two, “safe” African American voices - making the implication that either African Americans rarely achieve or marginalizing this history for racist reasons.

  • Or maybe the rules itself reflect a hidden curriculum, maybe certain clothes are banned in inner city communities but not mentioned at all in the suburbs? It’s interesting to note how inner-city classrooms tend to have more uniform policies than everywhere else: this has cultural ramifications that are important to notice.

The Banking Model:

In a way, this is Freire’s core principal. The banking model refers to seeing students as empty vessels waiting to be filled by their knowledgeable teacher. He argued that the banking model, “attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power.” Like other reformist thinkers of the 20th century, Freire believed the state-mandated curriculum to be destructive to student’s individualistic thinking.

This, of course, is widely present in schools throughout the United States. Freire describes teaching talking about “reality as if it were motionless, static compartmentalized, and predictable” - and that they “fill” students with narration - without any significance.

When the teacher is a narrator, students simply just memorize narrated content. These “filled’ students are now not only full of this mandated knowledge, which is often unimportant, but have been transformed to acting like a depository - they no longer question things or think outside the box. Walk into any classroom taught traditionally, especially a high school classroom, and tell students to learn whatever they want or do a truly creative project without bounds - they’ll give you a blank look. Hell, I’ve had students Google “how to be creative” enough times to make me want to revolt against the education system itself.

Furthermore, students in the banking model are seen as knowing absolutely nothing before a teacher enters the room - they’re ignorant and their cultural background, their history, their family life - everything is ignored. In a standardized education system, “know your students” often translates to just “know their name” or “find a way to give them their state mandated medicine in a creative way” - not figure out what they want.

In Freire’s own words, here are the dichotomies of the banking model:

To add, I love this quote: “the interests of the oppressors lie in changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them.” Teachers often see their “bad” students as lazy and incompetent while those who do whatever they say as smart and great leaders.

The goal of education should not be to integrate those historically oppressed into this system, but to transform the structure itself so people can be themselves.

The Culture of Silence:

Continuing the oppressed and oppressor narrative, Freire described two societies: one that is culturally alienated and one that is dominated. The alienated society is dependent on those who oppress it, and their alienation is imposed by colonial rule and a culture of silence. As in, the alienated society typically does not have a voice - and rarely talks about its issues- and if it does, it is suppressed very quickly...often violently.

Freire made it his life’s work to giving a voice to this silenced culture. By giving a voice, this isn’t literally just letting them speak - but giving them the tools to recognize their marginalization and transformative power to creatively overcome their problems: for example, talking about their neighborhood’s history and government actions toward it, or about workers rights at their parent’s jobs. In more well-off areas, it would be humanizing the positions of those oppressed by society, and giving students tools to empower others rather than continue their marginalization.

Bringing up silenced voices is often political, as it goes against the will of the ruling class - it will talk about corporations, political parties, and the state standards. Freire did not believe education could be neutral - if one is going to empower students, they must take a risk by talking about power structures and politics. This risk is one paramount to recognizing the culture of silence.

These core tenants are crucial to reimagining our education system. But how would we ever put them into practice?

Critical pedagogy keeps being written about, people keep bringing it up...but how many of us actually attempt to transform our classrooms? To reimagine our system without the traditional teacher / student dichotomy is to go against almost every facet of a teacher training program, and to disrupt the narrative that communities mostly expect from their schools.

Perhaps it’s worthwhile to attempt to realize what this classroom would be: a teacher would work with students to construct a curriculum, and while a teacher would have their professional input, students would be in charge of making decisions. The classroom would explore problems in student’s lives, and hypothesize, as well as realize how to solve them. The classroom would be an extension of academics into practical life advice - it would explore political discourse and find ways to disrupt the narrative: whether students were the ones being oppressed or in born into a system of the oppressor.

Eliminating the state-mandated curriculum requires a large risk with a gigantic reward. Yes, there is, of course, almost no way within the public model as a lone teacher to do this without instant calls for resignation, but one can subversively teach content relevant to student desires while feigning ignorance to authority or teaching the bare minimum when forced. We need to recognize actual problems in the world and talk about them - and we must reject the neutral, milquetoast curriculum in favor of one that engages students through what they want. How do we do this? It’s actually quite easy...ask what they want. That takes a lot more work than saying it - and you realize - but every time we have students developing our curricula, we’re doing something right. Before you teach something, let students accept or deny it. Let them analyze what activities your doing and what projects you may propose - give them time to not only tinker with these ideas, but reject them entirely if they hate it. Let them give out entirely new ideas and develop that curriculum with them.

This is easier with younger students. You’ll see the effects of the hidden curriculum and banking model with older kids - they won’t know how to react to your ideas. They may think you’re lazy or don’t know what you’re doing if you ask for proposals...they may not know how to think for themselves. In fact, the process of developing the curricula together will probably be a stronger learning moment, full of learning everywhere, that will equate to more than they get from what they envision.

Freire’s work never gives a step by step, so it’s difficult to offer direct solutions outside of just saying: communicate openly. Don’t think that “student choice” means that you have a preset idea of what students will do, but are offering options. For me, the hardest hurdle to jump in defeating the banking model when Freire says, “students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher.” Designing a classroom that’s really open - where discipline, norms, content, and learning is all agreed upon - it’s hard to do. And to couple that with mandatory seat time, compulsory education...well that seems like a catch-22 in of itself.

Simply stated, in my opinion the best way to adapt this pedagogy is to be radically open and take radical risks. It’s not a small step of maybe letting students help out with a unit here and there...it’s introducing them to the class with a blank slate, communicating to them what the purpose of the class is according to the state, explain the history behind these decisions - heck even explain the banking model - and give them the tools to take charge of learning. That requires room for mistakes, many hours of lost (air quotes) “content time”, and tons of collaborative work. Deprogramming students really has to go beyond one classroom - multiple teachers have to work together over multiple years - especially in high school - to train students not to be trained. Kids naturally learn - they won’t stop respecting you if you give them the tools to be self-sufficient, albeit you’ll need to earn their respect rather than force it.

Administration must let students not only have choice in their classrooms, but choice at large. Students should be in meetings, they should have a student council that isn’t just the best students as handpicked by teachers, but a random assortment that represents the entire student body that can reform at will. And they should have real voice - they have to be involved in every step of every process. It’s possible in a public school, it’s just that no one really cares, doesn’t believe children can handle it, or are too self-absorbed in their teaching. There’s nothing, outside of a very few choice topics like IEPs, that students and families can’t bring a perspective to.

The more people that understand critical pedagogy and apply it to their teaching, the more drastic the change. So many educators are turning to books or ed gurus who preach to make their teaching better - but better teaching should not translate to doing the traditional model better. If we’re doing that, we may as well say we’re just really good at forcing kids to do something. It’s an interesting trait to be sure, but it’s not liberating - it’s not really caring about kids - it’s not really the point of education. If we believe that education provides the means of empowerment for anyone, then we must instill values at every level that reinforce openness, communication, and recognizing real problems in our communities.  

A radical pedagogy subverts authority - and the irony is that schools are authority - they’re extensions of the government. Therefore, there’s no denying that giving voice to students has an explicit risk in the school’s designated purpose; every level of one’s community not only must have a seat at the table, they have to know why they have a seat at the table. Parents, students, community members, teachers, all must recognize the principles of critical pedagogy in order to understand they’re being oppressed by the system - if not everyone agrees with these principles, a subversive group will dismantle and work against all progress that could potentially be made. Establishing an actual learning community takes time, effort, and diligence, and won’t happen overnight.

Families are important too. They’re so often lost in the mix outside of a random email each semester. Some PTOs give credence to school events, but they often are glorified fundraising groups. Why are families not involved with every level of a school and constantly in communication? After all, they’re essentially the backbone of each child’s life - educators are just there to assist. Therefore, parent education programs on critical pedagogy - as well as constant ways for input and assistance - are needed for a educational revolution.

Teachers must band together for changes like this. If administration won’t budge, or if they’re only willing to offer a consolation prize, stick together and fight. If they continue to not care, go someplace else or bring in a third party. Radical change requires radical action. Essentially, to enact these changes, teachers are rebels. They’re fighting for what’s just - they’re really fighting for their students. They’re not talking about how research demonstrates that greeting students increases their test scores....they’re actually giving students real opportunities. It’s so tiring to see article after article talking about how to teach better when it could be translated to how to control better - we need teachers who care about kids to the point where they give up the often ill-regarded label as “teacher” and become “educators” - which in my opinion can mean so much more. An educator works with the entire community to educate and liberate and that guides others to a better future, not the top-down authoritarian figure that dictates what a better future is.

Often times we few standards as the “what” and we reach them in the “how” - critical pedagogy rejects this entire structure. It’s not about doing the existing structure in an interesting way or to sneak in some student passions every now and then, we’re actually uplifting the entire narrative in favor of “here’s what the state says you should do, I’m telling you this because of these concepts of critical pedagogy that I think you should know about, now what do you want to do about it? And what do you all want to learn today?” Essentially, we need to make learning communities to learn to fish, not fish for them - and everything in between.

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