Fact Sheet: Critical Pedagogy

Activities & Lessons


Social Justice & Student Voice



60 minutes.

Human Restoration Project CC-BY-SA

May 2023

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An introduction to Paulo Freire's critical pedagogy, a teaching approach that challenges traditional power dynamics in the classroom and fosters critical thinking and creativity in students.

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This document describes democratic learning, self-directed education, and student empowerment to create collaborative learning spaces where students and teachers share power.

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Critical pedagogy is a teaching method that aims to alleviate the “teacher dominant” mindset that prevails over the education system. In most schools, the teachers solely choose the rules, content, and activities that students follow in the class. Critical pedagogy, coined by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, flips this model. It shares power with students and levels the playing field, helping young people speak up for themselves and have a voice to create change.

Critical pedagogy fights back against the “banking model of education”, where in a typical school adults see students as “banks” to be “deposited in.” As in, the teachers hold the answer, the answers are provided to students, then students understand more and more content. Instead of communicating, students memorize and repeat. Overtime, students become dependent on teachers to provide them with information, harming their ability to be critical and creative thinkers.

Paulo Freire created a list of the issues of a typical learning model:

  • The teacher teaches and the students are taught;
  • The teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;
  • The teacher thinks and the students are thought about;
  • The teacher talks and the students listen - meekly;
  • The teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;
  • The teacher chooses and enforces his choice; and the students comply;
  • The teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher;
  • The teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it;
  • The teacher confuses the authority of knowledge, with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students;
  • The teacher is the subject of the learning process, where the pupils are mere objects.

It is not a prescriptive method. Essentially, critical pedagogy wants learners to navigate their own understanding of the world. A teacher is still valuable as they are the mentors and guides of their classroom, rather than the sole body of knowledge. 

This handbook inspired by the work of Paulo Freire blends together critical pedagogy, self-directed education, democratic learning, and other forms of student empowerment to help educators craft spaces of shared power.

From Henry Giroux:

“Pedagogy is always political because it is connected to the acquisition of agency. As a political project, critical pedagogy illuminates the relationships among knowledge, authority, and power. It draws attention to questions concerning who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge, values, and skills, and it illuminates how knowledge, identities, and authority are constructed within particular sets of social relations. Similarly, it draws attention to the fact that pedagogy is a deliberate attempt on the part of educators to influence how and what knowledge and subjectivities are produced within particular sets of social relations. 

Ethically, critical pedagogy stresses the importance of understanding what actually happens in classrooms and other educational settings by raising questions regarding what knowledge is of most worth, in what direction should one desire, and what it means to know something. Most importantly, it takes seriously what it means to understand the relationship between how we learn and how we act as individual and social agents; that is, it is concerned with teaching students how not only to think but to come to grips with a sense of individual and social responsibility, and what it means to be responsible for one’s actions as part of a broader attempt to be an engaged citizen who can expand and deepen the possibilities of democratic public life. 

Finally, what has to be acknowledged is that critical pedagogy is not about an a priori method that simply can be applied regardless of context. It is the outcome of particular struggles and is always related to the specificity of particular contexts, students, communities, available resources, the histories that students bring with them to the classroom, and the diverse experiences and identities they inhabit.”

Cited from:

Key Terms

Praxis: The combination of theory and action: ideas are actually implemented and make a change.

Hidden Curriculum: The unwritten values and concepts that are taught in schools. For example, being told that asking for help on a test is cheating which may lead to less cooperative, more competitive individuals.

Consciousness Raising (conscientização): The process of raising awareness about problems toward building a more just future.

Major Figures

(Including, but not limited to…)

Paulo Freire (1944-1997): Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968); Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1992); Pedagogy of Freedom (1996)

Michael Apple (1942- ): Official knowledge: Democratic knowledge in a conservative age. (2000); Ideology and curriculum (2004); Education and power (2012)

Antonia Darder (1952- ): Culture and Power in the Classroom (1991); The Policies and the Promise: The Public Schooling of Latino Children (1993); Reinventing Paulo Freire: A Pedagogy of Love (2001)

Henry Giroux (1943- ): Theory and Resistance in Education (1983); Teachers as Intellectuals (1988); On Critical Pedagogy (2011)

Sandy Grande (unknown): Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought  (2008)

bell hooks (1952-2021): Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994); Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (2003); Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom (2010)

Joe L. Kincheloe (1950-2008): The Sign of the Burger: McDonald's and the Culture of Power (2000); Cutting Class: Socioeconomic Status and Education (2007); Critical Pedagogy Primer (2008)

Donaldo Macedo (1950- ): Literacy: Reading the Word and the World (1987); Literacies of Power: What Americans Are Not Allowed to Know (1994); Ideology Matters (2002)

Peter McLaren (1948- ): Schooling as a Ritual Performance (1986); Rethinking Media Literacy: A Critical Pedagogy of Representation (1995); Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education (2002)

Ernest Morrell (1971- ): Becoming Critical Researchers: Literacy and Empowerment for Urban Youth (2004); Critical Literacy and Urban Youth: Pedagogies of Access, Dissent, and Liberation (2008); The Art of Critical Pedagogies: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools (co-authored by Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade) (2008)

Ira Shor (1945- ): Critical Teaching and Everyday Life (1987); Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change (1992); When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy (1997)

Shirley R. Steinberg (1952- ): Changing Multiculturalism: New Times, New Curriculum (with Joe L. Kincheloe) (1997); The Stigma of Genius: Einstein Consciousness and Critical Education (with Joe L. Kincheloe) (1999); Contextualizing Teaching: Introduction to Education and Educational Foundations (with Joe L. Kincheloe) (2000)

Howard Zinn (1922-2010): A People's History of the United States (1980); Howard Zinn on Democratic Education (with Donaldo Macedo) (2008); You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History (2018)

Pictured: A group of students cheering.


How is critical pedagogy connected to progressive education?

Progressive education is rooted in student-centered learning, integrating real experiences into the classroom, and building critical thinking. Critical pedagogy is similar, but explicitly focuses on empowering young people (and adults) to challenge dominant structures which cause inequity and oppress those without power. Both believe that typical methods of teaching, such as standing and delivering instruction for the purpose of raising test scores, leaves young people ill-equipped to build a better world.

What are the goals of critical pedagogy?

Overall, the goal of critical pedagogy is to prepare students to be active and engaged citizens who can contribute to creating a more just and equitable world. It is a theory of education that centers critically analyzing what is being taught and why. It gives young people the tools and voice to shape curriculum and content, both changing what is being taught and practicing democratic decision-making.

How does Human Restoration Project interpret critical pedagogy?

Human Restoration Project sees critical pedagogy as a fundamental tenet of progressive education. Although progressive education is typically framed as starting with John Dewey, progressive education has further roots in liberatory and anti-racism as noted by Dr. Michael Hines. Social justice is paramount for creating an education system that works for all. Our goal is to build a better world, even if it doesn’t raise test scores. 

In recent decades, progressive education has increasingly become reserved for those with power: elite schools with high tuitions that foster the principles of self-care, hands-on learning, and social-emotional health. We explicitly center social justice, critical pedagogy, and promoting public schools in order to ensure that a modern progressive education is for everybody.

How is critical pedagogy connected to other movements for social justice?

By creating more active and engaged citizens, young people are being equipped to change the world. These young people have unlocked their full potential as they’ve understood current events and how inequity has manifested itself over time, plus they’ve developed their ability to be democratic decision-makers within the classroom. This means that critical pedagogy is explicitly connected to movements for social justice, such as feminism, anti-racism, Indigenous rights, LGTBQIA+ rights, disability rights, and postcolonialism.

Is critical pedagogy Marxist?

Critical pedagogy has been demonized in the ongoing culture war and its attacks on educators because Paulo Freire was heavily influenced by Marx and his theory is rooted in critiquing and transforming capitalism. After all, many of the power structures that prevent young people and adults from using their voice are reinforced by capital. However, it is notable that this does not mean that critical pedagogy is militant or violent. Freire (and his contemporaries) do not, for example, endorse the violent Cultural Revolution of the Soviet Union. Instead, it draws upon the same Marxist influences of holding truth to power as is found in other philosophical movements, such as queer theory, critical literacy, or postmodernism. It is important to note that Marxism has shaped much of modern philosophy and is not instantaneously a sign of conspiracy against the government, as has been weaponized against social justice movements for decades.

Can critical pedagogy be realistically implemented in public schools?

As Jeffrey M.R. Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell expertly write in The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools, critical pedagogy is a pragmatic pedagogy for sharing power with students and building a more democratic world. They describe their framework as:

“Focus on student production of knowledge (rather than consumption of knowledge)

Focus on collective agency.

Create opportunities for students to be public intellectuals.

Develop a pedagogy of the city (and community.)

Prioritize cariño [“authentic caring”, as in caring about an individual’s ability to create meaningful change in their lives as opposed to set school outcomes] in pedagogies and research methodologies.”

Resources for Getting Started

“Banking Concept of Education” by Paulo Freire
A fundamental text that defines the traditional power dynamics between teachers and students.

Teaching as an Act of Love: In Memory of Paulo Freire by Antonia Darder
An analysis of Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy in the modern era.

YouTube: “Education Liberates” featuring bell hooks and Bettina Love (1:30:00)
An overview of liberatory pedagogy, educating for Black youth, and the need for community-based activism.

Research: The “New Racism” of K-12 Schools: Centering Critical Research on Racism
A look at over one-hundred studies of race and education in the United States, identifying how racism seeps into curriculum, pedagogy, and policy.

Research: If you rise, I fall: Equality is prevented by the misperception that it harms advantaged groups
A study demonstrates that when equality is promoted, individuals with more resources react negatively despite numerous positive benefits for all.

Article: Students Should Lead Our Educations by Joyce Kim
A call to action for students to be involved in the educational process.

Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work by Jean Anyon
A summary of the “hidden curriculum” and how education changes our values based on its promoted systems.

Article: Silencing in Public Schools by Michelle Fine
Highlights how a public school is impacted by not allowing students to speak and shape their learning experience.

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