Review: The Art of Critical Pedagogy

Chris McNutt
May 18, 2020
The Art of Critical Pedagogy provides an overview of the concept of critical pedagogy, showcases why it is needed in urban contexts, and provides three case studies of what it actually looks like in practice.

The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools is an exemplary work written by experts in the field:

The Art of Critical Pedagogy provides an overview of the concept of critical pedagogy, showcases why it is needed in urban contexts, and provides three case studies of what it actually looks like in practice. The unique context to urban American schools, combined with actual real-world examples, separate this work from the mostly theoretical books in this field. It sets up a hopeful plan for the future, yet sets a realistic view of urban schools:

Given the overwhelming body of evidence that reveals decades of funding and structural inequalities between schools in high- and low-income communities, it is illogical to compare schools across these communities and then decry urban schools as failures. When one set of schools is given the resources necessary to succeed and another group of schools is not, we have predetermined winners and losers. In this scenario, failure is not actually the result of failing…Urban schools are not broken; they are doing exactly what they are designed to do.

Duncan-Andrade and Morrell demonstrate that traditional reform measures rarely work and that to truly envision radical change, we must shift educational practices that reform social inequities at large. In other words, we shouldn’t be playing by the typical “game of school” if we have any hope in changing the status quo. The system must be flipped on its head.

As stated,

Perpetual urban school failure is tolerated because deep down our nation subscribes to the belief that someone has to fail in school. In fact, this quasi-Darwinian belief system is built into most schools through the largely unchallenged pedagogical system of grading and testing that by its very design guarantees failure for some.

The Art of Critical Pedagogy outlines how our view of school is shaped on false promises and a wool pulled over our eyes. Many go through school and believe it is fair, just system because opportunity exists. However, the “meritocratic” society that school promotes through competition and rewards means that those who ultimately prove successful are mostly those who act like people already in power. This “social lottery” — as described in the book — demonstrates how the system is built to intentionally perpetuate the inequalities and “opportunity” for success that all schools preach.

This issue leads to, in my opinion, the strongest lines in the book — quoted at length:

We could cite a litany of research data and evidentiary claims to support the arguments that school is a rigged game, but what would be the point? How long must we continue to argue over common sense? Poverty and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is the enemy of every nation. We must not be distracted from this point. Our nation’s least desirable stations (prison, military, low-semi-skilled labor) are overwhelmingly and disproportionately occupied by residents emerging from our poorest communities. The only difference between this nation and those that openly support a social caste system is the de facto nature through which we achieve these outcomes. At some point we must come to to grips with the fact that we are not a nation of opportunity for all but a nation built upon grand narratives of opportunity for all. It is no accident that for centuries our non-white and poor communities have been disproportionately represented among our perpetually poor and poorly educated…We must address this structural reality if we are ever to develop a system of education that is meaningful for economically disenfranchised communities.

After defining the problem, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell lead the reader through critical praxis, demonstrating effective measures to lessen the problem as a classroom teacher through real world examples. Starting with an overview of critical pedagogy from Freire to hooks, and including further non-traditional developers such as Lorde and Tijerina, the authors then make an important point of connecting critical pedagogy to practice. They state that it’s incredibly important we focus on both academic skills and critical consciousness, recognizing that academic skills are still very important for success in our world. They speak of the importance of critical reading and writing that illuminates our culture and honors the tradition of ethnic and cultural studies to reflect the voices of all people.

The core of the book are four case studies:

Each of these case studies offer valuable information on the how of progressive practice. Too often, progressive educators write and speak about theory and mindset — which is half the battle — while not portraying enough what the practice looks like. Although it is impossible to demonstrate education in every context, the particular focus on urban schools in the United States allows the authors to demonstrate ideas that could be incorporated into one’s practice.

In case study #1, students in an English course at East Bay High School were provided readings, writings, discussion prompts, and film studies beyond the traditional “core” whitewashed canon. Many resources are listed, from analyzing the state of the school (and school inequalities at large) in Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol, to pairing rap and hip-hop to canonical poetry, to a collective viewing of A Time to Kill to look at race and justice in society.

In my view, these discussions are needed beyond urban contexts. As someone who teaches in a magnet school that sees students from all contexts, it is both fascinating and horrifying how little each student knows of each others’ background. These non-canonical lessons ensure that all students under the social and racial inequities of our society, providing a framework for future understanding of our world at large (in addition to lens such as gender identity and feminism.) Lessons such as these are more appropriate to the standards presented to teachers. Although we may see “diverse viewpoints” or similar verbiage in state standards, rarely do many go beyond the traditional white canon, or choose beyond the “safe” texts (e.g. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream.) Therefore, these units can offer ideas for one’s planning of any course.

The subject of case study #2 is especially interesting: critical pedagogy through sports. Duncan-Andrade explains how him and Morrell used sports as a tool for change:

The basketball gym is probably not the first place most people would go to see critical pedagogy in an urban high school. Sports, particularly revenue sports such as basketball and football, are often criticized by liberal thinkers as tools for the maintenance of conservative and patriarchal value systems. There is plenty of validity in those critiques. However, the potential of using sports as a vehicle for resistance, empowerment, and collective change should receive more scholarly attention.

Duncan-Andrade demonstrates how they used one-on-one meetings with their players to identify where students saw themselves underestimated. Through a focus on self-reflection and relationship building, they were able to appreciate each student’s organic intellectualism. With this change in mindset, many students were able to apply their new-found self-care to academic growth, while simultaneously engaging in serious discussions on inequity in students’ lives.

The coaches had each student agree to the Definite Dozen before signing on as a player:

“Discipline yourself so that no one else has to.”
To stay in the program:
1. Be responsible (sit in the front rows in your classes)
2. Be respectful (treat people the way you want to be treated)
3. Be honest (leaders don’t make excuses; they make improvements)
4. Be loyal (handle success like you handle failure)
To play here:
5. Work (every day, everywhere)
6. Play smart (correct your own mistakes)
7. Team before yourself (above all else, character matters)
8. Winning attitude (doubters never win; winners never doubt)
To be successful here:
9. Communicate (be coachable)
10. Accept your role (know your role and don’t step out of it for personal glory)
11. Influence your opponent (make people leave their comfort zone)
12. Be a competitor (never, ever give up)

These questions mirror what DuBois saw as a “worthy education”: self-respect, self-realization, and consciousness.

Case study #3 highlights a five year study with high schoolers at South City High School. A random group of Latino and African American 9th grade students were chosen. The Futures project was part-intervention, part-academic success coaching, and part-building critical sociologists of structural inequality. An entire class called Futures was developed in the Social Studies department, which centered on educational justice and recognizing a students’ own educational equality. This class was highly involved and a perfect exemplar of critical practice and experiential education. For example, seniors worked directly with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to file class action lawsuits against the state of California for inequitable educational circumstances. This intervention led students to not only become more academically involved, but also leaders in social justice — equipping them with tools to ultimately demand better conditions as opposed to conform to the hegemonic culture to achieve.

These case studies wrap up in current research and practice in case study #4, which centers on youth participatory action research — where college students are apprenticed as researchers to study educational justice. Duncan-Andrade and Morrell outline how to set up a participatory action research program and then, how to connect said program to be framed around critical pedagogy. For example,

Participants in the action research process become researchers about their daily lives in hopes of developing realistic solutions for dealing with the problems that they believe need to be addressed. In the project discussed in this chapter, for example, students worked to develop realistic solutions to the structural and cultural barriers to academic achievement in the urban schools they attended. By assuming active and full participation in the research process, people have the opportunity to collect and analyze meaningful data themselves; even more, they possess the ability to utilize the information they collect and analyze to mobilize, organize, and implement individual or collective action.

Morrell adds why this practice is needed:

The next generation of critical scholarship will need to push the theoretical parameters of our work as the scholarship of prior generations has done. To develop a complete grounded theory of critical pedagogy in urban education, we will need many more of examples of the possibilities and dilemmas that accompany the transition from theory to practice.
Pictured: W.E.B. DuBois

The work is wrapped up in demonstrating a pan-ethnic framework toward education, instilling the practices of critical pedagogy within the standards. This framework is defined 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.

Acting as a primer on critical pedagogy in urban schools, The Art of Critical Pedagogy is must-read for anyone working in this context. Yet, the work is also important for all educators regardless of environment. While the book is centered on urban youth, it is important for all youth to understand economic inequalities — and each of these case studies and examples can be modified to fit a greater narrative toward social justice across all communities. In terms of defining critical pedagogy, this work does an excellent job in breaking down the often academically-jargonized theoretical frameworks, similar to our previously recommended work, We Got This by Cornelius Minor. We recommend The Art of Critical Pedagogy as a perfect example of what progressive education could mean for public schools.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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