Everyone knows criticality is a good thing, right?
The concept of criticality, or critical thinking, critical education, critical pedagogy (depending on your perspective) is rarely spoken of as a bad thing. Who would admit that students shouldn’t be encouraged to think for themselves? In a desensitised society, where the unspeakable has begun to be heard, it’s perhaps only a matter of time before some Government minister (of any hue (1)) dares say this out loud, but no-one has done so yet.
Sometimes, in education, in more honest spaces, critical thinking isn’t spoken of at all; in many other places it appears in relation to levels of assessment as another stick to beat teachers with (“Not enough criticality!”) It’s a Dancing Princesses thing, an Anti-Hero thing, a Tutor Voices thing – the empirical certainty that critical education has world-changing properties. As with anything in this representational world, where descriptions of a thing become twisted to suit every agenda until the sight of the thing is lost, getting the point across the whole adult education sector is not easy. Many people don’t expect to hear real honesty in this day and age. They don’t want to hear that education equals change.
Change (or transformation) is at the heart of critical education, it is its heart. Whether you call it critical pedagogy, social purpose (as we at Northern College and our WEA colleagues do), or, as Rebecca Maxted terms it (2), social justice, doesn’t matter. It pares back to the same Freirean (3) place: students and tutors working as equals to question their world as a prelude to direct and affirmative political action. This – inevitably – terrifies those who hold conventional power, whether that’s ‘the patriarchy’, Nicky Morgan or your line manager.
The smoke and mirrors surrounding questions of how to ‘do’ critical education is evidence of how obfuscatingly scared many people are, because actually it’s quite straightforward (4). Despite that, I’m writing about critical pedagogy for the first time today because I’ve needed the cojones of Rebecca Maxted to inspire me. I’ve allowed myself to over-complicate what is simple. I’ve listened to ‘The Man’.
In practice, critical pedagogy looks like an energising exchange between teacher and students, who are operating as equal thinkers (not sure about that? check your privilege and the Learning for Democracy proposals (5)). It might be structured as a Thinking Environment or Community Philosophy Inquiry, or it could be a discussion between curious thinkers. Maxted’s research found that “attitude, personality and values” (2014, p.43) were more important than technique, in both tutor and student; plus the gumption to go off-piste or off-site. An important principle is that no-one is neutral – not teacher, not student and certainly not policy maker – at the same time critical pedagogy is not what I witnessed in the bad old days of my teaching career, which was essentially political indoctrination. It can’t more powerfully be defined than as thinking for yourself, from the foundation of your own values, with a healthy dash of humility thrown in. Yes, we sometimes can be wrong.
The formation of critical questions leads to a lot of head-scratching; after all, professional coaches have earned fortunes from the creation of questioning frameworks. This I did work out a little while ago…just asking ‘Why?’ (repeatedly) or, sometimes, “What are you assuming?” will do the trick; given practice and the generative, non-interrupting attention of other thinkers, your brain will work all that out for itself.
(1) Tristram Hunt?
(2) Maxted, R. (2014) ‘Critical Pedagogy in FE’ in Daley, M., Orr, K., and Petrie, J. (2014). Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. London. Trentham Books.
(3) The Freire Project (2012) Looking through Paolo’s Glasses: Political Clarity, Courage and Humility. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4jPZe-cZgc
(4) I’m not saying easy. The school system ensures that few people enter adult education knowing how to think for themselves.
(5) Click Learning for Democracy Proposals to download their wallchart.
(6) Trevor’s lecture here (sorry, only available to staff and students with a University of Huddersfield login, I couldn’t find anything freely online).
(7) Email firstname.lastname@example.org or join our vibrant Facebook group. Website to follow soon.