What is Critical Education?

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 images-1sight 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.

Rebecca Maxted uses a curious metaphor, that of the art form cubism, which as a principle tried to show all sides of a thing at once (so that the ‘thing’ could be seen differently, present as all of itself and not just a representational form).  Whatever we do, if we can do that, including the bits of the thing no-one wants to see, we are engaged in critical education. And surely A complicated Cubist paintingthat’s a definition of diversity too? As Trevor Gordon memorably says (6), we need to know all our subject, all of its histories. And part of doing that is blurring the lines between disciplnes – Maxted’s interviewees call for this as do the posthumanist approaches of Rosi Braidotti and others.  How can it even be that humanism (humanities?) divorced education from politics, for example?  From community studies? From psychology?  In fact, it didn’t ever separate from the latter.  The canon of educational theory persists in being dominated by dead white male American psychologists and the clear demarcation lines don’t allow us to see one ‘discipline’ being favoured over another.  A refusal to view education as inherently political is a direct ancestor of today’s disempowered workforce.



So why indeed would those in power want any of the above?  Operating as we do within an education ‘system’ that has been enslaved to capitalism, it’s true that a world of pain awaits any one of us who wants to clear a bit of floor space and dance differently.  The heckling starts before we’ve even thrown down the talc.  Professional loneliness is a very real thing – I experienced it for years and I wouldn’t want to go back there.  Maxted’s chapter calls in the end for the establishment of a critical education forum for further (and adult) education – and makes a very clear point that critical pedagogy should counter a policy of deliberate fragmentation with a collectivist approach.  It’s my hope that Tutor Voices might just be that forum, if we can work rhizomatically so that the energy and power of the whole is not in the hands of a few.  Being involved with Tutor Voices from the start, I can tell you that the commitment to organising democratically is a genuine one; I see spaces to dance being already carved out across the country and online.  Get involved (7) and let’s think together about how we can grow this appetite to a critical mass.
Logo of Tutor Voices

(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 tutorvoices@gmail.com or join our vibrant Facebook group.  Website to follow soon.


Author: TeachNorthern

We are hard working educators with passionate interest in Teaching for a Social Purpose. Everything we've learned is through observing colleagues and students, all of whom are committed to changing the world. And reading interesting stuff. We work at The Northern College in Barnsley and its mission (and thirty-eight year history) of social transformation makes it an ideal base to face the challenges of teaching adults in 21st century England.

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