Critical Pedagogy Essay

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Critical pedagogy is a philosophy of education that seeks to help students understand what they learn by drawing on students’ life experiences and applying learned concepts to real-world contexts. This approach attempts to empower students by increasing their critical understanding. Engagement with critical pedagogy is essential to the future development of criminal justice knowledge because a lack of critical skills excludes many from the political process and results in an acceptance of the status quo.

According to Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921–97), developing a critical consciousness is important to all. It is important to those who are marginalized and discriminated against in society because if they merely learn to adapt to their discrimination they will continue to be oppressed. The development of conscientization among marginalized people is therefore central to a critical criminology. Developing a critical consciousness is important also to those who will shape criminal justice policy in the future if they are to be creators of change and not mere spectators of the existing order.

Reading, writing, listening, and speaking are elements of the educative process and can be done are combined to create meaning is important for participation, through critical engagement, with the messy world in which people live. In modern, complex times, characterized by sociopolitical change, many educators have drawn on practices that are concerned with social difference and social transformation to engage students and foster social justice. A critical pedagogy is important in allowing for the acknowledgement of the teacher’s knowledge and its limitations. It also allows for the authenticity of student experience to be acknowledged and shows how both teacher and student can learn together. Critical pedagogy is used to inform culturally relevant teaching about social justice.

Freire’s Critical Understanding: Conscientization

Freire became closely associated with critical pedagogy and social justice following the publication of Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1970. Freire saw teaching as a political act rooted in challenging systems of oppression. Freire’s concept of conscientization was developed as a tool to help perceive social, political, and economic contradictions and to take action against oppression. He argued that education is political and that the central task of educators is to help students gain a critical understanding of their own reality.

This concept of conscientization highlights for educators that many of the learning opportunities available to students in mainstream universities merely require passive, uncritical acceptance. Whether in the lecture hall or in the seminar classroom, students can “opt out” of active learning and so fail to engage at a higher level in their studies. Freire saw this as education that treated students as receptacles into which deposits were made by the educator. This “banking” concept of education does not allow students to become curators of knowledge. Freire saw that an effective way to develop critical thinking is to place the student in a role that requires discussion of real-life problems. This is far away from the orthodoxy of the lecture where students are expected to passively listen to the words of the “expert” or the traditional assessment where the learner is expected merely to reproduce the viewpoint of the “expert.”

Freire’s concept of conscientization underpins the ability to teach criminal justice issues from a position of critical praxis (the combination of theory, methods, and action).

The processes involved in debating real-life problems provide the basis for developing critical thinking skills. Most students can perform well at the level of description but a critical-collaborative-communication model is necessary to exercise higher-level skills and move beyond the descriptive and into the analytical. Moreover, students from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds will tend to have different life experiences, often referred to as cultural capital, and will approach education from a particular direction using their own package of resources. Valuing the standpoint of the students encourages them to take an active approach to their studies. Freire saw active learning was a way of being. Subjective factors such as opinion, attitudes, experience, and values influence learning: This is life and this is valuable.

Scaffolding Conscientization, or Learning to Question

Critical pedagogy that strives toward social justice incorporates a broad range of sociological dimensions, including attention to gender, race, class, physical ability, and sexual orientation. A constructivist approach asserts that meaning is constructed by the learner, and not imparted by the teacher. This does not mean an abdication of responsibility by the teacher, but it does constitute a critique of the “banking” model of education in which the teacher is seen as an all knowing depositor of knowledge. Inspired in part by Freire, bell hooks has argued that teachers must be actively involved in, and committed to, the process of self-actualization if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students. This is not easy as such pedagogy requires attention to emotions and feelings as a way of constructing a sense of community in the classroom. hooks pioneered a culturally-relevant, transgressive education for social justice. Her interest lay in the interlacing dynamics of ethnicity, gender, culture, and class and how this related to the whole person. Grounded in a black woman’s involvement with feminism, hooks saw no hierarchy of discrimination. All aspects of power are seen as interconnected: Gender, ethnicity, and class distinctions are each as important as any other.

Connecting Critical Pedagogy to Justice

Examples can help understand the importance of critical pedagogy to teaching justice. Examples can be found within and outside of the academy. Raising awareness by visiting sites of demonstration can be a form of critical pedagogy. Examples range from the historical (e.g., students in the 1980s visiting Greenham Common in the United Kingdom to understand the protest about the storage of missiles) to the contemporary (e.g., a peace camp visit organized by criminologist Karen McElrath of Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 2012). Some of the former students who had visited Greenham Common are now involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests, and without doubt the students who recently visited the Corrib Gas Project, on the west coast of County Mayo, Ireland, will have a raised level of awareness that will inform their future understanding of such issues. Students already aware of social and economic inequalities within their community can gain much from such authentic approaches to education.

Critical pedagogy is also applied outside the setting of formal higher education, and literacy projects in prisons can help open the door to futures previously unimagined. Literacy levels among the prison population in any country are generally lower than among the general population, and the literature on the ability of critical pedagogy to inform teaching behind bars is compelling for any analysis of social justice.


  1. De Los Reyes, E. and P. A. Gozemba. Pockets of Hope: How Students and Teachers Change the World. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 2002.
  2. Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury, 1970.
  3. The Freire Project. (Accessed August 2013).
  4. Furman, G. C. and D. A. Gruenewald. “Expanding the Landscape of Social Justice: A Critical Ecological Analysis.” Educational Administration Quarterly, v. 40/1 (February 2004).
  5. hooks, bell. Teaching Community. A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  6. O’Neill, M., P. Woods, and M. Webster. “New Arrivals: Participatory Action Research, Imagined Communities and Social Justice.” Journal of Social Justice, v.32 (2004).

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