Equity & Diversity Opinion

Why Dewey Needs Freire, But Not Vice Versa; Critical Consciousness-Raising as a Form of Deeper Learning

By Contributing Blogger — July 24, 2017 7 min read
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This post is by Pooja Bakhai, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and former high school biology teacher in New York City public schools.

During the weeks following the election, deeper learning scholar Sarah M. Fine thoughtfully raised the issue of silos--in particular, the boundaries that exist between the field of deeper learning (which has ties to the inquiry/project-based progressive education movement) and the field of critical pedagogy (which has ties to the social justice education movement). She fittingly calls this the Dewey-Freire divide, and concludes that both worlds needed each other: the Deweyian world may consider incorporating more of an anti-oppression and justice oriented lens, whereas the Freirean world might provide students with more opportunities to creatively transform knowledge into action.

I agree that these worlds are artificially--and perhaps intentionally--siloed in academia. But from what I’ve learned and experienced, critical pedagogy doesn’t need Dewey. It’s already a form of deeper learning.

Before going any further, I’d like to define critical pedagogy as I understand it--from the perspective of Freire as well as the scholars who study his work. Critical pedagogy is a specific approach towards teaching and learning that facilitates critical consciousness-raising in the classroom. What is critical consciousness? Critical consciousness is one of Freire’s key outcomes and intentions for education. In their analysis of Freire’s work, Watts, Diemer & Voight break critical consciousness down into three related components: critical reflection, political efficacy, and critical action. It helps to think of it as a cycle, with bidirectional arrows between each component.

Critical reflection--the first component of critical consciousness--is the understanding, analysis, and moral rejection of systematic oppression. It’s what people usually think of when they imagine critical pedagogy: students gaining sociopolitical awareness of institutional oppression, and realizing that this oppression is not innate but rather socially constructed. Political efficacy is a person’s perceived ability to affect social and/or political change, or to dismantle oppressive systems. From the student’s perspective, as Watts writes, it’s the belief that “I can change the system.” The third component, critical action, is individual or collective action taken to address unjust social inequities. Taken together, these three components make up the Freirean concept of critical consciousness.

I’d like to highlight two things here. First, critical consciousness is not just the development of sociopolitical awareness. In theory--and, ideally, in practice--critical consciousness-raising work must also include space for students to develop their self-confidence, become equipped with the tools to practice critical action, and subsequently reflect on this action. Second, Freire and more contemporary critical pedagogy scholars routinely stress that critical consciousness cannot be developed through top-down teaching methods in which teachers simply transmit facts about structural oppression to their students. In other words, consciousness-raising work does not just prioritize a set of content--it also prioritizes a set of pedagogical practices.

In Chapter 2 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire explicitly names the banking concept of education--"where teacher is a depositor” and the “students are the depositories"--as “an instrument of oppression” in and of itself. Further, he proposes a problem-posing concept of education as the more just and effective pedagogical tool for liberation. More recently, in his book On Critical Pedagogy, Henry Giroux writes: “critical pedagogy becomes a project that stresses the need for teachers and students to actively transform knowledge rather than simply consume it.” Relatedly, Gloria Ladson-Billings explains that critical pedagogy is “designed to problematize teaching and encourage teachers to ask about the nature of student-teacher relationships, the curriculum, schooling, and society.” As I understand it, in critical pedagogy, both content (what is taught) and form (how it’s taught) are deeply valued.

However, when Sarah evaluates the question of whether Dewey needs Freire and vice versa, she compares an ideal deeper learning project called “Skin in the Game” to a subpar critical pedagogy project. The project she describes only partially qualifies as critical pedagogy because it disregards the value placed on transforming knowledge into action.

Of course, just like in the deeper learning field, there are considerable obstacles to actualizing theory in practice; this process is never perfect. Scholars in the field of critical pedagogy themselves recognize the challenge of changing the nature of the student-teacher relationship to one that is more egalitarian, as well as nurturing critical action and self-efficacy alongside critical reflection. At the same time, there are plenty of examples of critical consciousness-raising work done well in practice--and it is these that should be lifted up when considering whether the Freirean world really needs Dewey, or whether it simply needs to embody its own ideals more fully and completely. I’ll try to describe an example of what such a project might look like, and then re-consider the central question of this post.

Ethnic studies courses are often cited as important spaces for critical consciousness-raising work, by practitioners and scholars alike. One example of a powerful ethnic studies curriculum is from the Social Justice Education Project (SJEP), which emerged from a partnership between Chicano teachers and the University of Arizona to engage students at risk of dropping out of high school. Part of this curriculum engages students in youth participatory action research (YPAR). Students first learn ethnographic research methods, including participant observation, formal/informal interviewing, photo documentary, and videography. Then, they utilize these methodological tools to design and implement their own community-based research project. For this project, they pose questions relating to issues of equity in their own school, utilize the relevant methods to assess their questions, analyze their data, and present their findings to their school community and their families. They also work with school officials to determine the best strategies to promote educational justice and address the issues that surface during their research.

SJEP has had a positive impact on students’ more traditionally defined notions of academic success (state test scores--in which they exceeded their Anglo peers at the school) as well as their investment in other classes, in their future, and in their college-going potential. (As of 2012, all SJEP classes were suspended because of the state law ARS-15-112(A).) This is just one example of what problem-posing education looks like in practice. In this example, we see students as researchers, investigators, and leaders--the opposite of “depositories.” Teachers play more of a facilitating role, supporting students to answer the questions they come up with during their research. Additionally, we see that there is room not just for development of sociopolitical awareness regarding problems of injustice in the education system, but also a structure for which students can engage with critical action at the school level.

We can also connect this project to deeper learning--which Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine define as emerging at the intersection of mastery, identity and creativity. When students of color are posing questions about educational injustices they are experiencing in their schools, this connects directly to their identity. Creativity comes in with regards to their choice of methods and analysis, the iterative process of research, how they communicate their findings, and, ultimately, how they choose to take action. Students are not only learning the research process, including both quantitative (statistical analysis) as well as qualitative analysis (reading, writing, note-taking), but are also becoming experts in how to evaluate and act upon institutionalized injustice. These experiences will serve them well, especially given that their family and/or their communities likely experience injustice as a part of daily life.

A focus on form isn’t new to the critical pedagogy world; it is as essential (if not more so) than the content. As a result, my first exposure to more student-led initiatives like youth organizing and youth participatory action research in academia came from a class primarily focused on how to implement critical consciousness raising work inside schools. So, I was surprised to read that Deweyian philosophy and/or the deeper learning world could serve to push critical pedagogues in the right direction when it comes to how content is taught. In reality, it seems that critical pedagogy already prioritizes student voice, creativity, and action.

If the deeper learning community (mostly composed of white scholars and practitioners) wants to break down the silos that exist between their world and that of critical pedagogy, they should first recognize that critical pedagogy done well is necessarily deeper learning.

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