The ideology of teaching: critical pedagogy’s insights into the role of education

Teacher and students b/w

“Teaching is not a neutral act and the sooner we stop pretending that it is, the sooner we can begin creating a more democratic classroom.” – Me (now)

After finishing my undergrad, I hastily jumped into a Masters in Education. A degree in education is pretty much like you might expect – learning how to manage and teach the same types of classrooms we all remember growing up. The education I received mostly focused on all the different aspects of classroom management and only briefly discussed theory, with very few assigned readings on pedagogy (the theory of education). They wanted to create teachers that fit perfectly into our society’s education system, which is not to fault them – we went to this school because we wanted jobs as teachers, not to become revolutionaries.

Unfortunately for me, in the little theory they taught, they happened to bring up Paolo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which introduces and explains the theory of critical pedagogy. This is very much a book and theory that does not vibe with the current model of education we’re all used to, but since it’s one of the most influential books in pedagogy, they had little choice but to at least mention it. Ever since learning about critical pedagogy, I haven’t looked at teaching the same. And while I don’t necessarily agree with the specific teaching methods of critical pedagogy, I believe that its most important insight is into to the non-neutral political role of education.

Although Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was not required reading, I read it on my own time and couldn’t resist learning more about critical pedagogy and Freire in general. During Freire’s childhood, his family went from comfortably middle class in Brazil to becoming completely impoverished during The Great Depression – forcing them out of their home and into the favelas. It was here that Freire gained class consciousness and saw first hand the contradictions and oppression built into capitalist society. It was on this foundation that critical pedagogy – a dialogue-based theory of education that posits that teaching is a political act rather than a neutral one – was built.

I agreed wholeheartedly with this theory and took it with me for the remainder of my Master’s and beyond. The worst part was that after reading this book I had to go back to my regular classes, only now critical pedagogy had removed the lens of ideology and exposed teaching for the political act it was. Reflecting on Freire’s writings, I realized that I was not only being trained to teach and promote a politicized education system, I was teaching and promoting the politics of the ruling class and the capitalist world order.

Freire’s critical pedagogy proposes the idea of conscientizacao, or critical consciousness, which is a specific type of critical thinking that, through student-teacher dialogue, reveals the social and political aspects of the students’ (and teachers’, for that matter) lives. According to Freire, the only way to promote critical consciousness is through the dialogue-based learning of critical pedagogy. This means the teacher accepts that the student has their own knowledge which they bring to the classroom – a knowledge which the teacher does not have. Then, through dialogue, they can create new ideas and new paths of knowledge. Critical pedagogy is mainly used to help oppressed students locate themselves and their class position within society and, ultimately, to liberate themselves. This involves helping the student come up with generative themes, which are the student’s perceptions on how they relate to the objective situation of their life. By actively thinking about their place in society, they critically analyze their situation and fight to make it better.

Our education system claims to value critical thinking, but, in reality, it stifles it. It is a one-sided exchange where the teacher passes knowledge to the student who is to accept it uncritically. It enforces capitalist realism at all times because it offers few alternatives or radical criticisms of capitalist society. It makes children mimic the cycle of working life by implementing a rigid structure of time management, performance reviews, discipline, and conformity. It promotes individualism over collectivism and only encourages change and progress on the individual level rather than seeking institutional fixes. And it never, ever, under any circumstances addresses class as the fundamental driver of history nor does it step outside of society and allow the student, as well as the teacher, to critically analyze their position within it. It assumes without critique that the capitalist status quo is fixed and that no new generation could or should challenge it.

Both Freire and critical pedagogy were scoffed at by my colleagues and professors, who saw him and his teachings as naive and unrealistic. Some agreed with what he said but viewed it as a foreign theory not compatible with American or Canadian society. Even when I went on to work at schools, the sentiment remained the same – older teachers shook their heads at younger ones who thought that they could do things differently and those older teachers tended to be right. Even if a teacher wanted to implement a dialogue-based critical pedagogy in their classroom, they would receive major push back from the administration and would ultimately be forced to conform to the curriculum. Unfortunately, change coming from one individual teacher is a story for movies, not real life. At the end of the day, you have a curriculum to teach and tests to administer and time is in short supply. That requires structuring your classroom into a sort of factory designed to produce the best performance results.

This is where the political nature of teaching starts to appear, because the teacher is exactly replicating for the students the reality of adult working life. The teacher is forced to promote the status quo in the classroom and assumes the role of the oppressor. Under this authoritarian structure, those who criticize the loudest become the most oppressed. A student who dares defy the social/educational order is punished on an escalating scale. On the other hand, those who most effectively submit and conform to the rules are most rewarded by the oppressor/teacher – both in grades and in preferential treatment. In effect, the very concept of critical thinking has been not only discouraged but criminalized. The students are forced to submit to the education system – which mimics the prevailing social order – and they are beaten down until they accept no alternative. Knowledge is then passed down from the teacher to the student with no room for returned dialogue from the student beyond points of clarification. The social and political system is replicated by the teacher within the student, never allowing for the synthesis of new knowledge.

Freire calls this type of teaching the banking model, because the teacher simply deposits knowledge into the student who must then memorize and repeat (in other words, withdraw) the same deposited knowledge. There is no student-teacher dialogue inherent to the educational process, which could have the potential of synthesizing new ideas. This is particularly harmful in a situation where a teacher promoting the prevailing social order is teaching a student who is actively oppressed by the prevailing social order, such as a student who is a member of any number of economically marginalized groups. This patronizingly assumes that the oppressor holds the keys to freedom and that the oppressed must receive the oppressor’s knowledge uncritically and, in turn, be “freed” by the oppressor. On the contrary, according to Freire, the oppressed must be included in the dialogue for their freedom. Critical pedagogy is a theory of liberation and it is feared by authoritarians. It is no wonder that Brazil’s fascistic president Jair Bolsanaro proudly proclaimed that he would “enter the Ministry of Education with a flamethrower and get Paulo Freire out of there.”

Here in Canada, this patronizing banking model of education has its roots in residential schools, where the goal was to forcefully assimilate the Indigenous population into the British way of life and to “take the Indian out of the child.” Although the last residential school was closed in 1996, the practice of educated, wealthy, and “Westernized” teachers delivering the knowledge and virtues of liberal capitalism to Indigenous folks continues to this day. It is no surprise that Indigenous people continue to suffer, with their sovereignty stripped from them and their children taught that there is no alternative. By teaching in this way, we continue the process of colonization. Although a lot of our politicians and leaders aren’t as overtly racist as they once were, the goal is still to assimilate the Indigenous population into the “Western” way of life and this goal is reflected in education. Instead of engaging in constructive dialogue and crafting new ideas, and ultimately a new world, using the combined knowledge of both the student and teacher, teachers instead propagate the one-sided knowledge of the oppressor.

Even when we step away from the more explicitly oppressive forms of education, we can still see the ideological foundation of the education system. Regardless of how you feel about liberal capitalism, this is unquestionably the ideology that is being propagated in the classroom. To let it exist uncritically is to undermine the very democracy it claims to value. Students, and people in general, don’t merely exist in the world as passive observers, they transform the world by living in it. If we don’t critically engage with the very foundations of our society then we effectively neuter our democracy, making it impotent to change and allowing for the same cycles of the status quo to be repeated in perpetuity. If we are being honest with each other then we must implement and promote self-critique and social critique through constantly evolving student-teacher dialogue in the classroom.

The way that critical thinking is currently included in curriculums is completely dishonest to the concept of critical thinking. There is no room for the student to contribute to the critical dialogue since the discourse has already been predetermined by the curriculum. When learning about critical thinking, students are presented prepared passages and asked to think critically about them by locating logical fallacies, biases, and hidden information. The teacher, having been given pre-approved passages for students to read, already holds the answer key to the conclusions that the students are supposed to be arriving at “critically” on their own. This is not critical thinking, this is simply the recreation of socially agreeable conclusions that offer no new thought. This banking model of critical thinking is completely sterile and instead of producing dialogue, the teacher simply reads from the curriculum and tells the student exactly how to think critically and which conclusions to come to. Critical thinking is not a set of pre-screened passages to be memorized, it is a powerful technique for engaging with the world – a decentralized way of learning. It can’t simply be taught by teacher to student, it has to be crafted by both at the same time.

In almost all of the classrooms I’ve worked in, ranging from lower class students in specialized classrooms to upper class students in private schools, I saw critical thinking snuffed out in its cradle. Some of the brightest and most critically minded students had the lowest grades and were punished the most mercilessly. Their inquisitive minds and desire for creativity were not compatible with the classroom or the education system. For the sake of classroom order and obedience, these students were forced to conform through discipline and, in some cases, through amphetamine based focus drugs. It is impossible to blame any individual actor for these students’ issues – the teachers had a strict curriculum to teach, the principals had results to produce, and the parents wanted a “normal” child and were rarely ever given the full picture of their child’s potential. Only when you took these students aside and engaged them in dialogue did their brilliance shine through, a brilliance that displayed itself as mischief and disobedience in the rigid confines of the classroom.

The current education system allows for little to no dialogue between student and teacher. Education needs dialogue built into its foundation and radical changes need to occur if this is to happen. Our teaching practices have been full of stubbornness and empty of humility. Our education system is an elitist pedagogy where the student is to have no say in their development, instead being forced into a rigid set of expectations and limitations. In effect, we are making the students develop a fear of freedom. This change needs to start with teachers, who are a powerful force when they collectivize. It’s easy for teachers to give up and give in to an education system that, deep down, they know is broken, but trying to escape conflict only preserves the status quo. With critical pedagogy, we can forge new paths of knowledge together with our students.