Critical Pedagogy: The Art & Power of the Question

By Patricia Reedy

September 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

When asked their goals for students, teachers often respond, “I want them to be critical thinkers.” What exactly does this mean? Do our classroom and studio practices support the development of critical thinkers?

Critical pedagogy theory developed from the Brazilian educational philosopher Paulo Freire, who based his entire education career on his desire to provide greater opportunity for the poor and oppressed people of the world. Freire described the western system of education as a banking system: teachers deposited knowledge into students, to be withdrawn upon request. To Freire, this system perpetuated the status quo; students were not invited to participate, and standard canons of knowledge were considered “universal, excellent and neutral.” In contrast, critical pedagogy views canons of knowledge as “historical choices” often emerging from the perspective of privileged societal groups and ignoring the input and achievement of “non-elite groups such as women, minorities, homosexuals and working people.” [Shor p. 32] Thus critical pedagogy is at the root of multicultural, feminist, and queer studies, which aim for social change.

Problem posing—a main tenet of critical pedagogy—considers all subject matter “products to be questioned rather than universal wisdom to be accepted.” [Shor. p. 32]

Problem posing stems from the work of Dewey and Piaget, both of whom urged active, inquiring, learner-centered education. “Problem-posing focuses on the power relations in the classroom, in the institution, in the formation of standard canons of knowledge, and in society at large.” [Shor p. 32]

In dance teaching we often replicate patterns and practices we learned unquestioningly from our teachers. Why do we hold onto the barre in ballet class? Why do so many modern classes start on the floor and move to standing? Why do many classes focus on learning a combination choreographed by the teacher? Does that combination integrate the learning of the day, week, semester, or does the curriculum logically lead to a deeper understanding of the combination? Critical pedagogy neither implies that habits and traditions are unsound practices or that dance teachers should do something different, nor advocates doing nothing until we find the perfect thing. It does suggest that all curricular practices are open to inquiry.

Examples arise in settings where most children are not of one’s own cultural background. We make assumptions about how children learn, what children are like at different ages and developmental stages, and what is relevant to them. Some teachers painstakingly create dance lessons to music they do not know, understand, or perhaps even enjoy, thinking students will be more open to material set to familiar music. Other teachers learn the latest popular dance form or style, then repackage it for their students. Yet often the students already have their own very active, expressive, and committed involvement in the genre. I’m not suggesting there is anything inherently wrong with these well-intentioned practices, but from a critical pedagogy perspective the underlying assumptions remain unexamined and opaque.

In my workshops and seminars I try to embrace a critical pedagogy approach. Initially, it was difficult; critical pedagogy seemed too complex, challenging to the status quo, even dangerous. I feared that people would not distinguish between criticism and critical thinking and thus would be turned off. Today I believe anyone who sees teaching and learning as possibilities for creating real change can readily embrace critical pedagogy. The following problem-posing practices, summarized from the work of Ira Shor, Paulo Freire, and bell hooks, are relatively easy and will inspire you to deeper inquiry through your teaching practice.

(1) Begin each learning sequence by asking students what they want to know about the subject. Sometimes this involves accessing prior knowledge, but it is more than that. You want to know what questions they have; you want to engage them as inquirers. (2) Incorporate their questions into the syllabus. You aren’t trying to answer the questions yourself, but welcoming students to enter the investigation. Taking ownership of one’s learning is a very powerful tool of critical pedagogy. (3) Identify your perspective lens—historically, culturally, or otherwise—name what affects your curricular choices. This might mean simply to acknowledge you’re making a choice, not speaking some time-honored truth. You may continue to offer traditions, texts and expertise from the dominant culture, but by acknowledging sources, you create space for multiple perspectives; you invite students to share power with you and the field’s “authorities.” (4) Take action. As a revolutionary, Freire believed that teaching must lead to political action. He felt a teacher must draw students beyond stating and arguing their ideas into action. In our field, the action might be less political, but is no less important. It can be an assignment requiring an active demonstration of students’ current thinking. They can create and perform original choreography or create variations of dances they’ve learned, or they can notate, describe, or critique their learning—by investigating ideas in their world context, they gain a sense of agency and action.

In terms of popular genre, if you love hip hop, go ahead and teach it—and contextualize it. Know and provide its history; articulate its personal importance to you. Ask students what they want to know about it. Pose challenging questions yourself; for example: Given the history of hip hop and its relationship to personal expression, what does it mean to learn a routine in class and try to do things in a particular “right way”? All curricula can and should be questioned. The most challenging (and therefore my favorite) question I’ve been asked in my own teaching was in a Creative Dance Teaching seminar I taught ten years ago. A brilliant student asked, “Are you sure, Patricia, that all dances need a beginning, middle, and end? What about post-modernism? What about the dance of life?” Once I would have been put off, feeling I had to figure this out, justify it, be the expert. But critical pedagogy let me instead use these challenging questions as focal points for my syllabi.

Additional reading about critical pedagogy:
-Chomsky, N. 2000. Chomsky on MisEducation. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
-Dewey, J. 1934. Art as Experience. New York: Capricorn.
-Freire, P. 2004. Pedagogy of Hope. London: Continuum Press.
-Freire, P. 1987. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum Press.
-Freire, P. and Faundez, A. 1989. Learning to Question: A Pedagogy of Liberation. New York: Continuum Press.
-Giroux, H. 1992. Border Crossings. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
-Hooks, b. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.
-Kanpol, B. 1999. Critical Pedagogy. Westport, CN: Bergin & Garvey.
– McLaren, P. and Kincheleo, J. 2007. Critical Pedagogy: Where Are We Now? New York: Peter Lang Publihing.
– Ottey, S. 1996. “Critical Pedagogical Theory and the Dance Educator.” Arts Education Policy Review 2 (May), 122–131.
– Shor, I. 1992. Empowering Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

This article appeared in the September 2008 issue of In Dance.

Patricia Reedy is the Executive Director of Creativity & Pedagogy at Luna Dance Institute. A lifelong learner, she enjoys sharing her inquiry process with others.