Critical Pedagogy in the 21st Century: An Introduction

Every educator will agree that teaching is a transformative act. It is not something we sit back and watch happen; it requires us to be highly conscious of our teaching practices. Both physical and digital learning spaces require us to participate in a certain politics of teaching – whether we are aware of it or not – and by practicing critical pedagogy, we can bring to light political powers that drive educational structures and our lives in general.

We educators have the important responsibility of shaping the lives of our students. Philosophically speaking, critical pedagogy combines learning with reflective and engaging thinking. It enables students to understand the connections among ideas, encourages questioning, and challenges all forms of injustice and alienation. Such teaching enlarges the students’ capacity to reflect on their own experiences and beliefs. Critical pedagogy provides students with the confidence to challenge or disrupt power imbalances that are present in educational settings. This is accomplished when students critically question common assumptions.

For example, allegations that students from low-income families in America are less likely to attend college might make you wonder what obstacles are preventing these students from pursuing a post-secondary education. Perhaps they’ve been excluded for economic reasons, or maybe they’ve faced  barriers from the very beginning of their schooling. These are valid concerns; however, a number of significantly larger questions remain unaddressed. Who is making these allegations? Why are they being made at this time? Who funds such research? Who publishes these findings? How do the students’ backgrounds affect their decision to attend college? How does this situation perpetuate America’s social hierarchy? This challenging of taken-for-granted assumptions allows for the expansion of social possibilities and academic success.

Many educators follow a conservative, traditional philosophy of teaching, one that is not conducive to the practice of critical pedagogy. Standardized testing and assessment, the arrangement of a typical classroom in which the teacher is the expert who simply imposes information on students, and the general notion that students come to school as passive recipients of content from an authoritative giver of knowledge perpetuates the control that the dominant and high-status individuals have over students. With regard to current educational practice, we must ask ourselves: who benefits?

Those in power maintain the status quo in an attempt to reap the benefits that come along with it – both economic and social. In other words, the status quo remains, and those who are oppressed, underrepresented, or dismissed as unimportant, begin to believe that they are inherently limited in all aspects of their lives. Instead of education being a process of healing, repairing, and transforming the world, it becomes a shaping, molding activity in which the lives of students gradually conform to a certain expected behaviour.1

The current way is not the only way and certainly not the correct way. As famous Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire believes, we must be aware of the world we live in and choose critical consciousness to bring to light the sociopolitical environment present in our schools and world. In doing so, teachers will provide the means to liberate their students. We teachers must encourage our students to be truly participatory in their education and in society. We must do away with the traditional view that learning is removed from the power struggle that is present, and assume that schools are powerful sites for expanding social possibilities by critically discussing the social injustice that is present in the world today.2

Critical pedagogy should be at the core of every teacher’s education program, and it should be the central aspect of schooling. Critical pedagogy, curiosity, and inquisitive exploration should lie at the heart of education. Education should encourage students to view themselves as agents of change in the growth towards a more socially just world.


1.  21st Century Schools, What is Critical Pedagogy? 2010.

2.  M.K. Smith, Paolo Freire: dialogue, praxis and education, 2002.

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