Critical Pedagogy


Social, political, and cultural conditions that contribute to power structures and potential imbalances

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of interpretations and actions
  • Knowing is … EITHER mindless acting OR conscientious acting
  • Learner is … EITHER a pawn OR a change agent
  • Learning is … EITHER becoming acculturated OR becoming more aware
  • Teaching is … learning alongside (i.e., interrogating and co-participating)




Proponents of Critical Pedagogy see formal education as inherently political – meaning that teaching and learning cannot be dissociated from issues of social justice. Grounded in Marxist critical theory, the overarching aim of Critical Pedagogy is the development of a “critical consciousness” – that is, awareness of the often-invisible connections between the oppressions they experience and the social, political, and cultural conditions that surround those oppressions. Such critical consciousness, it is hoped, might contribute to positive cultural transformation through social critique and political action. Associated discourses include:
  • Conscientization (Critical Consciousness; Consciousness Raising; conscientização, in Portuguese) (Paulo Freire; 1970s) – the development of the ability to recognize and the inclination to interrupt any type of oppression or contradiction – social, political, cultural, economic, and so on.
  • Wide-Awakeness (Maxine Greene, 1980s) – the sense of agency and self-worth that comes with an alertness to, critical awareness of, and engagement with one’s world
  • Woke (African-American Vernacular English, 1940s) – originally a political term, but now widely invoked in education, Woke refers to an alertness to injustice, especially racism
The constructs of Conscientization, Wide-Awakeness, and Woke are often described, defined, as designed to counter:
  • Brainwashing (Coercive Persuasion; Menticide; Mind Control; Re-EducationThought Reform) (Edward Hunter, 1950s) – a collection of “teaching” techniques, ranging from the subtle/gentle to the imposing/abusive, that are designed to affect a subject’s opinions, beliefs, attitudes, values, and actions – typically in ways that are recognized as inconsistent with one’s “normal” ways of being. (It is included here because many who align with Critical Pedagogy argue that popular culture and formal education can be seen to employ Brainwashing techniques.)
  • False Consciousness (Karl Marx, early 1900s) – a worldview or ideology that distorts, obscures, or conceals the oppressions and exploitations associated with one’s social class
Critical Pedagogy is strongly aligned with and sometimes treated synonymously to:
  • Equity Pedagogies (James A. Banks, 1990s) – modes of teaching and structures for learning that enable diverse learners to participate in and contribute to a just society.
  • Problem-Posing Education – In the most general sense of the term, “problem-posing” refers to any educational approach that emphasizes the influence on learning of asking questions and taking on challenges. In the context of Critical Pedagogy, Problem-Posing Education is associated more specifically with the sorts of engagements that promote critical thinking – aimed at supporting learner agency within collaborative endeavors that address practical and consequential matters.
  • Radical Hope (Kevin Gannon, 2010s) – a version of Critical Pedagogy in college teaching (but being taken up across levels), aimed at reframing the post-secondary experience as empowering and emancipating by emphasizing Conscientization (see above) across all aspects of the experience while enacting principles such as Learner-Centered Design and Inclusion (see Activist Discourses).


Given its explicit foci of identifying, interrogating, and challenging cultural institutions, it is hardly surprising that Critical Pedagogy is itself often the target of intense and vitriolic criticisms. As might be expected some of these criticisms come of the institutions critiqued. For example, advocates of traditional education often assert Critical Pedagogy is disingenuous in its denigration of established curricula, typically asserting ideological motivations and often pointing out that denying learners access to the Canon is tantamount to denying them cultural capital. Other criticisms come from teachers and learners themselves, who often avoid controversial issues and resist views that conflict with their own convictions.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Paulo Freire; Henry Giroux; bell hooks

Status as a Theory of Learning

Critical Pedagogy is not a theory of learning, as it does not address the complex dynamics of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Critical Pedagogy is a theory of teaching that is oriented toward recognizing and taking constructive action against unhealthy power dynamics and other injustices. One of its prominent foci is the excavation and interruption of the “hidden curriculum” – that is, implicit norms and sensibilities that are perpetuated in schools and other cultural institutions through uninterrogated practices. Strands of Critical Pedagogy address issues pertaining to race, class, gender, religion, sexuality, ethnicity, age, and body type – among other oppressive regimes of power. Across all strands, teachers are encouraged to learn alongside their students, collectively engaged in critical discussions of entrenched habits of thinking and possible strategies of action.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Critical Pedagogy does not meet the requirements of a scientific theory. However, it is informed by well-known and empirically grounded theories Embodiment Discourses and Embeddedness Discourses, including most prominently Socio-Cultural Theory.


  • Brainwashing (Coercive Persuasion; Menticide; Mind Control; Re-Education; Thought Reform)
  • Conscientization (Critical Consciousness; Consciousness Raising)
  • Equity Pedagogy
  • False Consciousness
  • Problem-Posing Education
  • Radical Hope
  • Wide-Awakeness
  • Woke

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Critical Pedagogy” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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