What Is The Critical Pedagogy Movement?

The Critical Pedagogy movement is a revolutionary approach to education that unites philosophy, pedagogy, and social awareness. Who are its most important contributors?

Dec 13, 2023By Igor Zanetti, Student of Philosophy

critical pedagogy movement


The Philosophy of Education is an important branch of philosophy, with countless works on the subject having been developed throughout human history. One of the most influential philosophical and social movements to come out of this area was the Critical Pedagogy Movement, a revolutionary approach to education with the objective of creating a horizontal learning field inside the classroom and promoting social awareness in the students.


The Critical Pedagogy Movement: A Reaction to Post-Industrial Education

school teacher painting
School Teaching, One Teacher With Four Students, Pasquale de Rossi, ca. 1656 – 1725. Source: Statens Museum für Kunst


Education is the most essential pillar of our society, being the method through which the development and progress of mankind as a whole is made possible, passing our knowledge on to the next generations and allowing them to improve upon that knowledge from that point onward. It is through education that we are able to surpass our individual mortality and move forward collectively as a species.


The relationship between education and philosophy is extremely intimate, to the point of being very difficult to find a philosopher who has never tackled the philosophy of education, with many famous authors such as Socrates, Plato, Kant, and Schopenhauer being educators themselves and, therefore, pedagogues to some extent.


However, ever since formal education was made available to the masses—after the Industrial Revolution—the open-ended nature of education was cut short. Instead, people were now being taught a specific set of contents that would allow them to become productive workers in the future. While there is an obvious pragmatic value to this approach, it is very restrictive of qualities that should be essential for education, such as innovation, creativity, and critical thinking.

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This education model was coined “Banking Education” by the author Paulo Freire, who is regarded as the father of Critical Pedagogy, due to teachers “depositing” their knowledge inside the students without any regard for their pre-existing opinions. From this basic criticism, a revolutionary movement in the philosophy of education was born.


The Critical Pedagogy movement has the objective of liberating education from the industrial perspective of generating mindless workers to create social consciousness in the students while allowing them to express their opinions and pursue their personal interests.


The Origins of a Revolutionary Education

adorno mural painting
A Mural Painting of Theodor Adorno (one of the founders of the Frankfurt School). Source: Wikimedia Commons


While the Critical Pedagogy movement was born with the work of previously mentioned Paulo Freire, its inspirations come from many other authors of the philosophical tradition, but mainly the Critical Theory developed by members of the Frankfurt School, which was a school of philosophy and social sciences founded in 1923 by Carl Grunberg. It assembled a great number of promising philosophers and theorists who were extremely dissatisfied with the political landscape of that time.


Critical Theory is a Marxist approach to social philosophy that aims to change society as a whole and therefore is something that we could call revolutionary philosophy. It was first established in 1937 by the philosopher Mark Horkheimer in his famous work “Traditional and Critical Theory”, in which the author elaborates upon the traditional theoretical method as something that wishes only to understand or explain its object of analysis.


Meanwhile, the critical theory method—proposed by Horkheimer—has the objective of elevating human beings to the next level of understanding. That is, a level of understanding that criticizes the status quo and power structures of the world through a realistic analysis of society as a whole that takes all social sciences into account. In other words, the goal of Critical Theory is the intellectual emancipation of people.


It is easy to observe why the Critical Pedagogy movement has its roots in the authors of the Frankfurt School. The Critical Pedagogy movement takes this critical perspective into the active practice of education. As we are about to see, the authors of Critical Pedagogy take the concepts of Critical Theory and apply them in the classroom in order to develop an emancipatory education model.


Paulo Freire and the Birth of a New Pedagogy

teacher mapa portrait
Portrait of the Great Teacher Mapa, 17th century, via The Met


Paulo Freire is certainly the most famous Brazilian philosopher. He is regarded as one of the greatest minds to ever tackle the areas of philosophy of education and pedagogy. Born in 1921, he grew up in extreme poverty and an abusive regional government. Freire combined his extensive studies and his real-life experiences to develop a new and revolutionary perspective that would change how the world looked at educational models.


As mentioned before, Paulo Freire coined the term “Banking Education” and heavily criticized the educational methods widely applied at the time, which disregarded the background and individuality of the students.


This critique marked the birth of Critical Pedagogy and led to many changes in education as a whole. Freire himself applied a completely new educational model in 1963, teaching 300 rural workers in only 45 days, after which they were functionally literate in spite of never having any formal education before.


This philosopher’s ultimate goal was to educate people about their own potential as human beings with the power to change themselves and the world around them for the better. He heavily emphasized the need for an emancipatory education.


An ideal educational model, as proposed by Paulo Freire, would also motivate students to pursue self-reflection, self-improvement, critical thinking, and social awareness. Furthermore, his philosophy paved the way for many further philosophers in this field.


While Paulo Freire passed away in 1997, more than 20 years ago, the Paulo Freire Institute in São Paulo works hard to give continuation to the work of the philosopher, archiving and cataloging all of his writing as well as interviews and participating in many social and educational projects in Brazil.


From the Frankfurt School to Henry Giroux

henry giroux
Photograph of Henry Giroux. Source: Global Education Magazine.


When we talk about Critical Theory in capital letters, we are talking about the specific work developed by the theorists of the Frankfurt School. However, the term critical theory, taking a broader view, means any sort of social philosophy, theory or system that focuses on cultural and power structures as the roots of social problems, with the objective of critiquing such structures and liberating people from dogmatic worldviews.


One of the most notable philosophers to develop a work with these characteristics is Henry Giroux, an American scholar and educator who is another big name in the Critical Pedagogy movement, and the first philosopher to actually use the term “Critical Pedagogy” in his work.


Author of the worldwide renowned book “Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life”, Giroux is a heavy critic of traditional educational models, claiming that schools should be places of active citizenship and critical thinking instead of a pile of rooms where students repeat the same contents over and over again and are taught to be subservient to the status quo. According to the philosopher, students have to be encouraged to cross borders both in education and in their day-to-day lives, empowering themselves and bringing forth social changes.


Henry Giroux and his revolutionary approach in the areas of philosophy of education and pedagogy have won many awards over the years, and he is recognized as one of the fifty most important educational thinkers of modern times, still publishing academic papers and books to this day.


Peter McLaren’s Pedagogy of Resistance

Photograph of Peter McLaren. Source: the Panther Newspaper.


Peter McLaren is an American scholar, philosopher, and educator who has a very realistic approach when it comes to the challenges of Critical Pedagogy in our current era of globalized capitalism. During his years as an educator, he worked alongside previously mentioned author Henry Giroux, who certainly had an influence on the later works of McLaren in Critical Pedagogy and contemporary critical theory as a whole.


McLaren has vast experience working with minorities and fighting against the power structures of society. Some of his notable experiences include participating in the anti-war protests during the Vietnam conflicts, working with active revolutionary groups such as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico and the MST in Brazil, and teaching for several years in marginalized areas of Canada.


The work of Peter McLaren is heavily focused on two aspects of Critical Pedagogy: everyday resistance and multiculturalism. According to McLaren, education is not only our most important form of resistance against the oppression of the power structures of society, as is clearly observed by his contributions to so many revolutionary movements all over the world, but also a method for us to understand other cultures and therefore find new ways of thinking.


Different cultures will inherently get into conflict with each other. However, it is through the understanding and resolution of these conflicts that we can confront backward ideas such as racism and xenophobia.


McLaren is truly one of the most interesting members of the Critical Pedagogy movement, if anything, for his truly impressive life experiences and for how he managed to incorporate those experiences into his philosophical work.


The International Impact and Legacy of the Critical Pedagogy Movement

students protesting
Photography of Students protesting in Temecula. Source: The New York Times.


Talking about the impacts of the Critical Pedagogy movement is both very easy and very hard to do. It is easy because the impacts of the movement are clearly observable all over the world, and it is hard because there are just too many great examples to choose from.


Before the birth of Critical Pedagogy, our society lived in a very primitive era when it came to education, completely blind to the problems of systems that had been in practice for so many years at that point. It was with the critiques of the Frankfurt School and the birth of Critical Pedagogy through the works of authors such as Freire and Giroux that we were able to start liberating our society from this limited perspective of education, bringing forth new and exciting possibilities in the areas of pedagogy and philosophy of education.


If now we see so many students, teachers, and scholars mobilize themselves to fight for a better world, it was thanks to these pioneers who first challenged the status quo of education and spread the understanding of it as a powerful tool for societal change. We still have a long way to go when it comes to the development of a better educational system that can hopefully be applied worldwide at some point in the future. However, it is only through the use of critical thinking that we are able to move forward in any sort of science.

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By Igor ZanettiStudent of PhilosophyIgor is a contributing writer and student of Philosophy at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (Brazil). He has a long-standing passion for philosophy and all forms of art, from literature to modern genres.