Critical Pedagogy in Social Work Education

Given our own focus on Freire's use of critical analysis and dialogue in higher education classrooms, we inquired into the literature across disciplines that describes previous experiences using images, dialogue, and reflection. Some of the examples to date include the use of illustrations from school textbooks to deconstruct teachings ofreligion (Badanelli, 2012); guided imagery to challenge students' preconceived ideas about heterosexism and heterophobia (Henderson & Murdock, 2012); fine arts images to emancipate students as spectators (Lewis, 2011); discourse analysis to evaluate classroom interaction (Hjelm, 2013); and dialogue and reflection to deconstruct power, privilege, and silence in the classroom (Ochoa & Pineda, 2008).

In relation to social work education, although there is an abundant discussion about Freire's fit with, and contribution to, social work as a discipline, scant literature exists on the practical application of his methodology in the social work classroom. However, we found one example of critical pedagogy at play. This example of training aspiring therapists is discussed in depth next.

Nylund and Tilsen (2006) describe their experience applying critical pedagogy in the family therapy classroom. Terming it a “postmodern approach,” they implicate attendance to, and development of, students' reflexivity and awareness of sociopolitical issues. They describe activities and assignments that, according to them, foster critical thinking and flatten hierarchy between student and teacher. One of the activities includes deconstruction of what students know, or what the authors call “unteaching” thinking, wherein students are invited to consider the impact of their own family of origin on their ideas, values, and responses. Another assignment engages students in critiquing theory. Authors provide readings that critique theories and a list of questions to guide such critical appraisal with an objective to reveal that theories are socially constructed and project certain positionalities. They also provide students with options to learn “alone or in group, live or online, and through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic channels” (p. 30).

Nylund and Tilsen (2006) suggest that through their own openness to being vulnerable and “touched and transformed” as teacher-learners, the hierarchy gap between them and students shrinks (p. 26). Their approach to grading and assessment further facilitates power flattening. Specifically, they encourage students to generate their own assessment criteria—for example, expressed through the voice of the clients that they serve. They also use peer reviews and feedback. This whole approach, they suggest, creates a “postmodern spirit” in the classroom that “encourages knowledge and knowledge-making” (p. 30). In other words, such an approach exemplifies the essence of critical education by mapping a two-way transaction between teachers and learners instead of traditional one-way authoritative evaluation of learning.

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