Critical Theories and Pedagogies

Table of Contents:

Critical theories, and their extending pedagogies, grew from the roots of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous scholar-activism. For example, Black and Latina feminisms in the poetic contributions of Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Akasha Gloria Hull confront the same colonialism and oppression in the lived experiences of women of Color explored by Black, Latinx, and Indigenous scholar-activism from the previous century (Tuck & McKenzie, 2015). Similarly, Vine Deloria (1969), a prolific Indigenous scholar-activist, built on the legacy of the Ghost Dance movement to assert the need for both idealism and pragmatism in the continued struggle for Indigenous rights and freedoms. Likewise, Sandy Grande’s (2004, 2015) Red Pedagogy elucidates how and why Indigenous theories of education, self-determination, and survival are intimately connected to past and present efforts to decolonize education. Although originating earlier, critical pedagogies experienced a collective insurgence during the 1960s and 1970s through the scholarship and activism of César Chávez, Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Paulo Freire, Derrick Bell, Henry Giroux, Molefi Kete Asante, Akasha Gloria Hull, Betita Martinez, James Banks, Oscar Kawag-ley, Vine Deloria, K. Tsianina Lomawaima, Teresa McCarthy, Sande Grande, Ronald Takaki, Howard Zinn, and many others.

The goal of critical theories (and the pedagogies that extend from them) is to destabilize “master narratives and ... dominant discourses” (Kincheloe, 2008, p. 125) about the world. Critical theorists, comprising radical feminists, critical legal scholars, critical race theorists, and African-centered and Black and Latina feminist thinkers have long reasoned against the dichotomous and colonizing superior/ inferior system of morals, thoughts, and theories perpetuated in societies and institutions (Anzaldúa, 1999; Asante, 1992; Baldwin, 2013; Bell, 1992; DuBois, 1898/2001; hooks, 2014; Lorde, 2007).

In early childhood education, critical theory /pedagogies can be used as a way of thinking about how policies, stereotypes, dominant narratives, and practices influence the lives of the children we teach. Thus, critical theory/pedagogies can helpus push the limits of education, as Freire (1993) said, “precisely because, in not being able to do everything, education can do something. As educators ... it behooves us to see what we can do so that we can completely realize our goals” (p. 25). Since culturally sustaining pedagogies seek to “interrogate and critique the simultaneously progressive and oppressive currents,” “contradictory forces,” and “existing hegemonic discourses about ... gender, race, sexuality, and citizenship” (Paris & Alim, 2014, p. 93), teachers who use these pedagogies need an understanding of the radical roots of critical theories and theorists. Further, radical, critical ideas and practices fueled legal reforms and sociopolitical movements. We describe these movements as the trunk of our metaphorical tree, honoring the family lineage of pedagogies that help us understand how to help all children navigate the complex terrain of schooling.


Growing from the nutrients provided by a strong root system of Black, Latinx, and Native intellectual thought and critical pedagogies, the mid-twentieth century experienced abundant legal and sociopolitical reforms developed in response to the legal, social, political, and educational climate of the United States. The reforms of the 1960s and 1970s inexorably influenced the landscape of educational practices today (Banks & Banks, 2009), including culturally relevant, responsive, mediating, and sustaining pedagogies. We describe a few of the most significant reforms and movements here as actions that form the solid trunk of our framework.

Legal Reforms

The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 led to the longstanding federal initiative of Head Start. Although not intended to forefront culturally relevant or culturally sustaining curricula, Head Start has fostered tremendous success in decreasing inequities in school achievement, high school graduation, and educational attainment for people of Color and other marginalized peoples (Johnson, Kalil, & Dunifon, 2010). The Civil Rights Act of 1968 led to forced busing to integrate schools, but was also highly problematic as students who had once excelled at schools such as those that Carter G. Woodson, and Anna Julia Cooper ran, suddenly found themselves in contexts that were disconnected from their sociocultural-historical knowledge (Cole, 1995). The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 required schools to at least attend to the languages of students of Color and allowed funding to support educational programming for bi/multilingual students (Paris & Alim, 2014).

These three legislative acts contributed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1974), which fostered intellectual and educational reform and inquiry which has led to moves towards a core set of educational practices.

Augmenting these legislative actions, alliances between researchers and classroom teachers foregrounded research demonstrating that deficit approaches are not just (Ball, 1995; Paris & Alim, 2014; Souto-Manning & Martell, 2017). Taken together, legal actions and collaboration between teachers and scholars fostered an environment in which thinking about culturally relevant, responsive, mediating, and later sustaining pedagogies could grow.

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