Critical Pedagogy: Critical Thinking as a Social Practice

Stephen Cowden and Gurnam Singh


Much of the literature on critical thinking focuses on the ways in which human beings develop the capacity, through complex cognitive processes and skills, to evaluate or make sense of information. Within the formal educational context, it is often associated with pedagogical strategies aimed toward nurturing and developing learners' capacity for logical enquiry and reasoning. Though such insights are clearly very important, a narrow focus on what might be termed the "science of learning" can result in a negation of an obvious but very important point, namely, to what end and for what purpose should we be seeking to nurture critical thinking. Put another way, what is the moral, ethical, and political dimension of learning to think critically? And it is this question that forms the main purpose of the present chapter. By invoking the idea of critical thinking as a social practice, we examine the educational approach known as critical pedagogy and consider its relevance to higher education today. Critical pedagogy in its broadest sense is an educational philosophy that seeks to connect forms of education to wider political questions by arguing that processes or acts of learning and knowing are themselves inherently political.

Perhaps the most important figure that is associated with developing the tradition of critical pedagogy is the Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire (1921-1997). In the introduction to his famous book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Richard Shaull has summed up his approach when he argues that the starting point for Freire is that education can never be neutral; it either acts to socialize the learner into the "logic of the present system" or it becomes the "practice of freedom." Freedom here is understood as the capacity of the learner to "deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world" (Freire 1996, 16). In this sense Freire's approach contains three key elements: the availability of education opportunities to the broad mass of people; the social and psychological processes that reinforce acts of educational inclusion/exclusion, both within and outside formal educational institutions; and the pedagogical strategies deployed by teachers.

In line with a range of progressive thinkers from the Enlightenment onward, Freire believed that education needed to be made available to men and women from all strata of society, rather than just the social elite. But his most significant contribution concerns the "critical" element within "critical pedagogy" and the pedagogical practices he developed and then wrote about in his many books. He sought to embody a participatory egalitarianism on one hand, but at the same time to create a classroom in which students could think about their life and other people's lives in a new and deeply critical way. For Freire, genuine criticality could not coexist within educational processes that were purely instrumental; hence the question of understanding the underlying purpose of teaching and knowing is a crucial starting point. We would argue that these issues are still of crucial significance in talking about Freire's relevance today, even though it must at the same time be acknowledged that the form in which higher educationis offered now has changed enormously since he was working in the field. We are currently living through a period in which higher education is being transformed from its older incarnation as an elite system serving the interests of a privileged few, to a massively expanded global system, which is drawing in hundreds of thousands of people across the world (Cowden and Singh 2013).

The terrain of education today would have probably been unrecognizable to Freire, and given that one of his major attacks on conventional systems was directed at the way they excluded all but the wealthy, it could be argued by defenders of the present arrangements that the availability of education has been substantially democratized. There is no doubt that purely in terms of access, certainly in most developed countries, we do now have something resembling a mass higher education system (see, e.g., Usher and Medow 2014). Yet, ironically, at the same time universities have become much less democratic, both in relation to their internal management structures and their accountability. The reason for this is that the rationale for their expansion has not been concerned with the idea of education as a social good, but rather as a lucrative globally salable commodity. This approach has fundamentally reshaped both the form and the content of higher education. In a detailed analysis of the current and future consequences of this approach on the UK higher education (HE) titled Sold Out, the Oxford academic Stefan Collini concludes that a system with "a very good record" in terms of "universally acknowledged creativity, streets ahead of most of their international peers" and in being a positive force "for human development and social cohesion" (2013, 12) is being transformed in the image of the financial institutions that so spectacularly demonstrated their incompetence in the banking collapse of 2007-2008. In a similar vein, Andrew McGettigan (2013) in his forensic examination of the funding of UK universities argues that the introduction of large fees coupled with the transfer of funding from the state and direct taxation to private finance and loans systems is comparable to the "subprime" mortgage market, creating new classes of students with high levels of debt and "subprime degrees." Moreover, this subordination of the university to the logic of finance capital poses serious challenges to the project of critial thinking. In this sense the need for an educational practice concerned with the liberation rather than the domestication of students is as great as it has ever been.

Against the backdrop of the wider context of HE this chapter is centrally concerned with setting out the distinctive contribution of critical pedagogy to the broader question of critical thinking. Much of our focus is on the work of Paulo Freire, but of course his approach does not emerge in a vacuum. For this reason we begin the chapter by revisiting the ideas of key figures within the European Enlightenment; postmodernist claims to his legacy notwithstanding, we feel we need to be absolutely clear that Freire's work stands on this legacy, though like Marx, one of his major influences, it was a legacy he both built on and challenged. We follow this with a discussion of a 1999 essay "Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy" by Nicholas Burbules and Rupert Berk that specifically compares critical pedagogy with other concepts of critical thinking. We conclude the chapter with a discussion of the importance of critical pedagogy in the context of the current reshaping of relationships between students and teachers in a neoliberal market model, arguing that Freire's work offers a framework for defending and expanding essential aspects of critical thinking that we regard as universal.

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