Critical thinking and critical pedagogy

The far-from-exhaustive survey demonstrates just how central the relationship between ideas about criticality and a concept of "the public sphere" is, and even if such conceptualizations didn't explicitly articulate a pedagogical dimension, they certainly implied one. But what sort of pedagogy? This question is usefully explored by Nicholas Burbules and Rupert Berk's 1999 essay

"Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Relations, Differences and Limits." Their focus is a comparative analysis of the way the term "critical" functions within these two traditions of "critical thinking" and "critical pedagogy":

Each invokes the term "critical" as a valued educational goal: urging teachers to help students become more sceptical toward commonly accepted truisms. Each says, in its own way, "Do not let yourself be deceived." And each has sought to reach and influence particular groups of educators, at all levels of schooling, through workshops, lectures, and pedagogical texts. They share a passion and sense of urgency about the need for more critically oriented classrooms. Yet with very few exceptions these literatures do not discuss one another. Is this because they propose conflicting visions of what "critical" thought entails? Are their approaches to pedagogy incompatible? (Burbules and Berk 1999)

They argue that both traditions deploy the term "critical" as characterized by the defence and expansion of spaces where students are able to reach independent judgments with regard to commonly accepted truth claims, and also argue for "a critical education [which] can increase freedom and enlarge the scope of human possibilities" (Burbules and Berk 1999, 46). But while critical thinking traditions focus on a concern with uncovering faulty arguments in logic, reasoning, and the use of evidence, critical pedagogy's primary concern is "with social injustice and how to transform inequitable, undemocratic or oppressive institutions and social relations" (Ibid.).

Burbules and Berk illustrate these differences using the example of research that purportedly demonstrates that African Americans are "less intelligent" than other ethnic groups, based on the fact that they score lower in IQ tests (1999, 54). Within the critical thinking tradition, concerns about whether such conclusions are justified would be addressed through methodological questions about the reliability of the instruments used to test intelligence; the validity of the findings; and the clarity of key terms, such as the concept of "intelligence." For critical pedagogy, while the latter questions would be important, the underlying problems are not just about methodology and evidence; they would be concerned with the wider context of IQ testing and the role of particular modes of inquiry with respect to power relations—in this instance the role of "intelligence testing" within a context of racist practice and ideology. Hence for critical pedagogy questions such as who is making these assertions about the relationship between "intelligence" and "race," why are they being made at this point in time, who funds this research, and who benefits from the promulgation of these findings are central.

While Burbules and Berk avoid presenting the two traditions as binary opposites, this example demonstrates the different ways in which pedagogy is conceived. Within the critical thinking tradition, this is based on positivist and "unbiased" modes of reasoning and inquiry that allow different truth claims to be evaluated. The distinctive feature of critical pedagogy, by contrast, lies not simply in the process of equipping learners with the skills that enable to them to think critically, but includes within this the idea that the production of knowledge and the identities of learners being themselves socially and ideologically mediated. In this sense the task is not one of seeking to be "unbiased"; instead we need to understand the way dominant frameworks define and constitute that which counts as "knowledge." Freire argues that the educator's knowledge is always inherently incomplete and therefore the "act of knowing" must be based on a critical dialogue between the teacher and student. What he is pointing to here is a way of understanding criticality as a process in which both the educator and the educated seek to "problematize" the basis of forms of existing knowledge, which could be personal and group experiences, "expert knowledges" based on existing research, policy, media perceptions, etc., with a view to looking at the way all these elements interact.

This points to the way the distinction between the two traditions outlined by Burbules and Berk can be read at two levels—that of epistemology and that of pedagogical practice. In terms of epistemology, the distinction between critical thinking and critical pedagogy can be read as a restatement of the differences between Kantian and Marxist approaches. Kant's work represents the beginning of classical liberal philosophy where the use of Reason acts as an expression of what Steutel and Spiecker have called "the autonomy of the individual" (2002, 63). For Kant, critical thinking is perceived as a necessary virtue of citizens and thus as a prerequisite for the sound operation of a society, which needs people who are able to participate in public debates about its overall direction and organization (Ibid.). By contrast Marx rejected the atomistic focus on "individual autonomy" as both philosophically confused and empirically false. He argued that as human beings are essentially social creatures, so social and economic theory must always engage with social totality: "Whenever we speak of production . . . what is meant is always . . . production by social individuals" (Marx 1975, 85). In other words Marx's conception of people working to create a material product is the same as people producing and reproducing particular sets of social relations. We can thus never be outside of social relations, whose shape and form have a profound influence on the forms of knowledge that are seen to be important or unimportant. Freire's conception of critical pedagogy draws on a similar understanding of the reproduction of social relations in schools and universities; hence their production of students whose "high level of intelligence" makes them fit to rule society; domesticated, unquestioning students whose knowledge never threatens the powerful; and poor "uneducable" students, excluded from participation in the system.

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