Teaching is a moral act. Our choice of course content is a moral decision, but so is the relationship we cultivate with students. Both physical and digital learning spaces require us to practice a politics of teaching, whether we’re conscious of it or not. However, traditional relationships between students and teachers come freighted with a model of interaction that often impedes learning. They are hierarchical. Progressive teaching, informed by a critical attention to pedagogy, resets the variables and insists on the classroom as a site of moral agency.

Jesse Stommel has said that the “critical” in critical pedagogy functions in several registers:

  • Critical, as in mission-critical, essential;
  • Critical, as in literary criticism and critique, providing definitions and interpretation;
  • Critical, as in a reflective and nuanced approach to a thing;
  • Critical, as in criticizing institutional or corporate impediments to learning;
  • Critical Pedagogy, as a disciplinary approach, which inflects (and is inflected by) each of these other meanings.

The Brazilian educator Paulo Freire began his experiments in progressive education by teaching peasant farmers to read in 1962. By 1969 he had published his landmark work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, had been exiled from Brazil, and was teaching as a visiting professor at Harvard University. Freire’s work remained focused on raising the consciousness of institutionally marginalized populations by rethinking education. Critical pedagogy, the academic discipline that emerged from his work, remains committed to an openly leftist critique of educational institutions that silence or displace dissent.

A critical approach to pedagogy is consistent with the goals of a digitally-infused curriculum. Critical and digital pedagogical collaboration is lately proliferating, in widening ripples and across disciplines. At the end of a recent blog post / interview about the development of the MOOC model, Stephen Downes asserts that academic discourse is too rigid and abstract. He writes: “[Our objective] is about actually empowering people to develop and create their own learning, their own education . . . We (those of us working in MOOCs) have also been clear about the influences of people like Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire.”

Several scholars in critical pedagogy recognize the potential power of networked technology, once viewed as the zone of corporate colonization. In “Critical Pedagogy in the Twenty-First Century” in Critical Pedagogy: Where Are We Now? (2007), Joe L. Kincheloe suggests, “If critical pedagogy is to matter as we move toward the second decade of the twenty-first century . . . then it must meet several contemporary challenges . . . In an era when open-access publishing on the Internet is a compelling issue in the politics of education, I contend that open-access writing and speaking about critical pedagogy are also profoundly important. Such a populist form of criticality does not in any manner undermine our intellectual rigor and theoretical sophistication; instead it challenges our pedagogical ability to express complex ideas in a language that is understandable and germane to wide audiences.” Kincheloe echoes Downes’s assertions 1) that academic work must be useful beyond its tower and 2) that digital culture offers new opportunities to achieve that goal.

The same thread exists in the work of Anya Kamenetz, whose DIY U (2010) documents the shift of education away from burdensome, hierarchical institutions. Kamenetz summarizes why students have been increasingly “priced out” of a college education in the last three decades. In a video associated with the release of DIY U, Kamenetz says: “We don’t have to be locked into this situation of constantly spiraling [higher ed] costs because there are ways to use technology to bring down the cost of higher education. [That includes] everything from a free lecture that’s available through video-on-demand or an open-source textbook . . . or peer-group learning that happens in social networks . . . and hybrid models of technology with experiential education.” Kamenetz’s research on the shifting nature of learning represents a new strand of critical analysis from outside the academy that recognizes the potential of critically re-imagined digital learning communities.

Critical pedagogy, no matter how we define it, has a central place in the discussion of how learning is changing in the 21st century because critical pedagogy is primarily concerned with an equitable distribution of power. If students live in a culture that digitizes and educates them through a screen, they require an education that empowers them in that sphere, teaches them that language, and offers new opportunities of human connectivity. Digital tools offer the opportunity to refocus how power works in the classroom. In its evolution from passive consumption to critical production — from the cult of the expert to a culture of collaboration — the critical and digital classroom emerges as a site of intellectual and moral agency.

In The Moral University, Maurice and Claire Berube examine recent debates over morality in higher education. They cite Derek Bok, Stanley Fish, and John J. Mearsheimer as outspoken critics against the indoctrination of students in moral principles. They also quote Fish’s 2008 Save the World On Your Own Time: “Teachers cannot . . . fashion moral character . . . My contention is that academization is the only thing that should happen in the classroom . . . This position [is] sometimes called derisively the Ivory Tower position.” Faculty in support of a moral teaching imperative — among them Henry Giroux, Michael Berube, and Bruce Wilshire — argue that a moral curriculum does not mandate a specific moral position.

As educators, it behooves us always to consider the situations of our students — their actual material circumstances. To assume the primacy of the educational institution over the student is regressive. Institutions, by their nature, seek their own perpetuation; pedagogues pursue the increasing agency of their students. This is not to say that these goals are never compatible, but they are sometimes at odds.

As scholars, we come through the professional birthing canal and inherit the theoretical DNA of our disciplines — theories of postmodern fragmentation, of colonial evil, of textual deconstruction, of material embodiment. What many of us do not receive from our early development as academics, but hopefully accumulate on our own, is a theory of student empowerment.

In the same way that we can buzz, electrified, in the presence of a powerfully delivered lecture or vigorous classroom discussion, we can also achieve a certain glow from the move to a digital educational landscape, where the interaction of co-learners can explode virtually across the media frames of the Internet. Electrified teaching can happen in the physical classroom, and genuine academic engagement can happen between keyboards, cameras, and smartphones in a committed learning community. But this does not happen by accident. It is the product of a critical pedagogue who understands and selects tools and activities, blending them with the interactive community that meets her in the learning landscape.

The formal discipline of critical pedagogy is political. It unearths and disrupts the nest of political powers that orbit educational structures. It unapologetically ascribes to particular political principles that are liberal in nature. It would be overly simplistic to describe critical pedagogy as holding values that are anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist, anti-fundamentalist, but these values are the nucleus of critical pedagogical work.

Most of us do our work within the boundaries of institutions. However, the principles of critical pedagogy are extra-institutional. Questions of power, access, and technology are moral; they have been critical for progressive educators for decades. The commitment to learners, to their exploration, their community, their authentic engagement, and their ultimate agency and empowerment, governs our work. Sometimes these principles find themselves in conflict with the material or political goals of the institution. At such a point, the critical pedagogue must negotiate mandates while adhering to principles.

This is the stuff of progressive pedagogy: a principled commitment to the engagement of the learner and the democratic discovery of his or her own empowerment.

[Photo by Bob Jagendorf]