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Development of Critical Theory and Pedagogy

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 4099 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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McKernan (2013) states that critical theory seeks to explain and understand society to create change and liberate individuals from oppression. Originally introduced by the Frankfurt School, critical theory is a broad tradition influenced by Karl Marx. Marx believed that capitalism oppresses the masses. Those in power seek conditions to favour themselves to the detriment of others, through the structures and practices in society. Critical theory considers critique as a method of investigation to rid society of inequality and oppression, through challenging political, social and economic policies. Pollock and Cox (1991) explain that critical theorists do this by questioning power relationships about their origins and how they may be changing. For Pollock and Cox, critical theory recognises that knowledge represents values which need to be questioned, examined and changed. Therefore, what is accepted as the norm, should be resisted and problematized. Collective action is required in order to address social inequalities and to create a fairer society. However, critical theory is shaped by historical context and values. This suggests critical theory is subjective to culture and time, which will continue to evolve and change as society does.

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Burbules and Berk (1991) refer to ‘critical thinking’. Critical thinking is alarmed about the limits of freedom and oppression that is imposed on individuals in society. This is similar to critical theory. McLaren (2012) agrees and suggests that individuals are surrounded by power and privilege in every sense. Dominant groups control subordinate groups through force and social practices. These are implemented by institutions such as education. McLaren notes that education oppresses learners as it reproduces social class and capitalism. This reiterates the ideology of critical theory, outlined by McKernan. Burbules and Berk state that critical thinking is grounded in the notion that people base their life choices on ‘truth claims’. This is an issue as individuals do not examine the assumptions, commitments and logic of everyday life. As a result, individuals have become passive agents in society. Thus, the goal of critical thinking is to become self-sufficient. By questioning the ideology of those in power and our everyday societal structures, we can become critical individuals and work towards a fairer, more just society.

Burbules and Berk contemplates the value this can have in education. Critical thinking aims to influence educators to create critical classrooms. Western curriculum uses critical thinking as higher levels of education encourage students to develop their reasoning skills and to critically evaluate concepts. McLaren suggests that education has the ability to empower and transform learners. Burbules and Berk emphasise this, discussing that education can liberate learners if educators transfer the knowledge to help students understand, recognise and examine the political, social and economic foundations of a capitalist society.

McKernan discusses the origins of critical theory and alongside Pollock and Cox, criticises it and discusses other facets of critical theory. This highlights that critical theory evolves over time. This is demonstrated by Burbules and Berk and their discussion of critical thinking, adding another dimension to the theory. To contrast, Burbules and Berk apply these concepts to practice and discuss the influence that it has on education. Therefore, Burbules and Berk, along with McLaren, begin to put critical theory into action. They consider how education can contribute to a fairer, more just society through transforming students from passive learners to critical thinkers.


Giroux (2010) comments that critical pedagogy is an educational movement, based on the principle to help students develop an awareness of freedom, authoritarianism and to take constructive action. This concept involves teaching students to become critical and to take action against oppressive forces. When referencing Freire, Giroux explains that pedagogy is a political and moral practice. It provides the knowledge and skills to enable students to explore how to be critical citizens, whilst expanding their participation in a democratic society. Thus, critical pedagogy is not about attainment and grade-based outcomes, but is a tool for ‘self-determination and civic engagement’ (p. 716). When explaining the concept of critical pedagogy, the economic models of pedagogy that supports consumerism and economic profit are rejected. Critical pedagogy seeks to understand how power works through passing on knowledge within education and views students as informed social agents. Critical pedagogy therefore, contributes to the practice of self-criticism about the values that inform teaching and teaches students critical self-consciousness, providing them with the analytical skills to be self-reflective about the knowledge and values in classrooms. Critical pedagogy insists that a fundamental purpose of educators is to make sure that the future represents a socially just world. Critical pedagogy ensures that education has valued purpose and meaning which encourages human agency.

McLaren (2012) states that critical pedagogy aims to understand the relationship between power and knowledge. Within education, the notion of dominant cultures and groups exercising domination and oppression over subordinate groups is referred to as hegemony. This discourse is prevalent in education as dominant discourses determine the approaches and pedagogy teachers’ use and the values and beliefs that educators convey. McLaren notes that knowledge in education is historically and socially rooted and is interest-bound by dominant groups. Knowledge acquired is structured in particular ways and socially constructed within education. This means that knowledge is ‘the product of agreement or consent’ (p. 6) between individuals. McLaren discusses Habermas’ argument of different types of knowledge. Firstly, there is the knowledge which can be measured and quantified. This knowledge is presented through examinations and is outcome-based. Secondly, students acquire practical knowledge which shapes their everyday lives. An example is learning interpersonal skills. Thirdly, there is emancipatory knowledge. This is knowledge passed to students allowing them to understand how social relationships are distorted by power and privilege. This provides the foundation for critical pedagogy. Therefore, critical pedagogy is a way of understanding, negotiating, and transforming relationships, knowledge and societies structures, to create a more just, and fairer society.


Ozga (2000) explains all theories have a perspective which derives from a particular position in time and space. Ozga explains two types of theory. Problem-solving theory looks at the different power and social relationships, with institutions working together to deal effectively with problems. Critical theory does not take power relationships for granted but questions where the theory originated and how it may be changing. It considers the social and political complex as a whole, leading to the construction of a bigger picture. Critical theory analyses the social context before constructing the larger picture, seeking to understand the process of change.

Furthermore, Ozga considers how researchers can be critical when undertaking research. Researchers must pursue ethical principles and assess the research in relation to social justice concerns. This means that researchers must ask questions about their own work. For example, a researcher must consider if research implies that it approves of policies which maintains, justifies and legitimises a restriction of individual autonomy. A researcher should also consider if research supports human development and respects dignity and worth, as opposed to having economic interests. If done successfully, research can explore how inequalities are ‘produced, reproduced and sustained’ (p.176). This allows the research to challenge normative discourse which informs policy by exposing the effects that oppressive policy can have in institutions and on learners. It is important to also consider that a researchers values may shape their thinking. This affects the methodology that they choose. Therefore, a clear acknowledgement of a researchers’ values may assist in developing coherence in research.

Ozga proposes that research informed by critical theory must adopt certain principles of research design that explicitly indicates what is being studied, why and how it is being studied. This can be problematic in terms of categorising and interpreting theory, particularly as critical theory has evolved over time. Ozga explains that researchers can overcome these problems by drawing on a range of theories, considering similarities and differences. Thus, researchers must ensure that the way that they are using critical theory is made clear.

Tarlau (2014) comments that critical pedagogy aims to critique how education reinforces systems of oppression and offers to educate society to fight against societal inequalities. Tarlau discusses the origin of critical pedagogy through Freire’s early research. Freire inspired the notion of ‘popular education’. This refers to the education of the masses using informal education initiatives. Freire’s research scrutinised the education of literacy to poor labourers in Brazil. Freire was exiled because of this and wrote ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’. This was a challenge to the normative belief that literacy was not for the masses. This was seen as a direct challenge to social order because if the oppressed group were being empowered, then this could threaten those in power. This reiterates the oppressive relationships between the majority and the minority. Tarlau goes on to explain that although Freire inspired the concept of critical pedagogy, more work has been carried out by the likes of Dewey, Giroux and Horton. Hence, like critical theory, critical pedagogy is ever-changing.

Critical pedagogy should critique knowledge production, culture and social processes within education. Tarlau highlights that public schools provide resistance to social change. The educational system has regressed to promoting human capital to allow equal access to the employment market. This perspective of education reasons that schools enhance access to employment, levelling the playing field, ignoring the need for changes in society. The knowledge that learners acquire in education demonstrates this. This is also an issue highlighted by Molina and Christou (2009). Critical pedagogy enables researchers to assess if an educational setting is liberating learners. Firstly, the form of education has to ensure that learners are no longer passive, but are critical investigators of their learning, alongside the teacher. Therefore, students are not being moulded. Secondly, the content of education has to balance academic theory with social knowledge. Knowledge that liberates a learner from oppression considers the life experiences of the learner and also begins to connect their knowledge to critical theory. This ensures that education is meaningful.

Tarlau believes that critical pedagogy offers practitioners tools they can use to help students become critical. These include ‘concepts such as the teacher-intellectual, banking versus problem-solving education, collective learning, and constructing a language of resistance’ (p. 372). This could be linked to Habermas’ theory of communicative action. Habermas’ new ideas of critical theory founded a ‘speech act theory’ derived from language philosophy. (Alexander, 1985). Critical pedagogy assists researchers in utilising the practices suggested by theory, such as banking versus problem-solving education. The banking concept of education refers to knowledge bestowed upon others by those who are knowledgeable. This mirrors oppressive society as individuals are adaptable and manageable (Freire, 1970). Problem-solving education therefore refers to both students and teachers to become jointly responsible for their growth. This allows students to become critical thinkers, interpreting their own efficacy and increasing their ability to create change.

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To conclude, Tarlau argues that there is a need re-theorise the role of public education in facilitating social change. Critical pedagogy makes this possible by offering a framework for analysing educational practices. Tarlau recognises however that there is a need to combine these practices with how society can contribute to large scale social change. It is recognised that increasing learners’ consciousness about oppression through dialogue needs to be combined with physical and emotional support.

Molina and Christou (2009) problematize inclusive education. Inclusive education is seen as a challenge according to Molina and Christou. According to the UNCRC, all learners have the right to access quality education which leads to opportunities enhancing social inclusion. Consequently, a person’s level of education determines the opportunities that they receive including employment. Therefore, educational institutions need to develop interventions to ensure students have access to quality education. As a result, inclusive education is a tool to decrease social exclusion. However, inclusive education accounts for diversity and uses differentiation to account it. This means that those who are seen as less able to attain, will be given fewer opportunities to overcome the social disadvantage that they will face.

Molina and Christou provide a framework for understanding educational inclusion. They explain that educational inclusion must be understood as a process of transformation and as a historical response to increasing diversity. Firstly, inclusion can be viewed as a response to diversity. This means that educational inclusion is a response to increasing diversity in classrooms in terms of characteristics and attainment levels. This reflects societal changes in a globalised context. Institutions must respond to the needs of students whilst providing a high quality education for all. Secondly, inclusion includes being educated together and belonging to a group. This means that institutions should be open to all students, regardless of characteristics. Students should be treated equally and respected. Difference is seen as a valuable component of education. Next, inclusion refers to access to the curriculum. The curriculum contains the knowledge and skills that are considered necessary for all. Inclusive schools must ensure that their resources and teaching strategies are flexible so all students can access the curriculum. Finally, inclusion should be viewed as transforming of school. Inclusive schools ensures learning environments are sensitive to the needs and focuses on overcoming the barriers to learning in the environment. This is a process of continuous reflection, leading to greater inclusion.

Molina and Christou use critical pedagogy to argue that educational practices that exclude special educational needs (SEN) students have been developed through learning disabilities being defined as medical problems. Therefore, education focuses on the disability, not the abilities of disabled students. This medicalisation fails to consider if disability is a socially constructed concept. SEN students have accordingly been labelled by what they lack compared to others. Molina and Christou emphasise that main concerns in researching disability in education have been issues of power. The oppression of disabled people is reproduced in current research practices as the needs, concerns and voices of disabled people have been silenced. Another problem is that economic interests maintain exclusion. The current educational focus on progress and accountability reflects that diversity in education is too complex and difficult to apply to practice. Inclusive education uses critical pedagogy to understand how exclusion became possible through democracy and choice.

Molina and Christou states that many issues that are raised on education of SEN students can be traced back to past research. Discussions about equality and myths of SEN students have contributed to their exclusion. Although SEN students are no longer segregated in education, they are tolerated and pass through education. Molina and Christou explain the myths that have contributed to this. The myths include that SEN students are happier and learn more when segregated and the presence of SEN students in the classroom leaves other students unattended and lowers standards for all students. These myths highlight the oppressive thoughts associated with educating SEN students in mainstream classrooms. Molina and Christou uses research as empirical evidence to dispel these myths.

Molina and Christou use the learning communities approach to provide strategies for transforming mainstream classrooms into fully inclusive environments. The learning communities approach is based on education, psychology and sociology fields. Key theorists which contribute to this theory are Vygotsky, Bruner, Chomsky and critical theorists’, Freire and Habermas. This approach is based on four principles. This approach views context as important in the learning process. In order to transform learning, we need to transform the context where learning occurs. Human interactions and the universal ability of language are also seen as having a central role in the development of capabilities and academic performance. Finally, the egalitarian dialogue is a tool which can be used to liberate learners from oppressive education structures. The Learning Communities approach transforms not only the school but involves the whole community, including the families and the neighbourhood. It is transformed by all members of the community participating in discussions about goals, planning, implementation and evaluating changes, before repeating the process. Consequently, inclusion strategies offered benefits SEN students, but also those involved in the learning process.


Critical theory plays a significant role in changing the world through research. Therefore, researchers must be committed to the notion that education can be a transformative process which must be repeated. A critical theorist must reflect, overcome barriers, implement practice and repeat this process continuously to lead to greater inclusion for those who are oppressed. In my context, this will be those who are oppressed by educational structures and systems.

Critical theory exposes and challenges the norms and structures of oppressive society through problematizing. Critical theorists must be able to analyse who is advantaged and disadvantaged in current educational practice. They must assume that those who are advantaged have power and preserve this system of oppression. As I have become aware of these issues, I can begin to educate my students’ about how social relationships are distorted by power and privilege. This may cause some tension as students have to resolve their views of society with their new knowledge (Dewhurst and Lamb, 2005). Critical theorists also analyse how or why knowledge is constructed in such a way, as well as how or why it is legitimised and by who. I need to ensure that my students become aware of this. As a teacher of sociology, this is embedded in part of the curriculum when looking at different sociological perspectives and how they perceive the world. Education and inequality in certain groups are also analysed. Although, I don’t wish to just teach students this knowledge, I aspire for them to apply this knowledge to their everyday lives. I must ensure however, that I balance academia with social knowledge for my students, in order to make their learning more meaningful for them. I must also ensure that I consider their life experiences. Producing critical thinkers in my context is made somewhat easier through the curriculum that I follow, but I can adapt pedagogic strategies to enhance this further. This will allow my students to co-create knowledge and become more agentic.

Critical theorists seek to find voice in their research. Dialogue is repeatedly mentioned when referring to students’ learning to become critical thinkers. As an educator, I must ensure that I am listening to my students’ voice, as well as supporting them physically and emotionally. By listening to voice, I am open to their thoughts and opinions and should use this to adapt my pedagogy. I can also apply critical pedagogy to practice by adopting a problem-solving approach to my teaching. This means that I aim to become jointly responsible for my learners’ growth and development in education, allowing them to become more agentic in their learning. I should not dictate knowledge to them, but they must create this knowledge themselves through investigation. This will make their learning more meaningful and relevant.

In terms of carrying out my own research in my professional setting, I have learnt that I must be critical about my own values and methods. This may be discomforting but is crucial in investigating inclusive practice. I can also draw upon a range of theories to explain what I wish to investigate, why I am doing so and how I will carry this out. This ensures that I am explicitly clear in how I am using critical theory. Both Ozga and Molina and Christou highlighted this. By doing so, I can develop and use a critical approach with the aim of transforming my context, emphasising interactions and dialogues with individuals, with the hope to liberate both learners and the wider community.


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  • Dewhurst, D. and Lamb, S. (2005) ‘Educational stories: engaging teachers in educational theory’, Educational Philosophy and Theory: Incorporating ACCESS, vol. 37, no. 6, pp. 907–17.
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  • McLaren, P. (2012)Critical pedagogy. In: Soler, J., Walsh, C., Craft, A., Rix, J., and Simmons, K. (eds) Transforming Practice: Critical issues in equity, diversity and education, Stoke-on-Trent, Trentham Books Ltd, pp. 3-18.
  • Molina, S. and Christou, M. (2009) Educational inclusion and critical pedagogy, Education in the Knowledge Society, vol. 10, no. 3, pp.31–56.
  • Ozga, J. (2000) Theory, values and policy research in education. In: Soler, J., Walsh, C., Craft, A., Rix, J., and Simmons, K. (eds) (2012) Transforming Practice: Critical issues in equity, diversity and education, Stoke-on-Trent, Trentham Books Ltd, pp. 3-18.
  • Pollock, D. & Cox, R. (1991) Historicizing “reason”: Critical theory, practice, and postmodernity, Communication Monographs, vol. 58, no. 2, pp.170–178.
  • Tarlau, R. (2014) ‘From a language to a theory of resistance: critical pedagogy, the limits of “framing” and social change’, Educational Theory, vol. 64, no. 4, pp. 369–92.


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