The Critical Pedagogy Web Page:

Critical Cyber-Agency for Transformative Education

a paper presented at the 2000 Annual National Communication Association Convention

by Anne Shaw



A man makes a 20-mile round trip to fill three plastic 55-gallon barrels with water for drinking, cooking, bathing and flushing.  July 1998

 A 23-month old boy ambles toward the outhouse under the mesquite trees and roses at his grandmother’s house.  The outhouse door is usually locked, but someone had failed to secure the latch.  His mother finds him drowned in the shallow hole.   November 13, 1992.[i]

Nearly 400,000 people live in the poorest areas.   Life for them is a daily struggle with leaking septic systems, open-air cesspools, inadequate drainage, foul or nonexistent tap water and elevated rates of hepatitis and other diseases associated with poor sanitation.  Nowhere else in the nation do more people live without access to adequate water and sewer services.

 Austin-American Statesman, July 12, 1998, page 1

This article is not referring to a “third-world” country, but to the United States of America.  This article is referring to conditions in the State of Texas, in communities along the Texas-Mexico border known as colonias.  While the word “colonia” means “neighborhood” in Spanish, in the border region it has come to represent a subdivision lacking adequate water supplies, sewers, drainage systems and paved roads.  Texas has the largest colonia population on the U.S. side of the border.  Colonias developed due to unscrupulous developers, weak regulations and poor enforcement, according to the Austin-American Statesman.  Developers took advantage of Mexican immigrants eager to have a home in the United States but who had little money and could not qualify for a bank loan.  Developers sold lots to these immigrants for $100 down and $50 a month.  However, no one ensured that the sewers and water supplies were installed.

How is it possible that anyone could be living in such conditions as these in the United States?  This series of stories on colonias published in the Austin-American Statesman the summer of 1998 is a powerful example of the unequal social stratification which exists in American today, a potent proof that oppression is alive and well in the U.S.A., a definitive example of the racial and class marginalization and oppression which exists in our “democratic” society.

Critical pedagogues believe that oppression, suffering, marginalization, and the silencing of voices, which certain groups of people in the United States suffer, can be changed.  Critical pedagogues look to the schools as the institution in our society to bring about the desired changes – equality, social justice, prosperity and happiness for all citizens.


The 21st Century vs. the 20th Century

As we enter the new millennium educators are faced with many horrific conditions and problems that need to be addressed as well as many vigorous and exciting challenges.  Witnesses to dramatic and rapid changes all around us, we know that life in the 21st century is going to be radically different than life in the previous century.  Globalization, digitization, transnational capitalism, and greater diversity are the most obvious differences.  The computer chip has wrought revolutionary change in the lives of humans, and is also evidenced in its indirect, yet great, impact upon our planet Earth due to industrial growth resulting from the globalization made possible by technology.  Citizens of the 21st century face conditions and choices that no other generation has encountered.

Our Planet Earth

According to some scientists, the population of the planet has increased to the point that we will experience a population crash in 20 years.[i]  The population of the planet mid-year 2000 was 6,067 million;  at the current rate of growth, the planet’s population will double in 51 years.  Projected population for the planet in 2025 is 7,810 million and for 2050 is 9,039 million.[ii] 

Global Environment Outlook 2000, a report published by the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi, Kenya, states that:


Two over-riding trends characterize the beginning of the third millennium. First, the global ecosystem is threatened by grave imbalances in productivity and in the distribution of goods and services. A significant proportion of humanity still lives in dire poverty, and projected trends are for an increasing divergence between those that benefit from economic and technological development, and those that do not. This unsustainable progression of extremes of wealth and poverty threatens the stability of society as a whole, and with it the global environment.

Secondly, the world is undergoing accelerating change, with environmental stewardship lagging behind economic and social development. Environmental gains from new technology and policies are being overtaken by population growth and economic development. The processes of globalization that are so strongly influencing social evolution need to be directed towards resolving rather than aggravating the serious imbalances that divide the world today. Resolving these imbalances is the only way of ensuring a more sustainable future for the planet and society.[iv]

According to this report, the critical issues for this century cited most frequently by scientists surveyed are climate change and the quantity and quality of water resources.  The articles in the Austin-American Statesman on the colonias actually began as an environmental piece on water, according to the reporter who wrote these stories, but it soon evolved into a sociological issue that was covered in a series in the Austin-American Statesman.

We are experiencing huge destruction to our natural resources due to this overpopulation of the planet and the growth of industry– the very air we breathe, the water so vital for health and survival, and the destruction of rain forests (they are nearly gone now) are a few of the many casualties.  Issues of health, water supply, pollution of the oceans and the air, endangered species, war and peace, ethnic cleansing, media saturation, biogenetics (from cloning to anti-aging to designer babies) are some of the more urgent issues that must be addressed immediately.


New Information on the Brain and Learning

Recent research in learning and the functioning of the brain is opening to us new doors for understanding how we learn, and therefore, how we should be teaching.  Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, and Dr. Mel Levine’s exciting research in his Schools Attuned program are just two examples of how learning and teaching should be happening, and explain why so many students in schools today are failing or consider themselves stupid or losers.  This new information puts a glaring light upon the traditional educational practices which so many wish to continue.  We see now that these traditional practices are completely unsatisfactory.  And we see that the way we do “schooling” must change radically.  It is time to reinvent, to restructure, education in our society.


Societal Changes

In addition to the above-mentioned conditions and issues concerning life in general, the fragility of our planet, and education in general, there is another area that must be addressed - the social.  A brief analysis of the condition of our society in the United States reveals horrible injustices and suffering which must be corrected.  The unequally stratified society of the United States is causing many people to suffer marginalization, lack of access to resources, lack of power and voice, poor living conditions, and other forms of oppression.  This stratification is based upon the race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, and other factors determining “difference”.


Critical Pedagogy addresses the 21st Century

We will now examine three aspects of society which Critical Pedagogy addresses:  1) Unequal Social Stratification, 2) New Skills and Knowledges required for successful participation in society in the 21st century, and 3) Changes in Organizations and Communities – family to work to global and virtual.


Unequal Social Stratification

Critical Pedagogy is an educational theory that calls for the end of this unequal social stratification, an end to the immoral suffering of so many people.  While there are many topics and issues that can be addressed here, we will take a look at some examples of this oppression as we consider 1)  income distribution in the United States, 2)  child poverty, 3)  racism as illuminated in reports on prison incarcerations, and 3)  racism as reflected in the “digital divide”, distribution of income, and poverty statistics. The results of this oppression on the children of America is documented below in the “Every Day in America” chart which is published by the Children’s Defense Fund.


For all U.S. children: Every Day in America


children under 5 are murdered.


children and youth under 20 commit suicide.


children and youth under 20 are homicide victims.


children and youth under 20 die from firearms.


children and youth under 20 die from accidents.


babies die.


babies are born at very low birth weight (less than 3 lbs., 4 oz.).


children are arrested for violent crimes.


children are arrested for drug abuse.


babies are born to mothers who had late or no prenatal care.


babies are born at low birth weight (less than 5 lbs. 8 oz.).


babies are born to teen mothers.


babies are born without health insurance.


babies are born into poverty.


babies are born to mothers who are not high school graduates.


high school students drop out.*


babies are born to unmarried mothers.


children are arrested.


students are suspended from school.*


Distribution of Income

When considering social stratification in the United States, we look at the distribution of incomes.  As a country that is supposed to be one of the most developed and wealthiest in the world we have no excuse for allowing anyone in our country to live in poverty.  However, child poverty in America was 12.1 million children in 1999 according to the U.S. Census Bureau figures released September 26, 2000.  The Census Bureau defines poverty as an income below $13,290 a year, or the equivalent of $1,108 a month for a family of three.[v]   The income distribution for the United States in the year 1999 is indicated below;  the upper limit of income for each fifth of our population and the lower limit for the top 5%  are as follows:






Top 5%






Income Distribution in 1999 – the upper limit for each fifth of the population and the lower limit of the top 5%.

U.S. Census Bureau  -




Oppression due to racism is rampant in our land of “freedom” and “democracy”.  According to the article “The Punishing Decade: Prison and Jail Estimates at the Millennium” published by the Justice Policy Institute, “In 1997, even though African Americans made up only 13% of the population, half of the 1.2 million state and federal prisoners were African American (548,900).11 African Americans are imprisoned at 6.6 times the rate of whites (3,253 vs. 491 per 100,000). The nation's imprisonment policies have had their greatest impact among young black men, resulting in alarming rates of incarceration and disenfranchisement:


  • One in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 were under some form of criminal justice control (in prison, jail, parole or probation) in 1995.12 Other studies have shown that half the young men in Washington, DC, and more than half of the young men in Baltimore are under criminal justice control;13

  • A black male born in 1991 stood a 29% chance of being imprisoned at some point in his life, compared to 4 percent for a white male born that year;14

  • 1.4 million African American men, or 13 percent of the black adult male population have lost the right to vote due to their involvement in the criminal justice system. In the states with the most restrictive voting laws, 40 percent of African American men are likely to be permanently disenfranchised.15[vi]


Additionally, the Justice Policy Institute has published some alarming facts concerning the cost of this current high level of incarcerations.  Quoted directly from the report “The Punishing Decade – Prison and Jail Estimates at the New Millennium”:


“Based on the conservative estimate that the 1997 average annual cost continues to hold true, the Justice Policy Institute estimates the following expenditures associated with our incarceration policy:

  • The total cost of incarcerating Americans in state and federal prisons and jails in 1999 was $39.04 billion,16 and will top $41 billion in the year 2000;17

  • It will cost Americans $25.96 billion to imprison 1.3 million non-violent offenders in the year 2000.



The Justice Policy Institute has previously reported and quantified the staggering costs of imprisoning millions of Americans. The more significant findings include:

  • America spends 50% more incarcerating 1.2 million non-violent offenders than the entire $16.6 billion the federal government is currently spending on welfare programs that serve 8.5 million people;18

  • The nation is spending 6 times more to incarcerate 1.2 million nonviolent offenders than the federal government spent on child care for 1.25 million children;19

  • States around the country spent more building prisons than colleges in 1995 for the first time. There was nearly a dollar-for-dollar tradeoff between corrections and higher education, with university construction funds decreasing by $945 million (to $2.5 billion) while corrections funding increased by $926 million (to $2.6 billion).20 During the 1990s, New York State's prison budget grew by $761 million, while its budget for higher education dropped by $615 million.21 From 1984 to 1994, California's prison system realized a 209% increase in funding, compared to a 15 % increase in state university funding.22[vii]


Many educators have posed the questions so many times:  why not spend some of this money on kids in order to provide them with the best chances of making a good life rather than waiting until they are older, and have their lives ruined by crime and incarceration?  Wouldn’t these children who received the benefits from this money at an early age be of much greater benefit to society in the contributions he would make as a result of this assistance at the right time in his life?  What will it take to convince Americans that this is a simple solution and the best one for all concerned?


21st Century Life

We now turn to the exploration of some aspects of life in the 21st century which also indicate the need for drastic restructuring of education in the United States.

Media Culture


Going Digital

Living has become digitized as more and more Americans are entering the Internet for various reasons – ranging from the fun of web surfing to research to shopping to using e-mail.  In just the seven years since 1993, the number of people worldwide who use the Internet on a regular basis has brown from fewer than 90,000 to more than 304 million in 2000.[i]  In July 2000 Wired Magazine identified the top 50 Information Technology (IT) and Internet capitals;  it called them “Venture Capitals”.  Of the 50 top sites, only 14 were located within North America.  The rest were scattered around the globe. 


Increasingly Diverse Population

The United States is currently experiencing the second largest influx of immigrants in its history.  Our society is more diverse that at any previous time in our history as a nation.  Professors Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, Carola Suárez-Orozco co-directors of the Harvard Immigration Project have been conducting a large, longitudinal study on children of immigrants and their educational needs.  Their studies to date indicate that the following changes have been and will take place in the demographic structure of society in the United States:












3% of total U.S. population
































During the first large wave of immigrants the countries of origin were mainly European countries.  Today, however, the top nine countries from which immigrants originate (based on 1990 census figures) are:


1.       Mexico – 7 million

2.       Cuba -  805,000

3.       El Salvador – 718,000

4.       Canada -  679,000

5.       Germany – 625,000

6.       China -  565,000

7.       Dominican Republic -  556,000

8.       Vietnam  - 496,000

9.       India -  494,000


Some of these immigrants are among the most educated and affluent, while others have a limited education and are working poor.  Nearly 80% are of color.  One in five children in the United States is the child of an immigrant. The Suarez-Orozcos continue by identifying needs of these children insofar as education is concerned and make recommendations for curriculum development and school reform.  The success of society is directly dependent upon the success of these children.


Linguistic Diversity  -  Among the current immigrants to the United States, the linguistic backgrounds are: 

  • Over 100 languages in New York Public Schools

  • Over 90 languages in Los Angeles Public Schools

  • Top five languages are Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Tagalog[ix]

Other linguistic diversity can be found in cyberspace.  Only 50% of Internet users speak English as their first language.  Studies conducted in the summer of 2000 to determine the size of the web indicate that the web doubled in size during the first six months of 2000.  The studies found 1 billion unique, indexable pages;  6.4 million servers and 4.5 million sites.[x] 


Digital Divide

Less than half of all households with incomes of $15,000 or less (19% of the U.S. population) will be online by 2005.  By 2005 there will be 20 million high-income households online, as opposed to just 9 million low-income households.[xi] 


Doing It Online

Soon voting may also be available online.     Included in the current Administration e-society initiative is a study of online voting.  The Arizona Democratic primary of March 2000 allowed registered Democrats to cast their votes online and, according to the Economist, 40,000 people voted online, a 600% increase over the primary of 1996.[xii]  This Fall the U.S. government provided a single online repository called, containing the forms and services of the top 500 government services.



Users may have good reason to be concerned about cybersecurity and other cyberthreats such as viruses. The Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute™s Computer Emergency Response Team Coordination Center (CERT/CC), the original Internet security body, has reported a relatively steady increase in computer security incidents throughout the 1990s, with a three-fold explosion of reported incidents in 1999. Moreover, incident reports for the first and second quarter of 2000 have already approached 1999’s total.  In the first half of 2000, user concerns have been exacerbated by a number of high profile cyberassaults on both large corporate websites and private PCs connected to the Internet.[xiii]

While the Internet is only one way our society is becoming digital, it is a significant change.  The Internet alone provides reason enough for schools to make drastic changes in how they are structured;  this includes all aspects of schooling such as physical structure and organization, curriculum design, assessments, teacher education and professional development, and class schedules. 


Multiple Literacies

The new way of life in the 21st century requires that all people be functional in multiple literacies.  The multiple literacies required include, but are not limited to, computer literacy, numeracy,  financial literacy, visual literacy, aural literacy, emotional literacy, ecoliteracy, social and cultural literacies, network literacy, scientific literacy, and of equal or greater importance, the old standard literacies such as reading and writing.  These will become more crucial than ever as the ability to read and write are required to access and use available forms of communication such as the Internet. 

Critical media literacy is especially important as our society becomes a media-saturated society.  Students must be able to not only critically view and evaluate media in many forms, but they must be able to utilize multiple forms of media for creating texts.  These texts will be for purposes of communication, entertainment, teaching, creating new knowledges and for practicing and maintaining democracy as they fully participate as citizens.  The Internet has provided a wonderful medium for people to speak about various issues, and is the perfect format for creating social change.  In order to utilize these tools, students MUST become literate in multiple media consumption and production.  In Canada there have been efforts in the schools for some time now to teach media literacies.  You can find many wonderful resources online.  Now the United States is beginning to explore teaching media literacy in the schools.  In 1998, for example, the State of Texas added media literacy skills to it required teaching list of Texas Education Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS.


Organizational Changes in the 21st Century

Other changes in the 21st century are related to the work environment.  Work in the 21st century is structured very differently than work in the 20th century.  The old-fashioned vertical hierarchy in which a worker occupied a specific “place”, answered to a regular “boss”, and planned on staying with a company until retirement is being rapidly replaced by the horizontal profile of work teams, project teams.  These project teams are fluid, constantly changing.  They often include people who work for other companies.  The lifetime of these project teams varies – anywhere from lifetime (very unlikely) to a few months, or weeks or days.  The teams are interdisciplinary, and the bosses are the members of the team.  Each member has unique responsibilities and is expected not to let the team down. 

Another characteristic of work in the 21st century is “constant learning”.  Workers must continually study and take courses to keep up with all the changes and advances in technology and in their industry.  Ongoing training is therefore a constant.

Many companies have transitioned from hiring permanent employees to contracting temporary employees for 30-180 days for a particular project.  This makes life extremely difficult for these workers as they have no benefits such as insurance, sick leave or vacation;  their pay is frequently lower than their peers with permanent positions;  and job security is nonexistent.  These workers are subject to the whims of managers and the state of the cash flow in the company.  Unfortunately, most of the jobs in United States are this type of job now.  In all industries – from the high tech companies (established and new startups) to the university (where most professors hired now are non-tenured and part-time). 


Virtual Communities (VCs) 

Beginning as simple chat rooms and bulletin boards on the Internet, virtual communities have evolved into highly sophisticated sites created for a variety of purposes.  Some sites are created as sources of information for people with common interests such as a hobby, politics, music, etc.  Others are created for the purpose of teaching and learning.  According to four students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “VCs have some common characteristics. They encourage people to talk to people, not to read news handed down to them from some person or organization above. They usually have a specific focus, like a topic or a style, which brings people in and gives them some kind of kinship with others in the VC. And they also have a possible commercial orientation, where people can buy and sell things.”[xiv] 


Education in the New Millennium

Looking at the conditions and trends in the environmental status of the planet; the globalization of society and economies; the rapid transition to digital leisure, entertainment, education, work, and commerce;  the unique skills required due to changes in the jobs market;  it is plain to see that the old system of education with its steadfast focus on teacher-centered education cannot and will not be sufficient or acceptable for educating students any longer (as if it ever was).

For critical pedagogues the purposes of schooling are greater than preparing young people to become docile workers in the corporate world.  Schooling is also the place where young people learn how to be active citizens, locally and globally, who is able and willing to create social change in order to bring about a better world for everyone.  Thus, the recommendation that schools adopt the theories of Critical Pedagogy and implement these as praxis in the schools.


Possibilities – the Critical Pedagogy Web Site – how it all began

How can this come about?  Most public school educators have never heard of Critical Pedagogy.  Many who have heard of it dismiss it as too radical.  Many claim that it will never be allowed.  We can hope that they are wrong as we continue the struggle to transform schools.

Six years ago I came to the University of Texas at Austin to begin work on a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction.  At the time I had not heard of Critical Pedagogy, but I soon heard of it in a Philosophical Foundations of Education class.  One of the books for that course was Michael Apple’s Ideology and Curriculum.  In that same class we learned of a group of theorists called the Frankfurt School. This group developed a theory known as critical theory, which is foundational to Critical Pedagogy.  One of the members of the Frankfurt School got my attention particularly;  his name was Herbert Marcuse.  He had written a number of books, the best-known being One-Dimensional Man.  Marcuse and his colleagues were striving to find a theory that could be used to change conditions in society so as to make the world a better place to live.  In essence, critical theory involved analysis of the current state of affairs within a social/historical context.  Then the development of a vision of how things should be, followed by a plan and action to transition from the “here” to “there” – from the negative state of affairs to the better state visualized.  They looked for and worked toward possibilities.


Critical Pedagogy

Critical Pedagogy is a relatively new theory.  Primary proponents and developers of this theory are Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator;  Henry Giroux at Penn State University;  Peter McLaren and UCLA and Douglas Kellner at UCLA (formerly University of Texas at Austin). 

The basic tenets of Critical Pedagogy are:  1)  we live in a society which is unequally stratified  2)  this unequal stratification is based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, ability, etc.  3)  schools tend to re-create and perpetuate this unequal social stratification by their structure,  4)  both the overt and the hidden curriculum cause the maintenance of the status quo,  5)  power and knowledge are linked to the maintenance of the status quo, and 6)  schools can be sites for the elimination of the status quo, and can serve as sites of transformation of society.

As I began to study Critical Pedagogy, I focused on the works of Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, Douglas Kellner and Paulo Freire.  Based on their work I began to develop a web site created for the purpose of bringing to educators information about Critical Pedagogy.  First of all, teachers need to be aware of Critical Pedagogy.  They need to know why it was developed and why we should implement it.  They need to know how to implement it.

Possibilities – the Critical Pedagogy Web Site was created.  I began by briefly introducing Critical Pedagogy and then began to outline the philosophical foundations of this theory.  It had been my experience when I was reading the books on Critical Pedagogy that I was certainly lacking the background in philosophy to really understand what I was reading.  In fact, after a couple of days into my summer project of reading all of Giroux’s books, I purchased a dictionary of philosophy.  Shortly thereafter I  retreated to studying Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School, since this was an extremely important foundation of Critical Pedagogy.  Marcuse alone took all summer since I then spent much time retreating to learn something of the various philosophers that had influenced Marcuse.  It was an intense project.

I felt that the average classroom teacher would probably experience similar difficulties.  I knew that Critical Pedagogy was what I wanted to be able to implement, and I wanted to know how.  The Possibilities web site was created as a resource for other teachers who wished to make changes in schooling also. 

Why a web page?  Why would I choose the format of a web site on the Internet to accomplish this goal of spreading the information to more teachers?  The Internet was still not utilized a great deal at the time I established this web site in 1995.  At the time there were very few web sites on the topic of Critical Pedagogy.  Today, in 2000, there are more, but the supply is still small.

There were several reasons for deciding to place this information on the Internet.  First, it was accessible to a much larger audience than if I had simply printed a small book or published my dissertation on paper.  It would then probably sit on the shelves in the library gathering dust.  I wanted the information to be used, and through use be further developed. 

This web site/dissertation is an always evolving, and always will be evolving, event.  When I began work on the web site in 1995 all I had in mind at the time was posting some information for teachers to read and use.  Then it occurred to me that it should take advantage of its ability to be interactive with anyone in the world with a computer, and it became a continually evolving, or living, archive.  Eventually this web page will contain additional elements such as a discussion or dialogue room, a place for posting shared stories and experiences, tools for creating virtual classrooms, video and audio clips, and a virtual classroom where educators can participate in professional development opportunities online.


Why This Web Site for Teachers?

In addition to the philosophical foundations of this theory, I included on the web site a couple of examples of curriculum units.  One important difference for this web site is that it is developed with the elementary teacher in mind.  Implementing critical pedagogy in the schools will vary depending upon the grade level and age of the students.  Most of the topics I have read about for critical pedagogy are more appropriate for university level and/or high school level students.  However, when we are at the first grade level or the fifth grade level we must adjust the curriculum to the developmental levels of those students. 

What can be done at these grade levels that will prepare students to become critical learners and agents of social change?  Quite a bit!  The two units posted at this web site are Money – a first grade unit, and The Environment – a Critical Investigation of Our Community, a unit for upper elementary students.  Each of these units possesses the primary characteristics or attributes of Critical Pedagogy.  These attributes include:


  • Conscientization – a raising of the consciousness as to the actual conditions in society, in relation to power structures, knowledges, and the realization that one has the power to create change


  • Critical  - students are always engaged in a critique of “what is” as well as an articulation of what could be, the “possibilities”


  • Social Action – students learn how to become agents of social change as citizens participating in a democratic society;  students design, implement and evaluate plans of action for social change in their community – from the classroom level to the local community to the national and international levels.[xv]


  • Relevant Curriculum - based on issues relevant to students and to the betterment of society


  • Student-Centered


  • Interdisciplinary

  • Research-oriented

  • Multicultural


  • Democratic - inclusive of marginalized and oppressed with a focus on equality, justice and democracy


  • Multiple Literacies


  • Critical Media Literacy -  students learn how to critique, use and produce messages in a variety of media;  the products they create have their purpose rooted in desired social change, and the creation and publication of these products are the action which the student takes and which the students then reflects before taking action again.  A perfect example of a product of critical media literacy is a Hector Galan production, The Forgotten Americans, a PBS documentary he began in 1998.  It is the story of the colonias discussed in the 1998 series published in the Austin-American Statesman.  In addition to this wonderful film, there is a web site, Las Colonias.[xvi]


Later, I established a second web site – 21st Century Schools.  This web site was designed to introduce teachers to critical pedagogy and to provide for them resources and tools for developing a curriculum for their classrooms.  It grew significantly as links were added for Professional Development, a sample unit on Civil Rights, Multicultural Resources, Recommended Reading for Teachers, Parents Workshop – a guide to holding a workshop with parents at the beginning of the school year – very important, links for Civil Rights, Human Rights, Migrant Education, Curriculum and Instruction, a Themes Bank, Classroom Management, Assessment and Grading, National Standards and Standardized Testing, Learning Theories, Multiple Literacies, Critical Media Literacy,  Technology and Children’s Literature – in general and for Native American, African-American, Latino/a, Jewish, Religious Oppression, Ableism, Ageism, Classism, Racism, and Sexism -  for each of these categories there were also links for Resources, Web Sites, Poetry, Myths and Legends, Fiction, Non-Fiction.


What Teachers Need to Know About Critical Pedagogy

So what is it that teachers need to know about Critical Pedagogy?  First of all, they should have some idea of what it is.  There is no single definition of Critical Pedagogy.  According to Pepi Leistyna:


“contrary to common misperceptions of critical pedagogy as a monolithic discourse – that is, one particular way of seeing and engaging the world – the vast literature and positions that generally fall under the category not only demonstrate that there are multiple theoretical camps and differences but also that there is no generic definition that can be applied to the term. . . Regardless of the abundance of names that are summoned to describe critical pedagogy, there are important theoretical insights and practices that are woven throughout these various concepts, which often grow out of a common set of issues and conditions that provide the focus for critical education within shifting spheres of political conflict.”[xvii]

Therefore, on my web sites I offer a description of Critical Pedagogy that I believe will communicate the most basic sense of what it is. 

Next, teachers need some information about why and how critical pedagogy is being developed.  This includes the philosophical foundations.  Critical Pedagogy must be examined within its social and historical contexts.  Included here are the works of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator;  Freire is probably given the greatest credit with the development of this pedagogy.  His most well-known book was Pedagogy of the Oppressed published in 1970;  other excellent works include Pedagogy in Process (1978), The Politics of Education – Culture, Power and Liberation (1985),  We Make the Road by Walking – Conversations on Education and Social Change (1990), Pedagogy of the City (1993), Pedagogy of Hope – Reviving Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1995), Pedagogy of the Heart (1997) and others.  You can find more information about Freire at the Possibilities Web Site

We include some analysis of society and the role of schooling in society – focusing on social justice, equality and democracy.  Michael Apple, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren and Douglas Kellner have published many wonderful articles and books on this topic.  You can find the bibliographies for each of them at the Possibilities Web Site.  Also included for teachers are many resources – online and in print.  These include books, articles, journals, ezines, web sites and organizations.

Teacher's Objections

Typically, when faced with the invitation to write and implement this type of unit, some teachers balk.  The first concern they express is that they have to prepare the students for the standardized tests.  Many also claim that they cannot possibly implement that type of curriculum because they are required to be on page such-and-such on a certain date along with the other teachers in that department. 


Objection:  Standardized Testing

These are problems, but they are not insurmountable.  It was my experience when teaching 4th and 5th grade in Port Lavaca, Texas, that my students who were exposed to the constructivist curriculum which appropriated some critical pedagogy as far as the students critiquing and making recommendations for improvement in their community, performed better on the standardized tests than any of the other classes in the school.  At the time I failed to properly document this, so I can only offer it as a story relating an experience.  I am sure that if and when research is conducted to test this theory that the research will support it.  I assure teachers that they do not have to worry about the standardized testing being jeopardized. 


Objection:  Required to be on certain page in the textbook on a certain date

The other argument teachers offer is the problem of having to be on a certain page in a certain textbook on a certain date.  This is because the entire department (math or history or whatever) is supposed to stay exactly in-step so that when the students go to the next level they will all be in the same place to start again.  This is a terrible thing to do to teachers or students!  There are several solutions to this dilemma.  One solution, which I have seen implemented in a huge middle school in Texas (grades 7, 8 and 9), was restructuring of the school into teams.  Some call them pods.  In each team there are teachers from each discipline – a history teacher, a math teacher, a science teacher, language arts, and so forth.  This small team of teachers has assigned to them a certain group of students.  They are physically located together in the school so that the students never have to go further than across the hall to a class or to their lockers.  It is a community of students and teachers.  This way, the teachers can devise the curriculum and the schedule as they see is needed for their students.  They are totally free to change their schedules as needed for special projects and events.

 If a school feels that they cannot do this, which is more difficult in high school with so many different classes the students are attending, then they can get together with the other teachers in their departments and work on a better way to teach what they are teaching – design a new kind of curriculum as opposed to going page by page in the textbook.  It can be done.  Also, they can collaborate with teachers in other departments, choosing a theme and designing a unit around that theme.  So if they are studying the Middle Ages in history, the science and math teachers can coordinate activities in their class with that theme. The unit can still be interdisciplinary.


Objections:  Assessment and Grading

The next concern expressed by teachers is that of assessment and grading.  Schools are deeply entrenched in the methods used in schools for the past century;  when it comes to grading, they give the students a test, or quiz, assign a numerical score based on the number of “right” answers, and all grades are averaged for the grade period.  The average calculated is the grade students receive on their report cards.  This is supposedly providing parents with reliable information as to what their children know and can do. 

I recommend the use of “authentic assessments”, also known as “performance assessments”.  What is the purpose of grading and assessment?  In the old-school method discussed above, teaching and grading philosophies actually have nothing to do with authentic teaching, authentic learning or authentic assessment.   That philosophy of teaching, learning and assessment goes something like this:  The teacher is the authority, the font of knowledge.  The teacher presents this knowledge to the class.  If a student doesn’t understand it completely, that is the student’s problem not the teacher’s.  The teacher has done his/her part – presented the information.  It is up to the student to figure it out, to understand it, to memorize it and to demonstrate that memorization on the test that Friday.  If the student scores 68% correct on the test that is the grade.  That’s the end of the discussion as far as this teacher is concerned.

Authentic teaching, authentic learning and authentic assessment derive from a different philosophy:  the teacher is a guide, introducing students to new concepts and new knowledge.  If, after the teacher has brought this information to her students in some manner and the students (or a student or two) still has trouble with really understanding the concepts/information, then it is the duty of the teacher to assist those students by finding other approaches to that information, and to continue doing this until the students do understand it.  Authentic learning is not memorization;  authentic learning means that the student has incorporated the new concepts/information into their previously learned knowledge.  Authentic assessment is determining what a student knows and can do with the knowledge; it is not to determine what facts are memorized, but to determine what they mean and how they can be used.  This assessment can be done only by seeing a corresponding behavior or action in which the student is using the knowledge.  This is why performance-based assessments are being used – they provide for students an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do with the knowledge.  If an assessment activity demonstrates that the student doesn’t have a correct understanding of what was to be learned, then we do not penalize the student with a low grade, we work with the student so that they actually learn, then grade them based on what they know.  The purpose of schooling, after all, is not to slap numbers on students based on how quickly they learn something, but to teach the students.  We do not average this grade with previous attempts to demonstrate learning.  What a person knows now is what a person knows now;  and what the student knows now is what matters.  The grade should accurately reflect what the student now knows.

Possibilities and 21st Century Schools provide resources for teachers to learn about authentic assessment and grading.  These resources include examples of authentic assessment performances requested of students to demonstrate their learning, examples of rubrics, and links to many web sites with information on authentic assessment.

Designing the Critical Curriculum

Next, teachers need to know how to design such curriculum.  This is a very different process from using the textbook, following the teachers’ guide, and giving students the various worksheets and tests as provided by the textbook publisher.  These tools are the very tools which critical pedagogues claim are nothing more than devices used for the “deskilling” of teachers.  They are known as the “teacher-proof curriculum”. 

There is a particular process that can be used by teachers to design innovative, meaningful, relevant curriculum that is designed specifically for their students in their unique communities.  The designs on the Possibilities web site are actually more of a “framework” rather than a “unit” of curriculum;  it allows plenty of flexibility to design the unit to fit the needs and interests of the students and teachers of any particular community.


Implementing the Critical Curriculum

Finally, teachers need to know how to implement such a curriculum.  If they understand the philosophy behind critical pedagogy, and they have their unit of curriculum along with the authentic assessments designed to align directly with the outcomes of the unit, there is still the issue of actual implementation.


Attributes of this type of curriculum speak to an entirely different way of teaching, learning, assessment and classroom organization and management as well.  These units are interdisciplinary, thematic (usually based on important issues), integrated, project-based, research-oriented, problem-based, utilize critical media literacies, multiple intelligences, and various learning styles.  The curriculum units themselves are not “canned curriculum”;  rather, they are frameworks which offer guidance, suggest and offer a variety of approaches within the theme and the framework itself and are flexible in order to allow needed adaptations to the unique community of students who are implementing the unit.  There is plenty of room for input from students as teachers become more comfortable with student-centered learning and encourage the voices of the students in the actual design and implementation of the unit of study.


Why isn't Critical Pedagogy implemented in our schools?

Implementing Critical Pedagogy is anything but easy.  If you get past the objections of the teachers and administration you still may have to deal with the objections from the community.  This is why I always recommend having a Parent Workshop in your classroom very close to the beginning of the school year.  Taking the time to explain everything, to inform parents about what their children will be doing, how and why, and how they will be assessed and graded, goes a long way toward building trust and acceptance, and eventually support which is greatly needed. 


Obstacles to Implementation

1.      Lack of Knowledge -  Teachers do not know about Critical Pedagogy at all, OR they have read the critiques and theory of the critical pedagogues but have not seen any empirical examples of implementation -  teachers need specific models.  Teachers do not know what to do.

2New Definitions Needed -  Implementing Critical Pedagogy requires a major paradigm shift for teachers in how they define:   teacher,  student,  learning,  school,  and  knowledge

3.      School Structure -  The current structure of schooling goes against Critical Pedagogy – class schedules,  large classes,  fragmented curriculum.  The school must be restructured.

4.      Community Resistance – when teachers do attempt to implement a radical curriculum, something that is very different from what the students, parents and fellow teachers  expect, there is great resistance;  huge efforts may occur in attempting to put a stop to this type of teaching.  This is more likely to occur in wealthy communities. 

5.      Parents’ fears  -  most parents believe that their experiences as students are the right way to educate their children;  when faced with this type of curriculum parents become alarmed at the prospects of students working independently, interdependently, not using textbooks to guide their learning, the absence of all those worksheets they’re used to seeing, and the absence of daily assigned homework in the form of drilling exercises.  Parents truly fear that their child will fall behind in school, will not learn what is needed.

6.      Inadequate Internet Access -  Many classrooms lack adequate Internet access, computers and software, and other media equipment – with all the new skills and literacies required for successful living in the 21st century, schools must have the proper equipment for students and teachers;  if the 21st century is based upon digital technologies, media saturation, and globalization, then they must have equipment to “live” this way at school.  Otherwise, it is as though you are offering swimming classes with no water;  it cannot be done.

7.      Lack of adequate Professional Development for teachers -  if teachers are not offered adequate professional development – adequate meaning in terms of time as well as in terms of quality professional development planning – they cannot progress to higher levels of performance and knowledge. 

8.      Tracking habits of schools – tracking students into different types of classes based on their “abilities”, or rather their race or class, must stop.  All students must have access to the best classes. 

9.      Inadequate Time -  Teachers do not have the time they need to study, plan, and develop critical curriculum -  teachers in the United States are not treated as the professionals that they are.  Al professionals require time for professional development as well as time to do the work they really came to do as teachers.  Other tasks that take away from teaching or preparation time should be done by others. 

10.  Competition Model -  The current way of thinking of schools as competitive rather than collaborative.  Parents, teachers, administrators, and students are accustomed to thinking in terms of hurry, hurry, hurry and memorize all this information;  hurry and make a higher grade than someone else to prove you are smarter;  if you do not make the highest grade then you lose;  if you make bad grades for some reason, then you are stupid and a loser. 

Instead they should be thinking that different people have different strengths, and these strengths determine how quickly you learn something and in what manner you learn it best.  They should see the goal as learning the lesson, not as learning the lesson within a specific time frame or else the learning does not count.

 An example I use with teachers in workshops is that of obtaining a drivers’ license.  I ask a group of teachers if they know anyone who has ever failed a drivers’ license test (of course, none of them ever failed one).  They say yes.  I ask them whether that person was able to student and then was given another opportunity to take the test.  Yes.  And did that person receive a drivers’ license?  Yes.  Was it a partial drivers’ license?  Did the Department of Motor Vehicles average the grades from each of the tests taken and then issue a license of 70% or 92% the normal license?  Is that person prohibited in any way by his previous scores?  No.  They have demonstrated that they possess the knowledge and skills to safely be awarded a license to drive a car in that state – and that’s it.  It doesn’t matter how many times they had to try, or how long it took.  This is a point which teachers have a good deal of trouble accepting; only because it is so different than what they have known and done all their lives, as students and then as teachers.


In conclusion, there are many obstacles to implementation of Critical Pedagogy in the schools.  However, I choose to maintain hope and to continue focusing on the Possibilities.  It is my hope that the web site Possibilities will be a real catalyst for the restructuring of education in the United States – influencing both teacher professional development and teacher education at the university level.  There is still a great deal of work to be done on this web site;  in fact, it is a mere sprout at this time.  But my belief is that this web site will serve to enable some changes in schooling.  

Part of creating change is communicating to others what change is needed and what it will look like.  People who have worked with a particular paradigm for many years (not to mention their own education growing up in the same paradigm) find a radical paradigm shift extremely uncomfortable, and it makes them behave in a hostile, angry manner.  Perhaps if information is offered via a web site, which offers ideas and possibilities in an unthreatening manner teachers will eventually become accustomed to the idea.  It won’t seem so strange, after all.  Isn’t that part of what selling is all about?  Repetition – let them keep seeing it. 

My solution has been, when working with teachers, to present the curriculum design and organization in a way that they see how it meets their needs and expectations.  I also strive to make connections with things they are already doing which can be brought out more in the Critical Pedagogy Curriculum.  They need to be assured that they aren’t letting anything slide, such as the required state standards or preparing the students to do well on standardized tests.  It takes time, and they need gentle, patient guidance into this new way of teaching.  I was once told that I used the “Dimetapp approach” – it’s medicine, but it tastes so good that they want it. 

It has been my experience over and over again that when it is presented this way teachers are usually at least willing to try it, and when they do (although they are apprehensive) they are always pleased with the results and anxious to do more.  They are pleased with how well everything falls into place, with the fact that their students do not go wild, that the students are so motivated they are doing extra work at home every day, and parents are sending notes, calling or coming to the school to tell the teachers how very pleased they are with their child’s new motivation for school. 

Some will say that this new motivation in students is a temporary one based on the fact that what they are doing is simply different.  It is not.  It is there to stay.  The students are intrinsically motivated because they are experiencing success.  This isn’t to say that suddenly all the students are smarter or that all their problems disappeared.  But built into this curriculum is additional support for the students, and they are willing to work very hard to learn whatever they need to learn, to overcome any difficulties they may be experiencing with a particular skill.


Realize the Possibilities

In closing, it is my hope that we will realize some of the wonderful possibilities there are for creating change in schools, and through schools, in society.  Critical Pedagogy has many possibilities for us all.  The 21st century has opened to us many doors which were never open before, and now is our chance to go through those doors with our students and with our colleagues as we chart the course with them for a better life and a better world in the new millennium. 


[i] Austin-American Statesman, July 12, 1998, p. 1

[ii]   My daughter, Elizabeth, is a Biology Major at Tulsa University; this is what the professor told her class.

 [iii]   Population Reference Bureau,  2000 World Population Data Sheet, (the following link/report is no longer available online)

[iv]   United Nations Environment Programme,

[v] Children’s Defense Fund Web Site

[vi] Justice Policy Institute,  (footnotes within the quoted section are for that article which you access directly online)

[vii] ibid.

[viii] State of the Internet 2000, United States Internet Council  &ITTA Inc.

[ix] Harvard Immigration Project,

[x] State of the Internet 2000, United States Internet Council  &ITTA Inc.

[xi] State of the Internet 2000, United States Internet Council  &ITTA Inc.

[xii] State of the Internet 2000, United States Internet Council  &ITTA Inc.

[xiii] State of the Internet 2000, United States Internet Council  &ITTA Inc.

[xiv] Virtual Communities – Challenges and Promises;

[xv] An excellent resource book for various projects for students age 10 and up is A Kid’s Guide to Social Action – How to Solve the Social Problems You Choose and Turn Creative Thinking into Positive Action,  by Barbara A. Lewis.  It can be ordered online at

[xvi]   Las Colonias,

[xvii] Leistyna, Pepi.  Presence of Mind – Education and the Politics of Deception.  Westview Press, 1999, p. 6-7