Critical Literacy

Over the past couple of weeks I have been reflecting on a former student, “Marco.” (Check out Part 1 “To Hell with Good Intentions” and Part 2 Literacy By the Students, For the Students – this won’t make a whole lot of sense without first knowing some background!)  With the help of John Dewey, I can finally put into words the ideas that drove my vague frustrations between traditional education and progressive education!

Thanks John Dewey!

Now I can transition to a reflection from the larger umbrella of educational philosophy to specific pedagogies that, had Marco been in my class this academic year, would’ve possibly given him academic and personal development alongside a renewed sense of purpose and possession in his education. Marco learned the content and took the tests; he is in the strictest interpretation of the term, literate.  Yet he was not given agency to take his education and apply it meaningfully to his own life. What he read was not his passion, and literacy was something done to him, rather than something he built.  The content he received was built for the masses and spoon-fed, intended to be memorized and filed away, rather than based in personal discovery, struggle, and creation.


This spoon-feeding of literacy is described by Paulo Freire as a “banking” concept of education.  Knowledge is “deposited” and education as a process results in underdevelopment of critical consciousness.  Basically, Marco was being taught what to think and how to express it, rather than being taught how to think.  But much like Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, Marco is a fiercely independent individual, and the banking concept of education disregards this independence in order to produce predictable results.

But there is another way! Had he been taught through a lens of what educational philosophers describe as critical pedagogy, it is possible that Marco would’ve gained knowledge through, as Freire wrote, “invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” Marco loves to question anything and everything. This approach would be right up his alley! Critical pedagogy questions the authoritative role of the banking concept of education in an effort to reverse Freire’s described “passive role imposed on [students]” with the goal of developing critical consciousness as a tool to realistically assess the natural and social structures in their world and to create knowledge, rather than to simply receive and file away.

Marco’s independence is to be upheld as a strength for developing critical consciousness and personal empowerment in the pursuit of knowledge, rather than a liability in the way of him “receiving his education.” To question, discover, and create knowledge, Marco must experience education, rather than simply receive.  Such questions allow Marco’s independent questioning to examine knowledge and challenge the dominant culture, allowing him to fully engage the content both academically and personally. This process can transfer for the rest of Marco’s life, making education a pursuit and a joy, and giving him purpose in challenging unjust structures within our society.




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