1.7.2 Critical Theory: Freire's Critical Pedagogy and 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed'

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

- understand and explain clearly what Critical Pedagogy means

- appreciate how Critical Pedagogy links with education

- understand the main ideas in Freire's 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed', and explain why this approach makes an important contribution to education theory and research

- understand and explain how Freire's this theory applies to education, both in its original context and in other contexts across the world

- critically evaluate and discuss the strengths and limitations of this theory

- link this theory to educational practice

What is meant by the term 'Critical Pedagogy'?

Critical theory emerged in the early twentieth century and was applied across the social sciences, including economics, sociology criminology, history and many others as well as education. These thinkers argued that there is no such thing as objective fact, because there are always underlying social, economic and cultural conditions and assumptions that lie behind the data. Context is important, and many factors will influence human behaviour.

A key element in critical pedagogy is the idea that human society is imperfect and needs to be subjected to quite radical change. It focuses on power and authority, and the hierarchies which can assert ideological positions and confine people to defined roles in life, and limit their freedom. As such, critical pedagogy is necessarily political, and it faces up to the social realities that constrain people's lives, and the uncomfortable outcomes of systems which are designed to benefit the few at the expense of the masses. In general usage, the word "critical" often has negative connotation, as for example in the case of giving feedback after a visit to a restaurant: a critical review evaluates the restaurant badly, pointing out all its negative points. This word, however, can also be used positively, in the sense that it describes a careful evaluation that takes the time to weigh up the pros and cons of something.

How does Critical Pedagogy link with education?

A key element of critical pedagogy is dialectical thought, meaning challenging given situations, asking questions and considering other possibilities that might enable positive changes to be made. Critical theory re-examines the basic assumptions that people make about the world, and especially about society and all its institutions, roles and structures. It asks not only what is happening, but also why things are set up this way, and what the consequences of concepts, practices and experience might be. Applying critical theory to education involves re-examining basic concepts and asking questions.

Different cultures view childhood in different ways, and there are always many factors that influence the concept of childhood that people have in their minds. This concept then influences the kind of teaching that is provided (or in some cases not provided, or only selectively provided). No matter what kind of culture and socio-political regime is in place, there are bound to be aspects that are discriminatory or restrictive for some, or even for most children. Critical pedagogy insists that the negative and unfair aspects of education can and should be removed, reformed or replaced with something better.

What is Freire's 'pedagogy of the oppressed'

Paulo Freire (1921-1997) was a Brazilian philosopher and educationalist who developed his own theory called "the pedagogy of the oppressed" (Freire, 1996). His book is one that many regard as a key text that all teachers should read in order to gain an insight into the nature of teaching and learning and the role of education in society and in the lives of individual learners. At the time of writing, Freire was already an experienced educator who had witnessed the struggle of many poor people to make their way through a rigid and traditional education system in Brazil which was not fit for purpose. A key element in this theory is that it analyses the social, political and economic factors, and the ideologies that lie behind any national education system. Freire was not impressed with a national school system that appeared to be designed to produce passive learners who were being prepared for boring jobs in the service of capitalist mass production and mindless service industries (Barrow and Wood, 2007). He thought that education should be a much more positive and dynamic force in society, and that it should not simply support an unfair class system that disadvantaged the majority of learners.

Freire's theory examines the role of education in the life of each child, but also considers the wider context of the nature and purpose of education within society as a whole. It is underpinned by Marxism, an ideology which questions the right of elite cadres in society to reserve the best of everything for themselves. In Brazil of the 1970s, as in many other countries, the school system excluded working class people and the poor from accessing fundamental avenues of development including higher level school and college education, as well as professional training that opens up the possibility of professional jobs and fulfilling careers.  Freire was passionate about the notion of justice. He wanted to unlock the potential of education to transform children's lives, and was frustrated by the conditions that prevented him from doing this.

The most famous example that Freire suggested to describe his pedagogy of the oppressed is an extended metaphor that likens education to a traditional banking system. We must remember that Freire was writing in Brazil, which was a relatively poor country, and in a period before the invention of computers and digital money transfers. Banking in this context is a bureaucratic institution, based on millions of routine paper transactions, since every banking process involved filling in forms, filing multiple copies of papers and keeping a huge store of records. In this metaphor, money is knowledge. He describes teaching in terms of active depositors (i.e. teachers) putting knowledge into students, who are just passive recipients. The bank is the school or educational system that provides the administrative framework for these transactions, imposing its own bureaucratic rules and regulations on depositors and recipients alike. The students take in this knowledge, but they have no say in what the teacher gives them. The system is set up in such a way that it benefits those who have more knowledge given to them, and the wealthiest students receive more and better deposits than the poorer students. On the basis of the paper qualifications that wealthy students receive, by regurgitating this knowledge, they have a much better life. Meanwhile, the majority of poorer students leave school early and have few options available to them. Freire concludes that the system is designed to preserve social privileges for the few.   

In response to the banking view of education, Freire suggests a very different model that removes some of the power vested in teachers, and in the system, and gives it instead to the students. Freire recommends a more equal relationship between teacher and students, in which learning is negotiated between them, rather than decided by the teacher or imposed by the system.  He contrasted the banking model of education with a problem posing education, or in other words, a rejected a learn-and-repeat approach and recommended with a questioning approach. The first approach accepts the status quo, while the second approach challenges it. It is important to note that "Freire uses the term 'problem posing' rather than 'problem solving' since, in his view, the latter term still accepts the status quo" (Jarvis, Holford and Griffin, 2003, p.70). Defining the nature of the problem is a crucial element in critical pedagogy, because this re-sets the starting point for any debate, and permits different understandings to be included from the beginning.

How does Freire's theory apply to education?

All of Freire's critical pedagogy is relevant to education in some way or other, although his focus switches from micro- to macro-level issues from time to time. All teachers should have an awareness of the potential for injustice to arise in teaching and learning, and although schools are not responsible for the majority of injustices that exist in the world, they have an important role to play in the emancipation of oppressed groups. One of the implications of Freire's critical pedagogy is the idea that when a society undergoes significant change, the educational system must also be changed in order to take account of new sources of injustice are bound to arise.

Critical pedagogy could also be used to examine and improve a) access barriers to grammar schools and b) curriculum and teaching methods in comprehensive schools in such a way as to enhance equality of opportunity and academic achievement levels. It would advocate in this case that Emma and Joe should be consulted before any decisions are made by their parents about the choice of school. Exploring what their aspirations are would be a first step towards working out what kind of education would be best for them. They might also have some surprising comments to make about the values that they have, and the good and bad features of their current, comprehensive school experience. No one should assume that they know what is best for everyone, and critical pedagogy suggests that talking through such issues, and listening to alternative views is the only way to understand the underlying assumptions, values, motivations and aspirations that are involved in educational matters.

What are the strengths and limitations of this theory?

The main strength of this theory is that it provides a framework for continuous re-evaluation and improvement in both pedagogical theory and teaching practice. It encourages creativity and innovation, both of which are positive attributes for individuals and for society as a whole. One negative aspect of critical pedagogy is that it can sometimes turn into a dogmatic ideology that is used in a negative and destructive way. If it is used to find fault in everything, and not as a way of clarifying issues and identifying strategies and solutions, then it can destroy morale and encourage complacency. Every educational situation has both positive and negative features, and critical pedagogy should explore answers as well as raise questions.

Another relevant point is the fact that Freire's critical pedagogy represents only one application of critical theory, and it is clearly rooted in one particular time and place (Brazil in the 1970s). It is not necessarily applicable in detail to other situations, and there are other critical pedagogies which may be more suited to different social and political contexts, such as feminist pedagogy for example.

Finally, there is some substance in the view that Critical Pedagogy can be unrealistic, or even utopian. The principles of dialogic instruction, individual learning and open-ended or problem-solving approaches to teaching and learning are time-consuming and therefore expensive.

How can this theory be linked to practice?

One of the most obvious ways in which critical pedagogy can be linked to practice is that it can be used as a tool for raising awareness of the impact of one's own teaching on all learners. Teachers should not just teach automatically, assuming that what they are doing is fine, so long as it fulfils basic managerial requirements. There is always a need to reflect on how one can improve one's teaching, learning from experience and the impact that it is having on individual learners. Freire (1996) believed that the discourse of schooling, which means the type of language used and the way discussion is framed and focused, is constrained by ideological factors and designed to preserve an unfair social status quo (Tyner, 1998). This has quite serious implications for teachers, since teachers are bound to promote unfairness and disadvantage if they only use the dominant discourses, and do not value other discourses that children experience in the home and in the local community. On the other hand, if they do not teach the dominant discourses, then children will not learn to communicate successfully in situations where the dominant discourse very powerful.


This chapter has introduced the concept of critical pedagogy. It explored Freire's theory of the pedagogy of the oppressed, and considered how this applied to education in Brazil in the 1970s and how it can still be applied to many other contexts in the contemporary world. Finally, this chapter has emphasised power, authority and change in education, and has challenged you to think about all aspects of your role as a teacher, especially in relation to issues of justice and emancipation.


Barrow, R and Wood, R. (2007) An Introduction to Philosophy of Education (4th Edition) London: Routledge.

Blake, N. and Masschelein, J. (2006) Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy. In N. Blake, P. Smeyers, R. Smith, R. and P. Standish (Eds.). The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Education. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 38-56.

Freire, P. (1996) [1970] Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by M. B Ramos. London: Penguin.

Giroux, H. A. (2009) Critical theory and educational practice. In A. Darder, M. Baltodano and R. D. Torres (Eds.) The Critical Pedagogy Reader. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 27-51.

Jarvis, P., Holford, J. and Griffin, C. (2003) The Theory and Practice of Learning. Second edition. London: Kogan Page.

Miller, L. and Pound, L. (2011) Taking a critical perspective. In L. Miller and L. Pound (Eds.), Theories and Approaches to Learning in the Early Years. London: Sage, pp. 1-18.

Tyner, K. (1998) Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information. New York: Routledge.

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