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the art of critical pedagogy


Let us begin by rethinking the position that urban schools are failing. . . . When one set of schools [in high-income communities] is given the resources necessary to succeed and another group of schools [in low-income communities] is not, we have predetermined the winners and losers. . . . Urban [low-income community] schools are not broken; they are doing exactly what they are designed to do.

This in the second paragraph of Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell’s brilliant book, The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools. It’s brilliant because it is based in the experience of actually teaching our country’s youth, on working day in and day out with high school students in Los Angeles and Oakland. Most of the book is Duncan-Andrade and Morrell detailing several educational projects on which they’ve worked, describing their experiences as they try to put their belief in critical pedagogy into practice, and explaining what they learned.

As grounded in experience and practice as they are, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell know the theory, too. In chapter two, they give the best overall summary of the work and writing of the major names in critical pedagogy—Freire, Shor, Darder, McLaren, Giroux, hooks—I’ve seen. In addition, they discuss the efforts of a few “lived examples of critical pedagogy to emphasize that critical pedagogy is more than just a teaching strategy—it is a personal, financial, political, emotional, and spiritual commitment to prioritizing the needs and liberation of people who are suffering under various forms of oppression”: Carter G. Woodson, Lolita Lebrón, Franz Fanon,Reies López Tijerina, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Subcommandante Marcos. (If this list and the words used to describe these people intimidate you, you’re a normal human being. The authors make it less intimidating as they describe how they put those words into practice in the work they have done and continue to do.)

Before they do that, they lay out their understanding of the urban public school context in which students try to learn and in which teachers try to teach. They argue that “urban school failure is tolerated because deep down our nation subscribes to the belief that someone has to fail in school,” belief supported by racist and classist ideology. Currently, the line is that “educational failure is the result of cultural deficiencies on the part of the student, the family, and the community—de facto, educational attainment is attributed to cultural superiority or assimilation into culturally superior ways.” Regardless of the reasons, the result serves the dominant culture in our country, because “some people must fill the least desirable places in society, and it is important that they feel they deserve to be in those positions or, at the very least, that there is a formal mechanism to justify their place there.” The attack on students’ esteem and confidence is self-perpetuating and circular: if you’re made to feel stupid, you do worse on tests because of your lack of belief in yourself.

But, according to Duncan-Andrade and Morrell, the equation of performance in school and intelligence is false. For, if

school achievement were an accurate measure of intellect, achievement patterns would more closely mirror the random distribution of intellect that genetic scientists report in human populations. Instead, the results of schools are quite predictable. . . . With remarkable consistency, schools serving low-income, non-white children disproportionately produce the citizens who will spend most of their adult lives in the least desirable and least mobile socioeconomic positions (prison, low-ranking military positions, and service labor).

The few urban students who do well are “asked (sometimes tacitly, sometimes explicitly) to exchange the culture of their home and community for the higher culture of the school in exchange for access to college.” Therefore,

urban education reform movements must begin to develop partnerships with communities that provide young people the opportunity to be successful while maintaining their identities as urban youth. This additive model of education focuses on the design of urban school culture, curriculum, and pedagogy that identifies the cultures and communities of urban students as assets rather than as things to be replaced.

This “approach provides pedagogy and curricula that lend immediate relevance to school in the lives of urban youth. It also works to break the cycle of disinvestment of human capital in urban communities by crating graduates who recognize their potential agency to improve urban centers, rather than seeing them as places to escape.” Duncan-Andrade and Morrell see critical pedagogy as a win-win for students, teachers, and society as a whole, because “rather than presenting the community as a place to rise above, schools must equip themselves to draw from the knowledge that students bring with them to school—knowledge that is often not in their textbooks but is acquired from the streets, family cultural traditions, youth culture, and the media.”

They are critical of the results we’ve seen so far from multicultural education because it has “failed to deal with the conditions of modern urban life.” They argue persuasively “for pedagogical practices situated in critical analyses of the role of urban schools in social inequality.” We should “shift the rhetoric of failure from young people and caring teachers onto an inequitable system designed to concretize failure in poor communities.”

Finally, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell “believe that urban students should go to college at rates equal to their more affluent counterparts” and that a

schooling environment that foregrounds the relationship between education and the most pressing conditions in the community, an education with relevance, is most likely to produce notable increases in college eligibility. . . . [T]he desired outcome in critical pedagogies in urban education is multiple and . . . it must impact academic achievement, identity development, and civic engagement. . . . To often, we believe, critical pedagogies focus on the rhetoric of social critique to the exclusion of the development of sophisticated literacy and numeracy skills.

These academic skills frequently come “at great personal and social costs that include alienation from family, language, community, and progressive social values.” Therefore, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell’s work focuses maintaining a sense of community and culture for students, while still promoting rigorous academic skills, by setting those skills in the community and cultural context. Literally, they ask the students what problems or questions are important to them and then develop the curriculum around those issues.

All this made connections for me with the writing of bell hooks, especially in Where We Stand: Class Matters in which she talks about her experience of going to college and being alienated from her home culture by the college culture and the resulting disorientation of being caught between two the two. (For more, see my entry on hooks’ book.) The connection is expected, since Duncan-Andrade and Morrell begin their work with hooks and other related writers as the foundation upon which they build. Indeed, they are trying to do the work that such writers recommend.

As I mentioned above, after contextualizing their work, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell spend the bulk of the book describing their work with students in urban schools. In the final chapter, “Toward a Grounded Theory of Praxis,” they try to draw conclusions from their experiences, point to areas that need more research and exploration, and make suggestions about teacher education. Importantly, they also talk about love. In a section called “Pedagogy, Love, and Revolution” they write about “revolutionary love” and its potential to change both students’ lives and the larger world. From my perspective, real love—that includes celebrating successes and correcting errors and facilitating the development of the person each student wants to be—for your students is the foundation of good teaching. It doesn’t mean that you like every student the same or that every student likes you. It means that you love them and treat them with the respect and compassion you treat all your loved ones. It means that you treat your students the same way you treat your own children. This is a beautiful, dangerous, and somewhat radical stance—and that is right where I want to be.



  1. I agree that teacher training must change in order for the quality of education to change. It need not be an expensive process. I have written a book, Rekindling the Love of Learning, that focuses on experiential learning and John Dewey. It also provides methods for creating experiential environments in public, private, and home school environments.
    Dr. Arlene Rotter

  2. jd2718 says:

    This stuff is tough… and I really ought to look at it.

    The problem for me, I can’t dismiss it, that opening quote… They have the right starting point. And that is huge.

    But, what do we want youth to “achieve”? What are we looking for? Or better, what is “success”?

    And here’s where I get stuck. Because success, it seems to me, is defined in this society based on a built-in inequality. Anyone can be successful? Maybe. But we’d have to tilt the playing field. Everyone can be successful? No.

    I hate reading this kind of stuff, but it sounds like it needs to be taken seriously.


  3. halshop says:


    Your questions about achievement and success are important. I think Duncan-Andrade and Morrell would at least partially answer them by turning back to the students. I think they would argue that when we ask students what is important to them and make their school experience relevant to their lives, we are letting the students help define what success and achievement mean. That could be a crucial step toward getting you out of your quandary.


  4. jd2718 says:

    It’s an interesting beginning, but I doubt it is the way out. The process of education (say, for the rich and aspiring middle class) includes a large component defining “success”. We leave them wide latitude, real choices, but not unlimited.

    But what about for poor and working class kids? Education is…? for upward mobility? … for what?

    You can tell me a bit more, but I think I have assigned reading… Thanks


  5. halshop says:


    As you imply, probably nothing I’m going to say here will convince you. I do believe that the book will address some of your concerns–perhaps not all. Get back to me when you’re reading it and we’ll see.


  6. jd2718 says:

    I ordered it. It may be quite some time before I actually read it, but when I do, I’ll restart this…


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