ENGAGING Definitions of Critical Pedagogy from Six Different Disciplines

VT Engage is a department at Tech that encourages participating in service through a collaborative manner. Volunteering sometimes does more harm than good because we go into communities with an almost white savior complex and ‘fix’ problems that were not there. Then we leave as volunteers, happy that we did service, while the community still has problems. VT Engage however, directly works with communities in a collaborative way that allows them to identify the problems. We then work with communities on problems that matter to them. This allows us to learn from them and how to work together to reach their need based goals, not ours. This makes us aware of their realities and needs, in addition to making them the subjects instead of objects. This is an example and extension of critical pedagogy and how it may be applied. Below are definitions of critical pedagogy from the perspective of our respective disciplines:

Higher Education

Critical pedagogy can be thought of as focusing on the student. This is in line with what Paolo Freire talked about when he wished for us to consider students as subjects and owners of their own learning experiences. Higher education looks at student learning through a holistic perspective and this is an extension of critical pedagogy.

An example: The education field, and especially higher education understands the importance of critical pedagogy. However, this message is not easily transferable to our colleagues in the university that are interested in the bottom line. For example, an advisor might not understand why a student is unable to decide what major to choose. The advisor has heard their advisee talk about doing Finance or Environmental Law. The ‘clear’ choice is finance because it makes more money and the student is on a full scholarship at VT. However, if the advisor adopted a more critical perspective or pedagogy and looked at the student through a holistic point of view, they would see that there are other salient things to consider other than what degree will reap the most benefit or money.


As a historian, my understanding of critical pedagogy begins with using Freire to amplify the tenets of liberal learning that form the foundation for historical inquiry: identifying the sources from which historical meaning is constructed and situating those sources in context. Or, put more simply: analyzing material to create an interpretation or perspective on how things change over time. Critical thinking 101. The critical pedagogy piece manifests when the discovery process (learning) provokes students to think about their own historical context, leading to a new awareness that inspires them to work for constructive change. That awareness brings with it the potential for self-actualization, fulfillment, and learning that expands beyond the classroom and after the end of the semester. The learning community formed when teachers and students make themselves available to each other is essential to the success of this project, and this where I lean on bell hooks’ concept of engaged pedagogy:

“Engaged pedagogy establishes a mutual relationship between teacher and students that nurtures the growth of both parties, creating an atmosphere of trust and commitment that is always present when genuine learning happens.” (Teaching Critical Thinking. Practical Wisdom, p. 22)


Environmental Engineering 

Critical pedagogy in environmental engineering field should focus more on letting students deal with real environmental issues in our daily life and fight air/water/solid waste pollution around ourselves. As environmental engineers, we learn lots of remediation knowledge and techniques via textbooks and classic examples. This passive learning process treats students as “banking accounts” (concept proposed by Paulo Freire). However, in critical learning, or problem-based learning experience, students are encouraged by teacher to first identify environmental problems (air/water/noise/waste) around us, for example near your apartment, around campus, or in a specific community. This process strengthens the connection between student and our mother nature, and give students a chance to improve their living environment for real. With a clear identified environment problem, students are encouraged to propose a detailed remediation plan. These draft plans will be open for discussion through the semester by teacher, industrial people, and most importantly among the peers regarding creativity, feasibility, performance, environmental friendliness, and cost-effectiveness. More problems will be discovered, and students are actively engaged in the learning process to polish their remediation plan under effective communication and solid team work. Promising plans can be converted to a prototype or small-scale treatment system with the help of teacher before being implemented to address source issue. Trial for practical application provides both teacher and students valuable hands-on experience and continuous feedback via periodical maintenance. Critical learning, eventually, establishes student’s confidence as an environmental engineers to build a better and greener environment.

Figure: To Think Like An Engineer
Link: http://discovermagazine.com/2013/dec/15-e-is-for-engineering

Transportation Engineering

From a transportation engineer’s point of view, the definition of critical pedagogy is two fold: be ready to embrace the future and dare to deny the results from formulas for the sake of social equity.

Transportation was never a static area. Not only because its subjects always moving (which is in the definition of transportation), but also because of its high dependency on the technologies. Connected/automated vehicles were not in the context when most of the textbooks were written. The dynamics of a transportation systems will be different from the existing models. The methods to predict the trips are also changing with the social media data (e.g., steam from Facebook, twitter) become available. Future engineers need to revisit and be able to adapt the basics in transportation theory. They need to be able to dare to challenge the authorities and existing framework to make better trips for people.

Transportation is a social asset that should be able to access by anyone equally. As is stated in Bell Hook’s introduction of “Teaching Critical Thinking,” a good education should “encourage an ongoing commitment to social justice.” The current development of transportation facilities hurt the wellbeing of the poor and do the favor towards the rich class. The goal in highway design usually includes minimizing the cost which is related to the cost of the land and maximize the benefits. These thoughts usually lead to the situation where highways are constructed in a low income place. Although the highways physically lay in those area, the residents could not access the highway thus cannot benefit from the government funds. Moreover, the highway passing their area caused noise and air pollution. Although a large amount of government funds goes to transportation sector in the US, only a small part of it goes to public transit, which is accessible by the poor. With richer data available, the future engineer should keep in mind that their “optimal” design may not be fair to a certain social class.

Social Theory 

Even though social theory should by definition be explicitly engaged with the world beyond the classroom, this is often not the case. My field tends to suffer from a sort of academic myopia — especially in the more philosophically oriented courses. Making the connection between what we learn and teach in the classroom and the realities of non-academic life is essential to critical pedagogy in both social theory (which I study in the ASPECT program) and arts and humanities (which I teach in the Religion and Culture department).

In her writings on democracy and pedagogy, bell hooks discusses the divide between theory and practice. Her reflections on life as a Black female scholar exemplify a situation many of us in the humanities and social sciences are unfortunately all to familiar with: the case of the instructor who believes their intellectual engagement with progressive ideas is a substitute for practice. I have personally been in a few classes with seemingly forward-thinking — sometimes self-identified “radical” — professors who, after class, demonstrate very clear sexism and bias against students from certain backgrounds (particularly students from rural areas or with more mainstream ideals). So one goal of critical pedagogy in the humanities and social sciences should be to emphasize practice as much as theory. The hurt of sexism and other forms of bias — including racism, which I do not experience, but have observed secondhand all too often — is compounded by hypocrisy.

One way we can combat this is to emphasize self-reflexivity a bit more. I would like to see instructors be more transparent about their own bias and background, especially those who seem to feel very comfortable in their positions. The best humanities / social science instructors I have had were open about how they came to form their opinions, and even what led them to this career. In fields that deal primarily with subjective content, where interpretation and meaning-construction is key, critical pedagogy should help us resist the urge to present our course content as objective fact. Discussing how the course material evolved to become what it is today will offer students a good lesson in intellectual history and social epistemology — and, perhaps more importantly, establish instructors as human beings who are open to learning more, as well.

Environmental Design & Planning

The definition of critical pedagogy from a planning perspective is to embrace the complexity that comes with diverse learning environments and leverage it to question the knowledge we exchange with students through unique lenses of experience.  Just like our cities, our classrooms live and die with this complexity. When we try to simplify our cities with urban planning, placing communities and uses into well defined boxes (or zones or neighborhoods), we tend to lose the cultural intricacies that create vibrancy. This is what Jane Jacobs begins to chronicle in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Similarly, as Joe L. Kinchloe explains in The Critical Pedagogy Primer, our schools and our classrooms need complexity to thrive. His concept of Critical Complexity combines critical pedagogy with organizational complexity theory and is a convincing argument against the standardization and oversimplification of assessing academic performance.


Kinchloe mentions in his chapter “Moving To Critical Complexity” that Albert Einstein would have been considered a problem child and a nuisance in many classrooms of his day. His relentless questioning and assigning lessons from one domain to another would have frustrated many teachers who were trained to teach by the book. But as always, Einstein gets the last word. He is quoted to have said “Everything must be as simple as possible, but no simpler”. Einstein understands and embraces the need to complicate theories in order to better represent our complex reality, but striking a balance between manageable simplicity and critical complexity is key.

In conclusion, the strategy of VT Engage in service work and philanthropy is similar to what Christine Labuski mentioned in her follow up to last week’s discussion regarding Universal Precautions: we must move away from notions of savior neo-colonialism and assume that the people from troubled communities understand their problems best and therefore must be an integral part of the solution. In the context of teaching and critical pedagogy, no educator can possibly understand the wealth of experience and learning that brings each student to the doorstep of the classroom, and this student must be engaged in his or her own education enough to help decide what is best for their academic evolution. Different students learn in different ways; they see things through the varied lenses of the diverse lives they have lead. Teachers and students, writers of text books and journals and leaders of conferences all have biases that must be identified. Together we can be more critical and learn from a larger, shared perspective. We must embrace diversity and its ability to help us all constructively question the information placed along our path and apply it boldly in the direction of our dreams.


9 thoughts on “ENGAGING Definitions of Critical Pedagogy from Six Different Disciplines

  1. Replying to the comments on “self-identified ‘radical’ professors”: I think it’s in human nature to be blindsided by things we’re looking for. When we want something — even if it’s to be known or seen as a certain type of person, radical or otherwise — not only can we become mesmerised by it, but the desire many times springs from a lack of something else in our broader lives. It is a sad say for any of us when we hold a position (of power) that shields our egos from the reality of what we might actually be. It’s easy to get angry with someone who preaches one thing, but practices another. But after getting to know many people like this in my life (even myself more times than I’d care to admit) I’ve learned to view the situation with a detached sadness. Maybe this is why Paulo asks us not to “teach” but rather to discuss?


    1. You make a good point, Brandon.

      I was really impressed by this post and the discussion on reflexivity really hit home to me. The part (and more, but I didn’t want to copy/paste the whole blog down here…) …the part that really touched me was this: “One way we can combat this is to emphasize self-reflexivity a bit more. I would like to see instructors be more transparent about their own bias and background, especially those who seem to feel very comfortable in their positions.” I think if people in general would spend more time reflecting on their own behavior, thoughts, goals, desires, etc., the world would be a better place. I have always appreciated professors (in higher education because I’m not sure I experienced truly reflexive instructors before in K-12) who took the time to share why and how they came to know and believe what they do. It helped me as a student understand the process of thinking and knowledge building and helped me in developing those skills of self-reflexivity as well.


  2. I left a comment earlier but for some reason it didn’t show up. So hopefully this one isn’t a repeat, and I apologize if it is. I responded to the section on transportation engineering: the U.S. interstate system was built on the premise of transportation efficiency that often blatantly marginalized the poor. Unfortunately, engineers can’t/don’t always make decisions in favor of social justice simply because infrastructure projects are mired in politics and lobbying. These same engineers also have to uphold professional ethics that require them to safeguard client interest as well as public well being. Navigating through the many potential conflicts of interest is extremely complex. The question is, are students ready for real-world complexities? Can higher education serve them in tandem with the valuable experiences gained on the job? I think it’s important for students to develop a mindset that can accommodate the many uncertainties and factors/people to contend with in real-world problem solving. It’s also important to get used to not having an answer handed to them, or to the fact that sometimes there isn’t a single, right answer or an answer at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comments. It’s true that one of the engineering ethics is to meet the client’s interest. In the civil engineering field, the clients are, in most cases, the governments or ultimately the governments whose interest is based on the social wellbeing. Fortunately, the governments and several funding agencies start to notice the social equity part of transportation. In reality, there are many cases that the transportation engineers need to work with urban planners. In that case, the concern of politics is necessary. Also, with the emerging technologies in computer science and artificial intelligence, be able to analysis the complexed systems and consider the human wellbeings will be essential to an engineer that can hardly be replaced by a smart machine. To prepare the students for their future profession, I think it’s good for them to be aware of the complexed reality instead of attacking the problems based on simple equations.


  3. I really like the work of VT Engage, mainly because I love service. I believe that service work is a learning experience that will make the academic learning relevant and will enhance and/or develop social and analytical skills. Students can apply classroom content to real-world situations while meeting community needs.


  4. I love seeing the different explanations of critical pedagogy from all of these perspectives. Just as critical pedagogy encourages people to think and act in different ways, it’s important to see that there’s not one way of defining critical pedagogy. I also really enjoy reading the technical science interpretations of critical pedagogy because it provides me with new ways of applying the notion. In my field of higher education, it almost feels cliche because we talk about it so much. Seeing it applied to hard sciences reintroduces me to the idea, and reminds me of how important it is outside the scope of “education”!


  5. The post is very well organized! By reading stories about critical pedagogy from various majors helps me gain broader view. It is the first time I heard about VT Engage. I just checked the website and found some projects really interesting. I might sign for some trips later 🙂


  6. I absolutely agree with your comment on volunteering! As someone who did several service trips in undergraduate, I saw many people who came in to volunteer, make grand statements about how affected they were, how they changed the world, and then walked away and never gave it another thought. I really like how you then applied the concept of critical pedagogy to this circumstance.


  7. Making the students realize the importance of the topic helps a lot in terms of building up a learning environment in the class. I once dropped a class on statistics. The class was taught by a senior professor, however, I felt like he failed to create curiosity in me on the importance of the techniques he was teaching. Connecting with real world is the best in this regard.


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