Habits of Heart and Mind: Critical Pedagogy

I've reproduced here an essay I wrote for S300: The Arts in Education.

Habits of Heart and Mind: Critical Pedagogy 

   As a student and practitioner of critical pedagogy, I remain convinced that a critical pedagogical approach is a necessary habit of both heart and mind when working in any educational capacity, but especially in the arts.  The arts, a perpetual site of marginalization, is uniquely suited for critical pedagogy.  From the margin, it is easier to perceive the hypocrisy of the core.  Thus, artists have both impetus and ability to critique society owing to their unique position.  To practice critical pedagogy as a habit of heart and mind is to own this unique position on the margin and work to cultivate awareness of and action against oppressive forces.  In this regard, the arts are not neutral; instead, they are a site of political action.  Furthermore, students are not viewed as empty vessels; they are active agents in the educational process and are treated by teachers with the deference accorded equals.  As an educator in the arts, my own practice has been influenced by critical educators like Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, and bell hooks.  They taught me through example to question my own assumptions, honor the agency of my students, and center critical questioning and inquiry in the classroom.

    In her book No Citizen Left Behind, Meira Levinson proposes that teachers “need to recognize that students construct meaning independent of-- and therefore often in conflict with-- the meanings specified by curricula, textbooks, teachers, or other educational “authorities”” (2012, p. 108).  This is related to the belief of Paulo Freire that leaders must “initiate the experience of learning how to name the world” (1970, p. 178).  Teachers, as educational leaders, are responsible for initiating a process through which students name the world, but teachers must refrain from imposing order or prescribing meaning for their students.  Teachers must accept that students’ subjective experiences will inform their relationship with art and learning.  This recognition will in turn lead to a more genuine dialogue between teacher and student that honors the unique position of each.  I believe it is irresponsible to read critical pedagogy and depart with the belief that teachers have nothing to offer students; instead, teachers are responsible for creating a space in which learning can occur and modeling the many processes through which learning takes place.

    These beliefs directly inform my process as an educator.  When interacting with a group of arts learners, I am most concerned with how they are entering the space of learning.  I find the question “Who are you?” more informative than “What do you know?” and my teaching departs from this initial process of mutual identification.  I bring my full self into the classroom and am more than happy to answer personal questions of my students so long as they engage reciprocally with me.  I recognize that my position in a classroom often accords me authority which may stifle creativity or stultify my students.  Thus, much of my practice as an educator is focused on creating moments of identification between myself and my students to eliminate the artificial barrier constructed by a power imbalance.  I present myself as a vulnerable, often ignorant student myself and invite my students to learn with me and construct knowledge together.

    My distrust of institutions is also inspired by critical pedagogy.  I agree with Steve Locke that “people need to make their own institutions,” and I share his frustration that teaching in schools is necessary because “that’s where they keep the kids” (personal communication, 2014).  I believe educators in the critical tradition must work to create more just and equitable institutions of learning, seeking where possible to realign existing institutions in service of justice.  In addition, critical arts educators must either work outside of existing institutions to serve those currently excluded from participation or work within existing institutions to increase access for those excluded.  Otherwise, they risk placing their skills at the service of already privileged institutions, contributing to inequality and oppression.  In practice, this means leaving the protective walls of museums and entering the community or helping the community to enter the museum.  Alternatively, an educator may choose to explode the museum, breaking down the barriers that separate communities and traditional institutions of arts learning.

    Ultimately, critical pedagogues must rely on a constant searching within their world and selves.  They must reevaluate existing knowledge in light of new knowledge, question their assumptions, and consider which groups are empowered or disenfranchised by the institutions they create and work within.  To be a critical art educator means respecting students as active agents.  It means knowing and respecting where students are coming from.  Critical education is a practice of humility.  I am constantly seeking to learn more to offset my own ignorance, and I do not deny myself the opportunity to learn from everyone I encounter.  Others seeking to practice critical pedagogy may start with the texts cited below and others by the authors mentioned in the introductory paragraph.  In addition to the below cited, I recommend Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks.  However, mere reading will not be enough.  Critical pedagogy must be practiced, imperfectly.  Mistakes must be made, and improvements must follow.  Critical pedagogy is both practice and process, and I continue my own journey.  Come along.


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Penguin.

Levinson, Meira. (2012). No citizen left behind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.