Critical Digital Pedagogy: a Definition

Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel

Over the last several years, we’ve watched the discussion of pedagogy in higher education shift. The year of the MOOC, the death of the MOOC, the incessant move toward the digital, the welfare of our contingent colleagues, and an imperative to confront directly issues of gender, race, class, ability, and sexuality — both within the university and outside its walls — have us asking more and more critical questions about how we should teach, where we should teach, and why.

What is Pedagogy?

Pedagogy is not ideologically neutral. This line has been for us almost a mantra over the last several years. We’ve circled around this phrase, across projects like Hybrid Pedagogy and Digital Pedagogy Lab, because we feel increasingly certain that the word “pedagogy” has been misread — that the project of education has been misdirected — that educators and students alike have found themselves more and more flummoxed by a system that values assessment over engagement, learning management over discovery, content over community, outcomes over epiphanies. Education has misrepresented itself as objective, quantifiable, apolitical.

Higher education teaching is particularly uncritical and under-theorized. Most college educators (at both traditional and non-traditional institutions) do little direct pedagogical work to prepare themselves as teachers. A commitment to teaching often goes unrewarded, and pedagogical writing (in most fields) is not counted as “research.”

The entire enterprise of education is too often engaged in teaching that is not pedagogical. There are a whole host of other words we’d use to describe this work: instruction, classroom management, training, outcomes-driven, standards-based, content delivery. Pedagogy, on the other hand, starts with learning as its center, not students or teachers, and the work of pedagogues is necessarily political, subjective, and humane.

What is Critical Pedagogy?

Critical Pedagogy is an approach to teaching and learning predicated on fostering agency and empowering learners (implicitly and explicitly critiquing oppressive power structures). The word “critical” in Critical Pedagogy functions in several registers:

  • Critical, as in mission-critical, essential;
  • Critical, as in literary criticism and critique, providing definitions and interpretation;
  • Critical, as in reflective and nuanced thinking about a subject;
  • Critical, as in criticizing institutional, corporate, or societal impediments to learning;
  • Critical Pedagogy, as a disciplinary approach, which inflects (and is inflected by) each of these other meanings.

Each of these registers distinguishes Critical Pedagogy from pedagogy; however, the current educational climate has made the terms, for us, increasingly coterminous (i.e. an ethical pedagogy must be a critical one). Pedagogy is praxis, insistently perched at the intersection between the philosophy and the practice of teaching. When teachers talk about teaching, we are not necessarily doing pedagogical work, and not every teaching method constitutes a pedagogy. Rather, pedagogy necessarily involves recursive, second-order, meta-level work. Teachers teach; pedagogues teach while also actively investigating teaching and learning. Critical Pedagogy suggests a specific kind of anti-capitalist, liberatory praxis. This is deeply personal and political work, through which pedagogues cannot and do not remain objective. Rather, pedagogy, and particularly Critical Pedagogy, is work to which we must bring our full selves, and work to which every learner must come with full agency.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire argues against the banking model, in which education “becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.” This model emphasizes a one-sided transactional relationship, in which teachers are seen as content experts and students are positioned as sub-human receptacles. The use here of “sub-human” is intentional and not exaggeration; for in the tenets set out in Freire’s work (and the work of other Critical Pedagogues, including bell hooks and Henry Giroux), the banking model of education is part and parcel with efforts most clearly summed up in the term dehumanization. The banking model of education is efficient in that it maintains order and is bureaucratically neat and tidy. But efficiency, when it comes to teaching and learning, is not worth valorizing. Schools are not factories, nor are learning or learners products of the mill.

We are made deeply skeptical when we hear the word “content” in discussions about education, particularly when it is accompanied by the word “packaged.” It is not that education is without content altogether, but that its content is co-constructed as part of and not in advance of the learning.

Critical Pedagogy is concerned less with knowing and more with a voracious not-knowing. It is an on-going and recursive process of discovery. For Freire, “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” Here, the language echoes the sort of learning Freire describes. With a flurry of adjectives and clauses separated by commas, his sentence circles around its subject, wandering, pushing restlessly at the edges of how words make meaning — not directly through literal translation into concepts, but in the way words rub curiously against one another, making meaning through a kind of friction. Knowledge emerges in the interplay between multiple people in conversation — brushing against one another in a mutual and charged exchange or dialogue. Freire writes, “Authentic education is not carried on by ‘A’ for ‘B’ or by ‘A’ about ‘B,’ but rather by ‘A’ with ‘B’.” It is through this impatient dialogue, and the implicit collaboration within it, that Critical Pedagogy finds its impetus toward change.

In place of the banking model, Freire advocates for “problem-posing education,” in which a classroom or learning environment becomes a space for asking questions — a space of cognition not information. Vertical (or hierarchical) relationships give way to more playful ones, in which students and teachers co-author together the parameters for their individual and collective learning. Problem-posing education offers a space of mutual creation not consumption. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes, “As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.” This is a lively and intimate space of creativity and inquiry — a space of listening as much as speaking.

What is Digital Pedagogy?

Seymour Papert writes in Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, “The understanding of learning must be genetic. It must refer to the genesis of knowledge … Thus the ‘laws of learning’ must be about how intellectual structures grow out of one another and about how, in the process, they acquire both logical and emotional form.” As Utopians go, Papert is a very different sort than those currently running rampant in educational technology. He did, in 1980, advocate that every child should have access to a computer, but he also said quite definitively that “the child should program the computer,” instead of the computer being allowed to program the child. Computer aided instruction (CAI), where much of human-computer learning has its roots (not to mention instructional design and the worst-intentioned strategies of most LMSs), “consisted of a learner seated in front of a dumb terminal. The basic computing program presented piecemeal bits of information to the learner. After, the learner was asked to complete a number of questions written specifically to determine if she had learned the content” (Kruger-Ross).

Because computer-aided instruction was more invested in the relationship between the human and the machine, and not at all designed by pedagogues or teachers, the imaginative aspects of the experiment were primarily technological. Instead of embracing the multivalent ways that the human mind works, CAI looked to find ways that the computer could create delimited learning experiences for the user.

We cannot replace agency with response to stimuli.

In “Travels in Troy with Freire: Technology as an Agent of Emancipation,” Paulo Blikstein explicitly connects the work of Freire and Papert. He writes specifically, “the rapid penetration of computers into learning environments constitutes an unprecedented opportunity to advance and disseminate a Freirean aesthetic.” Papert articulates a move from constructivism to constructionism — from a consideration of the relationship between the human and knowing to a consideration of the relationship between the human and the material, the product of learning and not just the systems of learning. He says that computers are “carriers of powerful ideas and of the seeds of cultural change … they can help people form new relationships with knowledge that cut across traditional lines.” Thus, the material — the product — of learning becomes the connections made manifest by the computer. We would go one step further to say that what is built inside this kind of learning are relationships, meaningful connections between learners. The computer is a mere intermediary, not a tool as much as a vessel, a transport, a “carrier” as Papert describes it.

This isn’t to say that the use of computers isn’t political, for Papert, for Blikstein, for Critical Pedagogues, for us. Rather, we acknowledge that computers manifest human politics and human politics are made manifest in our technologies. We must ruminate at these intersections and demand that we build better tools and use them more thoughtfully and toward ends that don’t merely legitimize the existence of the tools. This is the work of digital pedagogy.

What is Critical Digital Pedagogy?

Our work has wondered at the extent to which Critical Pedagogy translates into digital space. Can the necessary reflective dialogue flourish within Web-based tools, within social media platforms, within learning management systems, within MOOCs? What is digital agency? To what extent can social media function as a space of democratic participation? How can we build platforms that support learning across age, race, culture, ability, geography? What are the specific affordances and limitations of technology toward these ends? If, indeed, all learning is necessarily hybrid, as we’ve argued, to what extent are Critical Pedagogy and digital pedagogy becoming also coterminous?

The wondering at these questions is, in fact, not particularly new. In his forward to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Richard Shaull writes, “Our advanced technological society is rapidly making objects of most of us and subtly programming us into conformity to the logic of its system […] The paradox is that the same technology that does this to us also creates a new sensitivity to what is happening.” And, John and Evelyn Dewey write in Schools of To-Morrow, published decades earlier, “Unless the mass of workers are to be blind cogs and pinions in the apparatus they employ, they must have some understanding of the physical and social facts behind and ahead of the material and appliances with which they are dealing.” If we are to keep every educative endeavor from becoming mill-work — from becoming only a reflection of oppressive labor practices and uneven power relationships — we must engage deeply with its reality.

Increasingly, the Web is a space of politics, a social space, a professional space, a space of community. And, for better or worse, more and more of our learning is happening there. For many of us, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between our real selves and our virtual selves, and in fact, these distinctions are being altogether unsettled. In “The New Learning is Ancient,” Kathi Inman Berens writes, “It doesn’t matter to me if my classroom is a little rectangle in a building or a little rectangle above my keyboard. Doors are rectangles; rectangles are portals. We walk through.” When we learn online, our feet are usually still quite literally on ground. When we interact with a group of students via streaming video, the interaction is nevertheless face-to-face. The Web is asking us to reconsider how we think about space, how and where we engage, and upon which platforms the bulk of our learning happens.

In Small Pieces Loosely Joined: a Unified Theory of the Web, David Weinberger writes, “We are the true ‘small pieces’ of the Web, and we are loosely joining ourselves in ways that we’re still inventing.” Ten years ago, following the publication of Weinberger’s book, we wouldn’t have imagined the learning networks we’ve now built with colleagues working together (sometimes simultaneously in real time) in places as seemingly remote as Portland, Madison, England, Prince Edward Island, Sydney, Cairo, Vancouver, and Hong Kong.

This is not to say, however, that there aren’t challenges to this sort of work. In On Critical Pedagogy, Henry Giroux argues,

Intellectuals have a responsibility to analyze how language, information, and meaning work to organize, legitimate, and circulate values, structure reality, and offer up particular notions of agency and identity. For public intellectuals, the latter challenge demands a new kind of literacy and critical understanding with respect to the emergence of the new media and electronic technologies, and the new and powerful role they play as instruments of public pedagogy.

Digital technologies, like social media or collaborative writing platforms or MOOCs, have values coded into them in advance. Many tools are good only insofar as they are used. And tools and platforms that do dictate too strongly how we might use them, or ones that remove our agency by too covertly reducing us and our work to commodified data, should be rooted out by a Critical Digital Pedagogy. Far too much work in educational technology starts with tools, when what we need to start with is humans.

We are better users of technology when we are thinking critically about the nature and effects of that technology. What we must do is work to encourage students and ourselves to think critically about new tools (and, more importantly, the tools we already use). And when we’re looking for solutions, what we most need to change is our thinking and not our tools.

In short, Critical Digital Pedagogy:

  • centers its practice on community and collaboration;
  • must remain open to diverse, international voices, and thus requires invention to reimagine the ways that communication and collaboration happen across cultural and political boundaries;
  • will not, cannot, be defined by a single voice but must gather together a cacophony of voices;
  • must have use and application outside traditional institutions of education.

A Critical Digital Pedagogy demands that open and networked educational environments not be merely repositories of content; rather, they must create dialogues in which both students and teachers participate as full agents. There is a clear irony in our proposing here a neat and tidy definition for Critical Digital Pedagogy. This defining work can not be done by us alone.

Critical Digital Pedagogy asks more questions than it answers:

  • How can digital technologies and cultures interrogate and/or deconstruct the roles of student and teacher?
  • How does critical pedagogy change the way we see teachers and students as socially, economically, politically, and emotionally situated in a learning space? How is this changed in the wake of online and hybrid education?
  • What must we know about existing and invisible obstacles to learner agency in order to disrupt them?
  • What is the role of interactivity, engagement, and critical contribution in the digital or digitally-enhanced classroom?
  • How do we make our classrooms sites of intrinsic motivation, networked learning, and critical practice?
  • How can the work of writers and educators like Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Henry Giroux, and John Dewey help us navigate our new educational terrain? And how are educators like Cathy Davidson and Howard Rheingold helping to further reimagine learning that happens in digital space?
  • What is digital agency? What are its incumbent privileges and responsibilities?
  • How can critical pedagogy help to examine, dismantle, or rebuild the structures, hierarchies, institutions, and technologies of education?
  • And how can we gather together generously to bring Critical Digital Pedagogy more fully into the conversation about the changing landscape of education?

Pete Rorabaugh writes in “Occupy the Digital: Critical Pedagogy and New Media”:

Critical Pedagogy, no matter how we define it, has a central place in the discussion of how learning is changing in the 21st century because Critical Pedagogy is primarily concerned with an equitable distribution of power. If students live in a culture that digitizes and educates them through a screen, they require an education that empowers them in that sphere, teaches them that language, and offers new opportunities of human connectivity.

Critical Pedagogy is as much a political approach as it is an educative one, a social justice movement first, and an educational movement second.

So, Critical Digital Pedagogy must also be a method of resistance and humanization. It is not simply work done in the mind, on paper, or on screen. It is work that must be done on the ground. It is not ashamed of its rallying cry or its soapbox. Critical Digital Pedagogy eats aphorisms — like this one right here — for breakfast. But it is not afraid to incite, to post its manifestos, to light its torches.


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Critical Digital Pedagogy: a Definition by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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