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Applying critical pedagogy to re-imagine education and empower communities

My experiences as an Educational Psychologist and home educating parent have given me cause to ask the questions; what is education? How do we define it? And crucially, who is conferred with the authority to do so?

Such questions are vital to our profession if we are not to be complicit in oppressive practices and so I was heartened to see these issues raised in a new report by The Open University, ‘Innovating Pedagogy’ (2019), exploring new forms of teaching, learning and assessment. One innovation particularly resonated: decolonising learning.

Decolonising learning

The author describes how educational curriculums are fundamentally linked to ideas and values in society and notes that in Western societies it is white, male, European ideals that dominate our education system. This view is shared by others such as Collins and Bilge (2016) writing on intersectionality. In a recent Radio 4 program, ‘The Trouble with Social Mobility’, the head of the Resolution Foundation, Torsten Bell, highlighted how our culture emphasises the idea that the most worthy kind of life is the meritocratic life based on academic credentials. This can de-value other learning outcomes or the life goals of those who may not want to, or may not be able to, ‘climb the ladder’. I cannot help but wonder how profoundly linked this is to an education system that measures worth in exam performance.

What if such values don’t accord with your own? What if such values act to oppress sections of society? In my own professional and personal life I have learned how seeking an alternative or ‘going against the norm’ can feel very uncomfortable. Take home education for example, not only do home educators have less access to the physical and financial resources offered by mainstream education, they also have less access to ideological resources such as the authority to define what education means.

Currently, the ‘state’ can make a judgement with regard to what is appropriate education. This power can create huge anxiety for those seeking an alternative, who may live in fear of being issued a School Order which requires children to be returned to the school system. Although this may be an important protection, a Foucauldian analysis might provide an additional perspective, exploring the relationship between structural power and control – and not necessarily to the benefit of the individual child. Promoting dialogue between mainstream and alternative approaches will facilitate a deeper exploration of these issues; critical pedagogy might be a vehicle to facilitate just this.

Exploring critical pedagogies

Re-defining education away from mainstream institutions can lead to greater empowerment for minority or oppressed groups. The OU report describes how critical pedagogies can make this possible by, for example, helping to sustain the cultural competence of a community while supporting access to colonial cultural competence. Using technology, projects in the US have facilitated this through digital decolonisation, a process of helping indigenous people to question colonial practices and develop their own vision of the future. This has been achieved through game based learning projects such as Thunderbird Strike which have:

  • Connected colonised people with a shared history
  • Supported a critical perspective on their present
  • Provided development tools to bring projects to life

Critical pedagogical approaches can be used to support a diverse range of communities. In my own doctoral research I found that home educators are already using such approaches to empower their children. Field-Smith and Kisura (2013) demonstrated the very choice to home educate could be a method of ‘radical self-actualisation’ for Black mothers and their children. The women in their study were able to promote and nurture positive cultural values and explore their cultural history in a way that resisted stereotypes. This was particularly central to the empowerment of black boys who were perceived to be at greatest risk of systematic oppression within the mainstream school system.

Home educators in my research project used new technologies to reconceptualise teaching and support strategies for children with Special Educational Needs (SEN), for example, harnessing YouTube to nurture communication skills, sharing ideas within online communities and developing different visions of the teacher-learner relationship. In my own experience I have used curriculums developed by home educators through their ‘ground up’ experiences, embracing alternative visions of learning and development (see Brave Writer for an example).

Critical pedagogical approaches can provide multiple ways of empowering sections of society whose needs may not be met, or be actively suppressed by prevailing educational values, or who may wish to move beyond the limits of accepted practices.

Examining professional practice

The OU report emphasises that as professionals we have cause to examine our practices. As Educational Psychologists in particular we are conferred with significant power and authority and thus are ideally placed to question accepted educational values and facilitate critical pedagogical approaches. Indeed, partly why I was so heartened by the report was that coming from a large institution like the OU such approaches are afforded greater credence. As the report notes however:

This isn’t simply about removing some content from the curriculum and replacing it with new content – it’s about considering multiple perspectives and making space to think carefully about what we value.

Empowering communities involves providing them with support to develop their own visions of education – even when this may challenge ‘accepted’ values. That is not to say that ‘anything goes’ but that we must not shy away from questioning our assumptions and norms. At the beginning I presented a number of questions about the nature of education and where the authority to define it lies. It would be extremely valuable to promote greater dialogue with these questions and invest more time in critical pedagogical practices. Possible starting points include:

  • Working with home educators to understand the values and empowerment practices they already use.
  • Supporting local minority or vulnerable communities to develop their own curriculums or modules that can be integrated into mainstream schooling.
  • Facilitating a critical perspective towards educational values within EP training courses.

Such projects would create an exciting dialogue, opening up opportunities not only for empowering communities, but fostering connections between people and ideas and, importantly, increasing innovation in educational and developmental theory. As the OU report ends:

By re-imagining education as an activity that serves the needs of local communities, including indigenous populations, the impact of learning can be expanded, making it more inclusive and more valuable to us all.

I would love to hear from anyone involved in projects that share this spirit. Please do comment below or get in touch.


Collins, P. and Bilge, S. (2016). Intersectionality. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Ferguson, R., Coughlan, T., Egelandsdal, K., Gaved, M., Herodotou, C., Hillaire, G., Jones, D., Jowers, I., Kukulska-Hulme, A., McAndrew, P., Misiejuk, K., Ness, I. J., Rienties, B., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., Wasson, B., Weller, M. and Whitelock, D. (2019). Innovating Pedagogy 2019: Open University Innovation Report 7. Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Fields-Smith, C. and Kisura, M. (2013). Resisting the Status Quo: The Narratives of Black Homeschoolers in Metro-Atlanta and Metro-DC. Peabody Journal of Education, 88: 265-283.

One Comment so far:

  1. Charlotte Richardson says:

    Interesting read Kasia… I agree that home education can be a very empowering choice but the opposite can also be true. I speak as someone who home educated not by choice after we moved into a new borough and had to wait 3 months for our daughter with complex needs to be offered a suitable school place (bearing in mind I had a newborn baby at the time)! It’s a exciting opportunity to design a curriculum tailor made to an individual child’s needs, however the one thing I would say is that as a society, we are in danger of becoming echo chambers (particularly in the age of social media, where we are only exposed to people who have similar ideas and values to our own). In my view education should be a tapestry which values the child’s own cultural heritage and champions the functional skills they need as well as learning to acclimatise to the values which their society holds in high esteem… otherwise aren’t we doing our children a disservice and making their job of going out into the world even harder? There are no easy answers…

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