The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Book Review

“Let us begin by rethinking the position that urban schools are failing.”

(Not failing? Are these guys nuts? How can they possibly think that urban schools are successful?)

“On the one hand, urban schools are producing academic failure at alarming rates; at the same time, they are doing this inside a systematic structural design that essentially predetermines their failure. This is where the urban school reform rhetoric has missed the mark. It has presumed that urban schools are broken. Urban schools aren’t broken; they are doing exactly what they are designed to do.” (Duncan-Andrade and Morrell, 2008, p. 1)

art_of_critical_pedagogy_coverSo begins Jeffery Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell’s book, The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools. From this powerful opening their position is clear. Urban schools exist within a system of structural oppression and inequity, however, instead of telling the story we all know so well of failing students, underfunded schools, and frustrated adults, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell counter that narrative by providing examples of hope and success in the face of structural oppression. As the title suggests, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell examine how by using a combination of high quality pedagogy and critical theory (deemed critical pedagogy) we can change the dominant narrative and provide a humanizing education to urban youth.

The authors intentionally write directly to the practicing teacher yet acknowledging that while they “have written this text to appeal to practicing teachers as well as teacher educators, [they] recognize that it remains a text that will primarily be accessed by teacher educators and university-based scholars.” The authors also acknowledge the challenge  of writing texts that are theoretically sophisticated and immediately applicable for teachers. With The Art of Critical Pedagogy I think they got close to that mark. The text is definitely theoretically sophisticated and even if it is not immediately applicable to a teachers’ context, there is enough hear that a group of colleagues could draw the appropriate links from the structures Duncan-Andrade and Morrell present to their own curricula. A key component of this text’s accessibility is chapter 2 in which the authors provide a phenomenal summary of key components of critical pedagogy theory. Each pedagogue is presented with enough depth and enough clarity that the distinctions are easily understandable. Chapter 2 alone could be used very effectively as a primer on critical pedagogy before going on to read Freire, Darder, Giroux, or any of the others mentioned in more detail.

The authors place themselves firmly in Paulo Freire’s footsteps stating their book: “reports from a theoretically informed, inquiry-based practice that is a direct response to Freire’s (1997) call for critical and reflective journaling of the pedagogical process.” (preface) In doing this, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell solidify their theoretical roots while engaging in praxis to turn theory into practice. This is what makes The Art of Critical Pedagogy unique. This combined role of researcher and practitioner positions the authors to uniquely straddle academia and urban schools, allowing them to bring academia to the schools and to bring the schools to academia. The authors live and model the reality that they envision for their students.

Beyond the strong theoretical foundation, The Art of Critical Pedagogy is essentially an example of praxis and the heart of the book (chapters 3-6) comprises a series of case examples where the authors used critical pedagogy in order to improve academic outcomes for urban youth in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Each case example has unique characteristics, but in each case the authors are able to actualize their theory by combining access to the traditional academic curriculum while also helping students access culturally relevant content and skills. This allows students success by mainstream values (defined as white and middle class) while maintaining their cultural identities. This is the key of critical pedagogy, students see multiple forms of success and do not have to choose between them.

In addition to helping their students find success while maintaining their own identities, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell see to actively refute the narrative of the failing urban high school student. Throughout the text the authors describe intentionally teaching students to reflect on and understand the structures that act on them, explicitly teaching their students critical theory using Freire, Gramsci, and Solorzano & Delgado-Bernal with “underachieving” high school students. These readings alone would be a refutation of the narrative of failure and apathy that dominates discussions of urban youth.

Another example of how Duncan-Andrade and Morrell look to challenge dominant narratives, increase their students academic skills, and help them maintain their cultural identity is through the use of content relevant to urban youth culture. Thanks to voices like Chris Emdin and his #HipHopEd discussions, it is increasingly less controversial to use hip-hop in the classroom, however, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell situate hip-hop directly next to traditional poetry texts. In doing so they allowed the students to draw comparisons between the texts thus helping close the distance between the students’ culture and the culture of power; without abandoning either. Comparative analysis of Shakespeare, John Donne, The Fugees, and Tupac promotes border crossing and tolerance by “helping students arrive at an implicit understanding of what they have in common with those they have been taught to perceive as different.” (p. 52) By helping their students create connections to the traditional canon through hip-hop, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell provide them with authentic reasons to understand the work which will help them find academic success.

Duncan-Andrade and Morrell could have stopped with their class linking hip-hop and poetry. It had great success. However, they went beyond this by accessing students through sports and their local communities. Most compelling to me is the chapter on engaging students in participatory action research for social change through the Doc Ur Block project. All too often the standard narrative is that research is academically challenging and low performing students need to master the basics before they can do this more challenging work. Duncan-Andrade and Morrell explicitly refute this by engaging students as primary researchers. If our work is to develop a humanizing pedagogy that helps marginalized and oppressed people become knowledge producers (Freire), how better to do it than by putting them front and center in the research process? Instead of their traditional status as research subjects, the authors asked their students to be researchers. This is the same basic premise as gifted education looking for students to “own their learning” and create authentic intellectual work. By structuring the research project within students’ community Duncan-Andrade and Morrell engaged their students in very high levels of academic work in which they conducted community surveys, facilitated class discussions, and presented their work to authentic communities of their classmates, graduate students, practicing teachers, and community members.

Duncan-Andrade and Morrell’s claim is the same one John Dewey wrote one hundred years prior in 1907: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.” Our most disenfranchised students need the most work with engagement. Remedial drills will not make up the gap. All of Duncan-Andrade and Morrell’s structures are paralleled by the Buck Institute’s structure for “Gold Standard Project Based Learning,” a structure often cited for increasing challenge for academically gifted students. Struggling students in urban schools are equally deserving of an academically rigorous, relevant, and authentic school environment.

The authors do not pretend that their work is a panacea to the challenges of urban education. In none of the cases did they fully redefine the schools they taught in. They do, however, have a proof of concept that needs to be taken to scale. Much like Freire’s request for additional work documenting critical pedagogy in action, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell make an explicit call for more work in the area with more writing on the practical components of conducting critical pedagogy that humanizes the oppressed. I wish I’d had this book during my second year of teaching. I had a group of students that I struggled to reach and I think the critical pedagogy described by Duncan-Andrade and Morrell would have served them well. I was experimenting at the edges, asking students to write their own poetry and including examples from hip-hop, but I did not have an awareness of the need to actively empower students and intentionally teach them about the hidden curriculum of schools. I used the techniques as a hook for engagement, but I did not go beyond that into more fundamental learning. Current school systems do not make critical pedagogy easy to implement, but the authors have proved it can be done.  Through collegial support and active coaching currently practicing teachers can make the necessary changes in order to support their students.


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