The Art of Critical Pedagogy

Ellen Lu

By Max Hunter, The John Perkins Center Teaching Fellow


The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving From Theory to Practice in Urban Schools
By Jeffrey M.R. Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell
Peter Lang Publishing (2008), 240 pp.


Despite how one feels about critical pedagogues like Paulo Freire or Henry M. Giroux, Jeffrey M.R. Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell’s The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving From Theory to Practice in Urban Schools is a must-read for urban educators, administrators, and faculty involved in teacher education.


While the intellectual snob might snicker at the name “Freire” or terms like “critical pedagogy” being used in a constructive manner, these authors are not interested in joining the armchair theorizers. “Erroneously,” they argue, “people have looked to theory to build theory instead of understanding that critical pedagogy began with practice to build theory. As a field, our attempts to develop theory from theory have left us essentially with a house built on sand” (p. 106). Two looming, yet unexplored, questions inform the authors’ research and practice: “What does critical pedagogy look like in work in urban youth ...?” and “how can systematic investigation of critical work in urban contexts simultaneously draw upon and extend the core tenets of critical pedagogy?” (preface).


Designed to fail

The book’s first chapter discusses the “key ideological and structural dilemmas in urban education.” Duncan-Andrade and Morrell claim schools are designed to fail by acting as “de facto socio-economic sorting mechanism[s]” in our society’s “social pyramid that has no room at the top for the masses.” Thus, the predictable fact that our poorest students continue to inhabit low positions in society and fill our prisons is more the result of an established socioeconomic caste than academic competition.


To combat this problem, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell argue for a two-pronged impact: preparation to confront the conditions of social and economic inequity in [students’] daily lives, and access to the academic literacies (computational and linguistic) that make college attendance a realistic option.”


The former solution addresses the problem of getting students to see schools as an important institution, while the latter prepares them for entry. The authors stress that such a reformation must occur in partnership with the community so that students can maintain “their identities as urban youth.”


In regards to educators, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell call for a new pedagogical vision for our schools to address the issues that both undermine and support learning in a poor urban setting. Educators must develop strategies that counter inequitable outcomes. This leads to contextualized critical pedagogy: “making education a weapon to name, analyze, deconstruct, and act upon ... unequal conditions.”


Chapter 2 contextualizes the authors’ interpretation of critical pedagogy in the current North American political context. While the authors make it clear that Freire's and Giroux's theoretical framework sets the terms of their research, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell also acknowledge others, though they notably omit major figures in the discourse since the late 1980s.


Ira Shor’s 1992 book Empowering Education provides Duncan-Andrade and Morrell with a model of development that puts teacher and students in a dynamic relationship. Antonia Darder’s argument that “multiculturalists have not looked hard enough at structural inequalities and wealth disparities” leads the authors to discover the intersections between socioeconomics, race and politics.” The book’s focus on class to the neglect of gender and sexuality is drawn from Bell Hooks’ argument that “schools effectively marginalize poor and working-class students” by ignoring bourgeois class bias.


Lisa Delpit’s criticism of putting radical pedagogy before academic competence also informs the book. The authors value the prolific Henry Giroux on a number of levels, including the way he challenges educators to understand how hidden agendas can shape education. Other influences include Antonio Gramsci and Peter McLaren.


Teaching in the city: theory and praxis

Chapters 3-5 cover Duncan-Andrade and Morrell’s various investigations, which are conducted “with or on behalf of marginalized populations” and “geared toward producing knowledge in pursuit of social change.” The authors collected their data while working as teachers in California high schools, basketball coaches, and leaders of seminars for failing students. They then analyzed this data “in terms of academic development, critical consciousness, and action toward social change.


Chapter 6 summarizes this analysis, in which five principles emerge. First, critical pedagogy includes teaching academic literacy. Second, students who conduct critical research learn academic literacy. Third, teachers need to learn both theory and practice to conduct “participatory action research.” Fourth, students and teachers have to go beyond knowledge generation to social change. Finally, the authors conclude that more research needs to be done in this area.


In chapter 7, the authors discuss fields such as ethnic studies, critical pedagogy, multicultural education, anti- and post-colonial discourses, youth pop culture, civil rights historiography, and critical race theory. They then share their synthesis of these fields: a model of critical pan-ethnic studies, designed as an intervention in urban education. This approach “involves teachers and students coming together to investigate racial injustice as they collaborate to eradicate. The work is pedagogical in that it develops young people’s intellectual capabilities and racial identities, but pragmatic in that it is rooted in struggles for change” (138). “Cariño” (caring), as articulated by Valenzuela (1999), must inform teaching and practice.

Of assessments and of love

Chapter 8 deals with critical pedagogy in the context of the No Child Left Behind Act, which has led to an emphasis on standards and standardized texts. The authors argue that “we must remain vigilant against the inherent racism embedded within the standards” and call for educators to take an active role in pushing for “narrative and formative assessments.” In chapter 9, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell conclude by providing principles derived from their work, their implications for teaching and policy, and how critical pedagogy fits in the larger framework of social activism. They close with a chapter on revolution and love in the context of critical pedagogy.


The Art of Critical Pedagogy is most illuminating when read as theoretical reflection and application of two young scholars grappling with their “two looming” questions. After I read this book and the work of Isaac Gottesman in the history of the field, along with others, it was argued that Duncan-Andrade and Morrell had not mastered literature on critical pedagogy. I would argue that no one, neither bell hooks or Paulo Friere, has mastered either the theory or praxis. What this book offers is a look at how a new generation of intellectual urban educators have moved from debating theories to carrying out Freire’s pedagogical vision in their classrooms.



Max Hunter Max Hunter joined the staff of the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University in 2008. While at Harvard University, he studied in the Graduate School of Arts and Science, the Graduate School of Education, and Harvard Medical School. He has an A.M., Ed.M., and the certificate in bioethics from Harvard Medical School. .



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