Critical Pedagogy Against the Mass Market?

Last year, a small group of researchers at Liverpool set out to understand how principles of ‘critical pedagogy’ – the approach to teaching that insists students must play an active and leading role in their own learning strategies – are being implemented in the University of Liverpool.

The research focused upon a small number of modules that apply principles of critical pedagogy in that way students are assessed. It drew upon in-depth interviews with a sample of the staff members that co-ordinate eight modules in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences to explore how successfully those principles are applied in the assessment of those modules.

In our research we found a range of innovative and sometimes challenging ways that module leaders sought apply the core aims of critical pedagogy. We found a range of forms of assessment that:

  • allow the structure of learning to be defined by student learners’ lived reality, rather than a predetermined or designed structure.
  • encourage students to be ‘free learners’, able to challenge the physical and ideological structure of their pedagogical environment and relationships.
  • move students to action and involvement in the world in ways that promote and further the causes of social justice and democracy.

The module leaders we spoke to were committed to allowing students to challenge the dominant ways of reading the world, and to do so in a more open ways. The key motivation for others was to introduce to students an understanding of the social and political dimensions of their subject. There is evidence that such approaches to assessment are important for ensuring the engagement of a more diverse range of participants in education. Critical pedagogy approaches can be important to a widening participation agenda.

Yet there are also considerable structural barriers that face the application of critical pedagogy in the current UK context. The problem that always confronts a sub-dominant culture entering a dominant culture is that the former will lose its autonomy as it is incorporated into the latter culture.  This raises some challenging and difficult questions for the University of Liverpool.  The dominant culture in this university is more and more shaped by the strategy of mass recruitment. This strategy has very clearly restricted the time staff are given to develop innovative teaching and learning strategies.

Our respondents were acutely aware of the general problem of seeking to develop transformative forms of learning practice in a system that is in many ways antithetical to critical pedagogy. Perhaps most crucial in the context of a system of higher education that is increasingly focused on the end point (the achievement of a degree classification), module leaders were keen to underline the importance of an emphasis on the process of learning, rather than the simple measurement of outcomes.

At the same time, it is the possibility that their results might be negatively affected by new and challenging forms of assessment that made students nervous about, and in some cases unwilling to engage in, those modules.

It is clear that the marketization and commoditization of UK higher education has made it more difficult to embed principles of critical pedagogy in assessment. Yet it is just as clear that critical pedagogy can act as a way of resisting some of the worst effects of marketized education. Assessments that depend upon a high level of original student work, especially those that involve students formulating their own research questions, meant that students could not draw upon standard texts. In an increasingly ends-focused system of higher education, self-directed learning strategies by definition allow the means (the process of learning) to be valued, rather than the ends (the grade).

Our study, however, points to the folly of approaches that value the ends above the means. One of the key findings reported by module leaders is that, measured in terms of grades, students on those modules appeared to perform significantly better than in more traditionally structured assessments.  What the evidence suggests, therefore, is that critical pedagogy approaches can offer a significant route to maintaining high standards of assessment in a system that is progressively devaluing the process of learning.

Professor David Whyte

School of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology

University of Liverpool