Feb 142016

This is a class assignment. Not to blog about it, but to write a paper about it.  The “it” is critical pedagogy/theory. Do you know what that means? I didn’t (and probably still don’t) either. I realize that I acted in ways that inched towards critical pedagogy, but I didn’t understand the theory. When I say, “I inched towards,” I mean it. I think I was heading in a direction that was taking me towards being a critical educator. I was not there.

When I first read this quote, I thought “Females are the half being held back. Right, I have to teach to all learners, not just the male learners.” But, as I developed ideas of critical pedagogy (again, before I knew what it was) I thought about my learners who didn’t like math. Was I holding them back? What about my Hispanic learners? Or the gay learners? Or what if they are gay, Hispanic, and female!

The next question I started asking myself is, “If I am not teaching to Hispanics or females, am I holding them back? After all, If I am teaching ‘neutrally’ then isn’t their problem to learn, not mine?” I have heard a version of that question from many teachers: I teach, learners learn, that is the way it goes. I once told a teacher, “A teacher who says I taught it, but they didn’t learn it is the same as a salesperson who says I sold it, but they didn’t buy it.” (No, really, I told that to the teacher’s face. They were … not happy with me.)

If I am not teaching TO the female learners, or TO the Hispanic learners or TO the low SES learners, than I AM holding them back. Purposefully, with foreknowledge, and now with malicious intent. I am using my power as an educator to purposefully hold back some learners over others.

I can’t do that. I will not be that teacher who doesn’t teach to ALL my learners, to get ALL of the learners to their maximum potential. I will not be the teacher who abuses their power.

But does that mean I am a critical educator?

The short answer is No.

The long answer is also No.

Because I didn’t create a classroom environment where I challenged the learners to engage and change the world. I changed my classroom for them, but what did I encourage them to change?

That is the difference between being an aware, a reflective, educator and a Critical Educator. And the more I learn, the more I believe every teacher SHOULD be involved in critical theory / pedagogy. It should not be an option to opt out. Being neutral on this topic does harm to learners.

Being neutral on the topic of power is wrong There is no such thing as being neutral. Yes, those are pretty strong words. I believe them. I will act on them.

I will put the rest of this “paper” below the fold, so it is not taking up tons of space. However, I encourage you to read on. I am going to try to become explicit in understanding what critical pedagogy is. I won’t apologize for that. It will be technical. And yet, I don’t see what I write below as optional practice in the classroom.

Critical Pedagogy / Theory: as I see it today, February 2016

The text of the assignment is, “Students will prepare a paper in which they explore their own understandings of critical theory/pedagogy, begin to articulate their understandings of CP and trace how it came to be this way.” I am interpreting this assignment in such a way that I can fulfull the requirements as a blog post.

Why? Why go public with this topic? After all, this is a topic that can generate some backlash. Critical pedagogy (CP) contains ideas of social justice (among other things.) I know that some individuals are offended by this. I don’t care. I know that many beginning teachers are not taught about social justice in the mathematics classroom. I know that critical pedagogy is not part of a typical undergraduate teaching program. Thankfully my program is not ‘typical.’ BUT, I do know that as teachers, we need to talk about CP. We need to spread the idea that we can do more in math class than just deliver content. I accept that responsibility as a teacher, as a learner, AND as a teacher educator. This is a first step in that process.

My first steps in the journey


I approached the topic of critical pedagogy without ever knowing that it was a thing, but I knew I needed to go somewhere. I began my teaching career in a high school that tracked. They tracked aggressively. I was assigned “low level” classes. They were composed of learners who, among other issues, were deaf (3 in one class!), were on the autism spectrum somewhere, were special ed, or were absolutely low S.E.S. These learners were my first year of teaching, and I questioned why they were in the low class. They were brilliant. They were fun. They were frustrating. Ooops, there it is. They were NOT the “easy to teach” learners. Therefore, someone else placed them in the low class. This pissed me off. I left that school immediately at the end of the year for a school that did not track.

I taught at this new school for 8 years. I loved every day of it. I fought with teachers who wanted to teach homogeneous classes. I fought with admins and brought forth research (Thank you Illana Seidel Horn and Jo Boaler) when homogeneous classrooms were brought up. Then when I won, because the culture of the school was against tracking, I supported the teachers with conversations, tips, ideas, and methods I learned from other teachers around the world on engaging learners. Thank you #MTBoS. Then I started looking at the composition of my classes (AP and Honors the last couple years) and encouraging more learners to challenge themselves. I refused to let them out because, “it was too hard.” I supported them. I fought them. I made them stay in class if I could. They learned math. The counselors started believing in my so they would put learners in my class who had potential, but would not work for other teachers. They worked for me.

Don’t get me wrong. I made errors in my classroom interactions. I made a couple of egregious errors. There are learners I would love to find and apologize. However, I started looking at my classroom and realizing that the learners needed more than just math. They needed me to be their leader, their guide, and their support. Therefore, I started asking where to get such information on how to support them. I found a great deal of information on Twitter. The #EduColor hashtag is amazing. I read every link. I was scared many times, challenged by what was said, but I learned, and I worked.

This led me to the realization that I do not teach math. I teach PEOPLE, the subject of math. I even stood up in front of a room of 200 math teachers and told them that I teach people. I talked about High Fives, and how I created a positive culture in my classroom focused on learning. Here is the link: http://blog.mrwaddell.net/archives/1431

But this is not Critical Pedagogy. This is a journey to becoming a reflective practitioner. That is part of the way to becoming a critical pedagogue. This is my journey that made me realize my classroom must NOT be about math, but about culture, development, and overcoming the boundaries the learners found around them. I could use math as a tool, but I could not have math as the focus. The focus MUST be on people.

Continuing beyond reflection to Action

The question then becomes what is Critical Pedagogy (CP)? If being a reflective practitioner and aware of the inequities in my classroom is only half of the way to CP, then what exactly is CP?

Critical Pedagogy occurs when the teacher names what is going on in the classroom, reflects critically on the occurrences, and then creations action on what is discovered by the reflection. This three-step process, Name, Reflect, Act, is the process Joan Wink lays out in her book, “Critical Pedagogy: Notes from the real world”. I recommend this book for beginners to the process.

So why was I not taking action? I changed how I taught. I changed my approach to interactions with learners. I unlearned how to lecture in math, I learned how to engage and construct ideas in math. Why do I not call myself a critical pedagogue? The reason I think this is that the action taken rested solely on my shoulders, not the actions of my learners.

Of the three types of classrooms, transmission, generative, and transformative, my classroom was a generative classroom. My learners and I engaged in active communication, and we generated knowledge and understanding of the math in a positive environment.

However, I did not reach the point where I was transforming their math education into something outside of the walls of the classroom. I was not challenging the learners to engage with the world and change the deficiencies they found. In AP Stats, I tried. After the exam was over, I turned the class over to the learners and allowed them full reign to develop a question, collect data to answer it, and present the results. I challenged them to be socially aware, and many learners took on questions of bullying, treatment of gays, SES status, etc. The learners answered a question they had, but they did not follow-up and DO anything with the answers they found.

That is the difference between a transformative classroom and a generative classroom. I ended up “wasting” the entire year on content and not doing anything with the amazing questions the learners had. Imagine the difference if the content was delivered the ENTIRE year with their questions, and we spent the 4 weeks after the exam making presentations to the community and changing perceptions of the school, the learners, and solving problems of the community.

I did not get there. Today, I would make better steps towards being a transformative classroom.


The journey forward

What does Critical Pedagogy mean to me? Where am I taking it from here? I am not teaching math any more. I am teaching teachers. If the burden of teaching math was large, the burden of teaching teachers is exponentially larger. I have to step up MY game to the realm of being a critical pedagogue and teaching my future teachers to do the same.

How? What goals will I create to make it happen?

First, my learners must unlearn the lecture-based approach to math education. This is essential to their development. It is not just that they must learn new methods; they must UN-LEARN the bad methods they learned in high school AND are still learning in college.

Second, in class, my learners must now discuss equity; not only gender equity, but cultural equity, socio-economic status equity, and every other type of equity. My learners must know they are holding back half of their learners if they are not actively promoting and leveling the playing field for all.

Third, the pre-service teachers who graduate from my program must understand the difference between transmission based, generative, and a transformative classrooms. When I took the position, I was happy with generative classrooms. Now that I know the difference between the three, and I know where I was, it is not enough anymore. I want my learners choosing of their own volition to engage in transformative classrooms.

Fourth, if my learners are choosing transformative classrooms, the question falls to me of what am I transforming at the university level? What can I, as a non-tenured faculty in a conservative structure like a university transform? This thought scares me, but I am working in a program that did not exist a year ago, teaching learners purposefully recruited to transform classrooms. My program is disruptive in STEM education, and I have an obligation to my learners and their future learners to follow through. That is a burden. It is one I take on willingly.

If you read this far (thank you), you may be asking for more resources or information. I do not blame you. I tried to avoid the majority of the jargon of critical pedagogy. I did so on the basis of this article: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/09/social-justice-less-elitist/ I agree that it is important that we make this topic more approachable. Social justice approaches are one way to engage with critical pedagogy (but definitely not the only way.)

Other resources to help others on their journey.

https://www.nctm.org/Store/Products/Teaching-Mathematics-for-Social-Justice–Conversations-with-Educators/ A book on Social Justice in the mathematics classroom specifically.

http://www.cultofpedagogy.com/social-justice-resources/ A very nice collection of resources on teaching social justice. Not specific to math, but to all subjects.

http://www.radicalmath.org/ Radical math is specific to math, with lots of resources to help math educators.

Read great authors on this topic. Jennifer Borioli Binis is one. https://medium.com/identity-education-and-power/identity-in-education-and-the-responsibility-of-power-d9bbef4ea495

Anne Schwartz writes about these topics often at https://abrandnewline.wordpress.com/ .

Engage with math educators on Twitter who share a common interest:

Illana Horn: https://twitter.com/tchmathculture

Jo Boaler: https://twitter.com/joboaler

And everyone who tweets with the hashtag #educolor or the hashtag #criticalpedagogy . There are many educators out there who want to discuss, challenge, and help others learn how to transform their classrooms. Engage them.


I welcome any feedback, comments, suggestion for continued reading and follow through.


Below are tweets I received on this post. I am saving them so I can write about the feedback as a reflection later.

  3 Responses to “My Critical Pedagogy / Theory Journey”

  1. Thanks for writing a lovely, reflective piece.

  2. You are welcome. It was a little scary, but I am glad I did it, and I will be doing more.

  3. I’m glad you wrote this too — here in Philly we are just starting an “Inquiry to Action Group” for math teachers about “Social Justice math” and I think this will be a GREAT first reading!

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