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Critical Pedagogy:
Notes from the Real World (4th Edition)

pp. 45-46
by Joan Wink
Published by Pearson
Copyright © 2011 by Joan Wink
Chapter 2 – What in the World is Critical Pedagogy?

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but it’s the parts that make all the difference,” the student said to me when we were discussing the language and definitions inherent within critical pedagogy. “Think of a huge, raging river racing toward the cliff, and when it hits the cliff, the river breaks into millions of drops and forms a waterfall. Each drop is important in the making of the waterfall, and when each drop hits the bottom of the cliff, it becomes a river again. Each drop forms something larger and more powerful than it was as an individual drop,” he continued. The first objective of this chapter is to look at some of those parts while always keeping the whole in our vision. For example, it is often said that a definition of critical pedagogy is to name, to reflect critically, to act. However, if to name is strange and unfamiliar language, a part of the whole is lost. I am hoping to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange (McLaren, 1989, p. 167) as the parts are integrated into the whole.

Furthermore, even if the parts and whole are integrated, unless the theory and practice are united, we fail to bring critical pedagogy to life. Therefore, a secondary objective of this chapter is to unify the theoretical constructs with classroom practice. This is a lofty goal indeed, integrating not only the parts into the whole but also theory into practice.

This chapter will challenge readers to generate their own understandings based on their own lived experiences. The narratives provided here serve as scaffolds for each reader to build her own schema of semantics (a.k.a., meaning making) for defining the language of critical pedagogy. I begin.


 Edelsky (1991) notes that, traditionally, we have been taught to keep our academic discourse cool and detached. We come from a tradition of thought that teaches that advocacy and passion are irrational and detachment equals rationality. Passionate language conjures up unruliness and disorder (Peller, 1987). Passion combined with an oppositional position evokes fears of dethroning, of revolution. However, as Edelsky notes (p. xxi), it is really style they object to.

I have lived to see Edelsky’s thoughts about language and style come true. My style of writing today is the very opposite of how I was taught, or schooled, to write years ago. My style is not cool or detached, and I hope passion is on each page. I have left the rational, five-paragraph essay behind, and certainly I must be a bit of a disappointment to my marvelous former writing teachers, many of whom were men. It took me many decades to understand that writing is also gender-centric. I’m sure many of you understood that sooner than I did.

However, having said that, I know that I am personally indebted to the esoteric and abstract language of critical theorists. Indeed, it was the very rigor of the language that enabled me to break through several self-imposed intellectual and even emotional barriers. Nevertheless, I am deeply aware that it was only during a very privileged time of my life that I was able to sit alone in a university library month after month and struggle with the language (and thought) of critical pedagogy. I am also mindful of the fact that most of the teachers and students I admire so much will never have this incredible opportunity.

Therefore, I choose to break with the academic norms; I choose to deconstruct the deconstructionist language so that students and teachers with incredibly challenging and complex lives and responsibilities will have access to critical pedagogy. I know that readers will bring the context of their own experiences and will construct their own meaning. My wish is that the readers of this book will eventually toss it and move on to others, to whom I am so deeply indebted.1


“All the toys are old, broken, and dirty,” she said as she burst through the door. Dawn had just returned from her first day of teaching bilingual kindergarten in a district that had never had a bilingual program, although the majority of their students historically came from migrant families who spoke Spanish.

“The last teacher left boxes and boxes for my kindergarten students. It’s just junk. I snuck out to the garbage and threw it away. There were even teaching materials from the 1950s,” she groaned.

Dawn was born in 1968. I know—she is my daughter.

Critical pedagogy teaches us to name, to reflect critically, and to act. In this case, Dawn named it: junk. She critically reflected, probably as she snuck outside to find the garbage. And she acted: She tossed it. Critical pedagogy helped Dawn to understand that forty-year-old teaching materials in English would not meet the needs of her Spanish-dominant kindergarten students.