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Critical Pedagogy and Race


This week, I had planned for us to begin to look at the “how to” aspects of critical pedagogy. I was going to introduce some of the practicalities of integrating social justice into the planning stage, the nitty gritty. But, with all that is going on in the world, in response to the death of George Floyd, I have changed my mind. The reality of racism is, I believe, one of the reasons that critical pedagogy is so crucial.


Critical pedagogy is the outworking of a teacher’s critical perspective on the world. By that, I mean that he or she has their eyes open to the injustices inherent within the systems in which they live, they are increasingly aware of biases within themselves and are conscious of the dominant, hegemonic forces within their national context. These lenses of critical consciousness include an understanding that race, gender, class and culture are all social forces at work in our every day lives and those of our students. We could say:


“All children live in diversity along intersections of gender, race, culture, class, ability and other differences, which contribute to their holistic experiences and emerging identities as effective and competent learners.” (Ang and Flewitt, 2015)


Embracing our critical consciousness, our hearts for social justice, how than can we create classrooms where students of all ethnicities feel equally welcomed and included, where everyone’s voice and perspective can be shared, heard and learned from and where the dominant cultural perspective is not foisted on to young learners at the expense of their own cultural identity?


One way, is to teach in a culturally responsive way.


How can we teach in a way that respects and sustains culture?


In the classroom, pedagogy can act as a cultural window, a mediator or bridge between the dominant culture of the mainstream and minority cultures. By utilising pedagogy which has cultural relevance, minority students are affirmed and encouraged. Creating a classroom where difference is embraced and everyone is respected is crucial. It is pedagogy which connects the act of teaching with the socio-economic, gender and race aspects of the classroom. Let's find out more.


In 1990’s, Gloria Ladson-Billing (US) coined the term “culturally relevant pedagogy”. She described how teachers need to have the ability to link principles of learning with deep understanding of, and appreciation for, culture and that teachers can utilise student’s cultures as a vehicle for learning . Other terms such as “culturally sustaining pedagogy” and “culturally revitalising pedagogy” have also popped up since. All of these useful pedagogical approaches, highlight the active taking up of cultural-awareness on the part of the teacher and an openness to learning from one another, across cultures rather than the teacher expecting everyone to move towards one set of cultural practices and perspectives. In essence, it just means, being open rather than being right.


To summarise, Zaretta Hammond defines culturally responsive teaching as:


“An educators ability to recognise students’ cultural displays of learning and meaning making and respond positively and constructively with teaching moves that use cultural knowledge as a scaffold to connect what the student knows to new concepts and content in order to promote effective information processing. “


How does this look in practice?


There are some very practical things we can do to affirm diversity. Some starting points might be:


· Making sure that the images we use on the interactive white board reflect a range of ethnicities, not just the dominant one of the context we are teaching in.

· Putting up displays that mirror a range of identities, using languages reflected in your class, maps, flags, pictures that reflect a global perspective.

· Integrating a critical consciousness of ethnicity into the Curriculum. For example, if you are doing a topic on exploration, discuss the history of slavery, don’t ignore it.

· Make sure your school library and book corners have books reflecting lots of different cultures.

· Re-imagine the student and teacher relationship as a partnership so there is reciprocity.

· Build strong relationships through hearing each other’s stories as a class.

· Create a safe space for learning with a strong socio-emotional connection with students because learning is hugely impacted by positive relationships.


Some of my favourite conversations in the classroom have been about experiences we have had in other countries whilst visiting family or friends or where we teach one another about our faiths or languages. It is also fun in circle times to invite students to write key words in a range of languages on white boards in the middle. This provides a connection point which says: we are all equal, everyone matters, you are welcome and included, we respect and embrace each other’s differences.


As we create pedagogic spaces which embrace diversity we take a stand against racism, we take some of the heat out of exclusion and discrimination, we offer freedom and power to participate instead.


More than Tokenism


While these practical responses are useful, we need to be aware of tokenism. More than these surface aspects, it is our mindset, attitude and the way we relate that will have a deeper impact. I recently heard Chine McDonald speak on race. She said:


“My discomfort of white majority spaces comes when choice is taken away from me, when you decide whether my culture should be dialled up or down."


As a teacher, I come to the (English) classroom with a curriculum constructed largely by white middle class men. In the UK 85.9% of teachers are white. However, 32.1% of primary students are from ethnic minority backgrounds as are 29.1% of secondary students. This means that those of us who are white need to work intentionally to offer pedagogy and curriculum which does not isolate but recognises and celebrates diversity. Otherwise the wounds are deepened in society and sometime, as we can see, those wounds rupture.


We might need to choose to move away from the conditioning we've experienced to believe that "white is right and white is powerful" (McDonald). We might need to decide to reject the underlying belief that “the majority race is normative and all other races are not.“ (McDonald).

If we do so as teachers and we adapt the way we teach, we will bring transformation. As always, Paulo Freire says it best:


“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and woman deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of the world. “


As teachers we have a huge role to play in practising pedagogy which embraces, lifts up and empowers, where culture is sustained and liberated and a rich cultural fluency becomes the norm. Let’s all find a way to join in and express that Black Lives Matter.


Further Reflection



How do you feel about the death of George Floyd? Why is that? Does it impact the way you want to teach?


How ethnically diverse is your classroom(s)? Is that diversity reflected in the curriculum you teach?


Can you identify one practical way this week through which you could represent a different cultural perspective in your teaching, even on-line?


Do you experience teaching as an act of freedom and transformation or conformity? Why do you think that is?


Further Reading



Zaretta Hammond “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain”


Layla F Saad “Me and White Supremacy: How to recognise your privilege, combat racism and change the world”


Paulo Freire “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”


www.tolerance.org (US based website for teachers)


www.cultofpedagogy.com Podcast Episode 78 on 4 Misconceptions about Culturally Responsive Teaching.


Jodi Picoult “Small Great Things” (a novel)

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