The Critical Pedagogy in Me

Learning to read may take many paths. There are those who learn to read from the whole to the parts and those that learn to read from the parts to the whole. I found my experience to be the former. Growing up in the East African country of Tanzania, I experienced a number of challenges in learning to read. Like in American schools, reading is approached from the parts to the whole in Tanzania. The appropriate route to learning how to read involves teaching the student first the sound, then the letter, and finally the words (Wink, 2011). However, I learned how to read using cartoon characters in the newspaper to understand a story. In her book, Wink calls students like me the “others” because we learn to read from the whole to the parts. I found meaning on what mattered to me first. The sounds, letters and words were not meaningful to me. The big picture or “whole” as told through the cartoon characters was.

Growing up in a village in rural Tanzania, there was no kindergarten and therefore I did not attend one. I learned to read through collecting and reading the cartoon sections of old discarded newspapers. There were no books to go around and the fact that my parents could barely read and write themselves did not help either. Therefore it was through my own efforts and watching others read that I learned to read. Because of the interest I had to read the cartoon characters and to understand what they were saying, I was able to look at the whole picture and then put the pieces together. Thus from my own experience, I believe that children have many paths through which they can learn to read. It might be true that most children learn how to read through the sounds, letters and words first, but many other children learn to read through the whole to the parts. Therefore, one size or methodology does not fit all children when it comes to teaching them to read.  Teachers must be aware of this fact and offer their students a range of options in their course instruction.

As we learn and grow as individuals, our social and cultural context plays a major part in our learning. I learned this concept the hard way in my first two years of teaching. Teaching is my second career. Prior to teaching, I worked in the environmental field for many years. I had the content knowledge and believed that this was all I needed to go into a classroom and be a successful educator. However, I did not realize that students also have their own social and cultural context that influenced their learning. It was not long before I realized that content without pedagogy, methodology and a deeper understanding of my students’ social and cultural context was a recipe for disaster.

I started teaching in the Baltimore City Public Schools System through their Baltimore City Teaching Residency. As a Baltimore City Teacher Resident, I was enrolled at Johns Hopkins University to pursue a Master’s Degree in Education and was also assigned a faculty advisor. In my first few weeks of teaching I had to go through the process of “learning, relearning and unlearning” my previous assumptions about teaching. I came to realize that content alone would not help me prosper as an educator. I did not really understand the culture, social interactions, and belief systems of my students. Moreover, I had no solid methodologies for how to teach nor did I have a theory of teaching and learning to ground my praxis. I was completely lost. This is what Wink calls “Contradictions and Change”. According to Freire and Macedo, 1987 (as cited by Wink, 2011) reading the world is as important and more so as reading the word. I had not read my world. I knew the word (the content to teach) but I was clueless as to my world (my students’ social and cultural perspectives and beliefs in education). I had to learn, relearn and unlearn quickly.

The student population at my school was 100% black, low income and low socio-economic status. Coming from Tanzania I thought I was black and I understood what it meant to be black, poor, and of low socio-economic status. I came from those humble roots. I understood early on that education was the only route I had to climb the socio-economic ladder and free myself from the shackles of poverty. This point was emphasized to me repeatedly by my impoverished parents who never had the opportunity to go to school beyond the second or third grade. I thought my students and I were on the same page on the role education could play in their lives. I assumed that because we were all black that we all shared the same culture and beliefs. But, I was very wrong in this assumption. I had to relearn and unlearn my philosophical and cultural position. As Wink (2011) states “in this enlightened-and often uncomfortable-educational space, relearning and unlearning begins.”  I realized we were all black but we all held very different philosophical and social and -cultural positions regarding education. As Vigotsky (as cited in Wink, 2011) puts it, “language and culture drives our thoughts processes”. Through the process of learning, relearning and unlearning, I was able to understand that “culture is not singular, nor is it fixed; it is multiple as in multiculturalism” (Wink, 2011). In order to be an effective educator for my students, I had to challenge my own belief system and begin to understand their thoughts and beliefs.  This is a process I began many years ago and which I find myself continuing to perform with each new class of students that I face. 

Now, I will turn to discussing the three models of teaching. During my education in Tanzania, I was exposed exclusively to the transmission model of learning. According to Wink (2011) the characteristics of the transmission model of learning are that: “The teacher is standing in front of the classroom, and the students are at their seats, which are in rows. They listen to what (s) he says and they write it down in their notes”. This is how I was taught and that is the only way I knew how to teach; thus, this is how I initially taught my students. This model of teaching was boring for my students and was mostly unsuccessful.  Again, I had to learn, relearn, and unlearn my world views on the proper way to learn and teach.

To learn, I had to first name my problems, critically reflect on these identified problems, and then act on my problems to create solutions.  After much reflection, I decided that my main problems were that: (1) I did not know enough about my students to engage them in the learning process and (2) I lacked a solid praxis based on practice, methodology, and theory to guide my teaching. To better understand my students, I conducted some research to find out how kids in urban environments, particularly black kids of lower socio-economic status, learn.  I needed to know which teaching methodologies and practices had been shown to work with these types of students. 

In the course of my research, I found an interested study by Young, Wright and Laster, (2005) entitled “Instructing African American Students”.  Young and colleagues found that there are two types of learners – the global learner and the analytical learner. A global learner (right brain) is visual, tactile and kinesthetic. According to the study, “she/he visualizes what has to be learned, touches what has to be learned and also moves a lot during the learning process”. The authors concluded that most, if not all African American students, are global learners. The authors also argued that instructional variability (movement, oral traditions, visual and touching) are key to ensuring that African American students are successfully engaged in the learning process. Another study by Castle, Deniz, and Tortola (2005) found that need based instruction strategies and grouping students according to their needs was a more effective instructional strategy compared to grouping students by ability in urban school settings. Finally, a study by Heystek (2003) indicated that parental involvement in schools with large African-American populations is limited. They concluded that the “limited involvement in turn, leads to low achievement in most of these schools”.

Presented with the findings from this research review, I had to change the way I taught. Through the process of naming, critically reflecting and acting, I was able to move from the transmission model of teaching to the generative model of teaching. I also believe that the process of critical reflection helped me gain the cultural capital I needed to meaningfully engage my students. To be a generative teacher, I had to learn a number of new teaching techniques including the Socratic dialogue. I learned how to develop questioning techniques (the oratory traditions) that helped my students gain a deeper understanding of the content. For example, during the time I was going through this learning, relearning and unlearning processes, I developed a lesson plan on the concept of carrying capacity (Appendix 1). In this lesson, I wanted my students to understand: 1) what plants needed to survive, 2) what will happen to plants if we vary their requirements, and 3) the overall concept of what the carrying capacity of an ecosystem is (see Appendix I). I used a series of directed questions to help my students gain this knowledge in a way that kept them engaged and let them be discoverers of their own information.  It also helped foster their critical thinking skills. 

In another example, I developed a lesson entitled “Where O’ Where Is All of the Water” (see Appendix 2) to help my students understand how the water cycle was relevant to their lives and not just some abstract concept that they had to learn in science class (Appendix 2). Through the lesson, my students learned how water is distributed around the world. They also learned how they could conserve limited water resources in their own homes and community. Though a letter writing exercise to community leaders, students had the opportunity to use the information they had learned to advocate for environmental protection.  This exercise helped students develop critical thinking and communication skills while arming them with the information they needed to make a persuasive argument.

Along with improving my teaching techniques, I also tried to improve how I assessed my students’ understanding of the material.  After reading Wink’s book, I believe that critical pedagogy runs counter to how we currently assess students in today’s classrooms (Wink, 2011).  Most assessment is currently done through standardized tests. Standardized testing does not assess students’ critical thinking skills nor does it assess higher level skills such as “synthesizing” or “analyzing” information, two skills needed in our increasing technology-oriented society.  A multiple choice test simply is not designed to get at these higher level skills.  Instead, standardized testing focuses on measuring basic understanding of materials (facts) and concepts at a given point in time, and thus, does not adequately prepare students for the work environment.  Moreover, current assessment tools are not suitable for measuring the success of critical pedagogy instruction techniques. Instead, critical pedagogy instruction should be assessed using performance based assessment that “calls for students to typically display fairly high level skills” (Popham, 1997).  In my own classroom, I have tried to supplement required standardized testing with performance based assessment methods to get a clearer understanding of my students’ progress. 

In summary, I found this text to be extremely helpful to me.  I enjoyed how the author used a story telling style to write the text. Often, academic books are written very matter of fact and as a result can be dry and somewhat boring. However, I found this book to be different; the author invites you to create your own understanding of the text through her story telling. I found this approach refreshing. In addition, I was not aware of the term “critical pedagogy” before I read this book.  However, as I read the book, I was happy to discover that I often employ critical pedagogy techniques in my own teaching. This book has empowered me to continue to use these techniques and has given me even more ideas on how to integrate critical pedagogy into my instructional and assessment strategies. As Wink points out, learning does not start and end in the classroom. I want my students to connect their learning experiences with what is happening in their homes, community, and globally. To do that, I will continue to utilize critical pedagogy in my classroom.



American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Castle, S., Deniz, C.B., and Tortola, M. (2005). Flexible grouping and students seanring in a High-Needs School. Journal of Education and Urban Society, 37(2): 139-150.

Heystek, H., (2003). Parents as governors and partners in schools. Journal of Education and Urban Society, 37(4): 371-397.

Popham, W. J. (1997). What’s wrong- and what’s right-with rubrics. Journal of Educational Leadership, 55(2): 72-75.

Young, Y.Y., Wright, J.V., and Laster, J. (2005). Instructing African American students. Journal of Education and Urban Society 125(3): 516-524.

Wink, J. (2011). Critical Pedagogy: Notes from the Real World (4th ed). New Jersey, PA: Pearson Education, Inc.




Appendix 1: A Socratic Dialogue on Carrying Capacity in Ecology

Q: Question

EA: Expected Answer

EX:  Explanation

Q:  We are going to explore an ecological idea called carrying capacity. Does everybody see what I have in front of the class?

EA: Yes, you have a jar with a plant in it

Q: What does a plant needs to survive?

EA: It needs food, water, shelter and good weather (many different answers were offered, I only used the correct ones based on the book we were using)

Q: What will happen if I added 400 more seedlings in the same jar?

EA: Some plants will survive and some will die (again, different answers here as well)

Q: Why do you think some plants will die and others will survive?

EA: Because there will not be enough food, shelter, and water to support all the plants.

Q: Let say I increase the space of the container and the amount of water while keeping the same amount of food. Will all the plants survive because they now have enough space and water?

EA: No

Q: Why do you say no?

EA: Because the amount of food is not going to be enough to support all the plants

EX: No matter how much shelter, water, and other resources there might be, the population will not grow much higher because it has reached its carrying capacity. The largest population that an environment can support is called its carrying capacity.



Appendix 2:Where in the World Is All the Water?


Grade level: 9th –Grade: Environmental Science




Students will be able to:

1)      Construct a model illustrating the distribution of the earth’s water.

2)      Graph the distribution of the earth’s water.



Water is the most abundant, unique and important substance on Earth. It is essential to life and is a major component of all living materials. Approximately 1,520 billion liters of water exist on Earth. The earth has been called the water planet. Pictures taken from space show the earth as a big blue marble because of the amount of water found at the surface. The earth’s water, however, is actually found in, on and above the surface in three physical states: solid, liquid and gas. The following is a breakdown of the earth’s water supply: Oceans (97%), glaciers/icecaps (2%), groundwater (0.7%), atmosphere (0.3%), freshwater lakes (0.01%), saline lakes/inland seas (0.01%), soil moisture (0.01%), and rivers (0.001%).



  • ocean
  • glacier
  • icecap
  • groundwater
  • ponds
  • lakes
  • reservoirs
  • rivers



  • 1000 ml beaker
  • 5 cups or small beakers
  • 1000 ml tap water
  • medicine dropper



1)  Introduction (15 minutes)       


Today, we are going to talk about how we conserve water so that we always have enough to drink.

Write the following paragraph on the board and have a student volunteer read it.

“Water is the most abundant, unique and important substance on Earth. It is essential to life and is a major component of all living materials. Approximately 1520 billion liters of water exist on Earth. The earth has been called the water planet. Pictures taken from space show the earth as a big blue marble because of the amount of water found at the surface (show picture). The earth’s water, however, is actually found in, on and above the surface in three physical states: solid, liquid and gas.”


2)  Small group activity (60 minutes)


Break students into groups of six.  Pass out materials to each group.  Instruct each group to fill their 1000mL beaker with 1000mL of tap water. Label the large beaker “ocean” and the 4 cups as follows:

§  1-glaciers/icecaps

§  2-groundwater

§  3-atmosphere

§  4-Surface water

The students should then pour water from the ocean into each of the cups in the proportions they think the water on Earth is distributed. Allow each group to report their distributions.  Pass out the “Did you know” worksheet showing the actual distribution of water.  Have students distribute their water in the correct percentages.  Discuss with students how only a small percent of water is suitable for human use and that it is important to conserve the water that we use in order to ensure that we always have enough.

Distribute graph paper to each student.  Ask them to create a pie chart showing the distribution of water.  Next to their pie chart, have them write some ways they can conserve water. 

3)      Discussion (15 minutes)


Ask students to share some of their ideas for how to conserve water.  Write their suggestions on the board.  Add to list as needed.  Post students’ pie charts outside in the hallway.

4)   Homework


Students should select one of the ways for conserving water and try it at home.  They should record their experiences in their journal for two weeks.



  1. Have students research a water conservation method and present their findings to the class.
  2. On an overhead, show students a list of organizations that are available that offer information about protecting the environment. Allow students to choose one organization they would like to write to receive information. Assign students as homework to write a short letter requesting information from a specific organization. Have them explain in their letters why they are requesting the information (what they are studying). Send home a letter to parents requesting a stamped envelope if possible. Have the school as a return address and mail the letters.
  3. Have students write a letter to a local or national politician (e.g. their Congressman or even the President) stressing the importance of conserving water. 









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