Chapter 5: How do Children and Teens Learn? Part 2: Critical Learning Theories
By Mara Rosenberg
A group of fourth-graders gathers on the carpet to listen as their teacher reads aloud from George by Alex Gino. The previous week, during the introduction to the novel about a young transgender girl, the reaction from students was varied. Some had background knowledge and opinions on the subject, while others seemed perplexed. Today, as they listen, they hear a character misgender George. The response is no longer disparate. Across the group, people express empathy for George, sadness that she doesn’t feel safe to share her secret, and frustration about societal gender norms. What accounts for this change? These students had the opportunity to see beyond their own lives and experiences through the text. Opportunities to respond and reflect in partnerships and small groups led to new ways of thinking and feeling. This is a classroom in which students have learned to question, to examine texts with a critical lens.
Critical pedagogy is an approach to education rooted in critical theory, a “philosophical approach to culture, and especially to literature, that considers the social, historical, and ideological forces and structures which produce and constrain it” (Critical theory, n.d.). Developed by the Frankfurt School in the 1930s, critical theory is “concerned in particular with issues of power and justice and the ways that the economy, matters of race, class and gender, ideologies, discourses, education, religion, and other social institutions, and cultural dynamics interact to construct a social system” (Kincheloe, p. 49).
Critical pedagogy traces its roots to Paulo Freire, who applied critical theory to education. Freire’s work focused on improving the lives of poor people in Brazil. He believed that education and literacy were key to disrupt the economics-based power structure. He asserted that the traditional system of education perpetuated disempowerment. In his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), Freire delineated the outcomes of the Brazilian education system:
[T]he teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. … They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. (p. 72)
Freire advocated for a dialogical pedagogy in which students construct knowledge through “conversation and sharing about a particular content object, whether that be a text, an idea, or a situation” (Beatty, 2015, p. 13).
In addition to Friere, modern critical pedagogy frameworks borrow heavily from critical race theory (CRT). In the early 1980s, scholars in the United States began to apply CRT to their study of the American legal system. This theory grew out of an acknowledgement of the role of race and power in the American legal realm. These scholars believed that the U.S. legal system maintains white supremacy through the applications of laws that disproportionately impact people of color. They began to examine ways to dismantle existing structures that perpetuate inequality in the power dynamic based on race.
Before we go further, let’s briefly examine the idea of race (a full explanation of this very complex topic would take its own book; if this information is new to you, consider checking out the online professional development curriculum Project READY, www.ready.web.unc.edu). Race is not biological. There are not genetic differences between racial groups. The exterior, phenotypical differences we see are the result of adaptations to environmental conditions over centuries. Race, rather, is a social construct created to excuse the subjugation, exploitation, and genocide of whole groups of people. If we look at the economic roots of the United States, racializing Africans and Native peoples allowed Europeans to take land and enslave human beings (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2017).
Critical race theory also influenced academics and activists who were interested in identities other than race. Other marginalized groups began to examine the systemic nature of their oppression. Feminist, LGBTQ, religious-minority, Asian-American, Latinx, and indigenous activists situated their work around dismantling the systems that enabled majority groups to hold on to power and privilege.
As awareness grew that people’s multiple identities impact their lives in different ways, academics such as Kimberlé Crenshaw (see sidebar) began to study the intersection of identities within individuals. Intersectionality is a “recognition of the way different identities and forms of oppression, privilege, and/or identity overlap and interact. People are influenced by numerous dimensions of identities that change in different contexts and interact with each other at different times in various ways” (Funk, Kellner, & Share, 2016, p. 29). For example, a white homosexual man has the privilege of race and sex, but his sexual orientation has a history of marginalization and may impact his access to certain protections. “Intersectionality is the idea that identity cannot be fully understood via a single lens such as gender, race, or class alone” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2017, p. 175).
Researcher and author Kimberlé Crenshaw has been writing and speaking about intersectionality since the late 1980s. Watch her TED Talk, titled “The Urgency of Intersectionality,” at https://bit.ly/2wP0TTr.
Academics in disciplines outside of the legal field began to adopt the underlying foundations of CRT and conducted research using the framework of CRT within their own fields. Gloria Ladson-Billings and William F. Tate (1995) argued “for a critical race theoretical perspective in education analogous to that of critical race theory in legal scholarship” (p. 47). They contended that the existing multicultural theoretical models did not acknowledge the inequities perpetuated by the intersection of race and property in American society. This work informed Ladson-Billings’ development of culturally responsive pedagogy (see pp. 93-94 for more about culturally responsive pedagogy).
Critical Pedagogy in the Library
“School librarians can be a primary voice in promoting the importance of social equity for all students” (Summers, 2010, p. 10). There are several ways we can foster equity by bringing critical pedagogy to our work as school and youth librarians. The first step we can take is to recognize that we come to our interactions with youth with specific worldviews, based upon our own lived experiences. The youth we serve have necessarily different lived experiences. We cannot make assumptions about them; we must listen and believe when they share their perspectives and experiences. It is vital that we have difficult conversations with colleagues and the learners with whom we work. The impacts of race in America will not go away through benevolent colorblindness, and neither will the impacts of other forms of marginalization go away simply because we choose to ignore them.
Lived experiences, both our learners’ and our own, are heavily influenced by the cultures of home and of community. Teacher educator Randy Bomer (2017) offered a definition of culture as it relates to our work with youth. He views culture as “a group of people’s way of life, all of their patterns of communication, systems of valuing, habits of being, and understandings of expression—a group’s ways of signaling membership and belonging through both minute and large-scale interactions” (p. 11). This delineation requires us to think about culture beyond holidays, food, clothing, and language. “Way of life” and “habits of being” push us to think of culture as including all the socializing influences that impact how learners experience and come to understand the world, including their time in our libraries.
Knowing individual learners and their stories is important, but it is not enough. If you work in a community with a large Hmong population, for example, learn about the Hmong culture, traditions, beliefs, and refugee experience. Educating yourself will put you in a position to check for stereotypes and biases in your collection, as well as informing your work with your learners and their families.
In our role as educators, we have the opportunity, in developmentally appropriate ways, to share the foundations of critical theory. Teaching Tolerance (https://www.tolerance.org/), a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has a wealth of lesson plans, media, book lists, and teaching tips that can be used in the library setting. The resources are available for preschool through college-age, as well as for professional development of educators and others working with youth. Of particular note are the organization’s social justice standards (https://bit.ly/2w15sen), which provide “a road map for anti-bias education” (Teaching Tolerance, 2016, p. 2). The standards are organized by grade ranges and can help librarians develop age-appropriate equity-based learning goals for their learners.
At the heart of critical pedagogies is the habit of taking a questioning stance and engaging in the dialogic Friere promoted. One way that librarians can accomplish this is through posing critical questions about text to our learners. Over time, learners can internalize these questions to become critical consumers of the material they read. Texts in this context are not limited to traditional printed materials. Photographs, songs, and videos all convey meaning and may be critically examined. The following list of questions from Teaching Tolerance (2017) provides a good starting point for educators guiding conversations about text:
- Whose voice is omitted in this text?
- Who has the power?
- What is the author’s agenda?
- How is the information used?
- Who decided the “truth”?
- What assumption is being made?
By engaging with these questions, learners can consider points of view not presented within the text. The disposition to question text reduces the acceptance of text at face value. It develops proficiencies in critical thinking, analysis, and problem-solving skills as enumerated in the Common Core State Standards (2010), the Youth Engagement and Leadership portions of the YALSA Teen Services Competencies (2017), and the AASL Standards Framework for Learners (2017).
Culturally Responsive and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies
Culturally responsive or relevant pedagogy (used interchangeably here) and culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP) are related models that recognize and honor the diversity of the youth in our libraries. Both approaches allow us to “incorporate teaching practices that respond to the cultures of the students in front of us” (Davis, 2012, p. 8). These practices stand in response to hegemonic curricula and pedagogies that cause harm to learners. “Volumes of research have addressed the cognitive, emotional, and psychological damage that can occur when students’ lives are not validated during the learning process” (Thornton, 2017, p. 73).
Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) introduced culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) in opposition to what she identified as a deficit-based approach to educating marginalized students (see sidebar). Ladson-Billings asked teachers to see their students’ home cultures as assets instead of obstacles. She found that in classrooms with teachers who applied CRP, students benefited academically while simultaneously developing cultural and sociopolitical competencies. As her work evolved, she expressed dissatisfaction with the constrained application of CRP in classrooms and a sense that the pedagogy was applied with only a surface understanding of culture. Advocating a “remix,” Ladson-Billings (2014) promoted a shift from CRP to CSP.
Deficit- Versus Asset-Based Approaches
Educators who take a deficit-based approach focus on learners’ shortcomings. These educators blame learners, their families, and their cultures for perceived failures, and may see their role as “fixing” or “saving” learners. Educators who assume an asset-based approach focus on learners’ strengths and view so-called achievement gaps as resulting primarily from inequitable systems rather than individual choices. These educators see their role as helping all learners develop their abilities and reach their potential.
Django Paris (2012) proposed CSP, a framework that “seeks to perpetuate and foster—to sustain—linguistic, liter-ate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling” (p. 93). He asserted that schools should offer “access to dominant cultural competence” (p. 95) in addition to sustaining, rather than merely acknowledging or even celebrating, the cultures of students’ homes and communities. Unlike traditional education in America—with its goal of acculturation of all students to the white, Christian, English-speaking dominant culture—CSP seeks to give all students the skills and competencies to fully participate in an increasingly multi-cultural, multi-racial American society. CSP focuses on “sustaining and extending the richness of our pluralistic society. Such richness include[s] all of the languages, literacies, and cultural ways of being that our students and communities embody—both those marginalized and dominant” (Paris, 2012, p. 96).
CSP In Practice
What does CSP actually look like on the ground? Listen to Dr. Django Paris’s answer to that question in this ten-minute podcast episode titled “The Look and Feel of Culturally Responsive Instruction,” produced by teacher and blogger Larry Ferlazzo: https://bit.ly/2sq7DoH
The spotlight box below highlights one example of a public library program in Grand Rapids, Michigan that fulfills many aspects of Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy. As you read about this program, think about how it goes beyond acknowledging or celebrating children’s home cultures to actively sustaining those cultures.
Grand Rapids Public Library in Grand Rapids, Michigan is actively engaged in having conversations about race… in storytime. Youth Services Manager, Jessica Anne Bratt, has created a variety of resources to help library staff and caregivers talk with children about race during literacy activities.
Bratt’s outlines for story times include not just a list of songs, fingerplays, and books, but also language for staff to use when engaging both children and adults. These plans offer models of language families may use at home when talking about race with their children and let caregivers know about the importance of having these conversations.
In one preschool plan, staff introduce the book I Got the Rhythm by Connie Schofield-Morrison with “Look at her hair and skin? Is it the same or different than [yours]? We are all born with different shades of skin colors and hair textures. Doesn’t she have awesome afro-puffs?” Staff also share tips with caregivers about sharing their opinions regarding unfairness when reading about racial stereotyping or discrimination. They guide parents to reinforce that “different and weird are not the same thing.” Sample materials from Bratt are available from the Jbrary story time blog at https://bit.ly/2Fq0Xu2.
Critical Media and Information Literacies
Combining critical pedagogy with cultural literacy studies, critical media literacy (CML) engages students in taking a critical stance with a wide range of media. CML “empowers [teachers and learners] to act as responsible citizens with the skills and social consciousness to challenge injustice” (Funk, Kellner, & Share, 2016, p. 2). As our learners engage with media both inside and outside school, we can create opportunities for them to interrogate the embedded values and points of view contained in the messages they encounter. Lessons and programs that engage learners in CML extend “the critical thinking skills necessary to analyze messages and synthesize information” (Carlson, Share, & Lee, 2013, p. 51).
Mohammed Choudhury and Jeff Share (2012) enumerated the key ideas for critically questioning media messages. The first area is the social construction of messages. What decisions were made by the person or people who created this message? How could different choices affect the message? They recommended examining the language rules of the media. How did the use of elements, such as sounds or visuals, impact the audience? The second concept is that individuals interpret texts differently depending upon their lived experiences and the lenses they bring to the work. By interrogating the biases of the author/producer, learners build an understanding about the illusion of objectivity. The final idea for learners to consider is the purpose for the creation and sharing of the message. Does the author have a particular agenda they are trying to promote? Is the media produced by a company with a profit-making motive? Choudhury and Share emphasized the value of critical literacy for the health of democracy. Teaching critical literacy skills does not detract from content area learning, but rather Choudhury and Share found that the students involved in their research also made substantial academic gains.
In the introduction to their book Information Literacy and Social Justice, Lua Gregory and Shana Higgins (2013) called for critical information literacy as a pedagogical model for librarians. This paradigm moves beyond the goals of locating, using, and analyzing information to consider the “social, political, economic, and corporate systems that have power and influence over information production, dissemination, access, and consumption” (p. 4). Recognizing the evolving nature of the information landscape, the authors advocated for teaching learners about the processes through which information is constructed and disseminated. We don’t need to look far to find examples of the intentional distribution of inaccurate or false information through social media outlets. It is vital that we give learners the opportunities to develop skills and critical consciousness about information and information sources.
Foundational to both critical and cultural pedagogical models is the need for educators to be culturally competent. To plan and facilitate lessons and programs within this model, we, as professionals, need to demonstrate skills and dispositions for cross-cultural interactions. What does that look like, and how do we develop those skills? Bonnie Davis, in her book How to Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You (2012), outlined several questions that can guide educators to examine their own lenses:
- How were you acculturated?
- What is your ethnic culture or ethnicity?
- What is your racial identity?
- What is your nationality?
- How do your ethnicity, racial identity, and nationality differ from you students and colleagues?
- What factors contribute to the lens you wear as you view the world? (p. 9–12).
She continued to identify myriad factors that influence acculturation, including: “family, gender, racial identity, ethnicity, nationality, age, sexual orientation, language, friends, religion, school, geography, income of family or social class, political views, electronic media, social organizations, ableness, [and] others” (p. 12). Julie Stivers and Sandra Hughes-Hassell (2015) wrote that culturally competent librarians create “equitable environments” and approach “youth and their families from an asset-driven perspective” (para. 5).
While collection development is distinct from instruction, it is still related; the resources we collect for our libraries can be used in our instruction (as in story times), and our learners may seek information from library resources to extend learning that began with our instruction. Thus, it is critical that our library collections support equity and inclusion, and that our resources feature positive representations of diverse cultures, races, genders, sexualities, religions, and abilities.
In her landmark essay, “Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Rudine Sims Bishop (1990) created a metaphor for the role of literature in the lives of young people. She equates books with glass that allows the reader to see in to other worlds, but when the light hits the glass just right, the glass reflects back. She posits that when we see ourselves reflected in text, we have the opportunity to learn about ourselves and to engage in the identity work that is a hallmark of growing up. Bishop goes on to describe how children of color have fewer opportunities to see themselves in the books they encounter. While there have been efforts in recent years to improve representation, there continues to be an imbalance in the representation of characters from racialized and marginalized communities, as shown in Figure 1, below(Huyck, Dahlen, & Griffen, 2016). For a printable PDF of this graphic, visit https://bit.ly/2cHH6h7.
We Need Diverse Books (https://diversebooks.org/) and the #OwnVoices campaign have highlighted the need for increased diversity in books for children and youth. This includes diversity in terms of who is depicted in the text as well as diversity among authors. Perhaps future data will show representation in text that more closely approximates representation within the population.
Best practices in culturally responsive collection development include intentional selection and deselection of materials. Denise Agosto (2017) recommended that librarians use five indicators when evaluating multicultural literature: accuracy, expertise, respect, purpose, and quality. As librarians cannot be experts in all cultures, making evaluations using these criteria can be challenging. Fortunately, there are resources available from groups with the expertise to properly assess accuracy, respect, and purpose (see Resources for Further Reading, next page). A word of caution about relying solely upon reviews from publications such as School Library Journal and Hornbook: Most reviewers for these publications are nondisabled white women who may or may not have the expertise to evaluate the appropriateness of representations of people from marginalized communities. Until there is more diverse representation within these traditional resources, it is advisable to seek additional reviews from sources with appropriate cultural expertise.
Our learners live in an increasingly multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-linguistic world. Additionally, they are surrounded by media in school and in their leisure time. Critical literacy and cultural competency will equip them to be engaged citizens who can identify social inequities and work toward creating a more just community.
Resources for Further Reading
- Teaching Tolerance: https://www.tolerance.org/
- Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk: The Danger of a Single Story: https://bit.ly/1kMOnud
- Equity in the Library – Selection Criteria: https://unc.live/2wRVAlY
- Where to Find Diverse Books, from We Need Diverse Books: https://bit.ly/2FdG3Pd
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Agosto, D. E. (2017, January 2). Criteria for Evaluating Multicultural Literature. Retrieved from http://www.pages.drexel.edu/%7Edea22/multicultural.html
Bomer, R. (2017). What would it mean for English language arts to become more culturally responsive and sustaining? Voices from the Middle, 24 (3), 11–15.
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