The Pedagogy of Freedom

Posted: October 27, 2013 in learning, Punk Learning
Tags: , , , ,

It’s been a while…

This post could have been called “The Arrogance of our Education”, or “The Trouble with Hirsch” or even “Giroux, the Hidden Hero of Education”, but instead I settled on “The Pedagogy of Freedom”, because we haven’t got it in the UK and we need it.

E.D. Hirsch claims that his conservative methods of teaching (much celebrated by our Secretary of State for Education) are necessary for “the oppressed classes to learn how to read, write, and communicate – and to gain enough traditional knowledge to understand the worlds of nature and culture surrounding them” (Hirsch, The Schools We Need). On initial reading it seems that Hirsch’s view of education is highly supportive and effective for the ‘oppressed’ classes. This may explain why he’s Gove’s ‘go to’ educationalist, why his methodology is much-lauded in many US states such as Massachusetts and certain London Academies.

Hirsch’s methodology and obsession of knowledge and intellectual rigour, separates facts from values, learning from understanding and emotion from intellect. I challenge anyone to argue, that as teachers we should surrender pedagogy to dull routine at the expense of spirit?

It seems bizarre that Hirsch labels Gramsci the ‘poster boy’ for his conservative thoughts on learning when Gramsci himself was extremely clear on the distinction between learning facts to develop an understanding of one’s perception in the social order and simply just gathering information. Gramsci believed that education should begin: “not from the point of view of the teacher but from that of the learner, and that the learning process is a movement toward self-knowledge, self-mastery, and thus liberation. Education is not a matter of handing out ‘encyclopedic knowledge’ but of developing and disciplining the awareness which the learner already possess” (David Forgacs, Working Class Education and Culture). Amazingly the writings of Gramsci; the definitive enemy of promise, has shades of Hattie, only, fifty years earlier. Not convinced? How about this: “the relationship between teacher and pupil is active and reciprocal so that every teacher is always a pupil and every pupil a teacher.” (Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks.)

The pedagogy promoted by Hirsch often becomes reduced to a transmission model of teaching which instills a culture of conformity and passive absorption of knowledge. It creates ‘cheerful robots’ devoid of critical thought, questioning and the desire to challenge the assumptions, practices, and outcomes taken for granted in dominant culture and in conventional education. But having a classroom full of or a school brimming with these pliable individuals makes everybody ‘equal’, ‘successful’ (using mathematical performance measures as a benchmark for academic success) and ‘useful citizens’ for the society that is dominated and controlled by the privileged few. Only through a critical educational culture can students learn how to become individuals and social agents rather than merely disengaged spectators who have their ‘part to play’ in the Neoliberal ideology of modern schooling.

“We must break the habit of thinking that culture is encyclopedic knowledge whereby man is viewed as a mere container in which to pour and conserve empirical data or brute disconnected facts…this form of culture is truly harmful, especially to the proletariat.”

He goes on to say: “It only serves to create misfits, people who believe themselves superior to the rest of humanity because they have accumulated in their memory a certain quality of facts and dates which they cough up at every opportunity to almost raise a barrier between themselves and others(Gramsci, Socialism and Culture.)

Hirsch’s compilation of knowledge for and by the middle class fails to consider the values and beliefs of particular racial, class and gendered interests of our students. Students that enter the educational system at a disadvantage by virtue of their race, class or gender. If schools are to offer the knowledge and skills necessary for working class students and other subaltern groups (a group of people who are socially and politically outside of the dominant social group or hegemony – think about the difference between those in ‘power’ and the kids that you teach everyday) to succeed, they cannot and should not turn schools into “boot camps for the intellectually malleable” (Giroux, Rethinking Cultural Politics and Radical Pedagogy)

Instead we need a ‘Pedagogy of Freedom’, where the curriculum knowledge is designed for and by the students who make up the population of that particular school. These ‘place-based pedagogies’ are needed so that the “education of citizens might have some direct bearing on the well-being of the social and ecological places the students actually inhabit.” (Gruenewald, The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place.)

We need schools that are prepared to embrace Critical Pedagogy and believe that each school should be: “A school of freedom and free initiative, not a school of slavery and mechanical precision. The children of proletarians too should have all possibilities open to them; they should be able to develop their own individuality in the optimal way, and hence in the most productive way for both themselves and society” (Gramsci, Men or Machines)

It’s fascinating that Hirsch (and other educationalists such as Entwistle) believe that schools are dysfunctional, not because they oppress students from these subaltern groups but because of their schools adopting forms of progressive education such as “project orientated, hands on, critical thinking and so-called democratic education, rather than a core curriculum of facts and information” (Hirsch, The Schools We Need.)

Instead, he argues that the real enemy of student learning is its failure to endorse rote learning, a core curriculum and uniform teaching. Hirsch’s (and any others who follow his lead or see him as a voice that needs to be heard in today’s educational world) need for information accumulation and apparent disregard of culture and power of our students, forces these subaltern groups to master the dominant culture as a way of reproducing and maintaining the social order. Allowing the curricular knowledge in our schools that only represents the white middle class cultural capital is blatantly wrong. We must afford all of our students regardless of their class or race the: “opportunity to read, write, and learn from a position of agency and to engage in a culture of questioning that demands far more than mere competency in rote learning.” (Giroux, Rethinking Education as the Practice of Freedom.)

Our students, all of them, need an education that prepares them with the knowledge, and the skills to act on that knowledge which allows them to connect with the problems and conflicts of their life and to develop a commitment of civic courage and responsibility which enables the students to make a positive change. Or as Gramsci puts it: “enable them to govern not just be governed.”

Hirsch is clear on this when he writes: “Children, particularly, the children of the poor, should not be encouraged to flourish ‘naturally’, which would keep them ignorant and makes them slaves of emotion.” (Hirsch, The Schools We Need – which brings a new perceptive to the title of this book if we consider who the WE actually are and why they have this apparent NEED).

Henry Giroux makes the point that Hirsch implies that “teaching working class children about the specificities of their histories, experiences and cultural memories would simply result in a form of pedagogical infantilism” he goes on to brilliantly say that “Hirsch wants to ‘save’ underprivileged kids by stripping them of their identities and histories.” (Giroux, On Critical Pedagogy)


Why have I written this post? Well, it needed to be written. I’m comfortable with the fact that my words may get overlooked for a post on ‘twenty things to do with a member of SMT’ or the musings of a celebrity blogger stating the bloody obvious. I also wanted the post to highlight the essential readings and thinking of great educationalists that promote Critical Pedagogy such as Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux. Finally, my school, like so many others, is in the initial processes of transforming our KS3 curriculum and assessment. It seems like an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed to develop a ‘Pedagogy of Freedom’ for our students.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Source for the Presentation: Critical Pedagogy in Dark Times, Giroux; from the book On Critical Pedagogy by Henry A. Giroux

  1. […] we certainly shouldn’t be doing it under the illusion that if we bow down to Hirsch’s ‘common cultural literacy’ that it will improve the futures of students from a disadvantaged […]

  2. DD has said it for me, really. I think that you are misreading Hirsh. Or distorting his arguments. He does not argue for learning without meaning. He argues that knowledge is needed to properly engage in education and in society. The ability to use that knowledge depends on having it easily accessible. That having easy access, ie knowing it well, means easier gains in knowledge and understanding in the future.

    I do think that there is a stages of learning issue that needs to be addressed. For example, in early years we do need to provide a rich environment so that all children have had experiences that other children might have had as a result of their early upbringing. This disparity will put some children at an advantage but unless we can act on that very early life difference then there is only a little we can do and rich experience in early years seems to be the best we can do.

    For some children in early years there are some things they do need to be more formally taught. They already know, and understand, more than others.

    Hirsch has a focus on reading because reading provides so much of the access to other knowledge. It is also about providing enough language, words they know, that they can also make sense of oral instruction. He does not suggest that other learning is not to be delivered in the same manner, as far as I read his stuff.

    I do think that after the initial knowledge stage of learning that the practice stage can be more varied than some others will allow for. But we are governed by the theory of working memory for any information that is to enter our brains. That means that we need to understand attention and distractions to learning. To do anything else denies the science of how we learn and becomes how we want it to be rather than how it is.

  3. […] recently read this post by Tait Coles. I am pleased that it was written. Not only is it erudite, diplaying a sophisticated […]

  4. […] ‘inspired’ Primary curriculum in the UK. I have written more about Hirsch in The Pedagogy of Freedom […]

  5. Kevin Smith says:

    I just came across this,and don’t know you guys, but thought I’d jump in with a friendly rejoinder. David, Hirsch’s over-arching recommendation is that students are taught from a “cultural canon” comprised of essential, must know facts about a particular culture with the intention of granting those who are excluded from power to come to know about the elements of the “cultural canon” that bestow power – at least through association if not through direct manipulation or promotion. But basic question arise: Who decides the contents of the cultural canon, how are they presented, how is knowledge of these facts assessed, by whom and to what standard? The presentation of essentialised cultural facts as “must know” items granting full-access to social inclusion is simple cultural assimilation. There is no critical factor to Hirsch’s approach. Where in his prescription does he allow for a critique of the cultural canon or its keepers?

    In response to your question of how can students decide what to learn and how can that be accomplished, I invite you to read an article I wrote about my experiences enacting a critical pedagogy with middle school students in the US. You can read it here:

    Great discussion. Thanks for the interesting read!

  6. […] (not a pedagogy of the oppressed, as proposed by Paulo Freire and which teachers like Tait Coles here seem to have rediscovered recently – Freire’s ideas would, I believe, only result in further […]

  7. Brett Bavington-Coles says:

    Fascinating stuff TC. Can’t say I understand all of it though!

  8. Mark Anderson says:

    It’s interesting to see you ask the question about why it needed to be written and to follow up about the ten posts about SLT or the stating the obvious stuff etc. I thought it was great just by itself bud and certainly given me some more food for thought as your posts always do. Your writing always has the research, insight, strength & power to stand by itself. Cheers.

    • taitcoles says:

      Cheers Mark, really appreciate those kind words. You’re probably right about the last paragraph, sometimes I can’t help writing something that is deliberately provocative. I want people to react to it. Cheers, TC

  9. David Didau says:

    Tait, you know I love you but you don’t really address Hirsch’s arguments. Are you really claiming that Hirsch (or anyone else) advocates that we “surrender pedagogy to dull routine at the expense of spirit”. Having read The Knowledge Deficit and The Schools We Need, I’m fairly certain that nowhere does he suggest that we should “separate facts from values, learning from understanding and emotion from intellect.” Why would you say this? I get that you don’t like Hirsch very much: that’s fine, lots of people don’t but saying this made me wince:

    “Hirsch is clear on this when he writes: “Children, particularly, the children of the poor, should not be encouraged to flourish ‘naturally’, which would keep them ignorant and makes them slaves of emotion.” (Hirsch, The Schools We Need – which brings a new perceptive to the title of this book if we consider who the WE actually are and why they have this apparent NEED).”

    If you’ve read the book you KNOW that he’s not making a claim for a utilitarian and passive working class. Suggesting other wise just makes you seem small minded. You’re better than that. The point he makes is that expecting children to ‘flourish naturally’ is condemning them to drudgery and oppression. You might disagree with Hirsch’s proscription but why do your middle class values trump his?

    And this bit really worries me: “curriculum knowledge is designed for and by the students who make up the population of that particular school.” How’s that going to work? How and why will students select knowledge that will be genuinely freeing? We don’t know what we don’t know, and ignorance is deuced difficult to spot by yourself.

    Have you read Martin Robinson’s Trivium yet? i think you’ll like it. Cheers, David

    • taitcoles says:

      Hi David, hope you’re well.

      Mate, if I wanted to write something that everyone agreed with and sycophantically applauded, I’d write for the TES!

    • I fail to see how what the author is advocating for here has to do with middle class values, whatever those are…critical pedagogy explicitly states that knowledge can not be divorced from context and it always related to the specificity of particular contexts, students, communities and available resources. If Hirsch is advocating a CK for everyone then he is ignoring the specificity therefore whether he intends to or not, his prescription is paternalistic and oppressive. in order to justify CK you have to prove that the people who have power and privilege got their power and privilege because they learn CK and the poor kids don’t…you can’t prove this..the notion is patently absurd and it’s also elitist…George W. Bush didn’t become president of the U.S.A. because he’s smarter then you or me, God forbid…George W. Bush became president of the U.S. because their were power structures already in place which allowed him to attain that position. it’s that simple…and that’s why this defense that somehow CK is justified because it allows the privileged and middle classes to have better lives then the poor is patently absurd…the poor and the working classes all across the world are where they are because the privileged classes have built power structures which allow them to expand and retain their privilege at the expense of huge masses of people..not because they know CK and poor people don’t..

      In a separate discussion with teachingbattleground he or she said this “And, as I say, this i irrelevant. It is already valued. Now you may wish to argue that the working class shouldn’t have access to this valued knowledge, but it is up to you to make this case, and not up to others to establish why it is valued in order to justify letting the working class know about it.”

      And I responded with this,

      “And I say the process of how it became valued is exactly what is relevant. This is not about which class should have access to which knowledge. that’s different from talking about what knowledge is going to be valuable for each individual and how a teacher has to go about deciding that…taking into account class as well as other factors. I don’t know why you view class as the sole determining factor anyway…obviously it’s important but it’s not the only thing that”s important.. when a teacher makes the decision to teach one thing he or she is inevitably excluding a lot of other things…that’s just inevitable whether the teacher adheres to CK or not… this is the problem with a CK. it’s inherently limiting because inevitably it excludes a lot of knowledge and makes a decision on which knowledge is valuable for the student without knowing the student. the question is not whether both the poor and the middle class should have access to Hirsch’s core knowledge…the question is why in the world is there a core knowledge, that anyone regardless of class, should be absolutely required to know ((and this is exactly what Giroux means when he says “Hirsch implies that “teaching working class children about the specificities of their histories, experiences and cultural memories would simply result in a form of pedagogical infantilism” he goes on to brilliantly say that “Hirsch wants to ‘save’ underprivileged kids by stripping them of their identities and histories.” I mean how else could one interpret the statement by Hirsch that Children, particularly, the children of the poor, should not be encouraged to flourish ‘naturally’, which would keep them ignorant and makes them slaves of emotion. ” My question for Hirsch is “Why particularly children of the poor? Why do you assume they are any more ignorant then the rich and privileged individuals who create the systems which perpetuate and expand oppression? A powerless person may not necessarily be ignorant, and a powerful person may not necessarily be super-aware i.e for the latter, Oh I don’t the leaders of those self-contained and oppressive institutions called corporations and governments. The question of who gets power and privilege in this world is not based off who is ignorant of CK and who is not, who has so-called middle-class knowledge and who does not as ..the question of who gets power and privilege and who does not and who gets to exploit and who gets to be exploited, who gets to be a sheep and who gets to be a director of sheep is based off power structures, power structures which are most often illegitimate and desperately need to be dismantled, (this part added now)) you really misunderstand what the debate is about here…who is arguing that the working class shouldn’t have access to all the knowledge that is included in CK?…no one is arguing stop arguing a strawman…the argument that I am making at least and I see the author making is that there shouldn’t be a CK whether for rich or for poor or for middle class….proponents of CK have to argue why the tons of knowledge outside the CK shouldn’t be taught…you wanna take up defending that?? I would like to hear a coherent and reasoned justification for that.”

      I haven’t received a justification yet. Perhaps someone else would like to take that up.

      teaching battleground also said this ”
      After all, saying “we love the working class as they are” is, in practice, not much different from saying “know your place!”

      And I responded with this

      “this is not about the fact that the working class often knows why they are oppressed and who it benefits…that’s valuable knowledge …the problem is they have this knowledge but often they are not in a position which could afford them the ability to use that knowledge to better their circumstances and often they have to fight very hard with much sacrifice and even then sometimes they’re not able to overcome….working class people aren’t stupid and they don’t deserve their place and that’s not what the author means by this statement and it’s plainly obvious if one take the time to think about it for a second. what the author means by the statement that “we love working class people as they are”, is they are not responsible for their oppression and there’s nothing inherently wrong with them that makes them oppressed…and certainly their oppression is not a result of a lack of “middle-class” knowledge as your false equivalence would seem to suggest…what is “middle-class” knowledge anyway? In America, middle-class people tend to be more timid in the face of power and privilege then working-class people…they become sheep, politically illiterate sheep as a result of their education…unless of course their education outside the formal schooling system and mass media system prevents them from becoming sheep ..and indeed there are many who are able to avoid becoming sheep. I think a more important question to ask is what is deficient in the education of privileged people that causes them to oppress working people. I think society would do well to reflect on that question..cause I’m sure they’re reading Shakespeare…and yet what good is it doing for society? how about the indoctrination of the privileged at places like Harvard and Yale…I think the poor would benefit more from reading Freire then reading Shakespeare and indeed plenty of poor and working-class people in Latin America have been empowered and positively impacted by the writings of Freire …why? cause he speaks to their condition as oppressed individuals needing to throw off the yoke of oppression….does shakespeare do that?and yet which author is included in CK..this just demonstrates how CK is just purely arbitrary…the problem is not with the works in CK….the problem is with the entire concept of a CK as being inherently valuable to everyone regardless of their circumstances and regardless of the knowledge which they already bring to the table from their experiences outside of a formal schooling system…no one is saying that this knowledge can’t be interrogated and critiqued but of course this is an argument that gets repeated over and over again by critics of critical’s a pure strawman is necessary to bring the knowledge that students learn outside the classroom into the classroom so that knowledge can be valued, critiqued, interrogated, and analyzed…in other words knowledge at the level of doxa transformed into knowledge at the level of logos so then it can be acted upon…not so it can be blindly accepted by the teacher as inherent truth…Freire is clear on this…advocates of critical pedagogy are clear on this…yet critics continue to argue a strawman for solely ideological reasons.

      I have not yet received a response to this comment so perhaps someone would like to take it up as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s