Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Toward a Critical Service-Learning Pedagogy: A Freirean Approach to Civic Literacy

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Toward a Critical Service-Learning Pedagogy: A Freirean Approach to Civic Literacy

Article excerpt


This paper argues for an integration of Freirean critical pedagogy and service learning: The questions raised by critical pedagogy can supply a theoretical orientation for students to bring to their service learning experience. At the same time service learning provides a practical correlative to the hyper-theoretical discourse of critical pedagogy. I explore the practical implications of this "critical service learning pedagogy" through my first-year writing theme course "Citizenship and Public Ethics."


In their respective ways, both critical pedagogy and service-learning have redefined the activist role that teachers, students, and educational institutions must play in articulating and confronting social problems. However, with the exception of a few recent attempts to examine their complementary benefits,(1) there has been little sustained dialogue between these two educational theories. The following argument for a "critical service-learning pedagogy" is intended as a contribution to these emerging efforts to combine service-learning and critical pedagogies, a call for more integrated theory and practice, and a prescription of practical protocols. The questions raised by critical pedagogy can supply the theoretical preparation--indeed a sort of teacher training--with which students might approach the service-learning experience. Reciprocally, so can service-learning, as the practice of democratic ethics, function as an example of critical pedagogy in action--thereby offering a practical correlative to what often remains an exclusively theoretical, hyper-academic discourse.

Theoretical Foundations

What has come to be known as critical pedagogy, radical pedagogy, postmodern pedagogy, border pedagogy, empowering education, popular education, and democratic education has multiple histories, ranging from the European Enlightenment and the German Frankfurt School to John Dewey's pioneering efforts to reform education in twentieth-century North America. Another history begins in South America with the work of Paulo Freire. As early as the 1950's, Freire had begun to introduce a new method of teaching literacy to the Brazilian peasantry. Writing in exile after the military coup of 1964, Freire attacked the "banking method" of education, whereby the all-knowing teacher makes "deposits" of knowledge into the empty heads of students, and proposed the "culture circle" as an alternative method. In the form of a "dialogue," the culture circle proceeds by posing problems, utilizing the students' experiences as a legitimate form of knowledge, and developing a language of critique from those experiences. Ideally Freire's politicized pedagogy would awaken in people a critical consciousness, or conscientizaco. Loosely translated from the Portuguese, Donaldo Macedo defines "conscientization" as "the process in which men, not as recipients but as knowing subjects, achieve a deepening awareness both of the sociocultural reality that shapes their lives and of their capacity to transform that reality" (Freire, 1985: 93). To engage the student in this process of conscientization, Freire elaborated a literacy method consisting of three stages: investigation, in which the teacher gets to know the local community and discovers its "vocabulary universe" of important words and generative themes; thematization, which explores and contextualizes these generative themes, breaking words down into phonetic groups for reading and writing; and problematization, which re-presents the themes as a political problem that demands collective action. These methods offered a new view of literacy as reading not only the word but the world.

Working with a host of North American collaborators ranging from Ivan Illich and Myles Horton to Ira Shor, Peter McLaren, and Henry Giroux, Freire continued to develop this "critical pedagogy" until his death in 1997. Although a clamoring and diverse group, critical pedagogues in the United States have generally extended Freire's work into the new domains of the North American context. …

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