Project Based Learning as Critical Pedagogy

Over the last few years I have been working more and more, in my 3-400 level courses, on engaged pedagogy. Working through the bell hooks material and then going back to Paulo Freire’s work, especially Education for a critical consciousness, I searched for a model that would assist me. Originally, I found the Freire work didn’t apply to me. I wasn’t teaching non-literate indigenous students how to read. I, like bell hooks, was teaching critical pedagogy to the elite. This is a different kind of application for critical pedagogy. But I was having a difficult time finding my way. Sure, I found a mountain of literature about why it’s important to help my students become aware of social inequities. This is an important type of context building. But what tools does this provide students to fix those inequities?

With this in mind I returned to the technical aspects of my field to rethink what is being taught. I realized that I was teaching students a type of critical literacy but little in the way of capacity building. Sure they could read and deconstruct but what about building something, adding to the world in a socially responsible way? I began rethinking how I wanted my upper level class room to work. Inspired by Sir Ken’s TED Talk I began to rethink the environment of the classroom. Moving away from the educational factory I started to think through another metaphor, the educational workshop.

In the workshop, students form working groups. These working groups are tasked with a problem and work together to produce a product (a museum installation the first time, a hip hop history book this fall). In the production of the product student learn the critical thinking, collaboration, and communication capacities necessary for today’s workplace, what I think of as 21st century literacy. But this is not all. I have begun to think about projects that can positively add to the community. The upcoming Edmonton Hip Hop History book (YEGH3) will be a free book that may be used in the public school system to teach local students about local arts and artistis. In this way students may learn that local creative culture exists and has an important history. This is ultimately what Freire was concerned about in his work. If we update what we understand as literacy from reading, writing and arithmetic, to also include critical thinking, collaboration, and multimodal communication capacities, we are doing exactly what Freire was engaged in. We might not be working in rural Brazil assisting indigenous communities prepare for industrialization but we are assisting  local learners develop local capacity against the hegemony of centralized capitalism in a emergent global marketplace.

This approach a producing something is called Project Based Learning. What would project-based learning look like for critical pedagogy? This is a discussion that I’m really interested in joining and perhaps something we might want to discuss in our reading group this year.

Here’s one article that delves into the idea:

ARL A. MAIDA (2011) Project-Based Learning: a critical pedagogy for the twenty-first century, Policy Futures in Education, 9(6), 759-795.


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