Critical Thinking in Our Classroom: A Response to Henry Giroux’s Curriculum Theory, Textual Authority, and Teachers as Public Intellectuals by Kara Nisbet

Critical Thinking in Our Classroom: A Response to Henry Giroux’s Curriculum Theory, Textual Authority, and Teachers as Public Intellectuals by Kara Nisbet

I have an undergraduate degree in Global Studies and Political Science, a Bachelor of Education, and soon, a Master of Education. Yet, I am still unsure of what it means to think critically. Despite being a well educated young woman, Giroux’s article, “Curriculum Theory, Textual Authority, and Teachers as Public Intellectuals,” made my head spin. Giroux (1990) states, “schools are both instructional and cultural sites” (p.362). They are “places where knowledge and learning are deeply related to the different social and cultural forms that shape how students understand and respond to classroom work” (p.362). In turn, Giroux (1990) argues that curriculum theory requires a theory of textual authority that affords teachers and students opportunities to reference how knowledge and social relations within the classroom can silence or empower different groups. Consequently, teachers, as public intellectuals, are responsible for reshaping classrooms into democratic spheres, giving students a voice, and engaging them in critical discussions to construct political subjects. Essentially, he argues that critical thinking needs to find its place in our classrooms.

I have a basic understanding of what critical thinking is, but I have never actually thought about what critical thinking feels like, sounds like, or looks like in a classroom. Reflecting on my educational experiences did little to help me understand what this term actually means. So, I did what any North American would do these days, I Googled it.

Of the forty- three million hits that were presented, I chose a website established by the Foundation for Critical Thinking. This website offers tips for teachers, strategies, and approaches for implementing critical thinking into daily life. This website states, “Critical thinking is essential if we are to get to the root of our problems and develop reasonable solutions. After all, the quality of everything we do is determined by the quality of our thinking” (Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2009). This began to put Giroux’s article into perspective. Giroux (1990) asks teachers to develop a pedagogy of voice that would open up texts and the curriculum to a wider range of meanings and interpretations. He suggests that teachers need to expand the space that fosters opposition and debate. These spaces are necessary in order to challenge the ideologies and power relations that undermine democratic public life.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking pointed out that everyone thinks. However, the nature of our thinking is often biased, uninformed and distorted. According to this website, critical thinking would mean, “to skillfully take charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them” (Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2009). Giroux (1990) elaborates on this idea. He argues that there is a difference in using the curriculum to educate students to be critical citizens rather than good citizens. Students can be educated to adapt existing relations of power, or we can teach students how to look at society differently in order to apply the principles of critical democracy. Literacy, according to Giroux (1990), is often viewed as a mastering of technical skills, information, and an elite notion of knowledge. This approach produces students who learn how to conform to the status quo, rather than learning how to challenge the established culture of authority and power. Literacy in this sense silences students’ voices and constructs willing subjects of the state. A critical pedagogy would therefore engage students’ voices and experiences, and grant meaning to the relationship between students’ lives and school knowledge.

Throughout my reflection, I soon realized that critical thinking, as described here, was not a part of my elementary or high school experience. Even in my university career, I cannot recall writing a paper where I actually critically engaged with the systems, structures, and their implications for humanity. I can remember reading books and articles by renowned authors, and taking their word as gold. However, I learned the prescribed way to understand these authors. I was never actually taught to make my own meaning by linking my experiences with my voice to the abstract ideas that these authors presented. Giroux (1990) highlights the importance of teaching students to use their knowledge to read texts productively rather than passively. My educational experiences have been limited by my inability to mobilize my voice in relation to the texts I have read. Critical thinking has never been developed in the classrooms in which I have studied. This is a problem for our society. One that we, as teachers, have the responsibility to fix.

Giroux (1990) argues that traditional pedagogies within the classroom do little to initiate critical thinking or engagement. This argument is similar to what Freire, presents us in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Education as banking, according to Freire (1993), sees knowledge deposited vertically from teacher to student, teacher as depositor, student as receptacle. The banking model attempts to maintain the submersion of consciousness within the masses so that they can be easily dominated. Giroux (1990) states that schooling and traditional pedagogical approaches tend to see the teacher as a dispenser of knowledge and the students as passive consumers. This argument reminds me of a Pez Dispenser. The candy that the child receives represents knowledge. The plastic toy that dispenses the knowledge represents the teacher. The thumb or hand that forces the toy to dispense the candy is that of an authority figure controlling what candy and how much candy the child receives. This represents the system in control of what knowledge is deemed acceptable for teachers to present to their students. Just like an adult in control of granting a child a Pez candy, the system and structure of schooling is in control by forcing teachers to be dispensers of certain knowledge (ideological candy). As an aspiring teacher, I was ashamed to relate my future career to that of a plastic toy, or a banking system that can be completely controlled by someone else.

The ideological system that seeks to control students also controls the curriculum. Giroux (1990) notes that the curriculum does not only offer skills and courses, but it also functions to privilege certain histories, experiences, and ways of life at the expense of others. The provincial curriculum we use to teach our students marginalizes and silences the voices of other cultural groups in our society. Students must be given both the tools and the time to examine these stories, and question why some are being told while others are being silenced. Both Freire and Giroux point out the problems with our pedagogical approaches. As a solution, Freire (1993) provides a problem solving model for teachers and students to work collectively to expand understandings while engaging in critical reflection. Giroux (1990) calls for teachers to be more than the “Pez” dispenser. He asks us not simply to transmit knowledge as the ultimate truth. Instead, he advises us to give space and acknowledgement in our teachings to the voices that have yet to be heard.

The voices that have been silenced in the Ontario Curriculum are many. One particular group that has been tormented, tortured, and kidnapped, has had their culture, family, and friends ripped away from them by the Canadian Government, are Native Canadians. I had a limited idea of what actually occurred in Residential Schools. Residential Schools and the treatment of Natives occupy very little space in our curriculum. Teaching about the horrific events that our government has committed is an option for teachers. As teachers we must take these stories and present them to their students. Giroux (1990) argues that teachers, as public intellectuals, need to make room for these histories and stories in our classroom so that they may be examined by students. Both Giroux and Freire would find it necessary for teachers to engage with students in critical, intellectual conversations about why some stories are taught, while others silenced.

Teachers, as Giroux (1990) suggests, need to “take up the task of redefining educational leadership, through forms of social criticism, civic courage, and public engagement” (p.363). There are over forty-three million hits on Google for critical thinking. Yet, in a year in a Bachelor of Education program, critical literacy was granted two hours of time. A Social Justice course here at Ottawa University is an elective. Why are the courses that teach what critical thinking looks like, sounds like, and feels like in a classroom, optional? Engaging students in critical discussions, developing a pedagogy that grants students a voice, and expanding our readings of various texts and the curriculum, should be a part of our teaching practice. When are we as teachers, educators, and public intellectuals going to wake up? Critical thinking must be the foundation of our education system, not simply an afterthought or an option.

References:

Foundation for Critical Thinking. (2009) Our Mission. Retrieved from: http://www.criticalthinking.org/ABOUT/index.cfm

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London, England: Penguin Books

Giroux, H. (1990). Perspectives and imperatives curriculum theory, textual authority, and the role of teachers as public intellectuals. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 5(4).