Critical Theory

Haley Ledlow

Critical Theory was developed by the Frankfurt School, also known as the Institute of Social Research, which was established in 1923 with the aim of developing Marxist studies in Germany. The Institute eventually generated the specific school of thought after 1933 when the Nazis forced it to close and move to the United States, where it found a home at Columbia University in New York. (Frankfurt 2012)

Critical theory is concerned with the idea of a just society in which people have political, economic, and cultural control of their lives. (Aliakbari 2011) Critical theorists believe that these goals are satisfied only by freeing oppressed people, which empowers and enables them to transform their lives. This is the starting point for critical pedagogy. Critical Pedagogy (CP) is an approach to language teaching and learning which is concerned with transforming relations of power that are oppressive and which lead to the oppression of people. It tries to humanize and empower learners. The major concern of CP is with criticizing the schooling in capitalist societies. The major goals of CP are awareness raising and rejection of violation and discrimination against people. (Aliakbari 2011)

For critical theorists, curriculum focuses on student experience and taking social action on real problems, such as violence, hunger, international terrorism, inflation, and inequality. Strategies for dealing with controversial issues, inquiry, dialogue, and multiple perspectives are the focus. Community-based learning and bringing the world into the classroom are also strategies. (Cohen 1999)

Although the prominent members of Critical Theory are Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas, it is most associated with the Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire using the principals of critical theory of the Frankfurt school as its main source. (Aliakbari 2011) Paulo Freire was born in Brazil in the 1920s and his experience living in poverty is what led to him championing education and literacy as the vehicle for social change. He believed that people must learn to resist oppression and to do so requires dialogue and critical consciousness, the development of awareness. (Cohen 1999) Rather than "teaching as banking," in which the educator deposits information into students' heads, Freire saw teaching and learning as a process of inquiry in which the child must invent and reinvent the world. The “banking” concept is termed by Friere, and is essentially an act that hinders the intellectual growth of students by turning them into comatose receptors of information with no real connection to their lives. (Micheletti 2010)

The Critical Pedagogy of Freire, like critical theory, tries to transform oppressed people and to save them from being objects of education to subjects of their own autonomy and emancipation. In this view, students should act in a way that enables them to transform their societies which is best achieved through emancipatory education. (Aliakbari 2011)Friere’s theory on the ideal educational process is “problem-posing education”. In this approach, the students and teachers act more as equals and have more dialogue than lecture and effectively ascertain knowledge from each other. He believed that true comprehension comes from conversation, questioning, and sharing of one’s interpretations by all persons in the classroom. (Micheletti 2010) Through problem posing education and questioning the problematic issues in learners’ lives, students learn to think critically and develop a critical consciousness, which helps them to improve their life conditions and to take necessary actions to build a more just and equitable society. (Aliakbari 2011)

Works Cited:

Aliakbari, Mohammad and Elham Faraji. (2011). “Basic Principles of Critical Pedagogy”. Retrieved from: <>

Cohen, LeoNora M. (1999). Philosophical Perspectives in Education. Retrieved from: <>

Micheletti, Gabrielle. (2010) “Re-Envisioning Paulo Friere’s ‘Banking Concept of Education’”. Student Pulse 2(02). Retrieved from <>

The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory. (2012) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from: <>