Drawing Critical Lessons

By: Judy Meltzer and Jai Sen  on: Thu 03 of Jul, 2008 10:07 BST  (5711 Reads)
(19635 bytes) Add Comment

Critical Pedagogy

By: Charmain Levy  on: Thu 03 of Jul, 2008 08:35 BST  (3263 Reads)

Critical Pedagogy

Charmain Levy, Université du Québec en Outaouais, October 2007

“Nobody can teach anyone, but no one can learn by his or herself.” Paulo Freire

The following is a summary and discussion of reflections on the pedagogic aspects of two Critical graduate Courses at Carleton University given by Jai Sen in the autumn of 2006. These reflections come from the students of these two courses (‘Other Worlds, Other Globalisations’ and ‘Open Space and Dissent in Movement’) as well as from the participants of the Critical Courses Symposium held in Ottawa in June 2007.

This pedagogy, which was considered by some as experimental and different from the traditional university one, was characterised as an open space both for students and the course lecturer. The courses were conceived as unstructured and open ended and students were encouraged to participate in formulating the structure and content of the courses. For this reason, at the beginning of the term the content, readings, etc were laid out for only half the courses, and the rest developed together with the students as the course went along.

The objectives of the pedagogy of these courses shared several goals of traditional pedagogy such as improving the students’ ability to think critically and to develop a bibliography. Critical pedagogy however, hopes to go one step further in terms of providing an environment for students to understand that there is something subjective around processes and structures that are presented as neutral or “the way things are”. The students are also encouraged to see themselves as the subjects that can reproduce, create or re-create the world or worlds. This is similar to Paulo Freire’s philosophy where the teacher is also a learner and that the learner is his/her own teacher.

This pedagogy thus aimed at allowing the students to locate themselves with respect to other worlds and to be creative when exploring the course subjects. The idea was to encourage empowerment through the enhancement of communicative skills and self-esteem for those who were students in these courses.

As mentioned above, the concept of open space was central to this pedagogy. The approach taken was inspired by the work of educationalist Vanessa Andreotti[1], then at the University of Nottingham in the UK, as a different approach to knowledge and learning. This implied a less structured course that was developed by both the students and the lecturer as the term went on and was attentive to the contributions of the students. In this sense, the lecturer was more of a course facilitator.

A central characteristic of the open space concept is the equality of ideas among students and between students and the lecturer / course facilitator. This implies not only tolerating but actively respecting the ideas and backgrounds of others as equal to one’s own as well as the diversity of opinions and perspectives. Open space is designed to not only promote dialogue between, but among. Its goal is to allow students the freedom to express themselves and their subjectivity.

The students were evaluated on the basis of their participation during the course sessions, the weekly review notes they prepared, and their final term paper. The review notes of weekly readings allowed the students to consolidate their ideas as well as to enhance their practical skills. The students were permitted to choose the subject of their research papers.

The courses were also open in that their content was accessible to those not taking the course through an open website set up for each course. In these websites students were encouraged to post their “review notes” on topics dealt with weekly in each course on a website. However, as it turned out, many students did not feel comfortable making their notes public.

The great majority of students appreciated the open space concept but they would have welcomed a course framework with more guidance that would have made the course expectations and workload clearer. As students have been socialised in a certain way and are used to a more traditional structure of graduate courses, many felt confused in an open space and were at a loss for direction. In addition, several students encouraged more orientation from the lecturer as well as initial lectures at the beginning of each class about his personal experience dealing with the course subjects. Students felt that they had something to learn about the lecturer’s life experience around subjects dealt with in several classes.

Several students appreciated their participation in the planning of the course as a source of individual learning, but considered that it was too time consuming and thus, took too much time away from the content of the course.

One important lesson for the lecturer was that marks and grading were issues that must be dealt with in any kind of university course. Students considered that the grading of the courses lacked clarity and participation of the students, especially given that all of the feedback notes were conceived by the lecturer and received by the students only after the end of the course. The large majority of the students would have appreciated receiving the criteria for grading at the beginning of their course and receiving their notes throughout the term.

The students in the two courses considered that they developed capacities at both a personal and academic level through the weekly note reviews which enhanced their critical literacy, through their roles as co-collaborators in the process of the courses, and through the opportunity to critically engage themselves in class debates.


This kind of pedagogy can be considered a model for future graduate courses, but in the future more attention should be given to the content of the course, not only to the open space process of the course. The course should be adapted to the institution in which it is offered as well as to the reality of the students which requires them to achieve high notes to advance in their studies and careers. It seems possible to take into account these two factors and still uphold an open space process.

In using such a pedagogical approach, it is recommended that the lecturer or facilitator put forth his/her agenda and subjectivity to the course participants so that they know what to expect concerning both the content and the structure of the course.

Furthermore, it is desirable that professors or lecturers who prefer to be considered course facilitators are upfront with their students about grades and what is expected of them throughout the course. In addition, it is understandable if the lecturer takes into account different handicaps students may have as well as the diversity of the students since not all of them are equal in the liberal sense. There is also the possibility of exploring other models of grading being used at other universities.

Finally, critical pedagogy and open space must also be rooted in each national or regional culture and we cannot assume that a model that works somewhere can necessarily be adopted in a different context. Adaptation of pedagogy is required to each particular context and even to each particular group of students.

It is hoped that not only those participating in the Critical Courses Symposium can benefit from these reflections in their future academic experience. Critical pedagogy and open space are experiences to be reflected and built upon by others.


1. Andreotti, Vanessa, 2007 - ‘Creating Open Spaces’, in Jai Sen (ed.) Imagining Alternatives.

The Indigenous Voice in Canadian Politics: Franke Wilmer and the ‘Rule of Law

By: Mathew Nelson, April22 2007  on: Thu 21 of Jun, 2007 11:35 BST  (3602 Reads)
(15331 bytes) Add Comment

Revisiting Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” Almost 25 Years Later: #2

By: Mathew Nelson, April 20 2007  on: Thu 21 of Jun, 2007 11:23 BST  (8123 Reads)
(19546 bytes) Add Comment

On Civil Society: Review Notes #1

By: Mathew Nelson, April 13 2007  on: Thu 21 of Jun, 2007 11:20 BST  (5804 Reads)
(16598 bytes) Add Comment