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Kincheloe, Joe L. (2004). Critical Pedagogy Primer. New York: Peter Lang Publishing

Pp. vi + 156
$18.95     ISBN 0-8204-7262-X

Reviewed by Jennifer M. Pigza
University of Maryland College Park

March 12, 2005

In four densely-constructed chapters, Critical Pedagogy leads the reader through a rapid description of the central concepts of critical pedagogy, how it is lived in school and society, implications for teacher education, and a vision of a new complex critical pedagogy. “The impassioned spirit is never neutral” (p. 5), and Joe Kincheloe seeks nothing less than to forge a solidarity with the reader that grounds education in love and strives for “justice, equality, and genius” (p. 3). His writing speaks his passion for teaching, researching, and being justice. The reader cannot help but respond.

Priming Our Knowledge

A primer, of course, is an elementary presentation of basic information, the central concepts and tenets of a subject of study. True to its reference, Critical Pedagogy has the look and feel of a composition notebook, and like a textbook, its wide margins offering space for the reader to write questions and comments. Periodically the margins of the text are interrupted by the definitions of words highlighted in the text. It seems that dialectical authority, culture of positivism, and zeitgeist are among the concepts that those concerned with critical pedagogy should understand. The end of each chapter includes a glossary of new terms. Here, we learn of bricolage, thing-in-itself, and action research among others.

The reader who is new to critical pedagogy is thankful for these terms of engagement, and the glossary provides a starting point for further study. The reader who is looking to deepen an existing understanding of critical pedagogy will find the text a concise presentation filled with possibilities for research. And, as if all this were not enough to warrant reading this text, Kincheloe provides an extensive list of over 300 articles, books, and websites for future investigation. Like a first coat of paint, this primer covers the basic territory but requires further reading to reveal nuance, color, and depth.

Reading and Writing in Context

True to the concepts of critical education, Critical Pedagogy Primer is situates education squarely in contemporary culture and politics. For example, the United States’ exportation of democracy, the crisis of 9/11, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, sit alongside references to the No Child Left Behind legislation, uniform curriculum standards, and the state of teacher education.

In addition to situating the text in a cultural and political context, Kincheloe also provides insight into his context for understanding, experiencing and discussing critical pedagogy. He notes multiple times that essentializing critical pedagogy to a handful of concepts is not only impossible, but that it would work against notions of critical pedagogy itself. He explains:

As a political animal, I hold particular perspectives about the purpose of schooling and the nature of a just society. … The best I can do is reflect on where such perspectives come from and decide whether or not I want to maintain my dedication to them. Be aware these biases and make sure you read what I have to say critically and suspiciously. (p. 5)

He offers a personal invitation to join him in seeking a more democratic and just society. With both a hopeful and urgent tone, he suggests, “I’m sure you sense this impassioned spirit in your own spaces” (p.4). The opening pages draw the reader to an exploration of critical pedagogy that is not only intellectual but is personal.

Basic Characteristics of Critical Pedagogy

Even Kincheloe’s caveat that it is antithetical to essentialize critical pedagogy, he must move forward in some way of discussion. In the first chapter, he summarizes the characteristics that can be used to identify critical pedagogy and critical teaching. They cluster in four themes that represent a certain way of looking at society, students, teachers, and knowledge. Critical pedagogues desire to build a just and equitable society, to lessen human (and some might add ecological) suffering. They embrace the politics of teaching, question power in various forms, and embrace education as a process to promote social change as well as the intellect. In collaboration with students as fellow teacher-researcher-learners, those who teach for social justice question the positivistic paradigm, complicate what is taken for granted, and look to the margins of perceived knowing. Students and teachers bring their experiences as themes and text for study and place knowledge within in the context in which it was created or proclaimed.

Critical pedagogy complicates rather than dictates, and Kincheloe’s discussion of the central characteristics of critical pedagogy sways between the two. As a way of drawing some conclusion to this complex dance of definition, Kincheloe offers this brief definition of critical pedagogy: “the concern with transforming oppressive relations of power in a variety of domains that lead to human oppression” (p. 45). But this is admittedly understanding-in-process. Although Kincheloe must offer tenets and definitions to prime the pump, he welcomes questions along the way and identifies possible differences of opinion among critical scholars. The complexities of enacting critical pedagogy are self-evident in the discussion; the complexities of its ancestry are also revealed.

The Evolution of Critical Pedagogy

Chapter two traces the foundations of critical pedagogy from the Frankfurt school to the cutting edge questions being asked by today’s researchers and practitioners of critical pedagogy. This chapter is particularly helpful to those who are familiar with mid-to-late twentieth-century critical pedagogy, such as the work of Paulo Freire, but have little or no exposure to critical thought and writing prior to 1950.

The Frankfurt school of critical theory, attributed to Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, emerged in the wake of the end of World War I, post-war Germany. Kincheloe summarizes that “they defied Marxist orthodoxy while deepening their belief that injustice and subjugation shaped the lived world” (p. 46). In the Frankfurt school, some of the language particular to critical pedagogy begins to develop: emancipation, hegemony, ideology, power, domination, and hermeneutics. Kincheloe describes twelve concepts that surface as critical theory grows into critical pedagogy.

With this foundation in place, Kincheloe takes the reader through a rapid introduction to other historical scholars who both defined and complicated critical pedagogy. From Antonio Gramsci, an understanding of hegemony; from Lev Vygotsky, the ideas of critical psychology; and, from W. E. B. DuBois, the context of race and racism in education and research. According to Kincheloe, the arrival of Paulo Freire as social activist and scholar in the mid-1900s demarcates the arrival of critical pedagogy as it is typically described and explored today.

With Freire’s inspiration and support, dozens of young scholar-activists of critical pedagogy emerged as his pupils and colleagues. Kincheloe’s litany briefly describes the key contributions of each person. At the risk of offering a list without providing specifics, the names are presented here to show Kincheloe’s efforts to pique the reader’s interest to seek additional resources. The list includes: Stanley Aronowitz, Henry Giroux, Michael Apple, Donald Macedo, Peter McLaren, Ira Shor, Deborah Britzman, Patti Lather, Colin Lankshear, and Shirley Steinberg. Careful readers will notice that there are few female scholars mentioned in the text.

Readers will also notice a variety of disciplinary affiliations between and within the scholars coupled with a defiance of such clear identifications. Critical pedagogy suggests that knowledge cannot be packaged in distinct bundles; these scholars represent the ways in which knowledge interweaves itself into complex presentations—so much the difficulty when considering educating teachers for critical pedagogy.

Critical Pedagogy & Teacher Education

As the reader arrives at chapter three, the concepts and ideas of critical pedagogy are applied directly to education. Kincheloe reminds the reader, “The dominant culture’s conversation about education simply ignores questions of power and justice in the development of educational policy and classroom practice” (p. 99). This book, and Kincheloe himself, demands an interruption to this pattern through the development of critical teacher education.

One of the chief tasks of critical teacher education is to identify the multiple types of knowledge and knowing students and teachers enact every day. Kincheloe offers six ways of knowing that recognize and name the normative implications of moral society, the dominance of empirical science, and the importance of experiential and political knowledge. He suggests that teachers should be encouraged to develop an aptitude for critical self-reflection—to look at the motives, actions, and context of their own teaching-being. And, with the big picture in mind, Kincheloe explains that when approached in an integrated manner, these various forms of knowing can help teachers do their jobs “in more informed, practical, ethical, democratic, politically just, self-aware, and purposeful ways” (p. 107).

At this point, Kincheloe explicitly links critical pedagogy and the psychology of critical complexity to develop his notion of critical complex pedagogy. His theory-in-practice links questions, thoughts and actions to lived experiences; recognizes the interpretive nature of understanding experience; continuously posits the self in relation to something or someone; proposes that insights are often unanticipated; and, suggests that multiple types of knowledge must be embraced in this “untidy” (p. 115) educational process.

Complex Critical Pedagogy

In chapter four of Critical Pedagogy, Kincheloe completes his journey. What began in the 21st century context of critical education, ventured through its historical and intellectual antecedents, and visited its current scholars, now ends with Kincheloe’s re-vision of critical pedagogy. In complex critical pedagogy, Kincheloe presents a pedagogy whose aim is to democratize intelligence in ways that bring “questions of knowledge (epistemology) and questions of being (ontology) into the cognitive domain” (p. 120). Here, Kincheloe again passionately shares his vision with the reader. At the same time, however, he also admits humility: “In this spirit, I do not contend that what I write is the truth; it is simply my effort as these points in time and space to provide a fair and compelling view of the topic at hand” (p. 122). Here, the primer names a future direction, a nuanced palette for research and practice.

Kincheloe asserts that the theories of cognition cannot definitively capture how people learn or develop intelligence. He links this understanding of cognition with the idea that power and ideology shape not only the messages that teach but also the environments and experiences that serve as teachers. Complex critical pedagogy challenges the primacy of rationality and singularity of experience in the reductionist model. It suggests great value in naming a web of reality, understanding reality in context, considering the self as being-in-the-world, and linking cooperation and interrelation with reason. This model is grounded in the belief that “to be human is to possess the power to change, to be better, to be smarter, to become a transformative agent” (p. 130).

The final pages of the text suggest the implications of this complex critical pedagogy. Teachers and teacher educators much re-join the notions of being, knowing, and reality. This cannot be achieved through new teacher training workshops. Kincheloe advocates re-framing how teaching and education are viewed and experienced in a way that provides an entry into the “postpositivist world of possibility” (p. 132) where alternative realities, ways of knowing, appreciation of power, and a developing consciousness are all present and embraced.

A Teacher-Scholar Responds

The reader concludes Critical Pedagogy with new knowledge and new questions. In the spirit of complex critical pedagogy, Kincheloe hopes to instill dialogue, wondering, and new research through his words. Stepping back from the text and considering how this new knowledge reflects my own experiences in college and university classrooms, I asked myself, “Can you know and name social justice and its teaching without such big words?” After all, critical pedagogy is popular education, it is about power, building commonality, and allowing people to name and know in a variety of ways. Emancipatory literacy is even one of the terms Kincheloe defines. As a college and university educator, my desire is to engage students in questions of power and privilege, and then to engage them in committed action. Who would want to pronounce their dedication to social justice if they are unable to pronounce its words? Why do scholars craft a language of critical pedagogy that serves to exclude—even as its desire is to provide access and liberation? Because, the academy tells us so.

There is an inherent tension between the democratic egalitarian ideas of critical education and the ivory tower of academia which prides itself specialized languages. The experience of critical teaching seems a complex task of glossary management; in Kincheloe’s words, it requires that “teachers must become scholars” (p. 131). The everyday-ness of systemic and individual oppression must be translated into “scholarly” language in order to gain validity and acceptance. In the classroom, this academic language is introduced and then explained in everyday terms and lived realities. And, when working in community settings, the vernacular typically comes to the fore. Critical pedagogy seems to require the ability to speak and live multiple languages in the pursuit of justice. As a classroom educator who also works with faculty, I find the question of rendering complex critical pedagogy into action is central—not only in the teaching of teachers, but also in the teaching of citizens. This is the dialogue Kincheloe has sparked in me; other readers may be compelled to reflect on other questions.

(Re)Defining Critical Pedagogy

From the Latin definire, to define means to “determine the limits of; state exactly what (a thing) is” (Onions, 1966, p. 251). When revealing the limits and lines of definition, the focus should not be on what is inside the lines, but rather what might be beyond the lines. Definitions identify how far in understanding we have gone thus far. Definitions ask: What else is there to know? What is revealed, what is concealed? As much Kincheloe offers clarity, he also asks questions. Kincheloe helps the reader identify what we think we know about critical pedagogy, and instills a desire to keep pushing the defined lines of knowing, teaching, and being. Critical Pedagogy is a primer worth applying.


Onions, C.T. (Ed.). (1966). The Oxford dictionary of English etymology. New York: Oxford University Press.

About the Reviewer

Jennifer M. Pigza is a doctoral candidate in education policy and leadership specializing in the social foundations of education at the University of Maryland College Park. Her dissertation is a phenomenological study of the lived experience of teaching for social justice in the context of higher education. Her professional practice focuses on service-learning, community-university partnerships, and civic engagement. She can be reached at

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