Towards a Critical Learning Culture
Excerpted from Martin, M. "Critical Education for Participatory Research," 1997, Sociological Research Online (

Critical education requires a reflective learning culture within which critical intelligence can develop. The ideas of Freire form the theoretical back bone to this educational strategy (Freire, 1972). Freire helps us see that (formal) education is one of the major channels through which dominant groups maintain inequalities, but education also has the potential of facilitating the promotion of critical intelligence for social transformation:

"There is no such thing as neutral education … education either facilitates the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and brings conformity to it, or it becomes the 'practice of freedom', the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world" (Freire, 1972: p. 38). Critical education requires both an ontology and an epistemology. The ontology of critical education begins when learners reflect on their experiences and ask themselves what it means to be a human being living within the social relations of present day society. This enables learners to become aware of how structures constrain and oppress specific groups (Allman & Wallis, 1996). This process takes place when course participants begin to address the following kinds of questions: what is happening in the world about me in relation to issues of power? This question leads the learner to identify increasing inequalities in wealth and health, increasing unemployment in certain section of the community, increasing poverty, homelessness, violence, racism etc.

The next questions learners are asked to address include: why are these things happening? Who controls the political, economic and social systems that impact our lives? For whose benefit do oppressive systems exist and at whose cost are benefits derived? Questions such as these help learners see the influences of power in their daily lives and to question purpose in a way in which they may not have done before. In doing so they are encouraged to situate themselves within the political framework. This analytical framework is taken on board throughout the course although there is variation in the way it is introduced in terms of educational methods.

While ontology and epistemology are essential elements in critical education, so too is methodology. The methodological aim of critical education is to transform learner/educator relationships from conventional hierarchical ones to those which enable learners and educators to become critical co-investigators of knowledge, through the process of dialogue. A more critical understanding of knowledge emerges from dialogue in which all sources of knowledge (formal and informal) are opened to challenge and critique. This helps learners see that critical learning need not be confined to the duration of the course, but can become a life long process.

The dialogical learning relationship between learner and educator is not easily forged, both student and teacher can be resistant to it. The learner may feel confused and insecure as the relationship may not meet with expectations and past experiences of education. The educator in turn may feel threatened when the power base of the relationship is questioned. The process of building the relationship will vary with those involved. In cases where it does develop, this is likely to be gradual, as the relationship is tested out.

Some course participants only gradually integrate a critical perspective, while others remain resistant throughout the course. Most of us will accept a particular explanation of the world only when we are ready to do so. Weiler (1991) draws attention to the confusion that questioning issues of power can give rise to, particularly among women learners she has known. Conditioned within patriarchal cultures they have been led to perceive themselves as passive, not expected to "question the ways things are, to consider how things could be different … such thinking involves an active not a passive, relationship to the world' (Weiler, 1991: p. 462). Perhaps inevitably, many obstacles stand in the way of pursuing this approach to learning within the context of a formal course in higher education, yet progress can be made.


Allman, P. and Wallis, J. (1996) 'Challenging the postmodern condition: Radical adult education for critical intelligence' in M. Mayo & J. Thompson (eds.) Adult learning, critical intelligence and social change. Leicester: National Organization for Adult Learning.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Weiler, K. (1991) "A feminist pedagogy of difference', Harvard Educational Review, 61 (4), 449-474.