How traditional and critical pedagogy address social class issues in mainstream education

How traditional and critical pedagogy address social class issues in mainstream education

  1. Introduction

International policy on education encourages inclusive learning, with the stipulation that no individual should suffer discrimination or stigma on grounds of disability, race, religion, social class etc. According to Aaronson and Anderson (2013), disabled children have rights to learn alongside their contemporaries—a policy phenomenon which has been a source of prolonged arguments in academic and government circles.

Proponents of traditional or inclusive education focus on principles and values, and are most worried about how educational systems modify, support and perpetuate discrepancies in social class by discriminating against particular groups of learners. Factors such as students’ socio-economic situations, learning abilities, character and developmental curves were identified as criteria for marginalization (Kenworthy & Whittaker., 2000). Inclusive education therefore embodies ideas, arguments and theories of equity, equality and social justice in public and educational settings (Armstrong & Barton., 2007)..

The different theories of “disability” and features of “oppressed and marginalized” groups are addressed in critical pedagogy because the understanding of “disability” calls for transformative changes in education curricula to cater for the needs of “disabled learners” (Gabel., 2002). This is the main aspect of arguments on inclusive education. However, Johnson (2004) adds that the objectives of critical pedagogy cannot be realized unless issues of marginalization, oppression, power and domination are properly addressed and prioritized to accommodate educational needs of disabled students.

Critical pedagogy addresses the issue of marginalization and oppression—particularly on grounds of socio-economic basis—by reconceptualizing “disability” as a complex issue that goes beyond differences in students’ innate abilities. It is therefore important that pedagogical discourse should include contexts in social and economic settings rather than limiting inquiries within classrooms and schools.

Critical Theory and Pedagogy

The following are some of the learning theories that explain how students learn.

Classical conditioning: This theory promotes continuous blending of unrestricted stimulus with an existing non-aligned stimulus. This unavoidably creates a response pattern in the first (unconditioned stimuli) whereas the second stays neutral or irresponsive but transforms into “conditioned stimulus” after the conditioning. Both stimuli eventually evoke response termed “conditioned response.”

Operant cooling: This theory promotes use of consequences to influence change in the form of conduct and occurrence. Operant cooling relies mostly on modifying individuals’ voluntary behaviour through “discrimination learning.”

Play: In this context, play refers to a form of behaviour that is limitless in itself but enhances individual performance when situations are relived in the future. This theory is evident in learning processes found in human and animals though generally narrowed to mammals and birds. For instance, cats exhibit this feature by mastering plays with ball of string at a young age—an activity which improves their hunting tactics and experience. Between animals of the same specie (e.g. orcas and seals) where one plays the attacker and other the pray, it is obvious that orcas expose themselves to attacks from other predators while playing with seals caught for food. The risks and dissipation of energy make “playing” unnecessary unless there are huge gains for doing so—such as when young animals play and learn with siblings and parents. However, it is also argued that there are more benefits to playing which are unrelated to learning—for instance, physical activities have direct impact on physical and mental health.

Observational knowledge: Under this process of learning, humans modify their behaviour through keenly observing and imitating actions. According to the theory, repeated practice of observed behaviour (such as cooking, and dancing) improves performance and helps humans/animals get accustomed to the surrounding culture. This form of learning mostly depends on three factors: (i) the actor’s goals (ii) actions and (iii) environmental consequences.

Familiarization: In social sciences, specifically psychology, non-associative learning follows a continuous reduction of the probability for behavioural response through repeated inducement. This implies that humans and animals first react to stimulus but tend to withdraw subsequent responses depending on whether the activity was beneficial or dangerous. Your ability to perform cognitive tasks due to habituation is an example of this theory in humans. Another example is use of scarecrows in farms. Some animals first react to the human-like object as if it represents a threat but, eventually, get used to the lifeless figure. However, the response is repeated when the same object is removed and reintroduced. This indicates that only few stimuli can be habituated.

Sensitization: This is another form of learning that is non-associative in nature. For instance, repeated coaching or experiences leads to regular patterns of behaviour and results.

Stamping: In this theory mostly used in ethnology and psychology, animals and humans undergo a phase-sensitive learning process in which rapid changes are expected at a particular age—usually seen in behaviour and thought patterns notwithstanding the consequences of such actions. Theorists also used “stamping” or “imprinting” to explain life stages when individuals learn of some activities, situations or characteristics of a stimulus.

Acculturation: This refers to the process through which humans assimilate—sometimes through experience—the traditional aspects of their culture, values and practices.

Formal learning: The theory of formal learning is focused on a school system, for instance, classroom interactions between teachers and students.

Informal learning: This learning process is not restricted to the classroom. Informal learning is a day-to-day experience from real-life situations which occurs at home, school, church etc and may prove useful for a lifetime. An example is a child learning the importance of waiting at zebra crossing or watching right, left and right, before crossing a busy road.

Non-formal learning: This process of learning is not included in the formal learning framework. However, it encourages development of ideas and knowledge through group associations such as clubs, youth organizations and student unions where people have the chance to meet others with shared interests and get a chance to express their opinions.

  1. Findings and Discussion

Armstrong and Barton (2007) described inclusive education as a means to an end to negate arguments that previously viewed it as an end in itself. Traditional pedagogy aims at institutionalizing an inclusive society as well as non-discriminatory educational policy and practice where fundamental human rights provide a basis in decision-making processes. But one major challenge to this objective is the ambiguity of “social justice” as a legal term. Additionally, there are no clear-cut plans on how it can be practicalized in educational systems (Johnson., 2008). On this premise, it is obvious that despite the irrefutability of inclusive education’s ethical and moral background, there are different opinions on what justice and equality represent—particularly to disabled students or those with special needs. Dyson (2005) notes, unfortunately, that segregated placement has been accepted, in some cases, as part of the inclusive education agenda with regards to learning and participation. Warmock (2010) adds that the “inclusion” program somehow ignores the longstanding arguments on disability and special education needs but concentrates on understanding and underplaying “disabled identities” of previously marginalized students without considering how the identities was formed and perpetuated in modern-day education systems (Thomas., 1999).

How traditional teaching and learning methods can improve teaching and learning

The importance of education as a means to an end cannot be over-emphasized but the problem is people’s opinions on what it actually is. For decades, the debate on what schools should represent or teach has lingered, leading to ever-widening perspectives from traditionalists (made up of parents, older teachers and others in private schools) and progressives (comprising of educational professionals, including college teachers and educational publishers). The element of traditionalism is still existent in Christian schools where classical approach of teaching and learning, including languages and literature, still hold sway. By contrast, progressives control almost all sources of primary and secondary information in the education system (specifically public schools). The questions are:

What is the purpose of education?

Traditionalists believe that schools exist solely for academic purpose—to aid growth in student’s mental abilities and help them understand as well as imbibe the Western cultural heritage. This learning process is to be passed from one generation, however, without considerations to the relevance of Egypt, Rome or Greece and their huge contributions to the development of modern-day education (Freire & Faundez., 1992).

On the other hand, progressives view schools as agencies rendering social services. In this way, academic activities are programmed to prepare students for modern-day challenges in political, economic and social spheres of life. This explains the purpose of teaching, skills acquisition and psychological conditioning.

Although traditionalism also aims at achieving the features explained above, it supports an approach that best allows students to acquire them as extras while studying for academic purposes.

What should be taught in schools?

Both philosophies (traditionalists and progressives) disagree on what schools should teach.

Traditionalists have the opinion that academic plans should be structured to aid mastery of foundational skills at the primary levels together with advanced language learning, statistics and liberal arts in middle and high schools. Students are also taught history, thought and culture of the Western world. Importantly, traditional education aims at building more on values and ideals, including moral and ethics, inculcated in students to consolidate classical, European and American civilization upon which the nation built its foundation as a global power.

Theorists on the progressive divide disagree on claims that schools should teach one culture or use a particular education curriculum. In their opinion, education is not purposeful if “subject centred.” For the fact that Western culture has been bastardized by educationists in modern-day America, teaching and learning processed must be “child-centred” to achieve relevance.

Traditional education in the 21st century is totally different (not straightforward and simple) as it was in the last century. However, there are still missionary schools functioning with uniform education programs—especially those upholding the tenets of traditionalism.

How should schools teach students?

Though education curriculum maps out the core areas and strategies of reaching subjects, traditionalists believe there should be a particular method of teaching and learning.

Progressives negated this idea of subject-centric education with claims that teaching should be non-directive and “child-centred” in somewhat empathic or romantic style. They abhorred passive learning, adding that teaching and learning activities should be highly engaging (with interesting, educating and entertaining games) to purposely stir students’ quest for more knowledge.

On this backdrop, basic skills training at the primary level, and subjects such as mathematics and literature in the senior class, tend to repeat same processes in a particular way that makes it boring—a reason progressives think teaching and learning should be innovative, for instance, with the introduction of group reading and discussions, mastery of factual knowledge etc.

  1. Conclusion

Modern classical educators should examine the shortcomings of traditional and critical pedagogy to avoid failures of both philosophies and maximum underlying opportunities to improve teaching and learning processes in educational systems with obvious signs of disparity in social class. According to Elwan (1999), there is a solid link between poverty and “disability” and those students from wretched homes are most likely to suffer marginalization, oppression and injustice (McLaren., 1998). Mittler (1994) buttressed this fact with the argument that children from poor homes are highly susceptible to sickness and diseases, including academic failure.

Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy for traditional teaching classified academic objectives into Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and evaluation as explained in the image below:


Source: Bloom (1956)

According to Bloom, educational objectives or the purposes of learning include:

  • To establish a didactic exchange that enables both teachers and students to grasp the aim of such interactions.
  • To streamline for both teachers and students.
  • To help teachers own and work with a well-organized plan of action that improves delivery of appropriate instructions, design tasks with valid assessment tools, and to ensure that given instructions and assessment tools are in line with educational objectives.

The key theorist in critical pedagogy is Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educationists and philosopher who died on 2 May, 1997. Freire is renowned for his invaluable work in educational circles, particularly the curriculum theory and literacy training in the Third World which is now known as “critical pedagogy.” The term is closely linked with teaching strategies and power-related issues such as race, gender, class or ethnicity, which have been used as criteria to marginalize “disabled” students (Torres & Morrow., 1998).

Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and general thoughts on education was a blend of ideas from Plato, Karl Marx and other colonial philosophers. The emphasis was on providing local people with quality, modern and all-inclusive education rather than the traditional culture of teaching and learning which is considered oppressive and dehumanizing. Freire, however, added that individuals must be responsible for their fate by championing the course of liberation—at all costs, using themselves as examples in the class struggle.

On Freire’s banking model of education, students were seen as a vacuum that need to be occupied by teachers—a situation which turns learners into robotic objects that are mind-controlled into performing activities to adjust with demands of their individual societies. This, Freire said, limits students’ independent thinking abilities.



Aaronson B. & Anderson A., 2013, “Critical teacher education and the politics of teacher accreditation: Are we practicing what we preach?” Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, Vol. 11 (3), pp. 244-262

Armstrong F. & Barton L., 2007, “Policy, Experience and Change and the Challenge of Inclusive Education; The case of England,” in Barton, L. and F. Armstrong, eds. (2007) “Policy, experience and change: Cross-cultural reflections on inclusive education,” Dordrecht: Springer.

Dyson A., 2005, “Philosophy, Politics and Economics? The story of Inclusive Education in England” in Mitchell, D. (ed.) “Contextualising Inclusive Education: Evaluating Old and New International Perspectives,” London: Routledge.

Elwan A., 1999, “Poverty and disability: A survey of literature in Social Protection Unit of Human Development Network, World Bank [Available online at:

Freire P. & Faundez, 1992, “Learning to question: A pedagogy of liberation,” New York: Continuum.

Gabel S., 2002, “Some conceptual problems with critical pedagogy,” Curriculum Inquiry, Vol. 32 (2), pp. 177-201

Johnson J. R., 2004, “Universal Instructional Design and Critical (Communication) Pedagogy: Strategies for Voice, Inclusion, and Social Justice/Change,” in Equity & Excellence in Education, Vol. 37, pp. 145–153

Kenworthy J. & Whittaker J., 2000, “Anything to declare? The struggle for inclusive education and children’s rights,” Journal of Disability and Society, Vol. 15 (2), pp. 219-231

Thomas C., 1999, “Female forms,” Buckingham: Open University Press

Torres C. A. & Morrow R. A., 1998, “Paulo Freire, Jürgen Habermas, and critical pedagogy: Implications for comparative education,” Melbourne Studies in Education, Vol. 38 (2), pp. 56-68

Warnock M., 2010, “Special educational needs: A new look,” in Terzi, L. (ed.), “Special Educational Needs: A New Look,” London: Continuum