Critical Pedagogy in the Library Classroom

Circle with arrows around the edge reading

“The Praxis Wheel" by Joshua Kahn Russell, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

In November 2015, librarians from U-M and other libraries around the U.S. gathered to talk about critical pedagogy via webinar, which was hosted by ACRL. As a group, we were wondering how we could further empower our students through our positions as librarians using the framework of critical pedagogy.

What is critical pedagogy? Simply put, it’s an educational model that promotes students as active learners, specifically focusing on the power structures implicit in the works and subjects they study. Based on the work of Brazilian theorist Paulo Freire, critical pedagogy encourages students to examine their education analytically and challenge the hierarchies of the systems that govern their communities. There are many excellent definitions that elaborate on this topic from Continuing Studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, New York University, and others that are definitely worth checking out.

I wonder about the ways that librarians can use critical pedagogy to teach students, both as a framework for instruction and a goal unto itself. I’ve heard a number of librarians repeat the phrase “there are no wrong answers” when they solicit student feedback in one-shot library instruction sessions. For instance, a librarian will ask how students start their research for a project. This librarian is not looking for the “correct” way to begin research; instead, they’re using this question to stimulate a dialogue. If we apply this way of teaching to the rest of our instruction, critical pedagogy can emerge as the framework through which we teach.  

By telling students that there are no right or wrong answers in research, we prompt them to think critically about what they’re reading and draw conclusions based on their own analysis. Not only does this speak to the goals of critical pedagogy, but it also speaks to the goals of information literacy on the higher education level more broadly.

Take, for instance, the new ACRL Information Literacy Framework. Critical thinking is central to the Framework, both overtly (“maintain an open mind and a critical stance”) and covertly (“draw reasonable conclusions based on the analysis and interpretation of information”). Students are urged to critically engage with the materials they encounter from the beginning of their search to the final synthesis and delivery of the content.

Critical library pedagogy takes this one step further and demands that students question the hierarchies on which the information they’re interacting with is built. Whose voices are being privileged in the scholarly landscape historically and in the landscape of today? Can we assume that all information that’s published in academic journals is trustworthy and all that’s produced in popular or non-peer-edited serials is unreliable? At its core, critical pedagogy asks: Who is the authority and how can we trust them?

The goal of critical pedagogy is to turn learners into creators. Once students have a discerning lens through which to interpret the scholarly record, they have the first piece in the toolkit to affect change. The skills they learn through this process can apply to everything from lobbying for more inclusive language to be used in the academic disciplines they study to rallying for affordable housing in their communities. Librarians can help students see issues in multidimensional ways and motivate them to rework systems to better reflect a diversity of experiences. “Ultimately, critical pedagogy seeks to provide education that is democratic, emancipatory, and empowering to students,” reads the NYU definition. I believe librarians are well positioned to provide this sort of education.

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Join the conversation: Every other week, on alternating Mondays and Tuesdays, librarians head to Twitter and talk about issues of social justice in libraries using the hashtag #critlib. Check out the list of upcoming Twitter Chats.