What is radical education?

I’m trying to write something about radical education or critical pedagogy at the moment. I’m particularly interested in how it can inform the development of career guidance practice which seeks to enhance social justice.

One of the problems with talking about radical education is that it is a complex and pluralistic tradition. It is possible to name some names who we associate with it (Friere, Illich, Giroux and so on) and to have a sense of what it means, but it is more difficult to define. Radical education is politically engaged, leftist, and participatory. It is for the poor and powerless and for equality and difference. It is critical of traditional education practice and makes the argument that education fosters hierachy and inequality.

However, in thinking about the implications for guidance I’m going to need to nail it down a bit more clearly and to describe what radical education practice looks like to provide a basis for innovations in the guidance field. So I’ve come up with the following four component definition.

Radical education practice is about…

1)      Fostering criticality and an understanding of both text and context. So engagement in radical education is about building your understanding of what you are studying and how it fits into the world.

2)      Offering participants an opportunity for democratic participation in and co-production of education. Radical education provides us with opportunities to experience the power and compromise that characterise democracy. It offers up the curriculum and the outcomes of learning as a site for democratic decision making.

3)      Empowering participants by helping them to develop both individual and collective solutions to their problems. It helps people to realise that despite the inequalities that exist in society they have agency and the power to change and control their lives. In particular it encourages them to see that democratic collective action is the most effective weapon of the poor and less powerful.

These first three factors can all take place in the classroom/learning space. However the fourth, and arguably most important, component of radical education is

(4) The participation in Praxis. Most challengingly radical education asks its participants to put learning into practice. It argues that ideas should lead to actions and that political activity creates radical opportunities for learning and changing the world.

So what do people think? Is this a viable definition? How should I develop it/change it to increase clarity and connect it more effectively with the tradition?

As ever any ideas are appreciated.

Pedagogy of the heart

I’ve just finished reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Heart. It is a bit of a strange read which hops about a bewildering array of subjects. As ever Freire’s thesis is the need to move towards a progressive democratic future in which human nature is not twisted into unnatural shapes by inequalities of power and wealth.

Pedagogy of the Heart broadens Freire’s focus from looking at teaching and education to an examination of politics and philosophy. Much of the discussion is particularly focused around the period in Brazil’s history (late 1980s and early 1990s) when Lula and the Workers’ Party were challenging for power and were seen by many as the great hope for a democratic radical government in one of the major developing nations.

I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Freire’s broader political positions, however, I really go to him primarily for his thoughts about the interface between teaching and politics. On this, pedagogy of the heart is less instructive than other books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Nonetheless there is considerable material of interest for those interested in radical pedagogy.

Freire makes a number of key points. The first relates to the broad focus of the book and is essentially that it is not impossible to separate the idea of pedagogy from the idea of politics nor to separate the responsibilities or practices of the teacher from those of the citizen or human being. Human beings are homo sapiens (wise man) and therefore to think and to learn is inherent to being human. However, learning about the world takes place within a political context, what is more learning about the world and teaching about it are inherently political acts because they are about understanding the world and constructing a new reality. The processes of political agitation or discourse are essentially pedagogic acts where we seek to help people to learn about the world and to change it. Similarly any attempt to teach holds within it political values and asks people to take actions which are inherently political.

Perhaps the idea that I’ve taken most strongly from Pedagogy of the Heart is the distinction that Freire makes between text and context.

One of the fundamental differences between me and such fatalistic intellectuals – sociologists, economist, philosophers, or educators, it does not matter – lies in my never accepting yesterday or today, that educational practice should be restricted to a “reading of the word”, a “reading of text”, but rather believing that it should also include a “reading of context”, a “reading of the world”. (43)

This desire to foster “a critical understanding of reality” (44) in which both text and context are acknowledged has helped me to start to see what a radical pedagogy might actually look like. Friere goes on to explain this further by providing an example.

If I teach Portuguese, I must teach the use of accents, subject-verb agreement the syntax of of verbs, noun case, the use of pronouns, the personal infinitive. However, as I teach the Portuguese language, I must not postpone dealing with issues of language that relate to social class. I must not avoid the issue of class syntax, grammar, semantics, and spelling. (75)
In other words there is no point in teaching language in a way that avoids the social reality within which that language is spoken. To teach about something out of its context robs the text itself of any meaning. The tasks of teaching and learning become little more than an abstract exercise. On the other hand if the teaching of language is placed squarely within the context of an unequal society within which power is held by those with literacy and command of language we enhance the meaning of the text and the purpose of learning. The learning is no longer abstract but rather connected to individual and collective aspirations to live in and influence the world.

The question that I am wrestling with is what is the relevance of this to the world of career guidance? It is not difficult to make the argument that career guidance is about how an individual lives in the world, it is about thinking about their values (which really means their politics) and aspirations and helping them to achieve these. However, there is a danger that career guidance as it is often practiced can both individualise and decontextualise leading people towards solutions that avoid the issues of social structure and inequality and encouraging them to find individual pathways through these social inequalities without raising the possibility of change.

In this sense the individual’s self and career is the text. They are encouraged to scrutinise themselves and, most clearly in the case of the narrative theorists, to actually turn themselves into a text. However, a Freirian take on guidance would argue that such a position is insufficient and that alongside the focus on text there also needs to be a critical focus on context. Such a focus would encourage them to think about the social structures which have formed their text and also to encouraged them to develop solutions to their problems which do not merely make their lives better, but which also seek to change the context.

My feeling is that career guidance is well suited as a vehicle for Freirian pedagogy. The focus on understanding the self in the world, could lend itself well to the kind of critical engagement with context suggested by Freire. However, there are clearly barriers in doing this, not least helping people to develop solutions that are at once personally developmental and politically progressive.

I am going to try and give this some further thought. As ever I would appreciate anyone else’s wisdom on these questions.

Evaluating the impact of career management skills module and internship programme within a university business school

I’ve just published a new article in the British Journal of Guidance and Counselling.

Taylor, A. R., & Hooley, T. (2014). Evaluating the impact of career management skills module and internship programme within a university business school. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, Online first (pp. 1-13).

The article looks at the impact of an intervention on business school graduates’ employability. The intervention was a taught career management skills (CMS) module and an industrial placement year. The study uses data from the destinations of leavers of higher education survey to examine the employability of different groups within the cohort (no intervention, CMS module only and CMS module plus structured work experience). It finds that structured work experience has clear, positive effects on the ability of graduates to secure employment in ‘graduate level’ jobs within six months of graduation. Furthermore, participation in the CMS module also has a clear, positive effect upon the ability of participants to secure employment.




I have just finished reading Chavs by Owen Jones. The book is subtitled “the demonization of the working class” and this is really its core theme. It starts with discussion of the term “chavs” which is a derogatory term used to describe the white working class poor. Like Owen I remember when the term first surfaced and the way that it slipped into ‘polite society’. Owen recounts attending a dinner party where the term was used without concern by his middle class friends. He makes the point that similar derogatory terms about race or gender would not have been tolerated, but within certain social echelons it is broadly acceptable to hate the working class.

For those of us who are uncomfortable with the term ‘chavs’ and the widespread acceptability of the hatred of the poor the emergence of the term threw up a few challenges. At first I was simply amazed that people were willing to air their prejudices so boldly, but gradually I started to challenge the use of the term. So did lots of other people, focused around Owen’s book, and my guess is that the use of the term ‘chavs’ is probably in decline. However, regrettably this doesn’t mean that the broader social attitude that it gave voice to is also in decline.

The book explores how the working class are demonized at a number of levels, perhaps most importantly it traces how a miss-representation of working class culture informs policy. Hatred of the working class is based on assumptions about their otherness and this includes an ironic belief that working class people don’t work. Alongside this are a whole host of stereotypes that include racism, sexism, poor parenting, poor financial management and most Victorian of all a fear that the blighters are breeding at an alarming rate.

The book points out that very few of these myths are based in any kind of reality. For example multi-generational worklessness is rare to the point of non-existence, the working class is one of the most racially diverse and integrated sections of the population and those with very little money tend to be better at managing it than those with a lot of money. However, the book also shows that politicians never like to let facts get in the way of a good story and so endless amounts of welfare, housing, education and employment policies have been built on this kind of anti-working class prejudice.

The one place where I would have liked a bit more clarity was in the definition of the working class. Owen Jones plays around with a number of definitions. One way in which the group is defined is essentially a cultural one. Working class people are those who self-define in this way. This sort of idea then tends to lead to the identification of a stereotype (whippets, flat caps, regional accents etc.). The problem with this kind of definition is that it doesn’t really engage with issues of money and power. So an alternative position (one which Marx would probably buy into) is to see class as essentially a description of an economic relationship. So working class people are those people who have nothing to sell other than their labour. This kind of definition is very inclusive as in reality very few of us have very many capital assets. Imagine you lost your job and couldn’t work, how long could you keep your standard of living going on the basis of your capital assets? Personally I’d be lucky if I made more than a couple of months.

Jones, like me, is tempted by the economic definition of class. However, he ultimately settles on a compromise. His compromise is essentially about professional autonomy. So working class people are people who have nothing to sell other than their labour and also have limited professional autonomy. This would allow him to conclude that I’m not working class, because although I have an economic reliance on my labour power I also have considerably professional autonomy. I don’t have to do the same thing every day and I get to choose how I spend my time. However, this definition doesn’t really work for me either. The concept of professional or occupation autonomy is a very slippery one. In my murky past I worked on a conveyer belt at Walkers Crisps. I was responsible for removing the black and green crisps from the belt as they shuffled along (for eight hours). This was clearly a very low level of professional autonomy. Now I choose how I spend my time as long as I can generate sufficient research income for the University. This is far greater autonomy, but it is a long way from total autonomy. In fact the work that I do is highly constrained by policy, funding, organisational aims and so on. In between these two jobs I have had a lot of other jobs all of which have had varying degrees of autonomy. Working as a car park attendant, for example gave me considerable autonomy as I could read and think and wander about, working as a trainer gave me less because I was always in front of a group of students. Autonomy is useful as a relative concept, but less useful as an absolute one that divides us clearly into classes.

Nonetheless, despite these concerns about the definition of class, it is clear that ideas about class are very important in British politics and the operation of social systems. I think that there are a number of lessons in Chavs that are worth thinking about in terms of career development. Most obviously there is the way in which the misrepresentation of the working class has constructed the nature of problems like unemployments, NEET and school disengagement. Frequently these have then resulted in transformation of support into policing with careers workers in the role of the police. If working class people are inherently lazy there is no point in supporting them to find work, we have to force them through a mix of cajoling, benefit conditionality, cattle prods or whatever else comes to hand. This also has the added benefit of obscuring the fact that there is a political and economic basis for unemployment and pushing the blame onto the (working class) individual.

Even more interestingly Jones engages with the idea that there are problems in the very way in which the idea of aspiration is constructed. A lack of aspiration is often seen as a key component of the failings of working class people, but what does this actually mean? The following passage sums this up well.

At the centre of a political agenda must be a total redefinition of aspiration. ‘I think you start from the basic notion of aspiration,’ says Jon Cruddus, ‘because this was the real cynical element within the worst elements of New Labour post-2001 – the way they stripped out from the notion of aspiration any communitarian element. Any sense of duty, obligation, any sense of something that unites people, rather than this dominant atomized, consuming, acquisitive self.’ The new aspiration must be about improving people’s communities and bettering the conditions of the working class as a whole, rather than simply lifting able individuals up the ladder. (258)

This passage gave me considerable pause for thought about the aspirations of career development. Career development is typically focused on the individual and very commonly serve to ‘life able individuals up the ladder’. In itself this is a noble aim, but it is one which may have some negative social consequences. What if helping people to transcend the circumstances of their birth actually asset strips their communities and leaves the social structures intact. Should we not be trying to improve the lives and careers of whole communities rather than just helping people to leave.

I’m left pondering some of these issues. I’d be interested to hear what others have to say about this.