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.

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7 comments

  1. I really like this, looks like a really worthwhile project. I’m not particularly up on the tradition you’re looking at but it does tie in with some bits of history I looked at for my MA around Anarchism and Leninism.

    I wonder if one way things that could be highlighted a bit more is how community acts in the definition of education. My understanding is that socialism tends to assume community and then sees the need for education rising out of the commonality that people share (though people may not be aware of that commonality because of a lack of consciousness). The narrative is “we are united, let’s come together to learn and work out how we will act as a community”. I feel this is significantly different from what you might call the neo-liberal approach to community which sees people as consumers, separate from others, and so people only form community as a by product of their individual consumption. I feel this distinction describes how the relationships students form in HE are often temporal and any group mentality is only based around the thing they are consuming, their University experience.

    What do you think? Sounds really worthwhile, do let me know if it goes any further. If you ever want some input around Russian Anarchism and Leninism and how these ideas might feed in to this discussion I can give you a few thoughts…

  2. I have been working on an emerging theory for student empowerment which I have heavily (yet not exclusively) connected to critical pedagogy. I love the definition you are developing and want to try to offer two helpful points. 1) In one of Giroux’s pieces, he talked about the liabilities of framing the work as “radical”… which is why “critical” is now used. You may want to consider such liabilities and decide if it is in your favor (or not) to continue using the term “radical”. 2) I am a little uncomfortable with what you offered under the third point of your definition. While I too believe that learners need to be engaged in finding and employing solutions to challenging life conditions, I think that we need to be careful in how we engage them. The dire conditions of racialized and poor communities is a social-structural problem. Any empowerment of marginalized communities can only occur when learners understand the opportunities and challenges associated with such a structure. And, in some cases (if not many), the individual does not have the sole power to change their lives. It is for this reason that my work with empowerment also is directed at the organizational and community level. You nailed it earlier in your post when you talked about the collective. I think the line between individual power and collective power is critical … and is not always clear. Keep working on the definition as I believe you are right on point!

  3. The phrase “radical education” morphs, as do all things, over time, to mean what the listener feels it should mean. Your definition seems not only as valid as any I have read, but is radically accessible to understanding, utility and as a foundation for building program. Well done!! I am going to incorporate your definition into my work at a small Service Learning Alternative High School in Oregon. The only component that I fear is that it is left leaning – is it not possible to take it to a level where it does not lean at all – leaning implies that it leans against something for support, and cannot stand on its own. I think radical education, as you have defined it, can stand firmly on its own two legs!

  4. I have dropped you an email to discuss the term Radical Education as the Home Education community in the UK are considering reclaiming the term ‘Radical’ after Sunday’s news stories. Your definition above, neatly describes HE!

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