By: Sasha Hanson Pastran
Traditional, explanative teaching models are often criticized for suppressing learners’ natural intellectual curiosity and their potential for co-creating knowledge (Lewis, 2012, p.28). This article will examine the challenges and possibilities of implementing a critical pedagogy that breaks away from the traditional model through what is termed “critical aesthetic praxis,” or critical reflections on political art. Drawing on the teachings of Paulo Friere, Jacques Rancière, Tyson Lewis, and the Beehive Design Collective, I argue that raising “critical curiosity” can be particularly effective when facilitated by artistic learning activities. After introducing critical pedagogy, the article offers concrete practices that have been effective at creating critical aesthetic learning moments in both formal educational institutions and institutions that are outside of the formal education system.
Paulo Friere’s seminal work The Pedagogy of the Oppressed is considered a cornerstone of critical pedagogy. His argument begins by criticizing and deconstructing the dominant colonial “banking” model of education wherein the teacher is considered the “knower” and the students the “empty vessels,” waiting to be filled with knowledge (Friere, 2001). Friere’s theory assumes natural epistemological curiosity in all human beings, and his praxis endeavors to emancipate this curiosity through horizontal teaching structures (Eagan, 2010). In other words, Friere argues for a classless educational system in which students and teachers share power equally in order to co-create knowledge as a means of emancipation from the traditional, oppressive educational system that reinforces larger oppressions in society. Jacques Rancière, Friere’s contemporary, further develops a critical platform for building equality in the classroom with his critique of the explanative method of teaching (1991; Mukhopadhyay and Narayanan, 2014). As Mukhopadhyay and Narayanan (2014, p.223) explain, Rancière negates the premise of incapacity upon which explication is based because it “provides the structuring fiction of the explicative conception of the world…. To explain something to someone is first of all to show him he cannot understand it by himself” (Rancière, 1991, p.6). Developing a teaching praxis that honors these educators’ work has been a movement of generations. The work of the Beehive Design Collective is an excellent example of effectively putting horizontal, critical pedagogy into action.
One of the leading organizations in political art education is the Beehive Design Collective (BDC). The BDC is a non-profit collective of artists and educators who create, distribute, and facilitate workshops of political posters that are based on real stories of capitalist and imperial resistance (2015). Their method uses what Tyson Lewis calls “pensive images” to open space for exploring the complex and multi-layered cognitive ties between capitalist oppression and resistance (BDC, 2015). For example, in their most famous piece, “Mesoamerica Resiste,” the BDC draws the images of grassroots resistance to imperial mega-projects twice as big as the images of capitalist domination to emphasize the often-muted stories of the subaltern (BDC, 2015). Their project ideologically aligns with the Marxist base of Friere and Rancière and their illustrative narrative style facilitates open question creation and non-explanatory teaching moments (Malik and Phillips, 2014).
I have employed BDC posters in my TA tutorials as well as in non-formal educational workshops on international politics, human rights, and the environment. Students are first asked to engage with the posters in silence for 5-10 minutes, taking notes on what questions came to their mind, what images stand out and why, and what themes or narratives they interpret are being conveyed. They then share their questions and reflections in groups of three and later with the larger group, with myself as the facilitator, conscious to “explain” as little as possible in the process of knowledge co-creation. I have also facilitated both individual and collective artistic reflections after students study the posters as an open and non-imposing way of enabling critical thought. In the artistic reflections, students are asked to represent in symbols and images the questions and connections that they have made from studying the posters and reflecting with their peers. I have achieved great results each time I have engaged in these practices, with many students referring to the Beehive workshop in their final exams, research papers, and evaluations as having particularly impactful learning moments.
In summary, the practice of critically reflecting upon political art disrupts the banking model of education by validating the power and agency of students to form their own questions and to make connections between desperate and contested concepts collectively. In other words, critical aesthetic praxis cultivates students’ innate intellectual curiosity by politicizing aesthetic perceptions of reality and by facilitating active engagement with that reality. With this brief overview of critical aesthetic praxis and the innovative practices of the Beehive Design Collective, it is the hope that this article can serve as both a theoretical and practical resource for other educators who have a passion for critical pedagogy and who are open to exploring the possibilities of educational emancipation through art.
Beehive Design Collective. (2015). Homepage. http://beehivedesigncollective.org/
Eagan, J. (2010). Forum: Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed. Administrative Theory & Praxis, 32(3), 429-30.
Freire, P. (2001). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London, UK: Continuum.
Lewis, T. E. (2012). Teaching with pensive images: Rethinking curiosity in Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 46(1), 27- 45. https://muse.jhu.edu/.
Malik, S. & Phillips, A. (2014). The wrong of contemporary art: Aesthetics and political indeterminacy. In P. Bowman & R. Stamp (Eds.), Critical dissensus:
Reading Rancière (pp. 111-128). London, UK: Continuum.
Mukhopadhyay, R. & Narayanan, V. (2014). ‘The ignorant schoolmaster’: Jacotot/Rancière on equality, emancipation and education. Contemporary Education
Dialogue, 11(2), 221–34. DOI: 10.1177/0973184914529037
Rancière, J. (1991). The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.