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Critical Theory: Overview & Practical Teaching Examples

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Instructor
Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

Just because things have always been viewed a certain way, doesn't mean that way is correct. In this lesson, we'll explore critical theory and how teachers can open their classrooms up to offer everyone a chance at success. Updated: 07/06/2020

Critical Theory

Gina is in the sixth grade, and she's very excited to move to middle school. She wants to learn more about science and math, and maybe invent some cool technology when she's a grown-up. But there's an issue: Gina isn't from the best neighborhood. She's a person of color. And she's a woman. All three of those things can impact her education and, as an extension, her future.

Critical theory is a philosophy that involves being critical of the prevailing view of society. In many cases, that means looking closer at beliefs that might favor privileged people, like rich, white men, over other people, like Gina.

Critical theory in education is about questioning how our educational system can best offer education to all people. It offers opportunities and understanding of the different perspective of disadvantaged members of society. For example, poor children, like Gina, often go to more poorly funded schools than their middle- and upper-class counterparts. And less funding can mean issues like availability of technology or good teachers.

Let's look at how critical theory plays out in education and what schools and teachers can do to be inclusive of all types of students.

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Technology

In today's world, technology is a major part of everyday life. From smartphones (or even plain old cell phones) to computers to tablets, everyone seems to have lots of interaction with technology.

Except Gina, that is. She's in the sixth grade, and her parents can't afford a computer, so she doesn't have one at home. They also can't afford to buy her a cell phone. Tablet? She's seen them advertised on the television but never seen one in person.

Technology is not only a major part of life for most people, it is a big part of success in the business world. Most jobs require computer literacy, and many of them require a basic understanding of smartphones and tablets, too. As an extension of that, most schools have technology as part of their everyday activities. Whether it's typing an English paper on the computer or using a tablet to work on a math app, technology seems ubiquitous in schools.

But there are problems with access to technology. Poorer schools can have a harder time getting technology in the hands of their students. Remember that critical theory in education is about making sure that every student gets a good education, so lack of technology in poorer schools can be a problem that keeps everyone from getting a good education.

Unfortunately, it's not just about whether or not schools have computers. Critical theory also recognizes that people come into school with different advantages and disadvantages and focuses on how to help every student achieve their potential.

Take Gina, for example. She hasn't had access to technology outside school, like many other students have. Her teachers don't understand why she has trouble operating the computer or why she's so slow when she's typing. They sometimes get impatient, and even the ones who aren't rude about it still don't give her enough time to do her work on the computer.

Like Gina, many poor students in America have lower technological fluency than middle- and upper-class students. This springs from the fact that poorer students might not be exposed to technology until much later than more well-off kids. While some children might play with computers or smartphones when they are still potty training, others don't get to work on a computer until they are in school. That puts them way behind their classmates!

What should Gina's teachers do? Giving students time to explore technology and learn how to use it is an important step that teachers can take to be inclusive of all students. With a little extra time, Gina can become familiar with laptops and really be able to use them to her advantage.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Critical Theory:

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of approximately one paragraph that defines critical theory and critical theory in education.

Example: The purpose of critical theory in education is to offer equal education to all students.

Essay Prompt 2:

In approximately one to two pages, write an essay that describes the importance of technology in education, and how inadequate access to technology can present disadvantages to students. Also discuss ways that teachers can assist students who lack access to technology.

Example: Sometimes teachers can become impatient with students who are slow when working on computers or tablets. This further hinders the student's ability to learn.

Graphic Organizer Prompt:

Create a poster, chart, or some other type of graphic organizer that depicts the challenges that students may face due to gender, race, or cultural background.

Example: In a math or science classroom, boys may be allowed to participate more than girls.

Letter Prompt:

Pretend you are a teacher and you are eager to implement critical theory in your classroom. Write a letter to your students' parents explaining why it is important to incorporate critical theory in education and how you plan on doing so. The letter should be at least one page long.

Example: You have increased your knowledge of how students of different races may perceive and answer questions differently. This allows you to tailor the classroom experience to meet the needs of students of all races.

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