Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Dialogue and Critical Pedagogy

  • Nicholas C. Burbules
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_233


Dialogue Critical pedagogy Feminism 


Ever since Plato’s dialogues, and the focus on a “Socratic method,” dialogue has come to hold a central place in Western views of education. Under the Socratic approach, dialogue teaches how to think in a way that produces an autonomous, skeptical learner. More recently, the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire added a further dimension to this tradition: for Freire, dialogical teaching is more democratic, egalitarian, and liberating (compared with didactic, and for Freire oppressive, “monological” modes of teaching). For Freire, a teacher committed to liberatory, progressive values must rely on dialogical methods or something like them. Through Freire’s work, dialogue has become a central theme in the praxis of critical pedagogy.

Questioning the Tradition

However, the Freirean tradition of critical pedagogy, with its emphasis on dialogue, has come under criticism from feminist, post-structural, and post-colonial perspectives. Perhaps the most important of these criticisms is from Elizabeth Ellsworth, beginning with her essay “Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering? Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy,” and then elaborated more fully in her book Teaching Positions. The central issue raised by Ellsworth can be described as interrogating the unconscious of dialogue: to look beneath the surface of overt meanings and expressed intentions to examine what is not being acknowledged or talked about. The problem with the idealized conception of dialogue, which represents itself as an open conversation in which anyone can speak and any topic can be broached, is not only that certain people may in fact not be speaking, certain things may not be spoken (and may not even be speakable under the implicit terms of a dialogue), but that, precisely because the surface level of the engagement is so apparently reasonable, inclusive, and well-intentioned, what gets left out, or who gets left out, remains not only hidden but is subtly denigrated. If you cannot (or will not) express yourself in this manner, the fault lies with you. Yet, as in other sorts of communicative struggle, if one is forced to express one’s objections in a vocabulary or manner that are not of one’s choosing, the effect may be either to suppress some of those objections or to force them through a semantic filter that changes their meaning. Ellsworth and other critics draw from a wider body of literature that wants to look at the reserve side of ostensibly “inclusive” educational practices, such as dialogue, to examine what is, in practice, exclusive about them. Critical pedagogy, it appears, is not sufficiently critical about itself.

Alison Jones highlights a related problem of dialogue in contexts of cultural difference. The desire for dialogue, as she puts it, can carry its own kinds of coercive influence. When people from different backgrounds try to discuss their experiences and differences – as often happens in multicultural classrooms – they are put in asymmetrical positions of risk and self-disclosure. Who are these conversations for, and who do they benefit? When critical educators talk about the virtues of cross-cultural understanding, this is tilted almost always in the direction of the supposed benefits for dominant groups of coming to better understand or empathize with members of nondominant groups. Jones challenges this aspiration: because groups are nondominant, they often have to expend much more time and effort explaining themselves to the dominant groups than vice versa. The benefits of assuaging liberal guilt or reassuring members of dominant groups of their open-mindedness and good intent are reinforced by such conversations – benefits not necessarily extended to the members of nondominant groups themselves. One could even call this a kind of voyeurism: “Dialogue and recognition of difference turn out to be access for dominant groups to the thoughts, cultures, lives of others” (Jones 2004, p. 65). For Jones, “the desire for the embodied other…may also be a desire for redemption, or forgiveness, on behalf of the white students…[T]he dominant group seeks its own inclusion by being rescued from its inability to hear the voices of the marginalized” (Jones 2004, pp. 64, 65). In such cases, Jones says, members of nondominant groups may choose to hold back from participating in the conversation, remaining silent as a strategy of self-protection – or even seeking to withdraw from the common classroom space entirely. A question raised here for the critical pedagogue is: Whose side are you on?

Megan Boler, along with Jones and other contributors to Boler’s Democratic Dialogue in Education: Troubling Speech, Disturbing Silence, examine some pedagogical responses to these difficulties. Two are especially pertinent here. One is the creation of separate spaces in the classroom, where members of nondominant groups can withdraw and speak safely with others who share their experiences and backgrounds, where they do not have to explain themselves to others or re-educate them at the cost of their own effort and trouble. The other response involves requiring some participants to refrain from speaking in a discussion in order to create a space for others, who may have been silent, to feel encouraged to speak. (In some cases, this may be joined with the intention to make dominant group members “see what it feels like” to be in a silenced position.) Both of these approaches can be viewed as constraints on fully open dialogue of the idealized type, in which participants ought to be able to participate in any way and to any extent that they choose, but these also can be viewed as provisional compromises made in order to encourage more and better dialogue, albeit dialogue of a different sort than the fully open, participatory ideal. It is the inability of that idealized mode of dialogue to accommodate the involvement of diverse others that has made some progressive teachers adopt strategies that identify different rules of engagement for different participants. Boler terms this “affirmative action pedagogy.”

This issue can be viewed in another way. An underlying ethos of the idealized conception of dialogue is that while problems certainly can crop up during an exchange (misunderstanding, conflict, hard feelings, disagreement about the purpose of the discussion, and so on), these can and should be redeemed within the framework of dialogue itself. The solution to problems encountered in dialogue should be pursued through…more dialogue. Jones, in her essay in Boler’s book, and Suzanne de Castell, in her contribution, both term this approach “the Talking Cure,” as if all problems should be talked through until a solution presents itself. Yet such a valorization of dialogue expresses a number of culturally bounded assumptions about how people ought to communicate and express themselves. Instead, Jones and others want to examine when withdrawal from dialogue and/or silence may be the more appropriate response.

Huey-li Li, in another chapter of Boler’s book, explores the issue of silence from a different cultural orientation. Many critics regard the issue of silence either through the lens of asymmetrical power (groups or individuals are “silenced”) or as a pointed refusal to participate, an active or passive withdrawal from participation. Li wants to argue instead for the expressive possibilities of silence. Silence is not the opposite of speech; rather, there are different kinds of silence, and those truly interested in cross-cultural understanding need to take on the burden of hearing what these different kinds of silence might mean. Forcing others to speak, to articulate what they think and feel in explicit words, is in Li’s phrase “silencing silence,” and she means this as a rebuke to well-intended pedagogues who believe they are serving the interests of those groups by “privileging their voices” or continually pressing them to speak up and “contribute.” For Li, the socially committed classroom is often too preoccupied with verbal dialogue to listen to its silences. In the rush to fill empty discursive spaces with more talk, real if subtle connotations are missed, and cultures that privilege silence (she mentions Navaho, Zen, and Indian yoga as examples) are effectively “silenced” themselves by an ethos that says, In order for you to be heard, you must speak in our way.

Li places the responsibility squarely on dominant groups to spend more time cultivating in themselves the capacity for listening (including listening to silences) and less on trying to “give voice” to those who may not want it under the terms on which it is offered. Silence can be of many sorts; and if one takes silence as an indication of a problem, something to be remedied or compensated for, this depends greatly on what type of silence one takes it to be. Silence can be voluntary and self-imposed, or it can be the result of external pressures and constraints; silence can be expressive, or it can be empty, unreadable; silence can be temporary, situational, or it can represent a consistent, problematic pattern; silence can signify active withdrawal from a conversation, or it can be an indicator of attentive, thoughtful listening; and so on. As Li makes clear, assaying silence and deciding whether it is educationally pernicious or beneficial requires attention to cultural and situational specifics and cannot be diagnosed with broad, dichotomous categories (either one “has voice” or one “is silenced”). How can a teacher know what kind of silence she or he is dealing with? Whose silence is a cause for concern, and why? Li’s central point is that our tendency to denigrate silence, or to see it automatically as a sign of some deeper problem, overly valorizes the chatty dimensions of participation; this poses a substantial challenge to the ways we think about dialogue.

Rethinking Dialogue

Standing back from these particular criticisms, what has shifted in the educational literature is a move away from an idealized conception of dialogue to a cultural politics of dialogue: dialogue is neither a good nor a bad thing, in itself, and the decision about whether to teach with dialogue, when, how, and with whom – or, on the other side, the decision to participate in it, or not (whether, when, how, and with whom) – needs to be made within a broader political analysis of identity, interest, and purpose. We think of the educational context as a generally altruistic one, given to the promotion of freedom, the open expression and exploration of ideas, and personal as well as group or community development and advancement, for all participants. In critical pedagogy, these values are embedded in a larger vision of social liberation and teaching as an expression of political commitment; here it can be particularly difficult – and threatening – to explore the possibility that one’s own teaching and good intentions can be part of the problem of exclusion and oppression.

But when these questions get resituated in recognition of diverse styles of communication, diverse identities, and diverse political interests and purposes, good intentions derived from even the most liberatory sentiments no longer suffice. Suddenly dialogue reappears as a potentially restrictive, possibly even hegemonic norm and constraint. The educational purposes of promoting mutual understanding, tolerance, and empathy, while clearly of value, may not be the overriding values in all circumstances.

This way of reframing the question regards the development of dialogical relations as itself a political project, one in which there may be necessary reasons to resist or challenge even the terms and conditions of dialogue itself. But at the same time politics is always for something, and it is difficult to imagine any conception of social justice that does not at some level seek dialogue and more open, responsive communicative relations as an end point. Hence even challenges to dialogue must entail, at some level, a commitment to dialogue itself. The question, then, becomes dialogues of what kind?

One of these potential outcomes, whether implicit or explicit, is captured in expressions like “dialogue across difference.” Such bridging metaphors express two key assumptions that need to be re-examined. The first is that a goal of dialogue is to achieve connections of understanding and agreement – which may not be unworthy goals, especially in many educational settings, but which cannot be taken as unproblematic even when they spring from good intentions. Alison Jones’ work, discussed earlier, provides several reasons for this suspicion. Apart from issues of good intention, certain kinds of difference may simply be of an order that cannot be bridged. Some differences resist exploration and reconciliation; they cannot be explained in terms that “bridge” misunderstanding and agreement. Other differences are overtly oppositional and refuse the very aim of bridging itself. By encompassing all sorts of difference within the norms of communicative interaction, dialogue can have a tendency to domesticate difference, which, in the case of certain kinds of difference, is to fail fundamentally to come to grips with the challenges they represent.

Critical pedagogy tends to view differences as constituted within relations of power, and usually power of a dyadic sort: oppressor and oppressed, ruling class and working class, hegemond and victim of false consciousness, and so on. This framework may have some advantages from a political standpoint, identifying clear enemies and clear victims, clear lines for organizing a movement of solidarity against the powerful. But ever since Foucault, this theory of power has proven less and less satisfactory. For Foucault, power is not something one group has and another group lacks: it is a system that catches up all social participants in a network of relations of complicity and compliance. Nor is there just one polarity of power acting at one time: in a social situation, gender may constitute one dimension of power, but race and class may cross-hatch those relations in complex and contradictory ways. Power is not unidimensional and does not always flow in one direction. All of this is commonplace now; but what is important for this discussion is how these understandings of power underlie conceptions of difference. Critical pedagogy generally continues to frame difference in the context of dyadic relations of power: a difference is a difference between contending individuals and groups. Hence the challenge of maintaining dialogue across difference. A more multidimensional conception of power yields, in consequence, a more multifaceted (and often contradictory) conception of differences: differences are constituted against certain normalizing expectations; they operate within nonunitary identities; they press beyond dyadic choices. From this perspective, critical pedagogy of a Freirean variety suffers from a limited theoretical framework from which to understand the complexities of differences and how they work within and against structures of power, and its idealized conception of dialogue is insufficiently attuned to how these differences play out in communicative norms and practices.

When one begins with a dyadic view, when dialogue “succeeds” in drawing radical or oppositional differences into the norms of communicative interaction, certain beneficial compacts may be forged, new knowledge and understandings may be established – but at the risk of cooptation and normalization. By being drawn into working within those communicative norms, some differences may have to be given up or compromised, so that, while within the dialogue a measure of tolerance and inclusivity might obtain, the framework of the dialogue has its own biased and exclusionary effects. Ironically, it may be that those very communicative relations which try to be most open and inclusive for that very reason are more difficult to diagnose in terms of their blind spots and, hence, more difficult to resist. Who can be against openness, tolerance, and inclusivity? But for that reason these modes of dialogue may be the most subtly co-opting and normalizing. Dialogue is never simply, then, operating across a divide between two persons or groups; it comprises internal tensions and contradictions as well.

These criticisms raise further questions about the typical aims of dialogue: understanding, consensus, shared knowledge, mutual recognition, learning, and inquiry. They raise questions about the form of dialogue and its implicit norms about how reasonable, polite, and respectful discourse ought to proceed. They raise questions about the asymmetrical positions between the participants in dialogue: not just relations of unequal power but relations of unequal risk, unequal effort, and unequal benefit gained from the “successful” results of such dialogue. As I have argued previously, there are different types of dialogue, with different purposes and different norms attached to them. But who decides what kind of dialogue a present dialogue will be? Once implicated in a dialogue, who gets to decide to change it, to redirect it, or to leave it? Critical pedagogical dialogues are often pursued within contexts where the authority (and patent good intentions) of the pedagogue, the expectations of other participants, and the broader norms of the educational setting all can place coercion on resistant partners to participate and to participate in a particular manner and spirit. In this way, the benign expressed purposes of critical pedagogical dialogue can put resistant partners in a defensive, reactive position: the burden is on them to explain why they will not participate in the appropriate manner and spirit, in a process that someone else thinks is directed to their benefit. When critical pedagogical dialogue is invested not only with the benign purpose of educational exploration and discovery but also with the aim of political solidarity and liberation, resistance to these benign objectives sometimes gets framed as recalcitrance, false consciousness, or obstructionism. What happens when an emancipatory endeavor comes to understand itself as potentially impositional and exclusionary?


It may be uncomfortable to hear words like “coercion” attached to the polite, respectful conventions that govern participation in dialogue. But the criticisms I have reviewed here challenge advocates of dialogue to view these norms from the outside, from the perspective of those to whom they are neither neutral nor benign. For them, the gentle invitation into dialogue can sound like this: “Speak up! Participate. Talk this way. When things become difficult, keep talking. Expose yourself. Explain yourself. Justify yourself. Stick to the subject (a subject chosen and decided by someone else). Answer all questions. Be polite and respectful, even to those who may despise or miscomprehend you — this is your chance to change their minds. Listen to all points of view — we’re all here to learn from each other.” A truly critical pedagogy, therefore, has to go deeper in interrogating how its aims and methods are actually felt and experienced by participants. Subjecting these to questioning and criticism within the pedagogical space requires a willingness to abandon certain a priori assumptions and aims about whose “liberation” one is seeking to promote and what that liberation means. Promoting dialogue is not irrelevant to that critical process, but sometimes such criticism needs to encompass the form, the tacit rules, and the aims and purposes of dialogue itself.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Education Policy, Organization and LeadershipUniversity of Illinois, Urbana-ChampaignChampaignUSA