Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy

For Week 6 of our Psychology and Sociology class, we discussed the topics of Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy. Critical Theory “is the reflective assessment and critique of society and culture by applying knowledge from the social sciences and the humanities” (Wikipedia). It draws on the works of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and the Frankfurt School of social theory. Critical Pedagogy applies critical theory to education, and began with Paulo Freire’s book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. For this week, we had to choose between reading Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed or Michael Apple’s Official Knowledge: Democratic Education in a Conservative Age. We were also assigned a few journal articles, a reading response, and a paper.


The assigned readings were different depending on which of the two books we chose. I ended up reading Apple’s Official Knowledge, but I’ll show both sets of articles.

Official Knowledge Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Critical Theory
Apple, M. W. (2014). Official knowledge: Democratic education in a conservative age (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. Apple, M. W. (1978). Ideology, reproduction, and educational reform. Comparative Education Review, 22, 367-387.
  Regelski, T. A. (2005) Critical theory as a foundation for critical thinking in music education. Visions of Research in Music Education, 6. Retrieved from
Benedict, C. (2006). Chasing legitimacy: The US National Music Standards viewed through a critical theorist framework. Music Education Research, 8, 3–16.
Critical Pedagogy
Giroux, H. (2011). Rethinking education as the practice of freedom: Paulo Freire and the promise of critical pedagogy. In On critical pedagogy (pp. 152–166). New York, NY: Continuum. Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th Anniversary ed., M. B. Maros, Trans.). New York, NY: Continuum International.
Abrahams, F. (2005). The application of critical pedagogy to music teaching and learning. Visions of Research in Music Teaching and Learning, 6. Retrieved from
Hess, J. (2017). Critiquing the critical: The casualties and paradoxes of critical pedagogy in music education. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 25, 171–191. Stovall, D. (2006). We can relate: Hip-hop culture, critical pedagogy, and the secondary classroom. Urban Education, 41, 585–602.

I have to share that I found the Reading Response and Paper #3 to be the most difficult assignments in my program thus far. I attribute this to (1) the sheer amount of dense reading that had to be processed; (2) the difficulty of the prompts; and (3) my focus on Week 7’s final paper.

Reading Response

Prompt: How do your own perspectives on the teacher’s role as the arbiter of knowledge in the classroom compare with those that were expressed in this week’s readings?

Response: While not a conscious perspective, I would classify my teaching as dispensing knowledge (Freire, 2000). My rehearsals, lessons, and music theory courses are focused on conceptual learning (Abrahams, 2005, p. 7), but I am subconsciously viewing students as empty vessels needing knowledge to be deposited in their banks (Freire, 2000). My subconscious perspective likely comes from my experience of my teachers’ musics, but as Abrahams (2005) extends the experience, my teachers never used their music to understand my music. My pedagogy developed out of a curriculum review that looked at the national standards, and like Benedict (2006), I find our curricula manifests characteristics of an oppressed society (p. 21) through their adherence to the Iowa Core Curriculum in English Language Arts.

I resonate with Aronowitz’s (2009) definition of literacy, preparing students “for a self-managed life” (p. xii) by fulfilling goals of self-reflection, awareness of consciousness-shaping forces, and transformation of self and the world (Giroux, 2011, pp. 154–155). Hess (2017) sees a path to these goals by focusing on a wide variety of music instead of just the Western canon, accounting for students’ positionalities, and exploring inequities within the system (pp. 175–178). In the traditional classes I teach, I can better choose literature that represents a broader range of music and use it to connect to my students’ musics. The existence and development of the traditional Western canon allows for ample recognition and discussion of inequities within the structures of music. The piece I find missing in my perspective is awareness: how do the ways we do things in our classroom affect my students?


Prompt: The purpose of the assignment is to demonstrate (a) a basic understanding of the power issues implicit in contemporary music education policies and practices, and (b) an ability to critically examine your own practices with an eye for issues of race, ethnicity, and/or gender. In your paper, you should (a) identify an interest in either race/ethnicity or gender; (b) summarize some of the most important viewpoints on your area of interest, which might include theoretical and/or empirical literature; (c) describe both strong and problematic aspects of your current pedagogical approaches; and (d) discuss how you might reimagine your future classroom practices in light of what you have learned.

Addressing Whiteness in Music Education: Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

The current paradigms of music education in the United States are primarily composed of White students studying Western music. Bradley (2015) found students who participated in secondary school music ensembles to primarily be White, regardless of the make-up of their schools or communities (p. 190).  Bradley viewed traditional music curricula and pedagogical environments as hidden colonizers, making non-White students feel inferior or excluded (pp. 198–199). In order to more broadly reach a more multi-ethnic and multi-racial group of students, music educators need to embrace the theoretical model of culturally responsive pedagogy.

Other researchers have demonstrated a lack of diversity in school music courses.  Kelly-McHale and Abril (2015) pointed out a participation gap between White and Latino students in high school music (pp. 157–158).  Elpus and Abril (2011) discovered that of the 21% of high school seniors who participated in band, choir, and/or orchestra in 2004, 65.7% were White, 15.2% Black, 10.2% Hispanic, 4.3% Multiracial, 3.8% Asian, 0.7% American Indian/Alaska Native, and 0.2% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (p. 134). Elpus and Abril also showed that among music students, White students were significantly overrepresented while Hispanic students were significantly underrepresented (p. 135).  While their study did not focus on reasons for participation, Elpus and Abril hypothesized that Hispanic students either do not have access to music ensembles or self-select out because they find music ensembles to be irrelevant or unimportant (p. 141).

Culturally relevant pedagogy should produce students who are able to achieve academically, demonstrate competence within culture, and critique social inequities (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 474). Academic achievement is not only performance on standardized tests, but as numerous other abilities like reading, writing, speaking, computing, and problem-solving at high levels (p. 475). Cultural competence involves students accepting and affirming their cultural identity (p. 469).  The ability to critique social inequalities stems from critical theory and pedagogy, described by Ladson-Billings as developing perspectives that challenge systemic inequities (p. 469).  

Definitions of culturally relevant pedagogy align with conceptualizations and theories of other researchers.  Abrahams (2005) connected students’ understanding of their own realities—cultural competence—to Freire’s concept of “word to world,” learning through their cultural identities (pp. 4–5).  Bradley (2015) described his goal of multicultural education as reducing prejudice through understanding across cultures (p. 192).  Music educators should consider how students enact their identities when engaging with music (Tobias, 2014, pp. 52–53).  Taking action against oppressive elements of reality—Freire’s (2000) concept of conscientization—functions as critiquing social inequities.  Similarly, Kumashiro’s activist theory of anti-oppressive education involves critiquing of privilege and Othering, changing students and society (as cited in Bergonzi, 2015, pp. 225–229).  The goal of social justice education is to help individuals develop the tools needed to understand and act against oppression (Bell, 2007, pp. xxii–xxiii).

Many researchers have detailed a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy, which has enabled educators to place elements into practice in music and other classrooms.  Schmidt and Smith (2017) discussed a new teacher finding some success in implementing a culturally relevant, elementary string curriculum in a diverse school.  Ladson-Billings (1995) investigated eight teachers in Northern California identified by parents and principals as capable of excellent teaching for African-American students (p. 472).  The study demonstrated that these teachers were respected by parents, had high achieving students enthusiastic about school with positive attitudes towards self and others, and were skilled in classroom management (p. 472).

There are aspects of culturally relevant pedagogy that can potentially be problematic.  Bradley (2015) stated the belief in music’s universality can exclude cultural and societal aspects of music that are important to the curriculum (p. 196).  He and other authors also discuss the concept of “color-blindness,” treating everyone the same regardless of skin color, ethnicity or language, normalizes all students as White, oppressing those who are not (Bradley, 2015, p. 196; Kelly-McHale & Abril, 2015, pp. 160–161). Bradley (2015) also labeled authenticity and static tradition as colonizing concepts—educators fear they cannot teach music of other cultures authentically, so they avoid it (pp. 199–200).

 My previous classrooms fit the mold of traditional pedagogy with myself as an arbiter of knowledge and my students as empty vessels being filled with that knowledge (Freire, 2000).  I classify these practices as the teacher operating in a dominant role, subconsciously oppressing students (Benedict, 2006, p. 21). I focused my rehearsals, lessons, and music theory courses on conceptual learning, approaching McCarthy’s concept of experiential learning (as cited in Abrahams, 2005, p. 7), but I rarely incorporated student voice or music outside the Western canon.  

One practice I implemented that began to accomplish the cultural competence aspect of culturally relevant pedagogy was an ensemble project.  Students selected a small ensemble of two to six performers and chose literature to rehearse and perform.  Most students found arrangements of popular music on MuseScore ( to adapt to their ensemble size and instrumentation.  I did not engage in any conversations with my students on dominant, negotiated, or oppositional readings of literature (Abramo, 2015, p. 585), nor did I use literature to develop critical media literacy or delve deeper into meaning (Tobias, 2014, p. 67).  I attribute my lack of culturally relevant pedagogy to my ignorance about the theory as well as what Bradley (2015) refers to as the “luxury of ignorance” (p. 195); I worked in a district where White students were significantly overrepresented—90.82% of the student population in 2018—compared to the population of the United States (Ankeny Community School District, n.d.).

Looking at how I would reimagine my future classroom practices, I want my program to reflect culturally relevant pedagogy.  Following Hess’s (2017) observations of unconventional programs, I would look outside of the traditional Western canon for literature, account for the identities of my students and community, and explore inequities within the system in which we operate (pp. 176–178).  I would incorporate Gay’s (2010) characteristics of culturally responsive pedagogy, specifically in relation to my perception of my students and their identities.  While I could accomplish some of this within the ensemble setting, I believe the school as a whole needs to provide more opportunities outside of the ensemble paradigm for students to engage in music.


Abrahams, F. (2005). The application of critical pedagogy to music teaching and learning. Visions of Research in Music Teaching and Learning, 6. Retrieved from

Abramo, J. (2015). Negotiating gender, popular culture, and social justice in music education. In C. Benedict, P. Schmidt, G. Spruce, & P. Woodford (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of social justice in music education (pp. 221–227).

Ankeny Community School District. (n.d.). Quick facts. Retrieved from

Bell, L. A. (2007). Theoretical foundations for social justice education. In M. Adams, L. A. Bell, & P. Griffin (Eds.), Teaching for diversity and social justice (3rd ed., pp. xxi–li). New York, NY: Routledge. 

Benedict, C. (2006). Chasing legitimacy: The US national music standards through a critical theorist framework. Music Education Research, 8(1), 17-32.

Bergonzi, L. S. (2015). Gender and sexual diversity challenges (for socially just) music education. In C. Benedict, P. Schmidt, G. Spruce, & P. Woodford (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of social justice in music education (pp. 221–227).

Bradley, D. (2015). Hidden in plain sight: Race and racism in music education. In C. Benedict, P. Schmidt, G. Spruce, & P. Woodford (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of social justice in music education (pp. 190–203).

Elpus, K., & Abril, C. R. (2011). High school music ensemble students in the United States: A demographic profile. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59(2), 128–145.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th Anniversary ed., M. B. Maros, Trans.). New York, NY: Continuum International.

Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Hess, J. (2017). Critiquing the critical: The casualties and paradoxes of critical pedagogy in music education. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 25(2), 171–191.

Kelly-McHale, J, & Abril, C. R. (2015). The space between worlds: Music education and Latino children. In C. Benedict, P. Schmidt, G. Spruce, & P. Woodford (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of social justice in music education (pp. 156–172).

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465–491.

Schmidt, M. & Smith, M. (2017). Creating culturally responsive ensemble instruction: A beginning music educator’s story. Bulletin for the Council for Research in Music Education, 210–211, 61-79.

Tobias, E. S. (2014). Flipping the misogynist script: Gender, agency, hip hop, and music education. Action, Criticism, & Theory for Music Education, 13(2), 48–83. Retrieved from


Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.