Inquiry, not Answers; Exploration, not Outcomes

Like the opening shot in a movie, the way we decide to begin a course can set the tone for the learning that happens there.

Before the opening shot, however, comes planning. A dream for what the course will look like, what story it will tell, and how learners will interact with it. That’s pedagogy. The pedagogy of the movie. The directorial approach to the course.

For too long, instructional design has been reduced to page design, alignment of content and assessments with outcomes, and the “science” of step-A-to-step-B learning. It has lacked imagination, spontaneity, passion, and care. What we propose here is that instructional design can be more. More critical. More relational. More flexible. More beautiful.

And that begins with the choices we make before we make any choices. It begins with how we think about the camera, the script, the learning environment.

The Foundations of Critical Pedagogy

Critical pedagogy rises out of the work of Paulo Freire, who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed as a call to educators to think more completely about their charge, and the mandate implicit in guiding the educative process. The aim of the critical pedagogy he espoused was to return their agency to learners, to make them “readers” of their world, culture, and circumstance so that they would feel empowered to make change, or at least to make decisions about their lives. Freire asserted that modern educational approaches condition learners to surrender their agency instead, to submit to the authority of the teacher and the institution in order to gain access to more information and more knowledge.

Foundationally, Freire argued against the “banking model” of teaching and learning, wherein the teacher is a depositor of knowledge into the minds of students, who are passive receivers of that knowledge:

Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits … In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. … The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence. (58)

In contrast to learning based on transmission, Freire suggested that problem-posing education—wherein students are encouraged to solve relevant, real-world problems on their own and in their own way—could better support learner agency, and also knowledge formation that was more facile and sustainable. To reduce that down a bit, we might say that students are more likely to learn and retain what they learn, and form habits of learning, through inquiry and application than through memorization and recitation. 

Freire’s critical pedagogy did not emerge from his work in institutions of higher education, but rather in literacy programs with peasant laborers in Brazil. His notion about problem-posing education came out of a practical need for learners to apply their life experiences in constructive ways. To do this, they needed to take themselves seriously as students, which meant believing in and understanding their own agency.

The work of critical pedagogy can trace some of its philosophy to the work of John Dewey and others, and the constructivist theory of learning. Broadly, constructivism holds that knowledge is constructed by learners when they use their own experiences to build understanding. If we consider the tenets of critical pedagogy and constructivism seriously, we might conclude that learning cannot happen through transmission, but must instead be the result of learners’ knowledge-making efforts.

It’s against this backdrop of critical pedagogy that we begin an investigation into what a critical instructional design might look like. And we must proceed with the following premises:

  1. That critical knowledge is formed by learners through problem-solving exercise;
  2. That any definition of critical instructional design will fall short as understanding develops based on learners’ own experiences and knowledge;
  3. That it is inquiry and not answers, exploration and not outcomes we are after.


A Problem to Solve