Critical pedagogy in emergency remote teaching: An open letter to Paulo Freire

By Dr Joanna Joseph Jeyaraj (University Putra Malaysia)

Dear Freire,

If you were still alive, you would know that extraordinary change and disruption has occurred over the past year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. On 18 March 2020, the Malaysian government announced a movement control order (MCO) which meant that emergency remote teaching (ERT) was to be implemented.

As a result, I began contemplating how I could engage with ideas you have espoused through your conception of a critical pedagogy (CP) (see Freire, 2005). I wondered how could I incorporate this humanising pedagogy that takes into consideration the wider social contexts of students while aiming to inspire critical consciousness to promote self and social change. Reading your work showed me the importance of focussing on students’ immediate realities and using their socio-cultural and political situations as a resource for teaching and learning. I observed that trust is important for dialogue; enabling students to speak freely about their personal experiences.

While I aspired to draw on CP in ERT, there were a few questions I grappled with. I wondered how to build trust in an online environment when students had not met each other in person. Could trust be fostered when cameras were switched off and microphones muted; when there was technological surveillance through the recording and uploading of all classes on the institution’s LMS?  Did common online meeting etiquette which called for microphones to be muted impinge on student voice? CP scholars argue that the manner in which teachers choose to physically position themselves in the classroom and how they choose to call on students to answer questions can affect student-teacher power dynamics (hooks, 1994; Shor 1993). Therefore, can being ‘muted’ be a form of silencing which reinforces unequal power relations in the classroom? Another struggle I experienced was incorporating social action into lessons. I recalled you once said that reflection without action was mere ‘verbalism’ or idle chatter. Yet, how could there be impactful social action at a time of physical distancing and isolation?

While I did not find answers to all my questions, I found that I was able to engage with some dimensions of CP in a writing course that I was teaching. To nurture a participatory environment which valued student voice, I invited students to draw on their current experiences and write about how Covid-19 had impacted their life. Students were then encouraged to share their stories on a public online platform which sought to gather the stories of Malaysian young adults.

Through this class activity, students found writing to be purposeful because they were now writing for a larger audience. However, writing became emotional and uncomfortable for some because there was engagement with very personal and private issues on a public platform. Critical reflection on my practice reinforced that the online classroom was not a dehumanised space. Students’ voices came through their writing; they became legitimate contributors of knowledge. As a teacher, I realised I needed to be flexible when dealing with emotionally charged content. I also needed to be adequately prepared to support students who experienced emotional upheaval as a result of teaching activities which drew on a traumatising period in their lives. To minimise unequal power relationships and to foster horizontal teacher-student relationships, I shouldn’t withhold my personal views and could share my experiences.

So, Freire, if you were able to read this, I wonder what advice you would have as teachers strive to connect more authentically with students within an online space. I wonder how we can recontextualise critical pedagogy practice to suit the present realities we find ourselves in.


Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum. 15/00382876-1472612

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge

Shor, I. (1993). Education is politics: Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy. In P. McLaren & P. Leonard (Eds.), Paulo Freire: a critical encounter (pp. 25–35). New York: Routledge.

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