Critical consciousness
Critical consciousness, conscientization, or conscientização (Portuguese), is a popular education and social concept developed by Brazilian pedagogue and educational theorist Paulo Freire
Paulo Freire
Paulo Reglus Neves Freire was a Brazilian educator and influential theorist of critical pedagogy.-Biography:...

, grounded in Marxist critical theory
Critical theory
Critical theory is an examination and critique of society and culture, drawing from knowledge across the social sciences and humanities. The term has two different meanings with different origins and histories: one originating in sociology and the other in literary criticism...

. Critical consciousness focuses on achieving an in-depth understanding of the world, allowing for the perception and exposure of perceived social and political contradictions. Critical consciousness also includes taking action against the oppressive elements in one's life that are illuminated by that understanding.


The English
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

 term "conscientization" is a translation of the Portuguese
Portuguese language
Portuguese is a Romance language that arose in the medieval Kingdom of Galicia, nowadays Galicia and Northern Portugal. The southern part of the Kingdom of Galicia became independent as the County of Portugal in 1095...

 term conscientização, which is also translated as "consciousness raising
Consciousness raising
Consciousness raising is a form of political activism, pioneered by United States feminists in the late 1960s...

" and "critical consciousness". The term was popularized by Brazil
Brazil , officially the Federative Republic of Brazil , is the largest country in South America. It is the world's fifth largest country, both by geographical area and by population with over 192 million people...

ian educator, activist, and theorist Paulo Freire
Paulo Freire
Paulo Reglus Neves Freire was a Brazilian educator and influential theorist of critical pedagogy.-Biography:...

 in his 1970 work Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Pedagogy of the Oppressed is the most widely known of educator Paulo Freire's works. It proposes a pedagogy with a new relationship between teacher, student, and society...

. Freire was teaching the poor and illiterate members of Brazilian society to read at a time when literacy was a requirement for suffrage
Suffrage, political franchise, or simply the franchise, distinct from mere voting rights, is the civil right to vote gained through the democratic process...

 and dictators ruled many South America
South America
South America is a continent situated in the Western Hemisphere, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, with a relatively small portion in the Northern Hemisphere. The continent is also considered a subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and on the north and east...

n countries. The term originally derives from Frantz Fanon
Frantz Fanon
Frantz Fanon was a Martiniquo-Algerian psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary and writer whose work is influential in the fields of post-colonial studies, critical theory and Marxism...

's coinage of a French term, conscienciser, in his 1952 book, Black Skins, White Masks.


Critical consciousness proceeds through the identification of "generative themes", which Freire identifies as "iconic representations that have a powerful emotional impact in the daily lives of learners." In this way, individual consciousness helps end the "culture of silence
Conspiracy of silence (expression)
The expression conspiracy of silence, or culture of silence, relates to a condition or matter which is known to exist, but by tacit communal unspoken consensus is not talked about or acknowledged. Commonly such matters are considered culturally shameful...

" in which the socially dispossessed internalize the negative images of themselves created and propagated by the oppressor in situations of extreme poverty. Liberating learners from this mimicry of the powerful, and the fratricidal violence that results therefrom is a major goal of critical consciousness. Critical consciousness is a fundamental aspect of Freire's concept of popular education
Popular education
Popular education is a concept grounded in notions of class, political struggle, and social transformation. The term is a translation from the Spanish educación popular or the Portuguese educação popular and rather than the English usage as when describing a 'popular television program,' popular...


Arlene Goldbard
Arlene Goldbard
Arlene Goldbard is a writer, social activist and consultant whose focus is the intersection of culture, politics, and spirituality. She is best known as an advocate for cultural democracy and a creator of cultural critique and new cultural policy proposals....

, an author on the subject of community cultural development finds the concept of conscientization to be a foundation of community cultural development. From the glossary of Goldbard's 2006 book New Creative Community.
New Village Press
New Village Press is a not-for-profit book publisher based in Oakland, CA. It is a national publishing project of Architects/ Designers/ Planners for Social Responsibility ADPSR, an educational non-profit organization founded in 1982...

: "Conscientization is an ongoing process by which a learner moves toward critical consciousness. This process is the heart of liberatory education. It differs from "consciousness raising" in that the latter may involve transmission of preselected knowledge. Conscientization means breaking through prevailing mythologies to reach new levels of awareness—in particular, awareness of oppression
Oppression is the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner. It can also be defined as an act or instance of oppressing, the state of being oppressed, and the feeling of being heavily burdened, mentally or physically, by troubles, adverse conditions, and...

, being an "object" of others’ will rather than a self-determining "subject." The process of conscientization involves identifying contradictions in experience through dialogue and becoming part of the process of changing the world."

History of application

The ancient Greeks
The Greeks, also known as the Hellenes , are a nation and ethnic group native to Greece, Cyprus and neighboring regions. They also form a significant diaspora, with Greek communities established around the world....

 first identified the essence of critical consciousness when philosophers encouraged their students to develop an "impulse and willingness to stand back from humanity and nature... [and] to make them objects of thought and criticism, and to search for their meaning and significance. In his books Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Education for Critical Consciousness, Freire explains critical consciousness as a sociopolitical educative tool that engages learners in questioning the nature of their historical and social situation, which Freire addressed as "reading the world". The goal of critical consciousness, according to Freire, should be acting as subjects in the creation of democratic society. In education
Education in its broadest, general sense is the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next. Generally, it occurs through any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts...

, Freire implies intergenerational equity
Intergenerational equity
Intergenerational equity in economic, psychological, and sociological contexts, is the concept or idea of fairness or justice in relationships between children, youth, adults and seniors, particularly in terms of treatment and interactions. It has been studied in environmental and sociological...

 between students and teachers in which both learn, both question, both reflect and both participate in meaning-making. Using this idea, and describing current instructional methods as homogenization and lockstep
Lockstep systems are redundant computing systems that run the same set of operations at the same time in parallel. The output from lockstep operations can be compared to determine if there has been a fault....

 standardization, alternative approaches are proposed, such as the Sudbury model of democratic education schools, an alternative approach in which children, by enjoying personal freedom thus encouraged to exercise personal responsibility for their actions, learn at their own pace rather than following a previously imposed chronologically-based curriculum. In a similar form students learn all the subjects, techniques and skills in these schools. The staff are minor actors, the "teacher" is an adviser and helps just when asked. Sudbury model of democratic education schools maintain that values, social justice
Social justice
Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating a society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being. The term and modern concept of "social justice" was coined by...

, critical consciousness, intergenerational equity, and political consciousness included, must be learned through experience
Experiential learning
Experiential learning is the process of making meaning from direct experience. Simply put, Experiential Learning is learning from experience. The experience can be staged or left open. Aristotle once said, "For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them." David A...

 , as Aristotle said: "For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them."

Picking up on Freire's definition of critical consciousness, Joe L. Kincheloe
Joe L. Kincheloe
Joe Lyons Kincheloe, , was a professor and Canada Research Chair at the Faculty of Education, McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He wrote more than 45 books, numerous book-chapters, and hundreds of journal articles on issues including critical pedagogy, educational research, urban...

 has expanded the definition of the concept in his work on postformalism. In Kincheloe's formulation postformalism connects cognition to critical theoretical questions of power and social justice. In this context Kincheloe constructs a critical theory of cognition that explores questions of meaning, emancipation vis-a-vis ideological inscription, and a particular focus on the socio-political construction of the self. With these concerns in mind Kincheloe's postformal critical consciousness engages questions of purpose, issues of human dignity, freedom, authority, reconceptualized notions of reason, intellectual quality, and social responsibility. Postformal critical consciousness stimulates a conversation between critical pedagogy and a wide range of social, cultural, political economic, psychological, and philosophical concerns. Kincheloe employs this "multilogical conversation" to shape new modes of self-awareness, more effective forms of social, political, and pedagogical action, and an elastic model of an evolving critical consciousness (Kincheloe and Steinberg, 1993; Kincheloe, 1999; Thomas and Kincheloe, 2006).

Freire's development of critical consciousness has been expanded upon in several academic disciplines and common applications Public health community collaborations focused on HIV prevention for women, the role of critical consciousness in adult education, and the effect of peer pressure on cigarette smokers Freire's notion of critical consciousness is, in part, a type of political consciousness
Political consciousness
Following the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx outlined the workings of a political consciousness.-The politics of consciousness:...


See also

  • Critical pedagogy
    Critical pedagogy
    Critical pedagogy is a philosophy of education described by Henry Giroux as an "educational movement, guided by passion and principle, to help students develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, and connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive...

  • Identity politics
    Identity politics
    Identity politics are political arguments that focus upon the self interest and perspectives of self-identified social interest groups and ways in which people's politics may be shaped by aspects of their identity through race, class, religion, sexual orientation or traditional dominance...

  • Popular education
    Popular education
    Popular education is a concept grounded in notions of class, political struggle, and social transformation. The term is a translation from the Spanish educación popular or the Portuguese educação popular and rather than the English usage as when describing a 'popular television program,' popular...

  • Teaching for social justice
    Teaching for social justice
    Teaching for social justice is an educational philosophy designed to promote socioeconomic equality in the learning environment and instill these values in students. Educators may employ social justice instruction to promote unity on campus, as well as mitigate boundaries to the general curriculum...

  • Adult literacy
  • Adult education
    Adult education
    Adult education is the practice of teaching and educating adults. Adult education takes place in the workplace, through 'extension' school or 'school of continuing education' . Other learning places include folk high schools, community colleges, and lifelong learning centers...

  • Praxis
    Praxis is the putting of theory into practice. The term may refer to:* Christian theological praxis* Praxis , the practice of faith, especially worship* The Praxis School, a school of Marxist philosophy...

  • Praxis intervention
    Praxis intervention
    Praxis Intervention is a form of participatory action research. Where other forms of participatory action research emphasize the collective modification of the external world, the praxis intervention model emphasizes working on the Praxis potential of its participants...

  • Liberation psychology
    Liberation psychology
    Liberation psychology, also known as liberation social psychology or psicología social de la liberación, is an approach to psychological science that aims to understand the psychology of oppressed and impoverished communities by addressing the oppressive sociopolitical structure in which they exist...

Relevant reading

Paulo Freire
  • "Educacao como pratica da liberdade, Paz e Terra" (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) (1967) translation by Myra Bergman Ramos published as "Education and the Practice of Freedom" in Education for Critical Consciousness, Seabury, 1973.
  • "Extension o comunicacion?", Institute for Agricultural Reform (Santiago) (1969) translation by Louise Bigwood and Margaret Marshall published as "Extension or Communication," in Education for Critical Consciousness, Seabury, 1973.
  • "Education for Critical Consciousness" (includes "Education as the Practice of Freedom" and "Extension or Communication"), Seabury, 1973, published in England as Education, the Practice of Freedom, Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, 1976.

  • Thomas, P. and J. Kincheloe "Reading, Writing, and Thinking: The Postformal Basics." Rotterdam, Sense Publishers, 2006.
  • Kincheloe, J. and S. Steinberg "A Tentative Description of Post-formal Thinking: The Critical Confrontation with Cognitive Theory." Harvard Educational Review, 63 2, (Fall 1993), pp. 296-320.
  • Kincheloe, J. "Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind: Grounding the Post-formal Critique of Educational Psychology," in J. Kincheloe, S. Steinberg, and P. Hinchey, "The Postformal Reader: Cognition and Education." NY: Falmer, 1999.
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