Acknowledging the Political and Ethical Dimensions of Teaching: Kirk on an Inquiry-Oriented Approach to a Critical Pedagogy of Physical Education

“Teacher education cannot be neutral, but must instead acknowledge the inherently political and ethical dimensions of the teaching act.”–David Kirk

Paulo Freire, considered by some as one of the greatest educators of the 20th century, believed that all teaching is inherently “political,” and that teachers could be (and should be) thought of as “Cultural Workers.”

It’s a profound idea, but I wonder how many teachers have actually engaged with it.  Not enough, I imagine, which is rather unfortunate.  Lacking the realization that we are “cultural workers,”  we teachers run the risk of reproducing and legitimizing some of our culture’s dysfunctional elements.

So where, and when, might educators have the best opportunity to engage with such ideas?  Where might they hear about Freire and other critical pedagogues?  In their Teacher Preparation programs of course!  But all too often these programs “provide a depoliticized teacher education that can only produce teachers who work to reproduce and legitimate social inequality,” says David Kirk, author of the still-relevant 1986 paper,  A Critical Pedagogy for Teacher Education: Toward an Inquiry-Oriented Approach.  In other words, these programs produce teachers who are ignorant of the political and ethical dimensions of their teaching.  This, of course, precludes them from realizing their roles as  “Cultural Workers.”

To be sure, this is not the case in every teacher prep program.  Programs exist where you can learn alongside people like Justen O’Connor, Alan Ovens, Katie Fitzpatrick, Katie Strom, and Peter McLaren.  But these are few and far between…….

With the hope that I can somehow draw attention to these overlooked dimensions of teaching, I will be sharing some excerpts from Kirk’s (freely accessible) paper below:

“Giroux (1981) has argued that this work is significant for teacher education because schools ‘exist within a constellation of economic, social, and political institutions which make them a fundamental part of the power structure’ (p 143). Accordingly, teaching can never be a neutral activity, but is always related to ‘legitimizing the categories and social practices of the dominant society’ (p 149). However, Giroux suggests that teacher education programs have tended to depoliticize the nature of the teaching experience and, in so doing, obscure the relationships between teacher education, schooling, and wider societal interests.”

“Zeichner and Teitlebaum (1982) have suggested that teacher education can never be normatively neutral, but instead ‘the dominant forms of teacher education today largely encourage acquiescence and conformity to the status quo, both in schooling and society’ (p. 102).”

“Both ‘new directions’ sociology of education and the reconceptualists have sought to politicize the notions of knowledge and schooling by drawing attention to the roles that schools play in capital accumulation–by sifting and sorting the students for the labor market, in legitimation of power relations and social inequality, and in the production of technically utilizable knowledge essential to the maintenance of science-based industrial output (Apple & Weis, 1985;  Karier, 1976).”

“This, they argue, is largely the result of personalized teacher education programs that focus on survival and craft- or skill-based courses. To counter this rampant pragmatism, Zeichner and Teitlebaum suggest that some conception of social and economic justice is an essential component of every teacher’s education. What is called for, they contend, is an inquiry-oriented approach that places less emphasis on the technical and instrumental aspects of teaching and greater emphasis on developing certain critical capacities in students.”

” Apple (1976) has similarly argued that a critical analysis of educational practice must begin at the point of rendering problematic the everyday, taken-for-granted world of schools and classrooms. It is only through a process of challenging what he calls ‘common sense categories of thought’ that people will ever be able to ‘see the actual functionings of institutions in all their positive and negative complexity, to illuminate the contradictions of extant regularities, and, finally, to assist others in ‘remembering’ the possibilities of spontaneity and choice’ (Apple, 1976, p. 183). “

“Teacher education should be concerned with producing teachers who are critically aware of the complexities of the educational process, of their contribution to this process, and of the potential for change. This need for awareness necessarily involves politicizing the notion of schooling within teacher education courses, not because schooling ought to be subject to political influence but precisely because we need to guard against the use of schooling as an agency of social control and as a representative and perpetrator of vested interests.”

References can be found by clicking on the link to the paper.



  1. Nice. Whilst an acknowledged part of the system, our teacher ed degree program is at least attempting to disrupt some of the dominant discourses. We kick off with a socio-cultural and critical course and ask students to challenge what they see in professional experience. We evaluate stereotypical attitudes, hegemonic ideas and ways of understanding inclusion and feed this back to students. We have a course that explores the neoliberal agenda, privatisation and healthism. But there is lots more to do. Be interesting to see if after all this our students replicate the dominant practices of their first workplace culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Justen,

      Thanks for your response.

      I wish I could enroll in your program tomorrow!

      Awareness, especially self-awareness, is possibly the most important “skill” you can cultivate for living a full life. It appears that your program is geared toward that sort of cultivation and so has the potential to develop transformative educators.

      I hope your students know how privileged they are!

      And I would love to hear more about each of these courses. Let’s connect via email. I’m totally interested in getting more details.



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