A Conceptual Framework for Critical Peace Pedagogy

By Sarah Schmidt

The concept of praxis exists in the space between theory and practice related to human interaction with the world, a rift that is not easily merged in many disciplines— “a dialectical synthesis of theory and practice oriented toward transforming extant social relations. Praxis emphasizes the reflective human capacity to alter the natural and social world, sheds light on the historical specificity and structural foundations of that world, our ideological formation within it, and the conditions in which antagonisms take root” (Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, et al, 2018, p.550). In the Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci asserts “the philosophy of praxis does not tend to leave the simple in their primitive philosophy of common sense but rather to lead them to a higher conception of life” (p.332).  Paulo Freire takes an explicit social lens, describing praxis as “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed” (Freire, 1970, p.13). He further elucidates the praxeological turning point, asserting that through praxis, oppressed people can acquire a critical awareness of their own condition and engage in a struggle for liberation (Freire, 1970).  This praxeological turning point is at the heart of critical peace pedagogy. 

Both peace theory and critical theory are situated as counterhegemonic in nature, serving as the antithesis to dominant, oppressive, cultural norms and societal power dynamics.  

The genealogy of both theoretical frameworks indicates an antecedent of problematic, dominant theories that influenced cultural superstructures still present today. The emergence, foundational concepts, and goals of both critical theory and peace theory present an opportunity to help support and fulfill the aims of practitioners in their respective fields of research and practice.  If peace pedagogy is a normative approach to teaching and learning that aims to reduce violence in all its forms through liberatory methods, critical peace pedagogy integrates peace pedagogy with critical pedagogical methods, thus incorporating the shared vision of transformation.  Both peace theorists and critical theorists regard school with a double-edge sword – the hopeful vision of schooling as a carrier of democratic values, peace, global citizenry, etc., while also recognizing the harmful impact that formal schooling has perpetuated. As such, peace pedagogues commit to an authentic peace that requires the ongoing search for strategies, cognitive and emotional, that cultivate critical peace. With a goal of transforming society to reflect the pillars of positive peace, critical peace pedagogy seeks to address multiple forms of violence; thus, this approach brings an explicit focus on the structural implications of disproportionate power that perpetuate violence. To counter this reality, through the adaptation and adoption of critical pedagogical strategies, praxeological action is meant to transform structures and situations of violence as a form of peacebuilding.  Formal school settings take focus for peace pedagogues as a space of great influence and agency development.

Counterhegemonic in essence, the incorporation of critical pedagogies deepens the scope of peace pedagogy to create a method that is “forged with, not for, the oppressed (whether individuals or peoples) in the incessant struggle to regain their humanity” (Freire, 1970, p.48). Consistent with both critical theory and peace theory, critical peace pedagogy represents an educative practice that is founded on equal distribution of power and agency. Knowledge acquisition thus becomes an act of humanization, essential to the process of peacebuilding. Through dialogue-based co-learning, critical peace pedagogy holds the potential to dismantle hierarchies and forge equality between students, as well as educators because the classroom becomes an environment of humanistic authenticity and discovery – this cultivates an environment where critical consciousness is raised, with an action orientation as the ultimate educational goal. 

Further, critical peace pedagogy merges critical and peace theory to form a method of teaching and learning that not only creates an environment where students are encouraged to think critically and engage in reflective dialogue as a tool to raise consciousness about violence in the world, but also cultivates the agency and praxeological position to engage in peaceful action.  The transformative goals of critical peace pedagogy also engage the educator, who, when constantly reevaluating their own perspective and position of privilege, actively listens to their students and places value in the renewed perspectives gleaned from student engagement and dialogue. It is in this environment that teachers also serve as peacebuilders. As a first step in the process, critical pedagogues encourage a democratic relationship founded on trust between teacher and student.  To initiate a relationship of trust, content-knowledge based hierarchies and rigid dynamics of power must be dismantled. As Freire asserts, without trust, authentic and critical dialogue is impossible (1970). This is especially true in a pluralistic society where not only are multiple viewpoints represented in one space, but also where hegemonic violence is at play, indicating that disproportionate value has been placed on certain perspectives and life experiences over others.  In contrast to the traditional power structures of the classroom, the dialogical act of praxis is transformative— “liberation is praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it” (Freire, 1970, p.79).  Critical peace pedagogy as a theoretical approach views education precisely in this way – as a practice of freedom.  Its dialogical method deepens critical consciousness and presents teachers and students as subjects of liberation, by way of consciousness raising. 

Contextualizing Critical Peace Pedagogy

If violence is omnipresent in the framework of positive peace theory, learning within the context of critical peace pedagogy becomes an act of resistance. Further, critical peace pedagogy fosters an environment where omnipresent violence can be countered through the process of unlearning oppression.  Unlearning, as presented by pedagogues, is equally important for each side of asymmetric power and privilege. In the context of schooling, oppressive dynamics seep into the learning environment in multiple ways, but the most explicit example includes the disproportionate power between teacher and student, which can lend itself to oppressive, and thus violent, dynamics. “The overwhelming evidence is that the dominant or hegemonic model [of education] globally, with some exceptions, is authoritarian rather than democratic.  Education in democracy, human rights and critical awareness is not a primary characteristic of the majority of schooling” (Harber and Sakade, 2009, 172).  Through the strategies above, critical peace pedagogy establishes education for social consciousness, self-realization, and collective nonviolent action, rather than education that reinforces structuralized hegemonic violence, submission, and oppression.  

By integrating peace pedagogy with critical pedagogy, both pedagogical frameworks are deepened to better address the most pressing issues of our contemporary world, with issues of violence as one of the most acute. Contemporary violence manifests in direct ways (armed conflict), which interlock with structural violence and leads to other related forms of violence.  The task of peacebuilding is rightly daunting and will succeed only with a multilateral, multi sector shift in ideology, policy, and culture. “This threat, though having to be controlled in many ways, not least tackling the relevant social issues at their root, presents many with a carte blanche to trample on hard earned democratic freedoms and rights. The situation is said to further spread the ‘culture of militarization that engulfs youth, about which much has been written in critical education” (Borg and Grech, 2017, p.172).  Critical peace pedagogy, with praxeological action at the core of the conceptual framework, holds the potential for transformation. Through critical peacebuilding in teaching and learning, critical peace pedagogy not only aims to counter violent realities, but also cultivate positive peace.


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Sarah Schmidt is an instructor of Peace and Conflict Studies and an administrator of international education at Kent State University.  Her areas of research include peace pedagogy, critical peace education, and peace theory.  Sarah attended American University’s School of International Service and acquired a master’s of Ethics, Peace and Global Affairs with a concentration in human rights and social justice in the Middle East and North Africa.  During her time at American University, Sarah served as the Program Coordinator of the Mohammed Said Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace.  Sarah is a PhD candidate in the Cultural Foundations of Education program at Kent State University.