C is for Critical Pedagogy

3 06 2012

Does a coursebook text about global warming, plus a few discussion questions, constitute ‘a critical approach’?

Not a bit of it, Alistair Pennycook (1999: 340) would argue. ‘Taking a critical approach to TESOL does not entail introducing a “critical element” into a classroom, but rather involves an attitude, a way of thinking and teaching’.

So, a critical teacher teaches with attitude.

But what does this attitude, and this way of thinking and teaching, consist of? Perhaps a definition is in order:

Advocates of critical approaches to second language teaching are interested in relationships between language learning and social change. From this perspective, language is not simply a means of expression or communication; rather, it is a practice that constructs, and is constructed by, the ways language learners understand themselves, their social surroundings, their histories, and their possibilities for the future. (Norton and Toohey, 2004:1)

The key words here, I think, are ‘social change’: a critical pedagogy has a transformative agenda, seeking social justice by challenging inequalities based on gender, ethnicity, religion, class, sexual orientation, language and so on. An important tool for identifying and exposing the power structures that sustain, and are sustained by, these inequalities is critical discourse analysis (CDA). CDA lifts the lid off texts and teases out the ideological subtexts buried therein.

All very well, but the picture is complicated by the fact that we ourselves may well be complicit in these oppressive discourses, perpetuating them even as we unmask them.  As Auerbach (1995:9) reminds us, ‘Pedagogical choices about curriculum development, content, materials, classroom processes, and language use, although appearing to be informed by apolitical professional considerations, are, in fact, inherently ideological in nature, with significant implications for learners’ socioeconomic roles.  Put simply, our choices as educators play a role in shaping students’ choices’.

Our choices include, of course, our choice of coursebook. And since the coursebook – in many institutions — is the most material instantiation of the curriculum, its ideological baggage is not to be sneezed at.  What does its choice of topics, of texts, of images assume about our students and their (projected) use of English? What assumptions are implicit about the role of English in the world? To what extent – if at all – does it validate the learners’ own culture, language, and ethnicity?  Not to mention class, gender, sexual orientation, or religion?

I’m asking these questions because I’ve been asked to write a piece on ELT materials writing and critical pedagogy. At first sight, this would seem to be a contradiction in terms. How can the inevitable pressures of marketing and consumption sit comfortably with a pedagogy that aims to challenge existing power relations?  Isn’t it a bit like expecting MacDonald’s to offer healthy, eco-friendly food, prepared and served by well-paid, unionized workers?

So, what then is the materials writer to do? One option is to introduce topics and texts that have some ‘transformative potential’, and which might be used to leverage learners’ awareness about issues of social justice. Benesch (2010: 115), for example, argues that ‘critical pedagogies [should] introduce material that has generally been ignored because of its political nature, and push inquiry beyond the safe and comfortable terrain of abstract ideas, definitions and testable fact(oids)’.

As demonstration of this approach, Benesch recounts her use of the military recruitment texts that were distributed to students on her college campus in the US during that country’s occupation of Iraq. The texts were not mined simply for the superficial linguistic features that they embedded, but, through debate and written responses, became vehicles for social awareness-raising – ‘an exploratory dialogue of unknown outcomes’ (op. cit.: 123).

But Pennycook (1999: 338) is sceptical: ‘A critical approach to TESOL is more than arranging the chairs in a circle and discussing social issues’.  Likewise, Kumaravadivelu (1999: 479)  believes that the text is less important than the processes of engaging with the text: ‘In the context of the ESL classroom, as in any other educational context, what makes a text critical has less to do with the way its content is constructed by the author (though it surely matters) than the way it is deconstructed by the teacher and the learner’. To this end, learners may need to be taught how to interrogate a text, how to engage in ‘critical reading’ (Wallace, 1992), and how to problematize both the overt and the covert cultural, political and gendered messages of the text. At the same time, as Canagarajah (1999: 194) warns, it is not simply a matter of attempting to instil a critical mind-set: ‘It is condescending to think that students have to be led by the noses to express opposition’. And he adds that ‘activities prescribed in ESL textbooks as ways of encouraging critical thinking are modelled on Eurocentric thought processes’ (op.cit.: 190).

An alternative strategy might be to devolve on to the learners themselves some responsibility in the choice of texts, and some agency in the way that these texts are processed, exploited and responded to. Access to the internet has made such an approach feasible in many contexts, as have text processing tools that allow collaborative editing, text simplification, hypertexting, multi-modality, and, ultimately, publication.

At the same time, a ‘critical turn’ requires that the processes of text selection and adaptation will need to be situated in some larger social process, and one to which the learners feel committed. This may operate at a very local level, such as militating for some improvement in the institutional context. Or it may have a more extensive reach, as when the learners join voices – and texts – with a global community in the cause of some particular issue of social justice and equality.

This is a far remove from the coursebook reading text on global warming. Is there a way – I wonder – of realistically connecting the two?


Auerbach, E. (1995) ‘The politics of the ESL classroom: Issues of power in pedagogical choices’, in Tollefson, J. (ed.) Power and Equality in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Benesch, S. (2010) ‘Critical praxis as materials development: Responding to military recruitment on a US campus’, in Harwood, N.(ed.) English Language Teaching Materials: Theory and Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Canagarajah, A.S. (1999) Resisting linguistic imperialism in language teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Freire, P. (1993) Education for Critical Consciousness, New York: Continuum.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (1999) ‘Critical classroom discourse analysis’, TESOL Quarterly, 33, 3.

Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (2004) ‘Critical pedagogies and language learning: An introduction’, in Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (eds), Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning,  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pennycook, A.(1999) ‘Introduction: Critical approaches to TESOL’, TESOL Quarterly, 33, 3.

Wallace, C. (1992) ‘Critical literacy awareness in the EFL classroom’, in Fairclough, N. (ed.) Critical Language Awareness, London: Longman.

Sections of this post appear in my article “What is the materials writer’s role in a critical pedagogy?” in the July 2012 TESOL Materials Writers Interest Section Newsletter.



38 responses

3 06 2012
Diarmuid Fogarty (@Imadruid)

As I write, I am the first respondent. Oh happy day. Of course, I fully expect to be pipped to the post by the time I have finished typing…

It is worth bearing in mind that we are also unlikely to be the only people in the classroom who are complicit in the ongoing oppressive discourses. For many of us, our learners are direct beneficiaries of the system that is in place. Critical educator par excellence, Paulo Freire, despaired of those people who protected themselves from being educated because of the threat that it represented to their comfortable way of life. I always saw this as a bit of a cop out, and I bought a book called something like “The Pedagogy of the Non-oppressed” but could never bring myself to read it – not out of horror, but because it was too dense for me (or rather I was too dense for it). Nevertheless, it is illuminating to reflect that in the UK my millionaire students are also no more than [insert racial insult here] to many people. They are also being exploited heavily by the UK government and institutions of higher education. There I find my angle.

I have also read some very interesting books recently which would also lend themselves to a critical pedagogy. They are not political – one (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Power-Habit-What-Change/dp/0434020362/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1338710179&sr=8-1) is about how the human body functions by habit and one (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Self-Illusion-There-Inside-Your/dp/1780330073/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1338710223&sr=1-1)is a book that argues against the concept of “self”. Both are very destabilising of the existing orders and the commonly accepted way of seeing the world. At some point, I hope that I can blog about them…The latter in particular might be billed as a book that asks, “If we are not really who we think we are, who -or what- the hell are we?” From there it is only a small step to asking the corollary questions – “And who the hell is everyone else?”

As far as materials writing is concerned, it might be something as simple as ensuring that the voiceless are provided with a voice in the books that leak inanity and mundanity from every page. Or are we to assume that an interview with a homeless person or a text describing the life of a worker are less fruitful for the future captains of industry than a text about a funny thing that happened to the writer on the way to the circus?

I imagine that we may possibly revisit the argument about how our job is simply to teach language and not politics. But everything we do is political – and if we as teachers opt for inanity and mundanity then we are choosing to be complicit in supporting the very structures that keep us as well as our learners in their place.

4 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Diarmuid, for being first to comment (I had to eliminate five prior comments so you would have this honour 😉 ) but more for your characteristic wit, scholarship and, dare I say it, passion.

Actually, the discussion has already got ahead of me – witness your response ot Alex’s comment below. So I’ll just thank you here for the references, which I’ll definitely follow up – and, who knows, may even blog about too! (I’ll spare you another winky emoticon).

4 06 2012

In order to test Diarmuid’s proclivity for philanthropy, I shall attempt to provoke him (Suiting up now…).

The books Diarmuid cites appear to be exemplars of the cognitive/materialist/behaviorist trend so many mainstream psychologists are following today. Business (Duhigg) has a keen interest in such research, of course, since a competitive, consumer-based economy implies companies find ways to ‘brand’ us, shaping or changing our spending habits. And this, along with Alex’s remarks about CP, got me thinking about my colleagues, students, and CP.

I think what frustrates many CPers, and folks in general, is how blatant evidence and reams of information often fail to change attitudes and behavior. I see it in myself and in others all the time. Humans are complex, and our emotions generally dictate what we do. Even our ideas, big and small, are based primarily on feelings.

I recently asked a colleague why a person we both know and respect does so much to transform the status quo at work then goes home to perpetuate it. His response: ‘Because culture’s a bitch’, meaning that this person’s socio-cultural identity is so deeply rooted that even she fears the consequences of extraction. And so it goes…

Critical pedagogy, engaged pedagogy (bell hooks), ecopedagogy… I’d settle for education.


PS: A CDA approach – especially in the wake (midst?) of our global financial conundrum – could find Scott’s use of the term ‘leverage’ to be suspect, even anathema to Freire’s admonition of the Banking Model of education). Would you ‘buy into’ such analysis? 🙂

5 06 2012
Diarmuid Fogarty (@Imadruid)

Hi Rob – actually, Hood is decidedly NOT a cognitive-leaning scientist. Throughout his book he agues that the self is a social construct – it both shapes and is shaped by the people it comes into contact with and cannot be any other way.

Duhigg’s book shines a spotlight on how businesses exploit our habit-forming behaviours. He also puts forward suggestions for how better to resist such exploitation. Well worth reading these books.

5 06 2012

I should’ve known better than to judge a book by its blurb. I’ll still have to rely on you to tell me/us all about them on your blog though. And thanks for setting me straight with civility. Your credentials as a humanitarian remain unscathed. 🙂

3 06 2012
Sulabha Sidhaye

With adult learners, I find it useful to select from the latest periodicals, extracts ,or articles that contain the teaching point. Students find this more relevant to their experiences. Individuals also feel encouraged to contribute their responses to the extracts, because they can express their opinions while drilling the grammatical point or vocabulary usage.
Later necessary exercises can be chosen from recommended or standard grammar and vocabulary books for further practice.
Thus a new variety of text material can be collected every year.

4 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thank you, Sulabha. I do worry, though, that if our choice of texts is determined by the ‘language points’ that they embed, then how can they truly serve as vehicles for consciousness-raising at any but the most trivial level.

Isn’t there a danger, even, that as teachers we use grammar to maintain a kind of classroom hierarchy which serves, not to open up discussion, but to narrow it, even close it down. As I wrote here, ‘Grammar is power. Grammar invests EFL teachers with transmittable knowledge, thereby propping up a status that is often felt to be dodgy, to say the least’. The effect of this is that, as Grady (1997: 9) puts it, ELT materials represent ‘all types of issues and all types of discourse as not requiring much thought or action beyond the decision as to the appropriate grammatical structure’.

3 06 2012

Hello, Scott, and thanks for the article.

It’s true that coursebooks instantiate particular idealogical positions, and this, as you are right to point out, is one of the – many – drawbacks to coursebooks. However, in one way, this is actually a potential learning aid, in that students can be encouraged to precisely question – and then perhaps subvert – such positions. In fact, in my own – and I’m sure most others’ – experience, students are most active, engaged, and eager to communicate at such moments when they are involved in probing, defending, or arguing against critical positions – whether these be positions connected with race, sex, gender, politics, and so on. After all, these are issues that affect us all; that is to say, they are the stuff of real life. In terms of a critical pedagogy, therefore, one need not look further than Socrates, and his vital method of stopping people in their tracks and having them question why they believe the things they do.

Of course, Socratic dialogue chimes in perfectly with the dogme attitude, in that it is purely conversation driven, centred on genuine communicative needs (what could be more genuine than defending your central beliefs and attitudes), co-constructed, and wholly emergent. My own view now, is that an ideal EFL pedagogy would be centred on such critical positions mentioned above and would use Socratic dialogue as a means of drawing out emergent language.

4 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Wez, very good point – i.e. that the coursebook can be used to leverage critical awareness, not because of – but in spite of – its relatively narrow agenda (see my response to Sulabha above). Using the tools of critical discourse analysis on coursebook texts, e.g. to probe how they attempt to position the reader, can be instructive, and can have positive spin-off in terms of language awareness generally, and in developing writing skills. As Michael Stubbs (Text and Corpus Analysis, 1996) puts it, ‘Grammar is choice. Different choices produce different meanings. The political nature of such choices is evident when analysis is applied to texts which represent relations between groups of people’.

4 06 2012

Yes, spot on. The “grammar is choice” view has been really helpful in my own teaching development. In fact, I think it would be really worthwhile to introduce this concept at the CELTA level. In this way, teachers could be encouraged to see early on that: “Did you eat?/Have you eaten?” and, “If I were your Prime Minster/If I was your Prime Minister”, is not simply that “Did you eat?” is simply the American version, or that “If I were …” is the subjunctive and therefore “more correct”, but that the choice of these structures encapsulates a different way of viewing something.

In my experience, students find the “grammar is choice” idea quite interesting and useful, not to mention more memorable.

3 06 2012

Morning! Here are some of my thoughts on critical pedagogy (and many apologies for the length of my reply!!)

Whilst a meta-objective of education might be to produce learners who contribute critically to social transformation, one of the main roles of a language teacher is to support (and teach) learners in their efforts to learn a foreign/second language. How the two combine effectively remains problematic.

A penchant for abstraction and a corresponding silence on concrete pedagogical action has been noted as a persistent trait of critical pedagogy in general (Usher and Edwards 1994; Johnston, 1999). Partly because there appears to be a gap between the ideological rhetoric of social transformation and corresponding pedagogical action, ideologically inspired accounts of language pedagogy leave themselves open to the charge that it is:

‘criticism in the head’ or in the armchair – a kind of academic radicalism of no consequence to anybody else.
Young, 2008:27.

There is also an assumption that teachers have significant powers to transform, placing unreasonable burdens and expectations on teachers (Gore, Janganglo, 1993), as well an assumption of cohorts of passive students who need liberation (Lather, 1992).

‘Critical pedagogists have also commandeered a certain political vocabulary that gives them claim to the moral high ground. They borrow extensively from the language of proletarian protest, talking frequently of struggle, emancipation, and liberation. Their favorite adjectives are revolutionary and radical. Their metaphoric use of such terms seems intended to make readers feel like romantic rebels.’
Johnston, 1999:563.

Everything is open to critique and questioning, except the ideology underpinning accounts of language education. What remains largely unquestioned and unsubstantiated is precisely what is understod by social transformation, greater democracy and justice. The metaphors of struggle, emancipation and liberation are very present in their works, revealing narcissistic ‘tropes of martyrdom and selflessness’ (Janangelo, 1993:149). In these accounts it is also the very unquestioned desire to emancipate and to assume, rather than provide evidence of hegemony, that renders these accounts uncritical. Chipping away at the veneer of revolutionary rhetoric reveals nothing more revolutionary than a quite mainstream liberal ideology of learner rights, a pedagogy of inclusiveness and individual responsibility, sensitivity to and respect of difference, a concern that education contributes to social democracy, and a desire that individuals pursue their own educational goals. In essence, despite the hyperbole, it appears to be the case that much of the ideologically inspired versions and critiques of language education do not merit the appellation ‘radical’.

The metaphors, images and idioms adopted to describe, analyse and critique language education are remarkable. In one paper, Moreira (2007) states:

My role as a teacher must be redefined as an agent of empowerment.
Moreira, 2007:58.

This ‘agent of empowerment’ must engage in ‘guerrilla warfare’ (idem:69) in a ‘moral war’ (idem:69) using action research ‘as an ideological and methodological “weapon”’ (idem:70). The educational environment is hostile, entailing ‘warfare’ (idem: 70), with teacher educators ‘engaged in a moral war’ (idem: 69) and taking a ‘resistance stance’ (idem:69). These metaphors and tropes of, for example, ‘struggle’ (Giroux and McLaren, 1998:215), ‘warfare’, ‘tension’, ‘conflict’, ‘cultural resistance’ (Moreira and Ribeiro, 2009:77) permeate and characterise much of the literaure. This conflictual and aggressive discourse is also accompanied by a binary and divisive stance regarding the choices facing teachers. This conflictual and combative discourse risks transforming pedagogies into demagogies.. It does so because of a lack of nuance and subtlety, failing to accommodate ideas and pedagogies that do not foreground quite so vocally an ideological version of language education but, nonetheless, cannot be coupled so complicity, readily and easily with dominant and repressive ideologies.

What makes me depressed is that I share, I think, many of the political viewpoints of critical pedagogy. Perhaps if there were fewer accounts of using students as vehicles for social change and more personal accounts of the struggles that critical pedagogues undertake outside the classroom to improve education I might be more inspired.

I haven’t amswered your question Scott because I don’t think it can be answered until there is a critical questioning of critical pedagogy first.

4 06 2012
Diarmuid Fogarty (@Imadruid)

Thanks for sharing this, Alex. I will offer my uninformed and possibly unformed responses in the hope that I leave the discussion with a more critical stance on critical pedagogy, CP.

In reply to the idea that CP is no more than criticism in the head (or pajas mentales as my wife once described it): Bruce Hood’s wonderful book makes the rather obvious (now) point that everything is just in the head. Freire also called for praxis as opposed to action less thought or thoughtless action. And it seems to me that any teacher who believes themselves to be engaged in CP is actually taking some sort of action – or is likely to be, at least. Whether that be encouraging people to take a critical stance in relation to the ideologies that surround them or whether it be by encouraging them to take arms against a sea of troubles, the first effect of such teaching can only ever be in the heads of the learners. Sometimes criticism of the uncriticisable is a suitably radical step to take. On a local level, look at what happens when one becomes critical of the hegemony of technology in the 21st century classroom – a hegemony that I am going to decline to provide any evidence of on the grounds that I consider it to be so self-evident as to not need any and because if we were to even step onto that path, the chances are that this article would be derailed.

Regarding the assumption that teachers have transformative powers, I disagree that the powers are any greater or any lesser than any other people. What we do have, I think, is a greater opportunity to transform. The debate that emerges whenever such things are talked about is whether or not we have the responsibility to transform. Are our students just passive objects who are always acted upon and never actors? I doubt that they would say so. But, to go back to Bruce Hood, they both are and aren’t. As fixed reference points that can be defined categorically, they don’t exist. To the teacher who sees them as struggling untermenschen, that’s what they are; to themselves they are undoubtedly heroic superheroes, masters of industry, lords of finance. But this way of thinking makes it very difficult to know how to react. Which is why I think that Bruce Hood’s book would provide more fruitful pickings for CP materials writers than Karl Marx’s. Personally, I see dialogue with students about whatever topic that might come up as being a useful approach – it regards students as thinking and acting individuals, but it seeks to encourage them to question their thoughts and actions.

Regarding the uncritical self-examination of critical pedagogy, I find this an interesting point. As I suggested, I am not an expert CPer, nor have I ever persevered with Giroux or Freire, so you may wish to disregard my thoughts altogether. However, the suggestion that CP is without any introspection is one that I find hard to believe. It would imply, it seems to me, that the world of CP speaks with one voice and no dissent can ever be found within its field. If this were to be the case, I would suspect that it would be the only example in academia where this unifying stance could be found. In fact, I have read enough of Freire to know that this is not the case. Freire’s work has been subject to critical reviews (see the work of Blanca Facundo or, indeed, any of the following writers in this list of references ! http://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/documents/Facundo/Ohliger1.html). My experience of most criticism of CP that emanates from opponents of CP is that it is frequently based around straw…err…people. So, we have Johnston in your quotation above assuming that protest is proletarian, that CPers have favourite adjectives (which just happen to be risibly Citizen Smith like) and which are employed to make people feel like chic revolutionaries. Or Janangelo (or you, I’m not clear) who sees narcissism in CP – Bruce Hood might suggest that narcissism is pretty much the default setting for the human brain. Is there anyone who admits readily to choosing to do things that present them in a bad light? Labelling it narcissism suggests that although it may be reasonable for most people to behave in this way, when CPers do it, well, that’s just because they have an inflated sense of themselves.

But I have to agree with the argument that the word critical is often applied uncritically, leading to a rebranding of what is undisguisably liberal. The British government commandeered Freire to rebrand their approach to adult education. Whether the dogme concept is critical or not has also given rise to some debate. I seem to recall that Scott concluded that it wasn’t? As ever, I think that the fact that critical pedagogy is such a broad church means that it remains at risk of falling victim to this criticism. In the absence of defining characteristics, this might be something that CPers have to be on their guard against. The same might be said for most things.

Similarly, although I don’t share the critique of the metaphors used by some CP writers, I agree with the view that in western writing, the preference is to engage in adversarial debate. The idea is that there must be a winner of any debate and that winner must be me. You are either with me or against me. And if you claim neutrality, then you are against me because you are not with me in attacking the behemoths of Capital. Could CP be more accommodating to those “ideas and pedagogies that do not foreground quite so vocally an ideological version of language education but, nonetheless, cannot be coupled so complicitly, readily and easily with dominant and repressive ideologies?” Possibly so – what ideas and pedagogies might these be?

You finish your post with a lament that I have interpreted as being along the lines of, “Let’s hear what critical pedagogues do in their real lives to bring down injustice and suffering and less about what they claim to do in the classroom.” This struck me as being similar to the criticism of other “activists” – the stereotype being that they are all beneficiaries of the system that they are struggling to overthrow. I don’t regard it as a very valid criticism because it expects the “activists” to account to higher standards than any other group in society. We are all guilty of acting inconsistently with our ideologies. People who campaign against one brand of burger giant might quite readily eat in another; free marketeers might quite brazenly call for government subsidies for certain bodies; Christians might hate their next door neighbour; Buddhists might kill other people; Muslims might submit to the allure of whatever is haram. We are, after all, animals who linger under the illusion that civilisation has created free will for us to abide by. What our ideologies more often reveal is a way that we would like to live.

But am I just trying to evade your question? Not intentionally. This is what [I think] I do: I exist; I struggle with the demands placed on me on a daily basis and work as hard as I can to ensure that those people I am responsible for do not suffer because of me. I feed and clothe my family; I try to remember that my work colleagues are people; I try to avoid jumping to the wrong conclusions about people; I don’t just walk away from my responsibilities; I don’t submit myself to the dehumanising ideologies that prevail; I look to help others wherever I can; I don’t fight, attack or kill other people; I don’t take from those who have less than me nor do I labour under the illusion that whatever I have is mine by right; if I have hurt somebody, I look to repair that fault; I submit my thoughts to a critical inspection whenever I think it necessary; I look to engage with other people and feel that everyone has a right to be wrong. This could go on, but I suspect that most people would agree that I have gone on more than enough already. Essentially, my “activism” is not about great actions that liberate the world – it is about surviving in the world while trying to avoid causing pain, suffering or upset to others. At times I am successful, at others I am not.

4 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Diarmuid’s final riff makes me wonder if critical pedagogy is less about what Freire calls ‘conscientização’ (which I take to mean something like ‘consciousness-raising) and more about ‘conscience’ – i.e. (how) can we teach with a good one?

Apropos, read what Lin et al (2004), has to say, on whether, as a non-black, non-lesbian, non-working class woman, she has any authority to confront issues of prejudice in her teaching:

Given my protected position, is it my responsibility to speak out on racism, classism, and homophobia? Or is it presumptuous of me to do so? All I have to guide me is my belief that it cannot be wrong to speak out against prejudice and discrimination. But it is my responsibility to educate myself, to listen to people of various backgrounds, to be reflective, to work collaboratively when possible, and to accept constructive criticism. It is my responsibility to keep trying to understand how various forms of oppression intersect and interact and to support TESOL colleagues of all identities. (‘Women faculty of colour in TESOL: theorising and lived experiences’, TESOL Quarterly, 38/3.

4 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Just checked the reference (and corrected the spelling). Some of Freire’s translators have ‘conscientization’ for ‘conscientização’, and one glosses it thus: ‘Conscientization refers to the process in which men [sic], not as recipients, but as knowing subjects, achieve a deepening awareness both of the socio-cultural reality which shapes their lives and their capacity to transform that reality’ (Freire, 1970, Cultural Action for Freedom, Harvard Educational Review, 40/3).

4 06 2012

Hi there,
very interesting response. I don’t want to derail Scott’s post by responding at length again. Just a couple of remarks:

‘Personally, I see dialogue with students about whatever topic that might come up as being a useful approach – it regards students as thinking and acting individuals, but it seeks to encourage them to question their thoughts and actions.’

My own views are not far removed from your statement above.

‘Bruce Hood might suggest that narcissism is pretty much the default setting for the human brain. Is there anyone who admits readily to choosing to do things that present them in a bad light? Labelling it narcissism suggests that although it may be reasonable for most people to behave in this way, when CPers do it, well, that’s just because they have an inflated sense of themselves.’

I have no idea if narcissism is the default setting and even if it is so what? If this is the case it doesn’t mean that we are condemned to narcissism. The importance of, inter alia, altruism, recognition, collaboration, dialogue in education all suggest that either narcissism is either perfectly compatible with other features of education or narcissism isn’t a guiding characteristic of it. I would suggest that in educational contexts if narcissism is driving discourse and provides motivation to be less than honest then something is wrong. Not for a minute would I suggest that CPers have a monopoly on narcissism (if indeed they are).

‘I don’t regard it as a very valid criticism because it expects the “activists” to account to higher standards than any other group in society.’
You miss my point. I don’t expect higher standards I am simply interested in the relationship between CP discourse and action. Academics, educators, teachers all have a professional life beyond the classroom and it is not unreasonable, given their desire to engage in social transformation, to want to know what type of action they are undertaking and how this relates to their ideology. In other words, is there coherence between what they say (in journals, books, conferences etc.) and do (on committees, as colleagues, programme leaders etc.) . This, actually, might be inspiring, insightful and helpful even if (and perhaps especially if) there is an acknowledged gap between theory and practice. I don’t think this is an unreasonable point, even if clichéd.

4 06 2012

“Whether the dogme concept is critical or not has also given rise to some debate. I seem to recall that Scott concluded that it wasn’t?”

The way I read it, Scott left the door open. Decide for yourself:


4 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Phew! Thanks, Alex!

Diarmuid got in before me, but just to pick up on your last point, i.e. the need for ‘a critical questioning of critical pedagogy’: this is similar to the argument made by Widdowson about critical discourse analysis (CDA):

‘Critical discourse analysis is not critical about its own principles and practices. Perhaps it is too much to expect it to be. People who are committed to a particular approach, or paradigm of inquiry, or school of thought are, naturally enough, not disposed to question it. This point is indeed stressed in CDA itself and provides the essential motivation for its analysis, the purpose of which is to expose the fallibility and bias of what has become naturalised and taken for granted. But what applies to the discourse of others must apply equally to that of CDA itself. In taking up a position which allows us to identify as problematic what it takes to be self-evident, we are, paradoxically, questioning the validity of CDA by following its lead’ (Text, Context, Pretext: Critical issues in discourse analysis, 2004, p.169).

In fairness to the critical applied linguists, let me match the above quote with another, from Pennycook 2001:

Critical applied linguistics need a sense of critical that is part of a definitive form of politics. The critical here is a political critique and not merely a way of thinking. But, as suggested by Foucault, this is not a question of establishing a given political standpoint but rather of imagining and bringing into being new schemas of politicisation. Thus, the political and indeed the ethical can be seen less in terms of a dogmatic claiming of moral and political certitude and more in terms of an ability to politicise anew. Closely related to this is the notion of critical applied linguistics as a problematizing practice… a constant questioning of our assumptions both within and beyond applied linguistics. … And, it is a way of thinking that is always reflexive upon itself, aware of the limits of knowing’ (Critical Applied Linguistics: a critical introduction,pp 171-172).

4 06 2012

I kind of get Pennycook’s point (I think). But what I find frustrating when reading this is, strangely, a sense of reluctance of Pennycook to commit to any action. As if endless thought and critique are forever delaying engagement. What results, for me, is a fractured reflexivity – where questioning and criticality become such a burden that it renders thought and action impossible.
What does it mean to politicise anew? This escapes me I fear…

3 06 2012
Paraskevi Andreopoul (@pandreop)

Critical pedagogy reminds me well of a combination between CLIL and Dogme approaches ,whose target leads to philosophy and democracy….

3 06 2012

As ever, a really interesting Sunday morning article. As I was reading, I began to wonder how much of a role topic plays in stimulating a critical response to texts. It seems to me that a lot of coursebooks seem to reproduce more or less the same range of tried and tested topics (e.g. Money, Travel, Environment, etc.). If Ss aren’t really interested in a topic, are they likely to be motivated enough to engage critical thinking skills?

4 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Damian, topic is certainly important here, and one reason why, given the constraints coursebook publishers have to work within, resource books have appeared with alternative, even taboo, topics, for classroom use – see my post T is for Taboo, for example.

3 06 2012

An interesting stream.

Alex, good questions–What is social transformation and is it even desirable?

One way to look at critical pedagogy is something that is lived everyday, from moment to moment. When we are willing to overturn our own beliefs about teaching, when we can overcome our conditioning about what learning is, even about what it means to be alive, then we are thinking critically. When we are willing to inquire, as Alex says, into everything, not accepting anything as fact, but everything is open to investigation–this is being critical and I think this will lead to a different kind of pedagogy, a way of living that leads to a transformation both psychologically and socially.

4 06 2012

Hi Scott! Thanks for making us reflect on this important issue. Some time ago I have written about my experience as regards critical thinking in my classroom. Maybe this blog post can add to the discussion: http://sabridv.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/critical-thinking-we-aim-at-it/

4 06 2012

“This is a far remove from the coursebook reading text on global warming. Is there a way – I wonder – of realistically connecting the two?”

Coursebook immolation springs to mind. 😉 (Coursebook writers, please note smiley, winky emoticon).

Generally, in addition to gobsmacking and head shaking, I encounter three reactions to critical pedagogy:

1) Our job as language teachers is to teach language, not politics.
*Here, I share Diarmuid’s view – as deluded a soul as he is – that we, the polis (people), are political creatures.

2) I don’t like politics.
*This usually means ‘I don’t like conflict’. Critical theory (a la Frankfurt School), as I understand it, is based on Hegel’s Dialectic, which seeks to resolve disagreement. Firstly, who lives without conflict or contradiction? Secondly, isn’t conflict resolution worth striving for?

3) We can’t examine anything critically because we’re trapped inside (a part of) the very machine (system) we wish to dismantle (deconstruct).
*That, to me, is like saying ‘What bothers me is what bothers me’. And, you’ve heard the one about the unexamined life, right?

As for ‘lifting the lid off texts’ through CDA (Critical Discourse Analysis), my dissertation (thesis in the U.S.) sought to tease out the agenda of the ‘new capitalism’ by analyzing an online discussion of the ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development). I found critical discourse analysis oppressive in its own right. Either the exactitude or seeing just what was under ‘the lid’ – or both? – made me wonder if a cyanide tablet under my crowned tooth would qualify as self-improvement. There must be a less depressing way to go about social justice and taking care of our earth. If I had it to do over again, I’d likely opt for Positive Discourse Analysis (PDA), or just leave the lid down.

Apropos content/textual analysis, McDonalds has never been MacDonalds, which shows just how out of touch you are with this icon of American culture – must be those eco burgers. 🙂 And whether they offer healthy, cruelty-free food, or fair wages is not the issue; what really matters is how they market themselves, because that’s what ‘feeds’ the masses. Besides, who can afford to live as a purist?

Thanks for another post worth reading, and thinking about, Scott.


4 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Rob, for that neat summary of the reactions to CP. And for your thoughts on same. And for (gently) correcting the misspelling of McDonalds (is the hamburger they make called a Big Mc, too?). I won’t correct the mistake in my text, because that would render your comment opaque, but I hope they correct it in the TESOL MWIS article).

5 06 2012
martyn shannehaye.

I’ve just finished doing a Celta course in the Balkans.The course book is authored by you. As a 52 years old guy ,with loads of experience in the alternative education movement,communal living, therapy,all directed towards spreading joy , inspired deeply by Vaclav Havel and libertarianism since the seventies… do you happen to know Scott, why all the test-pretest-check test-exit-codes of your tomic work with the venerable blessing from the hallowed halls of academia are not used for creating Dogme film style absurdity , insight and collaboration ? What would Lars make of your book ? Could we use it to run around classrooms in naked thought .. transparent as the wind itself, in gay abandon? Mmmm ? Maybe not…

…instead it’s used to ossify thought through oppressive, tiring, ugly brain shrinking stress, or mimicked, rote wordy platitudes , create vacuous non-autonomous replies on the minute / hour /day/night/day off ….by regurgitate-vomit-type old-school-style cramming by the kilo and hour load coupled with resistance/ indifference amongst the teachers to any coherent opposition to this Biblical work and all that it represents… and nicely supplies the modus operandi of the handbook for the way Celta classrooms are inhabited by emotively autistic, pedantic types.. you know the retentive type prospective ‘teachers’ and their peers, hiding behind impenetrable pages of guff… who would do better to get serious psychiatric help.. Just wondering Scott if you know what’s happening across Celta-blessed classrooms..and that heaven is actually all the way to heaven. and not in this so-called educational paradigm of a 4-6 week ‘diploma’…..and that taking the mickey out of status, privilege, emotional abuse and everything else in the name of ‘educashun’ is also part of dogme.. and would do everyone teaching Celta well to lighten up by a hundred million light years..

.yeah Scott .. was given your book.. but not a laugh in it…too bad Celta is used for authoritarian cloning and printing cash ”you know old school style..

and yes, i’m pissed off at the institutionalised damage self-appointed institutionally sanctioned non-educators do in the name of language teaching or any learning for that matter.. thought police, Scott, just thought police..put an addendum in the book Scott, like Abbie Hoffman did once .. burn the book at the end of the course….or preferably at the beginning…

Alan Maley once recently said to a startled hall ..’you know classrooms are all about control not learning’…
and the Name of the Rose tells how we got to that point…

Social democracy’s agents are cognitive psych-eds where the priests once wrote…

I’ll take it all back if I ever hear anyone apologise for the damage done.. deadness and dead zones in fluorescent lit classrooms and conferences with the lights on and nobody home..

When the libido gets into the head… its a mindfuck with words.(it’s an amended Havelism) …..or truth and love ,over lies and grey, violating bureaucratic, check box, cambridge social democratic, manipulative cognitive crap..

here’s a link Scott .. it tells me more than all the two hundred million pages on Celta ever printed….enjoy.. it should help keep you and others in the flow and zone…


ps i’m a vegetarian…so the recipes for the marvellous intelligent octopus don’t go a bundle


5 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Martyn. Your ‘critical’ comment (albeit a little incoherent) is notionally consistent with the critical theme of the original post, so I will let it stand. It would be hypocritical of me not too, after all. But I’m not going to rise to the challenge of addressing your grievances, partly because I’m not entirely sure what they are. Nor what the flipping octopus has to do with it.

4 10 2012
Patricia Kingsley

I don’t know if you get email notices of new replies….Or where you are, but your MIND IS AMAZING!!….I’m now in Spain, teaching in a Spanish government program that I thought would be whole language and bilingual, but is really NOT….It’s a terrible knock-off of American “Sheltered Immersion” which is the biggest waste of federal tax dollars I know of and the worst of the ways to “dumb down” bilingual–and especially Hispano-Americans…..

Fortunately, I was able to use Scott’s dogme technique in my first two classes here (levels C & B), and they loved it–speaking bilingually (against the government’s formal rules, of course)….In the first class we went from an introduction of names to a repetition of the name with English pronunciation and discussion of how hard it is to hear those differences–and why it’s very important for the students to study that very hard because US speakers are very prejudiced and need to be educated….Of course, discounting the importance of nonverbal communication is like saying: [key-arrow ooonuh tortiller] would not bother a Mexican panadero…..Then–to an admonition that if they go to the US, they must always use their Spanish names and only add an English translation or repronunciation afterwards as courtesy….

In the second class, they asked where I was from, and I showed them New Mexico on a big map, regional map and told them I was indian and that New Mexico had more indians and Hispanos living in it than any other state….So, when another girl asked in Spanish: “Que come los indios?” and I asked if anyone could translate her question into English, and one boy simply said: “English!” This led to my reply that: “No, the indians didn’t eat the English….They saved the English….which led to a short discussion about Thanksgiving and food vocabulary, and what the indians really ate….

Now, that’s my idea of critical pedagogy gone “Dog Wild”….You can contact me, if you see this by: choshe@gmail.com, although I’m not sure this post will even upload….

Dr. Eiline Kingsley

23 01 2013
Inspire Waves

Hi Eiline…
Just read your contribution today.I’m a bit overdue by about 3 months. Nevermind! Thanks for your appreciation. Cheque’s in the post! I last taught in Budapest to successful adulation for the most creative exposure to English the school director had ever seen, at least thats what she told me and I only bought her a coffee! I never once used a coursebook. However like good travel, its all in the preparation, then letting it go. I’m in Switzerland, not teaching, just in retirement until a great opportunity comes along. At the HUPE conference in Croatia they had a stand up comedy evening from the group London Calling last year, so it my kind of dive..maybe April 2013 will see me there At the moment i’m very interested in story telling fable, metaphors and entrancement. Ben Haggerty Uk and the silk road project(us) plus any storytelling event festival. And Havel and Osho remain my inspirations. hope that covers a few links for anyone reading this. Cheers

6 06 2012
martyn shannehaye.

Its like this Scott…first cheers for letting my post through… second, I’m so fuming I couldn’t bring myself to coherence by double checking my script, .. third the grievance is on the one hand all is funky in your best attempts at radical thinking land….nice. but/and you sponsor by default Cambridge ‘check box land’ …these 4-6 week courses are little more than boot camps..merely ‘knowing about ‘ the exam-tailored learning product let alone real people.(lars von trier fun style)…Its a serious business all this language intellectualisation eh ?

… and being able to fit them, the CELTA teaching paradigms, for use for the already warped learning brains of the acquiescent learning proletariat who know very little about anything beyond the glossy womens mag exercisers and all the other check boxes of the drone world we have to pay homage to…I mean have you seen the junk they throw at you to produce by tomorrow lunchtime as if there is even any time to experience, let alone comprehend the matter at hand.. ITS CRAMMING ITS NOT FUNKY OR DOGME… its Cambridge as it always was ..its a bloody slaughterhouse of slow turgid mind mind mind..but without any respect for neurology, or rest, or awareness or the mystic east of your influences…

To say that people know what say ‘authentic or autonomy’ is by spouting off a few lines from a coursebook by midday tomorrow in a three page essay followed immediately by some’ listen-up’ in class followed by teacher driven….blah blah blah..it’s like saying what lsd acid is by reading a book about it…it just isn’t gonna happen !…Certainly not with dyed in the wool nutter non empathic drivvelists that are ten-a-penny in teaching stuff they don’t have a handle on either interpersonally, experientially, or pedagogically… you can only ‘do’ what you ‘are’….. and if you work within the system with all the promoting of the all-denying ‘fear of students passing the exams for their work’ (..product me hearties, with a big P ..)and .. ‘they need it for their jobs’ ( more psych ed stuff which is never really seen for what power- trip control stuff it is) then no matter how funky , well adapted , in tune, insightful or loaded with intuitive-responsive-people-empathy one is, … it will never get a showing past ticking the CELTA check box of saying ‘ oh yes students must be self directed’…

Us libertarians have spent years influencing the authoritarian oxygenless world , because when suburbia destroys intelligent hope and curiosity, when economies are driven into walls by the G20 mafia, when wars are manufactured then the only re-doubt is how you interact with each other… and the voice you give that in each interaction.. as Vaclav Havel bravely demonstrated with the Plastic People of the Universe..use your voice and just take responsibility..and yep that’s about it… the rest you can make up as you go along…

CELTA needs the script writers of Father Ted.. not reverential non-democratic boot camps where there is nothing of the real world but a lot of belief in the old…..’ verily for today we looketh at stuff that will exhaust you by re-reading it..
And what’s the key to the real or new world ? Playfulness , dialogue, and transparency….weigh that amongst the dyed in the wool pedantic linguists who control classrooms the world over all asking ‘oh do you have a Celta ? ha !…
That’s why the classroom is political .. because its an artificial construct that we have got everyone to believe in… and I’m just asking do you know how bad it is out there? The good stuff I know very well about.. as I was lucky enough to laugh and play in a fully democratic school where we all lived and worked together..it was a commune and a joy…Lars von Trier..eat your heart out…

and if that is incoherent then just follow the drift…ta…
and the octopus recipes are on your blog….and if you’ve ever seen the octopus playing with toys because it gets bored in its tank in Bristol Acquarium, then eating it is just a metaphor for seeing something beautiful and not respecting it….like schools all over the world are known to do…and they have tentacles into all our social democratic myopic lives…

6 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Martyn, for the attempt at clarification. I take your point, The CELTA Course (co-written with Peter Watkins and published by Cambridge University Press in 2007, and which I assume you’re referring to) is an instance of what I referred to in my original post, i.e. ‘that we ourselves may well be complicit in these oppressive discourses, perpetuating them even as we unmask them’. Given that Cambridge ESOL (who administer the CELTA) and Cambridge University Press are prime examples of the power structures that dominate ELT, writing a book in their name is as morally indefensible, I agree, as killing and eating a baby octopus. Maybe worse.

At the same time, my own position on the CELTA (ex CTEFLA, ex-RSA Cert, ex-IH 4-week course) is not wholly oppositional, for reasons that are on record in my post P is for Preservice Training. So, with regard to the book, my conscience is more or less at peace with itself.

However, I think your comments do raise issues that, as professionals, we need to address. That, really, was the point of my original post. In short, how – given the hegemonic and potentially oppressive nature of institutionalised global ELT – do we sleep at night?

To end on a more upbeat note, I take some solace from this advice, from the late Chris Brumfit, in an article appropriately titled ‘What, then must we do? Or who gets hurt when we speak, write and teach?’ (in Edge, J (ed.) 2006, (Re)locating TESOL in an Age of Empire, Palgrave Macmillan)

· We must start from what we are.
· We must act as responsible individuals, but we cannot take responsibility personally for anything we could not have influenced personally.
· We must retain idealism, and if where we find ourselves is English teaching, we must discover how to carry that out in an idealistic way.
· We must be realistic; that is, the goals must be idealistic, but the starting point must be realistic and the procedures pragmatic.
· We must dedicate serious thought and analysis to these concepts, as serious as the thought and analysis needed to interpret power, wealth and political demands, for English is too closely implicated with these to be treated less seriously.
· We must contribute serious, non-market-led discussion to, for example, language policy, teacher education, curriculum design and publishing….
· We must not believe in magic solutions, whether the collapse of America or the triumph of Esperanto. The question is not how to remove English, but how to use something for which there is a demand, and use it as honestly and justly as possible.

7 06 2012
martyn shannehaye.

Thanks Scott,
… a really great expression of courage and trust working between people through education……
…a very genuine sentiment both from yourself and from the quote you’ve chosen…

makes me think…
How about a note to Cambridge publishing, something like :
‘ Please include in your next edition all the above, plus :
-We must not cram endless class-target-managed words into overfilled brains causing severe memory and attention dysfunction for 4 weeks in direct contradiction of everything we hold dear, so that the government clots and their agents can fulfill their targets and funding for the expanse of Her Majesty’s Hierarchical Imperial Language Classes, via the …(Okay we get the message , Ed)

Lecture Notes 2
The words chug along
one after another.
There are first-class words
and second-class words.
They are all clean and comfortable.
Sometimes they stop
and an idea
gets in or out.
But not very often.


ps…If someone else doesn’t join in posting here ,I guess it’s gonna be my round then…
” Cheers..anyway that Alan Maley , nice bloke…Adrian Underhill very decent chap with the awareness listening techniques…oh yes.. did i ever tell you about my Celta course, well….oh sorry ,you have a sudden previous appointment…? ”

8 06 2012
martyn shannehaye.

Yes folks it’s me again..and lookee here what I found….it seems we are not alone even sharing the planet with aliens dressed as CELTA teachers..
here’s just one example from the website…



…>Zoey on Tue, 22nd Jul 2008 3:38 am Emma on Tue, 19th Aug 2008 8:56 am <

'' I wish I had found this site and read some other peoples experiences before I too failed the CELTA twice! The fact that I went in for the hideous business twice surely displays the absolute commitment to pass the course. I was determined I not to give up. Despite this dedication and my 1st class degree in English language and linguistics – I never seemed to write a good enough lesson plan or assignment no matter how hard I tried or consulted with my tutors. Despite being told consistently that my actual teaching practise was ”strong” and my language awareness and rapport were ‘good” seemingly none of these things were ever good enough for me to produce ”Standard” results. What made the constant criticism failure cycle worse was the fact that I was patently far more expert in the English Language than any of my tutors (or ”Standard” colleagues for that matter). Despite my negative experiences of this contradictory, jargonistic, self-important and unhelpfully taught course I still would love to teach English. Fortunately, the students noticed my expertise (above those who were passing whilst I failed) and they would seek me out in groups to ask questions – if it wasn’t for the students themselves this course giving me this positive feedback,quite frankly the CELTA would have left me suicidal.''

I think there is an English word for these institutional school teacher twats
..now see if you can re-construct the letters correctly…BOYS-COW (insert your own words if you like , we're all democrats here.. )

Scott,(may I call you Randolph) it's time you and me put on our badges and rode into town, we've got some cleaning up to do in them thaar language schools ,…damn varmints are using your book to , to.. well…well… schuck ma mouth …I don't know what they're rightly using your book to do.. but it ain't fer learnin nuttin usefool…

8 06 2012
martyn shannehaye.

Scott, judging by plentiful remarks elsewhere,then, that CELTA diploma course, …..the book of yours upon which it is ‘based’, the ‘corrupted’ presentation of its ideas by the ‘system’ and little Adolfs up and down planet earth and its unpleasant effects on people….. shows that it is in deep poo poo…at least at a rough guess from 50% of the feedback, from many who touch it. (in the website I quote above..).
if you have plans for a cookery book.. maybe try a pseudonym and another organization to spread the word, otherwise there may be complaints about dinner….

9 06 2012

Hi Scott,
I enjoyed reading your very informative article. In many countries, course books are a reflection of the ideology of the political system ruling the country (former countries dominated by communism including many countries in the third world). Therefore, there is no room for critical thinking (diversity of ideas). This specially holds true with materials related to theology. While they should encourage critical thinking, they impose sort of obligation on users to admit the ideas preached without questioning.

18 09 2012

Wonderful post and very enlightening comments. Thanks a lot. Allow me to contribute a short comment on an aspect of teaching that affects me as a teacher, starting with the “We must start from what we are” principle stated above. Well, I happen to be a gay woman, which might or might not be a relevant factor for my students but certainly influences the way I teach.

Take ***any*** textbook by any publishing house. Open the book on the page for “love and marriage” (one of the topics adult students face at a pre-intermediate level). All contents are100% hetero-centric. Not a big problem, you might say… What about LGBT students who might and indeed do feel excluded from class debate simply because the material does not relate to them? I understand book publishers need to sell their books worldwide and this is not exactly a popular topic in many parts of the world, but hey! Is it irrelevant? I don’t think so. Is “Anne loves Lisa | Anna loves HER” an “incorrect sentence”? For a teacher who disregards these issues in her or his daily life, it might very well be easy enough to dismiss this as unnecesary hair-splitting. LGBT teachers are well aware that issues of gender and sexuality are an essential part of how we see the world. True: my role as an English teacher is to teach my students language. But language ****is**** political. It includes ***and*** excludes by the mere fact of naming… or not. Do we keep silent? Do we “ignore” what makes us uncomfortable?

18 09 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Ave, for the comment. Coincidentally, I posted the following on Mike Harrison’s blog only yesterday:

I … insist that LGBT people are under-represented – to the point of invisibility – in current published ESL materials. In these circumstances, what chance has a LGBT English learner of identifying with his/her target culture and language?

28 01 2013

I was just wondering- if it shouldn’t language-driven then should CP be content-driven instead? Will it look and feel like a CLIL classroom?

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