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.