Author’s note: I have written this assuming the reader has some familiarity with the notion of critical pedagogy, and thus bypass some necessary definitions on what it is, how it is expressed and what it means for a classroom. If you wish to read more about this, there are three posts on it on my blog; Cultural Capital, The Hidden Curriculum and The Banking Model which might be useful.)
I was recently invited to contribute to the Braz TESOL newsletter on the subject of Critical Pedagogy. I felt a moment’s hesitation at the idea of doing this – should I write about Critical Pedagogy to a readership who live and breathe Paolo Freire’s culture and environment so much more closely than I do? Will my translated understanding of Pedagogy of the Oppressed stand up to those who hold the original Brazilian Portuguese version dear?
And then I thought, of course I should. And of course it will. I didn’t hesitate for too long though because I think it’s precisely the universal nature of these ideas that allow them to transcend and blur barriers. And any conversation on the human condition should be stripped of such barriers.
As English language teachers, we are in the business of managing barriers. The world of English language teaching, learning, assessing and policy-making host environments propelled by power and access. Today, few people learn English for the intellectual stimulation and personal growth of learning another language. People learn English because it’s English, the passport to an internationally-validated identity.
In this opinion piece, I’d like to address our role in managing these ebbs and flows of power in English language learning environments, through the specific notion of critical pedagogy and through the measured rejection of sterile lesson content that leaves the social dynamics of language learning aside. I’d like to work with Freire’s contrast between critical thinking and naïve thinking, where the latter perceives history as “a stratification of the acquisitions and experiences of the past” (1970:73). I’ll argue that history is not a chronological account of what happened before us, history is the story within each of us, and this includes languages – because history is described by language and it is empowered through language.
Passports and frontiers
The spread of the English language has its roots in colonization. It should be possible to talk about this without the hyperbole or hysteria of ‘linguistic imperialism’. The English language spread through colonies and empires and resulted in generations of people like me, who aren’t native speakers on paper but don’t speak or write in any other language to this level of ‘nativism’. I have never identified with the discourse around ‘the domination of English over other languages’. I reject the idea that we continue to somehow be colonised through language because I write in English and, in so doing, I contribute to the growth of the English language. So unless I start writing in French or Arabic and contribute another body of linguistic knowledge, I will remain in the dual position of coloniser and colonised, and this won’t get me very far at all.
But despite my self-proclaimed native speaker status in English, I am subject to passport control, ranging from race to accent to cultural knowledge, in a host of environments. I don’t perceive this as discriminatory, nor am I accusing anyone in particular. I am just interested in how to manage this in a classroom. How do I represent the English language as someone with little affiliation to any particular English-speaking culture? I am Indian, I grew up in Malaysia, I left for the UK in my late teens, I lived in Austria in my early career and have been a French citizen for longer than any other citizenship I’ve held. I wear my resulting hybrid accent with pride. And I never know what to do when I’m supposed to teach ‘culture’ as part of a language syllabus.
To think critically on the status of the English language is to recognise its historical footprint around us and within us and to articulate a clear position on how this footprint is embodied in our social environments. The historical footprint I carry in me is rooted in post-colonial South East Asia, in a certain reverence for the English language and the old palm oil estates the Britishers left my family to manage. It lies in my grandmother who had very little schooling but an impeccable knowledge of English grammar and discourse and the ability to entertain visiting English expatriates comme il faut. It is this unnamed outside force of ‘English’ culture which we were independent of, yet thoroughly enamoured by. It was a big part of my childhood. Yet, it didn’t make moving to Britain one day any less of a culture shock, nor did give me the confidence of a robust cultural identity as an English teacher, because I’ve never felt authoritative about my relationship to the English language. It did, however, create in me the every day magic of adaptation, which so many of us who actively question our cultural identities have.
What does it mean to teach English?
In the first five minutes of my first teaching job, I was introduced to a classroom full of Austrian teenagers as having “a perfect British accent”. As I launched into the reading of a textbook paragraph out loud, I found myself disturbed by such a curious introduction but soon realised the need for validating my presence in the classroom, as the new language assistant. I now manage the language assistants at my university and part of my role is to give them workshops on pedagogy, classroom management and adapting scientific materials for language classes. In working with them I realise again and again, how difficult it is to establish and manage authority when it comes to language teaching, because of how inseparable it is to culture. And some cultures are, and perhaps always will be, more powerful than others.
A few years ago when I used to examine for Cambridge ESOL. A colleague one day said to me “don’t you find working for Cambridge better than working for other exam boards? It always sounds so much more important when you say ‘I examine for Cambridge’”. The comment stuck with me because obviously neither of us had ever set foot in the grounds of Cambridge University, nor could we boast any academic affiliation to the institution. We were ESOL language examiners who had viewed a series on training videos to learn the trade and then did an online test to validate our ability to judge test takers according to the required standards. Yet we were perceived with a standard that far exceeded our bounds of validity.
What does it mean to teach English? To me, it is partly to reframe the scope of validity, and consequently to shape beliefs on what is English is and what English will be, in the world we’re all so actively building today. It is to contemporise the validity of the language, within our local environment and in celebration of the local environment. Celebrations which are long overdue in many parts of the world, where ethnicity still persists as a criteria for language teaching.
To think critically on the status of the English language in our sphere of teaching, would be to address the set of beliefs regarding English in the part of the world we are teaching it in, and claiming a voice and demanding agency in how this is represented. It would be to address our relationship to what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’. Dialogue is one of the most fundamental themes of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and with the discussion on dialogue, comes anti dialogue, which Freire couches within “the necessity for conquest” (119). There is no argument to win when it comes to shaping our English speaking cultures of the future.
Dialogue and anti-dialogue in the pedagogical space
Reframing right and wrong with a stronger understanding on complex, local environments is an act of bravery. I say this because it is an act of claiming authority by making decisions that combine information and intuition. Critical pedagogy isn’t only concerned with the reversal of oppressor-oppressed dynamics, it isn’t just about the empty-vessel students with knowledge-pouring teachers, it is about dialogue and praxis: bridging the gap between the thinkers and the doers, of reflection and action. “One cannot speak of an actor, nor simply of actors, but rather actors in intercommunication” (110). History surges through society constantly, demanding listening and understanding. Anti-dialogue is when we miss these surges, sterilising cultural identity.
One example of this reframing might be in how we correct pronunciation, and how we set the standard for ‘good’ English. I believe that a worldwide standard of English pronunciation is not what will be, and the harder we cling to RP or Standard American as a yardstick for our students, the slower our work towards fluid and fluent English will be. Another example is in the culture we show in our classrooms. A Greek friend said to me just last week that his son hates learning English because English class is all about Big Ben and The Queen. Another example yet is seizing opportunities to remove PARSNIP paralysis, to take the reins and talk about real life in the classroom, to make the students the syllabus. Good classroom content is a context-specific issue, not an international standard. Praxis isn’t a two stage process of reflection followed by action though, “a critical analysis of reality may, however, reveal that a particular form of action is impossible or inappropriate at the present time. Those who through reflection perceive the infeasibility or inappropriateness of one or another form of action (which should accordingly be postponed or substituted) cannot thereby be accused of inaction. Critical reflection is also action” (109).
Teaching and consciousness
Good pedagogy is this union of intuition and information. I say information and not knowledge because of the real-time sense it carries. Good pedagogy is, in other words, elastic. It changes with the times, it bends and stretches to accommodate that which surrounds it. The original shape it returns to after stretching in necessary ways is not the clear track of an externally determined syllabus. It is the internal, organic and ever-growing aspects of teacher development, teacher intuition, teacher consciousness. When we teach, we seize. Teaching is a project towards understanding whole environments, where problems are interpreted with depth and solutions are found in journeys of dialogue. It doesn’t just raise awareness, it becomes awareness. Conscientização.
Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin: London. (Translation: Myra Bergman Ramos)
Divya Madhavan is a Lecturer in Language and Education at Ecole Centrale Paris. Her areas of interest include, Critical Pedagogy and Action Research. She is the Website Editor for the IATEFL Teacher Development SIG. Divya has just completed an MEd in Education Research, and has an MA in Language Education.