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point and counterpoint

Transforming lives: introducing critical pedagogy into ELT classrooms

Ramin Akbari

Critical pedagogy (CP) in E LT is an attitude to language teaching which relates the classroom context to the wider social context and aims at social transformation through education. In spite of its great potential, however, the practical implications of CP have not been well appreciated and most of the references to the term have been limited to its conceptual dimensions. The present paper highlights the applications of CP for L2 classrooms and provides hints as to how L2 teaching can result in the improvement of the lives of those who are normally not considered in E LT discussions.

Introduction The concept of critical pedagogy (CP) has been around in the ELTprofession for almost two decades (Canagarajah 2005), but it has only been relatively recently that we have seen heightened interest in its principles and practical implications. Most of the discussion on CP has been limited to its rationale and not much has been done to bring it down to the actual world of classroom practice, for which it was originally intended. The present paper seeks to present a snapshot of CP by delineating its principles and suggesting some areas of application for L2 practitioners.

What is CP?


Unlike most of the other concepts and ideas one encounters in the literature on L2 teaching, CP is not a theory, ‘but a way of ‘‘doing’’ learning and teaching’ (Canagarajah op.cit.: 932), or borrowing Pennycook’s (2001) terminology, it is teaching with an attitude. What critical pedagogues are after is the transformation of society through education, including language teaching.

CP deals with questions of social justice and social change through education. Critical pedagogues argue that educational systems are reflections of the societal systems within which they operate, and since in all social systems we have discrimination and marginalization in terms of race, social class, or gender (Giroux 1983), the same biases are reproduced in educational systems. In other words, the same people who have the power to make decisions in society at large are the ones who also have the power to design and implement educational systems, and consequently, their ideas and values get accepted and promoted while the values and ideas of others

ELT Journal Volume 62/3 July 2008; doi:10.1093/elt/ccn025 ªª The Author 2008. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.

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are not given voice. Education, as a result, is a political activity in which the rights of certain classes are systematically denied.

By viewing education as an intrinsically political, power-related activity (Freire 1973), supporters of CP seek to expose the discriminatory foundations of education and take steps towards social change in such a way that there is more inclusion and representation of groups who are left out. CP puts the classroom context into the wider social context with the belief that ‘what happens in the classroom should end up making a difference outside the classroom’ (Baynham 2006: 28). In language teaching, critical practice is ‘about connecting the word with the world. It is about recognizing language as ideology, not just system. It is about extending the educational space to the social, cultural, and political dynamics of language use’ (Kumaravadivelu 2006: 70).

The political implications of education, in general, and L2 teaching in particular, might not be completely evident to many professionals; teaching English, they argue, is teaching a new system of communication and it does not have much political/critical significance. The problem is, however, that any language is part of the wider semiotic system within which it was shaped and is infused with ideological, historical, and political symbols and relations (Pennycook 2001). The identity of a language is shaped as a result of what has happened to it, and what it has done to others; if we look back upon the history of English and its close connection with the spread of colonialism, we find ourselves pausing, pondering, and admitting that English is not an innocent language. Exposing some of the values that underlie the spread and promotion of English, and questioning some of the assumptions based on which the profession currently operates are at the heart of CPand discussions dealing with linguistic imperialism (Pennycook


The discourse of CP, however, is the discourse of liberation and hope; it is the discourse of liberation since it questions the legitimacy of accepted power relations and recognizes the necessity of going beyond arbitrary social constraints; it is also the discourse of hope since it provides the potential for marginalized groups to explore ways of changing the status quo and improve their social conditions. In applied linguistics, CP is an acknowledgement both of the socio-political implications of language teaching and at the same time the possibility of change for both students and teachers, two groups of people who are either left out of any serious treatment of the profession or represented superficially detached from their real-life experiences. For these people, CP is liberating in the sense that it legitimizes the voices of practitioners and learners, and gives them scope to exercise power in their local context. At the same time, it can be viewed as the discourse of hope, since by taking the classroom as the point of departure, it helps the marginalized to explore ways of changing society for a better, more democratic life:

Critical education is not a unitary phenomenon. However, its major variants in K-12 education in the US—critical literacy, critical pedagogy,

and critical whole language practice

following very general aim: to help students to read with and also to read



united on at least the

critical literacy is not just about interrogating texts; it is also

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about ‘real world realities’ and the role of language, power and

education for a democracy should not

be about the development of products or even consumers, but about preparation for public citizenship, for civic agreement.

(Edelsky and Johnson 2004: 121, quoted in Reagan 2006: 4)

representation in injustice

The conservative forces that control education and society at large have tried to keep critical ideas out of school curricula and classrooms. Coursebook contents and teaching methods have been cautiously selected to make sure that only socially refined topics are addressed. As a result, ELT has not been completely responsive to the demands made by a CP, and still language teaching is viewed mainly as a cognitive activity with few socio-political implications. Even when the social dimensions of language are acknowledged, the social reality of language learning and teaching is represented from a narrow perspective where social context is only treated as who is talking to whom about what. The complexity of the social conditions students and teachers find themselves in is not given serious consideration and some of the grim facts that are part of the human condition, such as poverty, disease, domestic violence, racial, or ethnic discrimination, are ignored. If education in general and ELT in particular are going to make a difference, then the totality of the experiences of learners needs to be addressed.

Language teachers can play a more active social role by including themes from the wider society in their classes, and by drawing the attention of their students to the way marginalized people feel or act, creating the context for positive action and a heightened awareness of the plight of those who are not us, but ‘them’ or ‘others’. They can also incorporate themes from students’ day-to-day lives to enable them to think about their situation and explore possibilities for change. The following sections include some suggestions as to how teachers can transform their classes into more critical settings.

Transforming classes Base your teaching on students’ local culture


Culture has always been treated as an indispensable part of any language teaching/learning situation and in fact it has been used as a source of content for many language teaching coursebooks. Most cultural content, however, has been from the target language, since the justification has been that those who want to learn a new language want to communicate with the users of that language, and successful communication would be impossible without familiarity with the cultural norms of the society with whose speakers the learner is trying to forge bonds. This assumption, of course, holds true for those groups of learners who want to migrate to countries such as the US or UK for work or study. The reality in which many other language learners find themselves, nevertheless, is different (McKay 2003).

English has now turned into an international language, and due to the scope of its application both geographically and communicatively, it has developed certain features which are not part of any specific national character. In other words, English has become de-nationalized and re-nationalized as a result of its spread as the world lingua franca (Sridhar and Sridhar 1994; Seidlhofer 2001). In this international situation, most of the communication carried out in English is between people who are themselves the so-called non-native speakers of English and with a distinct

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cultural identity of their own. There is little need in this context for the Anglo-American culture since neither party is a native with whom the other interlocutor is going to identify.

In addition, in most communicative settings, people try to communicate their own cultural values and conceptualizations, not those of the target language. Typically, people involved in communication want to express who they are and what kind of cultural background they represent, and as

a result, an emphasis on target language is misplaced; what is needed more

is for the learners to be able to develop the competence to talk about their

own culture and cultural identity.

From a critical perspective, reliance on one’s own local culture has the added value of enabling learners to think about the different aspects of the culture

in which they live and find ways to bring about changes in the society where

change is needed. If students are going to transform the lives of themselves and those of others, they cannot do so unless due attention is paid to their own culture in the curriculum and opportunities are provided for critical reflection on its features. It is here that both the negative and positive

features of their culture can be addressed and local cultural sore points (such

as the spread of AIDS, honour killings, etc.) brought to the attention of learners. In addition, reliance on learners’ culture as the point of departure for language teaching will make them critically aware and respectful of their own culture and prevent the development of a sense of inferiority which might result from a total reliance on the target language culture where only the praiseworthy features of the culture are presented.

Regard learners’ L1 as a resource to be utilized

The common practice in L2 professional literature has been the rejection of learners’ L1 as a negative force which will slow down their progress by interfering with L2 development. Teachers have been advised to conduct their classes in the target language to minimize this negative effect and give students ample practice opportunities in gaining mastery over L2 features.

However, from a scientific perspective, there is not much evidence available

in support of the total banishment of learners’ L1, and in fact there might be

cases to the contrary. In other words, a learner’s first language can be

regarded as an asset that can facilitate communication in the L2 and as part

of her communicative experience on which to base her L2 learning. For

example, L1 can be successfully used to maintain discipline in the classroom

or to provide instruction for certain activities. It can also be used for

explaining delicate grammar points or abstract vocabulary items (Cook 2001). The rationale for the total exclusion of L1 from classes, therefore,

must be sought mostly in the political/economic dimensions of L2 teaching and the inability of native English teachers to utilize the mother tongue potential of their learners.

A note of caution, however. The call for the use of learners’ L1 in the

classroom does not necessarily mean that it can be used as the language

of instruction. An L2 class is primarily designed to provide a setting for

learners to be exposed to the features of the language they are trying to learn, and an opportunity to practise the use of those features. The focus of attention, therefore, must be on the L2, while allowing for a more liberal use

of the L1 to facilitate communication and comprehension.

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From a critical perspective, it is undesirable and even impossible to deny the significance of learners’ first languages. An individual’s L1 is part of his or her identity and a force which has played a crucial role in the formation of that identity. If people are supposed to become empowered and their voices recognized and respected, then the first step needs to be

a respect for who they are and the values they represent. And when it comes

to marginalized groups, language becomes an important refuge, a badge of

honour, a safe haven, or ‘a stable point’ (Baynham op. cit.: 25) where one would feel secure in being who he/she is. In addition, true respect for human rights and the dignity of people should start with one of the most basic rights they are entitled to, that is, their linguistic human rights (Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson 1995).

By including more of the learners’ first language in L2 settings, and through judicious use of the students’ L1 as a teaching aid, language teachers can create the context where the first steps towards empowerment and positive social change can be taken.

Include more of students’ real-life concerns


CP takes the ‘local’ as its point of departure, and local here includes the overall actual life experiences and needs of learners. Learners’ needs in CP are defined not just linguistically or in terms of tasks, but in terms of the purposes they serve in the social mobility and activism of students.

CP, in fact, would object to a blanket approach to syllabus design where all students are assumed to have a common set of communicative goals. In CP there is no separation between the communicative needs of learners and who they are socially and politically, which means that what students are taught will differ widely depending on their locale and linguistic, economic, ethnic, as well as political affiliations. In other words, in a critically inspired pedagogy, rural students’ needs are different from those of urban centres, minorities have needs which diverge from those of the majority, and haves and have-nots need different types of instructional material and approaches. Commercially produced coursebooks, which form the backbone of instruction in many mainstream language teaching contexts, lack the required sensitivity to be able to address such concerns.

A problem of commercially produced coursebooks, in other words, is their

disregard for the localness of learning and learning needs. Most such books

make use of a language which is considered to be aspirational (Gray 2001), where most of the language introduced deals with the needs and concerns

of middle and upper classes; in most of the dialogues of such books the

interlocutors talk about issues which are far removed from the lives of many learners. While learners might have needs related to finding a part-time job,

extending their visa for another year or term, or negotiating their status as

a refugee (Baynham 2006), participants in coursebook dialogues worry

about where to spend their vacation, how people celebrate Mardi Gras, or what to wear for a friend’s party. An example of how local concerns can be incorporated in a typical English syllabus may clarify the issue further.

In Iran there are still regions that are contaminated by landmines; these landmines are the leftovers of eight years of war with Iraq. Each year hundreds of people get killed or are wounded by these landmines, and most

of the victims are children and adolescents. Iran’s Ministry of Education, in

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collaboration with the Red Crescent Society, has decided to offer a special crash course on landmines and safety measures needed in dealing with them for students living in affected areas. This course is offered as an extra to the curriculum and is not integrated in any subject area students study in their regular programmes. From a CP perspective, it would have been advisable and possible to include the landmine topic in the English lessons or instruction students receive in their curriculum and in this way come up with a content that is both relevant and transformative to the immediate lives of the learners.

As an example, students in this situation can be exposed to a reading passage which makes them familiar with landmines, places they are planted, and cautionary measures that must be taken in contaminated areas. As a follow-up communicative activity, the learners can be divided into groups of two and, in an information gap exercise using maps, help their partners get home safely while negotiating their way through farms dotted with landmines and suspicious objects.

Make your learners aware of issues faced by marginalized groups

The majority of students who come to English classes do so because most of their basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchy have been met and they are now aiming at more social respectability and higher levels of self-actualization. In other words, they mostly belong to the middle or upper classes of their society. Such learners, by virtue of their social position, are unaware of the way the majority of their society’s citizens negotiate their day-to-day lives or even their survival; CP can provide the needed insight for such learners so that through social activism they can transform the lives of those who are marginalized and help them attain better economic and social conditions.

The majority of coursebooks used for English instruction have been anesthetized to make them politically and socially harmless for an international audience. Most publishers advise coursebook writers to follow a set of guidelines to make sure that controversial topics are kept out of their books. One such set of guidelines is summarized as PARSNIP (Gray 2001), which stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms, and Pornography. As a result, most coursebooks deal with neutral, apparently harmless topics such as food, shopping, or travel. However, there are many groups in any society which are driven to the margins exactly because their political, behavioural, or belief systems are in conflict with those of the mainstream groups and they are consequently denied certain rights or opportunities.

In addition to some guidelines (or maybe we can say ‘redlines’) provided by publishers, some coursebook producers and writers either intentionally or unintentionally set themselves restrictions in refusing to recognize and represent certain groups of people who might not fit in exactly with the expectations of their middle and upper class language learning clients. For example, poverty in the learners’ immediate society is not normally treated, and if poverty is dealt with in a coursebook, it is usually with respect to a far away country or continent and groups of people with whom the learners can hardly identify. Missing also in most coursebooks are people who are invisible due to their psychological or physical abnormalities; one can hardly find any lessons dealing with the plight of amputees or the disabled, and if

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psychological problems are dealt with, only cases with which the public is fascinated (such as autism or idiot savants) are represented. Old people are also left out of English coursebook contents, and if old age is mentioned, it is not normally associated with disabilities, frequent hospital visits, and the frustrations of losing one’s strength.

The transformation of a society will be impossible unless trouble spots are identified, space is provided for all citizens to make their voices heard, and all members of the society come to the realization that there are multiple perspectives on reality; by creating a sense of respect and tolerance the first steps towards social change can be taken.

Conclusion CPis about the relationship between the word and the world (Freire 1973), or how the world of ideas in education relates to the world of reality in society. In a sense, CP is about the messy, unpleasant aspects of social life and the people for whom such aspects are part of their day-to-day reality. It is also the pedagogy of hope and understanding, since without the possibility of change and a willingness to change criticism does not make much sense. Among other things, CP is about human dignity and respect. By basing instruction on learners’ real-life worlds and identity, it provides a stable reference point for the marginalized groups to legitimate their own existence and claim what they are entitled to. It is, in a word, the true spirit of a real democracy.

Implementation of a critical model in any local ELTcontext has a number of requirements, among which decentralization of decision making (in terms of content, teaching methodology, and testing) is of crucial importance. As long as course contents and testing methods are decided upon by ministries in capitals, ELT classes suffer from vague generalities and socio-political numbness. The great potential CP has in curriculum development and student empowerment will be actualized only when education, and by extension ELT, develops the required attitude, starts at the local level, and acknowledges the significance of learners’ experiences as legitimate departure points in any meaningful learning enterprise.

Final revised version received August 2007


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The author

Ramin Akbari is an Assistant Professor of TEFL at Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran, where he teaches practicum, language teaching methodology, and applied linguistics to MA and PhD students. His research is on teacher education and critical pedagogy. Email: