Home > Commentaries on TTC > This is a critical update

This is a critical update

In an inspired move, Karenne sets up the critical aspect of dogme for Dogme Challenge Number 9. I don’t know if she was saving this for my 40th birthday, but if she was, allow me now to say thank you – it was the best present I could have been given. This is what most turned me on to dogme back in 2001. I’d been reading Freire and spending hours trying to decipher just exactly what he was on about. Bells were chiming everywhere (I lived in a bell tower) and purpose had been delivered unto my life. Dogme seemed to be fertile soil for my emerging plans to destroy capitalism through the teaching of English as a foreign language.

Relatively recently, Scott Thornbury became the boy who kicked a hornet’s nest when he wrote a blog entry for the British Council entitled, “Dogme: nothing if not critical.”  The article provided, as usual, a lot of food for thought. In true critical style, the question that it asked was whether or not dogme had a claim on the title of critical pedagogy. I argued that it was not.

Like Sergio Ramos, this is going to get messy.

One of the problems with talking about critical pedagogy is trying to define what it is. One of its greatest espousers in the field of ELT, Alastair Pennycook, cautions against “any canonization” of it. But Scott’s blog post provided a brief profile of what might be expected from a critical pedagogy and measured dogme against it. Somewhat ironically, the brief profile was drawn from Pennycook’s work.

“Non-defining relative clauses are used to provide further information about a noun which is not essential information that helps to identify that noun. As such, they are surrounded by commas.” [Bambi’s death was suicide

In brief, critical pedagogy is about education for change. A critical pedagogue is one who believes that the purpose of education is to allow people to change the world. Most of its detractors scoff at this and deny this role of education. Education for them is exclusively about the subject that they teach. This subject is like an innocent little wabbit that is nibbling at the grass in a beautiful woody glen where bluebirds and butterflies flitter and float. Whereas a critical pedagogue sees a wascawwy wabbit which is both the product and producer of “interested” knowledge. -Ed or -Ing? Aha!

What is “interested” knowledge? Interested knowledge is knowledge that certain sectors of our society has a vested interest in preserving. History is perhaps the easiest way to clarify this. In England, students may learn about the heroic Sir Walter Raleigh, bearded toff who won the heart of a queen and rated playing bowls (BOWLS!!!) above biffing the looming Spanish armada. This Sir Wally would be virtually unrecognisable to a Spanish child who knows that Raleigh was nothing other than a thieving dirty pirate who stole all of the Spanish gold (gold that had an entirely innocent provenance, of course). There are sectors in both societies that have a vested interest in producing these images. Critical history teachers might bring both views into the class and use them to try and uncover which sectors these might be and what their interests could be. Whichever one is true, we have Sir Walter to thank for tobacco and for providing an example of the English love of dry irony: when he was shown the axe that would separate his head from the rest of his body minutes later, he commented words to the effect of, “Bloody hell: it’s a bit extreme, but it’ll help me shake this damned cold.” One is almost minded to forgive him his brutal suppression of the Irish and the drug addiction that he created…

So, critical pedagogy can be boiled down to two main functions: it believes that education should be a tool for transforming the world and it believes that this needs to be done by uncovering the vested interests that reside within knowledge. Karenne echoes the concerns of many when she asks whether or not we should be doing this in our classrooms. In my rather inflated opinion, if you’re not doing it, you’re not worthy of being called a teacher. Fighting talk!

The dullest argument that I have heard against this is the bleat that education is somehow neutral and that the teacher has no right to inflict their own personal beliefs upon the students. Leaving to one side the first claim which is so preposterous that it is…damn…preposterous, let us move on to the second claim. A teacher who believes that education is neutral has no right to inflict his or her own personal beliefs upon the students. Discuss. No? Ah! No! Because what these teachers are arguing is that because they believe that education is netural, only they have the right to inflict this belief upon their learners. It’s a ridiculous argument and one that is self-defeating. In my experience, when you point it out to the detractors of critical approaches on the internet, they tend to go very quiet as they deal with the cognitive dissonance.

One of the main reasons that people reject critical pedagogy is because it is associated with Marxist thought. Presumably not the same Marx who once wrote, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Presumably, these people reject Marxism as a whole and therefore see anything that might be associated with Marxism as flawed. Therefore, it follows that critical pedagogy is flawed because critical pedagogy is associated with Marxism. I am blessed enough to be able to reject both this argument and Marxism. As far as I am concerned, Marxism is a flawed political ideology that leads to dictatorship. Critical pedagogy, on the other hand, is the only way to approach education.

“Snakes alive!” cry my critics, “Your lessons must be duller than dishwater.” Critics are often the first to lose all sense of what is and what is not appropriate to say to a fellow teacher. Resisting the temptation to answer them in kind is something that I have learned slowly over the last forty years. But no, I don’t think my lessons are duller than dishwater and I do think that they are probably more educational than the aforementioned scummy liquid. And I don’t think I’m kidding myself either. My students seem to have a reasonably good time in at least some of their classes and they seem to do well enough in the tests that they submit themselves to. Why would my rather rude critics conclude that critical approaches are dull approaches?

If only they’d added, “Free English lessons…”

Because they live in a 1950s Americana view of the world where communism is about ramming propaganda into a person’s head by whatever orifice you might care to choose. And critical pedagogues are goddam communists, indoctrinating the minds of the vulnerable. In reality, of course, critical pedagogy is not about communism. Critical pedagogy is about providing learners with the tools to look at a matter from a number of different angles and to form their own conclusion about it. Rather than contributing to the propagation of the faith, critical pedagogy is about destroying any one dominant faith and encouraging people to develop their own personal belief structure based upon the conclusions that they draw from a considered analysis.

But it is not enough to do this alone in order to be critical. This is the error that many educational publications seem to make. They encourage students to examine a story from the different perspectives of the characters within it and call this critical. It isn’t. We need some intent if we are going to be truly critical. And the intent is to change the world. Which sets the critics off laughing again. “How can you seriously propose to change the world as an EFL teacher?” It’s really becoming quite a challenge not to tell them to f*** off.

I don’t propose to change the world as an EFL teacher. I propose to change the way that my students interact with the world so that they can see that despite the many constraints placed upon them, they are still in charge of their own destinies and/or responsible for shaping the destinies of the people around them. For let us also be clear that, in Pennycook’s words, this is

a form of pedagogy that emphasizes, validates and explores the culture, knowledge and experiences that students bring to school and yet does not sink into the vapid individualism of “humanistic”, “student-centred” approaches.

Vapid individualism!!! He he he! Pennycook doesn’t hold back, does he? Why does dogme situate the learners’ stories at the centre of the learning process? Is it solely because they are more meaningful to learners than the crap that the coursebooks serve up? If so, then perhaps dogme stands accused of vapid individualism. I hope not. I hope that dogme explores the differences and does not shirk from exploring the wheres, whys, whats, whens and whos of student experiences.

What does all of this mean? One practical example is a class that I was in once where the conversation moved from topic to topic until it came upon the sensitive topic of abortion. A Chinese learner was commenting casually that she had had an abortion, much to the consternation of a very Catholic Bolivian student. The latter questioned the former and the former answered the latter. Through the dialogue, the clear cut nature(s) of abortion was/were problematised for both learners. [Before I am pilloried for this, allow me to point out that I had no say in the directing of these conversations.] There was no solution to the probelm in the class, just the realisation that classmates who were highly respected had radically different views of this most sensitive topic. They discussed it; they put forward strong opinions; they agreed to differ.

But what about the argument that my students don’t want to change the world, they just want me to teach them English, goddammit. Let’s first of all recognise that this is an argument put forward exclusively by those teachers who have no interest in teaching their students how to change the world. They could find themselves teaching English in a jungle-based camp of revolutionaries who were prepared to go out and fight and die in order to change the world, and these teachers would still probably bang out lessons that were centred around the vocabulary of governance and propaganda. It’s the age-old scenario of teachers presuming to speak for their students when really they are speaking for themselves. Of course, you could go and ask their students, “Would you like your English teacher to teach you how to change the world?” The chances are high that the student would answer, “No. I want my English teacher to teach me English.” To which, I would reply, “So, to be straight: you want your English teacher to teach you Englishwithout changing the way that you behave or view the world. Is that possible?” Doesn’t a person see the world differently whenever they learn to speak another language? Or is language entirely divorced from the culture that it is rooted in? What about English as a Lingua Franca – is it just some sort of esperanto without any clear-cut culture? Although, let us also be quite clear that esperanto is rooted in a culture of equality and respect. So we are going to say to our recalcitrant learners, “No! I am not going to teach you anything about the culture of the language that you are trying to learn. When you go to business meetings[for the teachers of these students are invariably well-grounded BE teachers whose clients are strong-minded and knowledgeable about pedagogies], you just behave the way that you always would – but just use English words where once you would have used German [for these BE students are invariably German industrialists or financiers].” Or perhaps we’ll say, “I have warned you before, Gretchen. I am not here to teach you how to use your knowledge of English to your advantage. My job is merely to teach you the language. Now say after me, The garden of my aunt is overgrown now that the gardener has gone away. Say it, damn you!!!”

Education, we all like to believe, is a process of enrichment. It adds to the learners’ lives and provides them with a tool to learn even more. Even this rather anodyne view of education qualifies for the CP label. For the very acts of adding to and equipping with tools are transformative acts. They do not have to be aimed at the overthrowing of the state (although kudos to you if they do). And it is for this reason that I began by saying rather provaocatively that if you are not doing this, you are not really teaching. And if you are not really teaching, you have been reading this bilge for far longer than you needed to. Go on! Be off with you!

  1. December 5, 2010 at 10:18

    I am so glad that coincidence led this to be your Happy-B-Day present.

    It’s also very interesting that I read through the sections in TU referring to quotes associated with critical pedagogy (after thorougly combing the ‘net and wikipedia to have a “deeper understanding” about what that might entail) and aimed instead for just being critical (and allowing the bloggers to decide themselves what that meant). (I hope).

    Like you, I have a hard time with the idea that it’s okay to impart the culture of the coursebook’s writer(s) and their way of viewing the world but yet it’s not okay to discuss cultural perspectives of events that occur daily – in the world around us – without letting these subjects and discussions come up in our classrooms, standing back from them and

    asking who…

    and what…

    and why…
    (my favorite: and why, and why?)

    Right, I’ll be off now, ‘scuse me while I jump up and down to see Sir Walter Raleigh called a pirate. My word! You have indeed made my day, wish it was my birthday but as it is yours:

    Take care,

  2. December 7, 2010 at 04:33

    A great read.

    I also agree wholeheartedly that Dogme is anything but “critical pedagogy”. But that’s another kettle of fish.

    About ELT and “critical pedagogy”.

    Unfortunately, most in the upper echelons of our biz are formed empirically and through the dark colored glasses of applied linguistics and a science based view of learning. We’d do well to have more that correctly see teaching as not about teaching specific A,B,C style but rather from the soul. I’m a big one for soul and think that critical pedagogy is all about that change that teaching offers to the student’s soul. The final part to that is getting rid of the teacher. Who needs ’em (and we are the guilty, it is our stasis and conservatism that keeps things as they are – it isn’t all the outside bogeymen).

    Keep cheering on teachers who teach from the heart and as you say, try to get students to think of their place and part in the world. English is a big avenue on which they will drive – we need prepare them well.

    One more note. I think critical pedagogy gets the “Marxist” label from the fact that most who espouse it are long winded and round about. We need a Menchen to lead our charge!


    I’m a big believer in “soul”

  3. dingtonia
    December 8, 2010 at 18:59

    With the “biffing” of the Spanish Armada in mind, I thought you might like this little piece of “interested” history.


    Dash, the link isn’t hyper, but a copy and paste should work.



  4. December 19, 2010 at 19:38

    Top-drawer as always Diarmuid, a great read.

    However, I couldn’t help but consider the outcome of a teacher’s use of a critical pedagogy in some of Earth’s less free-thinking nations, such as Saudi, for example.

    ; )

    • dfogarty
      January 11, 2011 at 17:02

      Critical thinking has a place in any country, aunder any dictatorship. It’s a human quality – but one which education tries to dissuade us from. State-sponsored education, at least!

      In a country like Saudi, I think you’d find as much critical thinking as in any other country – but it may manifest itself differently, reflecting the local social and political environment. I know that Islam has a feature which is called Ijtihad which would be familiar to any advocate of critical thinking.

      In any event, I think it’s often too easy to see CT as applying to Matters of Great Import. However, I’d revert back to sloganeering and remind people to think global, act local.

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