Some Practical Thoughts about Student-Sensitive Critical Pedagogy

H. Douglas Brown

In recent years, the language teaching profession has
witnessed a stark increase in the number of articles, chapters, books, and
presentations on the "critical" nature of language pedagogy. We
language teachers and teacher educators are reminded that we are all driven
by convictions about what this world should look like, how its people should
behave, how its governments should control that behavior, and how its inhabitants
should be partners in the stewardship of the planet. We are told, for example,
we should ". . . embody in our teaching a vision of a better and more
humane life" (Giroux & McLaren, 1989, p. xiii). Or, as Pennycook
stated it, "the crucial issue here is to turn classrooms into places
where the accepted canons of knowledge can be challenged and questioned"
(1994, p. 298).

However, critical language pedagogy brings with it the reminder that
learners of the English language must be free to be themselves, think for
themselves, behave intellectually without coercion from a powerful elite
(Clarke, 1990), cherish their beliefs and traditions and cultures without
the threat of forced change (Edge, 1996). In our classrooms, where "the
dynamics of power and domination . . . permeate the fabric of classroom
life" (Auerbach, 1995, p. 9), we are alerted to a possible "covert
political agenda [beneath our] overt technical agenda" (Phillipson,
1992, p. 27).

Is there a middle ground? Can English language teachers facilitate formation
of classroom communities of learners who critically examine moral, ethical,
and political issues surrounding them, without pushing a personal agenda?
I would like to suggest four principles, along with some examples, of engaging
in critical pedagogy while respecting the values and beliefs of our students.

Four Principles

When we focus on critical pedagogy, what first comes to mind is a number
of so-called hot topics that we can address in our classrooms. Topics like
non-violence, human rights, gender equality, racial or ethnic discrimination,
health issues, environmental action, and political activism are controversial,
they are sensitive to students` value systems, and they demand critical
thinking. I would like to suggest four principles for dealing with such

1. Allow students to express themselves openly. (Be sensitive to power
relationships, encourage candid expression)

2. Genuinely respect students' points of view. (Validate students' points
of view.)

3. Encourage both or many sides of an issue. (Embrace all seriously-offered
statements, opinions, and beliefs.)

4. Do not force students to think just like you. (Delay or withhold your
own opinion.)

Practical Examples

Consider the following examples of classroom activities from around the
world. Do they abide by the above principles? Can your classroom replicate
any of them?

In Brazil, a curriculum for children takes them on an adventure trip
searching for magic glasses which, they discover, will enable them to see
the world as it could be if everyone respected it. The program teaches appreciation
for Native Indians of Brazil, their culture, stories, and music; it teaches
gender roles, animal rights, and environmental stewardship. (Maria Rita

In Japan, a classroom research project called "Dreams and Dream
Makers" had students choose a person who "worked to make the world
a more peaceful place." (Donna McInnis)

In Singapore, an activity called "Stamping out Insults," focused
on why people insult others and helped students to learn and use kind, affirming
words as they disagreed with one another. (George Jacobs)

From China, a teacher had students study oppression and suppression of
free speech in the former Soviet Union, calling for critical analysis of
the roots and remedies of such denial of freedom. Without espousing any
particular point of view himself, and under the guise of offering criticism
of another country's practices, students were led to comprehend alternative
points of view. (Anonymous by request)

In Armenia, a teacher had students share their grandparents' experiences
during the 1915 Armenian genocide when more than 1.5 million Armenians were
killed in Turkey. Nearly every student had family members who had been killed.
Discussions focused on how ethnic groups could overcome such catastrophes
and learn to live together as cooperative, peaceful neighbors. (Nick Dimmitt)

A teacher in Israel told of a unit in which students had to create an
ethical marketing and advertising campaign for a product. Cases of Colgate
widening the mouth of toothpaste tubes and of Revlon's making the glass
on nail polish bottles a little thicker led students to face ethical issues.
(Stuart Carroll)

In Egypt, where the status of women is an integral part of the culture,
a teacher used an activity that culminated in the students' writing up a
"bill of rights" for women in Egypt. (Mona Grant Nashed)

Can you, in turn, engage in sensitive critical pedagogy in your classrooms?
What are some activities you can do that would respect students` points
of view yet stir them to a higher consciousness of their own role as agents
of change? The little differences here and there that you make can add up
to fulfilling visions of a better and more humane world.


Auerbach, E. (1995). The politics of the ESL classroom:
Issues of power in pedagogical choices. In J. W. Tollefson (Ed.), Power
and inequality in language education
(pp. 9-33). Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Clarke, M. (1990). Some cautionary observations on liberation
education. Language Arts, 67, 388-398.

Edge, J. (1996). Cross-cultural paradoxes in a profession
of values. TESOL Quarterly, 30, 9-30.

Giroux, H. A., & McLaren, P. L. (1989). Critical
, The State, and cultural struggle. Albany, NY: State University
of New York Press.

Pennycook, A. (1994). The cultural politics of English
as an international language.
Harlow, England: Longman.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.