Some practical thoughts about student-sensitive critical pedagogy

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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, that 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; see also Edge, 2003; Pennycook, 1999).

The call for teachers to act as agents for change is not a new one. Twenty-eight years ago, Postman and Weingartner (1969) shook some educational foundations with their best seller, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. In their stinging critique of the American educational establishment, they challenged teachers to enable their students to become "crap" detectors: (a) crap detectors in creating major changes in our social, economic, and political systems; (b) crap detectors who can cut through burgeoning bureaucracies (which, they note, are repositories of conventional assumptions and standard practices); and (c) crap detectors who can release us from the stranglehold of the communications media, which is creating its own version of censorship.

Those criticisms were printed in 1969. Now, 35 years later, isn't it ironic that social, political, and communications systems around the world are still by and large the voices of bureaucracy and of political and economic status quo? In Postman and Weingartner's terms, have worldwide educational systems been effectively subverting the attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions that foster chaos and uselessness?

Is this call for subversive teaching a challenge that English language teachers can and should take up in the present day? Do those of us who teach languages have a special responsibility to "subvert" attitudes and beliefs and assumptions?

  • to subvert the assumption that language teaching is neutral, sterile, and inorganic?
  • to subvert the assumption that language teaching has nothing to do with politics and power?
  • to subvert the assumption that we teachers should avoid "hot topics" or touchy issues in the classroom, touchy issues like global planetary stewardship, war, violence, touchy issues like hate, prejudice, and discrimination?

Some Cautionary Observations

Critical language pedagogy brings with it the reminder that our learners of the English language must be free to be themselves, to think for themselves, to behave intellectually without coercion from a powerful elite (Clarke, 1990, 2003), to cherish their beliefs and traditions and cultures without the threat of forced change (Edge, 1996). However, for all its laudable goals of empowerment and liberation, in language 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).

What has come to be known as "liberation education," among other terms (see Clarke, 1990, 2003; Freire, 1970), must no doubt be tempered with some cautionary observations. Some have recently argued that our ostensibly benign assumptions about teaching methodology (see Holliday, 1994) have an element of controversy in them. Why, there's hardly a person in this profession who would not stand up with your hand over your heart to salute "communicative language teaching," or "whole language education," or "learner-centered teaching," or "cooperative learning!" But are all these warm and fuzzy, soft and tender approaches to the classroom universally accepted by all cultures and all educational traditions? Certainly not! In an article titled Toward less humanist English teaching, Gadd (1998) cautions against viewing ourselves as a "nurturer of souls ... " because this "inappropriate and oppressive role ... does not encourage or permit the students' intellectual and cognitive development" (Arnold's reply to Gadd in the same issue is worth careful reading).

The counterpoint to this rallying of teachers to change a world mired in bureaucracies is epitomized, as I see it, in what Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson (1994) have called "linguicism." Phillipson (1992) argues that, historically at least, worldwide English language teaching has served to " unequal division of power and resources," as "the dominant language [English] is glorified, [and] dominated languages are stigmatized" (p. 27). Now, while Holliday (1994) rightfully argues, I think, that Phillipson's stance " ... implies a conspiracy view of English language teaching which is over-simplistic and naive" (p. 99), nevertheless I think all of us, if we haven't done so already, need to take heed lest we become the inadvertent perpetuators of a widening of the gap between haves and have-nots. Language is power, and the unequal distribution of language programs across the world surely could contribute to the ultimate unequal distribution of power.

Is there a middle ground? A number of recent articles and books suggest that there is (Clarke, 2003; Edge, 2003; Johnston, 2003; Snow, 2001). Can English language teachers facilitate the formation of classroom communities of learners who critically examine moral, ethical, and political issues surrounding them, and do so sensitively, without pushing a personal subversive agenda? I would like to suggest here three guidelines, along with some examples, of engaging in critical pedagogy while respecting the values and beliefs of our students.

Guidelines for Dealing with Controversial Issues in the Classroom

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/ethnic discrimination, sexual orientation, environmental action, religious fundamentalism, and political activism are controversial, sensitive to students' value systems, and demand critical thinking. I would like to suggest three guidelines for dealing with such topics:

1. Teachers are responsible for giving students opportunities to learn about important social/moral/ethical issues and to analyze all sides of an issue.

A language class is an ideal locus for offering information on topics of significance to students. The objectives of a curriculum are not limited to linguistic factors alone, but also include developing the art of critical thinking. Complex issues (say, religious fundamentalism or homosexuality, for example) can become the focus of intrinsically motivating content-based language learning.

2. Teachers are responsible for creating an atmosphere of respect for each other's opinions, beliefs, and ethnic/cultural diversity.

The classroom becomes a model of the world as a context for tolerance and for the appreciation of diversity. Discourse structures such as "I see your point, but ... " are explicitly taught and used in classroom discussions and debates. Students learn how to disagree without imposing one's own belief or opinions on others. In all this, it is important that the teacher's personal opinions or beliefs remain sensitively covert, lest a student feel coerced into thinking something because the teacher thinks that way.

3. Teachers are responsible for maintaining a threshold of morality and ethics in the classroom climate.

Occasionally a teacher needs to exercise some discipline when students show disrespect or hatred based on, say, race, religion, ethnicity, or gender. Teachers should ascertain that "universal" moral principles (love, equality, tolerance, freedom) are manifested in the classroom. This guideline is, in effect, a paradox because it presupposes certain values to be beyond reproach. Such a presupposition violates the very principle of respect captured in the guideline (#2) above. Nevertheless, this is where one's pedagogy becomes "critical" in that the teacher's vision of "a better and more humane life" is usually predicated on such basic values.

Examples from around the World

Consider the following examples of classroom activities from around the world. Do they abide by the above guidelines? Can your classroom recreate 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 Vieira)
  • 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's widening the mouth of toothpaste tubes and of Revlon's making the glass on nail polish bottles a little thicker led students to debate ethical business issues. (Stuart Carroll)
  • In Egypt, a culture where equal opportunities and rights of women are abridged, a teacher used an activity in a class with both men and women in it that culminated in the students' collaboratively writing up a "bill of rights" for women in Egypt. (Mona Grant Nashed)
  • In the USA, following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a student asked the teacher what "Middle East" meant; when the teacher defined the term, the student responded with, "Oh, you mean 'terrorists'." The teacher used the next 10 minutes to sensitively guide students through a discussion of stereotypes and the misinformation that they often convey.

Moral Dilemmas and Moral Imperatives

The process of engaging in a critically pedagogical approach in which we teachers take up the challenge of being agents for change brings with it some moral dilemmas. How far should we push our own personal beliefs and agendas in our zeal for realizing visions of a better world and for creating critically thinking future leaders among our students? At least six moral dilemmas present themselves, but each dilemma carries with it what I claim is a moral imperative. Consider the following dilemmas, and their corollaries in the form of imperatives, that call us to action as socially responsible teachers:

Moral Dilemma #1:

Our widely accepted communicative approach to language teaching (CLT), which aims to empower and value students, may itself reflect a cultural bias that is not universally embraced.

Moral Imperative:

Respect the diversity of cultural patterns and expectations among our students, while utilizing the best methodological approaches available to accomplish course goals and objectives.

Moral Dilemma #2:

Our altruistic "agendas" for bringing English to the world at large have the potential of legitimizing an unequal division of power and resources.

Moral Imperative:

Help students to claim their own power and resources, and to bridge the gaps that separate countries, political structures, religions, and values through a unifying language, but to do all we can to celebrate indigenous heritage languages and cultures.

Moral Dilemma #3:

Our language—English—is itself so imbued with metaphor, covert messages, and other pragmatic conventions that we can hardly teach this language without teaching a set of values.

Moral Imperative:

Without judgment on students' native languages or cultures, help them to understand and produce the sociolinguistic and pragmatic conventions of English, in full awareness of the cultural (and covert) messages inherent in any language.

Moral Dilemma #4:

In our curricular materials, our choices of topics and issues present us with opportunities to stimulate critical thinking but also to offend and polarize students.

Moral Imperative:

Sensitively, with due attention to the potential for students to be offended and polarized, approach critical, relevant, and informative issues in appropriate pedagogical contexts with as balanced a perspective as possible.

Moral Dilemma #5:

Our discussions, debates, group work activities, essays, and other classroom techniques offer opportunities for us to be agents for change, but does our zeal for realizing our own vision of a better world stand in the way of truly equal, balanced treatment of all sides of controversial issues?

Moral Imperative:

Guided by a clear vision of your own mission as a teacher, promote critical thinking on complex issues, remain as neutral as possible in the process, but be fully aware that you are promoting a set of values in your classroom, even if somewhat covertly.

Moral Dilemma #6:

Large-scale standardized tests are widely embraced by a budget-conscious establishment, but are they all free of cultural and socioeconomic bias?

Moral Imperative:

Carry out research to improve the authenticity and predictive validity of standardized testing, lobby for funding for more performance based assessment, and in our classroom assessments, model principles of authenticity, biased-for-best performance, and beneficial washback to students.

I think all these dilemmas are commonly experienced among teachers around the world. However, if we are too daunted by the dilemmas and we shrink from our responsibility as change agents, surely we will have lost the opportunity to act on the imperatives that can drive us as teachers.

Can you engage in sensitive critical pedagogy in your classrooms? Can you take a bold step forward and at the same time respect the beliefs and attitudes of your students? 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? How would you respond to statements from students that reflect hate or intolerance? The little differences here and there that you make can add up to fulfilling visions of better and more humane world.


Auerbach, E. (1995). The politics of the ESL classroom: Issues of power in pedagogical choice. 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.
Clarke, M. (2003). A place to stand: Essays for educators in troubled times. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Edge, J. (1996). Cross-cultural paradoxes in a profession of values. TESOL Quarterly, 30, 9-30.
Edge, J. (2003). Imperial troopers and servants of the Lord: A vision of TESOL for the 21st century. TESOL Quarterly, 37, 701-709.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury Press. Gadd, N. (1998). Point and counterpoint: Towards less humanistic English teaching. English Language Teaching Journal, 52, 223-234. [Reply by J. Arnold, and reply to reply by N. Gadd.]
Giroux, H. A., & McLaren, P. L. (1989). Critical pedagogy, the state, and cultural struggle. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Holliday, A. (1994). Appropriate methodology and social context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Johnston, R. (2003). Values in English language teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Pennycook, A. (1994). The cultural politics of English as an international language. Harlow, England: Longman.
Pennycook, A. (Ed.). (1999). Critical approaches to TESOL. [special topic issue]. TESOL Quarterly, 33 (3).
Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Postman, N., & Weingartner, C. (1969). Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York: Dell Publishing Company.
Skutnabb-Kangas, T., & Phillipson, R. (Eds.). (1994). Linguistic human rights: Overcoming linguistic determination. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Snow, D. (2001). English teaching as Christian mission. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.


United Religions Initiative:
Global Issues Newsletter (JALT):
Peace Education foundation:
Educators for Social Responsibility:
TESOLers for Social Responsibility:

H. Douglas Brown is Professor of English at San Francisco State University and Director of the American Language Institute. He is a former President of TESOL, and in 2001 received TESOL's James E. Alatis Award for Distinguished Service. He is the author of three well-known teacher reference books: Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (Pearson/Longman, 2000); Teaching by Principles (Pearson/Longman, 2001); Language Assessment: Principles and Classroom Practices (Pearson/Longman, 2004), and has presented to TESOL audiences across the USA and in many other countries.