Sunday, 18 November 2018

EBEFL asks 4: desperately seeking theory

I'm looking for your help with theory. Here are a few language learning incidences that have happened to me and I'm curious if anyone can associate any theory with what happened or can explain what was going on, or let me know if you had any similar experiences.

situation 1
I was in a shop in Taiwan and the woman serving me told me there was a 'zhekou'. I'd never heard this word before but I guessed (from context!!!) it meant discount. A few minutes later a friend confirmed that Zhekou was in fact a 'discount'. I don't think I ever encountered that word before and yet I learnt it instantly and never forgot it. 

Situation 2
I was one taking a Chinese class and said the word 'duo' meaning 'a lot'. I got the tone wrong and the tutor correct it with a recast. I nodded a thanks. I never got the tone of that word wrong again and almost every time I say it I can picture the tutor saying it. Is there an explanation for this 'insta-correction' and how effective it was? 

Situation 3
I kept hearing the word 'kichin to' on Japanese TV. I could use it in a sentence and knew that it generally came before a verb, but had no idea what it meant. I asked someone and it means something like 'properly' (do something properly/completely).  I could use this word correctly but didn't know what it meant. So what's going on here? 

Situation 4
I learnt the phrase "n ja nakatta" (東京に行くんじゃなかった) after living in Japan for a while and being able to speak Japanese fairly well. I don't remember hearing it before that but it seemed like absolutely everyone was using it after I learnt it. Is this just a case of recency illusion or is it a specific known thing in language learning? 

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Woo watch: Baba Vanga

Baba Vanga
Baba Vanga was a blind Bulgarian mystic. She is quite well-known among people who are into the weird and wonderful world of 'parapsychology'. She's famous for her Nostradamus like predictions which had a '80% accuracy rate'. She is said to have predicted, among other things the 9/11 attacks, the election of a Black president and the 2004 boxing day Tsunami

Impressive stuff. Of course, like all good psychics there is quite a bit of artistic licence. And more importantly while the hits are counted, the misses are quietly forgotten. 2016 is over so we can say with some confidence that her prediction* that 'Europe will cease to exist' didn't come true (a good woo-master would somehow link this prediction to Brexit ). It's perhaps not surprising since she also predicted that 2010 would be when World War 3 started and that it would end in 2014, and that Muslims would wage war against Europe in 2013. So all in all, I don't think I'm being unfair when I say that we shouldn't take Baba Vanga very seriously. 

So what does Baba Vanga have to do with TEFL? The figure of 80% accuracy (60-70% here) in her predictions was reported by a group of scientists who worked for the Bulgarian institute of Suggestology and Parapsychology. The head of the institute was Georgi Lozanov who was the inventor of the TEFL method known as Suggestopedia

Lozanov said of Baba Vanga (source) "The stories about Vanga Dimitrova are not fantasies...She is extraordinarily talented....Vanga does read the future for those who go to her personally...she has psychic capabilities..." (p. 275). Lozanov also reveals that he has psychic power and was able to 'block' Vanga to some extent. (p. 276)

The genetic fallacy means we shouldn't write off an idea, just because of where it came from. However, in Lozanov's case I think we have been a bit too generous. The same research group which produced the amazing results on the effectiveness of suggestopedia also took a psychic seriously and produced 'scientific research' showing how effective a psychic she was. It isn't therefore that Lozanov had some whacky ideas but his research was solid. We have evidence that his research was extremely unreliable. 

SEAL - a lozanov inspired org.
All of this information was available in the 70's and yet Suggestopedia was generally treated fairly credulously. It receives serious coverage in works by Krashen, Larsen-Freeman, and many, many othersIn Tomlinson's 'Materials development in language teaching' a whole chapter is devoted to writing and grammar presentation in 'the Lozanov method.' The author Hansen, tells us that these days (1998) it's easier to understand here Lozanov was coming from since "quantum science has become more familiar" meaning we can perceive in "multidimensional" ways. Even today you can find published papers (here, here and here for instance) examining the effectiveness of the method and even the ELTJ recently had an article citing Lozanov

Baba Vanga died in 1996 but almost every year an article appears talking about one or more of her predictions and trying to link it to some current eventLozanov died in 2012 but his influence lives on in suggestopedia courses, books and in articles. Usually defenders of Suggestopedia say we should take the 'good stuff' and leave the rest. I suppose we could do that with Vanga too. I don't believe in seeing into the future or magic powers but suggestopedia does seems to have something of a charmed life and I don't predict that changing any time soon. 

*difficult to find reputable sources for these claims. Webpages tend to vanish when things don't come true

Sunday, 9 September 2018

When critical thinking is not critical thinking

Science and social justice
The strange case of Lindsay Shepherd and Laurier University hit the news in 2017. During one class in order to illustrate how gender pronouns have caused controversyShepherd, a 23 year old teaching assistant, showed a clip of Canadian Psychology professor Jordan Peterson. The clip was of a TV show in which he discussed his opposition to legally enforced gender pronoun use. 

After the class, a student (allegedly) complained about the video and the university launched an enquiry. Shepherd was asked to attend a meeting and was castigated by her employer for showing the video. The conversation, which Shepherd recorded, included this exchange: 

Rambukkana: So bringing something like that up in class, not critically, and I understand that you're trying to-
Shepherd: It was critical. I introduced it critically.
Rambukkana: Howso?
Shepherd: Like I said, it was in the spirit of debate.
Rabukkana: Okay, "In the spirit of debate" is slightly different than "This is a problematic idea that maybe we want to unpack"
Shepherd: But that's taking sides.

This conversation shows two competing version of the term 'critical' crashing into each other in real time. So how do these two version of 'critical' differ?

The 'critical' schools 
From the 1960's there was a flourishing of academic subjects using the term 'critical' in the title. These include but are not limited to such things as:
These subjects often seem to be concerned with similar things. For example, Critical Discourse Analysis focuses on:
the role of discourse in the (re)production and challenge of dominance. Dominance is defined here as the exercise of social power by elites, institutions or groups, that results in social inequality, including political, cultural, class, ethnic, racial and gender inequality.
Critical pedagogy is defined as
an approach to language teaching and learning which, according to Kincheloe (2005), is concerned with transforming relations of power which are oppressive and which lead to the oppression of people. It tries to humanize and empower learners...The major goal of CP, as Vandrick (1994) claims, is to emancipate and educate all people regardless of their gender, class, race, etc
Critical EAP similarly seeks to take account of factors previously ignored in EAP, like "gender, class, race and power relations..." (Benesch) The key themes, then of 'critical' fields are 1) power and oppression, 2) 'social justice' and 3) the notion of using academia to transform society. This is quite different from the usual sense of 'critical' in phrases like 'critical thinking'. Burbules and Berk suggest that the traditional sense of being critical:
...basically means to be more discerning in recognizing faulty arguments, hasty generalizations, assertions lacking evidence, truth claims based on unreliable authority, ambiguous or obscure concepts, and so forth.
I recently had a couple of papers published. One was titled 'a critical look at NLP in ELT' and the other 'A critical examination of perceptual learning styles in ELT'. Both of these papers use 'critical' in the sense of something akin to scientific skepticism. Questioning the veracity of claims, asking for evidence to support arguments and evaluating claims. I would guess this is what most people understand 'critical' to mean. 

The other 'critical' thinking 

In contrast, the 'critical' in Critical Pedagogy means something akin to 'Marxist'. Proponents can be a bit coy about this, but Scholem (in Hammersley) notes that after the Nazi takeover of Germany, Marxists of the Frankfurt school fled to the US, a country not particularly welcoming to Marxism. There they adopted the term 'critical' to describe the kind of research they were interested in. Freire's critical pedagogy is an example of this:
Freire’s philosophy was continuous with what has been euphemistically termed “western” Marxism, which embraces the quest for a sufficient theory of subjectivity identified in the post-war periods with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt school, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology.” (Aronowitz)
Freire was a Marxist with a fondness for approvingly quoting Mao Tse Dong*. The Marxist roots are important to note because they represent the underpinnings or tenants of 'critical' subjects and include such things as: 
Both types of 'critical' would describe what they are doing as 'critical thinking' but this seems to be, in the critical theory sense a case of humpty-dumptying (after the character's insistence that 'When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean'). Freire's definition of critical thinking, namely "thinking which discerns an indivisible solidarity between the world and the people and admits of no dichotomy between them" (92) is not one most people would recognise as 'critical thinking'. 

It's worth noting too, that those who advocate for critical approaches don't necessarily see a difference between the two forms of critical thinking. One is merely the logical conclusion of the other. If your analysis identifies a problem in the world, naturally you would work to fix it. That is to say, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it"(Marx). 

What's the difference?

So how would a 'critical' article differ from a traditionally critical one? Recently a useful example popped up in my twitter feed. It's a critical look at the book 'Visible Learning' called 'Seven reasons to question the hegemony of Visible Learning'.  Those not aware of critical approaches might take this to be an examination of Hattie's arguments and the evidence supporting them, but the authors are very clear that that is not the case:
Critique of this program [...] has tended to centre on the mechanisms of meta-analysis. We consider what Visible Learning puts to work in relation to cultural politics and find it closely aligned with agendas of neoliberalism, sexism and ableism...
That is, they are not going to criticise Hattie for factual errors but rather for having the wrong ideology. The journal in which it is published, 'discourse studies in the cultural politics of education' may just sound like any other journal name but if we examine its scope we note that it:
adopts a broadly critical orientation, but is not tied to any particular ideological, disciplinary or methodological position. It encourages interdisciplinary approaches to the analysis of educational theory, policy and practice
Recent articles include 'Key elements in the naturalisation of neoliberal discourse in higher education in Chile' and 'Christmas in U.S. K-12 schools: categorizing and explaining teacher awareness of Christo-normativity'. 

There are a many critiques of Hattie's work, based on issues with his statistical analysis (see for example hereherehere and here) but as this is a critical paper, the focus is elsewhere. The authors are concerned that "colonising metaphors" like Visible Learning, with its focus on the "dominance of the visual" and "seductive neoliberal style" are in danger of becoming tools of "fascistic education". Visible learning is "sexist and masculinist" in it's pornographic "preoccupation with the visual" that forces a "feminized profession" (teaching) to submit to a "heteronormative, sexist and ableist" vision of education which revolves around “ejaculatory outcomes”. 

Being critical of 'critical' 

Science, when it works, is a self-correcting system (see for instance the recent replication crisis and trial registration). So we can ask, 'is this the right way to go about thinking about a problem?', 'is this the right problem to be thinking about?' 'Are these criticisms valid?', 'how can we tell?', and so on.  The critical academic subjects generally do not:  
it is characteristic of CDA, and of much 'critical' work in the social sciences, that its philosophical foundations are simply taken for granted, as if they were unproblematic. This reflects the fact that, in many ways, the term 'critical' has become little more than a rallying cry demanding that researchers consider 'whose side they are on'.”(1997:244)
The ideas central to the critical subjects cannot be challenged. We cannot, for example, ask if Freire is right that people are not currently 'fully human' and that praxis and inquiry would make them 'fully human'. Nor can we ask if it's useful to divide the world into oppressors and oppressed. In short, critical subjects are not, themselves, subject to criticism. 

When we do approach them critically we notice problems. For instance, the seemingly simplistic division of people into either oppressor or oppressed class. It's never exactly clear how a person finds themselves in one of these groups. 
Freire deals only in vague generalities. Oppression is never clearly defined. Freire concentrates on the oppression of the poor and fails to deal realistically with oppression as it is found at all levels of society. It is a mistake to see only the poor as oppressed and all others as oppressors. (Elias 1976)
Among Radical Feminists a woman would be a member of the oppressed class 'woman' and a victim of the 'patriarchy' system. However, the same woman, if she is white would, in critical race studies be a privileged member of the oppressor class in the system of 'white supremacy'.

If we start from the position that women are part of an oppressed class, then our research will tend to look for examples that support that narrative whereas a fact based approach may tend to throw up problematic data. For instance, a recent trend on twitter was for female PhD holders to affix 'dr' in front of their names. This was in response to a viral tweet from 'Sci Curious' about how male colleagues were far less likely than female colleagues to correctly address a female colleague. When the researcher actually checked her emails she found no difference. 

There is also an unfortunate tendency to characterise opponents as fascist or at least unwitting agents of fascism. For instance, in the meeting with Lindsay Shepherd, Professor Rambukkana (who's written on topics like 'From #RaceFail to #Ferguson: Digital Intimacies, Racism and the Politics of Hashtag Publics.' and 'Taking the Leather out of Leathersex: BDSM Identity and the Implications of an Internet-Mediated Sadomasochistic Public Sphere.') thought showing a clip of Peterson's was comparable with showing a clip of Hitler (a position for which he later apologised). Tying opponents' opinions to unsavoury movements like fascism can in some cases, be a substitute for refutation.  

Widdowson, responding to a critical paper, characterises such approaches as having an 'epistemological intolerance' noting that:
There is here a sort of fundamentalism: a zealous adherence to a way of conceiving of the world based on an unthinking trust in the wisdom of the pronouncements of some guru, sage, or prophet, whether this be Karl Marx or Thomas Aquinas or Ron Hubbard.
Finally it's not at all clear that critical approaches actually deliver on the promise of empowerment and liberation. One reporter noted that "for years I have been searching for an instance in which peasants have broken out of their oppression, but have found none. When I asked Freire he admitted that neither has he."

The spread of a critical approach

slides from RadicalKent EAP conference
Over the last couple of years I've noticed that this critical approach seems to be gaining more popularity in ELT and applied linguistics circles. Perhaps this is just a frequency illusion or perhaps these approaches are really starting to resonate with people due to the particular political situation we find ourselves in. 

Recently, The University of Kent hosted a 'RadicalEAP' event, which included talks on subjects such as 'Learning and teaching for the post-capitalist economy', 'How can I increase my impact as a teacher upon WP and BME students?' and 'Critical Race Theory (CRT): A framework for liberating, learning, teaching, assessment and the curriculum in higher education (HE)’'. 

'White knowledge' 
similarly, the AAAL conference this year seemed to have quite a 'critical' focus. For instance, echoing the 'OscarsSoWhite' trend of 2015 the hashtag AAALsowhite was promoted by Ryuko Kubota who spoke against 'white Eurocentric knowledge' and criticised the conference for not having more PoC speakers. Another speaker dealt with the question of whether or not applied linguistics is a 'tool of white supremacy'. 

not the same

Adopting a critical perspective can mean viewing the world through a restrictive lens. Teaching English becomes enforcing 'linguistic imperialism', which in turn is pushing Western values on oppressed people and is thus a tool of white supremacy (even when 'the oppressed' don't necessarily agree). 

There is also a real danger that as critical approaches becomes influential, research which discovers uncomfortable truths will be censored or suppressed. There is evidence that this is already happening (see here and here). Alice Dredger's book Galileo's Middle Finger documents a number of cases of this kind. She argues that Good research has "to put the search for truth first and the quest for social justice second”. 

I think it's possible to worry that women or PoC often suffer discrimination without believing that there is a systematic 'neoliberal' conspiracy at work to keep them under the boot. It's also possible to want to improve the world without assigning yourself either oppressor or oppressed status. As Widdowson puts it"you do not have to be a critical linguist to have a social conscience". 

*It has been pointed out to me that the wording of this is not quite accurate. Freire does seem to talk approvingly of Mao's China up to 1985 and never walks those comments back, but he doesn't actually quote Mao in the main body of Ped of Opp. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Arguments by other means

A few weeks ago a post by Carol Black defending the use of learning styles was making the rounds on twitter. I say defending but in reality it was more of an attack on those criticising learning styles. People like me. 

I have a number of issues with Black's post which I will get into another time, however the most problematic part of her essay is that she attempts to discredit critics of learning styles by tying criticism to unpopular social/political positions. This can be seen, for example in the title of her piece:
Science / Fiction
‘Evidence-based’ education, scientific racism, & how learning styles became a myth.

From the title onward, Black explicitly attempts to link critics of learning styles with racism. This is not an attempt to argue that the evidence itself is weak (a legitimate position) or that more researcher needs to be done. She is simply trying to make those who disagree with her seem unsavoury. Debunkers of learning styles, she writes, are "are finding their way, step by step, back to their institutional origins in scientific racism". Now call me old fashioned but surely we should reserve the term 'racist' for, you know, actual racists? Of course, Black never explicitly calls critics, racist. She doesn't need to, the accusation is enough. Arguing from the position of 'this is why I'm not a racist' is not a good look for anyone. 

And what if you think learning styles is bunk but don't think you're a racist? Well, no fear! Black has this angle covered too, noting:
We should all know by now that structural racism can operate unconsciously, through unquestioned assumptions that have a racist impact without the oppressor intending or even being aware of the oppression.


In the same article she also unsubtly suggests that those who are dubious about learning styles are, by and large, men bullying women. This is, as Ashman has shown, entirely untrue. It is also untrue for TEFL where the only article in the literature really critical about learning styles was written by two women (most male academics who have published on the topic are generally supportive). 

Considering the author claims, that learning styles critics are trying to 'bully', 'shame' and 'intimidate' others, it seems astonishing that she would choose these tactics to make her argument. Black is, I think, aware of how bad this looks and so when challenged on this point continually denies it. 

On twitter, in response to Ashman's piece, she writes "Greg has misrepresented my views in his piece. There are reputable & rigorous scientists, both male and female, on both sides of this debate..." which seems a strange statement to make when her piece contains the claim that:
A disturbing feature of this discourse in education is the frequency with which it takes the form of male researchers and pundits telling female educators that their views on learning are cognitively childish and irrational and should therefore be disregarded. 
Her earlier twitter comments also make this statement hard to believe. She previously dismissed Willingham's work on learning styles as 'mansplaining' and issuing 'edicts to (mostly female) teachers'. 

Again, compare this stated opinion of Willingham with later backtracking when challenged by Ashman. 

Is it possible to be respectful and a 'mansplainer'? 

The attempt to smear critics of learning styles continues when Black, through a series of convoluted arguments, arrives at the conclusion that:
when the debunkers double down on their claim that LEARNING STYLES DON'T EXIST, they are doubling down on the claim that the children who don't perform well in traditional instructional settings are in fact just less intelligent.
The logic here is that if a child is not doing well in traditional settings and we discount learning styles then the only explanation must be that the child is less intelligent. Black presents no evidence for this conclusion. Could there be other factors which affect a student's progress? teacher qualitypeersFamily? Not according to Black.  Any argument that will cast learning styles critics in a bad light is marshaled by Black regardless of how tenuously constructed it is. 

The more general point of this post is to say that I think this kind of 'tactic' in argument isn't helpful. Black isn't the only person who has attempted to discredit ideas based not on their merit but on some of factor, such as who said it or what accepting it might mean. 

We ought to be generous in our assumptions about intent or we risk creating a toxic environment. Accusations such as these can also be a double edged sword. Looking at her blog, how easy would it be to construct an argument that Black, with her frequent uncritical promotion of various tribal practises, actually fetishises minorities? From here it's a hop, skip and a jump to 'Orientalism', essentialising minorities, the 'noble savage' and then, right back to racism. But to do this would be wrong. 

Black's arguments about education, like all arguments, should be judged on their merits, not on assumptions about her intentions. Black would do better to start from the assumption that critics of learning styles actually just don't think the evidence shows they work. That would be the charitable thing to do. 

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Letters to the editor: Rob Sheppard

So I've been hoping to start a new section on the blog and my most recent post has fortunately facilitated that. Obviously there is the comment section of every blog post but Letters to the editor will be a place to post long reactions to, or criticisms of things I've written. Starting us with the very first in the (hopefully) series is Rob Sheppard with a response toolitics and English languge teaching'.

If you'd like to read more by Rob he's has recently written a post for Mike Griffin and also one for TEFL equity.  Over to Rob:

What We Talk About When We Talk About Politics
In a recent post on this blog, Russ expressed concerns that the current push for politics in the ELT classroom is one-sided: not a push for an unbiased discussion of politics generally, but for a liberal social justice agenda. “Not only are the political topics generally pre-selected but arguably the conclusions are reached before the lesson begins,” he writes.

As I indicated in a few tweeted responses, I think this post misses some critical nuances and misrepresents a benign—and in some contexts, necessary—push for politics in ELT. I won’t dispute that this push is aligned with liberal politics, but this is not an indication of a problematic bias. Rather, the historical coincidence that anti-racism, feminism, religious tolerance—principles of basic decency that ought to be universals, not partisan politics—have aligned with liberalism simply makes certain liberal principles appropriate for inclusion in the classroom.

Brevity is not a strength of my writing, but I’ll try to limit myself to five main points that Russ makes.

A Zealous Few
Russ treats the push for politics in the classroom as synonymous with a strict interpretation of Freire’s critical pedagogy, claiming that it “crosses a threshold between teaching criticality and indoctrinating.”

From his examples, we are left with the impression that swarms of social justice warriors are bent on injecting the classroom with their views about everything from race relations to GMO foods, environmentalism to 9/11 conspiracy theories. We are led to believe that this is characteristic of the push for politics, not a few zealous outliers.

Are there teachers out there like this? Sure. I’ve met a few. They’re typically young, overzealous and their boundary issues when it comes to political views are a problem out-of-class, as well as in. But are these teachers representative of the majority of teachers who believe that some politics have some role in the ESOL classroom? I don’t think so, and we are presented with no evidence that this is the case.

There is a difference between discussing political topics and indoctrination. However, once Russ expresses his suspicions that teachers are preaching their own foregone conclusions, he ceases to distinguish between the two. Maintaining the distinction is crucial both to his argument and to our classroom practice.

Blurred Lines

“Once you have legitimised advocating political positions in the classroom then how are you able to argue against topics like creationism, conspiracy theories and white supremacy?” wonders Russ.

The answer is easy: “Easily.”

The line that Russ overlooks is not a particularly hazy one, the way I see it. Racism is unacceptable falls on one side of the line. GMO foods should be labelled falls on the other. Sexism is unacceptable is on the former side. Supply side economics created jobs is on the other.

The issues that I feel no problem imposing on my classroom are those related to discrimination and intolerance. Put another way, they shouldn’t even be considered political opinions. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, religious intolerance: these are not legitimate political views. That throughout history certain politicians have leveraged hate to sow division does not lend these views any legitimacy. Nor does the horrifying fact that this populism works, time and time again.

No view that calls into question the humanity or equality of other people on the basis of who they are is acceptable in my classroom. The reason is very, very simple: I have students and colleagues of different races, genders, preferences, ethnicities, and religions in my classroom, and none of those people will be made to feel unwelcome simply for being who they are.

I’m not talking about the most liberal stances available, here; I simply require tolerance for those different from you. My students don’t need to agree with me about white privilege or affirmative action or immigration policies. We can disagree about these things without insulting or dehumanizing anyone.

Before moving on, a caveat I wish weren’t necessary. There are people who will say, “But you’re being intolerant of people with differing views.” This is an equivocation game we play in American politics, in which the intolerant flip the script and frame themselves as victims of intolerance. Fundamentalist Christians, for instance, sometimes try to claim a religious justification for refusing to serve gay couples. To any thinking person, this is a cheap sleight of hand, but just to head this one off, let’s be clear: the intolerance of human beings on the basis of who they are is not morally equivalent to the intolerance of particular views. Jews need not apply and Nazis need not apply are fundamentally different.

The Right Side of History

Russ writes, “it would be nice to imagine there is a 'wrong side of history' and we're all plodding along hoping we're on the 'right' side. It is difficult for though, for morality to ever be anything other than subjective.” In our Twitter conversations, he suggests that I’m oversimplifying the issue, focusing on the easy examples when there are countless muddy, difficult examples.

He is certainly right that there are challenging cases. I don’t deny that for a second. But complex cases do not lead us to the conclusion of moral relativism. More to the point, my argument is that I don’t think there is any widespread push to inject the muddy examples into our field.

The issues I believe have a place in the classroom are unambiguous. Issues of intolerance are categorically different from our views on taxation, corporate regulations, capital punishment, firearms legislation. I hold relatively liberal beliefs on all these issues. Under the right circumstances, I sometimes reveal my beliefs on such issues to my students. They are curious for insights into “what Americans think.” But I would never dream of presenting my view on these lesser issues as the right way. I would never dream of silencing a student who wanted to voice their disagreement with me on these issues.

The expression of intolerant views in a diverse classroom makes those who face marginalization and discrimination in society at large feel unwelcome even in our classroom. In many cases it calls into question the humanity or basic rights of individuals based on who they are. This is unacceptable. By validating, tolerating, or ignoring the expression of these views, teachers sanction them. We are leaders, and by taking up the onus of leadership, we forfeit the right to silence when injustice arises.

I don’t think that the view I describe here, the line that I draw is unusual. I think that I’m more representative of the politics-in-ELT push than the zealot Russ imagines.

An Isopropyl Solution?
Some will object that a better way to avoid this threat of intolerance is to create a classroom free of politics altogether, and Russ briefly flirts with this solution. Though I do not think he ultimately advocates for it, some did on Twitter, and I want to address this argument.
For one thing, the apolitical classroom is impossible in two senses.

The first, which Russ addresses, is that everything is political. Silence is political, and all the more so to the marginalized and vulnerable. A quick flip through your average coursebook is quick confirmation. Choices intended to be apolitical are anything but: One-dimensional tokenism in representation of minority groups, heteronormative examples, antiquated gender roles.

The second is that these issues will almost always enter the classroom in an overt manner at some point or other. I didn’t always feel the importance of explicitly calling attention to these politics. It was a series of experiences that led me to this position: kicking a student out of class for describe certain races as literally subhuman, observing a student calmly explain to his teacher what punishments his god has in store for gay people, reading an essay explaining why a student was moving out of her “black neighborhood” because a “black guy” and “another black guy” robbed her… I don’t know how the apolitical classroom crowd deals with these situations, but as I said above, I don’t think silence is an option.
Finally, though, I think we need to inject political topics into our classrooms because these are topics that surround us. These are things that we talk about—important, consequential things—and our job is to prepare our students linguistically to talk about the things people talk about.

I won’t remove students out of my class for offences they don’t understand. Nor do I want my students to be shunned outside the classroom for expressing views that they don’t understand are unacceptable in their new home.

Where I’m Calling From
I have avoided talking much about teaching context so far, but context does matter. An EFL classroom in Saudi Arabia and an IEP in Northern California are different in fundamental ways, and of course we need to adjust accordingly.

My own most recent context has certainly informed my perspective on this issue and it is my understanding that the push to include politics in the classroom is much stronger in contexts such as adult education. The students are adult immigrants to the United States. They are the politics, the hostage bargaining chips discussed on the news each day.. What I have the privilege of talking about with the distant abstract noun, politics, has concrete impacts on these people and their families. For these students the machinations and debates of white guys on TV translate to My sister isn’t here anymore. I thought my green card meant I was safe here. A stranger yelled at me on the street for speaking Arabic. I don’t know if it’s safe to take my child to the hospital. To wash our hands and sanitize our classrooms of “politics” is a privilege not afforded to all.