Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Politics and English language teaching

One theme of 2017 was whether we should be more 'political' in our lessons. At IATEFL, JJ Wilson argued for the inclusion of 'social justice' in ELT classrooms and others criticised such things as the avoidance in materials, of PARSNIPS or other 'difficult' topics. Lessons promoting 'more politics in the classroom' have also been promoted, such as one on the French election and another on refugees. So should we be including more politics in ELT lessons? Do students want it? Does it lead to better educational outcomes? Is that even the point?

Everything is nothing

One of the main arguments for including more politics in class is that since 'everything is political' and all classroom practice is value-laden, politics is already there. 
‘Pedagogical choices about curriculum development, content, materials, classroom processes, and language use, although appearing to be informed by apolitical professional considerations, are, in fact, inherently ideological in nature, with significant implications for learners’ socioeconomic roles. Put simply, our choices as educators play a role in shaping students’ choices’. (Auerbach in Thornbury)
Of course, it follows that if everything is political then the push can't be so much for more politics in the classroom, but for different politics in the classroom. Currently, what students in fact get is a 'sanitised', inoffensive version of politics avoiding any politically sensitive topics. Students are treated to a diet of bland topics and never really have their ideas challenged. 

If we want more politics in teaching then, the question becomes how we differentiate political topics which are 'sanitised' and bland from those which are important. Elections in France were an important topic for one teacher (above) and LGBT rights for another. We could have lessons on a range of political topics, for instance, domestic violence, circumcision, gerrymandering, corporation tax, abortion, the death penalty, atheism, NAFTA and so on. But are these the right kind of politics?

Not politics but 'politics'

I get the distinct feeling that if I taught lessons on political topics like trade deficits, estate tax and the gold standard, those advocating more politics in the classroom wouldn't be satisfied. These are undeniably important topics which are not usually in textbooks but my sense is that they're not the 'right' political topics. That's because those pushing for more politics in the classroom are actually pushing for more of the politics which are important to them, specifically, broadly 'liberal' or 'social justice' issues. These I would guess, include topics such as inequality, environmental issues, sexism, and minority rights.

Not only are the political topics generally pre-selected but arguably the conclusions are reached before the lesson begins. Advocates often tout political lessons as merely being about examining views, having a discussion and 'asking questions' but to my mind this is not quite true. The reality is the lessons are used as a platform for a teacher to promote a certain political vision to her students. An example of what I'm talking about can be seen in this interview with J.J. Wilson. He suggests that the topic of 'work', a staple of many EFL textbooks, could be made more 'political':
Another common topic is work. Again, we problematise. We might ask about exploitation, environmental damage or corruption. Or we might question the very nature of work – and ask why an employee in a supermarket is setting out genetically engineered fruit rather than tending her garden, why a line cook is taking orders from strangers instead of cooking for his family, why a woman is watching the children of the wealthy at a daycare centre rather than spending time with her own, why a musician is composing jingles for fizzy drinks rather than jamming with his friends.
It is apparent here that Wilson thinks organic garden grown foods are preferable to GM foods. He also seems to suggest that the concept of work itself is problematic. The questions he's posing are pushing in a certain direction. Since there is no instruction about what kind of politics should be in the classroom, one could reasonably imagine questions like 'why do so many people dislike GM foods when they are so safe?' or ' Why do middle class Westerners eat organic food which takes so much more land and resources to produce -are they just selfish?' and so on. These questions, like Wilson's cannot be considered neutral.

Critical Pedagogy thus crosses a threshold between teaching criticality and indoctrinating. Teaching students to think critically must include allowing them to come to their own conclusions; yet Critical Pedagogy seems to come dangerously close to prejudging what those conclusions must be.

The right answer is...

Unlike questions of grammar and vocab which usually have a right (or at least, standard) answer, questions of politics are more tricky. 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. Sure some issues seem easy. Should some people be slaves? Should we kill people who we think are witches? But it quickly gets more 'muddy'. Should the state help terminally ill patients to commit suicide? Should male inmates convicted of rape be allowed into female prisons if they identify as female? Should male religious circumcision be banned

The idea that something is morally right for all time and everyone should 'get up to speed' as soon as one country does is naive. Most people living 100 years ago would be moral monsters to us, and no doubt we will be moral monsters to those living 100 years hence. different times, and different places have different views about things. 

Neutrality works for both sides. 

A key point that advocates of more politics in the classroom miss is that anyone who can use this argument to teach the 'right' topics can also use it to teach the 'wrong' topics. 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? Those who consider instituting bans on certain 'wrong' politics are myopic and never consider that those tools, once instituted, may someday be used against them. The bland, sanitised topics arguably protects everyone from the experience Callista Hunter describes in this screenshot. 

Bully for you

Another issue with those promoting more politics in classrooms is the faintly moralistic whiff with which they sometimes do it.  Johnson writes:

Critical pedagogists have also commandeered a certain political vocabulary that gives them claim to the moral high ground. They borrow extensively from the language of proletarian protest, talking frequently of struggle, emancipation, and liberation. Their favorite adjectives are revolutionary and radical. Their metaphoric use of such terms seems intended to make readers feel like romantic rebels. (2012)
A cynic might ask exactly whose interests the politicised classrooms are serving? The students, who might learn a bit of interesting or unusual vocabulary, or the teacher who gets
to believe their teaching is a higher calling than, as Wilson puts it mere 'classroom managers transmitting McDonaldised content'. This kind of rhetoric belittles teachers who just want to teach. Teachers, who do not partake in activism, are shills, or to quote one, are  'colluding in highly neoliberal/ imperalistic form[s] of global governance/ managerialism.' Teachers are either critical or stooges, 'with us or with the terrorists'. As Ding writes:

This conflictual and aggressive discourse is also accompanied by a binary and divisive stance regarding the choices facing teachers...It does so because of a lack of nuance and subtlety, failing to accommodate ideas and pedagogies that do not foreground quite so vocally an ideological version of language education...

Can we avoid politics? 

I think a lot of these people feel passionate about injustices they see in the world and want to do something about it. I don't doubt the convictions and the good intentions of those who want to live in a better world but activism disguised as academia isn't, to my mind, the right way to go about it. I see the classroom as something akin to the yearly family get together. There's history and disagreements and racist uncles. It all bubbles under the surface and so we put a nice polite smile on our faces and get through the ordeal sticking to bland, safe topics 'How's work' and 'been on holiday anywhere nice?' rather than 'Grandad! why did you vote for Brexit!?' 

I actually don't have a problem bringing up controversial topics in class especially if the students ask about it and everyone is happy to discuss it. These kind of classes/moments are usually really valuable. I have a problem with political activism disguised as teaching and the implication that 'just' teaching makes you a puppet of shadowy corporate forces.

I was reluctant to write to this post as politics doesn't really fall under my remit. I also can't point to any evidence to say it's wrong or right to inject your politics into the classroom. All I can really say is that I wouldn't like it if I were a student and I don't like the idea of doing it as a teacher. I also don't think teacher's should be shamed for not pushing certain politics on students. Educating someone is itself inherently empowering. Isn't that enough? 


  1. I believe in giving learners the opportunity to suggest topics for class, and to discuss them. I don't think there should be a place for me to impose my views. I see myself as a facilitator and if anything students should remain in the dark as to how I feel about a given topic.

  2. Completely agree with the comment above. If a topic arises and the students want to run with it, I let them. I never say what I think or don't think on the matter, partly because I don't need to practise my English and partly because working in a university these days is like being in some panopticon where disagreement from a tutor on, say, a religious matter can become the subject of a protracted investigation by HR.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. This is an interesting topic. Surely we do have our own perspectives and this will affect what we do and teach but also don't we also play Devil's advocate and encourage different points of view at times?

    1. Thanks for reading. I think there's nothing wrong with playing devil's advocate to 'stretch' students. As long as you're being consistent?

    2. I am not sure what cnsistent would mean in practice. Will it not depend on context? Would we not be more likely to play Devil's advocate when we think the learner is ready to be stretched?

    3. I guess I mean that you if you're only playing devil's advocate to push students opinions towards your own then that seems unfair to me. I'm not suggesting that this is what you are advocating btw.

    4. I would say it is the opposite. What I would be doing by playing Devil's advocate is going against my own point of view. Where they agree with me, I would put opposing points of view and where they disagree with me, I would put my own.

      There is still potential unfairness, though due to my position and the fact the discussion is in my first language.

  5. I would argue that at certain levels of proficiency, remaining outside these types of topics to the small-talk holiday dinner anecdote just doesn't cut it. We're surrounded by events that occur in our local and broader societies and students are a part of that. Meaningful discussion which uses language as a vehicle to disseminate and discuss information may get students at these levels to engage with their language use more than not. You're right though, I have no evidence to back this up.

    In either case (incorporating political topics or not), I agree that presenting only one side, predetermined by the teacher, creates an agenda that does not give students much agency, especially given the power dynamics at play in the classroom. Instead, like mentioned by someone above, it's important to incorporate input from multiple perspectives, so we're not shielding students from any one in particular, just like we would be if we avoided talking about these topics altogether.

    Having said that, which topics are foregone conclusions and no longer up for debate or presentation of multiple sides is trickier to determine for sure. I'd have a very hard time removing myself from discussions on LGBTQ+ issues (e.g. same sex marriage, etc.) not only because of its personal connection, but also because some legal issues are a done deal here. But then, does that mean we shouldn't talk about all issues where laws should change? Hard.

    1. As always thanks for reading. Good to get a comment from you :)
      I know you suggested you might like to write something about this and if you do, I'd love to host it.

      I know what you mean about some issues seeming 'settled'. I did work with a gay teacher recently though who said quite angrily that she was against 'pushing her beliefs on her Saudi students'.

      It's tricky...What do you do when students tell you they hate gays, or Jews or the Japanese?

      I'm not sure there are hard and fast answers to these questions...

    2. I'm honestly not confronted with these types of statements. I'm not exactly sure why. In the past when I was younger, I believe I'd said something to the effect that I pitied anyone who hated others based on things they can't change. Probably later I reversed the situation and asked how they'd feel if someone hated them for a similar issue. I don't remember what the result of the conversation might have been.

      I'll definitely think about a post for you to host. Gimme a while. Thanks for the offer. :)

  6. Really enjoyed reading this article, though I realize - and so do you, I'm assuming - that the line between "academia disguised as teaching" and teaching that encourages reflection, critical thinking (meaningless as this term is fast becoming) and citizenship-building is hazy, and different teachers will sound more or less preachy depending on [insert infinite number of variables]. I've just shared it on my Facebook wall, and I suspect hell will break loose over there, especially in this day and age, when Brazilian society is so polarized. Shame you're not on FB - you'd be interested to see how the discussion evolves.

    1. Thanks for reading. Let me know how the debate goes.

      I'm all for encouraging critical thinking but critical (as you note) has at least 2 distinct meanings, one of which (Critical ped) doesn't seem very critical to me. I think I'll post on this topic soon.

  7. No I don't agree - and I don't think you make a good case for what you are claiming.

    'Wilson's cannot be considered neutral.' - But no one is ever neutral. That is the whole point of critical pedagogy, as your Paulo Freire slide makes clear.

    'Critical Pedagogy thus crosses a threshold between teaching criticality and indoctrinating.' - When does it do this? You don't provide clear examples, and the example of JJ Wilson is unclear. I certainly didn't think his IATEFL presentation put forward a 'strong' or even 'standard' version of Critical Pedagogy - but something condensed into ELT baby food for a conference.

    Critical Pedagogy is NOT about moving people towards any form of politics. It's more about bringing about critical consciousness (read the early Freire before he became a Marxist).

    Over the last few decades, as time devoted to 'civics' teaching in the US has been slashed, and as marketization has crept into UK education in the form of academies, now more than ever is the time when teachers should be educating their students to make a stand within society (whatever stand that might be) rather than be swept along by it.

    Within ELT, I recently gave a lesson to some economics students on David Graeber's notion of 'Bullshit Jobs'. We read his essay, and although I agree with Graeber, I also encouraged the students to be critical, asking for example: Can Graeber's theory be tested? (No, because although it has explanatory power it's descriptive and subjective.)

    With a generation of students entering a fierce labour market, what good does it do to withhold the truth - and reduce their capacity to rethink reality?

    1. Thanks for reading.

      I don't think I made the argument that a teacher should be neutral. I made the argument that Wilson's questions were not 'mere' questions devoid of a political position but were in fact pointing in a specific direction.

      Secondly, I'm sorry you think my examples were unclear. Obviously there is limited space. Critical pedagogy, you say, is not about pushing people towards a political position. Perhaps you know more about it than me? What I have read clearly does seem to be pushing people in a specific direction. Freire quotes Mao approvingly and writes in the pedagogy of the oppressed of his clearly revolutionary goals. He was a Marxist and in chapter three talks almost exclusively about 'revolutionary leaders' rather than teachers. He rails against "the capitalist world".

      Though perhaps I'm wrong. I hope I'm open to the suggestion. Perhaps ou could direct me to to something which shows "Critical Pedagogy is NOT about moving people towards any form of politics" you say his early stuff, which one in particular?

      Finally you talk about 'withholding the truth' from students. The problem with this is your interpretation of the 'truth of the world' might not be right, -in which case you're not pulling the veil from their eyes so much as indoctrinating them.

  8. 'I get the distinct feeling that if I taught lessons on political topics like trade deficits, estate tax and the gold standard, those advocating more politics in the classroom wouldn't be satisfied.' - No of course not. Because you'd just be repeating the mistakes of all bad teaching - superficiality over depth. That has nothing to do with politics but with pedagogy.

    But if you started with a problem question that could last a whole course that might be better - and learners could explore the issues that in a way that opens up educational 'affordances' (whatever they may be) for them, and perhaps for you too.

    Such as: Why does everyone wake up and go to work every day?

    1. I'm not sure I follow. Why would those topics be superficial?

  9. Hi Russ,

    Enjoyed this and no I'm not going to press you for evidence. My Jedi senses tell me we might be somewhat apart politically but I'm not someone who enjoys living in an echo chamber, so I just wanted to add a couple of observations -

    1) Critical Pedagogy - which folk like Steve Brown will be much more qualified to talk about than me, but here goes - is inherently political, from a clearly articulated, emancipatory-spiritual marxist stance. Therefore at root it's already over the line, it doesn't need to cross it. That's Freire's version at least, although from his side of the line it's not indoctrination but education. Indoctrination is what already happens in the education system. And since you mention historical context I don't think Freire's should be forgotten. CP's translation to other times and places would need to be treated with a lot of care, and I'm not sure the examples you cite have done that.

    2) A view of "everything is political" or "everything is ideology" is not necessarily synonymous with the promotion of left-liberal values, as you imply. Slavoj Zizek, a prominent thinker on ideology on the left, holds that ideology is omnipresent in discourse. But Zizek is also one of the strongest critics of the liberal left, and of the ideologies of political correctness, protest etc ...

    Btw Catalan independence has been possibly the worst classroom topic in Catalonia (and probably Spain too) for the past 5 years. There must be some research somewhere about the more het up people get about something, the more their linguistic accuracy plummets and the greater their resistance to recasts ...

    1. Sorry I didn't mean to post that as "unknown"!

    2. Hi Neil,
      thanks for your comment.

      I do think we're probably "somewhat apart politically" ;) I think that goes for Steve and a few others...interestingly my harshest critics online seem to be people on the same side of the political spectrum as me...(just slightly further along?)

      1) Someone in an earlier comment argued that CP is NOT inherently political so it's interesting to see this. I argree with most of what you say here but whereas (I think) you subscribe (?) to that world view, I don't.
      Your second point is that I mishandle the translation of Freire to 'other times and places'. Perhaps if you could say more about exactly where I have done that I might be able to reply.

      2) I'm not sure I made the claim that 'everything is political' is 'synonymous with the promotion of left-liberal values'. You suggest I imply it, so maybe I'm reading too much here? I think I made the claim that CP is synomymous with the promotion of 'certain' left wing values.

      Thanks again for your comment.

    3. The idea that every conversation in class needs to be a context for recasts and accuracy focus seems wrong in my eyes. I'd say that an effective political discussion should be understood as a seriously challenging speaking task for second language users, where the aim is getting something important across by any linguistic means available to them, mistakes and all. Possibly it's something which should be kept to one side as an elective option, since it's unfair to drop it on a group who are uncomfortable with discussing sensitive topics.

  10. 'Freire quotes Mao approvingly and writes in the pedagogy of the oppressed of his clearly revolutionary goals. He was a Marxist and in chapter three talks almost exclusively about 'revolutionary leaders' rather than teachers. He rails against "the capitalist world".'

    Everyone reads 'pedagogy'. This is the *wrong* book for teachers to read IMHO as yes, he veers towards Marxism in that book. But Freire is complicated: his thought contains lots of elements, not just Marxism, but also elements of Christian thought, German idealism etc.

    The book to read is 'Education for Critical Consciousness' where you'll read the following words which contradict , or at least complicate, the view of Freire as a doctrinaire leftist:

    'The sectarian, whether rightist or leftist, sets himself up as the proprietor of history, as its sole creator, and the one entitled to set the pace of its movement […] The sectarian wishes the people to be present at the historical process as activists, maneuvered by intoxicating propaganda. They are not supposed to think. Someone else will think for them; and it is as protégés, as children, that the sectarian sees them. Sectarians can never carry out a truly liberating revolution, because they are themselves unfree.' (Freire, 2008: 9)

    Freire here draws a clear line between radical thought - ie thought that questions things at the root - and sectarian thought from the right or left. That's an important distinction.

    You also have to understand that come of Freire's work was produced under a military dictatorship, something most of us have never experienced, and never will. So any criticism should bear in mind the context in which his words were written.

    Link to book:

    1. Thanks for the link! I appreciate it.

      I would say, recommending another book is fine but it's PotO which has 'sold over a million copies' and it's that book through which people take their ideas about Freire and CP (if indeed, they read it at all). So he may have said X or Y in another book but do you think teachers know that?

  11. Headway has also sold millions of copies - but you'd be foolish to take your pedagogy on the basis of that, wouldn't you?

    It's not Freire's fault people read his books the way they do - he's dead! You also have to remember the marketing factor and the whole balance of Left forces throughout the 60s/ 70s in the US contributed to a certain reading of Freire. You'd also have to ask a native Brazilian about this - they might have more info on how he was received there.

    In a similar vein, most people in the US got their ideas about neoliberalism through the Readers Digest version of 'The Road to Serfdom' by Hayek - and he later wished that it had never been published. (He thought it dented his academic credibility.)