A Critical Challenge

This is an old post which I drafted before Christmas, but it links nicely to something which happened this week, so I’ve chosen to publish it anyway….

There was a story in the weeks before Christmas in the news about an alleged, for I believe it is currently officially unconfirmed, illegal party held by members of the current government. Now, for the benefit of future readers, or indeed myself, the party was illegal because at the time, there were laws in place forbidding such gatherings in order to avoid spreading the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result there is a definite sense of frustration at this rather blatant flouting of the law at a time when people were unable to spend their last few hours with dying loved ones, never mind have a work Christmas do.

At around the same time, the Prime Minister (Boris Johnson, for future reader reference) also announced that his wife had given birth to a baby. And it is here that my little classroom vignette begins.

I went into class on a mid-December morning with the intention of picking up a short piece of vocabulary homework wth the class based on an activity we had started the previous day around the theme of memory. Now, as I was dishing out the lovely advanced learner dictionaries to the students, discussing this and that, as you do, and then:

Student: Did you know? Boris Johnson has had a baby.

Me: I had heard that, yes. I wonder if he hopes people will forget about the party.

Student 1: what party?

Student 2: When we had lockdown, they had a party.

There was a brief moment of silence as this was digested and reflected upon, before the discussion came: “What do you call it when…?” “That is unfair, what is the word…?”

The discussion eventually took in general governmental corruption (almost, at one point, veering towards “my government’s more corrupt than yours”), Covid-19 conspiracy theories, the recent killing of an MP (a bit of a tender nerve because a very popular local MP was killed by an extremist only a few years ago), and the motivations for that.

And this is the language which grew from those discussions – some added by me to help the discussion along, and some directly contributed by or asked for by the students.

So far so critical. This stage of the lesson eventually ran out of steam, so we returned to the previous focus of the lesson, although we included this language in some of the work as it linked to what the students had to say.

This list of vocabulary is likely to produce one of two reactions from the casual observer. The first is the one most closely aligned to my own beliefs, which is something along the lines of “yeah, go for it.” The other is the voice of “reason” saying “ah, but this is you imposing your ideas onto the students. You are indoctrinating them into your own left wing beliefs.” As my research is looking at applying critical approaches to teaching, I do find myself thinking about how far we go with the political in terms of teaching, and perhaps to unpick both of those ideas.

So, as I say, the ideas being expressed in this section of lesson are, by and large, in line with my own. Indeed, they stemmed from my own politically loaded statement (that the PM was hoping to distract from a controversial and unpopular piece of news) so a criticism of the current government was clearly embedded in the discussion from the outset. Now, I could very easily have chosen to close down the topic completely: “still, this is all very interesting, but now class, let us return to learning English,” and, from some perspectives, perhaps I should. While I may be teaching adults, there is still a culture of respect in an ESOL classroom at least where a teacher’s ideas and opinions are considered of importance, whether it be on the nominal subject of the course, or on other affairs. In any classroom, I think, a teacher has power over their students, however they may try to reposition themselves, and as Uncle Ben said, with great power comes great responsibility. So one has to consider carefully how one makes use of that power. What if a student disagrees fundamentally with what you have to say, for instance? By expressing those opinions from a position of power, you run the risk silencing and dismissing those opinions. In terms of inclusion in a classroom like this, it actually doesn’t matter whether whose opinions are “right,” but whether or not those people feel valued and respected, and feel that they have a voice. So you have to reduce your power somehow, or at least increase the power of the students in this setting by asking and inviting opinion, and, really importantly, listening to the students, acknowledging and respecting their opinion. I did make a specific effort to do this, by inviting students to comment, and by linking the language to the students own experiences, which led to some discussion of the relative corruptness and awfulness of dfferent governments – at which point the current regime in the UK came off rather well – as we all acknowledged, at least we can criticise the government without fear of reprisals – the notion here of freedom of speech and thought is vital. Now, I have to admit here to a slight snap in this process where I did let my own feelings override a student – as the topic moved onto covid-19 restrictions, vaccinations, and the like, one student did say that they had heard that the “virus wasn’t natural”and that it had been manipulated by the Chinese for nefarious purposes. That’s a paraphrase, because I shut that conversation down. I did this partly because of the potentially racist sentiment, but also because my patience for consipracy theories is deeply limited these days, but also I believe it is important for people to find out as far as possible for themselves from legitimate sources. Whether justified or not, however, I think I should at least have let the student finish.

The key here, as I have said, is power. A lot of the criticisms of critical pedagogy stem from the idea that this approach is one which imposes a Marxist, socialist, or at least broadly left wing ideology on the classroom, and that by doing so is no more or less indoctrinating than any teaching methods it seeks to oppose. But this is typical of the tendency towards dichotomy so often used by education writers, commenters, tweeters, lecturers, teacher trainers and so on. In order to achieve clarity and precision, theories are presented as opposing “sides”, and no matter how hard the originator tries, the notion that these are two extremes of a continuum tends to get lost in the recall.

So yes, the origins of critical pedagogy are indeed Marxist, and the focus on power and the power imbalances is typical of the left wing (right-wingers are just as interested in power too, of course, as long as it is theirs, not someone elses). But often this is because the ideas developed in, and in response to, extreme situations. Freire, to take an obvious example, was working with extremely disempowered learners, and had direct exoperience of the challenges faced by the students with whom he worked and studied. He was also imprisoned by a right wing military junta, which no doubt helped to harden his opinions to one end of an extreme. More recent writers and projects on particpatory and critical pedagogy in ESOL are also working in extreme situations – Elsa Auerbach, for example, working on projects with migrants to the USA, or English for Action. The latter are a charity working with migrant students, and able to do so more inclusively than mainstream funded provision like general FE colleges and ACL providers (and yes, that is a dig at mainstream providers who probably could do more). The students in question are excluded, for a range of reasons – not so much on the margins of society as hanging off the edge by their fingertips.

What is crucial to note is that critical doesn’t have to be radical. Elsa Auerbach, for example, doesn’t argue for political action in itself, but in encouraging students to become active for themselves and on their own terms. Being critical is not necessarily about radicalising students to become Marxist agitators, but rather about allowing students to examine for themselves where they sit in society, to judge for themselves how they feel about that, and, crucially, enable them to take appropriate action for change. Whether they choose to do that remains entirely up to them. Unfortunately, the contexts to which educators bring these approaches are indeed ones of power imbalance. ESOL students, for example, are rarely privileged, although some do indeed have relative financial comfort and/or positions of respect in their communities.

But to bring this back to my classroom interlude, where does this sit? I don’t think many students went off to write outraged emails, and although we did highlight the freedom of speech which allows us to criticise the government, for example, and the right to protest within the boundaries of the law, I have yet to see protests planned in the coming weeks. And I was careful to highlight when we were discussing contentious issues where my own knowledge was limited, and where something was my own opinion. This does, importantly, involve an eroding of the teacher’s power in the classroom. By conceding that what I say may be flawed, or even wrong, I am chipping away at the notion that the teacher’s knowledge is absolute.

But then I don’t think I’ve ever presented myself as such to students, or at least I don’t like the idea of being the gatekeeper of knowledge to pass to students as

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