Friday, January 19, 1996

Reflections on A Critical Approach to Language Teaching

Teaching and learning as Subjective Activity

The many attempts to create a science of pedagogy have never entirely overshadowed teaching and learning as art. Ask ten people to describe a classroom at work and you can get ten different descriptions. One can focus on teaching style, text or content, student interest and motivation, student performance, learner/teacher relationships, or on the larger educational context. Within each area, one can shift background and foreground at will. And what is going on on the surface may conceal what is going on underneath. And whatever is going on in the minds of those engaged, it is hardly a controlled scientific activity.

Unfortunately, education has been savaged with regularity by those who would make it science, who would cut and limit, regulate and mold the work of schools into manageable pieces. With good reason (desire to eliminate waste and inefficiency) and bad (fear of chaos and diversity) the desire for control drives ministries of education and other regulating bodies to see the individual learner as background, and other, more controllable parts of the job such as textbook content and allocation of time and resources as foreground. One cannot make the horse drink, but one can control his access to water.

But education remains an engagement with chaos. Distinguished from training (the acquisition of skills and the formation of good habits) and from indoctrination (the absorption of ideology not reflected upon), and from schooling (the transmission of culture), education is a reach into the unknown and a quest for positive change. And unlike the cramming of facts and other isolating forms of knowledge acquisition, education is a reach beyond the local, the parochial, and received truths, beyond the tribal gods and the self. People known as educators often confuse education with schooling. Their world is constrained by the need to evaluate and grade. Often their jobs and salary are dependent on their success at inculcating a particular body of knowledge. Schooling, in other words, is a seductive substitute for education.

Language pedagogy is particularly susceptible to this seduction. Acknowledged as a skill and impossible without the memorization of thousands of small pieces of information, language proficiency is a goal which on the surface at least seems to be unrelated with the pursuit of education. What does the acquisition of the ability to communicate with a linguistic and cultural other have to do with the quest for positive change?

The field of TESOL

It wasn't that long ago that the stuff of TESOL, JALT, and other language conferences, as well as master's programs and other credentialing programs, focused on linguistic form to the exclusion of larger social, not to mention moral, issues. Recently, however, there has been a shift in linguistics towards pragmatics and ever larger fields of discourse. Language pedagogy has followed suit. What thirty years ago was foreground, the shift from the written to the spoken word, micro issues of phonetics and phonology, and behavioristically-based teaching methods, has now become background. Foreground is the whole individual communicating in a social context. This means the teacher, often naturally inclined to do so anyway, now has disciplinary support to stress general education over specific content.

The implications of this shift are profound. For one thing, with teachers focusing on students rather than on linguistic form, they are readily drawn into debates on the meaning of higher education. Curriculum, instead of being an area best left to experts, becomes everybody's business. The desire to inform becomes the desire to engage and the field finds itself on a parallel track with others in other disciplines asking the same questions -- where are the students, why are we doing this?

Politics are never very far from education and from time to time politics takes center stage. With the fall of communism as a focal point, cultural conservatives and social transformationists in the United States turned their attention recently to each other and the battle over multiculturalism was on. That battle is still raging and no one asking questions about curriculum and the purpose of education can avoid reflecting on whether it should be the continued transmission of the ideas of the Enlightenment or a more radical transformation of society to bring in hitherto silenced voices.

That battle, in turn, is informed by the larger philosophical conflict between the purveyors of the enlightenment project as a universal human accomplishment and postmodern critique of this project as a wolf in grandma's clothing, a gift to the world which works to the benefit of the European patriarchy. Central to this debate is the confrontation between those with the upper hand, the power structure, generally identified in English-speaking countries as white (not colored), male (not female), heterosexual (not gay or bisexual), as well as other categories such as the physically able. Outside of English-speaking countries many find it curious that sex is in and class is out.

Perhaps because of the legacy of the cold war and the demonization of marxism (although marxists would argue I've got the cause and effect (reversed), class is underplayed in America. And perhaps because of the puritan tradition of seeing morality in sexual terms, with a resultant oppression of non-procreative, particularly gay sexuality, sexual liberation has loomed large. In any case, these categories are not arbitrary, but reflect the struggle for the power to define culture in every one of the societies of the English-speaking peoples and anyone studying English and follows up on a curiosity about their cultures gets to engage with the questions. Because of the widespread use of English and the hegemony of the English-speaking people, these debates spill over into other traditions, and because the debates today increasingly take place with reference to postmodernist theory, they are no longer exclusively anglophone debates anyway.

The language teacher very quickly finds herself, in other words, out in the world at large. To leave the world of vocabulary and syntax, notional-functional syllabuses and role playing exercises, in other words, is to engage in a world of ideas. A language learner who places her own education before any particular technical accomplishments has to engage with the larger world of conflicts, to communicate with cultural others across ideological boundaries and to establish, along with the acquisition of "language" the voice of a communicator with a grounded set of perspectives.

Critical pedagogy

John Dewey has made the case that teaching never takes place in a vacuum. One does not teach, one teaches something to someone. And what a learner learns may or may not coincide with what a teacher thinks she is teaching. Unlike most commercial schools of language, test driven by the need to bank facts about language, university language programs have, at least on some level, a mandate for focusing primarily on education, and only secondarily on any particular subject matter. Language classes remain structured by the necessity to demonstrate increasing proficiency in foreign language ability, but since such proficiency has been found to increase faster as language becomes the means and not the object of study, there is seldom a conflict in language classes between the pursuit of educational goals and the teaching of language. The effective language classroom, like any other classroom, is one in which education, as opposed to training or indoctrination, rote-learning, or other demonstrations of obedience for its own sake, takes place.

Since Dewey, the most serious questioning of the goal of education as I have defined it has been done by Paolo Freire and his followers. In the introduction to a volume entitled Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, bell hooks (she writes her name, like e.e. cummings, without caps), one of his followers in America, talks about her experience as an undergraduate at Stanford.

…It surprised and shocked me to sit in classes where professors were not excited about teaching, where they did not seem to have a clue that education was about the practice of freedom. During college, the primary lesson was reinforced: we were to learn obedience to authority... I was tormented by the classroom reality.... The vast majority of our professors ...often used the classroom to enact rituals of control.

The banking system of education, in which knowledge is taken to be information that can be stored and used at a later date, has crushed the excitement of discovery in more than a few young minds who came to formal learning with a natural inclination toward critical thinking. When language learning is defined solely in terms of technical proficiency, it makes sense to argue one must learn to walk before one can run and to design curricula in which form and procedure are foreground and students are background instead of the other way around. If we focus on the learner, however, we become aware in a matter of days, if not hours, of how the learner's desire to communicate can readily become not only the motivation for language learning but the content as well. How often, instead of encouraging this voice to talk, we tell it to parrot instead.

bell hooks' view of teaching reflects Freire's thought that teaching is a performative act, an opportunity for invention and spontaneity, an engagement with others who believe change is possible, a way of pulling each other up and out of the local, the limited, the provincial. Freire calls education the practice of freedom because it reflects a belief that anyone can learn, that no one loses and everyone gains because the so-called teachers share in the discovery of the so-called learners, and ultimately in the spiritual growth that comes with leaving the limitations of imposed categories behind.

Education, says Freire, is the pursuit of critical awareness, action and reflection upon the world in order to change it. Freire's ideal is in opposition to the so-called banking system of education, which separates the learner from what is learned, and the teacher from what is taught. When the goal is acquisition of facts, it becomes irrelevant to talk of moral education. That's something to be done outside of class, in the privacy of one's room perhaps, not in the common space. When the teacher is not whole, when she is conveniently compartmentalized into a mind here and a body there, there is no accountability for life practices, for roles played in the larger world. What does it matter if a man beats his wife, as long as he "knows his stuff." What does it matter if one is emotionally unstable if one "gets the job done." Writing of her disillusionment with undergraduate study at Stanford, bell hooks says:

...(T)he only important aspect of our identity was whether or not our minds functioned, whether we were able to do our jobs in the classroom. The self was presumably emptied out the moment the threshold was crossed, leaving in place only an objective mind--free of experiences and biases. There was fear that the conditions of that self would interfere with the teaching process.

Even novice teachers discover early on how much more readily students respond when one remembers their names, how much better they perform when they have responsibility for designing their own education. When students get to see that their own education moves or stumbles at their own command they are free to break away from a teacher-controlled learning environment. This break represents the move from schooling for socialization to education. Although it can happen earlier, it seems to happen in most places, if at all, at the threshold to the university. I say if at all because old habits such as student dependency on teachers and teachers desire for control are strong and well-settled by the time a student is eighteen.

Nevertheless, the more one demonstrates the conviction that a learner has the right to set her own agenda, the conviction that one can learn to learn, can learn to think, can learn to recognize limitations in herself and others and move on anyway, the less one has to depend on others to set the learning agenda and the means of evaluation and the more attractive the learning project becomes.

With the student calling the shots, the teacher has to redefine her role. What better role than that of educator/troublemaker? Devil's advocate when nobody else will be, supporter of risk-takers, first among equals. The more one releases the traditional teacher/knower role, the more one engages as an (albeit older, even sometimes unavoidably intimidating) co-learner, the greater the stake every learner has in getting into the act. Some will resist because the training is so thorough, the expectations so high that it is the teacher's job to set the agenda and drive the herd. Others simply have other things to do they consider more important. When control is not the issue, this is a risk one must take. Tying children to the piano bench sometimes makes them technically more proficient but it doesn't motivate the desire for positive change.

Cultural Transmission vs. Social Transformation

Such talk makes many people in the university uncomfortable. To tout education as the means of transforming society is to invite chaos, to relinquish authority, to downplay a teacher's knowledge and experience. And it begs the question "which way?" Isn't education supposed to be cultural transmission? Who are you to call for social transformation? One cannot engage in critical pedagogy without a knowledge of self, a conviction that injustice is transitory but held in place by the faint-hearted, and an understanding that the status quo is not in everyone's interest.

How is one to deal with the charge that support of cultural diversity is not merely a substitute of one "dictatorship of knowing" for another? The modern university, despite its bureaucratically inclined controllers, is still driven not by the traditionalists of the world, but by those who would transform it. The greater the success in throwing off the power of others to force you in a direction not of your choosing (whether you call that power the patriarchal hegemony or any other lockstep tyranny) the greater the responsibility to engage in open debate over how to share the power to determining alternate directions. The language classroom, like any other classroom, will take up into its content, the battle for the mind of the engaged student. Thirty years ago I was told to keep religion, politics and sex out of the classroom. Those were the taboos of the day (there are others now) and I instinctively realized these must be the three most interesting topics to bring into the classroom. A decision not to engage is to choose ignorance, and to anyone genuinely interested in education, a choice for ignorance is not a choice.

As opposed to the approach to education taken by "great books" advocates, for example, teaching from the perspective of critical pedagogy, means facing complaints like, "I thought this was supposed to be an English class! Why are we talking so much about feminism/ abortion/ street people/ racism/ political corruption, etc.?" Why indeed? Look at the alternatives. Debates over whether smoking is good for you, whether life in the city is better than life in the country and other stuff of ESL classrooms designed by teachers whose only interest in the subject matter is in being able to control it, makes of the learning experience a holding pattern, a card game in a doctor's waiting room, a trash novel in an air terminal. It doesn't have to be the street people. You tell me what really counts. If you suggest we discuss the food in the cafeteria, I'll tell you to keep going until you get to something that counts with me as well. We'll find it. And in the process, in seeking a way to tackle a common problem neither of us has yet found a solution to, in case you haven't noticed, you're retaining vocabulary at a much faster rate than before because the words have a reason for sticking.

There is another reason for not starting with the forms and leaving the content for later. In the first place, a refusal to engage in issues requiring emotional involvement is as much a teacher's lesson as an invitation to combine talk with something worth talking about. An invitation to education accompanied by a resolve to avoid pain or discomfort is fundamentally dishonest. Positive change involves the casting off of values and relations accepted without reflection. It involves critical analysis of the self in the learning process and a commitment to seeing how one stands in relation to others. As long as our classrooms are comprised of both the more enlightened and the lesser enlightened, an open and engaged classroom will have to deal with the confrontation of both kinds of views. To avoid conflict is to avoid the challenge of change and to avoid that challenge is to subvert the potential for education.

The issue of gender in the classroom

Issues of gender are a case in point. Not even if one is tempted to accept the argument that one should "keep politics out of it," to make language teaching descriptive rather than prescriptive (this is the way women talk; I'm not interested in how you think they should talk), can one avoid the place gender has assumed in the study of language. Deborah Tannen's study of male and female language has moved the question of language and gender out of the academic world into popular consciousness. The facts that women ask more questions, men interrupt more, and men listen less to what women are saying than the other way around are now part of what constitutes the knowledge of the discipline of linguistics which informs the language classroom. Feminists and others taking a multicultural perspective see this as justification for a revised curriculum which places them in the center instead of on the periphery of education. You can go along with this or resist this. But either way, you make a political decision.

Over the past several years at SFC, I have enjoyed the freedom to engage with students both in language classes, in volunteer discussion groups, and in seminars, which I conduct in English, in a way which permits open discussion and the exploration of student agendas. I provide the framework, which suits both me and the university administration, and students provide the content, initially in the form of response to my agenda. One of my first seminars, under the rubric of Intercultural Communication, was called "Western Perspectives on Japan." During the course of that semester, it became clear to me that many of our issues were ethical issues, and I followed the next semester with an attempt to explore the concept of transcultural ethics. Simultaneously, the pandemic of AIDS reached into our lives, and I led a seminar entitled "Cultural Perspectives on the AIDS Crisis" which I repeated twice. Those discussions had a profound personal impact, because I was forced to deal with some of the sorrow I thought I was escaping by leaving San Francisco where AIDS is on everybody's lips for Japan, where for a while it was almost never mentioned.

Another outcome of these discussions was the awareness that AIDS was having a devastating impact on women's lives, largely because of their powerlessness to say no to sex, and this led to an exploration of various liberation movements, and to the topic of feminism. My students, now seniors, were getting their first dose of gender inequality as they went out looking for jobs. Men learned the meaning of privilege, women, one of whom was told she had no need to work because her father was rich, the meaning of discrimination.

Officially, I am a professor in the Faculty of Environmental Information. When asked, I identify myself as a teacher of English. Both of these designations are misleading, but they serve as well as any. Neither of them reveals what I have been doing for the last seven years of engagement with SFC students. Nor does it reveal what they have taught me. The experience did not change any of my fundamental identities, but it sharpened my awareness of them all. I am a tenured European-American male professor, can still see and hear and run fast despite my age, and I commute between two developed countries. I am conscious of the privilege that comes to me from fitting into each of these categories. I am also working class in origin, gay-identified, a feminist, and a foreigner to most of the people with whom I come in contact and I am conscious of how my tendency to weave myself in and out of these categories and to allow others to weave away as well allows me to change focus. I take a multiplicity of perspectives to be essential to the development of professional ethics in teaching.

My students, all Japanese, male and female in approximately equal numbers, each bring another set of identifiers and the longer my contact with Japan, the less it is a place of the cultural "other" and the more readily I perceive the diversity of these identifiers. My students are highly directed or floating aimlessly through their university years. They are other-oriented or self-preoccupied. They think the bombing of Hiroshima was a moral outrage or a necessary step in ending the war. They are curious about why Danes of the same sex can marry, why Dutch doctors can practice euthanasia, why there is violence in American cities, bride-burning in India, female genital mutilation in Africa, and they want to talk about it. All of these topics have arisen in groups free to set their own agenda for content-based classes of English and English-medium seminars. All of them involve a questioning of the way the world works and how value systems clash, including those of men and women as a class. While gender in the language classroom is only occasionally center stage, it is frequently the framework for a discussion of power and how it operates.

The question is not whether gender plays a role in language learning; it obviously does because the questions of the day, the questions framing the consciousness of our students and thus the learning environment, are fundamental existential questions. Do men control women? How? What are the consequences? Are men and women different? How? Does communication between the sexes (or lack of it) affect the learning environment? Is there anything we can or should do about it? Do men and women have different ways of knowing? Are these differences rooted in biology or in cultural practice? Should we minimize these differences? Take them into consideration or work as if they were not there? Should social (educational and other) policies reflect these differences? Whose goals are met if we go on pretending these questions do not affect the learning environment?

The question is whether those of us who are responsible for curriculum (i.e., anybody with a classroom) allow for democratic involvement of everyone involved. Whether the defenders of the status quo can keep talking instead of running for the cops when challenged, whether those inclined to speak in well-modulated voices can learn to listen to the less well-modulated. Whether we shy away from conflict or whether we have the courage to bring it all in, politics and cultural bias, social class and economic domination, the AIDS crisis, censorship and taboo, the growth of minority consciousness, Comfort Women, the atomic bomb, and every other aspect of life that puts us in the position of having to choose whether to limit our interaction or open ourselves up to learning from one another.


The approach to teaching and learning I have urged here suggests to many, by its setting of student and teacher on an equal footing, that students must be in possession of native or near-native English proficiency skills. While I concede that with very low proficiency students a teacher’s “Input” is inevitably more instruction than interaction, it need not remain so for long. Two things separate the teacher as “knower” from the students at “learner” in traditional language classes: the need to use the target language only (which obviously gives the teacher the upper hand) and the belief that one should divide acquisition of forms from language use, that one must first learn the language (in grammar and vocabulary classes, for example) before one can “perform” in it (as in a conversation class). A third virus in the system, which fortunately not all teachers fall victim to, is the tendency to equate language proficiency with intelligence, and therefore to leave the hard issues for advanced language classes. When students understand the full impact of responsibility for their own instruction, they can break through these barriers, as most of the world’s language learners do in real life. How often we forget that most people do not learn a second or foreign language in schools. They never have. Because we associate sheltered learning environments with children, we often carry our knower/teacher/adult personae into the classroom inappropriately. Complex issues can be dealt with at all levels of language proficiency; one simply has to become comfortable in the knowledge that a good performance is no substitute for a meaningful exchange.

January 19, 1996


Freire, Paolo. 1968/1990. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. NY: Continuum.
hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. NY: Routledge.
Tannen, Deborah. 1994. Gender and Discourse. NY: Oxford University Press.

reproduced from Casanave, Christine Pearson and Amy D. Yamashiro (Eds.), Gender Issues in Language Education. Keio University Shonan Fujisawa Campus Monograph #5, March 1996. Used with permission.

Also available as an ERIC document: (ED425652)