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Thinking Locally: Addressing the dilemmas
raised by Critical Pedagogy in ELT
by Graham Hall

Several paradoxes seem inherent in ELT. It is a global, profit-generating industry, yet is also part of the world's educational infrastructure; we provide opportunities and life-chances for learners, but are also accused of promoting British goods, language and culture, and of assisting the imposition of a Western liberal-capitalist ideology around the world. For the classroom teacher, these debates often remain abstract, as we ask what we can do in the face of such global forces. This presentation represented my attempt to find an acceptable way through these dilemmas and to try to resolve some of the issues raised to my own satisfaction.

At a broad level, critical pedagogy is primarily concerned with critiquing existing educational institutions and subsequently transforming both education and wider society (to writers such as Paulo Friere and Henri Giroux). There is an ambivalence towards most existing educational structures which are seen as supporting inequalities and an unequal status quo. Issues of social, political and cultural power are addressed as part of the desire for wider social change as a re-humanised classroom becomes a committed social encounter between participants. How do such approaches critique ELT? In brief:

· The global expansion of English is little more than linguistic imperialism (the title of Robert Phillipson's 1992 book), whereby the spread of English supports and is part of English-speaking countries' (i.e. Britain and the US) economic, cultural and political expansion.

· ELT is philosophically unbalanced with its concentration on linguistic rather than educational and social theory. Non-critical ELT is seen to conceptualise knowledge, education and language solely as a body of information that can be taught and learned with the classroom, providing students with a mechanism for transmitting messages and getting things done. This does not fulfil a critical and transformative agenda as there is no conception that ideology is transmitted through language.

· As a consequence, classroom practices are critiqued, with learners seen as passive; teachers as 'technicians' delivering pre-prepared materials prescribed by far-away experts; language content as trivial, over-emphasising the exchange of messages at the expense of issues of voice and identity; the favouring of the 'native-speaker' teacher over 'non-native speakers'; and the transmission of a covert ideology of hidden social and cultural values.

To summarise, therefore, critical approaches to ELT argue that apart from fulfilling the basic need for learners to develop enough language to transmit messages, there is little present to encourage learners (or teachers!) to think critically. Nor is there sufficient consideration of why we are teaching and what society we are teaching for.

The main challenge to these strong and coherent criticisms of ELT are that they offer only criticisms, not solutions. Critical approaches are often perceived as abstract and impractical, and are therefore unable to offer solutions. However, I feel that it is not that they are unable to offer solutions, but they are unwilling to do so. Critical writers can present theoretical positions from which individual teachers and learners can develop their own agendas and strategies for understanding and empowerment. This offers little to those who wish to challenge ELT on a global scale; however, larger structures can eventually be challenged by individuals developing their own critical understandings in a local context. What is needed, therefore, is not prescriptive solutions (which are potentially problematic in the development of local practices) but illustrative case studies, whereby teachers can access examples of colleagues' actions and achievements. This may provide an impetus and focus which teachers need to develop their own critical local practices and understandings.

How, then, can local approaches to critical pedagogy be taken forward? As I have already suggested, we need to recognise that the classroom is the most appropriate lens through which teachers and learners can establish successful critical pedagogy which empowers learners. Secondly, we need to recognise that teaching and learning are 'thinking activities', through which teachers and learners can (and should) consider and explore the ownership of language (should local Englishes and English as a 'worldy' language be understood and learned?); the ownership of lessons (lessons as an on-going process of negotiated exploration and review); and the ownership of learning (learning emerges through the individual expertise and experiences of learners).

Thus the local development of critical pedagogies forms the first step towards meeting the challenges posed by critical approaches to global ELT as teachers and learners produce their own local understandings of the classroom, ELT and education, and their relation to wider society.

Additional relevant bibliography

Freire, P.(1972): Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London, Penguin.
Giroux, H.A. (1992): Border Crossings: Cultural workers and the politics of education. New York, Routledge.
Norton, B.(1997): Language, Identity, and the Ownership of English Tesol Qu. 31/3. pp409-428
Pennycook, A.(1990a): Critical Pedagogy and Second Language Education System. Vol. 18/3. pp303-314
Pennycook, A.(1994): The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language. London, Longman.
Phillipson, R.(1992): Linguistic Imperialism. OUP
Rogers, J. (1982): The World for Sick Proper ELT Journal. Vol.36/3. pp144-151

(This is a summary of Graham’s talk given at the 2004 IATEFL Conference, & first appeared in the IATEFL 2004 Conference Selections publication.)

Graham Hall works at Northumbria University, English Language Centre Lipman Building, Northumbria University, Newcastle-u-Tyne, NE1 8ST
Tel: 0191 227 3112
Fax: 0191 227

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