Reclaiming Our Words: Critical Pedagogy and Special Interest Groups.

The new tyranny, like other recent ones, depends to a large degree on a systematic abuse of language. Together we have to reclaim our hijacked words and reject the tyranny’s nefarious euphemisms; if we do not, we will be left with only the word shame. Not a simple task, for most of its official discourse is pictorial, associative, evasive, full of innuendoes. Few things are said in black and white. Both military and economic strategists now realise that the media play a crucial role, not so much in defeating the current enemy as in foreclosing and preventing mutiny, protests or desertion.

John Berger, 2003

Reading Maureen Ellis’s impassioned plea to Cardiff IATEFL to adopt critical thinking (critical pedagogy) in the classroom, we are reminded of John Berger’s wise words. For any serious examination of Ellis’s text finds the exact reverse of critical thinking, an exercise in using words to push a neo-liberal agenda. This is ultimately (for we do believe that Ellis is naive and misguided rather than cynical) the same language that Bush and Blair used to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, arguing that bombing civilian populations and occupying their countries, was about progress, equality and democracy. Ellis’s attempts to divert resistance over climate change, racism, imperialism, poverty, inequality, economic crisis etc into Global Issues- Special Interest Groups IATEFL is exactly what Berger refers to as foreclosing and preventing mutiny, protests or desertion. To suggest anything less than the disbanding of IATEFL and the radical reorganisation of higher education can further the cause of critical thinking in English Language Teaching is an exercise in deceit of Blair/Bush proportions.

Firstly, a key part of critical pedagogy is for the teacher to be an intellectual and not a technician. An intellectual is someone who reflects deeply on thoughts, seeking to transform themselves in the process and challenge inequality:

Educators should dissuade individuals who reduce teaching to the implementation of methods from entering the teaching profession. Schools need prospective teachers who are both theoreticians and practitioners, who can combine theory, imagination and technique.

Henri Giroux, Teachers as intellectuals

Now, any ordinary rank and file teacher reading Ellis’s text will be surprised to find that for every ten words she writes, there are at least two academic references to demonstrate how well read she is. This is despite her paper being written for what is supposed to be a teachers’ conference and not an academic get together. Of course, the subtext is, “if you want to express yourself and be listened to then you had better read as many books and journals as Ellis. Naturally, as access to such books and journals is strictly controlled  you will have to sign up for an appropriate university where you can have access to the same material she uses”. This is, of course, why many overseas students go to American and British Universities thus impoverishing their own educational establishments, simply because these  universities have better research facilities. In short, Ellis reduces critical theory to a technique, remaining unable to grasp its true insights. Our humble advice to Maureen Ellis is that she read a little less and understand a little more.

Also in the text she repeatedly refers to the NGO, Oxfam, and ELT learning from their experiences. Nowhere in the text does she point out that Oxfam are a somewhat theoretically bankrupt organisation that have been reduced to promoting an idea of development that is little different from the neo-liberal policies which have impoverished communities around the world. Ellis specifically pushes Oxfam’s campaign for Education for Global Citizenship. Whilst dressed up as sensitivity to the plight of others, Education for Global Citezenship is nothing more than an excuse to consolidate global inequality and blame ordinary people for others’ suffering. As Andreotti points out, it treats “globalisation as human progress” but does not ask what has been globalised.  Students are encouraged to consider different access to the world’s resources (for example water) but are never asked to consider these in terms of class and capitalism. Indeed it presents itself as enlightened because it asks working class kids in deprived areas to blame themselves for the poverty of other countries.

The first time I came to the UK as a school links officer to visit schools, I asked British teachers in a conference organised by the British Council what I could do for them. Almost all of them asked for me to connect them with ‘a school out in the sticks’ (preferably in the Amazon forest and without running water). I was very surprised as the aim of school linking wasprecisely to challenge stereotypes and their approach seemed to confirm them. When I asked them why they wanted a school like that, the answer was that they wanted to show their students how privileged they (the British students) were.

Andreotti 2006

Should working class kids accept the blame for inequality? Are they in charge of the IMF?  Will a good global citizen accepting low pay when they grow up help kids in poorer parts of the world? The answer is clearly, no. As Andreotti notes, there is nothing really fixed to study. It’s a myth, an exotic view of difference, as, given different tools, these communities would create an entirely different scenario for British school children to study. Poverty in Brazil has nothing to do with it being a “poor country” and everything to do with capitalist development.  American and  British school children would see something different if you started with capitalism rather than access to water, that’s why the programme doesn’t see any value in showing working class kids the rich private schools of Brazil that the elite send their children to. Similarly, one might show them inside the many elegant London residences of the rich elites, from whatever country they originate, and ask the  children, “who do you have more in common with the powerless or the powerful?”

Maureen Ellis also promotes the IATEFL organisation- Global Issues Special Interest Group. Now normally a special interest group is taken to be political advocacy (normally on the part of the under-represented). Therefore, we would expect other special interest groups like the Non-native English Speaking Teachers Group, Gay and lesbian Teachers Group, Womens’ Rights Group, Disabled Workers Group. Yet these organisation do not exist in IATEFL rather you have a narrower definition of technical interest like the Technology Special Interest Group and Young Learners- Special Interest Group. Exactly the emphasis on teachers as technicians rather than teachers as intellectuals which critical pedagogy despises.  Of course, Ellis can live with this contradiction as her approach has nothing to do with critical pedagogy rather she wants ELT teachers to merely use the simplistic and ineffective materials of Oxfam Global citizenship in their classrooms. A challenge to global inequality in ELT, however, would surely start with the creation of Non-native English Speaking Teachers Group, would start with the question of why they remain so relatively powerless and discriminated against in ELT

This issue of a critical pedagogy and special interest groups is further borne out by a recent discussion of ELT writers being exploited by ELT publishers on Jason Renshaw’s English Raven. Jason Renshaw claims that many leading authors have spoken to him privately to congratulate him on his piece but dare not speak publicly themselves for fear of being victimised by the industry. We would politely suggest to Maureen Ellis that there is no critical pedagogy, where methodology writers are too terrified to speak the truth as they see it. We would also politely suggest this is a better place to start than blaming rank and file ELT teachers for the economic crisis and global inequality. We would also politely suggest to someone fortunate enough to be able to have employment in the same country that she grew up in, to refrain from castigating those not so fortunate.  Ellis places the blame for global warming on workers (chasing a living abroad) travelling home for family reunions. For we Marxists, being able to celebrate the birth of your sibling’s child with family and friends or being at the bedside of a dying parent is not a luxury.

Finally, along with critical theory and special interest group, we would also wish to reclaim the term association of teachers. An association of teachers is an organisation to represent the interests of teachers and not a network of teaching organisations and publishers which sponsors teachers to further their own ends. It would be equally ridiculous to call an association of retailers, an association of shoppers just because they pay for focus groups. A conference is a vehicle for debate about the industry and not a trade fair. The fact that teachers feel they have no other avenue open for them in trying to shape the industry than attend such pantomimes and join such special interest groups does not excuse the abuse of terminology. Reclaiming our words from the tyranny, for that is what it is, of the TEFL Industry, is our first step towards liberation


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