I was surprised, not to say dismayed, to see that JJ Wilson’s plenary got good reviews, even from those who are critical of current ELT practice in general and of IATEFL in particular. My opinion is that the plenary was slickly packaged, worthless dross. Here’s what he said, and I assure you that I am leaving out no important points, or any significant development of them.
Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed gave me the theory I need to talk about my teaching practice. It’s all about emancipating yourself. Freire characterised most education as implementing a “banking” concept of education and really education is about transformation. Freire talks about problem posing, questioning, dialogue. He say the basis of all education is love, and that means justice.
Friere talks about “conscientização”: critical consciousness of your place in society.
He was exiled because he tried to empower people.
“Praxis” is the bringing together of theory and practice, which comes from Marx, who said “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”. An example is Julio Camarota’s workshops in prisons. The prisoners decided that education was the Number 1 reason they were in prison. So they petitioned for education in prison and they got it. That’s praxis.
What is social justice? It’s culturally specific and constantly changing. It affects all areas of our lives. Millions of people have no clear air or water. Social Justice = A world which affords individuals and groups fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of society.
What is the relevance of social justice to ELT? It depends on your view of the educator’s role in society. Teachers model social justice, but we don’t teach social justice, we must avoid proselytising, it’s an approach.
What might social justice issues in the classroom look like?
Do any of you make or create things. Do you make art or jewellry? Do you write for pleasure, do any of you make films? Do any of you make music? Put your hands up.
Wow! 62% of you! Fantastic! You are all involved in pushing the frontiers of human imagination You are all involved in seing beauty where other people don’t even look.
6 different ways of bringing social justice into the class
1, Images. Freire used images Take out a pen and paper and illustrate an issue that you’re passionate about. Next, talk to a partner about what you drew and explain how this issue is represented in your work . Now show your pictures to everybody.
Let’s look at photos of Sebastian Forgadu which show war and famine. I asked students to do presentations of one of the photos and talk about it.
Let’s look at photos of classrooms around the world. Everybody: please make sentences about them beginning “I wonder..” I did this exercise with teachers and turned the “I wonders” into questions.
- What materials do they use?
- What technology do they have?
- What kind of school is it?
- How is children’s education organised?
- How are the classrooms decorated?
By discussing these questions, you’re bringing social justice into the classroom.
2. Poetry and literature. I’m going to read a poem. Listen and repeat
(Audience: I remember)
(Audience: cutting snowdrops etc.)
With windup windows
And who shot who
And Michael Jackson
When he was black
(…….. and on and on.)
You can use this with students who write their own poem and then you ask “What has changed since you were a kid?” This is a very indirect way of bringing social justice into the classroom.
Here’s a poem my wife wrote. (Reads poem “I am from…” ) You can get students to write poems starting “I am from”.
- Theatre. Agusto Boal founded the Theatre of the Oppressed, then he started “Forum” theatre which looks at issues of oppression. It consists of short sketch done twice.; once with a resolution, second time leave it up to the audience to decide what the resolution will be. Boal also invented “spectators” and gamesercises to de-mechanise the self. I recommend his book “Games for actors and non-actors”.
- Community Projects use the method of anthropological enquiry. (Gave examples of a few IATEFL projects.)
- Teachable moments. (Tells story of a boy who asked his teacher about a landfill site and this led to a recycling project. Tells another story of a teacher who arranged a field trip to a beach to see a stranded whale. )
- Stories (Tells story about Nuclear waste. How to warn people about nuclear waste? Lots of bad answers. The best answer is: Start an atomic priesthood of elders who are going to pass on a legend not to go near the mountain and this legend will be passed on from one generation to the next and it might just last 10,000 years.) Stories are very powerful.
- Freire was a radical educationalist who adopted Marx’s idea of praxis. He was concerned with issues of social justice.
- Social Justice = A world which affords individuals and groups fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of society.
- You can bring social justice issues into your classroom by looking at and discussing photos, reading poetry, doing role plays, starting community projects, creating teachable moments, and telling stories.
What’s the point of telling people who Freire was if you don’t make any attempt to use his ideas to critically examine ELT practice? Where in this incohesive succession of undeveloped catchy, candy floss suggestions was there any attempt to seriously engage with Freire’s ideas? Where is the analysis of “issues of social justice” that JJ Wilson is so “passionate” about? Why do millions of people have no fresh air or water? Why do millions of children have lessons sitting in the sand?
The list of pleasantries that made up JJ Wilson’s entertainment was about as challenging as a quick visit to Disneyland, and it did about as much to help teachers address issues of social justice.
Freire would have explained his view that teachers need a better understanding of the political and economic context they work in; that is, they should read enough of Marx, Gramsci, Althusser, and others to appreciate that capitalism benefits a small minority which doesn’t include them. He would have explained that to fight this oppression the first thing we need to do is to think critically and to question the ideology which supports the status quo. He would have then encouraged them to critically examine the ideological assumptions underpinning the activities of Peasons, Cambridge Examiners, the British Council, and the IATEFL organisation itself. Isn’t it the case that “the bottom line”, i.e., profit, is their overriding concern? To take just one example, what view of education leads Pearson to promote its “Global Scale Of English”? Is it not the most audacious example yet of the commodification of education, of what Scott Thornbury so memorably refers to as the McNuggets view of ELT?
And Freire would have encouraged teachers to think about practical ways of grappling with the consequences of global capitalism and the commodification of education. He would have told them that they must be critical, that they must simply stop believing what they’re told, and that they must change their practice.
He might even have suggested that they critically appraise the widening gap between their own deterorating social position and the position of those like JJ Wilson who sell coursebooks and training courses and receive awards from Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and who talk to them at plenary sessions before flying off to their next well-paid appearance in the world ELT circus.
The Society of the Spectacle
The Situationists, particularly Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, argued that workers in the capitalist production process have their powers ‘snatched’ from them; they create an abundance of products which come back to dominate them in an alien form—that is, as commodities. Spectacular society, in fact socially split between the small minority who benefit and the vast majority who suffer, achieves an illusory unity: everybody is part of the same community, consuming commodified goods and playing reified roles. It seems to me that the IATEFL conference is a good example of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle: passive consumers applaud JJ Wilson as he sells alienation back to them in the name of liberation: a perfect, awful example of reification.
The only way out of this mess is for us to think more critically, and then to organise and act locally. That’s not “praxis”, but it’s better than JJ Wison’s cosy little version of it.
Debord, G. (1967) The Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith: New York: Zone Books, 1995. Also transl. Ken Knabb, London: Rebel Press, 2004.
Vaneigem, R. (1967) The Revolution of Everyday Life. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith: London: Left Bank Books and Rebel Press, 1994.