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More on Critical Pedagogy
What critical pedagogy is and is not
An exchange between a student (Sandra) and Ania Lian

Sandra writes: 
“I'm reading Radical Pedagogy (1999) Anne Travers & Elaine Decker paper. 'Critical pedagogy facilitates the development of a language of critical discourse. If we use it as a social force we may be able to foster a generation of techno literate skeptics, equipping our society to engage critically with both the content and the consequences of new technologies. Support for this critical engagement is an important contribution educators can make to efforts to trouble boundaries between insiders and outsiders as society shifts and changes.’”

As said in our lectures, critical pedagogy is a practice of teaching that does not limit learners’ options regarding how to solve problems. As a result, critical pedagogy does not seek to discover a path or a plan for solving learners’ problems. Instead, it focuses its efforts on the kinds of conditions that would help learners mobilise as rich a reference (knowledge) basis as possible to resolve problems that they encounter. In this way, critical pedagogy does not seek to give learners any specific language (kind as Anne Travers & Elaine Decker seem to suggest) that would function as a magic tool to be mobilised when necessary. Rather, the aim is to help students develop practical skills that would help them deal with the unpredicted and often unpredictable contexts of human interactions. The element of unpredictability in human interactions makes the task of teachers more complex. It is no longer sufficient for teachers to say that they give students knowledge. More to the point, it would be required for teachers to illustrate how they make it possible for students to manage the complexity of human interactions that in turn give rise to problems that are unpredicted and most often unpredictable. 

In the view of the above statements, the point behind critical pedagogy is not so much to deliver logic for dealing with questions, which a language of critical discourse may be accused to be. Rather, the aim is to develop a capacity on the part of our students to resolve whatever problems that they encounter in ways that reveal the complexity (richness) rather than simplicity of the understandings applied.   

In the context of L2-teaching, the aim is to create conditions where our students no longer study the linguistic structure for the sake of demonstrating to teachers the logic in terms of which these structures have been constructed. To know a language cannot be equated with the ability to reproduce a single answer that works when applied to contrived and hence inauthentic sets of situations. To know a language is to manage a diversity of logics depending on the demands that the communicative context places on the interlocutor. Hence for our students to know a language would be to be able to cope with the conditions that communicative context places on them rather than to cope with artificial conditions designed by teachers if only to reassure themselves that they do their best.

Thus, in critical pedagogy, the aim is for students to utilise the opportunities provided (Macro-tasks and Support Structures) to develop an in-depth understanding as to the kinds of communicative strategies that target language speakers utilise. The deeper this understanding, the more able our students are to act effectively in unpredictable target language contexts. On the other hand, the more constrained our students are regarding the ways in which they can resolve their communicative problems, the more reliant they become on teachers’ point of view and less on their own laterality and creativity.   

In critical pedagogy, therefore, the aim is to empower students in ways that help them utilise a diversity of links or connections that may prove of value to them in communicative settings. A pedagogy that restricts their choices in this regard, is a pedagogy where teachers take on upon themselves the task of solving learners’ language problems. But in so doing, they not only de-capacitate learners. They also believe that they have the knowledge regarding the nature of communicative problems and the path for their resolving. They present themselves as experts and automatically disempower learners from the possibility of exploring their own potential and their own understandings.     

For our language students to achieve the capacity to act in contexts that are unpredicted and unpredictable, it is important that teaching environments do not protect them form the complexity of the communicative conditions that apply in authentic communicative contexts. Rather, the necessity arises for students to be exposed to such interactions from day 1 in order for them to slowly develop strategies that help them cope with the reality of communicative contexts. The difference between critical and not critical teaching practices is as follows. 

In critical teaching practices, teachers do not teach. Instead, they search for ways that help learners regulate the kinds of questions and difficulties that they encounter in a communicative context. In traditional (conservative) teaching practices, teachers teach what they consider to be the knowledge of language. Here they no longer search for ways that help learners find ways to resolve their communicative problems. Instead, typically they search for a condition of a “task” or activities (cf. Widdowson, 1990) that can help them to teach this “knowledge” faster and hence more effectively. 

In terms of technology, the differences will be of the same kind. In critical teaching practices, the relationship between the Macro-tasks and the support structures that students explore is not direct. In other words, in critical teaching practices, the activities that students undertake to learn more about language and how it works depend on the difficulties that students experience in the contexts of dealing with the Macro-task itself. Here it is the student that selects what to do and why. Teacher’s help functions more to signal to students that there can be other ways of approaching the problem at hand.

In turn, in traditional or conservative learning environments, the notion of a macro-task is non-existent. Macro-tasks are replaced with a notion of a language –task i.e. a task designed specifically in order to teach students specific forms of linguistic knowledge. In such a context, students do not learn in order to communicate. Rather, they learn in order to fulfill the demands of the task. Here it is the teacher that selects what to do and why. The shape of the language  problems and their solutions are already decided by the teacher. 

Sandra quoting others:
“'The preponderance of references to student centered learning, a democratic learning environment, the shared construction of knowledge and the changing of teaching practices in these reviews of the positive presence of technology on campus persuades us that technology and critical pedagogy have a promising relationship. Still, the improvement of pedagogy is a good end in itself, and critical pedagogy has a role larger than guiding learning online.'”

Technology has a place in learning environments if only because technology can enhance our capacities of managing and therefore dealing with information (text-relationships). The technology of print has helped us in this aspect 500 years ago (or so). So the answer regarding whether technology can be utilised to enhance language teaching must be positive. The question that is controversial is HOW. But the controversy as stated above comes from pedagogy not technology. Once we have our principles in place, we can do anything.  On the other hand, when we have no principles, little creative can be achieved since we may find ourselves locked in the logic of education that we know from our own schooling which for most of us had belonged to the conservative, traditional camp.

“To fully understand this and other papers I think I need a correct understanding of what critical pedagogy is. My original view was that it meant something like 'well considered teaching'.

But we as teachers cannot consider it all. Therefore the solution that I suggest is to create conditions (notice that I do not talk about classroom alone) that allow students for whatever considerations that they should make or make in any case. 

“ I was interested to read that the Principles of Learning established by the Government of the Province of British Columbia are:
 *  learning requires the active participation of the student
 *  people learn in a variety of way and at different rates
 *  learning is both an individual and a group process.
Wouldn't these be universal?”

The problem is that although we all agree regarding the universals, we are not all quite sure what implications this may have to language teaching or to teaching of other subjects. But the premises are good.

I'm looking at trying to answer what 'learner centred' and enhancing learning' is. Are these examples of what learner centred means?   ' in all classrooms learning will be purposive, reflective, negotiated, critical, [that word again] complex, situation driven, and engaged.' Or is it - from Dede in the same paper 'analogical, case-based, learning-by-doing .. giving learners constructivist experiences, facilitating comprehension and ability to generalize ... structuring group dialogue and decision making, facilitating collective activities.'

In the class and in these discussion papers, I have attempted to narrow down the definition of “centred” as beginning with learners and therefore with al that which we cannot predict. This definition can be opposed to teaching methods that begin with teachers’ or theoretical assumptions regarding what teachers should teach. 
“Learning by doing” in my view includes the kind of learning as exemplified in Macro-tasks. Here learners do not study the items considered to constitute the knowledge of language. As a result, their learning is directed by abstract speculations regarding what language is. In ‘learning by doing’ it is the practical difficulties that learners experience in the context of engaging in a macro-task that direct their learning. These difficulties are not abstract. They are real. It is very real to learners that they cannot understand TV ads and yet they need to produce one. It is very real to them that they cannot produce a local, village newspaper, and yet they have to produce one every month or week. It is very real to learners that they need to find out how to produce a radio broadcast since they have to engage in the production of it.   

“'Enhancing learning' is to raise the learning to a higher degree to intensify the experience. At first I was viewing this as adding to what is already known but now I think it is definitely raising it to a higher level. You asked about principles for money management - I've just gone through this process on leaving the public service for greener fields. I got professional advice! I'm still not overly comfortable with my decisions and have taken a conservative investment portfolio with options to reassess regularly. Will I apply this to my teaching? It would make sense but is conservative rather than spontaneous.”

‘Enhancing learning’, in my view, is to create conditions that enable students regulate the kinds of challenges that target language interactions present to them. In terms of general learning we can say that ‘enhancing learning’ is to create conditions that enable students to regulate the kinds of challenges that human interactions present to them. We enhance learning by making learning more meaningful to learners, by shifting from activities that in our view provide shortcuts to students to activities that help learners regulate what is a shortcut for them and what is not. Macro-tasks do this. Also, at the level of support structures, technology comes here handy since we can create computer-based activities where it is learners’ difficulties that direct their learning selections rather than teachers (cf. http://education.canberra.edu.au/~andrewl/mlapl/shaolin/psupres2.htm)

Now taking a conservative attitude to money means not jumping because you can. The same does apply to teaching, in my view. Just because there is a yet another software or a yet another method invented, why take it on? In my view, it is important first to understand what we want before we let others tell us what is it that we need.

I have reread your 'Technology, pedagogy and prejudice. I think I understand your points and see that you and others argue that there is no divine methodology, all are flawed like all things from the human mind. Technology is only a medium and needs to be used with discernment in a teaching environment. If it is just more of the same it will be as unsuccessful as other methodologies.

I agree too.

Here are some other comments "L2-teaching literature recommends teachers to be guided by their intuition and experience". This doesn't help me because whilst in many other areas of my life I can and do rely on my intuition and experience I have no teaching experience. On reflection that is not correct - I have been a communication manager, trainer and am a parent but think that in a teaching environment I need more in my toolbox.

Teaching is one of those topics on which everyone has a view. I am interested in us all attempting to systematise our beliefs if only so that we can tell the difference between what we want and what others tell us that we need. Most teaching theorists do believe that because we have no clear understanding what happens in students’ heads, experience is what teachers should build rather than critical approach. But what is experience other than what we know. To enrich this experience we need to think. But how can we begin to think critically (in order to act on an informed basis) when we are told that unless we know what happens in students’ heads our hands are tight? 

What I claim though is that we do not need to know what happens in students’ heads. What we need to explore is how to enable our students to overcome the perceptual biases with which they approach their target language interactions. Thus be it their accent in pronunciation or in other aspects of communication, the problem is not that students do not have the linguistic knowledge. Rather, the problem is that students approach target language interactions with a perceptual basis that looks for elements or solutions that are familiar to them but are unfamiliar to the target language speakers.    

To explore ways in which we could help learners to overcome their individual biases, least we would need is experience that tells us how deal with students. More to the point, we need to overcome the bias that we bring with us as teachers and which we have developed as a result of our schooling or as a result of education programs that see teaching less as a developmental opportunity and more as a curse that we have to handle.

Activities that require from students to explore authentic resources with the aim to act on a more informed basis in the context of macro-tasks have the following advantages:
- Students work on problems that derive from the necessity to engage in the reality created by the macro-task. As a result, they do not work on abstract problems that derive from artificial demands of a pedagogic task of linguistic exercise produced for students with the hope that they will give them “the language”.  
- In the context if macro-tasks students build their own histories as participators in the target language culture. As a result, the texts that they produce are not neutral or artificial but are a product of reflection if what to say and why in a given context. When they do not know how to act, they engage in the process of exploration of the target conditions that they do not understand as yet.
- With the help of teachers, through a multiplicity of ways (e.g. playing with intonation patterns, walking to the beat of target sentences, comparing different ways of saying similar things) they can become more sensitised to the organisational patterns of the language through listening, reading etc. activities.
- With the help of technology, they can explore different ways of expressing themselves. For example, they can have a radio broadcasting site on the internet where students from different schools post their broadcasts. Students from different schools can then listen and exchange follow-up ideas through bulletin boards associated with that Internet site.
- With the help of technology, teachers can help learners to stop the flow of the target language and they can create for them a diversity of means with the help of which students can regulate the processing load that target language texts place on them. For details regarding such means, check Andrew Lian’s publications and among them http://education.canberra.edu.au/~andrewl/mlapl/shaolin/psupres2.htm.
- Technological support can also be as simple as a camera. Students when recording their voices and themselves have a chance of looking at their language production from without. Teachers can utilise these recordings in order to help students overcome some of the difficulties that these recordings reveal.

“How do learners know what they want? I'm not sure what I need but I know I want to be a successful TESOL teacher.”

We do not have to know too much about what is it that learners need or want to know. What we do need though, is to enable students to identify how well they can cope with whatever demands that they experience in the process of their target language interactions. This is a very different focus from the one that begins with an attempt to identify what is it that they want or should be given. It is also methodology where, provided the environment is rich enough, students can regulate their own learning process to a very large extent. 

But to achieve such a learning process, we cannot limit our learning activities to classroom-based activities. The advantage of macro-tasks is that the structure of the learning activities can be diversified. Students, at times, can work in teacher-led activities (e.g. listening comprehensions, working with texts, working with problems relating to structuring or understanding target language texts). At times, they can work in groups and other times alone trying to resolve some of the problems that the tasks that they undertook as individuals present to them.  An example of an ideal learning environment is an ILTC (a self-access area) where students can organise themselves or be organised by the teacher in a diversity of working structures. 

“You are challenging us 'to seek understanding to extend our perspectives rather than to limit them' [I hope by being a student I am doing just that] and to create a 'learning environment ... rich in help structures of a kind that stimulate exploration'.  I suspect that this is one such environment, my having a one to one email dialogue with you, isn't it? What other break through do I need to make from this piece of writing?”

There is always more that we can do. We can always make our teaching environment richer. We do this by continuously enlarging the support structures that we create for our students. These support include well-organised resources and the means provided for students to work with these resources (e.g. various computer-based programs that help students to work with texts in different ways). Once we have such resources, our students can engage in projects such as macro-tasks with sufficient amount of support structures to take them over the line.

Also notice that this very course on technology has support structures that we have developed over the course of this semester. However, all students are most welcome to review whatever resources have been accumulated over the years and are available through WebCT. The point is to come up with some understandings regarding what is it that we would like to see in a language course. And to come up with such understandings, it will require from us a dialogue with whatever texts that we can explore. We need a dialogue with experiences that have been made by others in order to build on these experiences to come up with our own ideas. 

No one truly can tell what is the right thing to do. But we all may agree on the things that do not make sense. One such a thing that does not make sense is a belief that teaching is about giving knowledge to students and hence giving students the impression that teachers know and can tell students how things are. But such a practice is misleading students because it gives them false expectations not only in regard to language but also in regard to life. No one knows how things are. We all work with our eyes half-closed hoping that, in spite of this, we can achieve good things. To give learners a false sense of security is not only misleading. It also is disabling. 

At every step, as teachers, we need to remember that we do not only teach language. We teach within socio-intellectual paradigms that reinforce visions of life and work culture. When we teach in ways that project us as experts giving knowledge to students, we disable learners from the possibility of affecting their own learning process in ways that are not just meaningful to them. More to the point, we disable them from participating in the process of exploring their own capacities to understand and judge themselves and others in the social contexts that they function. 

By telling students how things are, we prevent students from acting on the basis of their confidence in themselves rather than on the basis on confidence that they borrow from teachers. Thus giving knowledge to students is a two-edge sword. It may give them some form of artificial comfort for a moment. However, it also teaches them a dependency structure where there are always people who are bigger and better and who know it and who should do things for them.  Let me finish this paper with a quote from my article: Technology, pedagogy and prejudice:

In his critique of the Western world, Saul raises the question of responsibility and obligation. Why is it, he asks that increasingly we seek safety and legitimation in numbers. He repeats after C. Jung: “Where the many are, there is security; what the many believe must of course be true” (Saul, 1997 Unconscious Civilisation: 95). To Saul, the tendency to seek strength in numbers reflects another phenomenon: that of individual abdicating his/her sense of responsibility and delegating it to the expert. “Those who have the truth must have the answer” (Flaubert in Saul, 1997: 95). Consequently, we live in the world where to acquire knowledge means to buy it from the experts. 

The dependency structure between non-experts and experts is thus put in place. The expert not only is the only one with answers and hence with the monopoly on truth. He or she is also the only one who invents a problem that only s/he can solve it. In fact, surrounded by experts, non-experts can slip “back into the kingdom of childhood, into the paradise of parental care” (cf. Saul, 1997: 95) where the responsibility for big things is delegated to big people. Non-experts are powerful through their experts i.e. through those whose feed them and whose language they repeat. The responsibility for the actions of non-experts is on big people. Little people then go about spreading the word of the big people as if knowledge were more like a political tool rather than a means for challenging the status quo.   
In such a context, knowledge is no longer constructed and reconstructed for the purpose of revealing more. Instead, knowledge functions as a currency to reinforce egos. It has lost the meaning for which Socrates has given his life. Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher who is considered to have laid the foundations of Western civilisation. We may say Socrates had a wrong knowledge and has been sentenced to death because of it. The death of Socrates still weighs on us. To prevent it from reoccurring, the experts divided knowledge into ever-narrower specialisations. The operating principle is that we all can be right provided everyone stays within the boundaries of their own specialisation. As a result, we no longer grow by learning form one another. Instead, knowledge becomes compartmentalised and our fields of expertise increasingly smaller. Experts continue revealing increasingly more about increasingly less. They work in the hope that you can shrink to greatness after all.

Ania Lian, 2002

Copyright © Ania Lian 2002