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Critical Pedagogy: What’s that?
Ania Lian

Critical Pedagogy
Critical Pedagogy is a practice of teaching which does not seek in any way to limit learners’ sources of references, and thereby the learning process itself, to a specific set of assumptions or explanations. Rather, its aim is to make it possible for learners to enrich their knowledge basis by helping them subject their points of view to challenge from competing discourses, beliefs or understandings.

In L2-teaching the implication is that students cannot function in a target language not because they lack certain structures. This is a view that locks the process of language learning into a very fixed and predetermined model. Any possibility of learning being a dynamic process is hence removed. 

In an environment that is based on the principles of Critical Pedagogy, the implication is that learners cannot function in a target language because learners’ schemes of perception and production are not rich enough to cope with the kinds of solutions that target language speakers apply to resolve their communication problems. We may say that our learners lack solutions that would help them cope with the challenges that the task of communicating in a target language presents to them. 

In this perspective, the task of teaching is no longer to provide students with solutions but with conditions that help learners regulate the kinds of challenges that target language interactions present to them and the solutions that they apply to them. 

This task is more complex than it may seem at first. In an environment of Critical Pedagogy, teachers’ explanations are only as good as the explanatory power that they provide to learners. This may mean that our explanations may well be hitting a brick wall if only because they may seem adequate to us but they miss learners’ systems of perception and production. Furthermore, the traditional tools like contrived materials, exercises or situational drills, all function as paths designed to shortcut (and hence help) the learning process. However, these shortcuts are solutions that are designed and applied by teachers. Thus contrived materials, exercises or situational drills are solutions produced by teachers not students. They are tools that eliminate learners from the process of decision-making regarding the kinds of paths that to them (not teachers) function as solution. 

Question to answer therefore is not: 'What tools would give learners the knowledge that they need to function in a target language?'. Instead the question to answer is: ‘What kinds of tools or conditions can we invent to help learners in the process of regulating and hence coping with the kinds of challenges that target language interactions present to them?’. We can enhance the learning process only when the conditions and/or tools that we put in place truly help learners to regulate their learning process. Only in such conditions our teaching will have a genuine load reducing function. 

Exploring the notion of ‘challenge’ in Critical Pedagogy

(a) The premise
The problem of knowledge is that in order to learn more we need to put to test (or to challenge) our understandings. We do this by testing the explanatory power of our beliefs against models or understandings that appear to compete with or that defy our models or our beliefs. For example, it is no good to say that we can jump to the moon. Unless we test this statement against a belief that tells us that the moon is too far for us to do so, our belief is a delusion that is isolated from reality i.e. from the multitude of understandings that we have constructed about the world and about us within it. It therefore does not add to them, and as a result, it is ignored. 

(b) Implications to L2-teaching
There is no specific test that teachers can apply to challenge learners without reducing the knowledge required to function in a specific target language to a selected checklist of criteria that are abstract and hence not sourced in the demands of practice. 

However, an infinite source of challenge are L2-interactions, and more precisely, authentic interactions i.e. interactions which are not pedagogically contrived and which require from students an exploration of a diversity of conditions on which their interlocutors draw and which they themselves can learn to manipulate to the desired effects. 

In this sense, interaction does not mean conversation. When TV presenter reads out the news, a whole team of journalists, political advisors and lawyers has participated in the event prior to the event of news reading. When two girlfriends exchange gossip and jokes, the entire history of these girls participates in the process. Our students may find it difficult to participate in the interaction events exemplified before. But they find it difficult not necessarily because they do not know enough grammar or vocabulary. This would be only one way to explain the problem. 

There is a different explanation possible, one that is also coherent with the assumption that we never know the reason for things. Since we never know the past and hence the reason for things, all we can do is to explain events in terms of understandings that at a given time appear to us explanatory and on which we proceed to build. These understandings eventually create our history: a history of logics in terms of which we act and which we also enact. In this sense a lack of understanding reflects less lack of grammar or vocabulary and more a lack of history. As a result, the task of language teacher is not about giving students the “necessary ingredients” of language but a possibility to create their own L2-history that works. These are two very different tasks.

(c) On Feedback and technology
In the context of the premise stated in point (a), feedback can no longer be reduced to statements about reality produced by teachers in a form of explanations, exercises or pedagogic tasks. Feedback here are conditions that help learners 
- to identify that there is a problem and 
- to act upon the difficulties which they experience in ways that are meaningful to them (or helpful to them) rather than in ways that teachers think should do the trick.

The task of the teacher becomes quite complicated in the face of this largely individual basis of the processes that regulate our schemes of perception and production. Thus rather than reducing feedback to explanations or specific form-focused exercises, the task of teachers should be to identify and create ways which would make it possible for learners to obtain as many clues as they require from their communicative interactions about the target language. The aim is not to hope that teacher’s reinforcements will correct learners’ errors. Rather, the aim is to enable learners to inspect texts from as many angles as possible for them to develop an idea how to manage them better. 

In short, the aim is to:

- Create a rich resource-based learning environment where learners can explore authentic resources with the aim of learning about and accumulating more “history” in the target language. 
- Make it possible for students to work with these resources in ways that help them increase comprehension of the solutions in terms of which target language speakers act. I usually refer to this function of such help-structures as enabling students to move through texts in ways that enable them to compare and contrast unpredictable sets of relationships. For example, they can:
· identify and play with different texts of the same kind like advertisements, news-bulletins from different TV, radio channels or from newspapers for different audience, 
· play selected items in the text forward backwards, 
· compare your sounding of the text against the original,
· go through specific listening/reading comprehension help-structures developed for students to help them comprehend spoken/written texts better.
· have access to a variety of authentic texts (radio-plays, radio stations, story-books, newspapers, chat-channels etc). Here a well-organised database of resources would help students to navigate with more precision and in lesser time through the volumes of information available widely whether on your local computer, on the Internet or on the shelves of your resource-centre. This would mean that rather than leaving students helpless with the search-engine, they sit down to a screen that enables them to look for materials with a greater precision and speed because a number of links have been already stored by the teacher and organised accordingly to their kind. Some of the resources can be marked as being accompanied with some help-structure systems. For example, a listening text might have been linked by a teacher to a series of exercises that have been aimed to help students with their listening skills. Also interviews are great not only for comprehension but also for exercises where students can substitute their voice for one of the interlocutors with specific time limits imposed by the computer to encourage faster processing of information. 
It is important that the help structures provided are to help learners cope with authentic materials. This is so because learners are not learning to acquire the history of a textbook but a history of logics that govern the solutions that target language speakers apply in their communications. Textbooks are contrived and hence deprived of the possibility to give learners access to theses logics. 

Furthermore we know that not everything goes in L2. The richer therefore the bases against which learners construct their solutions, the more precise or powerful these solutions will be.  This is an argument that runs contrary to intuition and logic that is commonly applied in L2-teaching (and not only). Usually people think that the less we give learners, the better they are off. But this is similar to the assumption that we could learn to see better if we were to go through life with eyes closed and open them only when our parents tell us and select on our behalf the objects worth for us to see. We know that this is not what we do. We learn to see by developing strategies or solutions that help us manage the world around better and in relation to the kinds of needs that we have. 

Therefore, I would argue that learners need a rich resource basis in relation to which they can try out and modify their language hypotheses. Furthermore, the diversity of tools exemplified above give learners the possibility of controlling the kinds of challenges to which they are exposed in terms of the solution power that learners obtain (or gain) from them. (cf. http://education.canberra.edu.au/~andrewl/mlapl/shaolin/psupres2.htm and http://education.canberra.edu.au/~andrewl/mlapl/aaexp96.htm

Thus a text with no listening comprehension facilities attached to it seems a harder challenge than a text that is accompanied by some help tools. A language database as described in http://education.canberra.edu.au/~andrewl/mlapl/shaolin/psupres2.htm helps learners control the language data more than conversations or a textbook can. 

Technological tools such as computers, TVs, radio, cameras, can be all used in order to enhance learners access to language resources and to the ways which would help them regulate and control the kinds of challenges that working with these resources can generate. The range of tools is potentially infinite. The question though is not so much what these tools deliver but what place do we envisage that they would have in our teaching environment. 

(d) The concept of a project
The projects of creating one’s own history that works can be seen as a project that learners undertake when learning to function in an L2. To realise this project, learners need to engage in processes that help them explore what works and how. We may summarise, they need to engage in tasks that give them history rather than in tasks that give them abstract knowledge. To accumulate target language history, they need to participate in it. Macro-tasks such as creating a Day on French (Australian) TV, making a soap opera, publishing weekly or monthly newspapers, demand from students to engage in the process of understanding how to live in the target language and how to resource these understandings appropriately. 

Notice also that through such projects, language and culture are not separated. For example, learners can inquire in a diversity of ways as to the why and how produce a news bulletin etc. But the final product is not the answers that have been reported to them but a news bulletin itself that has been modified accordingly to the understandings that learners have explored. These understandings may be about the organisation of sentences, paragraphs as much as about the viewers’ expectations as to the structure of the news bulletin itself. The grammatical or lexical selection of structures is never independent of the context and interlocutors to which our texts are directed. 

The quality of one’s own history that works will depend on the quality of the understandings that constitute that history. The richer these understandings, the more informed our learners and hence the richer the history which they mobilise every time they enact it. We may say that the more informed our students the more possibilities they can consider in the process of their L2-interaction. The more they can consider, the more critical they are.

Macro-tasks that require from learners to study their own interactions, those of others, and the impact that their interactions have on others seem an ideal way for provoking students to consider more rather than less. But helping learners in this task is not a matter of simple.

(e) Intellectual context of the points above:
Scientific statements (or whatever beliefs we have) are not statements or beliefs about reality. Scientific models can formulate models that work in practice and hence explain reality only up to a point. Stengers and her colleague Prigogine point to the problem of the relationship between reality and the model of reality when they write that: "Nature speaks with a thousand voices" (Stengers and Prigogine, 1984: 77).

In this metaphor, they question the dream that Nature (or reality) could be described in terms of a single language that brings all assumptions in a coherent, single picture of reality where the world "is nothing but an immense tautology" (Stengers and Prigogine, 1984: 77). However, having established this, they are faced with a paradox in science. That is, on the one hand, for scientific statements to be legitimate they must have their basis in reality. On the other hand, to make the first premise possible, none of these statements can be saying anything about reality itself. 

The solution has been suggested in previous commentaries written by Ania Lian (for example see ‘Reality Vs the model(s) of reality’ in section Lectures, reflections and concepts). It has been suggested that science does not investigate reality as such but our understandings of it. To contribute to these understandings, it is essential for new models to demonstrate that they can explain better that which other models try to explain. In this way, science not only gains new tools for investigating its understandings further. It also gains understandings that build on what it already knows. The outcomes are explanations that include concerns and solutions of models in new ways. 

The distinction between reality and our understandings of it is a very important one and difficult to believe since our current politics of education and research operate as if in education and science it was reality at stake and not our understanding of it. They do so because in this way it is easier to operate from the position of authority, expertise and power. Our current so-called experts act as if they had a monopoly on the logic that governs the specific fields of their expertise. But the notion of a field of expertise brings with it a problem that Saul raises in his critique of the Western world Voltaire's Bastards: 

"Ten geographers who think that the world is flat will tend to reinforce each other’s errors. If they have a private dialect in which to do this, it becomes impossible for outsiders to disagree with them. Only a sailor can set them straight. The last person they want to meet is someone who, freed from the constraints of expertise, has sailed around the world. The purpose of language is communication. It has no other reason for existence. A great civilization is one in which there is a rich texture and breadth and ease to that communication. When language begins to prevent communication, that civilization has entered into serious degeneracy.” (John R. Saul, Voltaire's Bastards, 1991: 476)
Fields of expertise therefore create their own languages (or models of reality) by limiting the source of potential explanations that they may produce to that specific language or model of reality over which they have a single control.  Let us have a look at the language of current medical research. The promise is that embryo-cloning may be crucial in the process of solving (curing? preventing?) most human diseases. And yet, in late June, 2001, Dr Alan Bernstein, President of the Canadian Institute of Health Research, on being presented with a medal by the Australian Society for Medical Research admitted himself: "And despite what most people think, we really don't understand most common, serious diseases that afflict humanity" (p. 23; Media Monitors, 20.06.2001; Australian Society for Medical Research -website). If we do not understand diseases, why make promises? Can we not justify our research projects from a perspective other than the threat that otherwise disease will prevail? Can’t we explain to public our understandings where we are and where we are going? 

In the context of L2-teaching, the situation is the same. Volumes of experiments have been conducted and reported in literature on concepts such as vocabulary or syntax acquisition. The problem is that for as long as we do not questions assumptions such as vocabulary or syntax acquisition, we remain locked in the paradigm that language learning is about leading learners to specific solutions to specific language problems that the profession of language teaching identifies as problematic. Least of all, in such a paradigm, learning is least about empowering learners to develop solutions that function as solutions to learners in a diversity of target language interactions. 

Ania Lian, 2002

Copyright © Ania Lian 2002