by Snea Thinsan Language Education, School of Education, Indiana University, U.S.A. =======================================================Accepted for persentation at ITMELT Conference in Hong Kong, but the conference was cancelled due to SARS outbreak.
“Why did people create all these bad things, Dad?”
Peuan, my 9-year old daughter asked me while watching CNN on a very cold day in January, 2003.
“I think they know these things are bad,” she continued while I was trying to figure out what her phrase “these bad things” referred to.
“What do you mean by “bad things”?” I asked, still unclear about what she was talking about.
“You know, things like guns, drugs, things like that….”
I smiled with a happy surprise at how thoughtful the question was. I told her it was a very interesting question about which I had never asked myself. We went on to discuss about computer viruses, bombs and other things. It was a most engaging conversation between us!
Peuan’s question seems like a naïve one, but, who knows, simple questions like this one could change the world if asked and answered properly. I agree that many inventions, though two-pronged swords, have advantages that outweigh their drawbacks. However, what if the genius chemists had decided not to use their knowledge to produce destructive drugs? The world today could at least be a totally different one for many drug addicts.
“Bad things” and a lot of problems that they have caused surround us and even have become the normal part of our daily life. We act, or fail to act, as if we accept them that way. Think about crime news, pollution, corruptions, prostitution, poverty, wars, family violence, child abuses, among other undesirable realities. Do you ever seriously think about them or engage actively in conversations that make you understand them better? What have you done about them? As an English teacher, I, not long ago, realized how little and superficially I had thought about and acted against the “bad things” around me. Such realization helped me fall in love with “Critical Literacy pretty easily and now profoundly.
Having teachers like myself before falling in love with critical literacy in mind, I am going to create an easy-to-understand introduction to critical literacy. I will first offer a few selective definitions by the authorities in the field. Then, I will offer a more practical description. Importantly, I will also try to convince the reader why CL should be a focus of EFL curricula in Asia, using the four dimensions of critical literacy practices.
Critical literacy: A blurred picture
It was not very easy at first for me to define “critical literacy” because many people have been using the word “critical” in many different contexts, and some think that, by adding this popular word, their activities essentially promote critical literacy. I used an online concordance tool to find how and how extensively the word “critical” is used in body of educational literature, and found that the word is used to mean different things, in different contexts, at different levels of education, fields of study, and so on (for details, please see http://php.indiana.edu/~sthinsan/criticalContext.htm). Hence, the pictures of critical literacy can be blurred to many novices and beginners.
It is very important to think of critical literacy as the “target” or “goal” of education first because it will then help us understand other terminologies and their relationships with critical literacy. The ultimate goal, when we talk about critical literacy, is to create human beings that are “critically literate”—yet another tricky term that needs further elaboration.
The hardcore approach to making individual human “critically literate” is predominantly influenced by the work of a Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire, the Father of critical pedagogy or radical pedagogy who departed the world in 1997. Freire’s version of being critical is essentially the prototype that gives birth to the practices of critical literacy, increasingly inspiring educators and scholars worldwide to strive forward under approaches with different names, such as critical thinking, feminism, multicultural education, and, a most recent one, critical media literacy, although these fields did not necessarily originally start from the same school of thoughts. For instance, critical thinking is a different branch, having its own leading thinkers, target audience, and organizations created to explore and experiment ‘critical thinking’. For very detailed discussions about the similarities and differences between as well as limits of critical thinking and critical literacy, please see Burbules and Berk (1999). To satisfy your curiosity, let me offer a short statement by my professor who first introduced the term critical literacy to me. Professor Harste, an esteemed professor of education at Indiana University, kindly pointed out via email the differences between critical thinking and critical literacy, the two most frequently confused, as follow:
Critical literacy is about examining issues surrounding language and power and language and access. Whereas critical thinking is psychological, critical literacy is sociological, interested in interrogating the systems of meaning that operate to position language learners in particular ways in particular contexts. From an instructional perspective, critical literacy is also about redesign and taking new social action but these later components need to be built on an understanding of the systems of power that are in play on language speakers and learners.
(Harste, personal contact, November 6, 2002)
How the other fields relate or differ from critical literacy is beyond the scope of this paper, but you can access the resources I have collected via the links at my personal home page at http://php.indiana.edu/~sthinsan/.
What exactly does ‘critical literacy’ entail, then?
Critical literacy: Definitions
Critical literacy to me is a goal and, to achieve it, people take different vehicles labeled with various names, and each of them serves the immediate societal needs. For instance, in the multicultural U.S.A., Canada, and Australia, multicultural educationhas been a predominant theme in academic conversations. Similarly, critical thinkingand feminism have been two other areas of interest among Western scholars for a long time. Therefore, you might find different versions of critical literacy mentioned here and there. Lankshear and McLaren (1993) describe very well the different faces of critical literacy in an introduction to a book they co-edited. Among these different names, however, critical pedagogy is the one that is fundamentally and directly influenced by Freire’s work, especially the classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 1970, 1993). For the readers who are keen on tracing the historical development and read overview accounts of critical literacy in relation to the philosophers of other related fields, including Dewey and Vygotsky, please read Critical Literacy in Action: Writing Words, Changing World (Shor & Pari, 1999).
The idea of critical pedagogy began with the neo-Marxian literature on Critical Theory (Stanley, 1992), but the most influential authors in this field nowadays include Paolo Freire, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, and Ira Shor (Burbules & Berk, 1999). Freire is widely known and admired for his work in adult literacy, education and fighting oppression. In best known work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he sees critical pedagogy as concerned with the development of conscienticizao, which he used to refer to “learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality” (Freire, 2002, 35; see also pages 87-124 for elaboration of the term). Essentially, Freire thinks that, for people to gain freedom, they need to understand the system of oppressive relations and know where they are situated in that system.
Influenced largely by Freire, critical pedagogy therefore aims at bringing members of an oppressed group to a critical consciousness of their situation so that they can move on to praxis, or social action that leads to desirable transformation. Very importantly, Freire considers an ingrained, fatalistic belief in the inevitability and necessity of an unjust status quo as a great single barrier, and this influences the work of so many education thinkers, especially Nieto, whose interest is on multicultural education. In her recent book, The Light in Their Eyes, Nieto (1999) argues that typical schooling system supports, rather than challenges, the status quo. She implies that school is a place to tame students who think or behave differently from the way the institutions, which are influenced by the community, expect. Essentially, Nieto defines multicultural education in a very comprehensive scope, but ultimately following Freire’s views.
Multicultural education is a process of comprehensive school reform and basic education for all students. It challenges and rejects racism and other forms of discrimination in school and society accepts and affirms the pluralism (ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious, economic, and gender, among others) that students, their communities, and teachers represent. Multicultural education permeates the curriculum and instructional strategies used in schools, as well as the interactions among teachers, students, and parents, and the very way that schools conceptualize the nature of teaching and learning. Because it uses critical pedagogy as its underlying philosophy and focuses on knowledge, reflection, and action (praxis) as the basis for social change, multicultural education promotes the democratic principles of social justice (Nieto, 1999, 3).
Another illustration of critical literacy is offered by Giroux, who interestingly raises a point about schools teaching a “language of critique” but failing to encourage a “language of possibility” (Giroux 1983, 1988). Therefore, Giroux suggests that critical educators should work hard in order to “raise ambitious, desires, and real hope for those who wish to take seriously the issue of educational struggle and social justice” (Giroux 1988, 177). In his later work, Giroux adds that critical pedagogy
signals how questions of audience, voice, power, and evaluation actively work to construct particular relations between teachers and students, institutions and society, and classrooms and communities. . . . Pedagogy in the critical sense illuminates the relationship among knowledge, authority, and power” (Giroux, 1994, 30).
At the core, critical pedagogy theorists agree that it is not enough to reform the habits of thoughts of thinkers without challenging and transforming the institutions, ideologies, and relations that engender distorted, oppressed thinking in the first place, and that the reform needs to go hand in hand with efforts to challenge the institutional policy and practices and all that causes distorted, oppressed thinking (Burbules & Berk, 1999). These similar points are also stressed or exemplified in work by other prominent authors including Giroux, Kellner, McLaren, Torres, Valenzuela, and Vygotsky.
Practical descriptions of critical literacy
To enable new comers to this field to understand how critical literacy can be practiced, let me offer you the operationalized descriptions of it. Critical literacy is not just critical reading, nor critical writing, nor even critical thinking! Unless these activities involved the efforts to enable the learners to see realities that are influenced by the hidden sociopolitical factors within their immediate and global societies and to empower them to step forward and act as an agent for changes, critical reading, writing and thinking will not be considered critical literacy practices. While discussions about the varied definitions and scopes of critical literacy may not benefit new comers very much, I would like to present a most practical version of description. Critical literacy is “a moving target” which generally involves efforts in “disrupting the taken for granted, interrogating dominant perspectives, exposing the political in what was thought to be innocent, and promoting social justice in all kinds of forms” (Jerome C. Harste, L750 Course Syllabus, Fall 2002, Indiana University).
The other practical guideline about what critical literacy entails can be borrowed from Leland and Harste (2000). In their efforts to select the best children’s story books that promote critical literacy, Leland and Harste chose: stories that help students understand differences that make a difference; stories that give voice to “the indignant ones” that are historically unheard, stories that promote social actions; stories that help students understand how systems of meaning in society position; and stories that examine distance, difference and otherness. Of course, they do not think that introducing these books will necessarily make students critically literate, but add that,
Critical literacy isn’t about the book per se but about social practices that keep particular structures of knowing, believing, and being in place. It is about power relationships and how language positions others and us. It is about access and how language is used to welcome some children into “the literature club” (Smith, 1988) while denying access to others. It is also about diversity—specifically, how issues of diversity forces us to rethink our approach to how we share literature with children” (Leland and Harste, 2000, 467).
Why critical literacy in EFL contexts?
Critical literacy can be targeted at all levels and all kinds of education. Freire sees the philosophy embedded within his Pedagogy of the Oppressed as a way to humanize all oppressed human beings. I am proposing that hardcore critical literacy should be made a focus of all types of curricula, where liberating and empowering the learners in Freire’s sense are possible. For English teachers in particular, I would like to offer the following brief explanations why critical literacy should, or I rather say MUST, be practiced in EFL contexts in Asian countries.
To make it the easiest for us to see the practical reasons, I will walk us through the four dimensions of critical practices in the U.S. that Lewison, et al.(2002) and Harste (2002) have categorized.
Dimension 1: Disrupting the taken for granted,
One of the educational goals in any given society should be to sensitize individual members of society about the problems around them. Without seeing problems as problematic, people can become ignorant of them, which is one of the reasons why most serious problems remain unsolved.
Domestic problems in Asian countries are not very difficult to identify. They are virtually everywhere, but they often are taken for granted or left untouched. In the Thai society, for instance, when a husband hits his wife, the neighbors consider it a personal or household problem and feel that they have no rights to interfere. We are also taught to believe that the wife and the husband are like “the tongue and the teeth”; they come in contact once in a while. Never do we think that only teeth can bite the tongue, not the other way round! That is, in the same light, it is usually the husband who beats the wife. Where did the proverb, “the tongue and the teeth” come from? Who created it? Who benefits from it? I am afraid we have to admit that, in most Asian countries, men traditionally were superior and took charge of creating the norms and traditions. Being told from generation to generation of the same expectation, women naturally submit to it. What we see here is that nothing is purely neutral and fair. Language, in particular, is a most influential tool to help position people in the society because it contains values, expectations, beliefs, and status, which sadly are framed by the oppressors, rarely by the oppressed.
The list of similar episodes can go on and on, and we will see more clearly that there are the oppressed and the oppressors behind every problem that we can think of. Wouldn’t discussions on these issues interesting and appropriate? Wouldn’t involvement in such dialogs and inquiry make us more sensitive about the other very serious problems that surround us?
Globally, problems, or oppressions, come in different, new forms. Imperialism and wars were the two obvious examples of oppression in our history. In our present days, capitalism has been an unbeatable force. With it come a lot of social problems. Gone are the morality standards that kept many societies peaceful. Come are child labor and child prostitution (driven by sex tours encouraged by the more financial power). More on the list is the currency attacks that destroyed lives and the Asian economy! Are we aware of these threats and the tricks that are used to manipulate us?
In the era when the world is much smaller, propaganda can be done worldwide through the advanced communications technology. Our Asian fellow members cannot just learn to speak English, but to see the threats and the tricks that hide behind it. If we can forget about Freire’s radical pedagogy for a while, we still can feel that there is an increased need for mutual understanding among the citizens of the world due to cultural differences.
Given the amazing bond and interactions among people in the world that the Internet has created, English is becoming fully the language of power and the language for power. That is, English is becoming power—those in power will use it to maintain and extend power. It can also be used as weapons. Specifically, it can be used to manipulate target audiences. No longer can we treat English as a neutral entity. No longer can we teach English merely as a set of grammar rules. In all, we can no longer teach the students to understand and use English, but we need to empower them by helping them see what the English language carries within it and enabling them to use it effectively when they need to.
Dimension 2: Interrogating dominant perspectives
“Your husband is like your god. Respect him and your life will be prosperous,” said my grandmother more than a decade ago to my mother and my younger sisters.
In Thailand, men are traditionally expected to the elephant’s front legs and women the back ones; this means that women should follow whatever the husband leads or directs. With this kind of perspective passing down many generations, many girls have been deprived of their opportunity to further their education. “Why would you bother to study? In no time, you will be married, and follow your husband,” someone in my village said not too many years ago.
Many of unfair, inappropriate dominant perspectives like these have gone unchallenged for a long time. They serve to maintain the status quo. There are some worse ones you can think of, too. How about this? “Listen to every word of your teacher and do whatever he tells you to, and you will be successful.” Is this view problematic? Should they continue to go unchallenged? I trust that you can see them as problematic, too, and that they should be interrogated. Interrogating is a better word than challenge, because ‘challenge’ may imply intended confrontation, whereas ‘interrogate’ suggests more careful consideration of factors involved and the multiple views. Freire encourages us to examine all subject matter in depth, not to swallow facts passively; so, in order to be able to digest the information well, we need to scrutinize the different factors in the play thoroughly first.
My point so far is that a lot of what goes on in a society can be seemingly sensible, but could also have detrimental effects. Once the taken for granted are regarded as potentially wrong, we can move a step forward into asking questions such as:
· Why should a wife follow her husband?
· Do all husbands have the qualities to lead the family? Is it fair for them to be imposed such a role?
· Does the perceived role give rise to household discrimination?
· Why can’t women be the front legs?
· What do we gain and what do we lose from depending too much on men to take care of the family?
· Is this perspective realistic nowadays? Why? Why not?
These questions will make the EFL classrooms more motivating, won’t they? At the same time, the students’ perspectives can change for the better. Remember that the ultimate goal is to empower the oppressed, liberate the restricted souls, and bring about social justice.
The teachers can encourage the students to explore multiple perspectives through many interesting activities in which the students go and interview people in the community, or conduct a research in the real settings, or set up a debate, etc. At the same time, the teacher can ask the students to search the Internet for information about men-women relationships in other cultures, invite guest speakers to the classrooms, etc. A principle of critical literacy practice is based on a belief that learning is social action and even reading is also social action, which means that we learn to construct new knowledge, new values, perspectives, and identity through communication with others. Through constructive social interactions, students can be empowered and become a more confident, hopeful persons, just like the way Freire’s peasant students felt during their study with him.
Dimension 3: Exposing the political in what was thought to be innocent
As pointed out earlier, the language we use is not neutral or innocent. Even schools, which, in Asian views, are the places parents usually trust are not innocent. Gee (2001) claims that the kinds of literacy promoted at schools are usually not the kind that enable the students to understand the harm that sociopolitical systems and institutions (including schools) combine to cause. Schools, in fact, have long been as a place to create classes and maintain the status quo (Nieto, 1999). For example, some schools can serve political or religious purposes, imposing certain values on the students, weakening them in one way or another. Some of my friends used to be punished for speaking the Northern dialect in class. Others were teased for not being able to speak Central Thai, the official language, properly in high school. That must have discouraged, instead of empowered, them.
While the hardcore practice of critical literacy questions the failure of schools to empower the students, schools can actually cause problems. Seldom do we think that schools can be the culprit for students’ dropout rate, low achievement or even suicide. We traditionally regard teachers as people who can do no wrong. We sometimes forget that the school also includes the children’s friends, who can be both good and bad influences.
Education is politics, edited by Shor and Pari (1999), is a great source to help you understand the sociopolitical, and socioeconomic, factors that influence the educational practices. At the same time, it reflects the efforts of many teachers from different cultures who refuse to fit the students and themselves into the status quo.
As you may be able to imagine, an incident may involve many factors at different layers. Analyzing the sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and sociocultural factors that are behind a given problem will give the learners insights into the real problem(s) or oppressive realities. Only when full and correct understanding of the problem is achieved will the students be liberated and empowered. With empowerment and liberation, the students will be ready to become a subject or agent for positive actions toward more desirable changes.
Dimension 4: Promoting social justice in all kinds of forms
Taking social actions can be the most rewarding part of critical literacy practice, but in reality taking actions is probably the least practiced among the four dimensions. A lot of problems in Asia are not even seen as problems. Exploration of the alternative views, as opposed to the dominant perspectives that support the unfair status quo, is likely less practiced. Therefore, it is probably right to say that attempts to unpack the hidden sociopolitical, cultural and economic factors are rare in Asian education, including EFL classes, not to mention taking social actions.
I believe you can agree with me up to this line. Think about the craze for fashion, lavish spending, reluctance to involved in any profound thinking, self-centeredness, and the like that you probably experience, too, among your students. Now, is it time to guide them into a more appropriate direction toward social justice? Given that social justice is undoubtedly desirable to you, what’s our next question? What can EFL teachers and students do to promote social justice? Here are a few ideas that pop up as I write.
Create classroom rules and regulations that promote social justice (paying attention to issues surrounding race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, gender, …..)
Run a web forum in which students post and responses to problems that deal with social issues. At the end, ask them to plan a social action out of the ideas they have learned from the forum.
Set up a key pal project (formerly known as pen-friends), in which students exchange ideas with students around the world and ask them to plan a social action out of what they have learn.
Have the students write to the prisoners, the Prime Minister, or the politicians about the social problems of their concerns. They can work in pairs, in groups, or individually.
Have the students create newspapers for the community (e.g. for distribution within school, or around town). Of course, the goal is to promote critical literacy.
Have the students evaluate the messages they read, watch or hear in everyday life and share their analysis with other classes or students in other schools nearby.
The four dimensions of critical literacy practice can make a great checklist for whether your EFL class is actually producing critically literate FL learners. I present them in a linear order. However, they can go in a reverse order, too. Getting the students to visit AIDS patients, for instance, will enable them to see a lot of hidden problems and later seek to understand them better, which means that they eventually can see the problem in reality.
Towards the end, I would like to share a story about my presentation in November, 2002, at the INTESOL Annual Conference, in which I shared a story about beggars and critical literacy after noticing that my audience did not appreciate the meaning of critical literacy from the many definitions I had offered. Here’s how the session went.
On that day, I used stories about beggars as an example of one episode that can link to the practices of the four dimensions of critical literacy. First, I asked the audience to imagine seeing some beggars lying along the footpath and a university student walking past them with no interest at all. She, a student, is well-dressed and looks wealthy, but has never given any money to these people nor talked to them. She used to be interested in them when she was very young, but her father did not give any clear answer, except a careless remark that these people were lazy and did not deserve any help. When she grows up, she sees these people as the grasses she walks past. [The lack of CL dimension 1]. Then, I asked them to think about CL dimension two [to interrogate multiple perspectives], and the audience started to participate more actively. I asked them to think of what a monk or a priest in the community would say about the issue, what a teacher would say, what the sons and daughters of the old beggars would say, and what the beggars themselves would inform us of what goes on in that scenario. The audience became clear about what CL can bring, I felt. Then, we continued to talk about what sociopolitical factors are involved and what we could do as teachers and students to promote social justice, or at least to help these beggars properly. The light in the audience’s eyes shone brightly at this stage and the discussions became very lively. I hope you would see the lights in your eyes if you looked in the mirror, after reading to this line.
In honor of and as a tribute to the life and work of Paolo Freire, my inspiration, let me end this paper with his words:
“From these pages I hope at least the following will endure: my trust in the people, and my faith in men and women, and in the creation of the world in which it will be easier to live.” (Freire, 2002, Preface, Pedagogy of the Oppressed)
Note: Included below are also the resources that discuss relevant points, but are not cited in this paper directly.
Burbules, N. C. (1992/1995). “Forms of ideology-critique: A pedagogical perspective.”Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 5 no. 1: 7-17. Republished in Critical Theory and Educational Research, McLaren, P. and Giarelli, J. (eds.) (New York: SUNY Press), 53-69.
Burbules, N. C. (1996). “Postmodern doubt and philosophy of education.” Philosophy of Education 1995, Alven Neiman, ed., (Urbana, Ill.: Philosophy of Education Society), 39-48.
Burbules, N. C. & Berk, R. (1999). In Critical Theories in Education, Thomas S. Popkewitz and Lynn Fendler, eds. (NY: Routledge, 1999).
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury Press).
Freire, P. (1973). Education for Critical Consciousness (New York: Seabury).
Freire, P. (1985). The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation (South Hadley, MA: Bergin Garvey).
Freire, P. and M. Donaldo (1987). Literacy: Reading the World and the Word (South Hadley, MA: Bergin Garvey).
Freire, P. (2002). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum).
Gee, J. (2001, April). Critical literacy as critical discourse analysis. In J. Harste and P.D. Pearson (Co-Chairs), Book of readings for Critical perspectives on literacy: Possibilities and practices. Pre-convention institute conducted at the meeting of the International Reading Association, New Orleans.
Giroux, H. A. (1983). Theory and Resistance in Education (South Hadley, MA: Bergin Garvey).
Giroux, H. A. (1988). Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Learning(South Hadley, MA: Bergin Garvey, 1988).
Giroux, H. A. (1992). Border Crossings (New York: Routledge).
Giroux, H. A. (1994). “Toward a pedagogy of critical thinking.” Re-Thinking Reason: New Perspectives in Critical Thinking, Kerry S. Walters, ed. (Albany: SUNY Press), 200-201.
Giroux, H. A. (1994). Disturbing pleasures: Learning popular culture. New York: Routledge.
Giroux, H. A. and McLaren, P. (1994). Between Borders (New York, Routledge).