I’m writing this in anticipation of our upcoming IATEFL pre-conference event. It may be read as a kind of preamble, I suppose. But I wish it was more like an open invitation, an opening. And whether this is related to this particular event or not, and whether you will join it or not, that this opening serves to encourage some meaningful reflections and discussions that go beyond a face-to-face gathering with its space/time limitations. So through this short article I’m ‘not’ inviting you to attend an event on critical pedagogy, but to become an agent of critical pedagogy. – Willy Cardoso

Why pedagogy?

Because pedagogy is more than teaching. Pedagogy is “the transformation of consciousness that take place in the intersection of three agencies – the teacher, the learner and the knowledge they together produce” (Lusted, 1986: 3).

Pedagogy goes beyond schooling. A common image of schooling, unfortunately, is that where the teacher is in front of students. The pedagogue is with and around the students. Pedagogy is not limited to the transmission of knowledge, it also “focuses attention on the conditions and means through which knowledge is produced” (Lather, 1991: 15). Pedagogy determines who we are and how we present ourselves as teachers and learners, how we produce and consume knowledge, and how our actions can model and change the lives of our students. A mighty responsibility – and a delightful and scary one.

Why critical?

Because no pedagogy is neutral,

… no learning process is value-free, no curriculum avoids ideology and power relations. To teach is to encourage human beings to develop in one direction or another. In fostering student development, every teacher chooses some subject matters, some ways of knowing, and some ways of speaking and relating instead of others. These choices orient students to map the world and their proper place in society. (Shor, 1999, p. 22)

By taking a critical position towards how we have come to describe our practice the way we do, we start to work against, and grow out of, what Phillipson (1992) suggests when he says that “the professional discourse around ELT disconnects culture from structure by limiting the focus in language pedagogy to technical matters, that is, language and education in a narrow sense, to the exclusion of social, economic, and political matters” (p. 48).

Being critical of our pedagogical discourse

Consider, for example, teacher training courses, conferences, and publications. It is very often with specialized language that these media will present new concepts and stimulate teachers’ reflection; however, as Wertsch (1998: 40) reminds us, “any attempt to understand or act on reality is inherently limited by the mediational means we necessarily employ”; hence, teacher learning/development is limited by the language utilized by its participants and very much by the specialized language brought in by a teacher trainer or imported from research and methodology books.

The process of becoming a teacher is also the process of socializing into a professional discourse. It is important, of course, to have a common language to discuss our practice, and working within this professional discourse is important for many reasons: intelligibility, employability, and controllability; to name a few. The flipside is that “they make teaching appear as if it is a complete, coherent and unified process, when in reality it is characterized by uncertainty, rupture, dissonance, tentativeness, provisionality and self-disclosure” (Smyth 1995, p.8).

Therefore, I believe teachers can benefit enormously from a critical analysis of the ways social and political structures influence their personal and professional development, which in turn influence the day-to-day of their classrooms.

Studying, understanding, and learning how to negotiate the dynamics of these powerful environments, in which some actions and ways of being are valued and encouraged whereas others are downplayed, ignored, and even silenced, is critical to constructing effective teacher education. (Freeman and Johnson, 1998, p. 409)

Opening critical/pedagogical spaces

Educators should not posit theory as something to be absorbed, on the contrary, they should define a pedagogical space where students become agents by doing theory. (Giroux, 1994: 117, my emphasis)

Giroux calls a pedagogy of theorizing that which affirms that being self-conscious about what underlies one’s perceptions is something to be pursued by students; it is something that becomes a clear educational objective, and as such demands intellectual responsibility from all involved. There is no escape from theory, and theory is not in fierce opposition to practice; they walk hand in hand. A teacher doesn’t need to furnish her/his ideas with academic references to call it theory, everyone has a theory or two, and by uncovering the layers of meaning present in one’s ideas, we can engage in a process of theorising our practice and through this process become more empowered. Critical pedagogy is but one lens, one position, through which we can better make sense of our roles as teachers – an incredibly complex and potentially liberating position.

The message I would like to leave here is that there are plenty of things we can examine and be critical about in our field. Whether we do or read research, non-academic articles, blogs, or nothing at all, what we must do is to raise questions that we feel are important to us, that will impact on the way we develop professionally and why not to be concerned about the way the profession as a whole is developing. After all, we are not alone in this, and if we want our profession to flourish, we need to plant some critical seeds.


Freeman, D. and Johnson, K. (1998). Reconceptualizing the knowledge-base of language teacher education. TESOL Quarterly, 32, 387-417.

Giroux, H. (1994). Disturbing pleasures: Learning popular culture. London: Routledge.

Lather, P. (1991). Getting Smart: Feminist Research and Pedagogy with/in the Postmodern. London: Routledge

Lusted, D. (1986). Why pedagogy? Screen, 27(5), 2–15.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shor, I. (1999). What is Critical Literacy? In Shor, I. & C. Pari (eds.) Critical literacy in action: writing words, changing worlds. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Smyth, J. (ed.) (1995). Critical discourses on teacher development. London: Cassell

Wertsch, J.V. (1998). Mind as Action. New York: Oxford University Press.