Our third article, written by Derek Philip, looks at critical materials writing. We’re looking forward to hearing members’ views on this interesting topic.
The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by MaWSIG members, including both established authors and novice writers, who contribute monthly articles based on their experience, research and the latest trends in materials development.
by Derek Philip
For many years, I have worked in the EFL industry worldwide. During this time, it has been clear that applied linguistics has been a dominating force – with its focus, according to Pennycook (2001), on the classroom, teaching methodology, communication and texts. More recently, I have been working in China for a multinational, privately owned organization that provides English language instruction to students from three years of age and over. Even in this particular context, there appears to be a fairly strict adherence to the methods of applied linguistics, such as the promotion of realistic communication in everyday situations along with semi-authentic texts.
Critical applied linguistics (CALx), however, looks to challenge this and to hold applied linguistics ‘politically accountable’ (Pennycook, 2001, p.7), seeking to end the apparent exclusion of social, cultural and political issues from the EFL classroom. CALx seeks to examine what is currently going on in the world at large and link that to the classroom, whether it be the plight of the homeless, major environmental concerns or the fight for democracy. The result is an attempt to increase students’ social awareness and their ability to question the status quo. It is this increasing awareness and questioning that is promoted through critical pedagogy, which itself is concerned with the knowledge that is provided for students and enables them to determine whose interests that particular knowledge is serving and why.
Now that I have been involved in product development for the same multinational organization, I have been keen to understand whether or not critical pedagogy can be successfully applied in a context focused on the methodologies of applied linguistics. In particular, can classroom materials based on the ideas of critical pedagogy be created and piloted to gauge reaction among students, teachers, school managers and senior managers?
Within my organization, a series of textbooks and online materials has been produced for in-house classroom use with learners aged 14–17 years. The Frontrunner series covers Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) levels A1 to C1. The materials are conservative in nature, in that they have a strict PG rating and they are considered aspirational by many who have worked on their production. The aspirational nature of Frontrunner is seen as positive and motivating for our students, potentially showing what their lives could be like in the future. University and career success, cosmopolitan lifestyles and travel could well be the reality for many of our more affluent students.
Pennycook (2001) argues that social issues are deliberately kept out of textbooks such as this, as well as the EFL classrooms where such materials are used. Rashidi and Safari (2011, p.254) extend this by suggesting that there should be a ‘joint goal’ between a student’s language development and their increased social awareness. Although produced for conservative markets, Frontrunner has not always shied away from more controversial topics; there is discussion of suppression in one of the CEFR B2 level units and of genocide in a CEFR C1 level unit. Whilst Frontrunner does err on the side of caution, there are opportunities for students to engage with critical social issues. Consequently, my research looked into two main ideas: the extent to which critical pedagogy was known within my organization and whether textbook materials produced by my department could contain content that was more critical in nature.
In order to exemplify critical pedagogy and obtain realistic reactions to the concept, a critical issues supplement – extending one of the Frontrunner B2 level units and discussing homelessness – was developed. A supplement was seen as appropriate, since large publishers typically avoid controversial materials within their mainstream textbooks (Crookes, 2009). It is, therefore, potentially easier for supplementary materials to be implemented in unfavourable contexts. The critical issues supplement was the focus of a specially prepared lesson taught by one of our teachers to a class of Frontrunner level students. Semi-structured interviews with senior managers and Directors of Studies, field notes and a focus group with the participating students provided further data.
Throughout the interviews, there was evidence of knowledge of critical pedagogy and those who were at first uncertain quickly grasped the concept, indicating a small improvement in knowledge. Training would be required to spread knowledge of critical pedagogy throughout the school community, although the main issue would be the extent of the training necessary and whether that fit with the organization’s existing business objectives.
Initial reaction to the critical issues supplement was positive overall, with interviewees describing it as ‘powerful’, ‘controversial’ and ‘juicy’. The fact that the supplement provided content that was potentially enriching was seen as a way to enable students to question the status quo. The participating students indicated they did not know how to communicate with homeless people but that the lesson helped them towards that, thus ending their ignorance and effecting a positive transformation in their social awareness, albeit a modest one. Nevertheless, one of the interviewees mentioned that there was a ‘cost to all knowledge’, since questioning could be dangerous, particularly when dealing with contexts where that would not be permitted. One interviewee mentioned of critical pedagogy, ‘those countries […] that need it most are those where you’re going to have difficulty doing it.’ Additionally, there is the possibility of students standing out among their peers as a result of them questioning more, potentially causing conflict. There may be resistance from friends and family who have not learned to question in this way.
Consequently, although there are opportunities to train teachers in critical pedagogy and the merits of the critical issues supplement were quite apparent, encouraging questioning of the status quo can be a difficult and dangerous thing to do in certain unfavourable contexts. At the present time, it would seem that this critical issues supplement would serve quite a niche market, such as for study abroad students. Would it, I wonder, prove too disruptive for mainstream EFL businesses? After all, it is these disruptive innovations that tend to be highly transformative in nature.
Crookes, G. (2009). The practicality and relevance of second language critical pedagogy. Language Teaching, 43(03), 333–348. doi:10.1017/S0261444809990292
Pennycook, A. (2001). Critical applied linguistics: A critical introduction. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Rashidi, N., & Safari, F. (2011). A model for EFL materials development within the framework of critical pedagogy (CP). English Language Teaching, 4(2), 250–259. doi:10.5539/eh.v4n2p250
Derek Philip is currently a Doctorate of Education (TESOL) candidate at the University of Exeter’s Graduate School of Education, with a particular interest in content development for early, young and teenage learners. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org