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CATESOL Book Review: Critical ELT in Action, Foundations, Promises, Praxis By Graham V. Crookes

Michelle Skowbo

Critical ELT in Action, Foundations, Promises, Praxis by Graham V. Crookes (2013) Routledge

Critical ELT in Action: Foundations, Promises, Praxis; Graham Crookes

By Sonia Estima & Kara Mac Donald 

The book addresses the topic of critical pedagogy, where issues of social justice and democracy are incorporated in teaching and learning, with the goal of a critical consciousness to bring change to the world through critique and action. The topic is distinct from the current focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and social justice in ELT, but it most certainly intersects with it. In some ways addressing DEI in the classroom, critical pedagogy can inform instructional practice, envision the curriculum and syllabus and the role of the teacher and learners. So, it seems like a relevant text to review at this time, as we as an association address the trends of making English language learning more equitable and accessible. 


Chapter One addresses the notion of critical pedagogy and how teachers in training/teachers don’t have an opportunity to engage with, reflect on and observe critical pedagogy. The book aims to fill this void, providing models and examples as guidance. Yet readers may not have time at hand to delve into the whole book or the topic entirely and some may just want or need the nitty gritty. So, the author uses this initial chapter to present imaginary dialogues based on what principle questions he had and/or has been asked. The dialogues are very accessible and in a conversational style. The chapter finished with questions for discussion.

Chapter Two discusses how to begin to engage with and use critical pedagogy in the classroom, by first looking at material content and curriculum design.  At times, the traditional commercial textbook can be used but it leads to the question of what would critical language learning content be like? To answer this in part, the author mentions that some example curriculum guides are available, but there are few. Others have published narrative works outlining their critical teaching practices but they may be somewhat overwhelming due to their expansive nature and detail. To provide some insight into the above question, the remainder of the chapter offers some example materials and lesson plans and notes for adaptations based on the context from various critical pedagogy textbooks to serve as a guide. There are Task boxes that pose questions for reflection and engagement with the examples shared, in addition to discussion questions at the end of the chapter.

Chapter Three addresses components of critical language pedagogy one by one. The author shares that they essentially are not individual components and exist in synergy and overlap, but for the purposes of introducing a teacher new to critical pedagogy it serves to separate them. Taking baby steps is beneficial both in examining the components but also in experimenting with them in the classroom for teachers’ and students’ success.  The components, or characteristics, listed are:
  1. Language organization and classroom management prerequisites
  2. Critical or otherwise oppositional stance by the teacher (e.g. feminist as well as other positions)
  3. Critical needs analysis
  4. Negotiated syllabus
  5. Codes
  6. Dialogue
  7. Critical content in materials; participatory material development
  8. Critical (participatory, democratic) assessment
  9. Action orientation

The remainder of the chapter addresses each of these with Task boxes with actions or activities the reader can do to engage with the content and reflect based on questions presented. At the end, the author reminds the reader that possibly other characteristics could be identified, but his list covers the principles. He also reminds the reader that an overall approach best reflects the true nature of critical pedagogy. Segmenting it into parts is solely for presenting it to those new to critical pedagogy. As always, there are questions for discussion closing the chapter.

Understanding from where, how, and why critical pedagogy developed is the focus of Chapter Four. The author uses the term radical pedagogy to step away from the established term of critical pedagogy to be able to examine the historical background and social developments that fostered its emergence. He suggests that one typical approach is to begin with the work of Freire (1968), and cites that one recent work (Taylor, 1993) does just this. However, he argues that, although seemingly unrelated, a possibly better suited point in time is 1789 and the French Revolution as this was a time of democracy, social change and expansion of education. He then directs the historical trace to events across the globe based on Freire’s work and other social movements that produced political, social and/or educational changes. The discussion questions at the end of the chapter bring the seemingly distant or lofty historical movements for change to the local and personal level of the reader through reflection.

  Chapter 5 starts with the principle that language teaching (and learning) should be based on theories of language and theories of learning and gives a brief overview of some of the ways scholars have studied language and language learning. While some theorists focused on the structure of the language and its components, others focused on the functions that can be performed with language, and this distinction has had an influence on how teachers teach and what types of activities they choose to do with their students. 

 The chapter then moves to introduce how in the critical theory of learning language is never neutral – language has power and learning is more than just acquiring language, but rather developing critical consciousness.  In Critical Pedagogy students don’t learn alone, isolated from society and teachers must understand we live in a “mediated” social world where learning encompasses the possibility of social action and should promote students’ consciousness of the world: “´╗┐an ability to function with critical understanding and anti-oppressive action in another culture” (p. 96). 

Acquiring critical consciousness is the essence of Freire’s work and his theory of critical pedagogy where each person must develop the reflexive capacity to understand and take action in society. A theory of the development of this consciousness raising is a necessary component of any learning activity in Critical Pedagogy. 

 Chapter 6 starts by describing newer developments and additional lines of thought that align with critical pedagogy. And while some of these movements began separately, they all share similar concerns and focus and can be grouped under the label of radical pedagogy with intersecting and overlapping emancipatory pursuits. 

The author identifies several domains where identity and diversity go beyond just the single element of class as a form of oppression (Freire’s focus), and begin to look at gender, race and other positionings that play into language learning and language use for consciousness raising.

 Feminist pedagogy is presented as one of the first movements to draw from Freire’s ideas, but also to distance themselves from Freire, feeling that gender issues had been ignored in critical pedagogy and attempting to raise awareness to women’s issues and make the existing curricula more gender inclusive. The chapter goes on to describe some of the issues and examples of feminist pedagogy. 

 Next, the chapter looks at anti-racist pedagogy as a more recent arrival in the language teaching literature; promoting the inclusion of culture in the curriculum that goes beyond stereotypes and the superficial treatment of diversity to include oppressed groups and minorities. Another domain explored in chapter six is oppression related to sexual identity, and its relatively recent identification as an area in need of addressing and inclusion in the language learning field. Other curricular strands discussed in the chapter are peace and environmental education and its inclusion in the second language learning classroom. 

 Finally, the chapter ends by looking at the distinct characteristics of critical pedagogy applied to English as a foreign language and how it is manifested in different countries, such as Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Iran, and Brazil; looking both at the uniqueness of each setting as well as the need to address critical language learning across the globe.   

 Chapter 7 looks at critical pedagogy from the perspective of the school administration, from inside the system. Teachers who embrace a critical pedagogy stance may find themselves frustrated in a mainstream school with a strong central control of the curriculum, where they are expected to simply focus on teaching the structure of the language to help students pass a test.  This may no longer be satisfying professionally to the teacher who has developed a critical perspective. 

The chapter then reviews whether and how a critical perspective can be pursued within the mainstream educational system, looking both inside the US and other parts of the world, questioning whether state-run institutions can attain a critical perspective or simply reproduce the established order within the school. The author provides some examples of teachers who have been able to deliver critical pedagogies within the public-school sector and analyzes the varying levels of autonomy and democracy within existing state-run institutions in different countries. 

 The chapter looks at the situation from the elementary level all the way to the university level and higher-education sectors and the struggle to fund critical work, questioning the system from within. Some examples are analyzed from the perspective of institutional alternatives, where critical pedagogy may be practiced and welcomed, from charter schools to indigenous education, community schools, and adult education. (Adult literacy programs were the original setting where Freire began his work and critical pedagogy theory was born). The author looks at both the possibilities and the challenges and current state of alternative education, from informal education to online educational institutions, and private language schools. 

 The chapter ends with a call for advocacy and the need to have and to train advocates for critical engagement, including the need for organizing, networking, fundraising, and engaging in action, for both teachers and the school administration. 

 Chapter 8 questions the moral and social responsibility of language teachers towards their students and presses the need for ethics and values-based, critical orientation in our practice. The chapter reviews some of the critics of critical pedagogy who see it as a potential for imposition or indoctrination of students, and then juxtaposes the counter argument expressed by critical pedagogy advocates who affirm that assuming a critical stance is not telling the students “what to think,” but rather proposing new ideas for students to think about. The notion and the need for compromise is analyzed as teachers who begin to embrace the principles of radical pedagogy may experience opposition, and the extent to which such compromise is attainable or acceptable. 

The chapter ends by examining the roots of Freire’s critical pedagogy and the link between education and political action. In Brazil proof of literacy was a requisite for the right to vote (and representation in society), and Freire’s work was deeply embedded in social movements, participation and social activism.  In the US, from the Civil Rights movement to more current popular protests, the need is also present for questioning teachers’ responsibility and ability to have an impact on students’ lives and society, such as engaging ESL students in writing to their legislators and other examples of civic engagement.    

 In the final chapter, Chapter 9, the author discusses some implications, possibilities, and goals for language teachers in the area of societal change. The chapter starts with a look at the role of imagination in creating the conditions for critical pedagogy.  Crookes proposes that being able to imagine an alternative to the current state is a first step in creating the needed change. It is important to be able to envision and see oneself attaining the desired outcomes and dare to hope that change is possible.  

The chapter then moves to consider economic and political alternatives that can help promote and support critical education, looking at different economic and political models around the world and trying to identify theories and new ideas of social justice that can be realized in the 21st century global reality. The author also considers the importance of acknowledging that teachers are more likely to act locally at the municipal and regional levels, rather than the national level – it is then the city that assumes the central role in engendering critical pedagogy. 

 Finally, the chapter ends by returning to the original question and looking at educational alternatives in language education. The author challenges language teachers to dare imagine a school model where critical language learning becomes a reality and to begin practicing critical work and identifying how they can help their students develop their own actions and improve their living and learning conditions.  

 Overall, the book is an excellent introduction for those interested in issues of social justice in English language teaching and learning to raise students’ critical consciousness and foster change. It can also be of interest for those working on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in ELT. The text connects theory and practice regarding curriculum and instruction.