When critical thinking is not critical thinking

Science and social justice

The strange case of Lindsay Shepherd and Laurier University hit the news in 2017. During one class in order to illustrate how gender pronouns have caused controversyShepherd, a 23 year old teaching assistant, showed a clip of Canadian Psychology professor Jordan Peterson. The clip was of a TV show in which he discussed his opposition to legally enforced gender pronoun use. 

After the class, a student (allegedly) complained about the video and the university launched an enquiry. Shepherd was asked to attend a meeting and was castigated by her employer for showing the video. The conversation, which Shepherd recorded, included this exchange: 

Rambukkana: So bringing something like that up in class, not critically, and I understand that you’re trying to-
Shepherd: It was critical. I introduced it critically.
Rambukkana: Howso?
Shepherd: Like I said, it was in the spirit of debate.
Rabukkana: Okay, “In the spirit of debate” is slightly different than “This is a problematic idea that maybe we want to unpack”
Shepherd: But that’s taking sides.

This conversation shows two competing version of the term ‘critical’ crashing into each other in real time. So how do these two version of ‘critical’ differ?

The ‘critical’ schools 

From the 1960’s there was a flourishing of academic subjects using the term ‘critical’ in the title. These include but are not limited to such things as:
These subjects often seem to be concerned with similar things. For example, Critical Discourse Analysis focuses on:

the role of discourse in the (re)production and challenge of dominance. Dominance is defined here as the exercise of social power by elites, institutions or groups, that results in social inequality, including political, cultural, class, ethnic, racial and gender inequality.

Critical pedagogy is defined as

an approach to language teaching and learning which, according to Kincheloe (2005), is concerned with transforming relations of power which are oppressive and which lead to the oppression of people. It tries to humanize and empower learners…The major goal of CP, as Vandrick (1994) claims, is to emancipate and educate all people regardless of their gender, class, race, etc

Critical EAP similarly seeks to take account of factors previously ignored in EAP, like “gender, class, race and power relations…” (Benesch) The key themes, then of ‘critical’ fields are 1) power and oppression, 2) ‘social justice‘ and 3) the notion of using academia to transform society. This is quite different from the usual sense of ‘critical’ in phrases like ‘critical thinking’. Burbules and Berk suggest that the traditional sense of being critical:

…basically means to be more discerning in recognizing faulty arguments, hasty generalizations, assertions lacking evidence, truth claims based on unreliable authority, ambiguous or obscure concepts, and so forth.

I recently had a couple of papers published. One was titled ‘a critical look at NLP in ELT‘ and the other ‘A critical examination of perceptual learning styles in ELT‘. Both of these papers use ‘critical’ in the sense of something akin to scientific skepticism. Questioning the veracity of claims, asking for evidence to support arguments and evaluating claims. I would guess this is what most people understand ‘critical’ to mean. 

The other ‘critical’ thinking 

In contrast, the ‘critical’ in Critical Pedagogy means something akin to ‘Marxist’. Proponents can be a bit coy about this, but Scholem (in Hammersley) notes that after the Nazi takeover of Germany, Marxists of the Frankfurt school fled to the US, a country not particularly welcoming to Marxism. There they adopted the term ‘critical’ to describe the kind of research they were interested in. Freire’s critical pedagogy is an example of this:

Freire’s philosophy was continuous with what has been euphemistically termed “western” Marxism, which embraces the quest for a sufficient theory of subjectivity identified in the post-war periods with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt school, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology.” (Aronowitz)

Freire was a Marxist with a fondness for approvingly quoting Mao Tse Dong*. The Marxist roots are important to note because they represent the underpinnings or tenants of ‘critical’ subjects and include such things as: 
Both types of ‘critical’ would describe what they are doing as ‘critical thinking’ but this seems to be, in the critical theory sense a case of humpty-dumptying (after the character’s insistence that ‘When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean’). Freire’s definition of critical thinking, namely “thinking which discerns an indivisible solidarity between the world and the people and admits of no dichotomy between them” (92) is not one most people would recognise as ‘critical thinking’. 

It’s worth noting too, that those who advocate for critical approaches don’t necessarily see a difference between the two forms of critical thinking. One is merely the logical conclusion of the other. If your analysis identifies a problem in the world, naturally you would work to fix it. That is to say, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it“(Marx). 

What’s the difference?

So how would a ‘critical’ article differ from a traditionally critical one? Recently a useful example popped up in my twitter feed. It’s a critical look at the book ‘Visible Learning’ called ‘Seven reasons to question the hegemony of Visible Learning‘.  Those not aware of critical approaches might take this to be an examination of Hattie’s arguments and the evidence supporting them, but the authors are very clear that that is not the case:

Critique of this program […] has tended to centre on the mechanisms of meta-analysis. We consider what Visible Learning puts to work in relation to cultural politics and find it closely aligned with agendas of neoliberalism, sexism and ableism…

That is, they are not going to criticise Hattie for factual errors but rather for having the wrong ideology. The journal in which it is published, ‘discourse studies in the cultural politics of education‘ may just sound like any other journal name but if we examine its scope we note that it:

adopts a broadly critical orientation, but is not tied to any particular ideological, disciplinary or methodological position. It encourages interdisciplinary approaches to the analysis of educational theory, policy and practice
Recent articles include ‘Key elements in the naturalisation of neoliberal discourse in higher education in Chile‘ and ‘Christmas in U.S. K-12 schools: categorizing and explaining teacher awareness of Christo-normativity’. 

There are a many critiques of Hattie’s work, based on issues with his statistical analysis (see for example hereherehere and here) but as this is a critical paper, the focus is elsewhere. The authors are concerned that “colonising metaphors” like Visible Learning, with its focus on the “dominance of the visual” and “seductive neoliberal style” are in danger of becoming tools of “fascistic education”. Visible learning is “sexist and masculinist” in it’s pornographic “preoccupation with the visual” that forces a “feminized profession” (teaching) to submit to a “heteronormative, sexist and ableist” vision of education which revolves around “ejaculatory outcomes”. 

Being critical of ‘critical’ 

Science, when it works, is a self-correcting system (see for instance the recent replication crisis and trial registration). So we can ask, ‘is this the right way to go about thinking about a problem?’, ‘is this the right problem to be thinking about?’ ‘Are these criticisms valid?’, ‘how can we tell?’, and so on.  The critical academic subjects generally do not:  
it is characteristic of CDA, and of much ‘critical’ work in the social sciences, that its philosophical foundations are simply taken for granted, as if they were unproblematic. This reflects the fact that, in many ways, the term ‘critical’ has become little more than a rallying cry demanding that researchers consider ‘whose side they are on’.”(1997:244)
The ideas central to the critical subjects cannot be challenged. We cannot, for example, ask if Freire is right that people are not currently ‘fully human’ and that praxis and inquiry would make them ‘fully human’. Nor can we ask if it’s useful to divide the world into oppressors and oppressed. In short, critical subjects are not, themselves, subject to criticism. 

When we do approach them critically we notice problems. For instance, the seemingly simplistic division of people into either oppressor or oppressed class. It’s never exactly clear how a person finds themselves in one of these groups. 

Freire deals only in vague generalities. Oppression is never clearly defined. Freire concentrates on the oppression of the poor and fails to deal realistically with oppression as it is found at all levels of society. It is a mistake to see only the poor as oppressed and all others as oppressors. (Elias 1976)

Among Radical Feminists a woman would be a member of the oppressed class ‘woman’ and a victim of the ‘patriarchy’ system. However, the same woman, if she is white would, in critical race studies be a privileged member of the oppressor class in the system of ‘white supremacy’.

If we start from the position that women are part of an oppressed class, then our research will tend to look for examples that support that narrative whereas a fact based approach may tend to throw up problematic data. For instance, a recent trend on twitter was for female PhD holders to affix ‘dr’ in front of their names. This was in response to a viral tweet from ‘Sci Curious’ about how male colleagues were far less likely than female colleagues to correctly address a female colleague. When the researcher actually checked her emails she found no difference. 

There is also an unfortunate tendency to characterise opponents as fascist or at least unwitting agents of fascism. For instance, in the meeting with Lindsay Shepherd, Professor Rambukkana (who’s written on topics like ‘From #RaceFail to #Ferguson: Digital Intimacies, Racism and the Politics of Hashtag Publics.’ and ‘Taking the Leather out of Leathersex: BDSM Identity and the Implications of an Internet-Mediated Sadomasochistic Public Sphere.’) thought showing a clip of Peterson‘s was comparable with showing a clip of Hitler (a position for which he later apologised). Tying opponents’ opinions to unsavoury movements like fascism can in some cases, be a substitute for refutation.  

Widdowson, responding to a critical paper, characterises such approaches as having an ‘epistemological intolerance‘ noting that:

There is here a sort of fundamentalism: a zealous adherence to a way of conceiving of the world based on an unthinking trust in the wisdom of the pronouncements of some guru, sage, or prophet, whether this be Karl Marx or Thomas Aquinas or Ron Hubbard.

Finally it’s not at all clear that critical approaches actually deliver on the promise of empowerment and liberation. One reporter noted that “for years I have been searching for an instance in which peasants have broken out of their oppression, but have found none. When I asked Freire he admitted that neither has he.”

The spread of a critical approach

slides from RadicalKent EAP conference
Over the last couple of years I’ve noticed that this critical approach seems to be gaining more popularity in ELT and applied linguistics circles. Perhaps this is just a frequency illusion or perhaps these approaches are really starting to resonate with people due to the particular political situation we find ourselves in. 

Recently, The University of Kent hosted a ‘RadicalEAP‘ event, which included talks on subjects such as ‘Learning and teaching for the post-capitalist economy’, ‘How can I increase my impact as a teacher upon WP and BME students?’ and ‘Critical Race Theory (CRT): A framework for liberating, learning, teaching, assessment and the curriculum in higher education (HE)’’. 

‘White knowledge’ 
similarly, the AAAL conference this year seemed to have quite a ‘critical’ focus. For instance, echoing the ‘OscarsSoWhite‘ trend of 2015 the hashtag AAALsowhite was promoted by Ryuko Kubota who spoke against ‘white Eurocentric knowledge’ and criticised the conference for not having more PoC speakers. Another speaker dealt with the question of whether or not applied linguistics is a ‘tool of white supremacy‘. 
not the same

Adopting a critical perspective can mean viewing the world through a restrictive lens. Teaching English becomes enforcing ‘linguistic imperialism‘, which in turn is pushing Western values on oppressed people and is thus a tool of white supremacy (even when ‘the oppressed’ don’t necessarily agree). 

There is also a real danger that as critical approaches becomes influential, research which discovers uncomfortable truths will be censored or suppressed. There is evidence that this is already happening (see here and here). Alice Dredger‘s book Galileo’s Middle Finger documents a number of cases of this kind. She argues that Good research has “to put the search for truth first and the quest for social justice second”. 

I think it’s possible to worry that women or PoC often suffer discrimination without believing that there is a systematic ‘neoliberal’ conspiracy at work to keep them under the boot. It’s also possible to want to improve the world without assigning yourself either oppressor or oppressed status. As Widdowson puts it“you do not have to be a critical linguist to have a social conscience”. 

*It has been pointed out to me that the wording of this is not quite accurate. Freire does seem to talk approvingly of Mao’s China up to 1985 and never walks those comments back, but he doesn’t actually quote Mao in the main body of Ped of Opp. 

Happy Birthday EBEFL! (about)

On the 19th of March 2012 I tentatively started this blog with a post about the word literally not really expecting much f  reaction. One year, 41 posts 120 comments and 2,400 hits later (mostly from Swedish spam bots) and  I’m constantly surprised and incredibly grateful for the overwhelmingly positive reaction this blog has received. I want to take the opportunity to talk about why I set up EBEFL. Firstly I should say that I’m massively influenced by Ben Goldacre, and if you haven’t read his blog or his book, “bad science” then I can’t recommend it highly enough. Recently, he’s been writing about evidence in education and it’s well worth a read. 

Why Evidence-based EFL?

Life is short. The older I get the more I realize time is running out at a breath-taking pace.  A common theme in my life is investing effort into something which turns out, in the end to be a waste of time.  An example of this is martial arts.  I always loved martial arts and did them since I was a kid. I used to love martial arts movies like (based on a true story!) “bloodsport“. Finally when I moved to Japan I had the chance to do the “real” thing and took up a jiu-jitsu class.  Every week I went along and practised, and eventually got my black-belt.  My family were in awe, thinking I was some kind of dangerous killer. This was complete tosh and a strong gust of wind could have probably knocked me over, but the idea that I was an “expert” was enough to convince them and I certainly wasn’t about to deny it. I had almost completely convinced myself that this bit of coloured fabric had some actual meaning. It didn’t. 

The problem was that the martial art, like many martial arts was misguided.  It had a fixed method and it bent reality to fit with that. For example, if someone grabs your arm like X, then you twist it like so and hey-presto! Or if someone, punches you like Y, then you side-step and perform some killer move on them.  Of course, in truth, and if you ever see a real violent confrontation, no one will ever grab you like X or try to punch you like Y. By and large fights are messy affairs, and if someone is intent on doing you harm, they’ll probably do it, before you know what’s happened. People don’t hold knives out as they approach, nor do they telegraph punches. (incidentally, I recently found out that the true story bloodsport was based on was complete tosh.)  

Martial arts may seem unrelated to TEFL but exactly the same problems exist. Experts are made with qualifications (DELTA black belts!) and are often believed unquestioningly. Techniques and methods are designed and then reality is forced to fit them. In TEFL, like in martial arts (and in health care, public policy, science and pretty much any aspect of human life) a healthy dose of scepticism will almost certainly end up leaving us all better off.   

I recently read a blog post that insisted people are naturally sceptical but this isn’t quite right. People can be naturally sceptical about some things, some of the time. Sagan gives the example of buying a car:

When we buy a used car, if we are the least bit wise we will exert some residual skeptical powers — whatever our education has left to us. You could say, “Here’s an honest-looking fellow. I’ll just take whatever he offers me.” Or you might say, “Well, I’ve heard that occasionally there are small deceptions involved in the sale of a used car, perhaps inadvertent on the part of the salesperson,” and then you do something. You kick the tires, you open the doors, you look under the hood. (You might go through the motions even if you don’t know what is supposed to be under the hood, or you might bring a mechanically inclined friend.) You know that some skepticism is required, and you understand why. It’s upsetting that you might have to disagree with the used-car salesman or ask him questions that he is reluctant to answer. There is at least a small degree of interpersonal confrontation involved in the purchase of a used car and nobody claims it is especially pleasant. But there is a good reason for it — because if you don’t exercise some minimal skepticism, if you have an absolutely untrammeled credulity, there is probably some price you will have to pay later. Then you’ll wish you had made a small investment of skepticism early.(read more of this excellent piece here)

So we can be sceptical but often little tricks in our brains stop us from kicking the tires. The most powerful are perhaps confirmation bias and argument from authority. People can be fooled by “experts” or can fool themselves because they really want to believe their new method is producing great results. This self-deception is often the hardest to overcome. Scepticism is not just for debunking those things you think are wrong, it is far more important for challenging  -those things you’re sure about. 

When people read this blog and come across something lacking evidence which they believe in, they usually all have a similar reaction. They tend to shrug and say either  “well, evidence or not, I still believe this is useful and I’m going to continue to use it.” Or “well teaching isn’t science –it’s art!” or something like that. When people see something they think works cognitive dissonance kicks in and the rationalisations start. “I’m a good teacher so what I do in class must be good” or the more common one I encounter “well sure this method might not work but I’m going to keep doing it because students like it/I have no alternative/it’s good for tests etc etc.

I hope that this blog will be a home for critical thinking. I hope it will stop teachers and students wasting time and money on things which don’t or can’t work. I hope it will challenge authority and more than anything get people thinking. If you don’t agree with what I write that’s fine, but at least think about what you’re doing and don’t just accept what your CELTA tutor, the British council or a famous good-looking tanned, TEFL expert tells you. But also don’t believe yourself either and certainly don’t take my word for anything. Ask to see the evidence and if there isn’t any, why not try to make some?