Politics and English language teaching

One theme of 2017 was whether we should be more ‘political’ in our lessons. At IATEFL, JJ Wilson argued for the inclusion of ‘social justice‘ in ELT classrooms and others criticised such things as the avoidance in materials, of PARSNIPS or other ‘difficult’ topics. Lessons promoting ‘more politics in the classroom’ have also been promoted, such as one on the French election and another on refugees. So should we be including more politics in ELT lessons? Do students want it? Does it lead to better educational outcomes? Is that even the point?

Everything is nothing

One of the main arguments for including more politics in class is that since ‘everything is political‘ and all classroom practice is value-laden, politics is already there. 

‘Pedagogical choices about curriculum development, content, materials, classroom processes, and language use, although appearing to be informed by apolitical professional considerations, are, in fact, inherently ideological in nature, with significant implications for learners’ socioeconomic roles. Put simply, our choices as educators play a role in shaping students’ choices’. (Auerbach in Thornbury)

Of course, it follows that if everything is political then the push can’t be so much for more politics in the classroom, but for different politics in the classroom. Currently, what students in fact get is a ‘sanitised’, inoffensive version of politics avoiding any politically sensitive topics. Students are treated to a diet of bland topics and never really have their ideas challenged. 


If we want more politics in teaching then, the question becomes how we differentiate political topics which are ‘sanitised’ and bland from those which are important. Elections in France were an important topic for one teacher (above) and LGBT rights for another. We could have lessons on a range of political topics, for instance, domestic violence, circumcision, gerrymandering, corporation tax, abortion, the death penalty, atheism, NAFTA and so on. But are these the right kind of politics?

Not politics but ‘politics’

I get the distinct feeling that if I taught lessons on political topics like trade deficits, estate tax and the gold standard, those advocating more politics in the classroom wouldn’t be satisfied. These are undeniably important topics which are not usually in textbooks but my sense is that they’re not the ‘right’ political topics. That’s because those pushing for more politics in the classroom are actually pushing for more of the politics which are important to them, specifically, broadly ‘liberal’ or ‘social justice‘ issues. These I would guess, include topics such as inequality, environmental issues, sexism, and minority rights.

Not only are the political topics generally pre-selected but arguably the conclusions are reached before the lesson begins. Advocates often tout political lessons as merely being about examining views, having a discussion and ‘asking questions’ but to my mind this is not quite true. The reality is the lessons are used as a platform for a teacher to promote a certain political vision to her students. An example of what I’m talking about can be seen in this interview with J.J. Wilson. He suggests that the topic of ‘work’, a staple of many EFL textbooks, could be made more ‘political’:

Another common topic is work. Again, we problematise. We might ask about exploitation, environmental damage or corruption. Or we might question the very nature of work – and ask why an employee in a supermarket is setting out genetically engineered fruit rather than tending her garden, why a line cook is taking orders from strangers instead of cooking for his family, why a woman is watching the children of the wealthy at a daycare centre rather than spending time with her own, why a musician is composing jingles for fizzy drinks rather than jamming with his friends.

It is apparent here that Wilson thinks organic garden grown foods are preferable to GM foods. He also seems to suggest that the concept of work itself is problematic. The questions he’s posing are pushing in a certain direction. Since there is no instruction about what kind of politics should be in the classroom, one could reasonably imagine questions like ‘why do so many people dislike GM foods when they are so safe?’ or ‘ Why do middle class Westerners eat organic food which takes so much more land and resources to produce -are they just selfish?’ and so on. These questions, like Wilson’s cannot be considered neutral.

Critical Pedagogy thus crosses a threshold between teaching criticality and indoctrinating. Teaching students to think critically must include allowing them to come to their own conclusions; yet Critical Pedagogy seems to come dangerously close to prejudging what those conclusions must be.


The right answer is…

Unlike questions of grammar and vocab which usually have a right (or at least, standard) answer, questions of politics are more tricky. it would be nice to imagine there is a ‘wrong side of history‘ and we’re all plodding along hoping we’re on the ‘right’ side. It is difficult for though, for morality to ever be anything other than subjective. Sure some issues seem easy. Should some people be slaves? Should we kill people who we think are witches? But it quickly gets more ‘muddy’. Should the state help terminally ill patients to commit suicide? Should male inmates convicted of rape be allowed into female prisons if they identify as female? Should male religious circumcision be banned

The idea that something is morally right for all time and everyone should ‘get up to speed’ as soon as one country does is naive. Most people living 100 years ago would be moral monsters to us, and no doubt we will be moral monsters to those living 100 years hence. different times, and different places have different views about things. 

Neutrality works for both sides. 

A key point that advocates of more politics in the classroom miss is that anyone who can use this argument to teach the ‘right’ topics can also use it to teach the ‘wrong’ topics. Once you have legitimised advocating political positions in the classroom then how are you able to argue against topics like creationism, conspiracy theories and white supremacy? Those who consider instituting bans on certain ‘wrong’ politics are myopic and never consider that those tools, once instituted, may someday be used against them. The bland, sanitised topics arguably protects everyone from the experience Callista Hunter describes in this screenshot. 

Bully for you

Another issue with those promoting more politics in classrooms is the faintly moralistic whiff with which they sometimes do it.  Johnson writes:

Critical pedagogists have also commandeered a certain political vocabulary that gives them claim to the moral high ground. They borrow extensively from the language of proletarian protest, talking frequently of struggle, emancipation, and liberation. Their favorite adjectives are revolutionary and radical. Their metaphoric use of such terms seems intended to make readers feel like romantic rebels. (2012)

A cynic might ask exactly whose interests the politicised classrooms are serving? The students, who might learn a bit of interesting or unusual vocabulary, or the teacher who gets

to believe their teaching is a higher calling than, as Wilson puts it mere classroom managers transmitting McDonaldised content‘. This kind of rhetoric belittles teachers who just want to teach. Teachers, who do not partake in activism, are shills, or to quote one, are  ‘colluding in highly neoliberal/ imperalistic form[s] of global governance/ managerialism.’ Teachers are either critical or stooges, ‘with us or with the terrorists’. As Ding writes:

This conflictual and aggressive discourse is also accompanied by a binary and divisive stance regarding the choices facing teachers…It does so because of a lack of nuance and subtlety, failing to accommodate ideas and pedagogies that do not foreground quite so vocally an ideological version of language education…


Can we avoid politics? 

I think a lot of these people feel passionate about injustices they see in the world and want to do something about it. I don’t doubt the convictions and the good intentions of those who want to live in a better world but activism disguised as academia isn’t, to my mind, the right way to go about it. I see the classroom as something akin to the yearly family get together. There’s history and disagreements and racist uncles. It all bubbles under the surface and so we put a nice polite smile on our faces and get through the ordeal sticking to bland, safe topics ‘How’s work’ and ‘been on holiday anywhere nice?’ rather than ‘Grandad! why did you vote for Brexit!?’ 

I actually don’t have a problem bringing up controversial topics in class especially if the students ask about it and everyone is happy to discuss it. These kind of classes/moments are usually really valuable. I have a problem with political activism disguised as teaching and the implication that ‘just’ teaching makes you a puppet of shadowy corporate forces.


I was reluctant to write to this post as politics doesn’t really fall under my remit. I also can’t point to any evidence to say it’s wrong or right to inject your politics into the classroom. All I can really say is that I wouldn’t like it if I were a student and I don’t like the idea of doing it as a teacher. I also don’t think teacher’s should be shamed for not pushing certain politics on students. Educating someone is itself inherently empowering. Isn’t that enough? 

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Kangaroos are dangerous animals.  You can, however, avoid danger if you know  the signs. Joe Nichter, a frequent traveller, writes about discovering this in a trip to Australia:


While I was there, the local aborigines taught me a lot about the magic of the Kangaroo, and most importantly, how to tell when they’re going to attack you. Surprisingly enough they are actually VERY dangerous, but fortunately for us they go through a checklist before they attack.

The first thing they do is smile. Well no, not really but that’s what it looks like. Actually they’re baring their teeth just like a dog, but because of their facial structure it appears as though they’re smiling.

The second thing they do is double-check their pouch for baby Joey’s. As it turns out they’re very responsible parents whether they have children or not, they check anyways. There’s something to be said about that.

And third, they look over both shoulders, checking behind them as they lay their very large tail down on the ground. It acts as a “kick stand” (which I believe is where the term came from) as they lean back and lay into you with a battery of high speed Kangaroo Karate kicks.

They average about five to seven solid kicks before you’re knocked out of range. I spoke to a local man who holds the distance record: an adult Kangaroo kicked him fourteen feet. He’s a bit of a celebrity who’s very popular with the ladies. He has a shirt and everything.

None of this is true. Our critical thinking faculties are often disarmed by good stories. In fact, they only really come into effect when we’re suspicious of something or when it disagrees with our world view. The danger is when we ‘want to believe.’

Narratives are far more important to humans than facts. We are a consciousness inhabiting a body from moment to moment and what makes us seem like a unified self, unlike a series of Doctor Who-esque reincarnations over time, is the narratives we tell ourselves. We hold our ‘selves’ together with stories. The unreliability of our memories is well documented, and we generally edit  narratives to make them fit better with our beliefs about what should have happened, not what did happen.  

When I find myself watching shows like the X factor (usually if I visit my parents) I’m always amazed by the way personal history is edited to fit the present. Contestants say things like ‘I’ve been singing since I was little’, as if this was in someway unusual among children. But this temptation to repurpose our histories to make a better narrative about our lives, one in which everything we’ve done has lead to this unique moment, is powerful. How many people have you met who have ‘ended up’ as EFL teachers (like myself) but who then mine their history for moments which make their present situation seem somehow predestined. For example, the creator of Genki English, Richard Graham tells us: 

I first started teaching when I was 16. I was the first student in the UK to take the Advanced Level examination (the exams English students take at 18) in Music with my instrument as being [sic] the synthesiser…Anyway I had to teach myself how to play and being an enterprising 16 year old I figured that loads of kids were wanting to play synths instead of the “boring” (ok, it depends on your point of view!) piano. So if there were no other teachers out there then why not start teaching it myself!

always wonder what this story would look like had the 1980s never finished and Graham had made it as a star synth keyboard player instead being an EFL teacher. I imagine the ‘synth’ part would be turned up high and the teaching part turned way down low.

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This overly long preamble brings me to today’s topic. Did you know how many common English phrases have sinister histories?

Did you know, for example that the nursery rhyme ‘Ring of roses/ a pocket full of posies/ Atishoo Atishoo/ we all fall down’ was created during the plague of London? The roses relate to the red ring of infectious sores which signalled the beginning of the infection. The posies were, at the time, considered a treatment. The sneezing indicated a worsening of the symptoms and I don’t need to explain the falling down.
And how about that “rule of thumb” actually refers to an old English law which permitted a man to beat his wife with a stick ‘no thicker than his thumb’.
Did you also know that ‘one for the road’ has a similar macabre history? Condemned prisoners would be taken through the streets of London to be hanged. The prisoners ‘on the wagon’ would not be allowed to drink but occasionally guards, feeling pity, would let the men stop at a pub, for a final drink (one for the road) before their execution.
When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that’s where the saying “dirt poor” came from. The wealthy would have slate floors. That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet. So they started to spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a “thresh hold”.

Read more at http://www.snopes.com/language/phrases/1500.asp#BObWjPQO399ZZ30C.99

When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that’s where the saying “dirt poor” came from. The wealthy would have slate floors. That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet. So they started to spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a “thresh hold”.

Read more at http://www.snopes.com/language/phrases/1500.asp#BObWjPQO399ZZ30C.99

When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that’s where the saying “dirt poor” came from. The wealthy would have slate floors. That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet. So they started to spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a “thresh hold”.

Read more at http://www.snopes.com/language/phrases/1500.asp#BObWjPQO399ZZ30C.99

All of these are great stories and yet none of them are true. They are false etymologies but they survive because they are really good stories (more here) and good stories are always more interesting than boring old facts. If you’re not convinced ask yourself why politicians always back up numbers with tales of ‘a family man from Kansas told me…’ and so on. Our brains react to stories not abstract numbers, which is why the anecdote “it worked for me” is so powerful.

Our narrative drive is so strong that we ignore statistical likelihoods in favour of anecdotes. Many people are more scared of shark bites than Louis Suarez bites though the latter is more statistically probable. (This example isn’t, in retrospect, a very good one. See comments section for a discussion of this point). 

So ‘debunkers’ beware, recent research shows that not only are people unlikely to be swayed be facts, the ‘backfire effect‘ often means a person’s views will be reinforced by a evidence which contradicts their personal narrative. 

The sceptics job is a thankless one. as Dave Wilton writes in ‘Word myths’:

Anyone who has any experience debunking legends or pseudoscience knows that the task is often an unappreciated one. People do not like to have their beliefs questioned or to have good stories spoiled.