Critical Consciousness and Personalization

Tom's ESL Lounge


By reading Mentoring the Mentor, A Critical Dialogue with Paulo Freire, I have re-visited the world of Paulo Freire, one of the most influential educators in the 70's. I now reflect on some of Freire's key principles in light of my reading Esther Enns-Connelly's module on Personalizing Teaching Materials for Second Language Learners.

Freire provided educators a theory based on his experience in Latin America that provides a framework for teachers' practice that is radically democratic and liberating for oppressed peoples. His first book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, guided my work as an adult educator with Aboriginal people twenty years ago. While Freire's ideas made sense in the context of Aboriginal communities, it is hard to imagine anywhere in North America more different than where I am now teaching. The middle-class and relatively homogenous ESL student community in the Eastern Townships is almost the opposite socio-economic conditions which inspired Freire. I am still compelled to relate Freire's powerful ideas about education to my language teaching, even if there is no Ministry mandate to engage my students in social action.


The Process of Personalization

Personalizing Teaching Materials is a study guide for teachers that was presented in a course at the University of Sherbrooke, Teaching ESL II, with Roger Tremblay. I will try to summarize its methods and techniques. The personalization of materials process ensures that there is a strong element of personal involvement on the part of the teacher and students. "Taking an active part in shaping lessons to suit the demands of the class is the essence of personalized teaching (p 24)". Lessons relate to the lives of the students, so that "there is adequate opportunity for the students to talk spontaneously about their own experiences within the lesson... exploit what they say as a vital component of the lesson". Student activities enable class members to get to know each other and students are able to relate what they learned in the classroom to real situations/people outside the class.

The teacher actively works at drawing out the experiences and interests of the students, i.e. tries to get them to talk about themselves. Teachers play an active role in constructing their own lessons. As well, the students see that the teacher is personally involved in the lesson because he or she related it to his or her personal experiences and interests. The teacher is more interested in what students say than how they say it.

This method exploits the need and desire of learners to have interesting and meaningful exchanges in the class. I was not surprised therefore to find personalization evident in all the classrooms I visited. In examining many course/methods books I also found personalization was often part of the design. I therefore conclude that personalized lessons are motivating and a common sense strategy for ESL beginners . The attention to students interest and needs that is result of the personalization of materials is probably valuable for all groups of learners as a general approach. However, at the advanced levels of college ESL, I suspect that it may become less important whether the lessons are personally relevant. These novice academics are probably more interested in mastering academic forms which are de-personalized and "objective". Are there links between the personalization approach and the theories of Paulo Freire? Yes.


Dialogue and critical consciousness

The first link is in how the writers view the communication process between teachers and students. From the beginning of his work, Freire has insisted, it is not our role to speak to the people about our view of the world, not to attempt to impose that view on them, but rather to dialogue with the people about their view and ours" (Freire p 85). These are personal views.

Information is communicative, or generates communication, when receivers learn the content of what was communicated in such a way as to transcend the act of receiving. They do this by recreating the received communication and transforming it into knowledge concerning what was communicated. The receiver becomes the subject of the process of communication, which, in turn, leads to education as well. (Freire, 1996, p. 99)

The process of Freirian dialogue is present in the communicative approach of ESL teachers. When teacher and student exchange personally meaningful information they most certainly become the subject of the process of communication.

The personalization approach is consistent with Peggy McIntosh's (1990, as cited in Freire p. 1997) definition that "teaching" is the development of self through the development of others. Underlying this argument is Paulo Freire's concept that learning and teaching are part of the same process, are different moments in the cycle of gaining existing knowledge, re-creating that knowledge and producing new knowledge (Freire, 1982).

While the methods of dialogue and engagement in real action for social change is central to Freire's theories, no where is it stated or implied that engagement in real action for social change is part of teaching and learning that is personalized.

Freirian problem-solving and curricula is intended to reveal the interconnections and complexities of real-life situations where "often, problems are not solved, only a better understanding of their nature may be possible" (Connolly, 1981, p. 73). Maryilyn Frankenstein (1997), a Freirian teacher writes how she organizes her math students to asking questions in class because many find this hard to do, and so they can have some control over their learning. Personalization does not necessarily prompt students to question; however it does place students squarely in the centre of the learning process. Greater personalization also requires greater participation and control over their learning in the decisions of learning.

While there appears to be some linkage between Freire and Enns-Connelly's methods, I don't see how personalization methods are related to social action and change. Freire believes that democratic society requires constant re-invention by the people who have developed critical consciousness. Teachers either support this goal or, to put it bluntly, they are "part of the problem". But how concientization is achieved and how teachers lead students to critical consciousness is not easily understood or implemented by educators.

In Education for Critical Consciousness, Freire stated that "the more accurately men grasp true causality, the more critical their understanding of reality will be. He continues, " once man perceives a challenge, understands it, and recognizes the possibilities, he acts. The nature of that action corresponds to that nature of his understanding. Critical understanding leads to critical action" p. 44. Unfortunately much of the experience developing critical consciousness among North American learners has backfired (Fine, 1997) because the bureaucracy of schooling has no room for critical consciousness, from learners or teachers. Fine believes that its tacit job is to surround and contain critique. He adds, "silencing is not simply a feature of this institutional life -- it is the defining feature.

In his autobiographical reflections, Letters to Christina, he writes that "at the same time, the process of teaching and learning is an ethical process and not a "neutral endeavor". Nevertheless, it "must not lead educators to impose, subliminally or not their tastes on learners, whatever those tastes may be. This is the ethical dimension of educational practice." And without any ethical dimension there is no respect or ultimately any meaningful education.

So, should teachers in the personalized communicative classroom also lead and join their students in social action? Perhaps if the action is directed at institutionally acceptable causes like the environment or anti-racism. Doesn't sound like a strategy that any new teacher is likely to pursue if the social action threatened his/her employment. Why aren't teachers fostering social action?

According to Freire the "banking model" of education that dominates teacher training effectively domesticates teachers. Stokes (1997) writes that "novice teachers become anxious about their abilities to maintain control, to organize and manage, to follow defined procedures, to arrange schedules, to write lesson plans, to fulfill curriculum objectives, to use required texts and materials, and to carry out evaluations. These emphases place teachers as consumers of procedures and techniques created by experts. The mystification of method and management encourages teachers to uncritically focus on skills and behaviors. Freire argues that the pretense of neutrality regarding pedagogical content often leads to a subtle and more attractive means of serving the interests of the powerful while appearing to favor the oppressed. p. 122 (Freire, P. 1985).

Without this ultimate political purpose, teaching will maintain the status quo. Gee (1997) writes that the perspectives, values, and assumptions built into school-based language practices,


are often left implicit, thus empowering those mainstream children who already have them and disempowering those children who do not and for whom they are never rendered visible, save in the negative evaluations they constantly receive. P. 239.


Progressive course books such as English Fast Forward, This Side Up, and Grammar Dimensions are fairly easy to personalize; opportunities for personalization are built into many of the lessons. Clear Signals is an example of a course book that cannot be easily personalized because it focuses on academic style. None of these course books or their instructor manuals explain the underlying values and assumptions. It is up to the teacher to de-construct these materials and possibly through the process of personalization, make them meaningful to students and themselves. None mention social action. Why is this? Nowhere in my training as a teacher at Bishop's, nor in any of these course books did I find the theories or methods to take the next step of critically examining content, and then encouraging students to act on it.

In Paul Fournier's This Side Up, several of the units have designed opportunities to relate content to the participants' personal lives. As well, some of the units require critical reading and discussion that could lead to social action. For example, after their analysis of survey data, students choose topics, find articles and conduct their own surveys to answer a research question. While this could be a very useful skill and empowering for students, no content is provided on the purpose of research and its role in Quebec or Canadian society. It is left to the teacher and students to discover the nature of survey research and understand the purpose - often repressive, self-serving, manipulative and exploitative. A teacher without any exposure to cultural theory or an uncritical teacher could train students to use surveys without considering the potential consequences of their actions.

Before leaving this brief exploration of Freire and personalization, let me describe some materials that I believe are suitable for the ESL classroom that also aim for social action and demonstrate critical pedagogy. The teen TV show Street Cents (CBC, Monday 5:00 pm) from Halifax puts Freirian pedagogy to practice. It scathingly attacks mainstream consumerism using social satire and techniques of investigative reporting. For example, in a recent episode characters spoofed the popular Dawson Creek, Ally McBeal and Felicity to expose the effects of commercialism and corporate greed and mocking passive consumers. They offer a soapbox for viewers to rant about deceptive marketing. This is "in-your-face" deconstruction. Segments within this program could easily be personalized and viewed in the classroom. Students and teacher could collaborate and carry out their own investigations or produce their own skits critical of consumerism and corporate exploitation.



Connolly, R. 1981. Freire, Praxis and Education," in R. Mackie, ed. , Literacy and Revolution: The Pedagogy of Paulo Freire. New York: Continuum.

Fine, M. 1997. A letter to Paulo Freire in Mentoring the mentor: A critical dialogue with Paulo Freire. Edited by Paulo Freire, New York: Peter Lang.

Frankenstein, M. 1997. Breaking down the dichotomy in Mentoring the mentor: A critical dialogue with Paulo Freire. Edited by Paulo Freire, New York: Peter Lang.

Friere, P. 1995. The politics of education: culture, power, and liberation, South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey.

Friere, P. 1996. Letters to Christina: Reflections on my life and work, New York: Routledge.

Freire and Macedo. 1987. Literacy: Reading the Word and the World (South Hadley, Mass: Bergin and Garvey

Freire, Paulo. 1973 Education for critical consciousness, New York: Seabury, 1973.

Gee, J. P. 1997. Dilemmas of literacy: Plato and Freire, in McIntosh, P. Interactive Phases of personal and Pedagogical Change," talk at Rutgers University/Newark, Nov. 14, 1990

Stokes, W. T. (1997) Progressive teacher education: consciousness, identity and knowledge in Mentoring the mentor: A critical dialogue with Paulo Freire. Edited by Paulo Freire, New York: Peter Lang.

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