IATEFL 2017: JJ Wilson turns Radical Pedagogy into Dross

I was surprised, not to say dismayed, to see that JJ Wilson’s plenary got good reviews, even from those who are critical of current ELT practice in general and of IATEFL in particular. My opinion is that the plenary was slickly packaged, worthless dross. Here’s what he said, and I assure you that I am leaving out no important points, or any significant development of them.

Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed gave me the theory I need to talk about my teaching practice. It’s all about emancipating yourself. Freire characterised most education as implementing a “banking” concept of education and really education is about transformation. Freire talks about problem posing, questioning, dialogue. He say the basis of all education is love, and that means justice.

Friere talks about “conscientização”: critical consciousness of your place in society.

He was exiled because he tried to empower people.

“Praxis” is the bringing together of theory and practice, which comes from Marx, who said “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”. An example is Julio Camarota’s workshops in prisons. The prisoners decided that education was the Number 1 reason they were in prison. So they petitioned for education in prison and they got it. That’s praxis.

What is social justice? It’s culturally specific and constantly changing. It affects all areas of our lives. Millions of people have no clear air or water.  Social Justice  = A world which affords individuals and groups fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of society.

What is the relevance of social justice to ELT? It depends on your view of the educator’s role in society. Teachers model social justice, but we don’t teach social justice, we must avoid proselytising, it’s an approach.

What might social justice issues in the classroom look like?

Do any of you make or create things. Do you make art or jewellry? Do you write for pleasure, do any of you make films? Do any of you make music? Put your hands up.

Wow! 62% of you! Fantastic! You are all involved in pushing the frontiers of human imagination You are all involved in seing beauty where other people don’t even look.

6 different ways of bringing social justice into the class

1, Images. Freire used images Take out a pen and paper and illustrate an issue that you’re passionate about. Next, talk to a partner about what you drew and explain how this issue is represented in your work . Now show your pictures to everybody.

Let’s look at photos of Sebastian Forgadu which show war and famine. I asked students to do presentations of one of the photos and talk about it.

Let’s look at photos of classrooms around the world. Everybody: please make sentences about them beginning “I wonder..” I did this exercise with teachers and turned the “I wonders” into questions.

  • What materials do they use?
  • What technology do they have?
  • What kind of school is it?
  • How is children’s education organised?
  • How are the classrooms decorated?

By discussing these questions, you’re bringing social justice into the classroom.

2. Poetry and literature. I’m going to read a poem. Listen and repeat

I remember

(Audience: I remember)

cutting snowdrops

(Audience: cutting snowdrops etc.)

angels kisses

I remember

VW Beetles

With windup windows

I remember


And JR

And who shot who

I remember


And Michael Jackson

When he was black

(…….. and on and on.)

You can use this with students who write their own poem and then you ask “What has changed since you were a kid?” This is a very indirect way of bringing social justice into the classroom.

Here’s a poem my wife wrote. (Reads poem “I am from…” ) You can get students to write poems starting “I am from”.

  1. Theatre. Agusto Boal founded the Theatre of the Oppressed, then he started “Forum” theatre which looks at issues of oppression. It consists of short sketch done twice.; once with a resolution, second time leave it up to the audience to decide what the resolution will be. Boal also invented “spectators” and gamesercises to de-mechanise the self. I recommend his book “Games for actors and non-actors”.
  2. Community Projects use the method of anthropological enquiry. (Gave examples of a few IATEFL projects.)
  3. Teachable moments. (Tells story of a boy who asked his teacher about a landfill site and this led to a recycling project. Tells another story of a teacher who arranged a field trip to a beach to see a stranded whale. )
  4. Stories (Tells story about Nuclear waste. How to warn people about nuclear waste? Lots of bad answers. The best answer is: Start an atomic priesthood of elders who are going to pass on a legend not to go near the mountain and this legend will be passed on from one generation to the next and it might just last 10,000 years.) Stories are very powerful.

The End

To summarise:

  • Freire was a radical educationalist who adopted Marx’s idea of praxis. He was concerned with issues of social justice.
  • Social Justice = A world which affords individuals and groups fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of society.
  • You can bring social justice issues into your classroom by looking at and discussing photos, reading poetry, doing role plays, starting community projects, creating teachable moments, and telling stories.


What’s the point of telling people who Freire was if you don’t make any attempt to use his ideas to critically examine ELT practice? Where in this incohesive succession of undeveloped catchy, candy floss suggestions was there any attempt to seriously engage with Freire’s ideas? Where is the analysis of “issues of social justice” that JJ Wilson is so “passionate” about? Why do millions of people have no fresh air or water? Why do millions of children have lessons sitting in the sand?

The list of pleasantries that made up JJ Wilson’s entertainment was about as challenging as a quick visit to Disneyland, and it did about as much to help teachers address issues of social justice.

Freire would have explained his view that teachers need a better understanding of the political and economic context they work in; that is, they should read enough of Marx, Gramsci, Althusser, and others to appreciate that capitalism benefits a small minority which doesn’t include them. He would have explained that to fight this oppression the first thing we need to do is to think critically and to question the ideology which supports the status quo. He would have then encouraged them to critically examine the ideological assumptions underpinning the activities of Peasons, Cambridge Examiners, the British Council, and the IATEFL organisation itself. Isn’t it the case that “the bottom line”, i.e., profit, is their overriding concern? To take just one example, what view of education leads Pearson to promote its “Global Scale Of English”? Is it not the most audacious example yet of the commodification of education, of what Scott Thornbury so memorably refers to as the McNuggets view of ELT?

And Freire would have encouraged teachers to think about practical ways of grappling with the consequences of global capitalism and the commodification of education. He would have told them that they must be critical, that they must simply stop believing what they’re told, and that they must change their practice.

He might even have suggested that they critically appraise the widening gap between their own deterorating social position and the position of those like JJ Wilson who sell coursebooks and training courses and receive awards from Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and who talk to them at plenary sessions before flying off to their next well-paid appearance in the world ELT circus.

The Society of the Spectacle

The Situationists, particularly Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, argued that workers in the capitalist production process have their powers ‘snatched’ from them; they create an abundance of products which come back to dominate them in an alien form—that is, as commodities. Spectacular society, in fact socially split between the small minority who benefit and the vast majority who suffer, achieves an illusory unity: everybody is part of the same community, consuming commodified goods and playing reified roles. It seems to me that the IATEFL conference is a good example of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle: passive consumers applaud JJ Wilson as he sells alienation back to them in the name of liberation: a perfect, awful example of reification.

The only way out of this mess is for us to think more critically, and then to organise and act locally. That’s not “praxis”, but it’s better than JJ Wison’s cosy little version of it.


Debord, G. (1967) The Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith: New York: Zone Books, 1995. Also transl. Ken Knabb, London: Rebel Press, 2004.

Vaneigem, R. (1967) The Revolution of Everyday Life. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith: London: Left Bank Books and Rebel Press, 1994.

32 thoughts on “IATEFL 2017: JJ Wilson turns Radical Pedagogy into Dross

    1. Unfortunately, in my experience, these things serve more as substitute for than introduction to the important texts.. People go to the plenary, then think they understand Freire (for which they can be forgiven, to be fair, since they’ve been told about Freire by someone who was presented to them as an expert.)

      Liked by 1 person

  1. A bit of a carnivalesque presentation to make the scary stuff safe. I had my hopes up too high for this, I think. Also, sorry. Thumb slipped and couldn’t edit my comment.


  2. Being the glass-half-full kind of guy that I am, my feeling is that the fact that there was an IATEFL plenary focusing on the work of Freire can only be a good thing, simply because it exposed a large number of ELT professionals, many of whom have considerable influence, to the fact that critical pedagogy even exists. The sad fact is that most people working in our profession have no idea about this hugely important approach to education, which suggests that we have a long way to go before it can even begin to have an influence. So it’s a start.
    But I also agree with you, Geoff, and Patrick (in his comment above), that there’s a danger that the current dominant forces will simply hijack critical pedagogy and say “but we’re doing this already. Look – a poem in our latest coursebook! A reading text about community activism!” We need to keep pushing, but I get the feeling that the door is starting to open for us. Or it could, if we all leaned on it together.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Dear Geoff,
    Some doubts:
    “Freire would have explained his view that teachers need a) a better understanding of the political and economic context they work in; that is, they should read enough of Marx, Gramsci, Althusser, and others to appreciate that b) capitalism benefits a small minority which doesn’t include them. He would have explained that c) to fight this oppression the first thing we need to do is to think critically and to question the d) ideology which supports the e) status quo”

    A) Do we really understand our context better by reading Marx, Gramsci, and Althusser? Do they understand 2017? Who are the others? B) Meeting the educated middle class today, with their smartphones and online applications—there are more phones than inhabitants, few would question the benefits of capitalism, and I am speaking from a corner where the gap has been growing. Rather than putting the state to crop the curve, ironically, it has been C) education that is called on as remedy. Education is supposed to promote social mobility. I have not heard many dissenting voices, left or right. (Personally, I find this bordering on religious devotion.) C) Can we reduce our concern (would that be allowing all people to live their lives to the fullest?) to D) one single ideology behind the E) status quo? D) Is there one single status quo? Or does the European status quo differ from the African, or South-American, the Asian?



    1. Hi Thom,

      A) Do we really understand our context better by reading Marx, Gramsci, and Althusser? Do they understand 2017? Who are the others?
      *** My point is that had Friere himself given the plenary, not JJ Wilson, that’s what he would have suggested. I personally think that they’re all very relevant today. More? Chomsky, Emma Goldman, Raul Vanneigem

      C) Can we reduce our concern (would that be allowing all people to live their lives to the fullest?) to D) one single ideology behind the E) status quo? D) Is there one single status quo? Or does the European status quo differ from the African, or South-American, the Asian?

      **** The status quo simply means the existing state of affairs. The ideology of the ruling class (the people who control the productive sectors – banks, mines, transport, communications, energy, consumer goods, entertainment, etc., – and the people who manage the state) seeks to explain and condone the status quo. The job of critical rationalists who take an anarchist position is to lay bare the contradictions in the ideology of the ruling class and to fight for the abolition of the wage system and the state.


      1. Hi again,

        “The status quo”

        I wonder if this is casting the human race into too stark a contrast (productive sector versus …working class? ruling class versus….? Mark Zuckerberg is not producing much; WhatsApp has thousands of users and I think they get along with a couple hundred employees; Uber owns no cars,etc. ). The ruling class, to allow the term for a moment, is hardly a monolithic group…going by your list, it seems that there is a wide range of interests at work. To me it seems that these relationships or networks show all kinds of shades of interaction, not sure the term controlling captures the essence for each.

        Assuming that you could do away with it, what would take its place? Do you understand this as progress in a Darwinian paradigm? I assume this is a yes. Wouldn’t that somewhat violate the nature of the species as seen in its historical /pre-historical track record? Having said this, is it beneficial to consider a state of nature? As in Hobbes et al suggesting that we are better off with a strong state in place or do you follow Rousseau?… Questions and more questions….

        (if your solution is a reaction to all the misery we find around us, I can fully agree with the impulse, if not with the solution)



  4. I was just sketching a modern Marxist view, which actually, as I infer at the end, I don’t entirely agree with. And I didn’t mean to suggest that my “list” was definitive. There is, however you want to cut it, whatever you want to call them, a small minority of people in the world, less than 1% who control the means of production and the States of all countries. Not a monolithic group certainly.

    I certainly don’t see social progress in any Darwinian sense, nor do I agree with the “little bit at a time” idea.that JJ Wilson seemed to think was “praxis”. It seems to me much more like Popper’s “piecemeal social engineering”, and so much hogwash. To be honest, I think it’s more likely that the human race will destroy itself before we get to “the self-rule of natural communities freely enjoying their own way of life, constantly enriched by the benefits of free association with other federated communities”. Still, one mustn’t give up hope! .


  5. ASR’s Mission: Principles of Revolutionary Unionism ?! I think they reduced civilization to economics and could not see new “forces” would be coming into play like modern tribalism, sexual revolution, militant atheism, high tech revolution, gender re-engineering and redefinition of family, human 2.0, demographic winter, global warming, etc. For sure, potent enough to sink the ship. I think I will return to a listening activity now to think of better things.

    Have a good day, or night.



  6. I find it particularly disconcerting that in ELT we don’t have even one academic or author that could in any way, shape or form be called a critical pedagogue. Wilson doesn’t even get to drink the kool aid for that litmus test. I think for most working in ELT and even applauding Wilson – they are certainly cosmetic functionaries …. or what Giroux defined as “educational technicians”. Too much of that and Wilson is one big one. Giroux addresses the question of true critical pedagogy by saying, “the best place to begin to answer this question is to recognize the distinction between a conservative notion of teaching and the more progressive meaning of critical pedagogy. Teaching for many conservatives is often treated simply as a set of strategies and skills to use in order to teach prespecified subject matter. In this context, teaching becomes synonymous with a method, technique, or the practice of a craft—like skill training. On the other hand, critical pedagogy must be seen as a political and moral project and not a technique.”


    1. Hi David,
      Don’t you think you can find educators in ELT that have, or had, a stake in “political and moral project(s)”? There is Robert Phillipson with Linguistic Imperialism. And I am not sure but I think Earl Stevick would have had a clear vision of the moral picture. And what to say of, if you admit him to the world of ELT, Chomsky? It is hard to settle for a “critical pedagogue” as the movement itself lacks precision. Take Geoff himself, he is plenty of critical but would he like to be grouped together with Foucault? I think we can be critical without commiting to all facets of critical pedagogy. Comments?

      “… it is important to emphasize that there does not exist a formula or homogeneous represantation for the universal implementation of any form of critical pedagogy. In fact, it is precisely this distinguishing factor that constitutes its critical nature, and therefore its most emancipatory and democratic function” (p.9 The Critical Pedagogy Reader)




  7. Thom, Yes agree that there are some people in our very broad profession that we should consider as “critical pedagogues” (myself, I don’t consider Chomsky as part of ELT but do agree the label fits). Also that there is a lack of precision to the term but that also applies to much of what we discuss professionally. What I’m arguing is that despite the fact that language and culture is at the core of our profession, there is little critical pedagogy within ELT. it is ruled by publishers and corporations and unfortunately with this private stranglehold, so little attention is truly given to concepts like “freedom”, “praxis”, political empowerment and so on ….. Other factors involved. Where are our own Ira Shores, Henry Girouxs, Michael Apples, McClarens, Gattos, Holts???? I come from an education background and there is a strong tradition of critical pedagogy – especially within research and academia but also on the ground. It doesn’t exist at all in ELT and I think that’s because the profession does very little to align itself with general education practices and approaches. It sticks to dog and pony shows of “skills” , “techniques” and the next new wonderful bottle of snake oil (TPR, TBL, PBL, CBI etc … – not saying they aren’t valid, but they aren’t ALL that teaching is about or more importantly for.).


    1. Hi again,
      You seem to jump back and forth; from political philosophy, education theory to the special discipline of language teaching and back. I know Giroux and Gatto but am not familiar with the others. Giroux’s academic career is dedicated to the questions surrounding critical pedagogy. I cannot think that he is any discipline’s man (thinking that we should have our Giroux–we have Jordan). Gatto’s story is different. He left the teaching profession and calls for unschooling altogether. These questions are much bigger than the concerns directly implied in ELT. Of course, they are important. But I would think it is fair to assume that language teaching seeks in the first place the development of communication skills. Your assumption that culture is at the core of our profession is delicate. Concepts like freedom and political empowerment are complex in the abstract and slippery in practice. It is a rather risky business. I think you taught in Korea for some time. I wonder what kind of critical pedagogy would work in Korea. This seems to me rather daunting. I am not sure if your appreciation of a genuine desire to teach well, as in pony shows, sits well. Correct me if I am wrong, but It seems that you are as much eager to offer good ideas for the classroom with your blog (with teaching recipies) as are many others in the field of ELT. Why should I find fault with that? I meet frequently with collegues in the math department. Comparing our disciplines, I think we have come a long way with our teaching practice. I am less alarmed.



    2. As an individual, I am new to but seriously interested in this discussion of critical pedagogy, but as a classroom teacher of EFL it is extremely hard to see how such theories could shape the affordances I attempt to create for children, teenagers and adults wanting to learn to understand, speak and write English.


      1. If you were seriously interested in critical pedagogy itself, not just a brief discussion of it, you’d know that in ELT it involves going beyond attempting to shape affordances and taking a broader view of one’s responsibilities as a teacher.


      2. Geoff, in a career in TEFL in various countries and at different levels that began in 1961, I like, perhaps immodestly, to think that I always realised, that even the humble teacher of the use of prepositions, the Present Simple v. The Past, The Definite Article [This is, of course, a caricature] i.e. a teacher of another language – TEFL/TESL/ etc. – can be, should be an educator, socially, ideologically, politically and humanistically aware and responsive.


      3. Glad to hear it. So why is it so hard for you to see how critical pedagogy might influence your teaching?


      4. [considering, for example, a) teaching English to boys and girls in a primary school in Ghana, or b) middle school boys in Qatar, or secondary school boys and girls in Sierra Leone, as a language teacher one’s specific task is to enable them to acquire performative language
        skills. Only when they have reached the stage where they can utter opinions and write about them, i.e. after three or four years of teaching and learning, only at that point can I see how, in the choice of texts or subjects to work with, could one begin to encourage them, train them to start examining and employing critical thinking. ,


  8. I admit that I did comment privately, and rather wickedly, that all JJ.Wilson needed was a white guitar and a backing group and he could have sung his plenary. I agree – his plenary was a carefully rehearsed, fast-tempoed , theatrical act. A lot of people liked it. Some people were disappointed and didn’t. It was one, non-traditional way of doling a plenary. But I find that the tenor of the criticism here is more distanced from potential audiences that Wilson was from his.
    I am not in disagreement with the opinions, but the seriousness of the arguments and the necessarily earnest arguments would never, I fear, fill an auditorium with seating for 3,000 people which, I believe, is what Wilson achieved.


    1. You’re right, marketing and sales are more important than knowledge and learning in English language teaching.



  9. But marketing and sales shouldn’t be more important than knowledge and learning in ELT. What’s so awful about Osnacantab’s comment is its lofty cynicism. .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course they shouldn’t, but somehow they are and somehow people enter the profession thinking they’re going to get a good deal.

      Maybe lots of people think baubles have more substance than Xmas dinner


      1. Robert. I must have expressed myself very badly indeed if I came across as lofty and cynical. I was merely trying to argue that a plenary with a live audience of thousands, presumably including a large number of EFL practitioners, was not the place for serious, in-depth, academic theoretical discourse.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I made no judgement about your comment. I was merely reflecting on the sad state of the industry, which is a fair inference to draw from the popularity of IATEFL, Wilson’s Plenary (TM), etc.

        How much buzz did it create, and how much buzz do you see actual training and academic discussion creating in EFL?


      3. Robert, from within IATEFL, I am unsettled by various changes that seem to be either alterations in people’s attitudes or a sign that I have crossed the generation gap. In IATEFLanuual conferences plenaries and regular webinars I miss the modern equivalents of theoreticians like Henry Widdowson, In discussion groups I wince at the invitations to click one’s agreement instead of articulating it in words. In promoting webinars and other events I sigh at the demands for sound-bites and one-minute videos. It seems to me – I don’t know how typically – that few people in the TEFL world any longer have the time or the interest in slower, quieter, lengthier discussions.

        To answer your questions -JJ Wilson’s plenary definitely created a buzz, though the buzz was a mixture of approval and disappointment and criticism.

        Over the years I have run quite a few email TEFL discussion lists. On many of these discussion has stopped, probably because people have switched to Facebook or WordPress based blogs plus comment sites, like this one. It is true that on most of the email-based discussion list a few regulars tended to post the most messages, As far as the role and influence of publishers is concerned, like the writers of other observations I have read post-IATEFL Glagow,I did feel (note the subjectivity) that publishers and published textbook and materials writers influenced the content of the conference very considerably. Someone who continues to satisfy both the theoretically interested and classroom teachers is Scott Thornbury. See especially his excellent blog, discussion group, The A-Z of ELT at https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/ . He has just started posting again regularly on Sunday mornings.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Thanks for this, Osna.

        I am closely following Scott’s blogg, though I wonder how much the man writes out of a sense of obligation to uphold a status quo (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) and how far his work now goes in progressing the field.


      5. I, not Robert, suggested that your remarks were lofty and cynical. But I didn’t suggest that JJ Wilson’s plenary should have been a “serious, in-depth, academic theoretical discourse”. Between the dross of what he said and your rhetorical extreme lay lots of opportunities to use Friere’s views to raise awareness of serious failings in current ELT practice and IATEFL’s reflection of it.


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