Month: October 2013

The power of idealism

~ imagination, critical thinking, and teacher agency

I gave a talk at an event recently which was attended by teachers. The event was the launch of a range of ICT-based educational tools by a publishing company. When I was approached to give the keynote speech, I was upfront with the company representatives about what my position was regarding education, technology, and the intersection of the two. They were equally upfront about why they were inviting me to speak. In between the two sets of beliefs and requirements, we found a point of agreement. And so it came to pass that at an event which was dedicated to the launch of a well-designed ICT package for education that would relieve busy teachers of the task of preparing resources and support their pedagogical aims, I spoke about the need to be critical as teachers about our relationships with technology, and the need to help our students develop this same critical lens.

MC_cropSome teachers came up to me after the event and, after telling me that they enjoyed my talk, pointed out what they felt was a contradiction between my position and that of the publishing company. At the time, I nodded and smiled, pleased that someone had picked out some of those tensions (which, remember, all parties involved had been cued into right from the start). But as I thought about it, I realised that there was more that could be said about this tension than just pointing out that it existed. Might there be a creative spark in this tension? A space for new ideas to emerge? Is that not, after all, the point of a keynote speech — especially by an academic (as opposed to a corporate manager or school leader)? To that extent, perhaps it isn’t so paradoxical that someone with a more radical viewpoint might address an audience of people who are in the business of engaging learners and preparing them for an ‘uncertain world’. To give the publishing company credit, perhaps that is precisely what they wanted — to host a platform for the opening up of discussion between stakeholders about the digital future of education. While I didn’t explicitly endorse their product, nothing in my speech denied its value. I only made a larger point about the need for critical engagement with any resource. In fact, the way is now open for the company to design resources to teach digital literacy, if they think there is a market for it!

However, there are (for now) at least two elephants in the room that have to be dealt with.


The first is a political context in which radical ideas are viewed askance (this is not actually unique to Singapore), and the second is a stratification in the education system that is tied to more general social stratification (again, not a purely Singaporean phenomenon). I won’t actually be dealing with them in this post, but merely acknowledging them for now and revealing them as part of the context for this discussion. These two elephants create an atmosphere in which

(a) suggesting that we should activate the pedagogical imagination to really (as opposed to notionally) empower our young people and enrich the democratic tenor of our society is cast as idealism, and

(b) idealism is seen in dichotomy with realism, with the latter being preferred.

The publishing company passed along the feedback that they had collected from the teacher-attendees. I was gratified to see that the comments reflected a high level of satisfaction and engagement with the talk. Some of the participants remembered vividly some key points and took the effort to quote them.One particular comment triggered further reflection, because it expressed a concern that I am familiar with from my experience as a secondary school English teacher. The writer felt that I was “a tad idealistic” because “ developing critical thinking [is] near impossible for students with weak language skills”.

I am very sympathetic towards this concern, but I have always disagreed with the premise that linguistic skills have to precede critical thinking (and to be clear, no one is saying that these students do not know how to use language. We are only saying they have lower competency in English). I believe that our main project as educators is to raise both in tandem — not because there is any inherent value in either, but because both are necessary for one to be politically engaged in today’s world. To that extent, if I were pushed to the point of choosing one or the other to start the process, I’d choose critical thinking. Luckily we don’t have to choose. Another world is possible, and it is one in which we embed critical thinking in language lessons and linguistic skills in critical exploration. And that was actually the crux of my speech, couched in an even firmer argument that as language teachers, we have an obligation to push the boundaries of critical thinking rather than give into them. If we say that students cannot cope with critical thinking skills instruction, then I don’t think it is really language that is the problem. I would even go so far as to say that language teaching serves as a proxy for reproducing inequality. That is a problem that no amount of ICT-based resources can solve.

So no, I don’t think my speech was idealistic in the sense that the feedback indicated, and in the sense that so many people associate with the word. There is often a false dichotomy made between idealism and realism. The joke is that idealism fails when it meets reality and then morphs into cynicism. Thus, the argument goes, the only ‘successful’ idealist is one who accepts that it has to be tempered with realism. Idealism alone is useless. People need to be shown a way to implement ideas.

But a world in which an idea (or the person who suggests it) is dismissed just because it doesn’t come with an instruction manual for immediate implementation is a scary world — scarier even than the ‘uncertain’ one we keep (not)imagining for our students. Today’s ideal is potentially tomorrow’s alternative reality. Idealism in that sense is not only valuable, it is vital for humanity. People should always have the space to think about ideas and imagine for themselves whether and how they want to work on those ideas. Their lack of English competency should not in itself necessitate their disqualification from learning about how to create that space for themselves.It is a political choice to connect these two and make one dependent on the other, and it is a choice with political implications. Being able to create that space is the essence of self-determination, and if it has to start with something, I can’t think of anything more practical and realistic than teacher agency in the design, selection and implementation of teaching resources within a framework of critical literacy.