Conversation Pieces

Conversation Pieces*

By Deniz Şallı-Çopur



With Yasemin Tezgiden-Cakcak on “Critical Pedagogy”

Some ideas are universal and undying. If you asked me about the trends in education today, I would definitely put critical pedagogy into the list, although Freire wrote his well-known Pedagogy of the Oppressedin 1968. That is because there is, has been and will always be oppression. So I wanted to have the first conversation piece with Yasemin Tezgiden-Cakcak on critical pedagogy. She has recently offered an MA course on critical pedagogy, and translated a book on Freire (Paolo Vittoria’s Paulo Freire-Diyaloğun Pedagojisine Giden Yolwith Erdal Cakcak) into Turkish. So I can’t think of any other person to chat on critical pedagogy. We had our conversation 10 days after the national elections, which can easily be felt between our lines.

Deniz: Yasemin, what is critical pedagogy or how can we explain it to a person in the 101 level?

* “Banking model of education is a term used by Paulo Freire to describe and critique the traditional education system. The name refers to the metaphor of students as containers into which educators must put knowledge” (Wikipedia, 2018).

Yasemin Tezgiden-Cakcak: Critical pedagogy is a philosophical and an educational approach that foregrounds the disadvantaged. It not only foregrounds the disadvantaged including the poor, the disabled students, the disadvantaged, LGBTI+ people, girls or boys who are discriminated at schools, immigrants, etc. but also includes a kind of a challenge against the existing capitalistic system which produces injustice, alienation and dehumanization. It is a challenge against the status quo. According to critical pedagogy, pedagogy is a political act.  Althusser [Louis Althusser, French Marxist Philosopher, 1918-1990] argued that education, school, church, religion, and media are important tools to maintain the existing system by manufacturing the consent of people. As opposed to the common understanding that education and schools are neutral tools distanced from politics, they are political tools used to suppress people by restricting their behavior (in the way of do’s and don’ts at the school setting) and narrowing their imagination through rote-learning. They serve for reproducing the system. That’s why critical pedagogy tries to unmask how schools work for the system. Critical Pedagogy has two functions: one is to unmask the existing capitalist system which oppresses most of the people, and the other one is to fight against the injustice and discrimination at schools because most of us are being oppressed in the banking of education*as Freire called, but the disadvantaged students are double or triple oppressed. That is why critical pedagogy foregrounds the issues of disadvantaged people. It also works to raise critical consciousness among the oppressed for liberation and it tries to challenge, and transform the system through praxis,which is the unity of reflection and action.

Deniz: When we talk about these terms “oppression, oppressor, oppressed”, in Turkish we think of ezmek [to oppress], ezenler [oppressor], ezilenler [oppressed], but in Turkish we also say “ezikler” [losers]. I definitely do not think that the oppressed is a loser, but sometimes the oppressors are aware of the fact that they oppress but the oppressed or the losers are not always aware of the fact that they are being oppressed.  Are they?

Yasemin: No, mostly not. And that is the main function of critical pedagogy, to raise that critical consciousness, to show that they are being oppressed, and these inhumane life conditions are not their faith. They can get out of this oppression, but only if they realize and only if they get into action, so one of the key concepts of Freire is praxis, reflection and action. First, they need to reflect on their own reality, and they should take action because when you realize the situation you are in, that you are being oppressed by someone, you cannot sit still. You have to do something if you can, and you take action and you change the world, of course not on your own but in solidarity. In solidarity with other people, working together, coming together or organizing with people. But the first step is to have that critical consciousness. It is not easy. The oppressed people are living in an illusion and they don’t want to change the situation because they are scared that they are going to lose their jobs, that they are going to be jailed, that they are going to be killed. In order not to risk their own life, they just accept the system, maybe as all of us. We just accept the situation and then we say “we can’t change anything, who am I to change anything? I am just an individual, I can’t do anything.” But there are also others who have no idea that they are oppressed. They may think that these guys [oppressors] are helping us, they are giving us food, benefits, etc. They do not realize that they are being oppressed by those who dispense “false generosity” in Freire’s terms rather than changing the unjust social order.  Pedagogy of the Oppressedsuggests “dialogue” to make them realize the causes of injustice.

Deniz: Once you are being aware of the situation, you realize that you have some kind of a responsibility in it and you need to do something to change it. But isn’t it more difficult?

Yasemin: I think that is the problem in our country. We talk and talk and talk. We “save the country” even in a taxi, even in a daily conversation. We just talk, we just reflect. Maybe our reflection level is good, but when it comes to taking action, there is almost no action. And an action does not always have to be a demonstration, or a strike, or a political act. It could be something smaller like getting together and interacting with each other raising consciousness on daily issues. Action does not always have to be something really big. Freire says without reflection, there is no action. If there is only reflection, it is only verbalism [lafazanlık]; and if it is action without reflection, it is activism. But reflection and action should go together. Otherwise, it does not work properly and we don’t transform ourselves. On the other hand, even if people realize the situation, sometimes they are afraid of freedom, either because that means more responsibility and making rational decisions as you said or because people are afraid that their whole world will change if they confront the reality. Their whole understanding of the world will collapse, and they will be kind of lost. For many years they believed in a lie, and out of a second they see that was a lie, and their belief system might collapse. That’s not easy for any of us.

Deniz: What is the role of “dialogue” in the whole idea?

 Yasemin: Dialogue is the main tool of Freire. Dialogue is the way to make people realize their own situation. If you tell them “Look, you are being oppressed, they are exploiting you, you are in a desperate situation”, it does not help. Or if you do some kind of propaganda like “these guys are oppressors”, it does not help because you preach, you prescribe something, but you do not ask them to participate in this reflective dialogic process. You just impose some ideas treating people as if they are objects, so people resist it. They do not want to see the reality as imposed by others. To help them realize the situation themselves, you should not impose ideas on them, but you should invite them to critical reflection. You should ask them some questions like in a Socratic dialogue [e.q.: Socrates questioning], so that on their own they realize, emancipate and liberate themselves.  For Freire, propaganda would not work, we should just dialogue with people on topics relevant to their own lives and we should be humble as critical educators or intellectuals. If you are not humble, and if you are looking down on people and try to have a dialogue, it is not a real dialogue. You should make people see their own situation from a different perspective. If you are speaking to them top-down like you are an expert and you know everything and you have no idea about their own reality, people would just resist and say “who is this person talking to me like that? Does s/he know my reality?”.

Deniz: This reminds me the situation in our country. What is the case for the classroom?

Yasemin: Freire was first involved with an educational literacy project in a village in Brazil. First he tried to understand the reality there and used this reality to shape teaching. But he doesn’t give many concrete suggestions for the educators because he thinks every educator knows his/her context better and they need to adapt his liberatory problem-posing education to their own context. They don’t need to follow the same things, but the main thing is to listen to your students, and to talk with them. Not to talk TO them in a top-down manner, in an arrogant bossy manner like you know everything and the students know nothing, but talk WITH them. Just be humble, have an equal relationship with them so that they will talk back with you. They share something about their lives and you understand them and you shape your lessons according to their needs, situations. But first you need to understand their life worlds. For instance, we always give assignments to our students that are going to be types on a computer. We just assume that they have a computer. But at the end of last semester I learnt that one of our students who is graduating now did not have a computer for four years, and we had no idea because we never ask. We just assume, we had no idea about their life conditions. He used the ones in the lab but it is not like owning your own computer. I was going to cry when I learnt that.

Deniz: In the classroom environment, we, the teachers, are like the oppressors and the students are the oppressed. And the oppressors are trying to involve the oppressed into the situation, and to do so we need to have a dialogue, but do you think we have such a dialogue among teachers?

Yasemin: I don’t think that we have such a good dialogue because everyone knows everything and wants to be the boss. In our institutional culture, we don’t listen to other people because we don’t need that, because we already know everything. In order to listen to other people first we need to accept that you may learn something from your students or your colleagues. But if you don’t think you need to learn from people, then there is no communication there. If people are not open to listening to you or they try to impose their ego on you, why would you have a conversation? You need to be an open-minded person, you need to open to learning, and you need to accept that you don’t know and you can’t know everything. You need to be humble. I think being humble is one of the key words; otherwise, there is no dialogue.

Deniz: They need to first of all like being in the dialogue.

 Yasemin: But of course it is not only an institutional problem but one in the system. It is some kind of a defense mechanism against the individualizing, alienating system. If you have a dialogue, there is a risk that you might reveal your weaknesses or you may have to accept that you do not know everything. Perhaps we don’t like that idea.

Deniz: Yasemin, thank you very much.

 Yasemin: Thank you.

With Özge Yol on “Dedication”

With Kerem Selçuk on “Inspiration”

With Nil Korkut-Naykı on “Imagination”

With Zeynep Ürkün on “Equality”

With Ali Fuad Selvi on “Glocalization”

With Stephen Krashen on “Fictional Language”

With Joshua Bear on “Experience”


*About 15 years ago, in an MA class (ELT 521 Cultural Aspects of Language Teaching), I learnt that small ornaments we collect from different parts of the world are called “conversation pieces[1]” because they help people start a conversation during small talk or “misafirlik”. I think when the small talk turns into a professional exchange, the concepts work as conversation pieces. We, of course, do not record those informal exchanges with our colleagues. We remember the key points, we may share the main idea and important aspects with our friends, we may think about integrating it into our teaching, or we may simply just forget about it. But what if we record and share it with others? Would others be interested in our professional exchanges?

When I thought of recording the exchanges or discussions I had with my colleagues or experts to share them with other teachers or student-teachers in an online platform, MLD Bulletin came to my mind. I shared the idea with Elif and Yaprak, who were, as always, very welcoming. 

[1] Conversation piece: an interesting or unusual object that attracts attention and makes people start talking about it (Macmillan English Dictionary, 2002)