Category Archives: Inspiration


This post is republished with permission from Sherif Osman’s blog, and we invite readers to use the hashtag #IfMalalaWasMyStudent on Twitter and their blogs, and Sherif and Edcontexts will compile responses and storify them, then publish here.

by Sherif Osman, Cairo, Egypt

I was watching the Jon Stewart show [the other day] and he was interviewing Malala, interestingly enough we were just talking about her at work that morning. It got me thinking, what if Malala was a girl in my class? Would I realise her potential? Would I encourage her? Would I be intimidated? Would I differentiate for her? Would I modify my teaching?

A better way to think about this, if one of your students was a Nobel peace laureate and has an international fund raising organisation dedicated to education access and educational reform. Would you feel you had to up your game? If so, does that mean that teachers need students that will challenge them in order to excel? What does that mean for ‘low ability’ group settings? Is that beneficial for students or teachers if that’s the case? Hmm…

As I continued to watch the show, I was intrigued. Her knowledge and vocab were excellent for a student her age; you could tell it wasn’t something she’d practiced, her wit and confidence shone through. I’ve met many students who surprised me with their knowledge, or their passion, or their confidence, or their attitude, or initiative, but rarely all those combined. I began to remember certain students, and wonder what they were up to now and if they had realised their potential? Are they enjoying what they are doing?

Earlier this year, a colleague at work asked me to write an article about an incident that happened to me as a student and how that affected my teaching. Since writing that article, I frequently started thinking about my time in the classroom as a student and what I can learn from it now as a teacher.

This got me thinking that I am who I am today because of my interactions in the classroom for a large portion of my life. My interactions with the teachers and other students have had a massive impact on my life and hence who I am today. That then begs the question, could I have been much better at something had my teachers or one of my teachers realised my potential in a particular area? A more positive way to look at this, have I excelled at something because someone helped me realise my potential? Who where they and what did they do differently? Perhaps this reflection can help me help my students.

When speaking to a colleague at work about this post idea, she suggested that I follow this post up with several posts where I reflect on those incidents and how they affected me. She then jokingly suggested I start a twitter movement #ifMalalaWasMyStudent where people can post their views on this. I liked the idea so much that I am going to do it. So I invite you all to share your stories or reflections on this hashtag. I will try and compile all the responses in a blog post to follow this up.


About the Author:
Sherif Osman
Sherif Osman (@the_sosman) currently works as part of the Pedagogy & Assessment team at the Center for Learning & Teaching at the American University in Cairo. He also teaches a range of courses at the Professional Educator's Diploma, a teacher education program at the same institution. Sherif has a rich background that encompasses academic and professional experiences in education. He holds a Master of Arts in Education along with the Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) from the UK where he also taught in a range of schools. Teaching in different cultures and contexts fuels Sherif's passion towards education and educational research.

Making space for critical pedagogy: Challenges and opportunities

by Joanna Joseph Jeyaraj, Malaysia

When I was first asked to contribute to this blog all I could think of was how I did not have a story of inspiration. Instead, my story is one of struggle and despair. However, as I think about all the challenges I am facing as a new academic, I am beginning to see that amidst these struggles, lies immense opportunity – and that I should be transforming these challenges into productive pathways.

I teach in a university in Malaysia and started about six months ago, eager and excited to begin my career in academia. Before coming here, I lived in New Zealand, where I pursued my doctoral studies in higher education. My research focused on English language teachers in higher education who used critical pedagogy in their teaching. As you may know, critical pedagogy is generally attributed to the ideas of Paulo Freire and has a strong agenda for social change and justice through the development of active and engaged citizens (Freire, 2005; McArthur, 2010; Crookes, 2013). Thus, having read the scholarship in this area, I came to strongly believe that education should bring forth societal reform and that my role as a teacher is to nurture intellectual development as well as social activism among students. My research explored the experiences of critical pedagogues from different parts of the world who sought to transform society through language education. After listening to numerous stories of how these teachers strove to make a difference in students’ lives and the communities that students lived in, I was inspired and motivated to do the same in my own teaching.

Instead, my eagerness and perhaps naiveté was quickly replaced with frustration because I felt restricted in the higher education environment that I had entered. Viewed from the perspectives of critical pedagogy, many things in the new system seemed to make education less meaningful and purposeful. The first big challenge was teaching a course that was so focussed on assessments; it seemed to take out the joy of the whole learning process for students. Students were piled with assignments and exams, and teachers were mostly required to prepare  students for these various assessments. After a few weeks wallowing in self-pity, I decided to contemplate and reflect on what I could learn from teaching in this environment. I believed that I could turn my struggles into a learning experience for students, and find answers and solutions to their problems. So, here are just a few of my thoughts and observations that teachers in similar situations may find useful:

1.     To “do” critical pedagogy, you have to struggle. Freire struggled. In the process, he was accused of being subversive and subsequently jailed and exiled. Although my struggles are not as extreme as Freire’s, still critical pedagogy is all about facing resistance. Sometimes, it comes in the form of facing opposition from the institution that one is in, or even from other colleagues or students. The path is not an easy one, and if I want to take the critical pedagogy route, I should be prepared to persevere and keep on fighting to create a legitimate space for critical pedagogy.

2.    In many educational systems around the world, creativity and autonomy are destroyed in the name of ‘consistency’ and ‘standardisation’. To ensure teachers mark fairly and consistently, certain standardized processes are put in place. For instance, although I had worked with my students over 9 weeks on their research topics, their reports as a rule are marked by a different teacher. This allowed no flexibility and I found myself wanting to stick strictly to the prescribed syllabus as it is expected of all teachers. There were times when I felt stifled and constrained, because having to focus almost exclusively on preparing students for their assignments and exams often clashed with my pedagogical values as a teacher.

However, there came a point of realisation that helped me feel less powerless against a system that limited my students’ and my own creativity. I remembered the  words of a TESOL teacher educator whom I had interviewed for my research project on critical pedagogy. Although our interview took place some years back when I was still a graduate student, his words could not have rang truer as they do right now. He told me that he constantly reminded his students: ‘… no matter how many constraints there are, you have to find ways to subvert the system … you are trailblazers in this area’. I was keenly aware that the structure of the course I was teaching differed greatly from a typical critical pedagogy class which Shor (1987) mentions is dialogic, creative and invented in-progress. I realised that learning was not student-driven and knowledge was not negotiated and co-constructed between the teacher and the student.  When knowledge is jointly created, students have the right to co-develop and evaluate the syllabus (Shor, 1993). Instead autonomy was restricted because students were assigned research topics and many were given strict instructions on how their research topics should be interpreted.  And yet, I started realising that if I tried, I could find small ways of engaging students in critical discourse, motivating them about the content of the curriculum and helping them master the skills to be successful within the current system.

3.     Oral feedback is just as important as written feedback, and it should be provided by the person who has marked the assignment. One problem I found was justifying another teacher’s marks to my students. Many came to me and asked why they were given a particular grade, and I noticed myself saying ‘Maybe the marker thought…’, or ‘I think the marker did this because…’. There were some rare occasions when I could not understand why students were marked down, especially for things that were not specified in the marking criteria. I understand that in mass-higher education, managers put certain systems in place to maintain standards – but at times, good intentions become an obstacle to learning. Perhaps another alternative would be to have a moderation system – where teachers grade their own students, but another teacher moderates to ensure consistency.

4.     Whatever the intentions may be, technologies like  ‘SafeAssign’ (a text-matching detection tool) and stringent ‘plagiarism’ policies too often frighten and intimidate students. My students are right out of high school – some in their second semester of university while others in their first. Throughout primary and secondary school, students mostly write guided and creative essays. The world of academic writing is something new that they encounter only at university. From conversations with students, I learnt that they were neither taught nor encouraged to paraphrase in high school. Instead, most teachers would tell students to copy or memorise ‘model’ essays and phrases for examination purposes. These conversations brought back memories of when I first started teaching. I encountered students who would blatantly copy chunks of text and not bother paraphrasing or citing sources. I initially became very frustrated and thought students were deliberately being lazy. But after talking to my students, I was told that this is how they had been taught to write. Many students, especially those who studied in Chinese vernacular schools were often asked to copy ‘good’ pieces of writing. To alter the words of another writer was deemed inappropriate – it would not be acceptable to change the words of the original writer who is perceived as being the knowledge source and expert on the subject. However, upon entering university, students are expected to unlearn the way of writing learnt in primary and secondary school. Many students find this challenging, especially because they have not been taught the necessary skills. In university, students are suddenly confronted with the big ‘plagiarism’ word and there is suddenly so much distrust. For the subject I teach, almost everything (except for mid and final exams) is SafeAssigned – questionnaires that students send out to respondents, PowerPoint presentations and even speech outlines. Most students are so petrified that they would be called in for a plagiarism hearing and be penalised and many attempt to change important keywords and generic phrases just to avoid text matching. Oddly enough, one of the reasons why I think there is a high SafeAssign text matching rate is because of the very structure of the course. Research topics are recycled year after year and student intakes are large each semester. While there is no easy solution, perhaps new topics should be introduced or students should be given the freedom to choose their own topics. I believe that giving students the option to choose their own topics will empower and enable them to develop their own ideas and voice.

It is my first time teaching this subject and maybe these struggles are just part of the difficulties that beginner teachers face. For now, I plan to turn my challenges into opportunities. Hopefully, I will continue to find ways to engage and empower students in spite of the challenges. I may not have answers and solutions to all or even most of my challenges, but I will use the perspectives and inspiration of critical pedagogy to keep striving for a more equal playing field for all involved and make teaching and learning more connected, purposeful and relevant to students’ lives.

JoannaAbout the Author

Joanna Joseph Jeyaraj currently works and lives in Sarawak, land of the hornbills. She is interested in researching critical pedagogies in English language teaching and is eager to make connections and collaborate with others who have similar interests.


Crookes, G. (2013). Critical ELT in action : Foundations, promises, praxis   Retrieved from

Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum

McArthur, J. (2010). Achieving social justice within and through higher education: The challenge for critical pedagogy. Teaching in Higher Education, 15(5), 493-504.

Shor, I. (1987). A pedagogy for liberation: Dialogues on transforming education Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan.

Shor, I. (1993). Education is politics : Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy. In P. McLaren & P. Leonard (Eds.), Paulo Freire: a critical encounter. New York: Routledge

How Class War Punk Improves My Teaching

By gz, USA

What moves me as an educator are contexts where participants – teachers, learners, citizens, anyone present – are engaged and care about the content. As an instructional designer, I’m engaged when the material and the content shifts from connecting with the learner, to scaffolding knowledge and engaging with the learners and where they are at, and then progressing further. As a human being, I’m engaged when people speak to me and treat me as an equal, as a peer. Finally, I am engaged as a teacher, instructional designer, and human when individuals or groups synthesize attention, learning, inspiration, and ethics in short, powerful pieces.

Conflict, an anarchist class war punk band from England, do all these in tracks across multiple albums. Unlike most punk bands (commercial or underground), Conflict does not limit themselves to breaking taboos, challenging authority, critiquing power relations, celebrating intoxication or property destruction, or promoting having fun for it’s own sake. Given punk’s history – over 40 years now – the movement and the history is far richer than a sentence or paragraph can cover. What is notable is that a majority of Conflict’s fans are or were drawn to punk out of anti-authoritarianism, interest in the “lifestyle,” overt leftist or anarchist politics, or simply a desire to participate in a scene where music and politics blended together.

When searching punk in the record bins or online, Conflict is rarely the first band you’ll find. They never get radio play. Their concerts sometimes ended with police rioting and attacking fans. To outsiders, Conflict are pretty niche: they are an early, aggressive, non-pacifist political band. This is a significant deviation from other political and anarcho-punk bands like Cr@ss and A.P.P.L.E. who were, of political punk bands, also peace punks and pacifists. Conflict was not pacifist. They encouraged confrontations with power, police, Nazis, and nationalists. As such, many of Conflict’s fans arguably have a good idea of what they want to hear: brash, aggressive music with anti-state and anti-authoritarian messages. While fans could find similar messages in some mainstream punk and almost all political and anarcho-punk band tracks, Conflict took confrontation to a whole new level. While some bands might match their aggressive stance towards police and fascists, for example Oi Polloi’s “Bash the Fash,” [lyrics:  video: ] and the first part of MDC’s “Dead Cops/America’s So Straight” [lyrics: video: ], rarely do these bands move past ethos and reaffirming their standpoint, into instruction and mentoring rebellion for social justice.

Throughout their albums, Conflict performs consistently like other anarcho-punk bands, pointing out fascist and police violence, creating solidarity to resist attacks, and engaging in abbreviated forms of political education for interested listeners. These tracks lyrically trash the state, oppression, big business, and colonization. However, Conflict moves past analysis and into education in at least one song, “This is the A.L.F.” [lyrics: video: ].

“This is the A.L.F. [Animal Liberation Front]”’s opening text explains what direct action is. Initially discussing dying children in Ethiopia and the cameraman who brought the story to the world, they summon up sympathy and imagery that some first world youth from the era of the album’s release would recognise. Conflict present a situation where a single individual, the photographer, is both moral and heroic. It’s an appealing role for idealists. After presenting this role model, Conflict ask the listener if they’re willing to do the same. While the initial example is on dying children, that pathos is then transferred to animals being tortured and the heroic role, the ethos and pathos, can be transferred from the photographer to the listener. The listener is instantly framed as potential hero, as liberator, to help free tortured animals.

For youth in a different era or different environment, these lyrics can serve to expand their understanding of oppression, violence, and corporate greed. Rather than thinking of corporate and government malice as a general malaise, references to specific abuses and atrocities help the listeners know more about the world around them. While entertaining and unifying their audience, Conflict is also educating some of them.

As an educator, we rarely have the chance to position our students as liberators, warriors for the good, or with the ability to save the lives of dying children or tortured animals. However, we can open up our lessons, either each week or day that we teach, with strong ethical and emotional appeals. Rather than relying on stolid, “Today we’re going to learn how to write a full-block business letter,” we could shift to, “You can use this if you are harassed at work to report the incident, to document workplace problems to your union, to file a complaint with your cell phone service provider, or to contact your Senator.” While filing a complaint or contacting a Telco does not seem very heroic or liberatory, by framing what we teach our students as forms for self-advocacy, conflict resolution or self-defense, we can do more than appeal to their interest. We can support their right and ability to claim autonomy, or at least a world with less harassment.

The second paragraph of Conflict’s track describes a multiplicity of physical and militant moves that can be used to destroy property of the oppressor or at least deprive them of capital. These range from gluing locks to not eating meat or wearing leather. Opening with the most aggressive moves keeps in tune with the angsty, fast, and raging guitar. Ending with personal options and choice allows those who are reticent about committing illegal, criminal acts of property destruction a way to engage with the song, with the movement, and with the feeling of supporting the Animal Liberation Front.

The third paragraph brings the direct action phase to a close and suggests a strategic approach or working in groups. It also reminds the listener of the opening appeal, that doing work in support of ALF is part of a larger agenda for human freedom, and that freedom is close.

Few things may be as exciting or terrifying as direct action or physical conflict. Fortunately, these elements are rarely present in the classroom – at least in terms of explicit violence. What we can learn from the second paragraph is that Conflict differentiates instruction for the audience and provides multiple points of entry for the audience. Not everyone needs to glue locks. People can do what they think and feel is best. After a brief exposure to the variety of tools available, the listener is reminded of the overall goal: why they are being educated. The short term stakes for most of our students rarely happen at a level comparable with animal liberation. For example, some of the direct actions Conflict describes might lead to freeing a handful or hundreds of animals (rabbits, monkeys, cats, or dogs) from ongoing tests or experiments – many of which are painful. Other direct actions, graffiti or gluing locks, might be punitive and designed to cost the corporation or agency doing the testing hundreds or thousands of dollars. Saving scores of cats from torture surely feels more heroic and intense – and comes at a far greater risk – than learning proper business letter formatting. Thus, when we plan to engage with our students and look to outside models, such as punk performances and music, we need to understand that our appeal and ability to engage our students is less strong than Conflict’s are with their self-selecting audience. However, with some work and creative thinking, we can work with our students to identify applications which will likely engage them more than our current lessons.

Paragraph four presents the challenges: being labeled a ‘crank’, a crazy person, a political or social extremist. However, these challenges are small when compared with human freedom and liberating animals from pain. While the song’s hyperbole of “black v. white or the nazis versus the jews (sic)” is quite strong, it’s there to make a point: if you do this, you will be labeled. You will have problems. But the struggle is worthwhile. Rather than hide the challenges, Conflict makes them explicit.

As educators, we can learn a lot from this by reminding our students that everything will not be easy. That others will not agree with what they do all the time, that they will not be coddled by others, and that simply being present is not a guarantee of a good life. Instead, if they choose to be educated, to pursue their work, they will, inevitably, have confrontations. When these occur, we can get lost in the names and the hurt or we can remember why we are doing this. We need to remember to help our students prepare for pain, rejection, and potential abuse. Rather than training them to be obedient, we need to help them remember why, at core, they are learning or studying or choosing their path. We can also help train our students to be purposeful and constructive, to reject the aggression, and to defend themselves. By supporting students’ ability to identify solutions that align with their ethics, we can support students’ safe and smart engagement in meaningful social and political causes.

The final paragraph delineates animal testing’s crimes, connects it to human rights, and closes by claiming the moral high ground: “Compassion and emotion are our most important safety values. If we lose them, then ‘we lose’ the vitality of life itself.” Again, Conflict situates this struggle as one of supporting the ALF, and thus supporting human dignity, versus aligning ourselves with those who torture, kill, and profit from emotional and physical torture and abuse.

Just as the opening paragraph, or opening portion of our classes, could touch on the moral and social issues at stake in our environment – either local or global – we can close our teaching, our lessons, with similar points. Rather than just thinking about teaching or educating for a simple goal or content exchange or licensure, we can work on reconnecting our students to the world around them. We could brainstorm specific situations where a person might need the tool or tools we’re working on this week. We could ask, “When might being able to write a formal letter help?” or “When could you use pathos to help increase community?”

I listen to Conflict not just because it recalls my edgy days as a punk. I listen to Conflict because, nearly 25 years later, their music and lyrics still appeal to me. Once it was their radical message and anti-authoritarian stance. Now Conflict appeals because they not only challenge authority, they show their audience how they might fight for their beliefs. I listen to Conflict because, in under three minutes, they offer an educational structure, ethos, pathos, and logos, that is more effective than 95% of the courses taught in “proper” schools.

We have a lot to learn from anarcho-punk.


About the Author:
GZ profile picture

gz lives in a library in Oregon's Willamette Valley surrounded by iris and orchids. He is inspired by ravens, Gysin, Fanon, Lao Tzu, and Nutella.

He blogs at