Translanguaging and transformative pedagogy (Part 1): Jim Cummins defines “transformative pedagogy”

Welcome to the two-part series about translanguaging (TL) and transformative pedagogy (TP)! In this post, I summarize Jim Cummins’ (2000) book chapter on what transformative pedagogy is—a no bullshit piece, and despite most of the examples being from the U.S., the principles are important for teachers to know, at any level of education, anywhere in the world. That is, Americans did not invent transformative pedagogy… rather, teachers around the world who are concerned with effective and socially just teaching come to these transformative principles again and again. The next blog post will summarize another of Cummins’ book chapters (Cummins, 2021) on what TL and other forms of bi/multilingual pedagogy have to do with TP.

Cummins, J. (2000). Transformative pedagogy: Who needs it? In Language, power, and pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire (pp. 246-283). Multilingual Matters.

Think of “good” teaching practices like student-centered discussions, project-based learning, use of digital technology, extensive pleasure reading, or incorporation of students’ languages in classroom practice. While all these (and more) are associated with transformative pedagogy, they are not in themselves transformative pedagogy, but simply activities that have the potential to be more transformative than rote-learning. What, then, is the definition of transformative pedagogy?

Transformative pedagogy is realized in interactions between

  • teachers AND students
  • policymakers/curriculum designers/academics/administrators AND teachers
  • teachers AND parents/grandparents/communities

…that attempt to foster collaborative relations of power.

Cummins argues similar to another leading scholar, Marilyn Cochran-Smith, that the problem with education research in the U.S. (which tends to dictate models that education research around the world should copy) is that it falls into one of two flawed categories. One is technocratic research that says “if you do X” (whatever X is), “students’ test scores will improve.” These are usually quantitative and experimental studies. Another is interpretivist research, which is very humanistic and social-justice oriented in nature, and even though it is theoretically correct and embodies the right values of transformative pedagogy, it doesn’t concern itself enough with actual LEARNING, leading it to be dismissed by teachers and the general public in favor of technocratic research, which assumes people learn like robots.

Therefore, Cummins’ argument in this paper is that transformative pedagogy is realized in collaborative relations of power between teachers and students, policymakers, curriculum designers, administrators, parents, communities, and academic researchers when they combine social justice with genuine concern for learning.

In the rest of this article, he discusses what transformative literacy learning is in the broadest sense: no matter where you are, how old your students are, or what you teach. He also discusses how socially empowering activities and meeting learning outcomes actually are the same thing rather than opposites that teachers have to choose between. To attend to both is the crux of transformative pedagogy.

The mindset that prevents educators from doing transformative pedagogy

Cummins begins by showing us an editorial in a Toronto newspaper, written by a teacher whose class consisted of many new immigrant students (about half the class):

They are well-mannered, hard-working and respectful of others. I enjoy having a multiracial society in my classroom, because I like these students for themselves and their high motivational level. However, I am troubled by my incompetence in adequately helping many individual students of that society. Because of language difficulties, they often cannot understand me, nor can they read the text or board notes. Each of these students needs my personal attention, and I do not have that extra time to give.

As well, I have to evaluate their ability to understand science. They cannot show me their comprehension. I have to give them a failing mark! I question the educational decisions made to assimilate ESL students into academic subject classes before they have minimal skills in English. (Toronto Star, 2 April 1994)

Cummins writes: “Although he acknowledges his own ‘incompetence’ to help ELL students, [he] fails to problematize the system that gave rise to, and perpetuates, his incompetence. Instead, he sees the ‘problem’ as residing almost exclusively with ELL students themselves (through no fault of their own)… [He] clearly defines his role as a committed and caring teacher, but nowhere in his letter is there a sense of the need to address his own acknowledged ‘incompetence.’ It is the ELL student who requires ‘fixing’ through more intensive and comprehensive ESL instruction rather than [his] own teaching abilities or strategies” (p. 250).

This phenomenon is not unique to immigrant students in Canada. It applies to ethnic minority students in Hong Kong, dialect speakers in China, Latinx and African-American students in the U.S., indigenous students in every part of the Americas, regional language speakers in India and Africa, immigrants and Roma students in the European Union, and even the cultural mainstream in ANY country if they are lower class. Most teachers give them just enough compassion (attributing certain qualities to these students) to portray themselves as good people/teachers, yet attribute the students’ school struggles to other characteristics that are portrayed as “what’s wrong” with them and their communities without taking adequate responsibility for educating them.

Also missing from this teacher’s thoughts are the larger social processes that govern curriculum, assessment, pre- and in-service teacher education, criteria for advancement to leadership positions in the school district or higher offices of education, etc. Is it reasonable to expect students to function at this level of English after just months in Canada? Does this greater linguistic and cultural diversity call for curricular reform? Should all assessments (including formative ones) be monolingual? Are the teacher preparation courses concerned with such issues? Is teachers’ professional knowledge and training outdated? Can teachers and administrators be promoted to positions of power and authority if they concern themselves with such issues, or only if they concern themselves with raising test scores or school enrollment?

“But my main concern is teaching and learning…” (Considering what makes teaching and learning effective)

Good teachers don’t just see learners as learners but as whole people, and the class as a community that they have to bring together. When students recognize such a teacher, they become engaged in the lesson and the material, and learn better by helping one another. It’s not just the teacher teaching the class, but peers tutoring each other, and individuals doing their homework carefully and being motivated to study at home because they feel affiliation with the teacher and responsibility towards the class community.

This relates to the famous education theory about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): “Teacher-student collaboration in the construction of knowledge will operate effectively only in contexts where students’ identities are being affirmed. [That is, we’re only engaged in the lesson if we are being taught in an identity-affirming and not a condescending way.] Essentially, this conception extends the ZPD beyond the cognitive sphere into the realms of affective development and power relationships” (Cummins’ self-citation on p. 254; my bold).

There are numerous trends in education, from phonics to systemic functional linguistics to child-centered approaches to different kinds of corrective feedback and different forms of assessment (e.g., portfolios, projects), to “flipped” online classrooms to task-based language teaching, but anyone promoting these are nothing more than hawkers in the educational marketplace if NONE of them draw attention to the above relational aspects of learning. But if these relational aspects of learning are not met, students will not want to learn no matter how “good” the innovation, and teachers will not want to teach using the innovation if they are not offered positive identity positions either, if their professional expertise is devalued by those promoting the innovation.

Cummins next summarizes lots of literature reviews and large-scale studies in one go (pp. 261-273) to conclude that there are three main themes of transformative pedagogy. By the way, he didn’t just think, “Okay, what are three uncontroversial and obvious recommendations I can propose…” The three principles REALLY came from the enormous pile of readings, and Cummins reduced August and Hakuta’s (1997) comprehensive review of education research in the U.S. from 13 to 3 principles.

The first is coherent school organization and leadership, which August and Hakuta described as teachers, students and parents all being “on board” with their roles in supporting learning, the principal as hiring good staff and bringing it all together, a customized learning environment based on community needs analysis rather than copying models, everyone sharing useful practices with one another so that teachers have a sense of what goes on in each other’s classes, support for all teachers to develop professionally to teach struggling students instead of it just being the job of the special needs counselor or ESL counselor, and extensive home and family involvement BECAUSE teachers took the time to discover the linguistic funds of knowledge of the community (Moll, Amanti, Neff & González, 1992) and incorporate these into their lessons, and students were not banned from using their home languages and dialects at school, not even during class time. Not only that, the school makes an effort to hire many staff who speak these languages, not just one or two interpreters (Lucas, Henze, & Donato, 1990), because again, the presence of one special needs counselor, one ESL specialist, and two interpreters does not absolve everyone else of responsibility. It is not simply enough for certain “rogue” teachers to flout the restrictive curriculum and do what they think is better, because this can make colleagues look bad to their students, and colleagues would have no idea what other colleagues are doing, resulting in unease about how one compares to others, teaching-wise, and organizational mistrust even if all the teachers concerned are good people. Therefore, teachers who have a problem with an oppressive curriculum or assessments should take their concerns to their principal and colleagues and think of remedies together. This, of course, requires an open-minded and caring principal open to the ideas, one who will shape the school environment (especially hiring practices) to ensure that everyone shares similar values. So you can see why the organization requires a critical mass of people who care about transformative education.

The second principle is affirmation of student and community identity. (You can see how the principles are inter-related.) School administrators and teachers see themselves as the same community as the parents and students, even if they are linguistically, racially, or culturally diverse, in that the school is their community. This is why they seek to do needs analysis of students’ and parents’/guardians’ aspirations and aims, as well as take a comprehensive stock of the community’s funds of knowledge, and prioritize these things over copying models or following externally imposed guidelines. They incorporate students’ languages and cultures into the curriculum and activities regularly, and involve parents in extracurricular activities and regular teaching, as in this study by Andrea Young and Christine Hélot about a project at an ethnically diverse primary school in France where many parents took turns teaching. Individual parents were given weekly lesson time to visit the school and teach about their languages and cultures, and were assisted in this through co-planning with teachers.

The third principle has to do with a BALANCED approach to teaching literacy. Content-wise, teachers have to teach both “the basics” like background knowledge and literal comprehension of texts, as well as reading-between-the-lines, problem-solving, and higher-order thinking. Language-wise, they also have to teach both “the basics” like phonics, spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and text structure, as well as “critical language awareness” or how language is manipulated in texts and in social media to influence and sometimes control our thinking. Culture-wise, teachers have to do “windows and mirrors” pedagogy (Gutiérrez, 2012), in that they have to communicate to students that what they are bringing into the classroom (i.e., students’ pre-existing knowledge) is relevant to their academic learning, while teaching students new cultural knowledge, whether that is the given curriculum, the knowledge shared by their peers, or knowledge the whole class is in the process of discovering (e.g., a Japanese or White American teacher and immigrant students in Hawai’i learning about Hawaiian culture). Ideology-wise, teachers need to combine traditional teacher-led pedagogy because students are unlikely to discover all of the above by themselves, with progressive student-centered pedagogy so the students can have meaningful immersion in a community of learners (e.g., extensive reading and responding to one another, collaborative portfolios and projects). Access-wise, teachers need to provide students clear, accessible, and effective instruction to help them learn the socially dominant culture and language without destroying students’ own identities, and explicitly discuss with students how educational systems are unfair so that teachers and students can continually look for ways to resist and transform them (Janks, 2004).

What does this look like in practice? Is there, for example, a checklist for teachers to examine how they’re doing?

Cummins (pp. 274-281) concludes the chapter by explaining that teachers can check the following things each week with regard to their teaching. They can also use the checklist when they come together as a professional community in curriculum and program design.

  1. FOCUS ON MEANING. Teachers can assess different parts of the teaching-learning cycle. For example: When I test students’ prior knowledge about a subject, is it just perfunctory, or utilitarian (for me to know what they know versus what they don’t know so I can proceed to teach the curriculum better), or do I take it as an opportunity to know more about their lives and interests? Do I provide enough scaffolding for them to understand the material, including language scaffolding? Beyond ensuring their literal understanding of the course material, do I encourage them to connect the material to their personal lives and experiences? After the personal connection is made, is there a critical phase where we examine how we know what we know, who decides what is worth knowing, and who benefits/suffers as a result? And after all this learning and gaining understanding, is there any meaningful student output: a project or product that allows them to show their literal, personal, AND critical understanding? If it is not a collaborative project, is it social in that the individual gets feedback from others? Is it rich, allowing lots of extensive reading and writing practices and some student-selected material to explore students’ areas of interest within the scope of the general topic?
  2. FOCUS ON LANGUAGE. Extensive reading and writing practices are necessary for learning many things, but teachers have to guide students to notice things they would not otherwise notice (called “intensive” reading and writing). At different levels, this could mean attention to grammar, word choice, sentence structure, text structure, etc. It could also mean critical language awareness, like how language is being used in a text (broadly defined; a text could be a work of art or a video) to influence or manipulate, who designed it that way, and why. Authentic texts from the school campus, the wider neighborhood, and public places (as well as online spaces) can really engage students in developing awareness of language at different levels and critical language awareness. Moreover, while it is important for students to learn the language conventions of the subjects we teach, it is unlikely for this learning to occur if students are not mentally or emotionally engaged. Teachers shouldn’t just teach for correctness and appropriateness, but also for agency—they shouldn’t just teach “what to do because it’s universally correct or appropriate for the formal situation,” but encourage students to THINK about their own language choices and make their own decisions. So you want to do it this way, even if it only partly follows rules, and so let’s discuss together the potential effects on the audience. Fostering individual and collaborative agency to change social structures is an important pedagogical aim. Teachers must cultivate students’ awareness of how language is used to manipulate us, and how we use language to influence others and even to regulate our own minds and worldviews.
  3. FOCUS ON USE. In the end, students must be able to “express themselves—their identities and their intelligence—through that language [e.g., English] and through the discipline” (p. 278). Teachers want both English and students’ own languages to have positive meanings in their minds, and should not foster the myth that one language should come at the cost of another. If students’ home and school language and literacy practices involve synergy rather than competition, they come to see themselves as capable at school. Classroom teaching and broader school activities should provide students with lots of two-way communication between authentic audiences (e.g., between a student and their peers, each student and their teacher, and between students and the wider community) to generate new knowledge, create meaningful products, and act on social realities (p. 278). What that knowledge, those products, and those actions are will depend on things like location, students’ age, and the subject taught, but this is the general aim.

Cummins concludes that

educators do not have to choose between an ‘effectiveness’ orientation (teach to the test) and a transformative orientation. Implemented appropriately, a transformative orientation incorporates everything that students need to perform well on tests, and as an additional benefit, it aspires to truly educate children [and youth]. (p. 279)

Look back on your teaching in the last week if you are a teacher. In the last week, to what extent did you attend to meaning, language, and use in a particular class? How are you doing with that class in general? In your teaching across time? Although outcomes-based educational research uses a different vocabulary, Cummins points out that the conclusions of the best outcomes-based research (e.g., August & Hakuta, 1997) often point to transformative pedagogy’s principles, and the affirmation of individual and group identities that have been marginalized. While I am not always satisfied with my answers to the checklist, continually interrogating myself reminds me that my agency as a teacher goes hand-in-hand with the agency I hope to galvanize in students.

References

August, D., & Hakuta, K. (Eds.). (1997). Improving schooling for language minority children: A research agenda. National Research Council.

Cummins, J. (2021). Teachers as knowledge generators: Learning from inspirational pedagogy. In Rethinking the education of multilingual learners (pp. 313-367). Multilingual Matters.

Gutiérrez, R. (2012). Embracing Nepantla: Rethinking” knowledge” and its use in mathematics teaching. REDIMAT1(1), 29-56. https://doi.org/10.4471/redimat.2012.02

Janks, H. (2004). The access paradox. Literacy Learning: The Middle Years12(1), 33-42. https://search.informit.org/doi/abs/10.3316/aeipt.133852

Lucas, T., Henze, R., & Donato, R. (1990). Promoting the success of Latino language-minority students: An exploratory study of six high schools. Harvard Educational Review60(3), 315-340.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & González, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice31(2), 132-141. https://doi.org/10.1080/00405849209543534

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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