Ciencias de la Educación

9 de marzo de 2020

Language Teachers and Students as Social Transformers

Jose Orlando Oliveros Betancourt

As a language teacher in the public setting, I am aware of the teachers’ role in times that demand actions to transform the realities in our context. Our students face serious social problems such us bullying, social inequality, hopeless, intolerance and exclusion for sexual orientation, among others. How can we, as teachers, prepare our students to cope with these problems? What is our responsibility as language teachers to turn these problems into opportunities of learning to transform the world and make it better?

Language teaching has become an attempt to answer these questions since it is an opportunity for students to express their feelings and ideas in a more spontaneous and open way. It aims at allowing students to learn a foreign language effectively, while empowering them with the construction of new knowledge, the enhancement of social skills, and the commitment demanded by citizens from all over the world to solve social problems that affect their own realities. Thus, language teaching offers students the possibility to take advantage of the sociopolitical awareness that students bring to the classroom, and by doing this, “it can also function as a catalyst for identity formation and social transformation” (Kumaravadivelu, 2006, p. 69). When students face the issues that surround them, they become aware of the importance of their role to transform their practices into opportunities of change to turn into active actors of transformation by proposing different alternatives to alleviate or even solve the problems that affect them directly or indirectly. Besides, language teaching is an important part of the global education that has been defined as “education which promotes the knowledge, attitudes and skills relevant to living responsibly in a multicultural, interdependent world” (Fisher & Hicks, 1985, p. 8). In this regard, teachers have the responsibility not only to teach students to learn vocabulary or enhance their proficiency in the domain of the language command, but also to empower them as responsible social actors whose skills allow them to recognize their own contexts and realities in favor of democratic participation and social transformation.

One of the main rationales concerns when teaching English is related to education systems in general. Most school curricula focus on learning a language from a linguistic view without preparing students adequately to cope with social problems that are present in their day-by-day life. Regularly, such curricula are tight to traditional education systems that center on memorization, passive learning of grammatical patterns and which ignore the development of critical thinking skills. Reischauer (1973) asserted that “Education is not moving rapidly enough to provide the Frequently knowledge about the outside world and the attitudes toward other people that may be essential for human survival (p. 4). Education should not exclusively be devoted to fulfilling an imposed syllabus that most of times disregards the real contexts of the students, which are oriented to accomplish foreign parameters that disregard the realities of local contexts and the issues that surround them. Education should offer opportunities for students to propose alternatives and real solutions for issues that our students face in their daily lives inside the schools. Since students are innate critical thinkers, they are aware of circumstances that affect them directly, and they also know which ways they can use to solve such issues or perhaps transform them into opportunities of change. To this regard, teachers should perceive “learning as a process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984, p. 38). Transforming the realities is possible when teachers take their students’ experiences into account as a means of learning from the practice, by considering all their actions when they face situations, and associate their thoughts to their role not only as learners but also as active and positive social transformers. In the pedagogical practice, listening to students’ voices becomes pivotal since they are the main actors in the teaching-learning process in which the expression of their ideas becomes a valuable resource. Thus, teachers committed to make sense on the importance of teaching to get knowledge, also use such knowledge in effective ways to engage students in the change of the world to make it a better place to live in.

Considering the importance of language teaching toward the transformation of the world that surrounds our students’ realities as well as the teachers’, and on the basis of the arguments previously presented, I dare to propose some ideas arisen along my experience inside the classroom to make teachers aware of their potential as sociopolitical transformers:

  1. Be kind with your students. This is a positive way to let students know that you are interested in them. Warm regards, questions related to their feelings and expectations, and an affective feedback become essential components to be closer to your students.
  2. Let your students know what they are going to learn. When students are conscious of what they will learn, they become more reflexive and find usefulness of the new input. Let students know the goal for the class and discuss it with the whole group to know their appreciations.
  3. Link your class with a social issue that affects your students directly. Our students face different issues every day. It could be an excellent opportunity to make them aware of their role as social transformers. As Rico (2005) mentioned “All decisions one makes in terms of teaching and learning languages might take as reference the social conditions of the learners” (p. 28). You can connect your syllabus with such issues and use examples taken from the students’ experiences.
  4. Listen to your students’ voices. It is key to know what our students think about what they are learning. Our students are really creative, and they always find ways to propose alternatives to solve or alleviate problems since they have experienced them, and they know how such problems work.
  5. Offer your students the chance of expressing themselves not only with their classmates but also with the school community as well. As discerned by Núñez, Téllez and Castellanos (2017b) “we are cognitive beings that learn with and from others in our social contexts” (p. 25). Most students listen to their own schoolmates more than their own teachers. Create a comfortable environment for your students to convey what they think about specific social issues and to collect the opinions of different members of their school (students, teachers and even school workers).
  6. Assess your class with the whole group: knowing the perceptions of the students regarding the knowledge they have acquired in a specific lesson helps you to enhance your practice and make the students to feel part of their own learning process.

The previous ideas could serve as a basis for students to understand the impact of their actions on the transformation of their realities, making them aware of the transformation of adverse issues into possibilities to learn. Thus, the role of teachers in language learning becomes crucial when they design lessons that focus on the recognition of their students’ realities to foster the development of their critical thinking skills for social transformation.   We all (teachers and students) have the power of transforming our society to make it a better place to live in.



Fisher, S., & Hicks, D. (1985). World Studies 8–13. New York, NY: Oliver & Boyd.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New York, NY: Prentice Hall.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006). TESOL methods: Changing tracks, challenging trends. TESOL Quarterly, 40(1), 59- 81.

Núñez, A., Téllez, M. F., & Castellanos, J. (2017b). Teacher–developed materials in a master’s programme in education with emphasis on English didactics. In A. Núñez, M. F. Téllez, & J. Castellanos (Eds.), The role of teacher- developed materials in fostering English language skills. (pp. 13-56). Bogotá, Colombia: Departamento de Publicaciones Universidad Externado de Colombia.

Reischauer, E. (1973). Toward the 21st Century. New York, NY: Knopf.

Rico, C. (2005). Searching for coherence in language teaching: the issue of teaching       competences. Colombian Applied Linguistics Journal, 7, 95-107.