Theory and Practice in Action: Using Feminist Pedagogy to Inform ESL Teaching

Nicole M. Houser

Indiana University of Pennsylvania

20 December 2004

Qualifying Portfolio Paper



Theory and Practice in Action: Using Feminist Pedagogy to Inform ESL Teaching

Feminist pedagogy is a practice that has evolved from many sources including feminist social theory and progressive traditions in American education system, for example, those initiated by John Dewey and Paulo Freire (Cohee et al 1998, Maher and Tetrault, 2001). The feminist teaching theory that was articulated in the mid 1980’s continues to be developed by feminist instructors who recognize the need to put feminist theory into practice. Feminist pedagogy is commonly defined as a practice, because one of the organizing principles of feminist pedagogy is that of praxis-theory in action. (Lather as cited in Weiner, 1994, p. 121).

The definition of praxis that most strongly informs feminist pedagogy is Paulo Freire’s extension of the Aristotelian concept of praxis as ethics in practice (Weiner, 1994). Freire’s concept of praxis is based on the analysis of the simplest element of human dialogue, the word (Freire, 1994). Freire explains that the word is two dimensional, comprised of reflection and action. He contends that these two dimensions are "in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed-even in part-the other immediately suffers" (Freire, 1994, p. 68). According to Freire, "there is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis" (p. 68). In extending these ideas to feminist pedagogy, there is no true feminist teaching theory (word) that is not at the same time a practice (work or praxis).

In Feminisms in Education, Gaby Weiner explains an additional characteristic of feminist praxis: "…the vision of feminist praxis is further extended to encompass not only theory, action and values but also has the epistemological aim of challenging and dissolving conventional, regulative dualisms such as male-female, mental-manual, black-white, theory-practice, and so on" (1994, p. 129).

In an effort to realize this vision, common practices of feminist pedagogy include the following:

Problematizing the ‘traditional’ classroom conventions concerning hierarchies, assessment, and the construction of and the definition of knowledge

Building community

Empowering students by raising awareness and recognition of the influence of race, class and gender inside and outside of the classroom.

In this paper, I explore how the goals of feminist pedagogy inform teaching of English as a Second Language. In the first part of my paper, I will present an analysis of feminist pedagogy. I will then discuss ways in which feminist pedagogy may inform ESL instruction.

Feminist Teaching Practices

Feminist pedagogy includes a multiplicity of practices and principles. Just as there is no "one feminism," there is no "one set" of practices and guiding principles that feminist instructors use. In fact, one of the main beliefs in feminism, that of the "proliferation of differences," is what makes feminism and feminist pedagogy difficult to define (Ritchie and Boardman 1999, p. 599).

In their book, The Feminist Classroom: Dynamics of Gender, Race and Privilege, Frances Maher and Mary Kay Thompson seek to define feminist pedagogy by observing the practices of six feminist professors from private liberal arts colleges, as well as state universities. In analyzing and presenting their data, the authors developed four analytic themes: mastery, voice, authority, and positionality (16). I will use these themes to categorize the central concerns of feminist pedagogy, drawing examples from Maher and Thompson, as well as other sources on feminist teaching.


In addressing the issue of mastery, feminist pedagogy attempts to reexamine traditional views of knowledge construction as well as the methods by which this knowledge is measured. In the observation of feminist instructors, Maher and Tetrault present the instructors as taking a less Socratic approach to instruction. The instructors defined this Socratic approach as one in which the teacher is the holder of knowledge, and the students elicit that knowledge from the teacher. Under these aims, the traditional classroom is a pre-planned environment, as opposed to a more spontaneous one. The instructor structures the class in a way in which he/she elicits anticipated responses from the students.

A feminist pedagogical approach problematizes this manner of teaching, and views the Socratic method as a disservice to students. An example from The Feminist Classroom illustrates this idea. Dorothy Berkson of Lewis and Clark College, describes her "evolution" as a feminist teacher as follows, "I used to come into the classroom with a list of questions, and I knew where they were leading. Very Socratic! I don’t teach Socratically anymore. I think that it’s very manipulative…I would get frustrated if they didn’t take the thing in the direction I thought they were supposed to take it, and so I missed all these wonderful insights that they have to offer..." (2001, p. 3 as cited in Maher and Tetrault). Here we see the aforementioned example of the change from the teacher as the center and provider of knowledge to the students becoming responsible for the knowledge they construct.

As a result, the praxis of feminist classroom teaching regarding mastery becomes making the classroom a student-centered environment, with the goal of becoming a community of learners—teacher, students, alike. bell hooks emphasizes the importance of creating a sense of community in her class, "I enter the classroom with the assumption that we must build ‘community’ in order to create a climate of openness and intellectual rigor" (1994, 40).

Another element to this praxis is making students aware of and responsible for their knowledge within this community. Cohee et al. address the issue of knowledge and mastery in the following way. In presenting a list of "prominent tenets of feminist pedagogy," these authors state, "…Feminist pedagogy…asks whose interests are served by knowledge and requires "knowers" and "learners" to be accountable to the uses of knowledge" (1998, p. 3)


Concerning voice, feminist pedagogy aims to recognize the voice of each individual student, with particular concern for women and students of color. This concept originates from the goals of feminist social theory, in its attempt to create awareness of the oppression of minorities by dominant groups. This theory translates into classroom practice by recognizing personal experience as a legitimate form of knowledge. I will cite hooks at length here in order to illustrate this objective of feminist pedagogy:

As a teacher, I recognize that students from marginalized groups enter classrooms within institutions where their voices have been neither heard nor welcomed, whether these students discuss facts-those which any of us might know-or personal experience. My pedagogy has been shaped to respond to this reality…This pedagogical strategy is rooted in the assumption that we all bring to the classroom experiential knowledge, that this knowledge can indeed enhance our learning experience. If experience is already invoked in the classroom as a way of knowing that coexists in a nonhierarchical way with other ways of knowing, then it lessens the possibility that it can be used to silence (1994, 84).

Here we see a dual objective in the translation of theory to practice in feminist pedagogy. The first goal is local to the classroom environment-giving each student a voice within the class. The second, more universal, objective is to question and transform traditional concepts of what knowledge is, and how personal experience informs traditional ways of knowing.


In the feminist classroom, the issue of authority is closely tied with that of mastery and voice. Some of the feminist objectives regarding authority can be inferred by previous examples. By adopting a non-Socratic, i.e., non-directive teaching practice, feminist teachers seek to reduce the tradition of the perceived authoritative position that teacher holds in the classroom. hooks explains "As feminist teachers one of the issues we need to contend with is that of using power without dominating or coercing our students."


The idea of positionality takes into account race, gender, and class, in relation to context. Maher and Tetrault explain, "Postmodern feminist thinkers have seen knowledge as valid when it takes into account the knower’s specific position in any context, a position always defined by gender, race, class, and other socially significant dimensions" (2001, 22). The practical application of this theory is creating a classroom environment in which students are aware of their changing positions within society, depending upon context.

Feminist Pedagogy and ESL Instruction

In addressing the relationship between feminist pedagogy and ESL instruction, the literature has synthesized some ways in which feminist theory can be translated to ESL education and research (Mackie, 1999; Schenke, 1996; Vandrick, 1995). Although theorizing a basic feminist pedagogical framework for ESL instruction, this literature has been inconclusive in regard to making these theories applicable to the classroom. I will now review this basic framework, and then elaborate on the ways in can be applied to ESL teaching practices.


In considering a general framework for integrating feminist teaching theory and ESL instruction, Ardiss Mackie contrasts the traditional positivist view of ESL education with feminist theoretical values. She describes her university education in ESL as teaching her that "the only identity of value was that of an objective, distanced researcher in pursuit of universal theory and that ESL teaching should follow one or more preferred orientations" (1999; 566). Mackie then explains a change in perspective as she reflects on courses in which she had feminist professors. She outlines the feminist teaching framework embodied in these classrooms. The feminist guidelines that Mackie describes correspond with the themes of mastery, voice, authority, and positionality. These guidelines include:

Developing an atmosphere for mutual respect, trust and community

Sharing leadership

Instituting cooperative structures

Integrating cognitive and affective learning

Taking action (1999, p. 566).


I will now propose specific ways in which the theoretical framework outlined above can be put into practice (praxis) in an ESL classroom. This is by no means an all-inclusive list, but rather the beginnings of an exploration into the implementation of feminist teaching practices in ESL instruction.

Creating an ESL Learning Community

The first step to translating feminist theory into practice in an ESL classroom is to create community. ESL instructors can achieve this objective by establishing a feminist teaching community from the first day of class. Teachers should explicitly describe the class environment as a place in which students will work together to construct knowledge in their L2, English. Upon voicing these objectives (theory), I recommend that instructors put them into practice (action/praxis) by opening dialogue and giving a chance for each student to tell his or her personal experience in a language learning classroom. This allows students from a traditional learning background to express any questions or concerns they may have regarding their new classroom community.

Upon establishing community through discussion, the collaborative atmosphere can be maintained through continued practices that reflect feminist pedagogical theory. This means integrating the non-directive, non-Socratic teaching methods described by Maher and Tetrault, and acknowledging each student’s voice in every class. In an ESL classroom, because students may be more reluctant to speak using English than students in an L1 learning environment, it is essential that teachers make a conscious effort to allow every student’s voice to be heard. In Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, bell hooks shares a practice she uses in her L1 literature courses that can also be helpful in an ESL classroom. hooks describes and activity in which she has each student write a paragraph that relates a given class topic to personal experience. Then, every student reads his/her response in the following class session. This activity stresses the importance of recognizing each individual voice, which is a tenet of feminist pedagogical theory. I implement this activity in my classroom, and I have noticed that students who were often reluctant to share their experiences when called upon, were less anxious and more confident when speaking because they had prepared their responses in advance. This method promotes participation and recognizes and acknowledges students’ voices and also, their construction of knowledge and also validates their experiences as knowledge.

Another classroom practice that can be implemented for recognizing students’ voices and construction of knowledge is journal writing. In order for students to construct knowledge and realize their full agency over their L2, the journals should be as non-directive as possible. Response questions and themed topics may be provided. However, it is advisable to make students aware of the fact that they will not be graded on grammar, nor are they expected to write a "correct" answer. I implement this type of journal writing in my advanced writing ESL classroom. I leave this activity completely open, and I tell my students that they may or may not use journal questions provided in their text, and that there are "no rules"- no word count rules, no minimum page number, no grammar checking. From my experience, I have noticed that my students’ journal writings are generally clearer, better structured, and contain thicker description and support as opposed to the more formal, structured assignments that I construct for them.


Another way in which feminist teaching theory can be put into practice in an ESL setting is through consciousness-raising. Consciousness-raising, which is a goal of feminist pedagogy, is particularly important for ESL learners. The first example of consciousness-raising that I will provide relates to the aforementioned theme of positionality. Although the student population and objectives of each ESL classroom varies, discussing the influence of race, class, and gender is a subject that can inform and empower all ESL learners. For example, the students that I teach are taking ESL courses in order to prepare to enter an American university. During the time that they are students in this ESL-only learning environment, they are not in the same position regarding race, class, gender and language, as they would be if they were in an L1 university classroom. Therefore, they are not subject to the same experiences of other minorities within the university. Seeing that the majority of my ESL students will be entering the university setting, as it is the goal of the program and its teachers, I would be doing the students a disservice by not addressing these issues in my classroom.


In this analysis, I have illustrated ways in which feminist pedagogy can inform ESL teaching practices. Instead of a grammar-based directive approach to teaching, that may limit students’ participation and growth in an English learning environment, feminist pedagogy creates a learning environment in which students are encouraged to use their voice and construct knowledge in their L2. Feminist pedagogy provides opportunity for students to find and develop their voices in their L2.

The feminist view of mastery is important for ESL students in that, as ESL instructors, we want to encourage students to feel responsible and capable of constructing knowledge in their L2, English. It allows students to gain confidence in their language abilities and utilize the previous knowledge they have that they could normally express in their L1. Feminist pedagogy allows for students to gain agency over the skills they already have, and further develop them in their second language. Feminist instruction also creates an environment for students to express themselves and position themselves and their cultural backgrounds within the culture of their L2.