Learning the Art of Critical Pivoting

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Guest Contributor: Christine Smart-Wiseman

Like many others in the field, I am always looking for new ways to improve my teaching. My research as a PhD student at York University led me to examine teaching from a critical pedagogical approach. The guiding principle of this approach is to construct equitable and democratic classrooms with a goal to positively transform students’ lives (Canagarajah, 2005).

While I was doing my research in an ELL classroom, I uncovered many ways in which ELL environments contradict the goals of critical pedagogical approaches. In many cases, planning and preparing ahead to foster a classroom environment that supports critical learning can overcome these challenges, but at times, there may be a dynamic need to shift classroom spaces towards empowering teaching and learning. I have developed a strategy I call critical pivoting to address this problem and would like to share it with you.

What is Critical Pivoting?

Critical pivoting is a term to describe how to change classroom lessons and interactions in-the-moment in order to construct more empowering engagement. It involves bringing awareness to the practices and behaviours of the classroom that silence the voices and rich knowledge students have. There are a few ways to determine if a critical pivot is necessary:

REDO (Reflect, Examine, Discuss, Observe)

  • Reflect. Take a moment to think about the organization of the classroom and if your behaviours support or weaken empowering learning.
  • Examine the resources you are using. Do they allow for students to share their knowledge and ideas?
  • Discuss. Ask students problem-posing questions (Freire, 1970) as a way to probe and gauge how the content and execution of your lesson are relevant and important to your students’ lives. These could be open-ended questions related to the topic or method of teaching as a strategy to share knowledge.
  • Observe what is going on in the classroom. Are students showing signs of frustration? Are they becoming disengaged?

When you have established if a critical pivot is necessary, you can then adapt what you are doing. Here are a few starting points to build from:

  • Invite students to share their knowledge
  • Create opportunities in the classroom for students to share their perspectives
  • Adapt the lesson to reflect more empowering learning
  • Change the physical space of the classroom to balance teacher/student power dynamics

Let me share an example on how I applied a critical pivot in my classroom.

The Birthday Lesson

 I was teaching a classroom on Canadian celebrations and we were doing a lesson on how birthdays are celebrated in Canada. While students were completing a handout, I noticed some tension in the class. I began to ask problem-posing questions related to the friction I was observing and discovered that this was a highly contentious topic for some students because many of them do not celebrate birthdays for religious reasons. This topic also sparked debates about adapting the cultural practice of birthday celebrations to their children as some thought it was ok, but others were vehemently against it. While this was taking place, I quickly reflected on my own thinking. As a self-proclaimed “birthday celebrator,” I am ashamed to say I did not consider the impact this seemingly harmless event would have on others, and the ethnocentric cultural beliefs I was presenting to the class. As a result, I chose to forgo the rest of the lesson and find other ways to teach the language focus of the lesson.

It has been many years since I started applying critical pedagogical approaches in my ELL classrooms. Although in most cases, we are bound to the resources and expectations of our program, there are so many ways to tweak our teaching practice to transform learning and teaching in empowering ways. Over time, my need to critically pivot has significantly subsided, but I always keep ‘REDO’ in check! I invite you to share comments on ways you have also created empowering spaces in your classroom! Let’s learn together!

Christine Smart-Wiseman is passionate about uncovering ways to foster social justice. They believe that teaching and learning spaces should enable active and equal membership in society. They have been teaching ELL for almost 20 years. In addition, they are a self-proclaimed “life learner” and are working to complete their PhD thesis. Christine is excited to connect with like-minded professionals, so feel free to contact them!


Canagarajah, S. (2005). Critical pedagogy in L2 learning and teaching. In Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning (pp. 931-949). Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781410612700-69

Freire, P. Pedagogy of the oppressed. (1970). NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.








2 thoughts on “Learning the Art of Critical Pivoting”

  1. With a community so diverse such as the Canadian one I find it more challenging to all the teaching criteria. Personally, I believe that knowing the students beforehand plays an important role in adapting the lessons so they can meet their goals.

  2. Hi Manal Daou,

    If you are referring that ‘it’ is critical pedagogy, I absolutely agree! My thesis attempts to uncover those challenges from a teacher & student perspective.

    And yes, I agree- knowing our students is a key component of critical pedagogy. And more importantly, recognizing the systemic barriers to social justice that are constructed in classrooms is necessary for critical change.

    Feel free to connect with me if you are interested to discuss this further! 🙂
    Christine (smartwise1@hotmail.com)

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