Random ideas for ELT people, plus guest blogs & travel notes


I’m very proud and excited to be kicking off the Global Issues SIG day (Friday 4th April, NOT the pre-conference SIG event) with this talk, and would like to include some thoughts from teachers who may have an interest in the topic. In addition to the question in the title, I will be asking a series of other questions about the relevance and importance of Global Issues (famine, climate change, war etc) in the ELT classroom. The first one is one that I’ve taken from an article by Mandala Arfa Kaboodvaan which appeared in English Teaching Professional magazine – ‘Is it part of the duties of a language teacher to include socially responsible topics in their classes?’

Earlier this month, I posted the opening slide on Facebook and asked people to give me their thoughts. I suppose it’s no surprise that most people who responded were seriously in favour of the general idea, and some interesting comments were made – which I have reproduced here. 

You will also note that – as often happens in Facebook comment streams – one or two individual arguments broke out. With Facebook, you really CAN start a fight in an empty room! 

Here are the comments I received.

Nina EnglishBrno I absolutely agree!! why not talk about the world around us instead of sports and celebrity stuff! my global issue I tend to focus on these days are the advantages and disadvantages of emancipation of women and the pill as it affects all our relationships these days, at least the people I have around me. we also talk about health choices, vaccinations, etc.
 These are, of course, based on my personal preferences as I go through these myself. that’s authentic, right? The students are thrilled and feel they gain much more than just knowledge of grammar/vocab
13 March at 09:45 ·

Anita Adnan Hi Ken, I think it IS important that teachers include global issues in esl classes because learners can relate to everyday news. In my own lessons, we normally have one hour weekly to talk about current global issues. It gives the power to the learners by having something to say – and most of them have a lot to say! We then relate it language work – such as vocabulary and casual phrases, agreeing and disagreeing. 
13 March at 09:47 ·

Nina EnglishBrno however when going global I feel it needs to be connected to the lives we are living in our communities… so I’d always start with personal experience of the students
13 March at 09:47 ·

Anita Adnan Totally agree with ‪Nina– students can relate better if the issues are connected to them. And yes – women issues are among the favourite topics in my class too 
13 March at 09:50 ·

Leo Marin Absolutely”!!
13 March at 09:52 · 

Jasmina Arsenijevic Yes and yes! In my opinion, variety of contexts, depending on the topic, age of your Ss, your personal preferences; as it comes to authenticity, are we talking about the teacher being himself/ authentic, or something else?
13 March at 09:57 ·           

Ken Wilson What I have in mind in whether dealing with global issues in whatever form – downloading information, watching news broadcasts, discussion – represents an aspect of ‘authentic material’ that everyone agrees is so important in ELT activities. The best a coursebook can do re global issues authentic texts are news items which may be five years old when the class read it, so clearly coursebooks are not a reliable source of GIAM.
13 March at 10:03 ·           

Barbara Bujtás And there is something beyond using news broadcasts as authentic materials. A great deal of global issues is a result of global ignorance, global false stereotypes and so on. If we can conclude that I have an additional approach to this question. And this is something that traditional coursebooks can’t cater for.
13 March at 10:19 ·

Andrew Wickham I don’t think you can impose any rules here. I guess our main obligation is to make sure students are learning and after that, each to his own. Who is to decide which issues are acceptable or not, socially responsible or not? That said, using global issues and current events to stimulate discussion and interaction in class is obviously a good idea. The more the content is relevant to people’s lives the more it will engage them and the better they will learn.
13 March at 10:22 ·

Branka Dečković sure it represents an aspect of “authentic material”, and it is important to incorporate global issues in ELT classroom. Students like to talk about these issues and express their opinions. This is what my students said “I like when we discuss something where we’re supposed to tell our opinion.” “…so we can make a real conversation, use English in everyday situations as well as in our job.” “Maybe the best motivation for me is when we do something that isn’t particularly for school. When we use our knowledge for higher goals.” 
13 March at 10:29 ·

Michael Harrison Language doesn’t exist in a bubble, so avoiding topics like this seems to make little sense. I agree with other people that it does depend a lot on who you are teaching and in which context as to how you broach these topics in the classroom. I think that we actually have a duty sometimes to bring them up as students can have very sheltered experiences. I’m also interested in the fact that you have only given examples depending on resources (famine, war, climate change, etc.). What about addressing equality issues, such as those which affect those who identify as LGBT? It’s one of the nine protected characteristics in the UK now, by law, against discrimination.
13 March at 10:38 ·

Ken Wilson My actual list is a lot longer than that, Mike – here’s the starter list (participants will be offered the chance to add others)

.             climate change/global warming,

.             air and water pollution

.             military spending

.             ethnic conflict

.             financial crises

.             loss of biodiversity

.             poverty

.             racism/ultra-nationalism

.             attitudes to minorities/sexual orientation

.             famine and water shortage

Andrew Wickham I think we have to be careful. Everyone has a responsibility to contribute to society, and there should be no taboo subjects but trying to preach a certain view of the world to students – the one that we happen to think is right – listing which subjects are acceptable for discussion – is maybe opening a can of worms. Very soon the pro-lifers, the pro-families, the pro-natives, etc.. are likely to step into the breach and do the same – and what can we say to counter them? So I guess all subjects are fair game, there are no taboos, but let’s steer clear of the temptation to proselytise (or a least, do it subtly) 
13 March at 10:58 ·

Natalia Belousova I agree the list of topics that can be categorised as global issues is endless, and I do believe there should be at least some space for them in the ELT classroom. First of all, students like discussing ‘real life’ as it allows them to express their own opinions and feel the freedom of talking about what matters to them in L2. Another reason, which is absolutely crucial in a monolingual environment where I teach, is that using authentic materials or being authentic in the classroom helps students understand that the classroom is not an isolated small world having nothing to do with what’s going on around. My biggest fear related to textbooks, or rather using only textbooks, is that students may lose touch with the real world and, as a result, be unable to actually use the English language outside the classroom.
13 March at 10:59 ·

Barbara Bujtás Exploiting authentic news with older teens or adults is okay, the engagement level soars, they love taking up arguments for and against a certain issue or standpoint, but they do it staying quite far from that particular war or famine, sort of preaching from the distance. It can obviously trigger engagement, but this is only for the sake of the joy of the clash in the classroom, presenting their own opinion and enjoying the feeling of glory of having one. This is very far from the given issue. News broadcasts are still pretty ‘cold’ in a way.

An example: I was working in a school, we were to have an exchange teacher/partner from Indonesia. For a conversation starter about it I put on my scarf like a hijab and entered the classroom, watching the reactions. Funny answers, good, … then I told them about the Indonesian teacher and that she’d most probably be wearing one of these, when the ‘bad guy on duty’ started the I-hate-them-all-suicide-bombers-riding-camels stuff. Pfff… (Even one of the teachers expressed her “aversion to people from certain distant cultures”)

It took them a couple of weeks and a real flesh and blood Indonesian to see the fellow-human. Now they know where Indonesia is, know what the word ‘muslim’ means, grin in FB photos with someone wearing a hijab. Without this they’d always stay in a cold distance of the news from and about Indonesia.

Or I could mention the 6-year-old girl who started out as ‘I hate Brazilians, they are all stupid’ (having watched a handball match) and many other stories… Mmmmm … nowadays one doesn’t need to fly across the world to get closer, there should be coursebooks with customizable tasks designed to exploit Skype calls or Google hangouts with people in far away countries or something, English is a lingua franca or what. I know this might be off-topic, but .. sorry. 
13 March at 11:02 ·

Michael Harrison I think a big thing to consider when tackling a lot of these topics is how to make students aware of the difference between opinions and facts.
13 March at 11:02 ·               

Grzegorz Śpiewak I am a touch hesitant about the word “duties” – there is so much on the teachers’ plate already that trying to impose yet another “duty” on them, however commendable the intention may be, is perhaps a controversial strategy. I’d consider “raising awareness”, “adding to repertoire” of topics/angles/techniques etc. Good luck with this talk, Ken!
13 March at 11:04          

Natalia Belousova Michael, I think the problem is that we sometimes can’t differentiate between opinions and facts ourselves! It’s getting more and more complicated nowadays. In my opinion, though, it’s really useful to encourage students read/listen and analyse both opinions and facts.
13 March at 11:10                   

Michael Harrison Natalia, what I meant by opinions and facts was more regarding students’ reactions to such topics, e.g. the religious student who says ‘being gay is a sin’. That’s not a fact. It doesn’t say exactly that in any religious text as far as I’m aware. Religions teach tolerance.
13 March at 11:12                               


Andrew Wickham Michael, many religious texts preach tolerance, but they also say truly abominal things. For example, from the Old Testament:

“Thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein, and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword”. Deuteronomy 13:15

“But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth”. Deuteronomy 20:16-17

Or from the Quran : 5:33  ” The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His messenger and strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land. Such will be their degradation in the world, and in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom”
13 March at 11:57 ·

As for homosexuality : ““ If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” Leviticus 18:22 ”
13 March at 12:00 

Michael Harrison BTW, the religious aspect regarding LGBT discrimination came up during the panel discussion at our NATECLA London event in 2012 ‪http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk?viddlertime=2.425 
TeachingEnglish | British Council | BBCwww.teachingenglish.org.ukE-merging Forum is the largest annual international event that brings together t…See more

13 March at 12:36               

Jean Sciberras It’s not an easy question. There’s no one right answer. It depends very much on the students. Younger students (late teens) strangely enough like to discuss serious topics, but then you come across older students who come to Malta for a 2/3 week course/holiday who want their lessons to be a distraction from their every day problems.
13 March at 14:56 ·

Lynda Steyne I see it as a part of a teacher’s calling, not duty, to provide a safe place in which to discuss the hard questions and facilitate understanding and respect for others. dealing with the ugly bits of life like war, poverty, famine, sex trafficking, slavery… again, that’s not my duty, but my calling as an educator. of what use are my students’ English skills if they are ignorant of the world?
13 March at 15:54 ·

Andrew Wickham If you’re in education, yes of course, if you’re in adult training, it’s a different matter, I guess.
13 March at 16:45          

Sharon Nosely- Kallandzhs I now teach adults who are slowly moving into academic English….I ‘ve noticed that course books are always covering environment/globalisation/art and culture etc as these topics come up in exams and to be honest they are bored and not that interested in such issues as they believe they are important but have been ‘flogged to death’ in the course books and exams…now, if we turn to religion and culture , war or conflicts and allow then to personalise the issue , I can’t stop them discussing and debating and eventually’ seeing the world from another person’ s eyes’ – that for me is what teaching multi-lingual classes is all about and hopefully this leads to some understanding of each other and reduces tension and creates mutual understanding. If you saw Question time last week…..if such issues had been discussed in classes a long time ago..maybe…maybe..ther would be more racial and social harmony in our cities now.
13 March at 22:04 

Christina Rebuffet-Broadus I must say that after reading the comments in this thread, I agree whole-heartedly with ‪Andrew Wickham, and especially about the fact that teaching students is different from training adults (notice that I differentiate between ‘teaching’ and ‘training’ here. Working with a group of adults who need English for professional reasons also is nit the same as working with adults who are learning English just because they want to widen their linguistic horizons). I’ve had adults in training specifically say they didn’t want to talk about the news, didn’t want to debate controversial topics, etc. but just wanted to learn how to do specific tasks in English. As for Ss, I agree that part of our teaching repertoire should include lessons that take the language out of the classroom (or rather bring the real world in), as these can be some of the most engaging lessons IF the Ss get into the subject and feel concerned. If not, they can just get bored and frustrated because we’re asking tem to think about and give opinions on issues they just don’t care about (whether they should care about them is another question).

Playing devil’s advocate here for the sake of debate: is it maybe because sometimes we feel it’s our ‘duty’ to address global issues in language class that some Ss feel disappointed/bored/disengaged in their English courses? Would Ss sometimes rather learn how to function in English (for traveling, understanding popular websites/series, etc in English) than how to argue about gay marriage rights?
14 March at 07:31 ·

Michael Harrison Depends what kind of life they think they’re going to live, I guess. I’d say it’s adults who are being trained in English (hate that phrasing – sorry) for business or do specific tasks in English who need exposing to as much different stuff as possible. They’re NEVER going to come across a person who has a different opinion to them or a situation where they might need to talk about such things?? Unlikely, and if they never actually do, what a boring life. I’m changing my stance slightly. I don’t think teachers (educators, trainers, whatever) should go in blindly and introduce texts that talk about gay rights (for example), but how can you ignore these issues?? It’s part of life.
14 March at 07:40 ·

Andrew Wickham Michael, shouldn’t we always remember we don’t necessarily hold the truth, nor have a moral duty to foist our beliefs on our students, especially when they are adult learners? There’s always the danger for teachers (talking from experience here, because we are engaged in “imparting knowledge” and because most students tend to behave like a captive audience, to go beyond our area of expertise and unconsciously think we know more than our students about life, the universe and everything. I always remember what one very skilled group of professionals said to me after I took over the class from a teacher they no longer wanted. They asked her to stop treating them as if they were children who didn’t know anything – the teacher replied “Oh but in English, I consider you ARE children”. It’s the same sort of hubris that leads teachers who have never had any experience of business or public speaking to tell professionals who are specialist negotiators and presenters in their own language how to negotiate or how to make a presentation (having read about it it in some textbook). It’s where that saying “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach” comes from probably.

That obviously doesn’t preclude our role as citizens of this topsy-turvy planet to share our views with other consenting adults, to stand up for what we believe, but we should I think avoid confusing it with our teaching role and be aware of the age-old temptation of the teaching profession to evolve into a priesthood.
14 March at 09:38 ·

Michael Harrison Nope, I didn’t mean that we should impose our beliefs on the people we teach. I wouldn’t dream of it. I detest people who try to force their beliefs on me. I’ll respect and defend your right to your opinion or belief, but not if you try and force that opinion or belief on me. Simply, I think that we should give the people we teach the tools to understand, appreciate and articulate different opinions. Otherwise they are likely to end up getting punched!!
14 March at 09:42 ·

Arthur Schopenhauer I’ve always done it. However, in terms of choosing the topics, I tend to let the students choose.

Or if you use the news, you can get a range of opinion as the actual factual content is unpredictable
14 March at 11:12 ·

Ken Wilson‪Andrew – I think you’re making rather too much of the teacher being the one who expresses her beliefs. It’s perfectly possible for a teacher to get a conversation going and keep absolutely silent.
14 March at 11:14 ·


Andrew Wickham Agreed Ken – I was responding to some earlier comments about a teacher’s duty or calling being to open their student’s eyes to important global issues – appropriate in an educational context of course, less so however when training adults.
14 March at 11:44 ·

Teresa Doğuelli A lot of importance is being given nowadays to critical thinking skills and directing learners to researching and evaluating any issue from multiple points of view rather than just discussing in vitro. Getting students researching issues from multiple viewpoints will not only get them engaged, but will also sharpen their (and our) understanding and tolerance of the existence of different realities.So yes, ‪Ken, my answer to your question is yes, as long as we focus on the skills to approach these issues from a critical, research or project-based ‘let’s look at all sides’ standpoint.
14 March at 13:26


Comments on: "Should we talk about Global Issues in the ELT classroom? A Facebook debate" (4)

  1. I think language classes for adults can benefit from ownership of the content being given to the students. If they say they want to discuss new items, current events, controversial issues which are close to their hearts, these are likely to be the same issues they would wish to discuss outside the classroom and so would engage them in learning. Their opinions are part of their expression of identity. Provided this is done in a diplomatic way with the teacher as the person who mediates, diverts discussion or makes careful informed choices about which events to discuss in order to avoid unpleasant culture clashes which would detract from learning, I think it’s great to use authentic up to date news broadcasts, articles etc. I believe it depends on the context of the classroom – what might work in a multicultural classroom might not work in a mono-cultural one and vice versa – better also perhaps to have got to know your students and their cultures yourself before launching into a discussion which may be more or less uncomfortable for some students, better also to thoroughly understand your own cultural perspective before launching into discussion yourself. In answer to Ken’s question I would say yes but I think the students should play a large part in deciding what content should be.

  2. juergenkurtz said:

    Dear Ken,

    A few years ago I published a paper on global and life skills-based education in EFL classrooms which might be of interest in this context. This is just to let you know.

    Kurtz, Jürgen (2008): “Life Skills-Based Education in Secondary School Foreign Language Classrooms – Cornerstone of Challenging Vision.” In: Doff, Sabine; Hüllen, Werner & Klippel, Friederike (eds.) (2008). Visions of Languages in Education. Munich: Langenscheidt ELT, 87-100.

    All the best,


  3. I never even thought to question this! I would have to say that, regardless of one’s beliefs, there are still words, interesting vocabulary, and strong opinions throughout. These three things all make for a great English lesson, and if you don’t share the beliefs, then explaining yourself in that way is also a great exercise! It’s a win-win.

  4. Some people do live in bubbles. Few people wish to hide within bubbles. Most people want to see through the membrane of their bubbles. Numerous people need to frequently pass out of their bubbles. Yes, yes, yes – to raising discussions re: Global Issues! Link them in to questions of social and corporate responsibility. Helping students think about such issues and communicate their thoughts is essential not only to development of expression, but also to development of first & second language identities. Hope this doesn’t sound like evangelizing, but these are issues that all humanity needs to discuss. Humanity itself can not and does not live in a bubble.

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