It has been nine years since I wrote the article ‘Teaching global issues through intercultural communication, critical thinking and multiple intelligences’ (Altan, 2010) where I emphasised the importance of including global issues in EFL classrooms, from a different perspective. However, things are getting even worse and as responsible citizens and teachers, we should continue to remind ourselves of this philosophy and emphasise its importance. Therefore, I decided to write this article and share it with readers.
The world has been facing very serious global problems which human beings have never witnessed on such a scale and in such a complicated manner before: terrorism, ethnic and religious conflicts and wars, racism, human rights violations, environmental destruction, climate change, social inequality, loss of cultures, refugees, immigrants, humanitarian crises, civil wars, nuclear proliferation, political polarisation, disorder of financial markets, government accountability and transparency/corruption, discrimination, violations of personal privacy, data security, marginalised populations such as LGBT, etc. How can we prepare our students to be aware of these issues and cope with these problems? What is our main role and responsibility as teachers in such a problematic and complicated world?
It is obvious that we should definitely empower our students with the knowledge, skills and commitment required by 21st-century citizens to be aware of these issues, to understand the underlying reasons, and to find solutions to solve such complicated and ever growing global problems, starting with solving the local ones first.
The goals of such a mind-shift process usually include knowledge, skills and action. If we want our students to work for a better world, they will need to be aware of the world problems, their causes and come up with possible solutions. Then they will definitely need the necessary skills such as effective communication, critical thinking, cooperative working, problem solving and, more importantly, the ability to see issues from multiple perspectives. Such skills will help them to acquire attitudes such as appreciation of other cultures, respect for diversity, empathy with others, etc. And finally they will be proactive democratic citizens, acting responsibly for both local and global problems, for a better future (Altan, 2010).
Nations today cannot survive isolated from each other. The modern world has become so interdependent that it is nearly impossible to ignore one single small incident happening, even in a remote part of the world. How can one be unaware of the civil crises continuing in Syria for a decade? How can one be blind against the ever growing white supremacy in North America and racism in Europe? How can one be silent and unaware of the religious conflicts in Asia? And recently the things happening in Hong Kong? However, education, locked into the traditional ways of learning and teaching, is not changing fast enough to provide knowledge about the outside world. Therefore, systems cannot produce citizens with the necessary skills and attitudes essential for modern human survival. And EFL classrooms are not an exception.
We should not forget that education is not only about the present; it is also about building and shaping the future. And the engineers of this building and shaping are teachers. Teachers play a significant role in the success of any educational system for positive societal change. Qualified and well-equipped teachers can lead education and, by the same token, the nation to be of the highest quality (Altan, 2019). If education systems are planning to prepare socially responsible world citizens, then global issues and the necessary elements of such a process should definitely be included in every single course and especially in EFL.
EFL and global issues
English language teaching has always been accused of three important problems: a lack of bringing real life to the classroom; the gap between EFL and main educational ideas; and a lack of interesting subject matter. Introducing global issues in EFL classes will not only resolve the aforementioned problems to some extent, but will also enable students to effectively acquire a foreign language while being empowered by the knowledge, skills and commitment required by 21st-century world citizens (Altan, 2010).
Normally, it is expected that a teacher will plan, prepare and teach lessons that give students the information and skills they need to succeed. However, teachers also have the responsibility to encourage creativity, engagement and critical thinking. These skills will help students adapt to their changing world.
Lately, whenever I switch on the TV to watch the news or open my phone to read recent news, I watch and read not only with curiosity but also with great fear and worry. The news is full of terrible stories, from mass shootings to hate crimes, from forest fires to religious conflicts. The world is becoming more and more unsafe and out of control. These growing acts of violence permeate our classrooms.
“How can we prepare our students to be aware of these issues and cope with these problems? What is our main role and responsibility as teachers in such a problematic and complicated world?”
The public audience, and especially we teachers, usually forget that those causing all these problems, including mass shooters, were once sitting in classrooms. And it is obvious that education cannot play its core role, which is creating better citizens. Therefore, teachers have an important role to play in combatting negative attitudes, violence and hate by not only making students aware of violence, racism, etc. but also doing anti-violence and anti-racist work. Although it is said that many programmes include such topics in their curricula, it is clear that even the best schools and/or programmes don’t address the deeper roots of violence, intolerance, lack of empathy and hatred we are seeing all over the world. Until our classrooms provide focused and deliberate education about the history and the current roots of hatred, intolerance to other religious groups, lack of empathy for those who are different, or racist beliefs, we cannot claim that we are effectively working to solve the problem in our classrooms and our societies, or are helping the world. I strongly believe that English language classes and teachers are in an excellent position to deal with these issues and to make this vision come true.
Including global issues throughout English language lessons will definitely connect students to the real world and open up a safe space for them to ask questions about something they have read, heard or observed, but did not fully understand. EFL students usually ask questions about content from social media, television and movies. Unfortunately, most of this content promotes stereotypes and, thus, a negative representation of other cultures, both internationally and nationally. Exploring issues of race, gender, class and sexuality in an EFL environment often becomes an exercise in demystifying stereotypes or the incorrect representations of different groups found in the media. Moreover, the EFL classroom offers a chance for teachers to encourage critical thinking and analysis about the type of information we consume around the world. Especially in the ESL classroom, learners bring up observations they have made based on their experiences, such as when riding a bus, waiting in line at a store or walking down the street. Therefore, allowing ESL students the freedom to ask their teachers questions about what they have noticed, but did not quite understand, enables them to not only grasp the English language but also the culture of those around them, including norms and taboos. Regardless of context, with these real-world topics, teachers will also have the chance to challenge their students to find similarities in how power and privilege are used and/or abused in a variety of countries.
We are all aware of the fact that no one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can at the same time be taught to love, which is easier and more humane. Racism is learned behaviour; it is not inborn at all.
Students should be taught to think critically. Those who are thought to think critically learn how to listen better, read more carefully, pay closer attention and react more knowledgeably to media, government and commercial propaganda. Critical thinking is essential to recognise the process by which information about the world is filtered and processed.
The purpose of teaching critical thinking is to improve the thinking skills of students and thus better prepare them to succeed in the world. If we analyse the present education systems all over the world, teachers usually teach students ‘what to think’ instead of ‘how to think’. All education consists of transmitting to students the subject matter or the discipline content, which is what to think. At this point, as teachers, we really do an excellent job of transmitting the content knowledge, but we certainly fail to teach how to think, how to understand, how to analyse and how to evaluate. Children are not born with the power to think critically and they cannot develop this ability naturally beyond the survival level of thinking. Therefore, critical thinking is a learned ability that must be taught (Altan, 2010).
As teachers, we should not just teach the content; we should also teach life lessons so that we can break down racist and any other ill-formed beliefs in our classrooms. Teaching global issues is as much a matter of how we teach as of what we teach. This involves a shift from passive to active learning, from teacher- to student-centered and, more importantly, to learning-centered classrooms.
Global issues can be integrated into lesson plans by focusing each week on a different world problem such as the environment, racism, immigration, human rights, world hunger, international terrorism, religious conflict, etc. and exploring the issue, its causes and solutions through activating different domains of intelligences (Altan, 2010).
“Critical thinking is essential to recognise the process by which information about the world is filtered and processed.”
What should EFL teachers do?
Global issues are real. Racism, mass shootings, extinct animals, the thinning ozone layer, nuclear waste, racism, white supremacy, international terrorism, ethnic cleansing, evolving RNA (Ribonucleic acid) virus pandemics (HIV, HCV, Ebola, Dengue, Chikunguya, Avian flu, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika …) and ecological disasters, etc.
However, some EFL teachers might view the English language classroom as a place for only learning things about the language like grammar, semantics, etc., that is, ‘learning about the language’ but not ‘the language’ itself. To me, language is not something that can be learned in isolation. All functional aspects of language are connected to historical, current and future language use. Some teachers may feel uncomfortable analysing social issues as they may not automatically have all the answers; for those who see themselves as the authority in the classroom, this uncertainty could make them feel unprepared or feel like they are losing face in front of their students. Others may avoid these topics because, when asking students to consider these complicated issues, teachers themselves will start considering their own position of power and privilege.
Although we all know that education begins at home, I think we educators need to pause and personally reflect on the ways in which we maintain systems of inequity, prejudgments, etc. that facilitate these circumstances.
Here I would like to share Nelson Mandela’s words: ‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.’ For example, white supremacy or religious hatred, like many other prejudgments, is a learned behaviour, and children as young as three–four years of age can adopt racist behaviour when exposed to it, even though they may not understand.
As pointed out previously, one of the main problems of the EFL classroom is the lack of bringing real life to the classroom. This problem can only be solved by making global issues a central core of EFL curricula and daily lessons plans.
Some of the activities could include (Altan, 2010):
- Reading about different global issues
- Writing about global issues
- Discussing global issues
- Learning facts and figures about global issues
- Working on possible solutions
- Working on maps and learning more about where the problems happen
- Finding and using real pictures about the global issues
- Organising activities and tours for taking pictures
- Drawing pictures of different global issues
- Using simulations related to the global issues
- Organising walks and other activities for awareness raising of the society
- Listening to music from diverse cultures
- Singing songs of diverse cultures where problems arise
- Keeping personal diaries related to global issues
- Coming together with people facing problems
- Organising charity campaigns for those who need help
- Arranging cooperative group work
- Learning more about environmental problems the world faces
- Learning more about the animals at the edge of extinction
- Thinking and discussing about our roles in the world
- Talking about the motives and reasons for people killing each other
- Watching movies related to various forms of moral issues
- Group discussions on why people keep silenct about global issues
There are many useful resources for reading and suggested activities to include in lesson plans. EFL teachers should further their professional development on these issues, both for their own growth and to help their learners become better citizens. Some of the sites I have found useful are as follows:
Can Science Help People Unlearn Their Unconscious Biases? Smithsonian Magazine: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/can-science-help-people-unlearn-their-unconscious-biases-180955789/
Can You Unlearn Racism By Re-Training Your Brain? Bustle: https://www.bustle.com/articles/184790-can-you-unlearn-racism-by-re-training-your-brain
How Do We Unlearn Racism? Complex Life: http://www.complex.com/life/2016/11/how-do-we-unlearn-racism
5 key anti-racism resources for teachers, courtesy of #CharlottesvilleCurriculum, Chalkbeat: https://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/us/2017/08/14/5-key-anti-racism-resources-for-teachers-courtesy-of-charlottesvillecurriculum/
Classrooms today both include and educate increasingly diverse students who live in a globalised and interconnected world. To make sure that our children are prepared to thrive in this environment, we must deliver to each and every one of them the quality EFL education they deserve – one that focuses on the whole child and ensures access to high-quality EFL teachers, provides use of high-quality EFL learning materials and professional development for EFL teachers, and establishes safe and supportive learning classrooms and schools where they can discuss and learn about the world they live in and be prepared for the future.
Inclusion, diversity, culture, equity, terrorism, ethnic and religious conflicts and wars, racism, human rights violations, environmental destruction, etc. – what do EFL teachers think when they hear these words and how do they define these concepts? Depending on their background, these words may take on various meanings. When they discuss these topics, when they plan activities on these topics, do they feel happiness, fear, joy or confusion? These words should be made more than just words in reading passages. As EFL teachers we have got a considerable amount of power and a lot to do in order to turn the EFL classroom into the best culturally responsive classroom to make students more aware so that they can create a better world.
Altan MZ (2010) Teaching global issues through intercultural communication, critical thinking and multiple intelligences. Modern English Teacher 19 (1) 60–64.
Altan MZ (2019) EFL Classes for Cultivating Entrepreneurial Mind-set. Language Teaching Research Quarterly 11 20–30.
Mustafa Zülküf Altan is a full-time professor in ELT at the Department of Foreign Languages Education at Erciyes University, Turkey. His research interests include teacher education, teacher development and managing educational change, individual differences in foreign language learning, alternative assessment, intercultural communication and entrepreneurial teaching. firstname.lastname@example.org