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Bring the world into your class

global issues piece

Linda Ruas explains how global issues can inspire students
I asked one of my Esol students – a retired neurosurgeon from Syria – what it would take to make the world a fairer place. ‘Only through education,’ he said, ‘can we change the future. Only by discussing and understanding other people’s worlds can we find solutions.’ As his teacher, I was quite proud of his inversions! As a human being, I agreed with his words.

In the Iatefl Global Issues SIG we recognise that we are all world citizens, English is a global language and teachers have a very important role to play. What we do affects the rest of the world, and what happens in the rest of the world affects us. We have to include some content to contextualise the language we teach and often find that published materials present a consumerist Eurocentric view of the world, which we might not want to perpetuate. So let’s think carefully about the message we communicate. Every one of us can make a difference – and we as teachers can reinforce this message by what and how we teach.

So which of the many and varied global issues can we bring into class? Some teachers prefer the ‘softer’ global issues, especially those who teach children: sharing, kindness, happiness and empathy. Others use hard-hitting, contentious, often shocking issues such as land grabs, fundamentalism and organ-trafficking. We do, of course, need to know our learners and assess the suitability of the topic and how they will respond.

Teachers are often told on training courses that they shouldn’t bring their own opinions into class. Personally, I’d feel like an empty shell if I didn’t, and believe that my passions and interests and the idea that I might be helping to make the world a slightly fairer place are the main things that motivate me to continue teaching after more than thirty years.

It might be that we’ve been conditioned by course books. Publishers usually avoid PARSNIPs (politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, -isms and pork), for understandable reasons. Of course we need to be sensitive, and we mustn’t get learners or schools into trouble or place anyone in danger, but if we always avoid all these more controversial topics, our lessons could be bland, decontextualised and meaningless. How can we teach critical thinking if we don’t bring topics into class that learners can be critical about? How can we inform and safeguard our younger learners if they don’t know that child slavery still exists? We can take our teaching to a whole new level by raising awareness about these issues as well as teaching English.

We can empower women by celebrating International Women’s Day and help stop bullying at LGBT awareness events. We can reduce water use on World Water Day and value inspirational figures like Nelson Mandela and Malala instead of the normal diet of celebrities. And after we bring global issues into class, it can be quite difficult to contain them. Learners who find out about Fairtrade and sustainability might then become activists themselves, developing their English and independent study skills far more in the process.

Artists make bold statements that try to change the world and the way people think – look at Banksy’s new ‘Walled-Off Hotel’ in Bethlehem or Ai Weiwei’s ‘Sunflower seeds’. Language teachers have a similarly responsible role. How can we do that if we leave politics and global justice out of our classes?

At our Global Issues pre-conference event at Iatefl Glasgow, kindly sponsored by the British Council and New Internationalist, we’re looking at ‘English in an unstable world’. It’s impossible to ignore the real world of refugees, polarised opinions and increasing inequality, so we’re boldly showing how we can as teachers help with the global issues themselves and bring those same issues into class. We want teachers and learners to be actively involved. We want teachers to develop and share their passions for many different issues, share material and support each other on projects. Come and see what others are doing, and discuss what more we can do together!

Tips For Teachers: How To Start Introducing Global Issues:


– Introduce a few questions to start learners thinking, e.g. in a lesson on clothing, get them to check the labels in each others’ clothes to see where they were made and discuss the supply chain.

– There are over eighty ready lessons on many global justice topics (and several other teaching ideas) on the New Internationalist Easier English wiki: https://eewiki.newint.org/index.php/Main_Page

– Use some of the free ready materials available online, e.g. the ‘Special Days’ lessons on the Global Issues SIG website: http://bit.ly/2nel06a 

– Film English also contains several lessons: http://film-english.com/blog/ (e.g. The Alphabet of Illiteracy, The Superhumans, Today I Rise and The Other Pair).

– Find out what really interests learners. If they’re fascinated by chocolate or gold, they might well be interested in finding out more about the production processes, and you could then raise questions about child labour and ethical mining.

– With monolingual groups, start with something local and relevant, e.g. a local factory that affects the water or an issue of equality. With multilingual groups, bring in issues that affect the countries of various learners so everyone can find out more.

– Alternatively invest in the (forthcoming) A-Z of Global Issues: http://bit.ly/2mQvBEQ 

– Remember, don’t feel you have to know everything about the issue before you bring it into class – some of the best teaching and learning happens when the teacher is learning too!

Linda Ruas has taught and trained teachers in Brazil and Japan and now teaches Esol and Celta courses at a London FE college. She also runs the Easier English wiki for New Internationalist and is joint coordinator of Iatefl Global Issues SIG