Teaching with real issues

In a previous post I mentioned how great my first new debate class went because we just talked and covered interesting issues. Well, I’ve kept at it. Every lesson has started with an audio or listening just to give students some cultural background and then I’ve let the topic develop anywhere it wants.

Some lessons have moved into controversial areas like religious beliefs and the negative depiction of some religions by the press. Others have gotten very personal and addressed why some students think it’s OK to use Facebook in their classes yet expect high participation grades.

For years I’ve been interested in digging deep and covering really important social issues but I often don’t have the right levels or students are only interested in War Craft. With my current classes I personalise topics to get students interested then let them move out into wider world issues.

Until now, I have been a bit unconfident about covering sensitive and important issues because students have often never thought about them in their own language and may not have the maturity level to deal with them. I have had some success with my own blog posts (http://www.stgeorges.co.uk/blog/business-english/ and http://debatediscussion.blogspot.com/) but I haven’t worked with anyone else who has shared my interest or passion and have also been hesitant to really go the extra mile out of ‘safe EFL discussion territory’.

However, recently I have come across (thanks to Lindsay Clandfield) some brothers in arms who create absolutely amazing lesson plans that deal with gritty and important topics. They are also perfect for advanced students who often complain about doing basic content and need challenging on every level. I really do think these 2 areas need developing more and really recommend you check out these blogs and try similar ideas out yourself. They have definitely given me the confidence to do more real and meaty discussions in all my lessons.

Here are the blogs:



Here’s one of my lessons I made before the London riots:


and after:




How far should we go in our classes?

Should we push students with tough topics?

Is this the right direction for CAE/CPE+ classes?

Are blogs the best channel for such lessons?


Which of these topics would you be comfortable discussing in class if your students wanted to?

Wordle: taboo


13 thoughts on “Teaching with real issues

  1. Hi Phil

    As far as pushing students goes, I think it very much depends on the dynamics of the group. From what I’ve seen, one-to-one students a more inclined to go deep into an issue than general English classes, which usually skim the surface or put up some resistance when it comes to discussion controversial topics.

    If it’s the case of resistance. What should we do? Well, reflecting for a moment, why do we want to discuss these issues in depth? Is it to push them linguistically? Is it to stimulate more interest? To beat the daily humdrum of topics that come up in class? To seem like you’re going beyond the ‘conventions’ or ELT acceptable topics? It seems there’s certainly an important question to be answered there before encouraging students.

    On another note, I think it’s also important to consider the rules of conversation. Some topics remain off-limits during early establishment of rapport. I mean, it’s rare that you meet a group of people in a semi-formal situation and start hashing out a discussion on the harder hitting issues in life.


    • Yes, why is a good question. There’s no point do a lesson topic that doesn’t fit the students but I’ve been told by 2 new bosses that I have to ‘challenge the students and open their eyes to the world’. I was also told this last year and the year before in different places. In fact, the French gov started a culture incentive just to tackle this problem. I think with Adv students they are often tired of the same old topics but some lower levels too.

      Yes, it certainly has something to do with rapport. With my classes after a month we can go deeper but if I’ve known them over a year they feel safe and able to discuss anything. But saying that, when I’ve covered the students have often been more receptive to my challenging approach as it’s just a one-off.

      I remember Ideas and Issues had some interesting stuff in but many speaking books were just dull. Is the world ready for books that push the limits are is it too risky?

      • I think the ELT world is changing in a way that spaces are going to open up for resource books/lesson ideas that push students to open their eyes to the world and find their own place, maintaining their own identity, within that world. I recently read Friere’s ‘Education for critical consciousness’ and some of the ideas of raising students awareness of their own cultural identity stood out for me. After this, there’s less risk involved in opening their eyes to world I feel because they can appreciate the differences between one cultural identity and another. That’s certainly what I’ve found living in another country.

        • Now that my friend is an amazing quote. You are the Nostradamus of EFL.

          Yes, that was my culture course. It used external topics to get students to reflect on themselves. It’s very hard to do. If you just go straight at them they get defensive but if you start analysing and comparing then they can come to their own realisations. I did this with 2 colleagues and we and the students enjoyed it from L1 which looked at lost Aborigine culture and their civil rights.

          The original syllabus used cartoons to analyse fairy tales and the dark issues they reflect about villains, heroes and myths. At the time I didn’t understand it at all, now a bit more but for something so important and difficult I and my friends decided to build our own course week-to-week. After the classes we used to go for a drink and discuss what happened then run round choosing the next lesson.

  2. as you say, the key is to get them curious about the topic, i know i have made the error that i assumed they would be interested in a topic.

    for example when the student movement was happening at the beginning of 2010 i tried to use a video as basis for listening then discussion, it basically fell flat on its face. i had assumed that my students would have had some interest in fellow students’ actions across the channel, but no!

    i had failed to get them curious, hopefully with the blogs you link to many more teachers will be interested in pushing this further; i know was delighted to read a lesson idea using bill hicks!


    • Thanks for the comment Mura.

      Yes, it’s a tough job trying to lead them to the topic so it’s better to help them develop as they wish.

      Sometimes they don’t know what they want. I gave mine an option last month of cyber bullying or 2 others. They chose cyber bullying and didn’t like it.

      If you read anything by Dale Coulter you’ll know the importance of reflecting on your classes/students and using that to inform your topics, I often get mine to choose but now I funnel those topics and pitch them at a level students can grasp. I think that’s very important for IELTS speaking too. An abstract conversation about pollution doesn’t inspire anyone but if you start at the student level of their town/school then they get hooked.

  3. I do believe that students in higher education need to be exposed to topics outside the light-hearted bubble considered safe in EFL circles. Students need to learn how to react appropriately when discussing controversial topics, argue intellectually and really listen to what others’ points-of-view are.

    None of those topics are off limits, but I do believe it is the instructor’s role not to insert their own judgment, but guide students in terms of language use, culture and open up different perspectives.

    Thanks for the blog selections. Once on my ARC post (http://fourc.ca/interarc/), a blogger going by Torn Halves (http://tornhalves.blogspot.com/) applauded the fact that the topic I used was about feminism and more specifically rape.

    • Cheers Tyson.

      Yes, when your students are being challenged academically in their main subjects in lectures and seminars then come to EFL class and do a unit on sport something doesn’t click. I do think students nowadays are far more exposed to world events and reality so a lot of older coursebooks/materials are too bland.

      You’ve hit the nail on the head there about imposing our belief system on students. This is very hard and it’s also difficult not to be judgmental about other cultures that hold different beliefs. For instance, a female student (23) said that women should stay at home and cook. When I asked her why she wasn’t she said that she isn’t married yet but with a degree will get a better husband.

      it is the instructor’s role not to insert their own judgment, but guide students in terms of language use, culture and open up different perspectives.

      Need I say more?

      • What’s funny is that by guiding students to look at things from a different perspective, you can help them arrive at the conclusion you want them to. I don’t think it’s wrong because you are just providing differing opinions. As long as their final conclusions, no matter what they are, don’t affect how you talk to, treat or grade them.

        • Yes, I know what you mean but it’s better if they get there on their own.

          I used to have severe problems teaching EAP to Asian students in the UK because everything we had to cover was so different to what they were used to but essential. For a while I thought these Foundation courses were just a way to make more money but having worked in these students homelands I can see that the difference is just too big. They need to learn how to fully engage on courses, take part in seminars, plan self-study, do note taking etc but critical thinking and creating, developing and using their own ideas takes time. Saying that, when I was young it wasn’t cool to study and talk in class so it was just the foreigners but now I realise that they were actually miles ahead of us possibly because of their freethinking education systems.

          Final conclusions are interesting too because many people, as with TBL, are just interested in finishing and not the process. We are trained to have a correct and an incorrect answer so when you say “they are all valid if you can justify them” it can be surprising but revolutionary. This is why I love EAP.

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