Columns on ELTNEWS.com View All Columns
Visit ELTBOOKS - all Western ELT Books with 20% discount (Japan only)

The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

May 07, 2009

Two rants for the price of reading one blog entry: Global Warming overkill, and positive learning ideas for new university students

First-

My proposed penalties for bringing lessons about “Global Warming” into the EFL classroom

1. For teachers who base an English lesson on Global Warning:
Punishment- Automatic loss of teaching license and other academic credentials

2. For any EFL teacher who claims that, “Japanese students don’t learn about things like global warming in their other classes so we need to tell them about it”:
Punishment- Deportation; with no possibility of re-entry to the country

Why you ask? Is there any topic that has been so done to death as this hackneyed old standard? I mean there are comic book characters now fight global warming! There are daily messages, guidelines, and notices given to the public through every arm of the media on the effects of global warming and steps to take for reducing it. Every second product on TV shills their product's environmental virtues. It seems like half the extracurricular classes at elementary schools focus on the problem of global warming and what we can do about it. Textbooks used in elementary schools have sections on global warming (conclusion- it is bad and we should do what we can to reduce it). The issue is even addressed on Japanese cereal boxes, the ultimate arbiter of how cheesy a social issue has become. The global warming problem has become fully ‘establishment’, something passed down from authorities to which young people naturally start to develop a (healthy, in many cases) skepticism towards. My 13 year old son lampoons the whole business with a made-up character called ‘Eco-Santa’. Entrance exam designers at universities have long abandoned the ‘environment’ article as a standard exam text. It became too predictable and is now a boring cliché.
(Those who are not well acquainted with the Japanese language and/or wider Japanese society will often remain cocooned inside stereotypes which maintain that only progressive people, such as enlightened Westerners like themselves, are aware of and concerned about these ‘big issues’ and that Japanese media/society shield Japanese from awareness of these important issues. Uh, yeah- and they all wear topknots too).

So, when Mr. Brown, the teacher from Canada, comes into English class with his lesson on Global Warming to ‘inform’ his Japanese junior high schoolers of this important issue (conclusion- it is bad and we should do what we can to reduce it)- it’s time to unleash the EFL police on ‘Mr. Brown from Canada’ and carry out the punishments proposed above.

[An aside- I once used an article in an EFL class which criticized some of the standard proposals on how to reduce our environmental footprint concluding that many of the standard proposed solutions often in fact led to greater energy consumption or other non eco-friendly results. In the workshee that I made to accompany this article I asked students to, among other things, 1) summarize the article in a sentence or two and 2) think of a suitable title. Although none of the environmental topics in the article addressed global warming, and although the tone of the whole piece was a questioning of popular environmental solutions, a large number of students 1) concluded that the article was about (wait for it)... “Global Warming” and 2) in summary, it was telling us that “we should do X to save the planet” (even where the article had explicitly criticized doing X).
Thank you very much for your contributions to mindnumbing social issues “discussion”, Mr. Brown from Canada].

Final note- global warming is a reality, a serious issue and is a multi-faceted, complex problem. But thanks to educational overkill, cloying oversimplification, and a resultant reduction to the lowest common denominator of ‘discussion’ it now has as much social impact as talking about Tsuyoshi Kusanagi’s nekkidness.

Second-
Some positive encouragement for students:

In my earlier blog post about the new academic year I listed a number of frustrating classroom habits that I hoped to divest students of as soon as they entered university. Since this focused almost entirely on negative behavior I thought it would be a little more life-affirming if I also listed some positive classroom attitudes and practices that I try to inculcate early on. These include:

1. Making the most of a limited vocabulary and grammatical flexibility. That through negotiation, questioning and rephrasing you can communicate a lot using very little.

(Sidebar 1- Students are hobbled by the expectation or belief that unless they produce perfect English that they simply cannot express themselves and what they’ve tried to express is a completely uncommunicative mess. In fact, that is rarely the case as there are more non-native than native English speakers in the world and these people consistently engage in this type of imperfect language negotiation. And people who argue that specific ways of thinking are indelibly and irrevocably tied to specific languages (they are not! It’s the 21st century folks!) contribute to this sense of impossibility, of exaggerated distance)

2. That you can learn from your partner in any communicative activity. Don’t always depend on the teacher to learn! When your partner uses the ‘perfect’ English word, phrase, response pattern or grammatical form that you would probably not have been able to produce yourself- MAKE A NOTE OF IT SOMEWHERE, SOMEHOW for future reference.

(Sidebar 2- many students assume that education is an amalgam of discrete items transmitted from teacher to student. It is disheartening when, after a lesson in which I’ve had students interact on a certain medical issue that involved active thinking and cognitive engagement, helped them to use certain rhetorical patterns to express this content, and helped them arrange all this in an acceptable written format- all in English, that what they remember I ‘taught’ from the lesson was one or two peripheral words that came up in the lesson, almost as an afterthought)

3. Learn from yourself. When you are trying to complete an in-class task or express yourself in English in any circumstance there will probably be times that you can’t recall or reproduce the word, phrase or best means of expressing whatever it is that you want to express. If so, keep your weakness in mind and STUDY OR CHECK IT LATER so that you don’t scrounge for the right expression the next time you need this item. Check the dictionary or a grammar reference. Or ask me, the teacher. Or ask another student.

(Sidebar 3- Students are often passive about their own shortcomings. They’ve made a mistake but tend to think ‘that’s it. It’s over. I can’t correct it now’ as if this communication is a one-time test that has been handed in and will be duly graded and there is nothing they can do about it now. Only the sharper ones realize that these tasks provide practice platforms for skill development and future language usage).

Mike



« Notes from the new academic year | Main | Language Yaritori + 6 Frustrating Student Behaviors »

Comments

I seem to be addicted to making comments on your blog entries, Mike, I guess cuz they ring so many bells and/or I've been here too long too. Actually, there's a Web thread on the latter, "you know when you've been in Japan too long when..." which enjoys a wide circulation among those who've been here about two years ;)

There was also not too long ago a photocopy circulating around Kanto uni's, authored by an obviously extremely frustrated instructor, an A4 page full of do's and don'ts to hand out to first year university classes which was as hilarious as it was right on. I was tempted to use it but thought better of it: one, we're not teaching in reform schools and two, while not permissive as such, I'd rather start out on the innocent until proven guilty basis and then deal with transgressions, a la mode, case by case.

Funny you mention the Kusanagi story. I had two students do a 3-minute dialog today on the event and with a little vetting on my part they came up with some interesting insights into the case (media infatuation, societal scorn, police over-reaction -- their ideas, not mine). Goes to show, with a little input into what appears to be the most banal topic, you can get good output.

Hi Mike, totally agree about the global warming thing. If we're going to bring "issues" into the classroom, at least make them ones not likely to have been covered in Japanese language classes.
How about domestic violence, child abuse, gender issues, racial issues, immigrant issues, etc. These I cover because they get scant or little attention by other teachers. Indeed, delving into certain issues too deeply can be taboo, but often the foreign language teacher is given a free pass on this. My principal has even said that she feels certain issues are just easier to cover in English classes because the vocabulary for the Japanese terms is awkward. I also believe that in the English language classroom what one decides to talk about is as important as any concrete skills because for most students in Japan using English in their dailty life is just not in the cards. A final reason for doing so is that students really seem to be motivated to communicate by what irks them in society (and plenty really makes them angry) and what better reason for covering the "issues" than this. You are right about global warming and any issue can become overdone. For me, personally, I will stop teaching the day I can't try to improve society through language learning. Last winter, 3 students came to me to say they had bought an issue of the 'Big Issue' magazine from a homeless guy in Osaka and had had a very nice chat with him. I was thrilled (ego stroked) as they learned about this magazine from me. In a very small way, the upper-middle class (which my students are)wall that tends to see homeless people as having actively chosen that life came down. Their language learning had become real.

Hi Mark.

I certainly agree that content based lessons are essential for university education, so I have no problem with social issues being brought into the classroom as long as, and I have argued strongly about this on occasion in the past, it is not used as a soapbox for expounding their own beliefs with a built-in audience. I call this the 'The Missionary Approach', and I see it as an abuse of students, given the power differential between student and teacher as well as the whole 'foreign teacher as an enlightened being from afar' thing.

I should add that I don't think 'culture' is the issue here, as people of various cultures can, and do, hold various positions on social issues and justify them in idiosyncratic ways. The crux for me is cognitive engagement by which language forms are learned or reinforced through actively partaking in meaningful tasks. Unfortunately, certain issues have lost that sense of being engaging because they've been done to death.

BTW- Sorry about some careless style points in the original blog post. I tend to write and post quickly due to time constraints and don't edit as well as I perhaps should. But I have cleaned it up this time.

Hi Mike, I also totally agree about the 'missionary' thing. However, one could argue that a so-called neutral stance is just as political as one that is less so. Call it influencing students by default, perhaps. So when a social studies teacher allows students to think Japan doesn't have an army, merely a 'self-defense force', a hugely political bit of indoctrination is taking place(not a great example, I concede). It always shocks me when students tell me Japan doesn't have an army - this actually happens. In English education, a teacher who knows that stereotypes and blanket statements exist in texts, as they do particularly at the beginner level (this probably doesn't affect the uni teachers as much), but says nothing or doesn't complain, a political act is taking place, by default - those people are ALL like such and such. It's like saying students are too dim to really need the background information to correctly analyze the source. I just think teachers need to be honest to themselves, not be afraid to use Japanese language to give appropriate background information and most of all, don't spend too much time beating a dead horse by doing those issues that have been covered in other classes or years. On a positive note, I recently used cosmetic surgery as the spark for conversation to increase the use of rejoinders and follow-up questions among my senior students. It really worked because they were interested and, here's the kicker, more than half disagreed when I suggested that gender discrimination plays a part in making many women run to the surgeon. It was great. They know they should follow their hearts and say / write what they really think. I still make them provide evidence though. I realize that working in a girl's school may be part of the reason that this is easy. Anyway, surrogate motherhood is next. It should be fun. This will be used to have students improve their usage of is, was, were, have, has, it, etc,at the end of utterences. What are these called in the final position anyway?

I didn't really pick up on any errors in your original post, so don't beat yourself up over it. I also really appreciate your agreement when you agree, and your counterpoints when you don't. The professionalism of your posts is a welcome respite to so much of the garbage that circulates under the banner of ESL chat. Thanks.

They're called tags, Mark.

I applaud your enthusiasm for content but I must admit your rationalizations initially had me thinking: where does this guy teach, Sunday school? The word "missionary" as made explicit by Mike, also came to mind.

With all due respect, your reasoning is wooly, tendentious and specious. To say, for example, that taking a neutral stance is politically disingenuous is rhetorically akin to the old hippie slogan, "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem," as it is to its post-punk, pseudo-romantic anarcho-buccaneer contemporary counterpart: self-righteous "shouldism."

In other words, your post is full of hot air and justifying that by saying it will serve to make a few grammar points is, well, frankly-speaking, ludicrous.

Correct me if I'm wrong, Mark, you say you work in a girl's school, would that be a Christian girl's high school?

Whatever, nothing wrong with that if so, and forgive me for the flame, but you are mangling things by biting off more than you can pedagogically chew.

Hi Walter, thanks for the, er, response. I think you've perhaps over done it. You might wish to examine the word 'disingenuous' again and see if it really applies to what I was saying. The act of being neutral in a debate is not wrong, particularly for a teacher. It is, however, very naive to think that teaching can be always neutral or that it even should be. Teaching is about power and if one let's it slide, for example, that 'comfort women' is an acceptable expression for forced prostitution, then, in my opinion, a very political act, by neglect, has just occurred. Well, they were just Asians, afterall. Opinions and issues in society can be very powerful motivators in the classroom and that is the ultimate reason to use them in a foreign language class. I take objection to your use of the word 'ludicrous'. All I can say is that you must have been having a bad day, we all do, and that I hope today is better. My school is a Catholic girl's school. The average student functions at least 2 years higher than average Japanese students and many are ready to take on jobs using English in their futures. I feel sorry for the uni types who don't have this, and that's why I never switched to university teaching. I hope this clears things up a bit for you. Have a good one, seriously.

Ok, Mark, fair enough, I did overdo it, not that I was having a particularly bad day, just that I take exception to overdoing the 'content' part, i.e., when it subordinates skills to topical/moral issues resulting in "I think, I feel, we should" sorts of personal opinions, even with evidence.

For example, in terms of the latter, I once reluctantly allowed a student to take up the topic of capital punishment for a seminar paper. I gave the go ahead with the stipulation she examine both sides of the issue and evaluate the arguments on how well they were made. She did present both sides but it soon became very clear that she had made up her mind from the beginning. The evidence against capital punishment was presented in a very perfunctory fashion, while the evidence for the death penalty included very graphic detail on the case of a rapist/murderer who had genitally mutilated his victim before killing her.

It may be old-fashioned but my educational philosophy at the university level is based on intellectual development and as a language teacher at the same time, the skills to express that development. Political correctness is not something I'm trying to sell, though understanding what political correctness and where it came from is. As the old adage goes, if you want to change the world you have to understand it first and understanding does not come from vacuous "we should" statements.

So yes, "comfort women" is a heinous euphemism, but do you really think your students don't already know that? Do you really think that if you brought that up in a university job interview as an example of the "content" you like to teach you would be hired?

You seem to be quite happy at your school, Mark, why don't we leave it at that?

Hi Walter. Thanks for the response. Your explanation of your educational philosophy is very clear and one that I agree with completely. I also agree that balance is important before taking a side, as in your capital punishment example - present the evidence, then choose. As for "we should" type modes of expression, I basically ban them. At out school, we have great success in speech contests because we insist on concrete ideas for action to change situations that students don't like. Recently in Japan, the judging of these contests has greatly improved as judges and experts see the, as you put it, vacuous nature of much of what passes for opinion giving. Regarding political correctness, I feel one just has to sort out the ridiculous from the genuine. I believe in political correctness in as far as it corrects blatant injustices, but for little else. I also think at the high school level, regardless of actual English ability, students need ways to just sort through the hundreds of hours of grammar training they receive to actually give an opinion based on evidence in reasonably well constructed talks and paragraphs. It sounds like your students may be at a higher maturity level to not need so much motivation to do this. Your final paragraph about university job interviews and the tone of the prior day's post did leave me with a bit of a feeling that high school teaching in a Christian girl's school and my weak 'pedagogy' don't make me worthy. That really is sad. Anyway, let's move on and exchange ideas for things that work in the classroom.

Mark- I'm having a hard time getting my head wrapped around your comments. You say that NOT addressing a certain social issue can be a political statement (and, at times, it can) but the examples you give to illustrate your point are in fact of people actually addressing issues (Japan's military and comfort women) but using politically-charged terminology that you disagree with. It seems to me that these are two very different phenomena.

As for not addressing an issue I think it is far more a question of the scope and time allotment. Obviously we could touch upon only a very few issues deeply. It would hardly be fair to say that this represented a political statement about the million other issues that we didn't address.

As for politically charged terminology, yes, we have all heard the freedom fighter vs. terrorist paradigm. But it seems that your beef is that you merely want to exchange one politically-charged term with another that you think is more accurate.

Hi Mike. Thanks for the comments. Yeah, you're right, it does seem a bit confusing. All I'm saying is that, in my opinion, it's ok to bring "issues" into the classroom and it's ok to allow one's opinion to be shown, albeit, after students have been presented with a balanced introduction. The timing of when the instructor should give his or her opinion is important, particularly with high school students who can easily be swayed. I am not so sure about more mature university students, you and Walter know more about this level than me. That being said, I also think it's ok to stay neutral throughout the whole process, but that it's extremely important for a teacher, with the power we have, to realize that not asking students why, for example in a discussion on defense, a self-defense force would go to Iraq, or refuel U.S. ships in the Indian Ocean, that it can also speak volumes. At least know that silence might be interpreted by students as tacit approval of the term "self-defense force". In general, and I should have clarified, my comments about history, for example, are more directed at Social Studies and History (Japanese)teachers than at English teachers, but we all need to be careful. An English textbook that includes comfort women or the self-defense forces, and I've seen both but sorry I can't recall the titles, is a highly charged document if students were able to input for example "self-defense force" into their dictionary and up pops 'jieitai' and they then think the English speaking world thinks Japan has no army, navy or air force, in the traditional sense.
Sorry for the confusion, point taken. I didn't intend to make any comment on issues that are not addressed in the classroom. Time is an important consideration and obvioulsy, as a high school teacher, if I dwell on issues as a motivator too much, then important skills like paragraphing and use of transitional language fall by the wayside. That is not desirable either, and we can easily become the missionary of which you and Walter are correctly wary.

Hello Mike,

Regarding the first section of your blog, I take exception with several points. First, regarding:

My proposed penalties for bringing lessons about “Global Warming” into the EFL classroom

1. For teachers who base an English lesson on Global Warning:
Punishment- Automatic loss of teaching license and other academic credentials

I would like you to know that in an environmental issues content-based classroom, which is an elective course that is very popular, I always give my students a long list of environmental issues and ask them to vote on the issues that interest them the most. Each student can vote three times for topics that they think are the most interesting. This year, "Global Warming" was the most requested issue! Last year, my students also chose this topic.

Second, I agree that some teachers teach this topic badly, but some teachers also teach other topics which you might prefer to be taught badly as well.

The important point to consider is how is the teacher teaching this issue. Is the teacher combining language points with content well? Is the teacher allowing and facilitating the exchange of different opinions? If a teacher is only, as you seem to suggest, promoting the idea that global warming is bad, then the teacher is failing. If the teacher can facilitate creative thinking and language learning on this important topic, the teacher is doing a good job.

Sincerely,

Greg Goodmacher


Hi Greg. Thanks for dropping by. Actually, I thought I might hear from you earlier on this point (folks, Greg has written probably THE best text on dealing with social issues in the classroom- you can link it in a reply mail if you like Greg).

Of course I was being a little (more than a little?) tongue in cheek with my remarks. As you imply, a good teacher could do a lesson about their toenail clippings and make it interesting.

But still, some topics have been done to death (although new angles on those topics, or sub-topics would be welcome). So, when you say that your students chose Global Warming as the most requested issue, I am reminded of Thousand Island Dressing. Why? For many years Thousand Island was synonymous with salad dressing in Japan. There was little recognition of other types of dressings (unlike now where even Joyful will give you 3 or 4 choices). Since many people assumed that 'Thousand Island equaled 'Salad Dressing', they came to desire it precisely because they were so accustomed to it that it had become a kind of comfort dressing, a dependable default.

What I'm suggesting that students may choose Global Warming because it represents a familiar comfort zone. It has become equated with 'social issues'.

Mike

Hello Again,

Thank you for the positive review of my textbook called Stimulating Conversation and for the offer to link to it, which is here: http://www.intercompress.com/sc.html

In my opinion, the topic of global warming is not hackneyed. A bad lesson about it can be trite or a rehash of what has been done before, but the topic of global warming is an everchanging one.
Scientists are constantly changing their warming projections. The speed of glaciar melting has progressed so much since just ten years ago. Biologists are discovering that more and more species in different parts of the world are being affected in various ways. A few years ago, I never saw videos on YouTube of starving polar bears, but I do now. The United Nations and other political and social institutions are constantly having new meetings and conferences about events related to global warming. The future threat of environmental refugees has become today's reality. Global warming is an evolving topic that many of our students who pay attention to world news are becoming to feel more and more touched by.

Without a well-written survey of our students, neither you nor I will know the exact reasons why a majority of my students repeatedly vote to study the topic of global warming. You suggest that it relates to a "comfort zone." Students being comfortable with a topic can also be a plus. I suggest that my students are excited about global warming because they realize that global warming affects their future, that global warming is affecting their lives now, and that this topic's presence in the media has made them intellectually curious. It appears to me that my students want to learn more about this topic while studying the English language.

Sorry for not responding earlier, Greg. I've been overseas for about a week.

I cannot question the fact that an issue like global warming impacts students' lives and that it has great, widespread relevance. But, in fact this would seem to axiomatic for something that I am claiming has jumped the EFL shark.

Let me use a medical school example. The brain death question is, and has been, a huge issue in Japanese medical (and wider) circles for some time. Obviously, this impacts people's lives too and is highly relevant to medical students. But would I use it in an EFL class for medical students? No. Precisely because that road is such a well-traveled one- it's almost a default issue (complete with canned responses it seems to me). And I do know that while it has appeared as a text on med school entrance exams in the past, you don't see it much now- nor are you likely to. While the actual issue is still open and relevant, it's EFL shelf life has come and gone.

I suppose we could go on and on with these arguments but there's another problem I have with issues like global warming: It's not like anyone will be in favour of global warming. In short, if something is widely considered a fact, doesn't that by definition make it less of a controversial issue? We can talk about how to limit or contain it, but is it then still controversial? OK- there is a distinction to be made between discussion and argument, with controversy being the hallmark of the latter, and your ultimate aim may merely be discussion. But when an issue becomes mostly an awareness of facts it seems to me that real meaty discussion, with personal or emotional application, is automatically mitigated.

Recent Columns

Recent Comments

Categories

Comments

Events

World Today