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World events in the classroom

July 27, 2006

Can teachers avoid reality?

Hello again,

My topic today is a serious one. It concerns the horrors of world conflicts and whether there is any place for such topics in the classroom. Many schools and teachers, either consciously or tacitly, operate a ‘non-controversial’ policy for topics to address in the classroom. This is understandable. Teachers are not always best placed to be arbiters ...

...in heated discussions and students often lack the fluency to argue a case effectively. When topics are both urgent and controversial the result of a classroom discussion can be ill-feeling, upset and disharmony. But when a specific situation is desperate and the students have a need to face what is happening, it is better to find a way of tackling the issues in a measured way. It is a situation I have faced over the years when I have had Middle-eastern students in the classroom and a crisis has flared up. Indeed during the first Gulf War, I had a group of Kuwaiti airmen in my school.

So, if the teacher decides to tackle the issue and the class is of at least upper-intermediate level, what is the best way to do it? Firstly, I think, students need to be helped to gather factual information. The teacher can set them tasks to find facts such as dates, statistics, and outcomes. The class could then mount a poster display that charts the events from a historical perspective. The concentration on facts helps take the emotion out of the situation and gives the class a basis for forming its reactions.

With the facts assembled, the teacher has a good basis for setting up group work for addressing specific ideas about grievances, dangers and solutions. Separate groups might outline the grievances of the various parties to the conflict. Again, the emphasis is on objectivity. This can be followed by fact-finding about the role of the UN and the influence of outside countries. The teacher will need skill and tact here to steer students away from talking about what ‘ought’ to happen and towards what does happen.

Finally, students will want to express their opinions. To do this, establish ground rules, such as giving the student who is speaking a ruler to hold up. Nobody else may speak when someone has the ruler. Limit talking time to one minute each.

I think the closing stage should be to try to identify one or to positive steps that might help to improve the situation. Your class cannot, of course, influence events, but if your lesson has had a slightly cathartic effect in helping students face and objectify terrible issues, then it will be better to end in an upbeat fashion rather than give in to despair.

I don’t pretend that any of this will be easy but sometimes it is impossible to continue with lesson content that seems innocuous and bland when the class is affected or unsettled by outside events, It is probably better to let them face the issues.

Please let me know what you think.

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  1. Jean Robertson Says:

    My experience is teaching English/Montessori in a Kindergarten in China for one year... and being a "home-stay" Mom for ESL students at the local University.
    I kept all material neutral in dealing with young children.
    I see ESL students struggling with feminist material in their classrooms. I would not "go there" if I were their teacher.
    It is also not appropriate to go "political" in an ESL classroom. The students need to gain language knowledge and that is best done with neutral materials. It is not fair to them academically and emotionally to present them with controversial material.
    I have raised five children, who are all now University educated. I have watched them struggle with inappropriate material in their classrooms. It is actually abusive.

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