Global Issues in EFL: Education or Indoctrination?

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David Peaty, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto

For many years, teachers of various subjects have been trying to incorporate issues concerning the real world into their curricula. Their efforts have led to the evolution of a number of interrelated fields, such as peace education, environmental education, development education, and human rights education, collectively referred to as "global education" (Pike & Selby, 1988, p.34), "world studies" (Fisher & Hicks, 1985, p.8), or "education with a global perspective" (Rosengren, Wiley, & Wiley, 1983, p.5).

While it is hard to deny the importance of the issues raised by global educators—hunger, racism, threats to the global environment, and so on—and the importance of education as a vehicle for increasing what Cates (1990a) refers to as "global literacy", there are certain risks inherent in global education. These include inadequate teacher knowledge of the subject, tension between the traditional curriculum and the more progressive elements of global education, and the risk of indoctrination. The latter, in particular, led to a conservative backlash in the 1980s (Scruton, 1985) that severely curtailed global education in Britain (Lister, 1994). Fortunately, more moderate views were reflected in educational policy, and elements of global education are now an integral part of formal education in Britain.

As more and more language teachers incorporate global issues into their class content, the criticisms raised against global educators have come to be directed at language teachers, too (Cunningham, M., 1991; Sargent, 2004). Such criticism might well deter many language teachers from introducing global education themes and methodology into their classrooms. This would be a great shame, as there are compelling reasons for doing so. According to Brinton, Snow, and Wesche (1989), "many would claim that a second language is learned most effectively when used as the medium to convey informational content of interest and relevance to the learner" (p. vii). Student surveys (Hartley, 1994) have shown that Japanese college students are indeed interested in these issues, and, given their prominence in the mass media, they are clearly relevant. Peaty (1995, p.34) suggests further reasons for focusing on global education themes in language classes: the availability of "a huge volume of up-to-date resources"; the fact that "because of their depth and diversity, global issues stimulate discussion, critical analysis and ... the development of linguistic, cognitive and study skills"; the increasing frequency with which global issues themes appear in university entrance examinations (see Sasada, 1991; Peaty, 1995); and the reflection of this trend in the English textbooks approved by the education authorities (Nakabachi, 1992). However, all of these justifications are insignificant when compared to the main reason for introducing global education in all subjects across the curriculum, including foreign languages, which is that the future of our planet is at stake. Eminent scientists working for the United Nations Environment Program, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Worldwatch Institute, and other respected organizations keep reminding us that our present way of life is unsustainable; and most of the world's governments have committed themselves to Agenda 21 of the Earth Summit, Chapter 36 of which urges nations to "seek to make environment and development education available to people of all ages" and "work environment and development concepts . . . into all education programmes" (Keating, 1993, p.57).

The real issue, then, is not whether or not to integrate global education into language teaching, but how to do it without indoctrinating our students. The term indoctrination is a very strong and emotional one, and represents different things to different people. Jones (1991, pp.11-12) offers the following parameters: content ("things which can be doubted are taught as if indubitable"), method ("techniques analogous to brainwashing are used to ensure that ideas are firmly planted, even if not understood") and intention ("the supposed indoctrinator intends his/her subjects to become unshakable supporters"). When teachers attempt to promote certain values, goals and viewpoints in the classroom, can they be accused of indoctrination? Not if those values, goals and viewpoints are endorsed by society. As Wenden says, "All education is conducted for the realization of social values" (in Strain, 1991, p.15). One of the strongest statements of values and principles ever published includes in its preamble specific instructions that "every individual and every organ of society shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms ...." That, of course, is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948). As J. Cunningham (1991) points out: "To take international agreements and covenants as foundation reference points is to base the work on impartial standards" (p.102). In other words, if society accepts and respects the principles, values and goals being advocated, there is no problem of indoctrination, even when the teaching materials are clearly promoting a cause. What Cates (1990b) refers to as "teaching for a better world" reflects goals supported by UN conventions and signatory governments, by all major religions, and by renowned educators, and accusations of indoctrination are thus misguided.

It appears, therefore, that the problem is not in advocating certain views and values, but in straying away from the mainstream into more radical territory, such as the effects of consumerism on the global environment. Stradling (1989) points out the "state of unfair competition" which exists between the dominant perspective presented by governments and the mass media, who control our main access to information, and alternative or "green" perspectives (p.99). Earlier, Postman and Weingartner (1969) addressed a similar problem by proposing "teaching as a subversive activity"; and Brown (1994) repeated their proposal. Each saw a need for the dominant or mainstream perspective to be challenged because business as usual was clearly unsustainable in the long run. Their answer was to promote critical thinking. What exactly does this entail? Stradling (1989) proposes teaching students "how to ask good, searching questions and how to detect poor, misleading or evasive answers" (p.98). Fundamental critical thinking skills include evaluating whether statements are of fact, or opinion, if the facts expressed are true, false, or unverifiable, if assertions are supported logically, and if proposals are good, or bad, and for whom, and why. They also include identifying reasoning flaws, such as fallacies and leaps of logic, and the numerous devices, such as loaded language, used to mislead the public by public relations specialists working for governments and for private corporations. Critical thinking, together with media literacy, could help protect students from the influence not only of teachers with extreme views, but also of those who seek to manipulate the mainstream media and the Internet for political or commercial gain.

Many educators, however, feel that it is not enough to teach critical thinking skills: Teachers also have to follow strict procedures in order to ensure that there is no bias in their classrooms. Higgins (1990, pp32-33) recommends the Consultation Method consisting of the following steps:

  1. Agree on the problem.
  2. Agree on the principles or policies involved.
  3. Gather facts and opinions.
  4. Share ideas for solution of the problem.
  5. Decide on the solution.
  6. Put the decision into action.
  7. Review the decision and change it if necessary.

McIntyre (1996) cautions that:

… it is also important for the teacher to accept diverse views, to allow the learners to take the position that there is no problem with the status quo . . . [and] . . . to present the learners with information from as many sources as possible and direct them to resources they can use on their own (McIntyre, 1996, p.125).

McLeod (1991) warns us that "the most important intellectual endeavour is for the teachers to recognize their own bias and prejudices" (p.177). Students also need to be reassured that their grades will not be affected by the opinions they express. In addition, it is essential for teachers to constantly update their information on any issue, and urge their students to do likewise.

These procedures and principles are important and teachers should keep them in mind, especially when working with younger, more vulnerable students. On the other hand, there are contexts in which absolute neutrality is neither possible nor desirable. We have already considered the use of international conventions and materials based on them, which are clearly aimed at advocacy. However, there is also the "state of unfair competition" (Stradling, 1989) referred to above. Many educators recognize the need to address this issue by presenting a clear statement of the marginalized view, in the hopes of creating a fairer balance. This, according to Sargent (2004) and others is advocacy, and unacceptable in the classroom. In Sargent's view, a teacher is ethically required to present all sides of any issue. The problems with this requirement were discussed by contributors to a major study commissioned by the British Government prior to the introduction of compulsory citizenship education in the National Curriculum (Crick, 1998). The authors evaluated three recommended approaches to the discussion of controversial issues - the Neutral Chairman approach, in which the teacher does not express any personal views or allegiances but acts only as the facilitator of a discussion, the Balanced approach, in which all sides of the issue are presented as equally worthy of attention, and the Stated Commitment approach, in which teachers openly express their views - and conclude that "if used in isolation, rigidly or alone, each of these approaches contains significant shortcomings" (p.59). In particular:

…the "Balanced" approach runs the obvious risk that as a teacher strives to ensure every point of view is given equal attention in the classroom, the pupils themselves, already subject to a barrage of partisan opinions from the mass media, may not be adequately equipped with ideas and information which counteract those which they get from the media (Crick, 1998, p.59).

This is the unfair balance referred to above (Stradling, 1989), and it is unlikely to be rectified by presenting all sides of an issue. In this context, when teachers like Anderson (1996) attempt to "illuminate the positions that the mainstream media, government and commerce avoid" (p.24), they are surely opening minds, not closing them. Introducing concepts such as fair trade, challenging myths such as that hunger exists because not enough food is grown worldwide, and asking provocative questions about government policies is not indoctrination, but a stimulus to further inquiry. As McInnis and Wells (1995, paraphrasing Roa, 1993) put it: "Our duty as educators is to inform the students. Once informed, they are likely to be concerned. Once concerned, they will strive towards involvement. With increased concern and involvement, they become more informed and the cycle continues" (p.117).

Sargent (2004) seems to be sending the message to educators that if they lack the appropriate context, time, resources, training, or inclination to present all sides of any issue and to "introduce students to the research process" (p.10), they should avoid issues entirely, rather than risk bias in their teaching. This is a counter-productive message. While there are probably teachers with extreme ideas who do try to indoctrinate their students, and a much smaller number who succeed, the existence of such teachers does not justify a blanket demand for teachers to drop their values in the wastebox before entering the classroom. On the contrary, when students are inspired to become good global citizens, it is generally by teachers whose values they admire, teachers such as Bamford (1990), whose sponsored walk attracted the support of several hundred teachers, students and friends, raising two million yen for a development project in Ethiopia, Schwab (1994), who introduced her students to the Foster Parent system and had the satisfaction of seeing them sponsor an Indian child, Rowe (2003), whose students support children at a mission in Vietnam and hold charity bazaars to support volunteer activities in India, and Smith (2002), whose students raised funds for, and built, a house with Habitat for Humanity. If this is advocacy, then we need more of it, not less.


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David Peaty teaches English and other subjects at Ritsumeikan University, and is the author of numerous EFL textbooks focusing on global issues.