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Language Teacher

The Language Teacher

Integrating Global Issues into High School EFL

Amy D. Yamashiro
Keio SFC University & High School

After MUN [Model United Nations] I became to pay at[t]ention to world problem[s], refuge[e]s, human rights, Kenya, Mexico, Australia. And I became to wa[t]ch the news and newspapers. I wanted to know more minutely about world problem[s]. (brackets added)
Delegate of Kenya, MUN Conference on Refugees
A regular 2nd-year Japanese high school student

Global-issues projects can make students more enthusiastic language learners. My six-plus years of experience teaching global issues at the secondary level in Japan have shown me that students, regardless of English proficiency, react positively to these projects. Projects such as collecting used EFL textbooks for donation to refugee camps, voluntary letter-writing campaigns in English for Amnesty International, or participating in a Model United Nations (MUN) conference where students debate world issues in English can provide students with hands-on experiential learning and an opportunity for communicative language use. Yet, some teachers avoid using global issues in their EFL classes by taking a protective stance, "this material is too difficult for my students," rather than risk the introduction of "chaos" by using authentic texts and discussing complex world events in the high school EFL classroom. "My students would like to study global issues, but I must prepare them for the university entrance exams" say many would-be global educators with a note of resignation. Other teachers may hesitate because there are no correct, pre-packaged answers when teaching global issues.

I believe it is up to us, as EFL teachers, to create the vision of possibility for our students through our choice of materials, approach, and syllabus design. By creating an entryway for our students, we can help them discover and discuss the complexities of world events through direct experience and participation in a global-issues project. We must also recognize the impact and influence we have on the educational process and "that teaching, like language, is not a neutral practice. Teachers, whether consciously, or not, help to organize the way students perceive themselves and the world" (Pierce, 1989, p. 408). If we are willing to model active experimentation, such as by taking a risk to teach about approaches to complex world events, I believe that it is more likely that our students will be encouraged to take risks in the language learning process.

Global Education is more than Content-based English Language Teaching

Using global issues as the theme for a content-based course does not by itself reflect the ideals of global education. Many educators are increasingly using themes such as the environment, social inequality, and international relations as topics for current event discussions or as thematic units within content-based foreign language courses, where students are encouraged to use the target language for acquiring knowledge. However, educators should not fall into the trap of thinking that superficial considerations, such as methods and materials, comprise the whole of the educational enterprise. To move beyond content-based language teaching, the global educator must move students past mere study of language forms and comprehension of the text. Students should be encouraged to become critical thinkers by learning to debate issues: to critically examine a text, to express ideas supported with facts and references, and to listen to all sides of an issue.

The main concern for me as a teacher of global issues, as opposed to other kinds of content such as literature, history, or psychology, is to maintain an atmosphere that encourages discussion and debate. While other subject areas may also be loaded with opinion, it may be easier in history or literature for example to attribute ideas, events, or theories to their respective authors, to frame them within their socio-historical context, or to explain that the perspective presented is simply one of many. However, since many global issues educators teach these issues out of a conviction that awareness and action are necessary to solve global problems, there is considerable danger that some of these same educators may simply replace one indoctrinated belief with another.

Global Education: Transforming Learners and Teachers

My view towards global education focuses on a process of transformation for both students and teachers. While I believe content is also important, the transformation of the learner from receptor to actor is more important. For some students, awareness of this distinction itself may be transformative, because they may not have realized that alternative points of view or choices exist. Other students may find validity in ideas which they previously discounted, and may feel empowered to look for others who share their views.

Transformation of the teacher role from expert to guide should take place gradually as students gain confidence to express their opinions. Educators who teach global issues must maintain an open mind in order to engage their students so that students can begin to question their belief systems. Students need to learn to articulate their beliefs and to substantiate their points of view. Pedagogical concerns should include purpose and rationale for using global issues, such as in the particular choice of content, method of instruction, and desirable process or product. Stenhouse (1975) proposes that education has four aims: induction into knowledge, initiation into culture and societal values, training, and instruction. McCornick (1996) further clarifies these distinctions for language educators, by asserting,

. . . education remains an engagement with chaos. Distinguished from training (the acquisition of skills and the formation of good habits) and from indoctrination [instruction ](the absorption of ideology not reflected upon), and from schooling [initiation ](the transmission of culture), education [induction ] is a reach into the unknown and a quest for positive change. (p. 6, brackets added)

Teachers committed to the goals of global education must be wary of falling into the trap of indoctrinating students to accept the teacher's beliefs and values unquestioningly. When teaching a global-issues-based course, I point out to students that while I may hold one view on a certain issue, there may be many views within a single country or culture and that they must carefully consider all viewpoints before making a decision or taking action. As an educator in a cross-cultural setting, I would rather my students disagree with my view from a position of deep reflection rather than risk indoctrination of my values through a superficial teaching of my beliefs because I think that my view is "right."

The Japanese High School Context and Constraints

From my years of experience as a high school teacher in Japan, I can appreciate the difficulties and dilemmas facing other dedicated, but overworked teachers who have little support or guidance in creating new curricula, but have a lot of faith in the capabilities of their students. Despite the high level of student interest, I believe that the single greatest danger for global educators is burnout. McIntyre (1996) noted that materials adaptation and development along with the management of information from disciplines outside of the teacher's professional training are the two main disadvantages of implementing global issues as the content theme for EFL instruction. However, I have approached the teaching of global issues as a process. While any kind of global issue may provide the content, a project or a simulation such as a Model United Nations conference provides the direction for the course. The tasks break down the content into manageable learning chunks so that students can learn to manipulate and use the language.

It is true that the effort involved in developing a global issues course may require a considerable amount of time; however, once the initial planning is completed and students are able, for example, to author a current affairs magazine, to prepare a human rights symposium, or to have discussions with guest speakers from other countries, the remaining work will be in materials collection and adaptation. Students can and should be involved in materials collection to develop their research skills. Although it may sometimes be necessary for the EFL teacher to pre-select topics based on the availability of reference materials in English, it is better to teach students to brainstorm and to offer suggestions that reflect topical or personal interest. By doing this, students will begin to feel more involvement in the learning process and a stronger connection to current events.


English as a foreign language teachers can successfully introduce global issues, which include issues of peace, human rights, and the environment into the Japanese high school classroom. For teachers committed to the goals of global education, I believe that the combination of personal relevance and high student interest provide the necessary sustenance to overcome potential burnout. Furthermore, the appeal of global issues topics lies not only in their ability to generate high student interest and the relative ease in relating them to existing student schemata, but also in the increasing accessibility of authentic materials from the media, non-governmental organizations (NGO's), and within published texts. Secondary-level global educators can help students feel more connected to the world and current events through their choices of content and language teaching methodologies, and by raising students' awareness of their social context. As educators, it is our task to transform our language classrooms into environments conducive to experimentation and experiential learning, so that real learning can take place.


McCornick, A. J. (1996). Reflections on a critical approach to language teaching. In C. P. Casanave & A. D. Yamashiro (Eds.),Gender issues in language education (pp. 6-14), Keio University SFC Publication: Fujisawa-shi, Kanagawa-ken.

McIntyre, D. (1996). Global issues in EFL: Why and how. JALT Journal, 18 (1), 117-131.

Pierce, B. N. (1989). Toward a pedagogy of possibility in the teaching of English internationally: People's English in South Africa. TESOL Quarterly, 23, 401-

Stenhouse, M. (1975). An introduction to curriculum research and development. London: Heinemann.

Article copyright © 1996 by the author.
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Last modified: November 18, 1996
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