Global Issues in the University ESL Classroom

Gregory G. Anderson, Kansai Gaidai University


"It is an educational imperative that we recognize that in the late 20th century, the needs of humanity transcend cultural difference or national borders as we share a common future" (Merryfield, 1994, p. 7).

Beginning university students may never have been encouraged to think about global issues before. More importantly, university graduates might never have the chance again. Widespread ignorance of global issues among university freshmen is hardly surprising, but it can be cured. As an EFL university teacher, I feel responsible for demonstrating a meaningful connection between my students' lives and issues of global significance. This article's goal is to assist those university ESL teachers who would like to "inject" global ideas into their classes, as suggested by Baerwald (1987), Birch (1996), Crandall (1993), Dorman, (1992), Elder and Carr (1987), Sessoms (1994), Wahlstrom and Clark (1992), and Wenden (1992). Although they represent a wide variety of disciplines, all these educators advocate "superimposing" (London, 1991, p. 22) global issues throughout the curriculum. As a university EFL teacher, I have used research and trial and error to develop ways to infuse global issues into every university language-learning classroom. Keeping Freire's (1972) ideas about leaving crucial decisions up to the learner in mind, I would like to offer some ideas about how I do this.


While some (Arakapadavil, 1985; Becker, 1988b; and Werner, 1993 ) urge the establishment of norms for global education, I believe that the breadth of the field provides many advantages. By scrutinizing the wide variety of global issues, teachers can discover ways to "infiltrate" them into almost any class. The following sampling of the literature in the field demonstrates that what to include is one of the most challenging yet rewarding areas of planning. Urch (1992) suggests the study of world cultures, major global topics, and the planet as an interdependent system. Yoshimura (1993) delineates human rights, the environment, peace education, intercultural communication, and area studies. Cross and Molnar (1994) say global studies must consider nationalistic, humanistic, and commerical aspects. Finally, Hanvey's (1982) topics include awareness of perspective, planet status, interculturalism, global dynamics, and human choices. With creativity, teachers and students can find among these areas appropriate and interesting topics that are also relevant to the course.

Perhaps one of the most important and easiest to integrate features of global issues is intercultural communication (for more on the connection between intercultural and global issues, see Council on Learning, 1981; Levine & Adelman 1982; Met, 1991; Tye & Kniep, 1991; and Wahlstrom & Clarken, 1992). Most EFL teachers include topics about how one group of people communicates with another. Implementing global issues can start with the suggestion that discovering the causes of global problems and their solutions is one of the issues that binds all cultures together. Joining new global issues to existing intercultural topics introduces the former gently yet effectively.

Although I always include intercultural communication, I leave the remaining content up to the students. To help students become lifelong proactive thinkers, I strive to center students. They direct their learning by choosing the content (for more on centering students in the classroom, see Armstrong, 1994; Cummins, 1986; Gardner, 1993; and Freire, 1972). The truism about today's youth becoming tomorrow's leaders demands success from global issues educators. To achieve the difficult goal of creating independent, thoughtful, and aware students, I continually expect great things (Freeman, Freeman, & Gonzales, 1987). Students choose their content with great care and consideration. Because of this, I remain "determined and hopeful" (Drake, 1987, p. 304) that my students will steer spaceship earth toward a peaceful and sustainable future.

Besides the choice of which global issues to cover, other decisions are also best left to learners. My students create a foundation that covers the basic issues of how the course will be run. Students often plan to reject tests, research a small number of global topics deeply, and decide their final grade themselves. With students making such plans independently, they discover the intrinsic importance of human rights or environmental issues they choose to study. Another way to be sure of the quality of their course is through various forms of continual feedback. Encouraging students to make these decisions demands that we teachers trust our students. Students empowered to create a peaceful, tolerant, and sustainable environment in the community of their classroom are naturally better prepared to create the same environment in the world itself.

Awareness of Choices

By emphasizing the importance of both, teachers can strengthen the link between choices in the classroom and choices in life. "A pressing need which schools must begin to provide is a public policy orientation that provides students with a belief and commitment to action on behalf of the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the land that nurtures their bodies and souls" (Bragaw, 1991, p. 117). Students who ponder and accept the repercussions of their choices will naturally make better choices.

The importance of the concept of action first became clear when students displayed widespread frustration with a speech communication class. When first incorporating global issues, I mistakenly followed traditional methods of instruction. In a sense, I treated my students as receptacles to be filled with facts about the perilous nature of the world's future. When confronted with a series of distressing facts, their feelings of powerlessness dismayed them. I soon began to encourage students to see themselves as players in the world (Burns, 1975). I also realized that the banking concept of education is inappropriate for teaching about global issues (Goodlad, 1986; Jacobs, 1990). I realized that I had to reach past the threshold of simple shock and altruistic conventions (Hanvey, 1982, 1983). I began to attempt to nurture the idea that my students' future -- not just that of the poor people in other countries -- depends on them making the right choices. To further empower students, I adopted aspects of the problem-solving approach to pedagogy (Freire, 1972; Wallerstein, 1983). I have found that this creates a perfect environment for the seeds of future positive action to germinate and flourish.

Awareness of Interdependency

Adequate preparation for students to exercise choices includes recognizing their place in the world. The first thing students need to know is that every action is related to every other (Becker 1988a; London, 1988). Japanese university students often express surprise and dismay upon learning about the disaster that rampant consumerism and expansionist economic policy has wrought upon the world. Helping students translate this dismay into empowerment is challenging yet satisfying. What Scott (1983) calls "socio-biospheric connections" and Bragaw a "series of interrelated systems" (1991, p. 118) form the basis of a course on global issues. A teacher can grant students power by showing the positive aspects of interconnectedness -- positive in the sense that a single person's actions can be felt around the world by many others.

Critical Thinking

Teachers must help "students become intelligent and critical media consumers" (Metzger, 1988, p. 15). After the topic of interculturalism mentioned above, critical thinking is the most often cited requirement of global issues teaching (Aebersold, 1985; Blanton, 1992; Trousdale & Henkin, 1989). Those students taught to think critically learn how to listen better, read more carefully, pay closer attention, and react more knowledgeably to media, government, and commercial propaganda. Students seek alternative sources of facts and ideas. They question their role, their country's role, and the role of business interests in the destruction of the world. They challenge their teacher, themselves, and others to provide solutions to world problems. "Students need habits of mind that make it more likely that they will be able to resist . . . propaganda and manipulation . . . . Critical thinking is absolutely necessary to recognize the process by which information about the world is filtered and processed" (Dorman, 1992, p. 6).


By guiding students to seek out all sides to global issues, teachers can further develop critical thinking skills. Hitchfield (1995) acknowledges the worry about propagandizing, but H. D. Brown (1994, 1996) points out that all teaching is inherently political. Although it is my decision to teach global issues, I must try to do so responsibly. I seek to illuminate the positions that the mainstream media, government, and commerce avoid. When students chose to study recycling, they received piles of propaganda from the government about how well recycling works. I helped the students contact environmental NGOs that revealed a darker side of the recycling issue in which poor countries receive barge-loads of unusable plastic waste that had been sorted for recycling in rich countries. Remembering that I am trying to encourage independent thought rather than fall into the trap of cheap moralizing, I struggle to encourage activities and research "with all major positions represented fairly" (Elder & Carr, 1987, p. 11).


A good textbook, such as that of Elder & Carr (1987), Peaty (1995), or Sokolik (1993) provides the most convenient and useful way to teach global issues. However, I have also used textbooks in classes with putative goals of writing, communication, or even the TOEFL. Employing a textbook's units as workbenches, with libraries, databases, and networks as tools, students can delve deeply into issues that interest them. Beyond the textbooks themselves, presentations, debates, poster sessions, research papers, action plans, campaigns, demonstrations, and field trips can help students become aware, knowledgeable, and worldly.

Supplementary materials that advance critical thinking about international situations are required by what H. D. Brown calls "subversive teaching." In her excellent discussion activator, Ur (1981) structures practice around critical thinking. Newspapers, computer networks, alternative magazines, NGO's, and worldwide intergovernmental agencies are all good sources as well. I also consider vital the annual State of the World (L. R. Brown, 1995), Cue Cards (Clark & Mussman, 1993; DeWitt, 1993), and world, human rights, and environmental almanacs. However, "most subject matter can be internationalized, and many teachers have found that . . . it becomes second nature to 'globalize' much of their curriculum" (Elder & Carr, 1987, p. 10). Encouraging students to probe alternative supplementary materials avoids the "textbook addiction [which translates] into student learning that mitigates the importance and distorts the reality of global interdependence" (Metzger, 1988, p. 14). Even the lack of variety of materials can be used as a resource as well to develop critical thinking, research, and communication skills (Van Hoeven, 1990).


Long ago, Postman and Weingartner (1969) recognized the great responsibility and risk associated with teaching critical thinking about changing the status quo (see also Drake, 1987; Heiman, 1994; Knowledge Network for All Americans, 1992; Merryfield, 1993). Teaching global issues, placing students at the center of the class, and encouraging independent minds is often fiercely resisted. Though many universities seek to preserve the status quo (Burns, 1975), the instructor who realizes the importance of global issues will never shy away from planning how to include them. The very fact that some administrators and colleagues attempt to stifle independent thought and personal responsibility underlines the importance of teaching global issues. To bravely face the future and encourage our students to do the same, "we must subvert the assumptions that teaching languages is sterile or neutral, that it contains no political content, that we should steer clear of touchy global issues" (H. D. Brown, 1996).


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