Equality, Diversity, Prejudices and Parsnips
In my workplace we recently had an incident where a student complained that another student had used a homophobic word in class, which he had found offensive. The word in question was a Polish one, making it perhaps difficult to judge the legitimacy of the complaint. However, my own judgement isn’t really relevant; a student was offended by its use, therefore it was offensive. We have a strict policy on the use of offensive or intimidating language, so it was relatively easy to adhere to this policy by making the user of the term aware of the impact of what she had said, and by using the public apology she chose to make as a bit of a warning to the whole class that the college doesn’t tolerate the use of potentially offensive language.
Apart from the obvious problem of how to regulate offensive language when it isn’t in English, something else became apparent to me while dealing with this incident. This was the fact that in the world of English language teaching a number of our students hold views that are widely regarded (in my culture at least) as unacceptable, yet these views often go unchallenged in the classroom.
If our students have dodgy views on sexuality, gender issues, race, disability etc, does this mean we have an obligation to address these issues directly? I used to think that we didn’t – that our role was to teach the language and not to impose our views or our norms on the students. And who are we to say that their views are dodgy anyway? We’re only English teachers, after all. It wasn’t just that I was a guest in someone else’s country though. I expect that my opinion on this matter was also influenced by the materials I was using.
The most successful, glossy, big-budget ELT materials are produced for the global market and, as such, they are designed to cause as little offence as possible. You may already be aware of the “PARSNIP” acronym of topics that global coursebooks avoid – Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms and Pork. Avoiding these topics means that pretty much any nationality can use the materials without being offended themselves, and it also minimises the likelihood that any topics will arise that could lead to the students offending each other. This all seemed safe and easy when I was starting my career, and I was happy to get the students to practise using modal verbs of obligation by describing the daily routine of a professional footballer, not by describing the lifestyle limitations that may or may not be imposed by an Islamic theocracy.
Now I work in Further Education in the UK, where there is an unashamed focus on citizenship, both with and without a capital “c”. This means it is perfectly valid to make students aware of the values and norms that exist in the UK, and to promote attitudes and behaviours that allow foreign residents to understand how people think, avoid getting into trouble themselves and, hopefully, prosper in the (albeit relatively) liberal, tolerant and permissive society that they now find themselves in. As a result, we now have the Skills for Life curriculum (for England and Wales), the Life in the UK materials created by LLLU/NIACE, and an increasing number of other materials for long-term UK resident learners which are not constrained by parsnips.
Another example of controversial topics being addressed rather than avoided is the QELTM project, which was set up as a means of evaluating and monitoring “Quality and Equality in Learning and Teaching Materials” in the Further Education sector in Scotland. This project was motivated by concerns that minority groups were not being adequately represented in teaching materials, and concluded that:
“All aspects of equality from race, disability, gender (including transgender), sexual orientation to religion or belief require to be considered when developing non discriminatory and inclusive learning materials.”
There is now a QELTM checklist which Scottish colleges use to ensure learning materials are suitably diverse with regard to the groups they represent.
QELTM is really just about ensuring minority groups are adequately represented within materials. However, perhaps the problem with ELT is that the mere representation of e.g. gay couples in the materials is likely to provoke the expression of views that need to be addressed before students can engage properly with the lesson content. In my context, it’s easy to justify why I should address these issues and challenge the views that my students may currently hold; as they are living in the UK they need to be aware of what is and isn’t acceptable here, and if their views are likely to be regarded as unacceptable (or even illegal) here then they need to know that. The citizenship agenda means I have an obligation as a teacher to cover this sort of stuff.
There is no such obligation when the teaching takes place in the students’ own country. Or is there? English is a global language after all, and the students are global residents. If they want to communicate with the international community, wouldn’t it help if they knew more about how people from other cultures think? Isn’t it useful for students to know more about the roles women play in some cultures? Or to learn that gay couples are allowed to raise children in some countries? Or that some cultures actively encourage disabled people to pursue careers? Otherwise, what happens when a student goes abroad to meet a potential investor, who asks about access for her wheelchair before proceeding to invite the student to meet her wife and children?
Some teachers may regard such issues as cans of worms that get in the way of “actual language teaching”, or as sources of conflict that are best avoided. However, they are also a means of promoting and motivating authentic discussion, and therefore hold considerable potential in a language classroom. Teachers may also feel (as I used to) that it’s not their place to raise issues that might elicit strong or controversial views from their students. But if people are learning English so that they can understand people from other cultures, maybe the global English classroom needs to promote global understanding, and this can only be done if the issues are raised and the views are discussed.
Perhaps the problem is that bringing these issues into the classroom makes it all too easy for the teacher to impose their own views on the students, or at least for teachers to be seen to be imposing their views. But at the end of the day, avoiding controversial issues is a kind of censorship, and if we want our students to use English to understand each other they need to be able to understand other people’s attitudes and values as well as what they are saying.
Gray, J. 2002: The global coursebook in English Language Teaching, in Block, D. and Cameron, D. 2002: Globalization and Language Teaching, Routledge
Meddings, L. 2006: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2006/jan/20/tefl4 accessed 03/03/13
Renshaw, J. 2011: http://jasonrenshaw.typepad.com/jason_renshaws_web_log/2011/01/the-parsnips-coursebook-1.html accessed 03/03/13
Thornbury, S. 2010: http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/t-is-for-taboo/ accessed 03/03/13