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Equality, Diversity, Prejudices and Parsnips

March 3, 2013

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.

Further Reading

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

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7 Comments
  1. Hi Steve –
    I really enjoyed this post and think it raises a whole host of fascinating issues, certainly way more than I have time or energy to really go into here. It’s also similar to the kind of thing I was exploring with this post here, over on my own blog: http://hughdellar.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/twenty-things-in-twenty-years-part-two-troubling-trouble-when-trouble-troubles-you/

    Anyway, where to begin? Firstly, I think it’s NOT our duty to tell students what they should think. As teachers, we all have to accept that plenty of folk out there – I often end up thinking most, actually – have far more reactionary / conservative views than we do, especially those native speakers among us who’ve drifted into ELT and come from a loosely liberal / Leftist perspective. One thing I’ve realised over the years is that northern Europe is fairly unusual in its world view when compared to the rest of the world! When you consider how rife within the UK casual racism, Islamophobia, sexism, homophobia and so on is, it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that these things are also rife elsewhere. That said, I also think all countries have essentially the same debates occurring within them, and that the forces of liberalism fight conservatism everywhere, just in slightly different ways and around slightly different debates.

    Having stated the obvious, I should also say that I DO think we have at least three responsibilities when we hear – or when students hear (in other languages) comments that could be deemed offensive: firstly, we have a duty to ourselves and to our consciences to say that whilst we can’t tell students what to think and have desire to force them to change their minds, we do personally disagree with them. This can be done in a friendly, affirming way, without denigrating the folk making the comments as whole people; rather, we simply pick up on what’s been said and state our disagreement with it, explain why, see if any discussion emerges and move. Secondly, I think we have a responsibility, as you suggest, to students to let them know if comments they’ve made break institutional codes – such as blatant homophobia, for instance, which could get students kicked off university courses where I work – or are even possibly illegal. I’d rather see it like this than telling them that their comments are ‘offensive’ in the UK because obviously it depends who they tell them to! I’ve had Saudi lads make horrendously homophobic comments in class that are incredibly offensive to me personally, but that I’m sure you could find plenty of Brits agreeing with. Thirdly, I think we have a responsibility to turn any heated debate that emerges into language teaching opportunities – take what’s been said, state (maybe) that we disagree and the, for instance, teach the whole class YOU CAN BE KICKED OUT OF THE SCHOOL / THROWN OUT OF THE SCHOOL FOR MAKING . . . HOMOPHOBIC COMMENTS. That way, it dilutes the issue, whilst still making its taboo nature clear.

    I don’t though share your slant on liberalism being a necessary – or necessarily desirable – quality for those interested in engaging as global citizens. You can quite easily travel, do business, etc with a whole range of people and yet still be a total bigot. Indeed, it may even make it easier in some ways! Think about it in terms of hard-nosed negotiating, etc.!

    What else? Well, I agree that the incredibly bland nature of much EFL material denudes teachers of the chance to practise in class that vital life skill we all possess and develop outside of the classroom – the ability to deal with conflict! Conflict and disagreement is a natural part of life and learning to handle it in a mature and adult way necessitates practice.

    Personally, I think it’d be much better if there was space to discuss all this on teacher training courses, but as long as one-month CELTAs dominate, we all know that’s not going to happen! I’d like to see what you suggest – more of these issues being brought into material – and trust me, we’ve tried our hardest over the years to sneak as much of this kind of stuff into INNOVATIONS and OUTCOMES as we have been able to – and teachers trained to deal with whatever discussions / comments may emerge in a natural, human, language-focused way.

    I’ll hopefully get round to posting a talk I did years ago about all of this up on my blog sometime in the not-too-distant future.

    Thanks again for this, though.
    Interesting stuff.

  2. Blimey, Hugh, I think your comment is longer than my original post! I enjoyed reading your blog post as well, and I think the way you dealt with both situations – the Italian in a class of Asians and the homophobic issue – are exemplary. I really like your idea of turning situations like this into opportunities for learning language. That’s what the students are there for after all, and it does help to neutralise things – the class doesn’t have to dwell too much on who said what because you’ve quickly started giving them more objective things to think about.
    I also agree that this objective approach really matters when describing the impact of a statement. Making students aware of what might happen to them (or others) if they make certain comments is far better than just telling them that a comment is offensive or upsetting, for reasons you have given.
    I still think there is a case for making students aware of different values that exist in different cultures though. This doesn’t only mean promoting liberalism, it also includes making students from “more liberal” countries aware of the values that exist in other cultures.
    There are many things that the CELTA doesn’t (can’t) prepare teachers for, which I’ll have to go into another time.
    Thanks again for your comments, and for tweeting this post to your followers (of whom I am one).

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Taboo or not taboo: it’s all in the questions | hughdellar
  2. PARSNIPS workshop (23/08/13) | Centro Cultural Británico
  3. What have I learned? | The Steve Brown Blog
  4. a balanced diet for teens should include parsnips, or shouldn’t it | Sharing all things ELT
  5. How to make your students cry (Part 3) | languagelearningteaching

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