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Cans of worms: IATEFL preamble part 1

March 25, 2017

At this year’s IATEFL conference I will be mostly ranting about how dominant practices in ELT are limiting the potential for English language programmes to have a beneficial impact on our learners and on wider society. This is the first of a short series of posts that briefly discuss some of the concepts I’ll be exploring in more detail in my IATEFL presentation.


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It’s not uncommon for English language teachers to use the phrase “can of worms” in the context of lesson planning and/or delivery. “I don’t want to open a can of worms”, we might say, when planning a lesson that touches on a potentially sensitive topic, or a topic we know the students will have strong views on. Or “As soon as I asked that question I realised I had opened a massive can of worms”, when reflecting on a lesson that didn’t go according to plan. We have probably all experienced situations where a can of worms has inadvertently opened in the classroom, with consequences that we generally regard as negative – students getting offended, students shouting across the classroom at each other, lapses into L1 as students prioritise getting their point across at the expense of practising their English, and various other unintended consequences that we generally regard as disruptive to our teaching.

We tend to see such cans of worms as negative because of the impact that they have on our ability to manage the class, retain a positive rapport with and among the students, and ensure that we are able to achieve our aims within the timeframe of the lesson. But maybe we need to reconsider the widely held belief that we need to avoid controversy at all costs in the classroom.

Let’s start by analysing the impact of what we are doing by ensuring controversial, sensitive or “taboo” topics are not discussed in the classroom. Well, the most obvious is that of censorship. If we avoid issues that we think will elicit opposing or controversial views from our students – issues to do with race, religion, sexual orientation, disability etc. – we are effectively airbrushing these issues out of the curriculum. This means that a lot of key language related to these topics is never taught, so if students ever do find themselves in real-life situations where these topics are raised, the chances are that they won’t be able to express themselves very well, nor will they be able to understand the views of others.

As well as denying our students access to potentially useful language, we are also denying the students (and ourselves) some valuable opportunities to develop critical thinking skills. If one student expresses a deeply held view on a certain issue and another student responds with an opposing, but equally deeply held view on the same issue, this presents a great opportunity to encourage students to justify their opinions. Such opportunities require the learners to critically engage with the topic, coming up with justifications to support their view, listening to counter-arguments that challenge their existing opinion and discovering when their views are seen by others as offensive, and, possibly, modifying their own view in the light of what they have heard. There’s clear potential within such scenarios for language development, but also the development of other cognitive skills that can only be beneficial to the learning process.

So why are we so scared of cans of worms? Why do we tend to avoid them at all costs by sticking to “safe” topics and shutting down our students if they say something that could be regarded as offensive? Well, I would suggest that it has a lot to do with the way we are trained. Most training courses in ELT/ESOL place a heavy emphasis on teacher control. Trainee teachers are encouraged to identify lesson aims, then plan very detailed lessons that build towards the achievement of these aims. The level of detail at the planning stage is such that the teacher is expected to predict – to the minute – what will happen at each stage of each lesson, including interaction patterns (who speaks to whom) and the actual content of these discussions. There is no place for stages that allow the students to dictate learning content or lesson staging.

In most TESOL contexts, topics tend to be used as a means of introducing language, so for example we might use the topic of travel as a means of contextualising and introducing future forms. This sort of thing:

-We’re going to France.

-We’re going to travel by car.

-We’ll probably stay in cheap hotels.

There’s also a strong emphasis in TESOL courses on fun – generating a positive rapport, and playing games to make the learning process seem less onerous. This is partly due to the fact that many popular TESOL courses have their origins in the private sector, where customer satisfaction is the main goal. The focus on ensuring the students have a good time encourages teachers to shy away from activities that challenge students’ existing beliefs or force them to question their own values.

Teacher trainers are unlikely to encourage trainees to select topics that are likely to be divisive, even though the development of self-expression is a key tenet of Communicative Language Teaching. It would be highly unusual to see this in a CELTA lesson plan, for example:

Lesson Aims

  1. To explore arguments supporting and opposing the repression of homosexuality in Muslim countries.

2. To encourage students to use recently learned vocabulary when expressing their views on homosexuality.

3. To practise key language for agreeing and disagreeing.

Such lesson aims would generally be regarded as too difficult for inexperienced teachers to handle, as they entail reacting to student contributions in the moment. Anything that requires teachers to do something that they can’t plan in advance is seen as a bad idea; the more control that is handed over to the students, the less control the teacher has and the more likely the lesson will descend into some awful car crash involving shouting, tears, diminished rapport and not a lot of English. Trainee and newly-qualified teachers are therefore encouraged to retain as much control as possible, to avoid the students hijacking or derailing the teacher’s agenda. Student-centred activities such as mingle drills, running dictations and problem-solving activities, which place the focus on the students rather than the teacher, still involve the students completing tasks assigned and controlled by the teacher, usually using language that the teacher (not the students) decided was worth practising.

It has been argued in the past that lessons which focus overtly on the content of a lesson (as opposed to the language contained therein) go beyond the remit of a language teacher. We’re not teaching Politics or Sociology or Moral Philosophy, so why bring these issues up? It’s not our job to teach the students what to think, but to express what they think in English. Well, OK, but the fact is that we have to teach language that students are likely to use, and we need to situate that language within some sort of context. Banning the discussion of controversial topics from the classroom doesn’t mean the students won’t need to have similar discussions outside the class. Surely, as language teachers, we have a duty to help them to conduct these discussions successfully. And surely, as educators, we have some kind of duty to bring into the classroom some of the wider issues facing all of us as global citizens. And if our students have extreme opinions, or ideas that are likely to cause offence when interacting with people who have different backgrounds or worldviews, or even get them into trouble with the authorities, surely we have a responsibility to make them aware of this. I mean, if we ban students from expressing their extreme views in the classroom, this probably means that they’ll express their views outside the classroom anyway, with potentially disastrous consequences. I’d much rather the can of worms was opened in the relatively safe environment of the classroom than in some other, less supportive, context.

So, I suppose that what I’m saying is that we should be opening cans of worms in the English language classroom far more often than we do, and exploiting the authentic motivation to communicate and the rich potential for language input that can arise from this. In my own practice I feel I’m developing some kind of ability to generate, manage and exploit the discussion of sensitive issues in the classroom. However, like most English language teachers, I have no training in managing the worms once the can has been opened. Instead of conditioning teachers to avoid controversy at all costs, wouldn’t it be good if TESOL courses developed skills in can-opening and worm management?

  1. Worm management. That would be brilliant. When I have done similar things in the past, I had students brainstorm possible opposing views and taught them a bit of hedging. They had to ‘debate’ from the opposite point of view they held. Not bad but I think I lost a couple of worms.

    • Yes, that’s a good idea, Marc – it focuses the students on the language they’re using, which is good in one way. But could that be a bad thing? I’m not sure…

      • It depends how you approach it, I suppose. And the type of worm.

  2. Tins, wonderful things. They stay in the cupboard and on the shelves and don’t upset anyone. Weeds on the other hand can be a nuisance and at the far end of the spectrum are ……

  3. Andrew permalink

    On CELTA courses or post-course training, thinking about how you might deal with racist language, homophobia etc., when it arises in the classroom would be a very good thing. However, I personally wouldn’t want to go into a class which was based on discussing these views as the sole aim. It places students in roles they may not necessarily want to have, discuss things that may not be important to them or present views they would rather keep to themselves. What I would prefer to see are moments within lessons which might allow students to express these views (or not). Where they are expressed is where training takes place, how do you deal with and develop that discussion both as a fellow human with our own views and as a language teacher whose job is to enable students to express themselves better in English. How far do you provide language to students to express their own meanings which you don’t like, for example?
    Actually I worry less about taboos being excluded from coursebooks, than the more insidious tyranny of the happy and jolly. This can include removing factual reference to death and injury or any other number of ‘negative’ views and complaints – so a (humorous!) text about why I hate sport has to be changed to why I love it! Still you can’t keep a couple of grumpy old men down, and I do like to think we provide a reasonable level of misery in our books – you need a bit of darkness to fully appreciate the light!

    • Thanks for this, Andrew. I agree that too much positivity and aspiration can also end up squeezing out topics that are bit more gritty and real. I also get what you’re saying about students maybe not having much to say, or wanting to say much, about certain uncomfortable issues. But for the same reason that it’s important to talk about the negative, I’d say it’s important to talk about any issues that affect people’s lives. If students are reluctant to talk about something, that in itself is a topic for discussion – exploring why the topic is sensitive in the first place.
      As for giving people the language to express views you disagree with, I think that probably just goes with the job, doesn’t it? You can’t agree with everything they say.
      I accept though that the whole can-opening thing is by definition fraught with potential incidents which can be difficult to navigate – for us teachers. I don’t think that means we shouldn’t do it though…

      Thanks again,


  4. I would say that political literacy is just as important as functional literacy and we should all be able to articulate our views whilst also listening and responding to the views of others. I would like to see the “rights respecting schools” apporach adapted for the college sector.

    • Hi Suzanne,
      I agree, political literacy is very important and I do worry that the FE sector is being pushed towards a rather narrow curriculum that doesn’t include such content. Something like Rights Respecting Schools would be quite useful, I feel.
      Thanks for this suggestion,


  5. If teachers don’t address current issues in the teaching of English, are they not actually minimizing the abilities of learners to think for themselves in English?

    • Yes, I would say that’s pretty obvious, Carla. And yet, there’s very little training for teachers on how to do this successfully, and we are also expected to use materials that quite patently don’t address current issues.
      So why is that then?

  6. Perhaps you weren’t aware of the rumbles that have been being made by teachers and presenters at TA’s events , meet ups and conferences for the last couple of years. The next trend (already) in the pipeline is that teachers, not publishers are starting to drive ‘content’.The publishers’ stands may be shiny, offer freebies and display a range of same-ish safe titles, but look lbeyond that to what Indie publishers, bloggers and presenters are doing. The world of ELT has already been turned upside down and a massive bottom up wave of global concern is spreading like wildfire. Global issues have taken over and even in countries and cultures where teachers have to tread carefully ( the title of Katie Muench’s session at the GI SIG’s track day), teachers are making it their mission to put these topics on the menu.

    • Thanks for your comment. If there is a massive grassroots movement rising up against the constraints imposed by the content of global coursebooks then that’s fantastic. As I mentioned in a post about the 2017 IATEFL conference, there were a few encouraging signs in terms of the content of some of the sessions. But there was no real indication that our profession “has already been turned upside down”. There was a lot of same old same old and, if anything, my impression of the corporations was that they were even more aggressive than I’ve seen them in the past.
      Maybe it’s just me though, and the context I work in; the Scottish FE sector doesn’t engage very well with the wider ELT world. Things might be starting to change, but I think we have a long way to go yet.

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  1. Controversy – Learning to Teach English

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