Every challenge brings with itself opportunities too. This year has certainly been very difficult for many people and I am aware of this. But perhaps because of this, it is even more important to take advantages of any opportunities that might arise in this situation. I’ve always wanted to attend the InnovateELT conference in Barcelona, but have never been able to. I was delighted to see that, like many other conferences, it was taking place online this year.
ELT Footprint, that I am a member of, organised a debate session at the conference, and I was one of the panelists. This gave me the opportunity to talk about a topic that I care for as an educator. The questions we were asked to answer and debate were:
- How can we be agents of change for the future?
- What do you want the change to look like, and how might we get there?
Below is an extended version of my (originally 2-minute) talk.
If I could give one piece of advice to environmentalist teachers it would be:
Promote critical thinking and problem-solving skills, not your ideology!
This might sound a bit provocative, but let me explain…
I often see teachers who have just come across a ‘great’ video or article an important environmental issue that they like and that perhaps confirms their own environmental believes (or ‘ideology’), so they want to use it in their language class, through which they can teach certain language or grammar points, but with the ulterior motive to also persuade their learners to adopt the views on the environment the material puts forward.
Now is this wrong? Being in the midst of a climate crisis, shouldn’t we make use of every possible means to raise awareness of environmental issues in our classes? Yes, it’s absolutely fine to use such material in our classes, as long as we don’t present it as: THIS is the problem and THESE are the solutions.
Give students space to think and come up with their own reasoning and solutions. They might even surprise you, which what they come up with that you’d have never thought of!
If we want to prepare students for a future where they need to be able to tackle environmental (and other) issues and produce solutions — perhaps even to problems that don’t even exist yet — we need to teach them critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and not present them with ready solutions.
As we know, environmental solutions are not always that straightforward either. How many times did you think something was THE solution (e.g. switching to cloth bags instead of plastic bags, or a dairy-free lifestyle to reduce your carbon footprint) only for someone to show you how environmentally damaging that is or what better solutions there are. Or perhaps, different solutions are needed for different countries, circumstances or times).
So, what I propose is to take a neutral, balanced approach in your lessons, keeping your own opinion to the end, for after students have had the chance to think about all sides of an issue and come up with their own solutions.
There is nothing wrong also with going into the classroom with questions rather than with answers or solutions.
In fact, it can not only be liberating and less daunting for teachers who feel less confident about bringing up certain environmental issues because they don’t have sufficient knowledge about them, but it will also serve your students better, as such lessons willl be more motivating, more engaging, more meaningful and will have a more lasting impact.
So, how to do this in practice then?
You can take a completely low-tech / no-material approach, or at least do this in the beginning. Just come to class with an environmental problem (you have, that is common or that your learners can relate to) and pose a question. The lesson can be entirely based around this question and discussions, presentations, writing task and related pre-, while- and post-tasks. You can leave it at that, or you can then share some text, audio or video material that you found and would like to introduce here, making sure not to present it as the correct view, but one view. Your learners could then analyse the views, compare with their own, do research to find other views, etc. If you really feel strongly about an issue, you can then come clean at the end of the lesson, and tell your students how you feel about this particular issue.
Alternatively, you can present your learners with two different sources with opposing views. Here’s an example lesson plan for this type of lesson, based around two short videos: Bottled or tab water? This lesson also includes critical thinking questions that students need to learn to ask about information they’re presented with.