Or “cultural diversity is a wonderful thing (within the framework of western liberal democracy)”

Sara Hannam has just contributed yet another excellent post to the blogosphere, prompted by a horrific bit of teaching in the movie ‘Donnie Darko’. In this case, the teacher stifles the expression of a bright young man by sticking to her lesson plan… which also supports a hidden  dubious agenda.

But what do we do when the teacher is ‘right’ and the student is ‘wrong’?

This morning, the listening in our regular textbook was a discussion between a school principal and a concerned mother, about a teacher who was scaring the children with his enthusiastic lectures on environmental catastrophe. Rather than pursuing the ‘green’ angle that the textbook then took, I thought we might get some value out of educational policy issues. I played about with intelligent design, Darwinism and creationism, but then decided to have a look a something else.

Take a look at this clip (don’t feel obliged to watch all of it, I think you’ll get the point soon enough)

This is a typical representation of homosexuality in the Japanese media. Probably not so different from when I was growing up in England in the seventies and eighties – gay people were objects of derision and ridicule, or dangerous perverts to be feared (perhaps they still are). A prime topic, then, for a challenging Tuesday morning class about ‘What teachers should teach’. And this is the worksheet I put together.

So here is the problem. What do you do when the students express ideas or beliefs that could be considered homophobic… that is, when students are ‘wrong’? Or, more broadly speaking, what do you say to students who say something sexist or racist? How do you respond to students who put forward opinions you feel uncomfortable with? At a party, you might challenge the speaker, or avoid them? Doesn’t really work in a lesson though, does it?

The teacher has a distinct power advantage which makes a direct challenge extremely unfair. The first advantage is linguistic – the teacher is more skilled in the use of the target language than the student. The teacher is also in a position of (perceived) authority, and although they may not intend to abuse their power the students may fear for their grades. In some contexts, the learners are considerably younger than the teacher. This may also put them at a disadvantage in a disagreement, either culturally (with respect shown to elders), intellectually or experientially. Students will often back down if challenged, for these reasons. But they will resent being put in that position and grasp their beliefs yet more firmly.

If the student is in alignment with his or her cultural norms, where do we draw the line and openly state “I believe your society is wrong in this case”?

Please express yourself freely in this class, as long as you are ‘right’.

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20 Thoughts on ““I want you to express your opinions freely (as long as they are the same as mine)”

  1. Good post (and question), Darren.

    Having taught in a very conservative East Asian context where homosexuality was viewed as not possible or as extremely repugnant, I’ve had to deal with both this topic and this issue of teacher versus student power. Interestingly, the attitude to homosexuality (or even things like mixed-race couples) usually overrode the traditional ‘respect for teacher in all things’ perspective, and students were very forthcoming with their views.

    The way I always handled it was by focusing on context, the potential for ‘rules when in Rome’, and providing contrasting examples for the students. That is, I never told the students what they had to think about homosexuality, but pointed out that if they went outside their country there would be contexts where homosexuality was open and public and not (always) ridiculed. Even if they vehemently disagreed with this, based on their cultural upbringing, they were going to have to find a way of dealing with it when in these countries. I often gave the example of men holding hands a lot in their country (so interesting, considering their utter utter rejection of homosexuality!), which would make most Western men squirm a lot. Also, the way men in this country would shake hands in a way that felt very soft and gooey to Western men. Are the Westerners entitled to express disgust or tell you to stop doing that? Or should they mind their manners, try to keep an open mind, and remember that they aren’t in Kansas anymore? Actually, I usually worked my way up to these bigger issues by using simpler and less potentially ‘distressing’ examples, like different foods, ways of eating food, dress, etc.

    However, while never ‘pushing’ my view or perspective on my students, I also didn’t lie or pretend to them. In this context, I pointed out that I had gay friends in my home country, had worked with gays and lesbians, and in fact gone to school with them, too. I was fine with that, I told them, and if they weren’t fine with the idea of it, then that was fine, too – so long as they remembered some basic manners.

    It hasn’t always been easy… I remember, when engaged to a lady from this country, having to hear some high school kids in my class try to tell me (with utmost conviction) that it wasn’t on for me to be engaged to a woman from their country, because our kids would have ‘polluted blood’. I remember laughing it off at the time, with tremendous difficulty, but five years later mixed race couples were much more ‘acceptable’ in that country by then, and mixed race kids were considered super cute and fortunate. Problem, however, was that the mixed race marriage/kids acceptance only applied to Westerners and locals – not locals and people from certain other Asian countries…

    These things take time and are extremely complicated. I’m glad you brought it up, though, Darren. It’s an incredibly difficult part of being a teacher in a vastly different culture, which may also be sensitive to the ‘colonisation’ feeling by having Western ideals ‘forced’ on them. Handling these issues requires the skill of an expert negotiator (with a thick but sensitive skin), and not many TEFLers are often up to (or for) it.

    ~ J

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  3. Alice M on December 16, 2009 at 2:10 am said:

    Well in France it is against the law to say something clearly racist so I remind my students of this if necessary. But usually someone in the class reacts to the racist utterance. For other sensitive topics like sexism for instance, women usually react against it, but I do express my views too whenever needed.

  4. Alice M on December 16, 2009 at 2:12 am said:

    I meant student women in the class of course!

  5. I brought the same issue up in my controversy (http://turklishtefl.com/?p=276)post about 2 weeks ago. It’s something I deal with quite regularly. Generally in my class I open it up for discussion, but opinions are not plentiful here and non-mainstream opinions can be dangerous to state in class, so even opposing parties probably won’t speak up for fear of reprisal.

    I actually never state my opinion in class and try to stay neutral, but I think students are generally smart enough to pick up on it when you don’t agree with them immediately. I take my usual Socratic approach in this and, like Jason, start asking a lot of questions. Often students won’t want to talk about it much, which is where my idea of pushing the students come in. In a normal class, if the students get bored or uncomfortable, we should move on. But in cases like this where rather negative values are held I won’t let the discussion die until it is discussed for a while and several angles are looked at. Negative is obviously a value judgment here, but it is one I’m comfortable making in certain situations like domestic violence or antisemitism.

    I also like to take it a step further and start analyzing the cultural norms and varying mindsets of people from different countries. We don’t just look at what other people believe. We look at why they believe it. This is a key skill I try to impart to my students. Don’t just learn something, learn to understand why it is so. Look at the underlying historical processes that create a particular zeitgeist. What a priori assumptions are people starting from?

    A complication here is that, again as you and Jason pointed out, the feelings of being judged by a Westerner can lead to a lot of resentment.. They are coming from a disadvantageous position. The power of the teacher is also an important factor.

    I never openly state an opinion is wrong in class. I did a lot of research with some rather unsavory opinion holders in college and got used to associating with people with very fringe ideas. However, I will give students my personal view in private if they wish to talk to me after class. I do think it’s okay to challenge their ideas by asking questions or preparing future lessons that open up debate on the topic. I also like to bring in information students aren’t aware of and get them to analyze it and give feedback. Evolution is a big one where I do that because many students are not even aware that there are arguments for evolution. Bringing in outside facts from accredited sources seems to get less resistance from the students. However, along with facts supporting my side I will bring in information supporting the other side as well, so I don’t come across as giving an imbalanced view. I think it’s more important for my students to learn how to look at and critically think about information than it is for me to “teach” something like that.

    I guess that’s always really my goal. I try to teach my students to think. I push them and rarely accept “I don’t know” for an answer. They have to look at it and give me something or we will come back to it later. If they can intelligently defend their opinions, then I feel I’ve done my job, whether or not they agree with my view of ‘right’.

  6. Thanks for the replies all.

    Jason, from my limited experience of teaching Korean students, I found them less reserved in putting forward an opinion than Japanese students. I had a very valuable teaching lesson from one of my Korean students in the UK who came and told me exactly what he didn’t like about my class – something that had never happened to me in Japan. What would worry me about ‘correcting’ the students opinions is that they would take it in the class then simmer with resentment and close off.

    Your story about the high school students on your engagement is troubling. My initial reaction is to say that in that case the gloves are off. But why should prejudice be more problematical when it becomes personal? If one is willing to approach other prejudicial statements gently in the interests of harmony and ‘the long game’, then the same rules should apply in all cases. On reflection, I think you probably did the right thing…. although I bet you didn’t feel any nicer.

    Alice – You raise an interesting point about the law. Many Europeans are used to living in societies where prejudices are, technically, illegal. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no racism, but it does send out a clear message to the public that certain attitudes are not acceptable. These laws are not in place in Japan, some would argue that as Japanese society is homogenous there is little need to protect diversity. Japan is not as homogenous as it thinks it is, though.

    I wonder about the secularism of French schools. Does this protect or discriminate against ethnic minorities (a genuine question – I know very little about the issue, but enough to know there is one!)

    Nick – yes, I commented on your post and I enjoyed it. I think we have different approaches which may be related to where we have been teaching, and may just be about personality, but in general I agree with what you say. Interesting you should mention evolution, as this is what I am planning for the next class tied into the ‘what teachers should teach’ topic. I don’t expect it to get heated, or uncomfortable. One thing I do like about Japan is that there are few religious hang-ups (although I am supposed to be teaching at a Catholic university).

    The other thing about disagreeing with students is that I am not an expert in anything but my native language. I know quite a bit about the Spanish Civil War, and film photography, and zombie movies, and I can name most dinosaurs on sight…. but if I DO get into an argument with a student we are probably both just informed amateurs. Or worse, newspaper columnists or talk radio hosts!

  7. Sure, just tell them that we who live in Western democracies are not allowed to express any racist or homophobic views – not even allowed to have them (it’s a ‘thought crime’!). This is because the state tells us what is permissible, and what is not; and this is why the West is ‘free’ compared to the East, where they all live under a cloud of Taoist or Buddhist dogma. Or something like that. It should clear things up enormously – I’m sure they’ll understand!

  8. I’m not sure about the reluctance to share personal opinions. There’s often talk about the authority and power that forms part of teaching and of the resultant responsibilities. But I think this might be over-stated on occasion. Of course, you have to tread carefully if you are living and working in a country like Iran where homosexuality is punishable by death. In such situations, I think I would favour a more naive approach – “And what does Islam say about this? Why? What about merciful deities etc?” I don’t think I’d want to share my opinions in such a country, but more for feelings of self-preservation and maintaining any respect I might have.

    But in safer countries, I think I would draw parallels between how homosexuality is seen in that country and how outdated such ideas are in many other (more powerful) countries. I think I’d also point out that these other countries are still rife with discrimination and hate crimes. I’d share my opinion that I didn’t feel threatened by gays or blacks or women or Muslims. In my experience of teaching, prejudices are never THAT deeply held by students (unless they are of a certain age). Students are often quite capable of accepting that you hold a different point of view. With racism, I have asked students who proclaimed a “hate” for blacks or Indians to reflect on how they are seen by other nationalities/races. I teach many Chinese students in the UK, and I think it is true to say that Chinese people are considered to be beneath even darker skinned people. Ideally, we should challenge racism by encouraging students to see commonalities with the targets of their racist opinions.

    In any event, I think that the responsibilities we have to each other as human beings overwhelm the responsibilities that we have as teachers to students and I would feel very uncomfortable if I were to allow prejudicial comments to pass by unchallenged in one way or the other. Incidentally, prejudice is often the fruit of ignorance – and it is surely within a teacher’s remit to push back the borders of ignorance?

    Racism and prejudice often serve the interests of some people and I think that this also makes for interesting exploration within a classroom. Why do people hate gays? can be followed by a stream of other whys. In my experience, though, the challenge is to make this topic of conversation one that captures the interests of many students. On every occasion that it has come up, one student invariably stifles a metaphorical yawn and asks why we are bothering to discuss such things when he (usually a “he”) has paid money to learn English.

  9. It’s a pretty well balanced approach Diarmuid. There are different risks in different contexts, but the end result of insensitive handling of sensitive issues is that you ‘lose’ the students.

    Those yawns aren’t always metaphorical, either. We certainly ought to avoid those ‘issues’ classes which start “Good afternoon, students. Today we are going to be looking at the gays, and reflexive pronouns. Repeat after me… I wouldn’t do it MYSELF, but I don’t mind if he does it”.

    Whatever we do in class should be there for a reason, and not just a linguistic one.

  10. Alice M on December 31, 2009 at 9:41 pm said:

    “In any event, I think that the responsibilities we have to each other as human beings overwhelm the responsibilities that we have as teachers to students and I would feel very uncomfortable if I were to allow prejudicial comments to pass by unchallenged ” says Diarmuid

    I fully agree with this.
    I also think, to answer Darren’s question, that isis perfectly allowed to talk about a subject even if we are not an expert in the subject : if only experts could talk, what would we talk about in cafés? I am not a soldier, yet I can talk about war, I don’t have any kids, yet I have some opinions about education, etc. How could we grow if we only allowed ourselves to speak up as “experts”?

  11. darren on January 1, 2010 at 6:44 pm said:

    Thanks for stopping by Alice. Of course non-experts should be allowed to talk about anything they choose in cafes, pubs or in taxis. But my point is that the classroom has a power differential that complicates things and teachers mustn’t abuse their position… particularly on topics they actually know little about.

  12. This is a really interesting discussion.

    Maybe I’m taking a more limited view of my role as an English teacher, but unless my students seem interested, I don’t feel like I have much right to share my views. And I also think my abilities to change their views or expand their outlook is actually pretty limited. However, I reckon there’s something that falls clearly under my remit: my students want to come across as decent, likeable human beings when they are communicating in English. The potential for relationship damage from an unpc remark is more troubling than a grammar or vocabulary error, so I have a duty to warn them. On these grounds, I reason that if I hear them saying something that’s likely to make a bad impression with their interlocutors, I have a responsibility to point it out.

    And of course it’s not easy because it can sound like a personal criticism. I like the approach of: ‘I’m worried that what you just said might offend someone’. I can argue my case from a more neutral stance that way. It’s not offending me that were talking about, it’s offending people from other cultures. When to point it out is another issue that I’ve wondered about. Doing it on the spot can be tricky because it interrupts the flow, but if I let the moment pass, it can be hard for everyone to recall it. I’m inclined to think jumping in as soon as it happens is generally the best way to go.

  13. darren on January 3, 2010 at 7:51 am said:

    Does it matter who you teach? If you are working with business people, preparing them to deal with people from other cultures, you can put these topics in the same bag as the ‘How much do you earn?’ and ‘Why aren’t you married?’ questions. That is, we don’t try and change or ‘develop’ our students ideas, just encourage them to hide them in front of outsiders. It’s an approach I’ve taken in the past, and it works to an extent – the students don’t raise those opinions again and the classroom atmosphere is not soured – but I still don’t feel great about it. But as you say Vicki, we have to consider what our role as an English teacher is. Are we always there to bend the world to the ‘right’ way of thinking?

    Now I am teaching at a university, however, and my role as an English teacher is much broader. It is within our remit to help the learners develop into critical thinkers and active members of society, and to do this through English. Young adults are more flexible in their ideas too. There is little point in challenging a 50 year old to change his view of homosexuality, but a 19 year old is still forming opinions.

  14. I think Vicki is right that teachers should not bang on about things regardless of student interest (altho the alternative paints a more amusing picture…). But I’m less convinced about the need to bury our feelings in the classroom. It’s not that student interest gives us a “right” to share our views; it’s surely more a case that without student interest, there is very little point in sharing our views?!

    I don’t think that we are talking about cultural imperialism here. We don’t need to bend the world to any way of thinking, but there is no harm in creating opportunities for cognitive dissonance! If a student says that gays repulse him and that they should be hanged, I am not going to let it pass unchallenged. I have gay friends and find these views offensive; I am aware that I may have gay students in the classroom and feel that they might feel threatened if such views are left unchallenged. But I don’t need to convince the homophobe. I just need to challenge the remarks in some way or another to make it clear that such views can make you appear boorish and repugnant!

    So I ask, “Why do you think gays should be hanged?”
    “Because it is a sin before God.”
    “And does God say that we should hang people who offend him?”
    “So, God is not really a loving all merciful type of god?”
    “Yes he is.”
    “But he thinks it’s better if we strangle people to death because they love other men?”
    “They’re dirty, teacher.”
    “I don’t think so! Why do you say that?”
    “Nothing teacher. It’s just wrong.”
    “OK…but I think you’re wrong here. I know a lot of gay people and some of them are really good people and some of them are not very nice people. Just like people who are not gay. I wouldn’t like to see my friends hanged. They don’t hurt me or anyone else and they work hard in their jobs to help other people. That’s why I think it’s wrong to say that gay people should be killed. But anyway, the future perfect is used to describe an action which the speakers predicts will be completed by a certain point in the future. It is formed…”

    Here endeth the lesson. I might be tempted to teach the next class in tasselled chaps and a tight leather vest, but I’d have to give it thoughtful consideration first.

  15. darren on January 5, 2010 at 4:00 pm said:

    The tassles alone ought to do it, Diarmuid. But it depends where you hang them.

    It’s not difficult to ‘win’ an argument about prejudice with logic. But at what cost? The bigot will probably not be persuaded, but will others in the class just clam up? Does it have a knock on effect?

    I’m not saying your approach is wrong, but I don’t know if it’s right either.

  16. I don’t think it’s about trying to win an argument. It is very rare that anyone can win an argument over ideals – after all, you require the other person to say, “You know what? You’re right and everything that I have always believed about X was wrong.” If this was to happen more often, then I am sure the world would be a better place (specifically with people saying it to me). Neither are we trying to persuade the bigot.

    The aim is solely to challenge and to provide a critical response. We are educators and we should attempt to combat ignorance and promote a critical exploration of beliefs. So if somebody really believes that gays are evil, or blacks are subhuman, then I think it falls neatly within my job description to challenge such ideas without having to worry about whether or not I am being culturally insensitive or abusing my power as a teacher.

    Of course, that has to be offset against alienating the student or the class. One size never fits all. If your challenge is going to mean that you will never be able to teach that student again because they are going to find you repulsive, then I would probably refrain from making the challenge too explicit or too lengthy. If the challenge is going to mean that the class rolls its eyes and thinks, “Ye Gods. Here we go again! Can’t he just stop banging on about how great the underdogs are?” then I think you should also hold back a bit. In other words, a commonsensical approach is always the best option.

  17. Hugh Graham-Marr on January 7, 2010 at 8:07 pm said:

    An interesting discussion. As a teacher, I see it as my job to open the door to some other possibilities, to very gently try to raise some doubts in student minds about views they might hold… It’s often a long path to a new way of seeing something and a slight nudge in a divergent direction now can often mean profound shift in one’s position over the years. What I mean is students (and people in general) may not be ready now to go from point A to point Z but sometimes you can get them to move to point B. They may then start to move to points C and then D on their own. Just how much to push is a judgement only the teacher on the spot can make.

  18. darren on January 10, 2010 at 4:10 pm said:

    Diarmuid – I think I can agree with that, nicely put.

    Hugh – Thanks for coming by. Every little counts, and we can all do something to make the world a better place.

  19. Hugh Graham-Marr on January 12, 2010 at 7:36 pm said:

    Cheers, Darren. btw, have linked into your site from what’s going to be our new international website, a hybrid blog/catalogue.

  20. Send us a link… I’d like to see it. You are with ABAX publishing, aren’t you?

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