The road to hell is paved with good intentions (or Much Ado About Nothing?)

As a teacher and as a coursebook writer, one of the (many) things I’ve always been interested in is trying to present a broader and more nuanced view of the world to students than is often attempted. As I’m sure you’ll all be aware, publishers often have fairly strict guidelines on what can – and cannot – be included in material aimed for a global mass market. In essence, what this far too frequently means is that potential Middle Eastern sales – and the sensitivities of the region (both real and imagined by overly-sensitive EFL editors!) dictate what the whole world gets to read about. One common acronym often used for describing what remains taboo is parsnips, standing for politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms (such as communism or atheism), and pork. Given these strictures, what then all too often occurs is writers themselves want an easy life, want to maximize sales and don’t want to rock the boat in order to get repeat commissions and so the cloyingly bland little world of ELT materials repeats itself ad infinitum.

For many teachers, this prompts a lurch away from published materials towards so-called ‘authentic’ materials, a move I’ve argued against elsewhere. For me as a writer, it presents its own kind of challenge. How can I get interesting and relevant issues in through the back door? How can I leave space for potentially interesting debate and discussion to emerge? And how can my material affect or impact upon students – and perhaps alter or modify their ways of thinking? Obviously, this is a vast area and one out of which many, many posts could emerge. However, this particular thought piece is based on watching a class yesterday which used a subversively-intentioned text I’ve long been quite proud of – and the depression and shock which ensued from seeing what the class did with it! As the title has it, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

This was a listening-based lesson from OUTCOMES UPPER-INTERMEDIATE Unit 16 – Business. The basic gist is that it revolved around reality TV shows and in particular a radio programme about two new Afghan reality TV shows: an Afghan version of Dragon’s Den and Afghan Idol! The hope was that it might afford students a more sophisticated and complex view of a country that’s not exactly had a great press in recent years. The lead-in is based on a short text about the boom in reality TV and some discussion of shows students have seen (see below).


Read the short extract below. Then discuss the questions.

Dragon’s Den is a popular reality TV programme in Britain. Each week, would-be entrepreneurs who want to set up their own businesses present their plans to a panel of five successful business people, with the aim of persuading the five to invest a certain amount of their own money in exchange for a stake in any new company the entrepreneurs are then able to start. After the entrepreneurs have pitched their ideas, they are then subjected to questioning from the panel, as a result of which each of the business people either offer to give the money the entrepreneur has asked for or declare that they are not interested. There is no negotiation on the amount that is invested, but the entrepreneurs and business people can negotiate what percentage of the new company the business people will end up owning.

1  Does a programme like  Dragon’s Den exist in your country? Is it a programme you would watch? Why? / Why not?

2  Discuss other reality TV shows you know in the following areas. What do they involve? Do you like any of them? Why? / Why not?

– business

– living with a group of other people

– survival or dealing with difficult situations

– music or dance

– romance and dating

It then moved onto the following exercises, which were predominantly based on the listening embedded here.


You are going to hear a radio report about a reality TV programme in Afghanistan.

A  Before you listen, work in groups. Discuss what you know about Afghanistan.

B  Now listen and answer these questions.

1  What is the programme?

2  Why is it important there?

3  What is different about the programme compared to its British equivalent?

B  Listen again and decide if the following statements are true or false. Then compare your answers with a partner.

1  The show was originally devised in Britain.

2  The Afghan economy has not been sustaining itself.

3  Most people in Afghanistan work for the state.

4  More people need to learn about aspects of business.

5  Faisulhaq Moshkani has an electricity company.

6  His company is unique in Afghanistan.

7  There are two reality TV shows on Afghan TV.

8  In Afghanistan, women weren’t allowed to have paid jobs in the past.

The group was a small one and the teacher decided to conduct the discussion of the first question – exercise A above – with the whole group. This was the cue for a Ukrainian student to launch into a rant about how everything that Afghanistan had was a result of Russia having provided it for them, that the main field of work there was drug-production and drug-dealing, and that essentially all Afghans were violent and barbaric Taliban wanna-bes who treated all women worse than dogs. These comments completely threw the (admittedly relatively inexperienced) teacher and went unchallenged by other students. Indeed, one other student – a young Romanian lad – simply chuckled along at the outpouring. The teacher did try to say that maybe it was a bit harsh and that you couldn’t really say a whole country was violent, just that people were violent. This well-intentioned attempt at encouraging personalisation and discouraging sweeping generalisations resulted in the response: “Yes, the people are very violent!”

Then whilst the teacher was rounding up the answers to the true or false questions that accompanied the second listening, the same student replied that number 8 must be true – not because of anything that had been heard, but because ‘They are all Muslims, and that’s how they are. They don’t let women do nothing. So of course it’s true.’

Now, were I teaching this class myself, I’d pick up on this, challenge it, explore it, complicate it, explain what I felt was wrong with such outbursts, but in this instance I was merely an observer. And the experience raised some complicated questions: does any of the above really actually matter is perhaps the hardest question. Is it simply that as a well-intentioned left-of-centre bleeding-heart British liberal, I expect the world to be a better place than it clearly is, and that the reality is that many many of our students hold views I perceive to be odious and unsavoury and yet which, when aired in multi-lingual classes, often go unchallenged or get agreed with – possibly even by other teachers themselves? Also, by making material which raises these issues, albeit in a discrete way, am I inadvertently facilitating such bile? Or is it better that it exists and can thus be used as a springboard by some teachers to challenge, explore and complicate – and that others who don’t, with students who think similarly to the student described above, remain essentially unchanged and continue as they would have anyway? In other words, is the feeling of discomfort I experienced essentially a luxury, an irrelevance?

I’ve always felt that as teachers we have two responsibilities that pull against each other at times like these: on the one hand, we have a responsibility to help our students express themselves better in English – even if we find their opinions repellent. After all, they have paid us to help them learn better English! At the same time, I also feel all teachers have a right – perhaps even a duty – to challenge on a personal level opinions they find disgusting. I’ve never really felt these were mutually exclusive desires, and have long managed to more or less balance them.

However, by sending material that opens the world up the classes out there into the classrooms of others, I suppose I simply have to accept that material can be used to challenge, but can also end up simply reaffirming, prejudices and biases that students come with. In saying this, I start to feel like an NRA gun freak claiming that it’s not guns that kill, it’s people, but fear that in this instance (though NOT, of course, when it comes to guns!), that’s just the way it has to be. Maybe we just have to accept that bigots and racists have a right to their viewpoint and that in the end, even being challenged or critiqued may well do very little to dent their world views. While conversation CAN be transformative, it can also simply be a reaffirmation of previously held beliefs, whatever our political inclinations. And that my angst is ultimately much ado about nothing very much.

4 responses

  1. Hi,Hugh!
    Thanks for your necessary questioning about politcorrectness and how to deal with awkward
    situations,which in spite of all publishers,arise stubbornly in our classrooms.Even humour is forbidden(good article in ETP № 80 by Peter Viney)
    Some years ago I would mumble to your Ukrainian student : ‘Oh,really! Not everybody shares your opinion. Let’s move on.’ Some language work if necessary.That’s it .The curtain comes down.
    Now I try to act along the same lines only with children.This’ Teacher Role’, to my mind ,a bit overestimated and constantly contrasting classroom and real world can lead us to such cul-de-sacs of opportunism out which there’s no way out. Of course it doesn’t mean being rude.
    My daughter is learning German and their books are not that sterilized from real world may be German not so global and ‘vocabulary light’ sighn nowhere near.
    Congratulations on your article in ETP magazine!

    1. Hi Sveta –
      Thanks for taking the time to read and to comment.
      As I’ve said elsewhere, it helps stop me from feeling like I’m just talking to myself in a dark corner somewhere.

      I think you’re spot on to say that these situations still arise in classrooms despite the best attempts of publishers to ensure a pretty sanitized world!
      It shouldn’t really surprise us, I guess, as the world is always around us, and all our students come to class with their own attitudes, experiences, beliefs and so on that have all been shaped by what they themselves have been through.

      I hear you on the limitations of getting sniffy and snotty with students who’ve said things we find distasteful, and that being too ‘teachery’ can be both limiting and also ends up making us sound rude as well! I think, as I said, we generally have to act like normal human beings and disagree or challenge honestly, as we would in any other situation in life, without alienating or upsetting students, but still letting them know that we disagree and feel they may have gone too far. At the same time, there can still be some diffusion through humour if you use these opportunities to teach language. For example: Right, so you’re seriously saying EACH AND EVERY Afghan is violent, are you? You don’t think that maybe that’s A BIT OF AN OVER-GENERALIZATION? OK. RIGHT. WELL, EVERYONE’S ENTITLED TO BELIEVE WHAT THEY WANT, I suppose. That’s kind of how I’d play today: polite, funny, friendly, but still quite firm.

      By the way, the German books your daughter is using sound great!

  2. Hi Hugh,
    Looking at attitude change in general I think the difficulty we are all faced with is that we think we ‘are’ our ideas. An (admittedly very weak) analogy I have is of a sort of house of cards all on one level with each card supported by both its own post and the cards it overlaps with. In the middle (in my case) would be great big solid tree stumps holding up my original beliefs about myself (male, British, etc) which arguably have at least some basis in reality but on the outer fringes of this great construction are ideas held up by very thin twigs and one or two cards they overlap with (i.e. not necessarily supported by any logical, factual information at all) the problem is we often think (maybe not consciously) that if we allow these ‘outer reaches’ of our personality to fail then the whole thing will come crashing down; so we frequently cling on to the most ludicrous of beliefs as if our lives depended on them and even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
    The only thing said to affect attitude change is if people come up with new beliefs for themselves because a thought once conceived cannot be ‘unthought’.
    A way of finessing this is to try the Edward de Bono exercise about a given proposition: what are the ‘good things’; ‘bad things’ and ‘interesting things’ that might result with students in competition with each other to come up with more and more ideas under these 3 categories.
    A simple example he gives in one of his books is to discuss the proposition that all cars should be painted yellow (a ‘good’ result would be that cars would be seen more easily and accidents diminish; a ‘bad’ result would be that after a bank robbery cars would be less distinguishable and the robbers might escape more easily; an ‘interesting’ outcome would be to see whether certain shades of yellow became considered to be more trendy and upmarket).
    I feel sure this could be adapted (with a slightly more subversive end result in mind) when faced with almost any potentially ‘ist’ (racist, sexist, nationalist) comment by a student – it needs work I admit but I’ve not heard of any other method to affect attitude change that we could adapt for the classroom. (apologies for going on a bit)

    1. Thanks for this.

      I do agree with you that our own beliefs and attitudes do form a large – and often unreflected upon – part of our sense of selves, and obviously all that comes into play in any classroom context in which a conflict of ideas emerges.

      However, I have been chewing your post over for a while, and have to admit that I really cannot see how De Bono’s notion of good things, bad things and interesting things might work if, say, a student has made a sweeping generalisation about Muslims, Jews, gay men or Asians, etc. I have a problem even accepting the notion that there might be ‘good’ things to be said about some of the stuff I’ve heard students come up with over the years.

      I also disagree with the idea that attitudes can only change if people come up with new beliefs themselves.

      I’m not saying that I think it’s our job to try to bring about a change of mind, although I do think we have a responsibility to ourselves to speak our mind when confronted with ideas we find repugnant – and we are all responsible for protecting all students we teach from offence as well for ensuring students know the possible repercussions of statements they might make should they enter British academia, etc.

      I do think, though – and have seen plentiful proof of this over the years in my own classes – that the main thing that actually brings about personal change and development is dialogue / conversation.
      The main way students come to reassess their own prejudices and preconceptions is usually to have them challenged by experience of The Other – or through conversation around the topics.
      In this sense, I think teachers standing up for what they believe in can on occasion have profound and far-reaching consequences.
      Though of course at other times, doing so can simply result in students noting and registering teachers’ opinions and maybe mouthing of in their classes slightly less, but essentially remaining unchanged.
      That’s just the way it is, I suspect, and that’s fine, once you accept that.

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