Category Archives: Taboos and Issues

But of course, you couldn’t do that in Japan! Part One

An old post of mine about the thorny issue of how and why teachers may want – or need – to tackle issues surrounding diversity in the classroom was recently quoted in a very interesting post on similar issues, but from a Belgian perspective. In a piece on the excellent BELTA website, Eef Lenaers wrote about the frustration she sometimes experiences when her students come up with gross over-generalisations about other cultures and what can be done about this. Now, all of this got me thinking about an old talk I used to do on the conference circuit ten or so years ago, which tried to address similar issues, and I figured that as I’ve been utterly useless at blogging of late, amidst various madness that’s been visited upon me, it might be a good idea to dig that old talk up and turn it into a post. Better than nothing, eh? So here goes . . .

Frequently after classes, my students will come up to me and ask “But where are you from? You’re not very English!” Over the years, I’ve learned to delude myself into taking this as a compliment: it must be down to my warm, out-going personality, I assure myself; or perhaps it’s the fact I’m not that bad with languages, that I’m chatty, and possessed of a lust for life. These moments help me stave off the sad fact that really I’m scruffy, prone to mumbles and rants, and somehow inherently shabby in the way that only those reared on bacon sandwiches and milky tea can ever truly be!


At home, however, it’s often a totally different story. I have a non-British partner, and the last line of attack, the riposte to which there is no return, is always “God! You’re so bloody ENGLISH!” This can mean anything from you’re the kind of sad, repressed person who walks out of the room to break wind to why on earth can’t you phone someone just because it’s after 10 in the evening! It could be quiet rage at my not wanting to talk about sex – or even really talk at all very much full stop, or else anger at my refusal to ever admit to feeling down or pissed off when the brown stuff starts hitting the ventilation. Whatever, it still comes as really quite confusing. I am English by birth and by upbringing. I feel intensely connected to certain aspects of life in Britain, repelled and appalled by others. And yet in the eyes of the outside observer, I seem to flit back and forth across a line of some supposed cultural finality.

The first point to make here is that both national identity and the notion of culture that it is so frequently associated with are far more complex than the simple retorts above suggest. However, it still tends to be the trite and the simplistic which prevails within EFL. Culture in English Language Teaching materials is a simple black and white affair; or rather, it is all too often simply white: antiseptic, anodyne, bleached and sanitised and bland. As a teacher trainer, this becomes most apparent when watching trainees use widespread EFL materials. Trainees generally come to the classroom with little or no experience and thus view the coursebook as an expert source of knowledge and as somehow implicitly right. The notion of culture as propagated in coursebooks tends to either revolve around the presentation of literature as a vehicle for culture, so the old Headway Pre-Intermediate, which I once used on a CELTA course, had, for instance, an extract from Dickens which includes such choice lines as “The mild Mr. Chillip sidled into the parlour and said to my aunt in the meekest manner ‘Well, ma’am, I’m happy to congratulate you’”. The many hours of fun to be had by watching trainees on their second teaching practice slot trying to explain to bemused students what a parlour is or how exactly you sidle is tempered only by an awareness that this is singularly useless vocabulary for learners of this level to be learning!


Another angle on the culture issue crops up in a text in an Upper-intermediate book called ‘Soho: My favourite Place”. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the wonderful mess that is Soho, but the last time I looked, it was still as full of drug dealers, gay bars, meat-head bouncers policing dubious late-night binge-drinking establishments, transvestites and menacing-looking characters lurking in shadows as it has ever been. Not in Headway, though, of course! Oh no! The nearest any of this comes to impinging on the antiseptic world of the coursebook is the admission that “the place is a bit of a mess”, whilst readers are coyly told that there are “surprises around every corner”. Those of you familiar with a bit of classical mythology may also be surprised to learn that Eros apparently celebrates “the freedom and friendship of youth”! This is culture as a kind of white-washed national tourist board ad.


All of this is then compounded by a persistent triteness which reduces people from other countries down to their crudest stereotypes, as in yet another text from a well-known coursebook that looks at ‘Minding your Manners Around The World’. Here, trainees get to inform students that if they are expecting the arrival of foreign business colleagues, they can be sure that Germans will be bang on time, Americans will probably be fifteen minutes early, Brits will be fifteen minutes late and as for the Italians! Well, you’d best allow them anything up to an hour! The supposed veracity of these gross, offensive stereotypes is not even challenged by the methodology. The kinds of questions students are asked to discuss after reading the text are almost always simply comprehension-based, so they are forced into uncovering ‘Which nationalities are the most and least punctual’, for example.

It seems to me that three broad issues arise from all this: the basic question of what exactly culture is, how trainees can be made more aware of it, and how a broader notion of culture leads to methodological changes. I strongly believe that even initial preparatory courses such as CELTA should be addressing these sensitive areas. Here, though, I’ll just try to outline some basic notions of what culture might actually involve – and look briefly at how this could impact on initial training.

The title of this particular post comes from a comment made to me early on in my teaching career. It was, presumably, intended as useful guidance to a rookie teacher and also perhaps as some strange form of protection for any mono-cultural Japanese classes that might later be encountered. The myth of the difference and uniqueness of the mono-lingual, mono-cultural context is a very damaging one in that it insists on speakers of one foreign language somehow all being equal participants in a shared, mutually agreed upon culture. Those still clinging on to such an idea might like to discuss the following exercise (later adapted for OUTCOMES Advanced) which we frequently used to do with CELTA trainees on our courses.


1. Are the following part of British culture? In what way?

2. Do any of them mean anything to you personally? What?

3. Have you seen any of them mentioned in EFL materials? In what capacity?

God Save the Queen                      

bacon and eggs

Balti curries                                      



the Costa del Sol

a week in Provence                          


the Proms                                                   


Old Labour                                                  

Conceptual Art

The Beautiful Game                        

The Environment

bowler hats                                        

Notting Hill                          

French art-house films                 

Irvine Welsh

Cockney rhyming slang               



Sunday school



Direct Action                                     


car boot sales                                            

St. Patrick’s Day

kebab shops                                     


Chinese New Year                                   

ackee and salt fish

ackee 5

My own take on this is that all of the above form part of the complex fabric of modern British life in one way or another and that the degree to which each is relevant to any individual with any connection to British culture depends on the webs of micro-cultures we each weave for ourselves. As such, there is very clearly no such thing as ‘British culture’ in any monolithic sense – it is rather, as the axiom has it, horses for courses, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. You also cannot make assumptions that, say, reggae and marijuana will always overlap or that Islam should somehow exclude fish and chips! It should also be added that not only will the same intense involvement in a wide variety of micro-cultures be the case for all foreign learners, but that often – as moneyed, globally-oriented beings – many of our students will  frequently participate enthusiastically in exactly the same globalised micro-cultures as many native-speakers. This is where non-native speaker teachers, working in the countries of their origin, have a huge advantage over native-speaker teacher imports. The local teachers will almost always know far more about the macro-culture of the country they are teaching in and can thus use all of this knowledge to hook new language onto in ways that are pertinent and meaningful to their students. Once you accept that mono-lingual certainly does NOT mean mono-cultural, at least when one is thinking of culture in terms of micro-cultures, then the gap that then remains can be envisaged less as cultural and far more helpfully as a purely linguistic one, with any attitudinal differences that each participant in any micro-cultural discourse might feel then being acknowledged and negotiated through language. Such an understanding of the way we all contain and negotiate a vast variety of cultures within our day-to-day lives will hopefully result in the end of essentialising comments about what ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim’ or ‘Chinese’ or ‘Turkish’ students can and can’t somehow cope with in classes, and will lead instead to a classroom culture in which students in ANY context are given the time, space and language to be first and foremost their own complex selves.

I’ll leave it there for now, but be warned: there’s a part two to all of this and maybe even a part three waiting in the wings.

I’ll see what comes back in response to this one first and take it from there.

Taboo or not taboo: it’s all in the questions

Following on from my recent post about allowing the supposedly taboo topic of religion to emerge at the end of a class one day, a great post on Steve Brown’s blog and a discussion about taboo language over on the facebook page I run with my co-author Andrew Walkley, it felt like the time might be right to revisit a talk both Andrew and I gave a few times many years ago, and to adapt it into a post exploring the whole thorny issue of taboos in the ELT classroom.

As has probably become obvious to most of you, both Andrew and I have long had an interest in teaching spoken language and observing the things we talk about. To this end, we once ran an optional lunchtime course at our university on topics you don’t find in coursebooks – and the language that goes with them. We had classes on swearing, bitching, drinking, smoking, chatting people up – and, more importantly perhaps, telling men to get lost – pregnancy, birth, old age, suicide and death, more bitching about people (let’s face it, we don’t spend half as much time on complimenting people), sarcasm, politics, illegality and the like. The lectures regularly attracted 50-60 students – and they came from all ages and cultural backgrounds. Of course, in this instance, students were able to choose this particular course. They knew what they were getting, so you could argue that these topics shouldn’t be what is in a coursebook.

However, this does not actually counter the fact that these students we attracted came from very different cultures. Many of them did not smoke, drink, bitch, chat people up, get pregnant or commit suicide, but nevertheless, these topics were all things within their range of experience. Also, unsurprisingly when we consider these are first and foremost language students, what they were really interested in was the language.

When a student sees or hears a word it does not mean that they actually like or believe something. Nor does disagreeing with an idea mean that you can’t use certain language. The vegetarian cannot really describe himself without using the word meat, the atheist without the word God and, from a foreign learners perspective, you can’t really know what swearing is or what’s taboo without hearing or seeing the word fuck. For me, a fundamental principle is that words in themselves as things to know the meaning of are not actually rude, offensive or taboo. It is what we ask students about this language and what we require them to do with it that can cause offence or break taboos. Knowing so–called taboo words may actually be very important: take, for instance, my Iraqi student who thought nigger was a socially-acceptable way of referring to black people or my Japanese student who asked me after class one day what prick-tease meant! These students would’ve been done no favours by me being coy and skirting round the words.


There are perfectly sound pedagogical reasons for including words like nigger, slag and spazz in, for example, an advanced textbook. An exercise might require students to sort them – along with other words like idiot and slob – into two groups: relatively socially acceptable / far more socially unacceptable. Students could then be asked if they have ever heard anyone using any of these words – and in what circumstances.

This makes far more sense than, for example, having students fill the words in in a gap fill or asking them which ones they would use and why. The former approach allows for students to say they themselves have used them, but does not assume that they have, whilst the latter operates on the assumption that they either have or would want to use them. As with much of teaching, it’s all in the questions we ask!

However, I am no longer innocent enough to believe that such exercises will ever make it into print – even in a second edition of INNOVATIONS ADVANCED, should one ever come into creation! There remain strong impulses among publishers to avoid any possibility of offence. This is something I’ve found in the process of writing our coursebooks. For example, in Innovations Intermediate, we wrote a text about making mistakes when learning a foreign language and this text featured two true stories that had been passed onto us by students whilst discussing the area of embarrassing mistakes in class – one involved an Italian student asking his English host family “Where shall I leave my shit?” – the old shit / sheet joke in action! – whilst the other happened to a Korean woman who was learning Spanish and who inadvertently asked for fried penis (polla frita) instead of fried chicken (pollo frito) on a trip to Madrid!

Neither story seems offensive or abusive to me – and both came up in class unprompted. I’m afraid, though, publishers don’t see things like this. Of course, I can understand why – and I have no interest in unselling books I’ve spent a long time writing – but the problem then is that in removing language and stories such as these from a book, the whole balance of register about what is acceptable or slang then shifts.

A similar parallel is the way the Labour Party swung violently to the right once the far-left Militant tendencies were removed at the end of the 1980s!


As a result, things which seem perfectly anodyne, childish even, end up standing out on the extremes. Thus, we had a reworked version of the aforementioned text questioned by a different editor because it contained the word bum!

Other words we have had fights and rows over include get pregnant and get addicted to drugs (both of which stayed), It sucks! (which had to go because of its apparently possible sexual connotations – go figure!), Damn! (which also bit the dust, to be replaced with Oh no! And this was despite our argument that Damn! in itself is an already softened version of what many of us would choose to say in the circumstances), burp and fart (the burping stayed, the farting didn’t!), You idiot! (it stayed, despite fears it ‘may be offensive in Scandinavia’, where apparently, the local version is used in the same way as You mong! or You spazz! is here in the UK – not that we were teaching Swedish, of course!! Nobody ever said such editorial meetings were logical!) and on the toilet. Long gone are the days when we struggled to sneak condoms and tampax into listenings covertly!

These arguments and the snipping of the censor’s scissors come as no real surprise. An incident that occurred a while back when Andrew was doing a version of this post as a talk should help to illustrate why. He was challenged by one teacher at the end of the talk and told that “some people” wouldn’t want any language like this in a class. He mentioned several instances where his own students had been more than happy to talk about such language, but was told, “Well, in London, that’s as may be, but in some countries they wouldn’t want to”. When he asked which countries and which students these might be, his nemesis simply countered “Some students” and then said an interesting thing: “Maybe it’s OK to talk about this language, but people don’t want their noses rubbed in it, (so to speak), they don’t want to see it written down.”

My personal view on this incident is that actually she herself – the teacher – was the one who wouldn’t want to talk about it. While publishers are most certainly driven by a fairly conservative forces – and are not about to change overnight – I feel that as teachers we have to begin to be more open in our discussions about what is acceptable to be taught in the class, and as teachers we need to be much more led by our students.

One common problem, as previously alluded to, is that teachers often do not let their students talk freely or away from tightly-controlled practice activities at all, whilst on other occasions they may actually be unwilling to provide seemingly taboo language for students – even when students themselves are asking about it or trying to express it (as I felt was the case with the facebook discussion mentioned above). As such, it seems important that materials at least leave spaces in which good teachers can exploit areas and get onto taboo topics briefly – if their students wish to take up the chase.

What I’d like to do now is to broaden the discussion of taboo out into thinking more about coursebook content. To do this, I’m going to look at a text which provoked a lot of heated discussion a few years back at INNOVATIONS’ editorial meetings. I think it usefully highlights the arguments publishers will put forward for editing out – and allows me to put some counter arguments.

We were writing a text for Unit 4 of our Intermediate-level book, a unit entitled Feelings, and our first draft included the following lesson and text:


Read the following text and see how the couple met.

Do you think they will stay together? Why / why not?

The day that changed my life

When I saw Abdullah on the news – Jim, as he was called back then – I didn’t recognise him to begin with. He looked really really thin and his hair was falling out. When I heard the reporter say his name, though, I looked a bit more closely and then I realised it was him. I just burst out crying. I was really surprised, because we were never really friends when we were at school together. He could be a bit loud sometimes and we were just very different, I suppose, but to see him there, looking so lost and alone, begging on the street!! Well, it was just so upsetting. It broke my heart, it really did!

The next thing I knew, I was ringing the TV station who’d run the report. I don’t really know why – I just did it on impulse. Anyway, they gave me the address of a hostel for homeless people. I went down there the following day and it was really depressing. It was filthy and the whole place stank! Half the people there were either drunk or mad – or both! One of the workers showed me to where Jim was sleeping. What really amazed me was that he recognised me at once and said “Oh, Fatime. It’s you.” His voice sounded so sad, but, at the same time – and I can’t really explain this very well – it was like I could feel something pulling us together. I really felt like it was Allah’s will. It has really strengthened my faith, and it obviously touched Jim as well.

I’d like to say that things have been easy for us since then and that love has run its true course, but life doesn’t work like that, does it? What happened to Jim when he became homeless was incredibly painful and he’s had to really fight to overcome his addictions. At first, my parents didn’t want anything to do with him and even since he’s converted to Islam, things have still remained tense. My mother says she’s not coming to the wedding.

We’ve had a lot of support from people who’ve seen our story in the papers, but we’ve also had lots of hate mail too. Also, the media have actually put a lot of pressure on us. I know Abdullah doesn’t see it this way, but even now it still makes me angry the way the papers and the TV people treat people. I just think back to that first story. Here was this completely broken man, living on the streets. They came along and did their story on him, and do you know what they gave him? Ten pounds and a cup of tea! That’s it! And then they got back into their big cars and drove off, leaving him to go back to that awful hostel. They do these stories, but none of them really care about people. I can’t forgive them for that.

Anyway, despite all that, we’ve managed to survive together. He’s a good man, and I love him with all my heart.

Now go back and underline any expressions which are new to you. Underline only whole expressions – not single words!

Compare what you have underlined with a partner. 

2   True or false

Decide if the following statements are true or false. Why do you think so?

a  Jim was living on the streets when he first met Fatime.                  T / F

b  Fatime thought carefully before ringing the TV company.                    T / F

c  Jim changed his name to Abdullah because he became a Muslim.                 T / F

d  Some people got angry when they read about Fatime and Abdullah.      T / F

e  Abdullah and Fatime agree that the media sometimes treats people badly. T / F

3   Speaking

Is there much homelessness in your home town? Why? How do you feel about it?

Do you ever give money to people who are begging?

Do you agree with Fatime that the media sometimes exploits people?

Do you know anyone who’s found religion? What happened?

Why do you think people sent Abdullah and Fatime hate mail?

Our editors were immediately touchy about the text and warned us that describing a Muslim as homeless could be offensive. When we pointed out the very obvious fact that when Jim was homeless, he was not actually a Muslim and that after he converted, he actually got his life together, we were then told that it was best not to run the risk of any Muslims possibly finding it offensive. We countered this by pointing out we’d both done versions of the text in class with students from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia and so on and no-one had ever found it even remotely offensive. Indeed, if anything, the opposite was true. One of my Iranian students had once come up after class and said how nice it was to see a positive story about Islam in class! Nevertheless, amongst our editors, some of whom had never taught – and had possibly not even met many Muslims – the stereotype of the touchy Muslim prevailed.

We were then told the text may cause arguments in class and that whilst we, as experienced teachers, could deal with this, some younger, less experienced teachers might not be able to. That’s what photo-copiable materials were for, we were told – to allow teachers to bring touchy subjects into class if they wished to! Yet again we countered: what was there in the tasks that could possibly lead to a row? And anyway, even inexperienced teachers are skilled at dealing with conflict in their day-to-day lives outside of class. We all come to class with years and years of experience of conflict management and avoidance. On top of this, if we fail to allow the odd conflict to develop in class, we deny ourselves the opportunity of ever learning how to get better at channeling it and turning it into language-teaching opportunities in class.

As a last resort, we were told we were pushing a political agenda – as if censoring and whitewashing were somehow apolitical activities! In the end, we compromised – or sold out, if you prefer (!) – and re-wrote this text as the tale of a rich girl who falls for a poor boy from a broken home with a jailbird dad, despite her parents’ better instincts!

Does it really matter that texts such as this – and words like tampax and fart – end up being edited out of classroom material? Well, in some ways, yes, it does. If we end up with materials in which even everyday words like pregnant have to be argued over, then we run the risk of denying good teachers the chance to ask students questions like ‘Do you know anyone who’s pregnant at the moment?’ and thus denying any students who might want to ask how to say have an abortion.

Despite all of this, I do also believe that a duty lies with us as classroom teachers to get at language like this through our interaction with our students and through letting them dictate where the class goes from time to time.

Below are five examples of language either Andrew or I have ended up writing on our whiteboards, giving students the things they themselves were trying to say.

1.      We were driving home from the north of the country to the south and we got ambushed by some guerrillas. They started shooting at us. I thought I was going to die, but some soldiers came to help us and there was a big fight and then the guerrillas ran off. A friend of mine got killed.

2.      I once passed out on the train home. I’d been drinking with some friends and I got really pissed and I passed out and missed my stop and ended up in the middle of nowhere. It was the middle of the night, so I had to call out my parents to pick me up and take me home. Before they got there, I passed out again in the street and when I came round I was in the car. I was convinced I was being abducted or something and so I started screaming at the driver to let me out of the car. It took my dad a couple of minutes to convince me it was him.

3.     AIDS isn’t just a gay disease. I think straight people can get it, can’t they, if they don’t practise safe sex or have anal sex or whatever.

4.      When I go to an important meeting, I should eat onions beforehand. Then, when someone says something I don’t like, I could fart and stomp out of the room.

5.      They were shagging

None of the language in 1-5 came directly from a discussion of the taboos themselves. It is also worth noting that the students trying to express the meanings above included a Somali Muslim (1), a young Japanese woman (2) and a middle-aged Chinese female civil servant (4). What follows is a brief summary of the starting point for each and how we worked together with our students towards the production of these final statements.

1. This was an Elementary class. One Chinese student was late and tried to explain – in very broken English – that he’d had problems getting on the tube because it had been really packed, and that, once on, he thought he was going to die because it was so full! Andrew paraphrased this, and noticed the class seemed particularly taken with the phrase ‘I thought I was going to die’, so asked them to discuss a time when they’d felt like this in pairs. The Somali student volunteered this story. He was asked if he wanted it re-written and up on the board and he said Yes, as he knew he’d want to re-tell it later.

2. The word ‘passed out’ had come up in a text. I’d explained it and then just quickly asked the class in pairs to talk about any time they’d passed out or seen someone passed out. This was one of the stories that emerged.

3. A Taiwanese civil servant in his mid-forties ventured this opinion during a very heated whole class debate sparked off by one Iraqi student asking, “Aids is caught by kissing, isn’t it?” We had arrived at this point after reading a text on Health and Illness which included the word ‘infection’. One student asked what it meant and then another asked what the difference between ‘infect’ and ‘transmit’ was. This led on to, among other things, ‘sexually-transmitted diseases’, which sparked the whole thing off.

4. The class had read a text about The Anti-Onion League – a web-based organisation dedicated to the downfall of the onion!! Among the reasons listed for why onions should be avoided was the fact that they give you wind. One Chinese woman in her fifties, a senior civil servant, became quite animated at this point and produced this gem!


5. The lexical item ‘I got woken up’ had come up in an exercise, and one student asked about it. I explained it and then asked the class what kind of things they might get woken up by – the usual suspects came up: a car alarm going off, the phone ringing – before a Korean man said he’d been woken up recently by the people in the next room – they’d been shagging!

At this stage, it is important to reiterate that I am NOT advocating the kind of confrontational exercises in student-baiting so popular amongst the recently-qualified, wherein learners arrive for their morning lessons only to be assaulted with questions like “So what do you think about abortion, Chie?” or “Hussein, how do you feel about Islam’s terrible record of human rights abuses towards women?”

The key point here is that all of the taboo-breaking and boundary-pushing utterances in 1-5 arose from actually very innocuous exercises or texts and arose without any undue prompting from the teacher. Rather, they came into being simply because students wanted to say them – and, as a teacher, I was happy to help them do so.

Hopefully, this post will encourage some more of you out there to feel happy doing something similar the next time the moment arise in your own classrooms! If, that is, you’re not doing so already.

Opening the heavens: religion, reformulation and reasons to roll with it

So much of teaching is about the second-by-second set of decisions we make, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the decisions we make are shaped by intuition, which as we all know is the product of our cumulative experience this far – or expertise, if you prefer – rather than being some nebulous innate talent.

So anyway there I was, twenty-five minutes from the end of a class with my upper-intermediate group the other day, more or less at the end of a reading – a Chinese folk tale about money. I was just rounding up some vocabulary that students had asked about while reading, vaguely wondering if ideally wanted to rush on to the injected grammar (I wish with past perfect and past simple) or whether there might be some other more upbeat way of winding up when opportunity knocked.

One of the items that had come up was THE HEAVENS – as in He clung onto the rope and was lifted up to the heavens. I’d explained that it basically meant ‘the sky’ and had given another example – The heavens suddenly opened and it started pouring with rain – when a student asked what the difference between ‘the heavens’ and ‘the heaven’ was. I told the class we don’t use articles with heaven – or hell – and that aside from their literal meanings, they’re often used metaphorically: it’s my idea of heaven / hell.

Justin Bieber Sighting In London - February 25, 2013

There was some banter about how going to see Justin Bieber was one student’s idea of heaven, but everyone else’s idea of hell and then a Moroccan student asked “So what about paradise?” “That’s usually used to talk about a wonderful beautiful place, like maybe Bali or somewhere, that’s maybe sold as a tropical paradise” before the student then explained that for Muslims it refers to the highest part of heaven, where the prophet resides. The student then jokingly added that he wouldn’t ever reach such heights and would be lucky to reach the bottom part of heaven. Another student, a Spanish guy called Mohammed, suggested that hell was a more likely destination at which point Sosan, a Saudi woman, demanded he retract this and claimed you should never say this! I pointed out it was a common joke among friends in English and, curiosity piqued, put students in pairs to discuss whether or not they talked about heaven and hell in their own languages. Out of this the most interesting thing that emerged was a discussion about the differing concepts of angels on shoulders that seemed to exist in different cultures: the Christian notion of good angels and bad angels giving you advice – and the Muslim idea of an angel on your right shoulder recording your good actions and another on your left noting down the bad (but only after an eight-hour pause which allowed the chance of repentance and righting the wrong), all of which were to be weighed on Judgement Day. Mohammed noted that with his Spanish-Moroccan friends it was common to joke that the left-shoulder angel was compiling a library, which aroused laughter from most of the class and looks of slight shock from the more devout Saudi and Senegalese women in class.


The other thing that became apparent was that many students didn’t know how to ask ARE YOU RELIGIOUS (AT ALL?) and had gotten by thus far with their own bizarre improvised versions (“You have religion?” and the like!). For the next five minutes, students changed pairs and asked and answered this question before we rounded up with some board-based reformulation. On the board we ended up with:
She’s / he’s very devout.
He used to be Muslim / catholic, but he converted to Buddhism.
I was brought up Muslim / Buddhist / Catholic, but I don’t really practise.
All religions have lots of different branches.
I don’t really believe in God, but I do believe there’s some kind of higher power.

And that was that.

The grammar waited till the following day and students left the room still asking each other questions about each others’ beliefs.

So what, you may well be wondering? Why am I telling you all of this? Well, for a whole host of reasons, I think. Partly to illustrate how we ad teachers can take advantages of moments that present themselves – what Scott Thornbury has termed affordances – and how being alert to such moments can allow us to explore interesting , and sometimes less travelled, roads; partly to reiterate the fact that frequently the best way of doing this is via the exploration and exploitation of language that emerges from texts – what I’ve elsewhere termed ambient vocabulary. Partly also to remind the sceptics that a lexical approach to language – particularly one that takes on board the idea of working from what students TRY to say and helps them say it better, and one which reworks things in fully contextualised utterances, ensures far more exposure to – and far grater opportunities to engage with – grammar than traditional grammar-led approaches frequently do.

But maybe more controversially to demonstrate how similar people – and the languages they speak – actually are, whilst also acknowledging how fascinating the slight and subtle differences can be. Further to this, to show how different people within what are often perceived as monolithic cultural blocks (‘Muslims’) can be – and maybe most of all to suggest that supposedly taboo topics such as religion can actually be tackled in an interesting way.

Despite the almost complete absence of reference to the realm of religion in most published ELT material and despite the fact that many oublishers explicitly ban any mention if its very existence, no one died during this part of the class, no rows erupted, views were exchanged and whole sides if students’ lives not typically allowed existence within TEFL-ese were given space to emerge.

Not bad for an ad libbed, improvised closing flourish to a lesson intended to explore a totally different semantic – and lexical – realm.

Thank heavens for intuition! Where in God’s name would we be without it?

England, English and the English: tackling diversity in the classroom

Having grown up in an era during which the prominence of the National Front forced you to take sides in a very ugly and frequently violent national debate about who could and couldn’t be considered to ‘belong here’, and in which the first brave black players to play for the English national football team were greeted, by some sections of the crowd with bananas, monkey grunting and banners proclaiming that ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’ (sic.), it’s always been a point of principle for me that anyone born and raised in England is by definition English – and that to oppose this notion is essentially a form of fascism based on ridiculous, outmoded and unscientific folksy notion of racial purity and blood and land.


Of course, there’s what I may believe and hold to be true and there’s what students believe, and clearly the two can sometimes be at wildly divergent odds . . . as I found out in class yesterday. One of my students is a lovely woman who always calls herself Russian, despite the fact she was born and bred in Latvia. Now, having been to the country a couple of times, I’m all too aware of the tensions between ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians, and I can understand why people might choose to adopt such taxonomy. In the coffee break, chat turned to her fiance, who she calls Russian too. It emerged that he too was born and bred in Latvia, despite having one Russian parent and one parent who was born and raised in Azerbaijan. I commented that for me this meant he was Latvia, whereupon I was told that even if they had kids which were born and brought up here in London, they’d still be Russian. I laughed and said ‘They’d be Anglo-Lativian-Russian-Azeri, but they’d be English, to me at least’ . . . and all hell broke loose.

There then followed a lengthy discussion about what it means to be English, during which it became clear (a) that for many – perhaps almost all – students the notion of Englishness is still very much connected to the idea of being white and to the idea of having deep family roots in the soil. How deep those roots need to be, how many generations they need to go back, varied from student to student, but the message seemed clear – and it seemed disturbingly similar to that propagated by the NF when I was younger, albeit in a far less aggressive or politicised manner, of course – and (b) the construct of Englishness that prevails seems rooted in a general shock at the wilder excesses of a small section of London youth. One student, a Sicilian with a sister living in the UK, married to an Indian with whom she has two kids, claimed that her nephew and niece, despite the fact they’re growing up here, would never be ‘English’ because of ‘cultural differences’ such as not going out dressed half-naked to get violently drunk and have sex in the street on a Tuesday night!

In the ensuing discussion, I tried to point out that there really isn’t – and has never been – one kind of ‘English’ person and that the English differ in their attitudes, morals, behaviour, politics, lifestyles, etc as much as anyone else. Some English people are totally behind gay marriage; others oppose it vehemently; some are Buddhist, some Muslim, some absolutely atheist; some love football, others loathe it and so on and on! At this point, a Spanish student called Mohammed chipped in saying this was exactly what he’d been fighting and arguing about all his life, as a first generation Spanish-Moroccan and as the first kid of Muslim origin to attend a Catholic school in Malaga. Despite strong family ties to Morocco and despite a recognition of the fact that he had cultural roots that were different to many other Spaniards, he sees himself defiantly as Spanish – as well he might!


So where do we go with all of this and why am I blogging about it? Well, firstly, if we are to take the Common European Framework seriously, then we have a responsibility to ensure that through our teaching of language we help students “to achieve a wider and deeper understanding of the way of life and forms of thought of other peoples and of their cultural heritage.” If this is to happen, then perhaps the first step towards recognising / accepting / discussing the diversity that exists within students’ own cultures is to have their vision of Britain complicated for them. Perhaps such discussions can act as a mirror inwards and give pause for reflection? Of course, London may a special case in many ways given that 37% of its inhabitants – my students included, of course (!) – were born outside of the UK, but what’s happening in London also happens everywhere: people travel, relationships form, kids are born, cultures change.

Secondly, it’s clearly of vital importance for many many teachers and students alike that these issues are aired. An ever-increasing number of native-speaker teachers are of mixed-race or non-white origin and thus more likely to be prejudged – often negatively – by foreign students demanding what they perceive to be ‘native’ native speakers of English! In addition, there are many students who come from complex families and whose right to self-definition and determination is a basic human one. In my time at work, I’ve met Swedes with Afghan, Eritrean and Iranian roots; Swiss students from all manner of interwoven backgrounds; a young Polish lad who’d grown up in a very rural area as the only mixed-race kid for many many miles, and so on. These students’ stories and lives deserve to be validated and recognised.

So what can we do? Well, for a start, we can at least have exactly the kinds of discussions I outlined above, should the opportunity / need arise.

In addition to this, I then sent an email round my class – as I do after every lesson – containing some follow-up links and things to read. Here’s what I included:

Next up, that series I was telling you about called 100% English.
It’s an incredible view and I’d really recommend you watch at least one episode.
Start here:

It’ll hopefully complicate your ideas of what ‘English’ or even ‘white’ means!!

Connected to this is this amazing article about a guy in Scotland whose DNA traces directly back to the first woman in East Africa. Fascinating story.

I then asked the class to record a Vocaroo each detailing what they felt they were a product of. This was an expression that had come up in a reading we did, wherein a mother lamented the fact that her slightly unruly fifteen-year-old son was the product of a very liberal age, and I’d discussed my own roots and formative influences briefly on my own recording that I mailed out to announce the homework.

Small steps and I’m realistic enough to know that such steps are unlikely to bring about any sea change in attitudes or prejudices, but also small steps that slowly lead to somewhere else, and ultimately it’s a belief in the power of dialogue and discourse that allows me to retain a rosy, optimistic slant on these matters even when things seem particularly cloudy!

Twenty things in twenty years – Part Two: troubling trouble when trouble troubles you!

There are plenty of things that you generally don’t learn on a four-week CELTA course: how bizarre many of the staff rooms you’ll later find yourself in will be; how rife the illegal photocopying of published material is around the world; how you’ll probably end up inventing Dogme by accident one morning as you stumble into class having not slept a wink and quite possibly with either an illegal or at least a severely impaired bloodstream; how sooner or later you’ll find yourself subjected to threats / bribes / tears / offers of sexual favours as students desperately try and blag attendance certificates or better test results or placement in a level they absolutely don’t deserve to enter. I could obviously go on and on here! However, the one thing that perhaps more attention should be paid to on initial training courses is the subject of today’s reflective post wherein I look back over what’s now twenty years of teaching and try to work out what the hell I’ve learned about the trade: the kind of trouble that can erupt – or fester – in EFL classes and how we as teachers might best tackle them. In other words, how to trouble trouble before trouble troubles you – and the class you’re teaching!

The moment that I came to realise the importance of developing strategies for doing this came unpleasantly early in my teaching career. I’m somehow managed to blag my first real paid teaching job at St. Giles Central in London and had a lovely Intermediate-level class that I was doing every morning. They were predominantly Asian, with students from a wide range of different countries. The first week or so went really well and then the evil effects of continuous enrollment reared their head the following Monday when the door opened fifteen minutes into class and in walked a medallion-wearing living breathing stereotypical Italian male, complete with unbuttoned shirt and such a copious amount of hair on display that I’m prepared to believe it may well have been a chest wig. “Francesco Celotto from Milano”  he announced, as though this in itself merited a round of applause. “Come in” I smiled, before adding “You’re late!” He then surveyed the room a couple of times with a look of increasing unease before uttering the immortal lines “Ma dai! But it is all the Japanese in here” It was at this point I realised we had what could only be termed a situation. It was one of those moments where you suddenly sense just how much is riding on what you decide to do next. Say nothing, and you’re essentially colluding with this ignorance. Come down heavy and you’ve got one very pissed-off new student who’s lost face and who now hates you. What to do? What to do?

In the end, I smiled and said “Not quite Francesco. This is Dilokpol. He’s from Thailand. And this is Henu, from Indonesia. This is Lily from Vietnam, and this is Chen Chen from Hong Kong. This is Agnes from The Philippines, this is Nan-Joo from South Korea and oh, this is Kenzo, who actually IS from Japan, so one out of seven. Not bad, not bad. And which part of Spain were you from again?” – a question which caused Francesco to look incredulous and to insist on his Italian origins. “Exactly”, I pointed out. “Where you’re from is important to you, right? And it’s the same for everyone else in the class, OK?” Firm but friendly smile tinged with just a tiny touch of menace. Move on.

I’m not sure how I knew to do this or what led me to make the choices I made in this instance. As I’ve already said, it certainly wasn’t anything my initial – and let’s face it. most CELTAs are VERY initial – training had prepared me for. There’d been no suggestion there that TEFL was going to be anything other than a constant holiday camp roller-coaster ride of great big neon FUN. I suppose I’d just developed – unconsciously up until this juncture – conflict resolution or deflation skills the way that most of us – by living! Life, whether we like it or not, comes with conflict in-built and whether it had been avoiding school bullies, recognising who not to stare at too long at football matches, working as a bouncer in dodgy London pubs whilst at uni or going through relationship break-ups, I’d somehow gotten to the stage where I was able to defuse this potential bomb in such a way as to show the Asian students in my class that I’d noticed the affront and wasn’t prepared to accept it, whilst also somehow keeping Francesco onside with a kind of firm humour.

This was one of the most crucial lessons I learned early o in my teaching career and, having survived this baptism by fire, I was set to be able to survive similarly testing encounters over the years to come. Now, I’m not suggesting that this was the only way of dealing with this situation, but it worked for me and the combination of stern / serious and kind / inclusive has stood me in good stead. Obviously, failure to develop ways of ensuring parity and equality in class; of ensuring students are not allowed to offend or abuse each other – or at least do not get to do so without being aware of the fact that this is what they’ve done; of ensuring that you as a teacher are in charge of the class and are able to meld its disparate elements into something resembling a cohesive whole can all lead to disaster . . . to lessons slipping out of your control; the factions developing; to outright mutiny; the upset and anger; to complaints and possible even dismissal. All of which ought really to suggest that we start taking our innate conflict-handling abilities a bit more seriously on initial training courses and at least allowing space for some discussion of how and when they might best be implemented.

As the years have gone by, I’d like to think I’ve honed the way I deal with conflict into an even more effective technique, which is essentially two-fold and involves (a) diffusing tension by turning arguments inwards towards new linguistic input and (b) if I think something is particularly wrong or offensive, politely saying that I disagree and explaining why. To wrap up this post, one quick example. A year or so ago, I was teaching a multilingual Upper-Intermediate group here in London. The word DISCRIMINATION came up in an exercise we were doing and one student asked if it was like racism. I explained it was kind of similar, though mainly limited to unfair treatment – rather than abuse or violence – and also mainly limited to the ability to get jobs, promotion, housing, and so on. I then said that in some ways it was also sort of bigger than racism as you could face discrimination if you were black or Asian, but that you could also FACE DISCRIMINATION or BE DISCRIMINATED AGAINST ON THE GROUNDS OF gender, so it’s harder for women to get some jobs; on the grounds of sexual orientation, so it’s harder to get work or housing if you’re openly gay and so on. At this point, a student said “Gay is like homosexual?” to which I replied “yes, but homosexual is quite old-fashioned and most homosexuals usually prefer to be called GAY”. The student then said something along the lines of “I hate the gays. They must die” – to generally fairly stunned / bemused / upset silence in class.

“Well, you’re entitled to think what you think, and I’m not here to change your mind”, I began, “but personally I think you’re wrong. I have plenty of gay friends and it’s not nice to think you want them dead. There may even be gay people in this class, for all you know. Anyway, you can think what you think. It’s up to you. In the university, though, if you say things like that can get you kicked out. You can be thrown off courses if you make HOMOPHOBIC COMMENTS.” I then explained the concept and wrote up on the board the following:

You can be kicked out of the university for making racist / sexist / homophobic / anti-Semitic / Islamophobic comments.

There followed a brief discussion of each of the concepts and a discussion about whether nor not similar rules applied in higher education institutions in their countries. Interestingly, and I’m certainly not claiming that this kind of thing happens all the time, at the end of the class this particular student came up and apologised and said he’d never had a discussion about any of these issues before and had never met anybody ‘who knows the gays’. We then had a further talk which took in things like ‘why the gays like men’ and the like – and no further comments of this nature were ever heard in my class again.

This defusing of potential heat by turning it inwards towards the teaching of new language has worked for me thus far.

Long may it continue to do so.

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.

Conspiracy theories in the classroom

I’m entering my last week with my lovely Advanced group, the first class at this level I’ve taught for quite some time, and the whole experience has given me plenty to reflect on. One thing that’s become clearer in my mind is the fact that you really cannot progress that far beyond a certain level without a fairly broad range of interests, plenty of awareness of current affairs, topics that are generally deemed newsworthy and a desire to learn more not only about the language, but about the world itself.

If all you’re interested in is shopping and going sightseeing, say, you can pretty much do all you’ll ever need to do in those departments by the end of Intermediate; certainly by the end of Upper-Intermediate. To properly be Advanced and to take on board the kind of language you’re likely to encounter in the Cambridge Advanced exam, you need not only to delve deeper into the lexis of topics you’ve already studied but to also delve into a wider range of topics – the law, the environment, natural disasters, hair and beauty, ethics, politics, economics, globalisation, and so on. Within each topic, there’ll be high-end language more commonly found in the written language, particularly in journalism and academia, as well as lower-end language more common in speech around each subject that’s well worth focusing on. During a recent tutorial, one of my Chinese students from this group mentioned how horizon-broadening she’d found the course. She mentioned that she hadn’t really had any grounding in areas like politics and even after having had them explained, still struggled to really grasp concepts such as HOLDING A REFERENDUM and FORMING A COALITION, for obvious reasons. She’d then gone home, Googled them, read up on them on Wikipedia and had lengthy conversations with her dad about these ideas and how they compared with the system back home. Now, if that’s not education in its fullest sense then I don’t know what is.

Anyway, none of this is really anything more than an indirect lead-in to the main meat for today, which is conspiracy theories. The tenuous link with my lead-in is simply the fact that the other day we were doing a unit from OUTCOMES Advanced called HISTORY. It was a double-page spread and the heart of the lesson was a listening where four people spoke about recent historical milestones in their country – and the outro, where the students in the class spoke about things they felt were milestones in the recent history of their own countries. As a lead-in, I put students in groups of three and they discussed the following questions:

A                  Work in groups. How much do you know about the recent historical milestones below? Discuss what you think happened– and what the causes and results were.

the fall of the Berlin Wall

the September the Eleventh attacks

the Iraq conflicts

the Asian tsunami of 2004

the creation – and subsequent expansion – of the EU

the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan

Frequently, with these kinds of activities, I’m depressed and kind of appalled by how little world knowledge many of my students have – and remember, I’m mainly teaching young people who either are already graduates in their own countries or who want to do their degrees here in the UK – and wonder what they learn in subjects like History and Geography at school, but what really surprises – and depresses – me is the frequency with which conspiracy theories emerge.

Over the years, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had students from the Arab world tell me Mossad or the CIA was behind the 9/11 bombings, or students from a wide range of countries tell me that the moon landings never happened or that Princess Di was covertly taken out by the royal family and so on. I’ve almost come to expect to hear these ramblings in certain situations – and suspect many, many other teachers must also have been on the receiving end of them. In this particular instance, I was slightly taken aback because the student rolling out the theories wasn’t one I would have suspected – a young German guy, a Business Management graduate, who, having discussed the basic factual details of the collapse of the Twin Towers as a result of airplanes being flown into them, launched into the theory (laid out by Michael Moore in his fairly tedious Fahrenheit 911 doc) that it was all somehow an inside job and that it’d been arranged to create a pretext for the Iraq war. In retrospect, I could’ve seen this coming, as earlier we’d done a vocabulary exercise focusing on language that may prove useful when talking about key historical events, and including items like CALL A TRUCE, CLAIM / GAIN INDEPENDENCE, ISSUE A FORMAL APOLOGY, CARRY OUT A SERIES OF BOMBING, BE ASSASSINATED and so on. One of the practice questions was CAN YOU THINK OF ANY HIGH-PROFILE WHO HAVE BEEN ASSASSINATED? DO YOU KNOW WHY? During the speaking around this question, there’d been considerable debate from several students about the JFK murders and what the real story. I’d dealt with this basically by reformulating what I heard and ending up with a few gapped sentences up on the board, which I then elicited the missing words for. Here’s what I ended up with (I’ve italicised the words I’d initially gapped).

After the revolution, the old dictator tried to flee the country, but was caught and executed.

According to the official version, JFK was assassinated by a lone gunman, but there are lots of conspiracy theories around the killing.

He was gunned down outside his house and died instantly.

So as I say, in retrospect, perhaps it was no surprise that we would end up heading deeper into conspiracy theory territory. Two main thoughts emerged from this for me: why are these preposterous ideas still so rife . . . and what’s the best way for us as teachers and educators to deal with them when they crop up in our classes? And it’s this I’d like to move on to explore from hereon in.

The very fact that conspiracy theories have become such common currency is slightly chilling. We have a large chunk of potential new graduates who not only are ignorant about official history, but who take pride in claiming the cachet of cool that attaches itself to a proud belief in conspiracy theories.  I have students who KNOW that the moon landing never happened and that the film footage was faked, and yet they don’t actually know WHEN the supposed faked footage was from, or who the stars of the particular epic were! Forget the facts and feed the theories seems to be the modus operandi. How this then tallies with having to go on and engage in hard research, the evaluation of factual and historical data and so on is beyond me – and I’m glad I’m not the person who has to unpick the mess that must on occasion  inevitably be created as a result.

I think much of the growth of conspiracy theories is a direct result of the erosion of faith in governments and official versions of the truth, and I think it’s no coincidence that these beliefs are strongest and most common among students who come from countries where the state media is regarded with deep suspicion. Because governments lie and deny (and I’m certainly not excluding my own here, incidentally!), it leaves room for questions and doubt – and in those shadows cranks flourish.  However, to return to one of my favourite quotes, what then seems to happen is that rather than losing all faith and believing in nothing, many people instead end up believing in almost anything!

In addition to this, there’s a global fear and distrust of the CIA and their operations, a fear stoked by the teenage angst movies of Michael Moore and the parallel knee-jerk self-hating literature of the likes of Noam Chomsky and John Pilger. Being clued-up on conspiracy theories becomes part of the cool kids’ club uniform, along with Che Guevara tees and Bob Marley CDs. Knowing information that other people don’t is a kind of socially motivated desire. We know something, everyone pays attention to us, interacts with us, seeks to find out the “secret”. It is the same kind of logic by which gossip becomes a currency in offices and institutions, a way for its possessors to boost their social status. Who they tell, who they confide in, who gets to be part of the “in” and who is “out” divides the group but solidifies allies.

I think there are several other reasons why people so proudly parade their paranoias, though. Instability makes most people uncomfortable; we prefer to believe that we are living in a predictable, safe world – and conspiracy theories offer accounts of big scary events that make them feel safer and more predictable. In addition to this, we seem to be evolutionarily conditioned to connect dots that are not connected. In the same way that two animals hearing a rustling in some nearby bushes may well join the dots and conclude that a predator is close by – and therefore most likely live long enough to then teach this behavior to its offspring, so conspiracy becomes part of our psychological survival kit for trying times.

One final reason why the Muslim world in particular, I think, clings so keenly to conspiracy came to me during a recent cab ride back from Heathrow airport, where I had a Somali cab driver. he was a lovely guy and had been living in the UK for over twenty years. We talked for a long time about the situation back home now compared to when he’d left and the fortunes of Al-Shabaab, the radical Islamist group that still controls part of the country. I was struck when my cabbie claimed that Al-Shabaab were “not Muslims”, as it seemed to me to be at the very heart of what they were. After further questioning, it turned out that what he meant was that the way they acted and carried out their business was so far beyond his own – and I suspect beyond many many many normal decent peaceful Muslims’ – interpretation of Islam that he couldn’t bring himself to recognise these people are fellow believers. Their tendency towards violence placed them, in his mind, outside of the Ummah. Once you cease to believe that people carrying out horrendous acts in the name of a religion you yourself feel as part of your every atom are actually what they claim to be, it’s only a short step to believing that they could well be controlled by outside agents.

So where does all of this leave us as teachers? In a bit of a moral quandary would be my immediate reaction. Shouldn’t we be challenging this lunacy and pointing out its many flaws? Well, I’m not so sure. In a very fundamental sense, the whole point of conspiracy theories is that they can’t be disproved. Any evidence countering them can simply be taken as yet more proof of the lengths to which those REALLY behind things will go. Just as Creation Theory now claims that dinosaur skeletons don’t actually prove the world is more than 6000 years old, but rather that God has a sense of humour and placed them there to test our faith, so too the fact that Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda operatives openly boast and gloat of their killings can be interpreted as proof of the ingenuity the CIA / the Elders of Zion – and of their cunning use of film and technology. Logical argument is an impossibility in these situations.
On a more morally complex level, though, there’s also the fact that these discussions throw our OWN faith back at us. How can we tell the difference between information and disinformation? Why are we so sure that Neil Armstrong really did land on the moon? Or that Princess Diana died because of a tipsy chauffeur who wobbled whilst trying to shake off the paparazzi? On a very fundamental level, for most of these, acceptance of these truths is in itself an act of faith and very very few of us know or care enough to argue against the obsessives who resist official reality.
Given this, I’d like to think the way I handled this issue in class this week was about the best we can muster. I listened, I said “Oh, you’re one of THOSE people!” and then wrote on the board the following exchange:
There are lots / l…….. / m……….. of conspiracy theories about 9-11.
> Yes, but down that road lies m………….. .
And then elicited loads, millions and madness . . . before moving swiftly on!