Recipes for the Unteachable by David Petrie

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Are there controversial topics that you want to teach, but you do not know how? Do you think your students might not be ready for them? David Petrie has the perfect recipe for these issues. You can read some ideas in his blog post and also for more tips, do not miss his webinar for BELTA on January 10th, at 16.00 CET!

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I wonder how many people who are looking at the title of this post, and indeed the title of the upcoming webinar on this topic, are wondering what constitutes “unteachable”? It’s a tricky concept to grasp, not least because it is so heavily context dependent.

My personal view is that nothing is unteachable and that teachers shouldn’t shy away from difficult or uncomfortable topics because they might offend. The ability to talk about and examine our differences is what makes us able to rise above them and if we refuse to talk about them we start existing in insular little pockets of ignorance, bounded only by the things we believe and a self-destroying fear of The Other. Now more than ever, when so much of the world is being defined by its support for and opposition to sets of beliefs or practices, we should be trying to break down some of these barriers and trying to understand each other just a little better.

In the world of ELT, topics that are considered “unteachable” are largely defined for us by other stakeholders in the process and without reference to the local context. These are commonly known by the acronym “PARSNIP”, which stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms, and Pork. Some versions of the acronym also include another S – for Smoking. These then are the topics that tend to be considered too controversial for the classroom and are therefore left out of most materials and coursebooks. It is not completely clear to me why this is or when it started and I would welcome any information that sheds light on this – my instinct however, is that it comes down to economies of scale. The costs involved in producing a coursebook are not inconsiderable and if you had to produce a series of different editions of coursebooks based on different contexts, it would increase your costs exponentially. Imagine though, the differences that might exist between a Brazilian edition of Headway Intermediate and a Jordanian edition. And where do you stop? Do you differentiate between continents? Regions? Countries? What about Basque, Catalan and Galician editions? It is a lot easier from a production point of view to avoid the question entirely.

The problem then is not that these topics are “unteachable”, it is more that they get left out because leaving them out is easier to do than putting them in. Yet as teachers, we are always choosing what to leave out and what to put in – we make language choices about what our students need (or don’t need) to focus on, we make skills focus choices and we make topic choices based on what we think our students will find interesting or not. Hands up if you have
supplemented your lesson with a TED talk or other short videos? Decided not to bother with a page of the book? What about a unit of the book?

We frequently carve up our coursebooks like the proverbial Christmas turkey and add lashings of side dishes to make the meal tastier and more memorable. And of course it is traditional (in the UK at least) to serve Parsnips as well.
The aim of the webinar is to look at ways to do just that. For all that I believe in free and unfettered discussion of any topics in the classroom, I also believe there has to be a modicum of principle, professionalism and planning involved! There is no point in walking into the classroom and saying “Right – today we’re going to talk about drugs. Who here has smoked crack? Anyone? Anyone?”

The webinar is structured around a blend of the theory and the practical. It looks at some of the key principles for ensuring a safe and sensible discussion of sensitive topics, approaches and techniques for dealing with contentious issues in the classroom when they come up, and will also present a few practical activities that you can take away and try with your classes.

I’m really looking forward to it and I hope to see you there!

To find out more about David’s webinar, click here.


David Petrie is a teacher and teacher trainer based in Coimbra, Portugal, a print and digital materials writer and occasional consultant to ELT publishers. His professional interests mainly lie in teaching exam classes and using technology in teaching, which he blogs about when he gets the chance.


This has been reposted with David’s kind permission.

http://www.beltabelgium.com/recipes-for-the-unteachable-by-david-petrie/

 


 

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