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October 2004 - Issue No. #55 (p. 14 - 15)

Awareness of Global Issues at High School Level

by Steve Powell

Hijiyama High School, Hiroshima, Japan

It is a common complaint among high school teachers that curriculum constraints and low fluency levels combine to make it very hard to introduce global issues at high school level. This article details a simple activity that suggests otherwise. The students who took part are all 3rd years on the special English programme at the school where I work. This involves studying 12 hours of English a week (twice as much as the standard high school curriculum), as well as a two-month homestay in Australia. This logically means that their fluency, and motivation, levels are usually higher than those of the average high school student. Even so, the following activity can be adapted to suit any class's level.

Third-year students on Hijiyama's English programme are required to prepare and give a speech on a subject of their own choice at the end of the first term. A surprising number picked serious, complex issues, ranging from child abuse or environmental issues to the invasion of Iraq. Many ended their speeches by questioning what, if anything, they could do about such problems. The sheer range and depth of feelings expressed in many of the speeches seemed to invite some sort of follow up, rather than just saying "well done" and moving on. So I drafted a survey designed to see what they considered to be the world's most pressing problems, and which if any they thought they could do something about. Students reacted very positively and what had been intended as a one-off actually turned into a two-week project.


I first gave out a 4-part questionnaire (Sheet 1) on global (and local) issues. Some questions were deliberately easy and obvious. This was partly to give everyone the chance to answer "yes" at least once, and to encourage them to see that small, local steps can also contribute towards making the world around them more livable. Other questions were a little more exploratory - for example, to see how much students knew about a variety of NGO's (non-governmental organizations). It was interesting to see just how many "yes" answers the survey produced. These included small things, like sorting the rubbish at home, or switching off lights when not in use, as well as participating in neighbourhood clean-ups. Many had done some form of volunteer work, in old people's homes for example, which is not uncommon for Japanese high school children. A few had even taken part in anti-war protests. NGOs like Amnesty International and Greenpeace were not well known. No students had heard of letter-writing as a form of action.

What was particularly striking was that most students were completely surprised by their classmates' revelations, especially those involving volunteer activity and anti-war protests. Clearly these were not topics they had discussed much amongst themselves. This opportunity to find out about the kind of activities other classmates had taken part in created a lot of interest, and was a valuable part of the session. It almost certainly generated far more interest than if a teacher had simply told them about such activities.


In the second half of the first class, I gave out Sheet 2 and asked students in groups of 4 to brainstorm global issues. I gave them a few examples to set the ball rolling, but I was mostly interested in finding out what they themselves considered to constitute global issues. I asked them to try to come up with ten issues per group, and some easily exceeded this. Their ideas covered a wide range of topics, including environmental problems, peace-related issues (Iraq, war, landmines, terrorism), as well as a variety of social and gender issues (AIDS, SARS, inequality of the sexes, an increase in violent crimes by children and adolescents, declining education standards, etc).

In the second week I asked the same groups to choose one of the issues from their lists and brainstorm possible solutions (Sheet 3). I was again impressed by the sheer ingenuity and originality of some of their answers. These included asking every Japanese citizen to give one yen for poor children (thereby raising 120 million yen), sending their used clothes to poor children overseas and using some of Japan's rice stocks to feed the world's hungry. One group suggested solving the problem of world hunger by getting Americans to eat 8% less meat (exactly how they came up with that figure remains unclear!), although they admitted convincing Americans to eat less meat was itself a tough problem. One girl suggested that to save water, Japanese women should flush the toilet only once, rather than "before and after", as some do in order not to be heard!


The durability of the good intentions students displayed over these two lessons is impossible to gauge. But the fact remains that during those two weeks everyone spent some time thinking about the world's problems and trying hard to come up with something they could do to make the world a better place, both as individuals and as a society, as well as what they thought their government ought to do.

It was also a success from an eikaiwa point of view, in that it generated serious thinking, spirited discussion (a lot, perhaps inevitably, in Japanese to start with, but their final answers were all written and delivered in English), and a great amount of vocabulary.

While it is common to lament that high school teachers are hamstrung by university entrance test considerations, it is worth remembering that, as Peaty (2004) observed, global issues are beginning to feature in these tests with increasing frequency. That being so, as responsible teachers we need to look for effective ways to introduce these issues into the high school classroom. Indeed, if such topics are to feature more and more in university entrance tests, are we not doing our learners a disservice if we ignore global issues in our classes? Simple activities like the one I've outlined here show that such topics can be introduced at high school level, albeit in small, simple ways. And contrary to what many teachers might think, students are more than ready to discuss them. I would be delighted to hear from any teachers who have other suggestions for global issue activities suitable for high school EFL students.

Click here to download the following worksheet (for easy printing)


In groups of four, ask each other these questions. If you answer 'yes', please give details.
1. The Environment

Have you ever

  • tried to save electricity?
  • bought recycled goods?
  • sorted your rubbish?
  • tried to use less water?
  • tried to use fewer chemical products?
  • written a letter to a company that polluted the environment?
  • done anything else for the environment?
2. Your Community

Have you ever

  • done volunteer work?
  • given your seat to an elderly person on the bus or train?
  • taken part in neighbourhood cleaning?
  • done anything else for your community
3. Human Rights / Peace

Have you ever

  • taken part in a peace march or anti-war protest?
  • written a letter to a politician?
  • joined a peace group?
  • done anything else for human rights / peace?
  • 4. Organizations

    What do these organizations do?

  • Amnesty International
  • Greenpeace
  • Survival International
  • Do you know any other organizations that try to do something for the world?


    In groups of four, write down as many global issues as you can in 5 minutes (e.g.: war, AIDS....)


    In groups of four, choose one of your global issues. What do you think you can do about it? Write down as many ideas as possible.


    Peaty, D. (2004) The Language Teacher 28 (8), p. 15-18.

    Steve Powell, Hijiyama High School, 5-16 Nishi-Kasumi-cho, Minami-ku, Hiroshima, Japan 734-0044


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