The Interconnected World: An Advanced ESL Class on Globalization

The Interconnected World
An Advanced ESL Class on Globalization

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 35,133 views

Before we begin, I’m going to invite you to think about tea.

I started my morning with a pot of Anxi Tie Guan Yin, a tea from eastern China. It’s aromatic and energizing, and I can scarcely imagine beginning my day without it. But how, one might wonder, did a high-quality tea from China end up here in the US, on the desk of an educator, thousands of miles from where it was picked?

I did a little digging. It turned out that the tea was ‘harvested with care’ in Fujian province and sent by truck to a local wholesaler. From there, it was bought in bulk by a re-seller, and warehoused in south-eastern China before being shipped by airmail. It arrived in the US, efficiently passed through customs, and was delivered to my door only eight days after I ordered it through an entirely automated process; no conversation was necessary, and no cash was handled. It’s pretty extraordinary, when you think about it.

First Thoughts: Getting Organized

A few weeks ago, just such a pot of tea kicked off something of an inquiry for me. As a former development volunteer, I wanted to understand Globalization, and when I become curious about something - censorship, gun rights, political campaigns, you name it - I always want to involve my students. As I began to plan how to bring such a nuanced topic into the classroom, I found that I wanted to step outside of the textbook realm and focus instead on people and how Globalization affects us all. My students, as ever, proved an ideal forum for thinking about and researching a complex subject.

Globalization is a huge topic, so we needed a structure. I wrote down a set of questions and tried to create a class which would touch on each implied sub-topic of Globalization: economics, politics and culture.

First Plans: Asking the Right Questions

There’s a curious phenomenon to ESL teaching, one to which I’m still adapting, after nearly twenty years in the classroom. Teachers experience a strange gap between what the students know and what they’re able to say. This topic is an example; my students know perfectly well that Globalization is a worldwide philosophy of free trade and multi-nationalism based around the movement of people, information and ideas across borders. The thing is, they’re upper-intermediate teenagers, not fluent native speakers, so explaining something so complex will take time and require some help.

This is where asking great questions becomes key. I’m not the kind of teacher who begins a class with, “Good morning. Today we’re going to talk about Globalization.” Instead, my opener was an unusual one, but the students grasped the point straight away: How many languages and cultures are represented in your music collection?

The answers were as varied as one might expect; one IPod contained music in Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean and English. Another featured classical music from Europe (Mozart and Beethoven), mid-nineties stoner rock from California, and video game music written only months before.

Then I asked the students to imagine the music collection of an average American from fifty years ago. It would have been all vinyl or eight-track, of course, and my students guessed that most or all of the records would have been physically bought from US retailers using cash. “Try a hundred years ago,” I said next, and my students conjured images of a small, curated collection of expensive and hard-to-find recordings bought from a single retailer with a tiny inventory.

My question was simple: How did we get from there to here? Music was once almost inaccessible and expensive, and now it’s free and everywhere. How?

Going Deeper: Trends in Globalization

We need to stop occasionally and look around us. The pace of change is staggering, and our students are often more adapted to these pressures and trends than we are; certainly, I often feel like an anachronism with my ancient MacBook and my IPhone 4 while my students tout the latest gadgetry as though it were an extension of themselves. I wanted to understand the changes that Globalization has brought, and music (with all its related technologies) was a good starting point.

My students latched onto the twin ideas of technological change and internationalism. I gave them some pairwork time, and they were able to trace changes in the music business which made it easier and faster to get hold of recordings: mail order through catalogues, and later by phone; the use of steam trains for mail haulage, and later trucks and planes; the advent of the Internet and downloading; cheap and straightforward means of mass data storage; new recording technologies and transmission methods.

Then they noticed how music crosses borders - perhaps more easily than almost anything else - and that new attitudes to music from around the world opened up a huge potential market. Social changes, too, made it more acceptable to listen to music which was in a different language, or which espoused new ideas about relationships, education, the police and the ‘establishment’.

Music became a lens for viewing these changes and discussing the new, global availability of most products and commodities. I asked my students to ponder what this massive (almost total) availability of consumer items might mean, and then asked for feedback. My group told me that they could only see these changes in a positive light; global business provides new avenue of custom for overseas suppliers, including small Asian retailers (like my tea supplier) who could not otherwise access markets in the west, for example.

The Key Philosophy: Multi-Nationalism

We moved on from music (and tea) to talk about people. In 1917, we wondered, how many people in an average community had ever met someone of a different color? How many could speak fifty words of a foreign language? How many had ever left their home country on vacation, or lived abroad?

I asked my students to list the implications of the free, relatively easy movement of people, and after ten minutes of group-work, I asked for feedback. If free travel is assured, we might expect:

  • Less racism, as people more frequently encountered members of other communities and discovered how similar we all are
  • Cheaper labor, as workers from other areas became available
  • The undermining of xenophobia and isolationism; gradually, people found their own proof that differing rates of development around the world are based on the available resources and not the intelligence of the local people.
  • A shrinking of the world as travel became easier and more affordable; the exotic has become almost routine, and we search for ever more inaccessible tourist spots and more ‘authentic’ experiences
  • Better communications between nations. My students cited the UN as a meaningful and useful forum, though it was not without its critics.

Defending Globalization

Here’s a teaching method that I absolutely love. We learn the necessary vocabulary and discuss a topic such as Globalization until we’ve established all the main reasons why it’s a good idea. With those reasons in mind, I then like to disrupt things and begin posing challenges to the viewpoints we’ve just built up. I do this to demonstrate that human life rarely permits truly ‘black and white’ thinking, and that the answers to sophisticated questions must themselves be sophisticated.

So, I asked my students to consider the negative effects of Globalization (and, by extension, development itself). This is fertile territory, as our students are generally content to believe that Globalization has helped human society to combat the very worst ravages of poverty; my points ran counter to this, and I invited them to explore a whole new viewpoint by deliberately challenging the points we’d just established to be reasonable and balanced.

These sub-topics can be discussed in a debate format, could form the basis for a presentation, or could be set as writing assignments. Here’s the list I offered my students, from which they chose a single title:

  • Is it reasonable to expect endless, year-on-year economic growth?
  • Do you agree that zero-percent growth would give the world’s ecosystems time to recover, or is such a pause unnecessary?
  • What aspects of the 21st century lifestyle bother or annoy you? And which aspects from the 18th century might usefully be imported?
  • Is modern life too easy?
  • What will happen when China and India rise to the development level now seen in the UK? How will this effect trade, employment and international relations?
  • Do globalization and growth necessarily stand in opposition to sustainable use of the environment?


I won’t hide that I adored this topic.

It was a chance to test some theories developed during my own time as a development volunteer, and the opportunity to challenge my students to see both sides of this issue was a very useful mental exercise. It also produced a ton of good language (which is always the main point, whatever we’re discussing) and genuinely engaged my students in a topic with relevance to them all. I highly recommend choosing one or more aspects of Globalization and development, and seeing how your students feel about these vital topics.

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