Friday, 9 April 2010

Controversial Topics

I’d like to consider myself fortunate for having had the chance to grow up in a society where free speech in was not only allowed, but encouraged in school. I remember having incredible debates with my classmates on a huge range of topics ranging from corporal punishment, to the death penalty, to abortion. We debated everything under the sun, and I always had the most fun when I debated the side that I didn’t agree on. It made me look deeper into the facts, and forced me to keep my cool and analyze everything that was being said, scouting for any weakness in his or her argument. Debates of this nature are non-existent in Korean middle and high schools, therefore the students lack the knowledge of how to express their views in a round table setting.

Before running a round table class, I asked my co-teacher what she thought of the idea. As one of the most open-minded and culturally aware Koreans that I’ve met, I knew that she would allow me to give it a try. She was excited for the change of pace from our regular classes, but warned, “The students are not used to being in a two-way conversation with a teacher. They’re used to the “sponge” method of classes, where their only job is to absorb everything that the teacher says without question.”

This was going to be fun…

I walked into class, and asked everyone to move their desks to the sides of the room and form a circle of chairs in the center. I could tell right away that they were both excited and nervous about what was happening, but no one questioned what was going on.

I started them off lightly. Each student had to introduce him/herself and state their favourite food, sport, and hobby. Once everyone had the chance to speak in front of their peers, I dropped the first bombshell:

“In some countries, it’s acceptable to have multiple wives. Would you want this in Korea?”

Their initial reactions were completely expected. They all turned and stared at the co-teacher, looking for guidance about how to respond. She just smiled, translated my question (in case a couple of them didn’t understand what I was asking), and sat back, waiting for an answer. In an effort to get the discussion rolling, I prodded the student sitting beside me to break the ice.

After a few moments of silence, he quietly responded, “It’s bad.”

Each student in turn repeated the same answer until we reached the “confident one” on the other side of the circle. He answered, “Yes, I would want.”

And just like that, the floodgates of debate were open. The girls in the class certainly had some things to say about his, so I just sat back and let them say what they wanted to say. The debate was held in a mix of Korean and English, but I didn’t care. As long as they were cross-talking, I was happy.

After the initial wave of debate, I then asked the “confident one” a slightly altered question:

“If YOUR wife had multiple husbands, how would you feel?”

He simply answered, “No.” He didn’t explain why, but he didn’t have to. With one word, he had once again started another wave of discussion.

The class ran without a hitch. The kids opened up and discussed some really controversial topics that may otherwise have just remained bottled up. We had a healthy discussion about North Korea (the dangers of an unstable country), handicapped people in Korea (why they feel like “outcasts” in Korea but can live a normal life in other countries), and the infamous Dokdo Island (why the island belongs to Korea rather than Japan).

As the students filed out of the classroom at the end of class, my co-teacher turned to me and said, “We should do this again.”

I completely agree.

- Ken


  1. Great idea! What inspired you to try this? I'm sure they all went home and told their parents about their exciting day!

  2. Great idea. FYI. I once suggested to Odette about bringing in another wife. Just seeing Odette's reponse in her face almost killed me. I never ever brought the subject up again. We contiune to live happily ever after :)