Global Competence in ELT #2: Using an image

Ben Goldstein

In the first post of this series, introducing the concept of global competence, we established the central ideas behind it and why these are important when designing tasks with a cultural component. This post looks at a practical activity which embraces global competence and can be easily incorporated into your classroom practice.

Activity rationale

A key concern when selecting a topic is its potential for personalization and localization. When you come across an image or a text that you want to use, it is important to bear in mind how easy it will be for students to relate to the material. In other words – how easily can it be localized to your students’ context?

A very direct way to make cultural topics come to life in the classroom is to use striking images. Visuals can transmit complex concepts easily and dynamically. For this reason, the task below uses a high-impact image as its base.

The task

Show students the following image from the Quartz news site depicting a volleyball game on the US/Mexico border and present them with the following questions:

  • Where do you think this place is?
  • How do you know?
  • What are the people doing? Why could this be surprising?
  • How does this compare with other images of such places?

Students’ ability to answer the first question is based on their prior knowledge. Some may have very little idea, others will know exactly where it is and others may be able to make an educated guess based on certain visual clues.

For example, students may focus on the cars, the landscape, the weather or on the people’s physical appearance. After some discussion, start to focus on the volleyball net itself and ask what’s strange about it?

After giving students ample time to study the image carefully and reflect on their answers, it is important to establish that:

  • the image is of the US/Mexican border
  • the people appear to be playing volleyball on either side of it.

How do we know? The big clue here is the “Tecate” sign – this is a brand of Mexican beer. The yellow school bus is another American icon. The desert landscape and red earth are also indicators for this part of the world (Arizona in the USA and Sonora in Mexico).

Why is this such a good image to use with students?

Firstly, the fact that the people are playing volleyball and using the border fence as a net. This is an unusually positive and surprising image of this particular place. Make sure to read the rest of the article for some cultural background on the match and its exact location. You should let students know this info once you have elicited sufficient responses from them.

Most images of the US / Mexican Border are rather depressing and focus on the problems of illegal immigration, crime, or they emphasize the difference between the prosperity and the poverty each side of the fence. A random online image search will reveal this to be the case – in fact many images also emphasize the wall’s magnitude – its height and extent. As such, this particular image is good to use in class because it challenges the stereotypical image of this border.

What’s its connection with global competence?

The connection with global competence is that this task looks at the topic from a critical angle. It encourages students to adopt multiple perspectives. By comparing this particular shot with other images of borders, it shows how these can affect our perceptions and judgments about a place. It also fosters knowledge and understanding of an important global issue and respect for the values of others. Global mindedness, respect for human dignity, and cultural diversity are all of particular significance at this time of political instability around the world.

Activity extension

An important extension of this activity is to get your students finding their own images of other borders around the world and compare them to the Reuters image. This really opens up the whole topic and allows students to personalize and localize the material. As a contrast to the US/Mexican border, which some politicians want to reinforce, here you could show students the Oresund bridge that links Denmark and Sweden. This is a positive image that represents how some world borders are actually disappearing. It is important that students are given a free choice to select images of the borders that they like and report back to the rest of the class what they have discovered.

Watch Ben explore global competence in this webinar recording: the globalised classroom.






Ben Goldstein, author of Eyes Open and Uncover, looks at the basics when it comes to global competence and teenage learners – what actually is it and why is it important to develop it? Later in this series, Ben will also provide practical activities for teachers to do in the classroom.

Cambridge University Press