November 1997 — Volume 3, Number 1
Taking Sides: A Speaking Text for Advanced and Intermediate Students
Kevin King (1997)
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xii + 119
ISBN 0-472-08418-6 (paper)
US $15.95; UK £12.95
ISBN 0-472-08422-4 (paper)
US $16.95; UK £12.95
As a speaking/listening teacher, one of my most-often used files is labeled “Real Situations for Discussion,” and is stuffed with newspaper clippings and notes from radio reports about legal, moral, cultural, and medical dilemmas that I hope will stimulate discussion and critical thinking among my students. Critical thinking and group discussion skills like negotiation, defending a position, and problem-solving are important assets for anyone, but they are especially important for students intending to enter academic study. I am always looking for input that will provide material for the kinds of discussion students will engage in at the university level.
Kevin King’s forward to the student says that Taking Sides will “. . . improve your problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities. You will also improve your negotiating skills and learn some concepts that are entirely new. You will learn to articulate your opinions on concepts you already know” (p. xi). The book promises that by doing these things, students will also exchange ideas on how their cultures differ from each other and from “American” values. As a Canadian, I was also pleased to discover that most of the book suits a wider, North American context.
The seven main sections of the book are called “Ethics,” “Psychology,” “Philosophy (Distributive Justice),” “Law,” “Linguistics,” and “Business Negotiation.” Each chapter contains between three and seven case studies or exercises, and each case study is organized with the following parts: Objectives for the exercise are listed first; an Introduction gives background on the concept to be examined; a Vocabulary Gloss gives short definitions of some difficult vocabulary used (not a comprehensive list); the Procedure gives an overview of what should be done and by whom; and The International View asks students one or two general questions about how that case study might be considered or handled in their home countries. Some of the case studies include a magazine or newspaper article as a reading, and some have directions for a writing assignment. The writing assignments are varied; they may ask [-1-] the student to defend a position, write a policy paper, or to work in groups to complete a project such as designing a health care system.
The authenticity of the material with which the students work is a double-edged aspect of the book. Some of the articles are actually reprinted from newspapers or academic journals, but even those that aren’t are presented in an authentic context. A good example is the first exercise in the chapter on ethics, where John Stuart Mill is quoted in defense of individual liberty, and Gerald Dworkin and Norman Daniels are mentioned for their defense of paternalism. This is a case where a student would come away with new knowledge that might surprise even native speakers.
On the other hand, Taking Sides would not be the kind of book to use to fill in ten minutes at the end of class time. The very authenticity of the material means that it is difficult to read, and the level of thinking and understanding required means that the material is also hard to digest. Therefore, many of the exercises require that the students spend a lot of time at home reading, thinking about, and preparing the material. If the students do not do this, the exercises will not work.
A few examples illustrate this point. The chapter on psychology has a series of experiments having to do with rationality, including the idea of honoring “sunk costs.” This means that when people have made an investment of some kind, they want to follow up on it by paying even more attention to it. The experiments in the book related to this are complex, and require pair work, class discussion, and a survey of people outside the class. There is also an exercise in synergy, where items are ranked according to individual, group, most accurate, and “correct” scores.
Similarly, the chapter on business negotiation has several related exercises that hinge on problems within the framework of hamburger franchises. The Procedure section says that “All students will read each case, but the presenters have the task of knowing all the vocabulary and understanding all facets of the case so that they can answer students’ questions on it” (p. 108). This is no small feat, given the intricacy of the details presented in the cases.
Fortunately, the wide variation in the types of exercises presented includes simpler survival dilemmas where students must decide on a course of action to take, or equipment they need. These dilemmas point up another factor teachers should know about if they plan to use Taking Sides, and that is the need for the Teacher’s Manual. I did not have it, and so some references to the “best ranking” or a story the teacher would read to each group were puzzling. According to the publisher’s catalog, the Teacher’s Manual has more pages than the text does, so I assume it contains a lot of helpful information. [-2-]
The author set out to write a speaking text for advanced and intermediate students. I believe that the book can indeed be a source for ideas that encourage speaking and critical thinking. I am sure, however, that the book is more suitable for advanced, and not intermediate, students. When I tested parts of the book during the summer with an advanced class, the sections that met with the most success were some situations presented in a paragraph or two, where questions were posed regarding compensation for people who were supposedly wronged (business negotiation), or questions regarding the level of health care given patients with various family or social needs (ethics). As with any resource, some topics may only partially succeed because of the age or maturity of the students. I think that overall, King has allowed for this possibility very well. For example, the psychology chapter begins with a group of exercises having to do with views of marriage, characteristics of good spouses, gender and power, marital issues, and divorce. These topics may work well if students have some experience with them, but they would work less well for students just out of their teens. However, the second and third sections of the chapter deal with other topics that can be discussed thoroughly in terms of the information presented right in the book.
Perhaps one of the biggest strengths of the book is that it presents situations that will engage you, the reflective teacher. I was interested in the dilemmas posed, and that makes the book far more likely to succeed with my students. Although I do not have the time to use every exercise in every chapter, I will certainly choose those that will work at my students’ level of English proficiency and critical thinking awareness.
The range of topics and the varied types of speaking exercises in Taking Sides ensure that this book will be pulled out by all teachers interested in encouraging problem-solving and critical thinking each time they get a new group of students. In fact, I cannot wait to challenge my newly-arrived class with some of its interesting dilemmas. Should there be a law against bungee jumping or not, and on what basis?
English Language Centre, University of Manitoba
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Editor’s Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work. [-3-]