Discussion topics

Visuals: The median population age

A country’s demographics have a massive impact on the economy, outlook on the future and mood. The median population age varies widely around the world by continent.

Please have a look at the map below and discuss what you see with your teacher.

What is the difference between median, mode and average? Do Homework
Present this map to your teacher by continent. Use geographic markers (i.e. Central Asia, North Africa). Do Homework
Where does your country stand in this map? Do Homework
What are the implications of an ageing population? How about of a young one? Do Homework

How to reduce bias in hiring

In the U.S. and the European Union, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against a job applicant because of race, color, religion, age or sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation and pregnancy). Employers can't require photos or ask questions about personal information on an application.

But bias is still possible. Studies in the U.S. have shown that "ethnic-sounding" names can reduce by half the likelihood of being called for an interview, compared to applicants with "white" names.

Enter the start-up GapJumpers, founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Kedar Iyer and Petar Vujosevic. Iyer first noticed that skilled coders were often overlooked because they hadn't gone to a big-name school. So he created a system of "interviews" based on completing a coding task like one you might have to do on the job. Potential employers only saw applicants' scores, with no personal information, to choose who to call back for an interview. According to GapJumper's statistics, only 20% of applicants other than white males with elite degrees made it to the interview stage with conventional hiring practices. Using GapJumpers, however, that number increased to 60%. Harvard Business School has since backed up the advantages of blind auditions with their own studies.

Summarize the article in just two sentences. Do Homework
Do you think the conventional hirers mentioned were intentionally biased? Do Homework
What other "blind" or "skills-based" hiring processes can you think of? Do Homework

New Year's traditions

The 1st of January is an important day in many countries, and people have different ways of welcoming the day. For some, it may be as simple as having a family dinner, while others perform specific rituals to start the new year off well.

In Denmark, they save all of their unused dishes and plates until the 31st of December, when they affectionately shatter them against the doors of all their friends and family to banish bad spirits.

In the Philippines, it’s all about the cash. They believe that everything should be round to represent coins and bring wealth. Round food, round clothes—as long as it’s round.

In Bolivia, coins are baked into sweets, and whoever finds the coins has good luck for the next year.

In Japan, they ring all of their bells 108 times in alignment with the Buddhist belief that this brings cleanness. It’s also considered good to be smiling going into the New Year, as it supposedly brings good luck.

These are just a few of the many New Year's traditions around the world. If you could try a different tradition, which one would you choose?

Are you surprised at any of the countries' traditions? Edit Homework
Can you think of any more traditions in your country? Do Homework
Some families have personal traditions, like eating a particular dish or playing a certain game. Does your family have anything like that? Do Homework
Where do traditions come from, and how do they survive? Do Homework
Are local traditions important in a globalising world? Do Homework

Video: The circular economy

Watch this short video: What is the circular economy?, about using a circular economy.

The video is about 4 minutes long with subtitles. You can change the speed of the video using the "playback speed" button in the tool bar at the bottom. Then discuss it with your teacher using the questions listed below. 

Explain a circular economy. Compare it to a linear economy. Do Homework
What are the pros and cons of using a circular economy? Do Homework
What other sorts of companies/products, besides Philips lightbulbs, could incorporate a circular economy? Do Homework
How long would it take to change the entire global economy to a circular one? Do we have the time to do it? Do Homework

Making learning a lifelong habit

According to The Harvard Business Review (HBR), lifetime learners consider learning as a source of personal and professional fulfillment. The Economist recently argued that with all the disruptions in the modern economy, particularly technology, ongoing skill development is key to maintaining professional relevance.

Learning must become a habit, and so demands careful cultivation. First, developing a learning habit requires you to articulate the outcomes you'd like to achieve. Would you like to reinvigorate your conversations and intellectual activity by reading a variety of new topics? Are you looking to master a specific subject?

Based on those choices, set realistic goals, such as reading a book per week or studying English for thirty minutes a day. With goals in hand, develop a learning community, such as book clubs and writing groups.

To focus on your objectives, ditch the distractions. Multitasking and technologies such as cell phones and email can make the deep concentration needed for real learning difficult or impossible. Finally, use appropriate technology to supplement learning. Podcasts, audiobooks, e-readers, and other tools make it possible to have a book on hand at almost any time.

Please summarize this article in two sentences. Do Homework
Do you consider yourself a lifetime learner? Why or why not? If not, would you like to become one? Do Homework
Have any role models inspired you to learn a new subject in the past? Do Homework
What is a subject you know little about that you would like to learn more about? Do Homework

Visuals: Researchers in the world

For years researchers argued about the "Nature vs Nurture" question. Is a person talented because they were born that way, or did people and circumstances in their environment cause them to develop certain skills?

While this question stays open, there is little doubt that living conditions do matter. Could Steve Jobs have created Apple if he was born in a village in Africa? How much new technology or how many groundbreaking discoveries are we losing because talented children in poor areas don't have access to adequate education?

Please have a look at the graph below and discuss what you see with your teacher.

Please summarise the nature vs. nurture argument in your own words. Do Homework
Please present the visual to your teacher. Point out trends and unusual points. Do Homework
Can you think of any ways to solve the problem of unequal access to education in the world? Edit Homework
Do you think rich countries should help poor countries? Do Homework

Women artists: Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama (1929– ) is considered by some to be the greatest Japanese artist of our times. Although her initial training was in the traditional nihonga art style, she became frustrated with it and wanted a change. She wrote to Georgia O'Keeffe, who encouraged her to move to New York. The Avant-Garde scene was thriving at the time, and Kusama fell right in with it. Her art became provocative, pushing the edges of what was considered "acceptable". She staged public sex, painting nude people with her signature polka-dots. Her art was, and is, psychedelic.

Kusama's images of dots and lines stem from hallucinations caused by mental illness. Her illness eventually compelled her to return to Japan. She has been very open about her mental health struggles. She says art is what keeps her alive.

In her visions, she sees dots and patterns that multiply until she feels "obliterated". In her art, dots cover people, walls, animals, etc., removing their usual outlines so that they disappear into the dotted background. You can see an example in the image above where Kusama herself becomes a part of the whole red-and-white dotted scene. She explains: "Polka dots can't stay alone. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environments."

Among Kusama's most popular works are her Infinity Mirror Rooms. With mirrors and special lighting, the rooms create a virtual experience of infinity and unity with all.

What is Yayoi Kusama trying to express in her art? Do Homework
What is your opinion of her work? How do you feel about avant-garde art in general? Do Homework
Is it important for artists (or musicians, poets, etc.) to have training in traditional forms? Why or why not? Do Homework
In your opinion, is there any link between mental illness and creativity? Do Homework

The Himalayas—taller every year

The Himalayan mountain range is nearly 25 million years old, yet it is one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world. It was formed as a result of the collision of two tectonic plates over millions of years. The Indo-Australian plate is presently colliding against the Eurasian plate at a speed of 67 millimetres per year, which means that the Himalayan mountains, the tallest in the world, are getting even taller.

The Himalayas were named by joining two Sanskrit words that mean “Abode of Snow.” People in Nepal call Mount Everest Sagarmatha, which means “Goddess of the Universe.” Mount Everest derived its English name in honour of Sir George Everest, a 19th-century Surveyor General of India.

The rivers flowing from the Himalayas were also formed millions of years ago. The Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra rivers run through South Asia; the Mekong, through Southeast Asia; and the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, through East Asia. These rivers have supported the development of dozens of civilizations over the past ten thousand years, and so the Himalayas have had an incredible impact on human life in a large part of the Asian continent.

Please summarize this text in 2 sentences. Do Homework
What makes the Himalayas special? Do Homework
What do you like to do when traveling? Do you prefer hiking through mountains or relaxing on the beach? Do you like to go to cities, or spend time in nature? Do Homework
Why do people want to climb mountains? Do Homework

Video: Portals link the world

A public art installation makes it possible for people far apart to interact with each other. The ongoing project, "Portal—a Bridge to the United Planet", aims to create a sense of unity among people in different countries. 

Watch the short video below and listen for the answers to these questions:

  1. When did the project start?

  2. When the news of the portal "instantly went viral", how many people did it reach?

  3. How big is the portal?

  4. How does it work?

  5. Which two countries were connected first?

  6. How many countries do they hope to connect in the future?


Describe how people use the portals. What sorts of things can people do? Do Homework
The purpose of the portal, in the creators' words, is to "transcend this false sense of separation and be the pioneers of a united planet." What do they mean by that? Do you think they will succeed? Do Homework
What might be the disadvantages of a live streaming portal like this? Do Homework
Discuss other ways we could create a sense of unity among people across the world. Do Homework

Dealing with slow periods at work

According to The Harvard Business Review, most people are able to focus on getting work done during the peak, but how we handle slow periods also has a dramatic impact on our overall productivity and happiness. 

When the pressure is off, we might over-invest in email, or focus on unimportant items or errands, thinking we have plenty of time. To counteract this tendency, aim to start each day with a clear plan. You have to be more deliberate about planning than you would during a busy period.

Slower times at work present an opportunity to enhance your entire life, if you take advantage of them. Consider professional development activities that you would not normally have time for and add them into your daily plans. These might include attending an industry conference, brushing up your CV or taking an English class online. You are making an investment of time that will either help you in your current job or open up future doors.

If you typically decline when colleagues ask you to join them for lunch, this is the time to say yes. Building rapport in this way paves the way for effective collaboration down the road and gives you some relationship capital for times when work is more stressful.

Please summarize this article in three sentences. Do Homework
Why is "more" at the end of the second paragraph in italics? Do Homework
What do you typically do during slower periods at work? Do Homework
Are your days spent efficiently? What are the most efficient and least efficient aspects? Do Homework
How can companies help employees stay productive during slow periods at work? Do Homework

Animation for raising awareness

It is difficult for people living in safe countries to imagine refugees' problems. Jonas Poher Rasmussenis decided to use animation to show the difficulties of this group of people. His documentary, Flee, became a successful example of using animation to tell a true story.

The film, which has received several nominations and awards, tells the story of Amin Nawabi (the name was changed). When he was a child, his family had to run away from Afghanistan to Russia. Later on, he becomes a successful academic in Denmark. However, his life continues to be difficult because he is a refugee, and gay.

Usually, people don’t think of animations as documentaries. But it can be a powerful tool to raise important social issues. Animations can do what movies can not: show realism and abstraction. They can display realistic images of war and make it less traumatic at the same time.

There are not many animations made about refugees. News and politicians tend to depict them as criminals. The creators hope to go against this and show refugees’ true experiences.

Explain to your teacher what this article is about and its key points. Do Homework
What kind of movies do you enjoy? Do you prefer animated or live-action films? Do Homework
What's your favorite movie? What do you like about it? Do Homework
Is it important to raise social issues in animations or movies? Why or why not? Edit Homework

Video: Cultural gaps crash planes

Watch this short video where Malcolm Gladwell answers the question, "What is the one thing people need to know about how cultural differences cause planes to crash?"  Then discuss it with your teacher, or write about it using the discussion questions below.


Was Malcolm Gladwell easy to understand or not? What did you think about his intonation and body language? Do Homework
In your words, what did interviewee Malcolm Gladwell say about how cultural differences cause planes to crash? Do Homework
Do some research into the rate of plane crashes by country. Does Gladwell's theory stand up? Do Homework

Benjamin Hubert: Designing for all

Benjamin Hubert, founder of the design company LAYER, believes that design should be for the people, not for galleries. LAYER’s vision is to solve everyday problems in the best way possible. For example, a client approached them about a new wheelchair. This was a company with no relationship to design—they just needed a better wheelchair. According to Hubert, “clients approach us because they want a functional and affordable product that’s also beautiful.” 

Hubert founded the LAYER start-up in 2010 after working for a large agency for a few years. He recommends to all founders of start-up companies that they work for someone else first. That way you learn about all the aspects of a business.

LAYER has an agile design process, based on open discussion and an exchange of ideas, both with clients and among the designers. When hiring, Hubert looks for highly motivated, passionate people. As he says, “You can teach someone to do things, but motivation is personal.”

As well as being committed to sustainable design, LAYER devotes 20% of its work to nonprofits. “As designers, we have a responsibility to address problems that are necessities. It’s important to contribute something to society and use our time for projects that improve the world.”

What is the vision of the LAYER design company? Edit Homework
Do you agree that all founders of start-up companies work for someone else first? Why or why not? Edit Homework
Hubert says, "You can teach someone to do things, but motivation is personal.” Do you agree that motivation is more important than skills when hiring? Why or why not? Edit Homework
What are some examples of sustainable design? Edit Homework
What is design? What is the purpose? Do Homework

The benefits of bilingualism

According to CNN, learning a new language can rewire your brain and help stave off Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Ellen Bialystok, from York University in Toronto, Canada, found that bilinguals are diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease four to five years later than their monolingual counterparts.

When it comes to the beneficial effects bilingualism has on the brain, education levels do not matter. In fact, the most profound effects were found in people who were illiterate and had no education. Bilingualism was their only real source of mental stimulation, and as they got older, it provided protection for their aging brains.

More experience with bilingualism leads to greater cognitive changes. The earlier you start being bilingual, and the more intense your bilingual experience is on a daily basis, the more changes happen in your brain.

People who are highly educated, or people who have very demanding jobs, might have similar benefits with later onset of Alzheimer's disease. Bilingualism is just one way to create "cognitive reserve" for your brain. The important thing, Bialystok says, is keeping your brain active and engaged throughout your lifetime.

Please summarize this article in 2 or 3 sentences. Do Homework
How many languages do you know? When did you start learning them? Do Homework
What are other ways to keep your brain stimulated, other than language and work? Do Homework
Why do countries establish an "official language"? What are the pros and cons? Do Homework

Nathan Sawaya: LEGO artist

Nathan Sawaya uses ordinary LEGO bricks to create art. He left a career in law to become a full-time LEGO artist. His show, The Art of the Brick, now tours the world.

Watch this short video about Nathan Sawaya's decision to become a LEGO artist. Listen for the answers to these questions: 

  1. What kind of law did Nathan used to practice?
  2. What city did he live in?
  3. What event(s) made him decide to leave his career as a lawyer and become a full-time LEGO artist?
  4. How many LEGO bricks does he have in his studio?
  5. How long can a life-size human form take to make using LEGO bricks?


At the end of the video, Sawaya says, "You don't have to find one career path. There are many ways to get to where you want to go, even if you don't know where that is right now. You can always change what you are." What are your thoughts on this? Do Homework

Our changing perception of time

According to Vox, there's very little scientific evidence to suggest our perception of time changes as we age. However, people consistently report that the past felt longer.

There are a few different ways to study how we perceive time. Scientists can look at time estimation, for instance: people’s ability to estimate how long an activity took to complete. They can also look at time awareness: the feeling that time "flies" when we are having fun, but then slows to a crawl when we do something boring. Finally, there's time perspective: the sense of a past, present, and future as constructed by our memories.

Researchers have found that time estimation and time awareness do not change much as we age. However, time perspective does. Generally, when people look back on their own life, they feel like their early years went by at a crawl, while their later years go by much more quickly. Childhood is full of big, memorable moments like learning to ride a bike or making first friends. By contrast, adult life becomes ordinary and mechanized.

Please summarize this article in 3 sentences. Do Homework
Do you feel like time used to pass by slower than it does now? Do Homework
When do you feel that time is passing by really slowly? How about really fast? Do Homework
According to the article, "adult life becomes ordinary and mechanized". Do you agree with this statement? Do Homework

Moral sacrifice is subjective

Perhaps you've heard of the so-called trolley problem, also known as the train problem. The old philosophical question goes like this:

There is a trolley barreling down the tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks, therefore saving the five people. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

What is the right thing to do?

Your answer to this question may depend on where you are from. A massive new study indicates that the most important factor is relational mobility.

What is relational mobility, you might ask? Simply put, it's how mobile you are in your society—how easy it is to make new friends or join a new social circle. For instance, the U.S. has relatively high relational mobility.

American people, therefore, were more willing to take a risk and make a choice, most often to divert the trolley and only sacrifice one person instead of five. If their choice ends up being unpopular, they can find new friends!

In places where your social circle is tough to change, like in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, people were reluctant to intervene and just let the trolley keep going towards the five people. 

Summarize this article in 3 sentences Do Homework
Are you from a country with high relational mobility, or low? Do Homework
What's your first impulse when given the trolley problem—if you had to make a very quick decision, what might you do? Do Homework
What do you think most of the people in your country would choose to do? Do Homework

Success can be an addiction

The Atlantic reports that though success isn’t a conventional medical addiction, it has addictive properties for many people. Praise stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is connected to addictive behaviors. Success addiction is known to have a negative effect on human relationships. People choose to travel for business on anniversaries, and they miss their children’s important milestones while working long hours. Some even decide to focus on their careers and forgo marriage.

Many scholars, such as the psychologist Barbara Killinger, have found that people are willing to overwork to keep getting "hits" of success at the expense of their well-being. They shelve a much-needed rest from work and time with family and friends until after a project, or a promotion, but that day never arrives.

The pursuit of success demands commitment, therefore people will have to make sacrifices. Unfortunately, success addicts never feel they have reached the point of satisfaction. One accomplishment must be followed by another and this cycle continues.

Success addicts experience a kind of withdrawal when it's time to let go. They often experience depression and anxiety, and ruminate compulsively about "the good old days."

Please summarize this article in a few sentences. Do Homework
What is your opinion of its stance on success and how addictive it can be? Do Homework
Do you think you are a success addict? Why or why not? Do Homework
Is it possible to avoid success addiction? If yes, how can it be avoided? If no, why is it impossible to avoid it? Do Homework

What would you save from Earth?

I once had a dream where the Earth was collapsing and we all had to hurry to get on a rocket ship to take us to another planet. There wasn't very much space on the ship, so we each could only bring 5 things (not including people or animals) with us. I remember choosing Beethoven's music, but I don't remember the other 4 things.

I often think about that dream and try to decide what I would choose now. Beethoven's music still makes the cut! What 5 things would you bring?

What are the 5 most important things on Earth that should be saved if the planet were to collapse? Explain your choices. Do Homework
What things do you think we should NOT bring with us? Do Homework
Discuss the real possibilities of this dream coming true. Might the Earth collapse? Could we live on other planets? Do Homework
Do you think space exploration is important? Why/Why not? Do Homework

Lateral thinking: The stuck truck

There's an insightful story that's used to explain lateral thinking, or thinking "outside the box". It goes like this:

A truck driver tried to pass under a low bridge, but the truck was too tall and got stuck. Traffic piled up behind it, and soon emergency workers, engineers, firefighters, and other truck drivers gathered to try to help.

Each one thought of possible solutions based on their own field of expertise. Mechanics thought of dismantling the truck piece by piece. Engineers thought of chipping away at the bridge. But none of the solutions were feasible. Then a boy who knew nothing of mechanics or engineering came along...

How would you solve the problem? Pitch a potential solution. Then your teacher will tell you the rest of the story and how the problem was eventually solved.

Recap the story. Try to do it in a single sentence. Do Homework
What's the underlying message in this story? Do Homework
Are you familiar with lateral thinking? If so, explain it to your teacher. Do Homework
Storytelling is a powerful way to make a key point. Discuss the role of storytelling in presentations and explanations. Do Homework