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October 2023 - Year 25 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

“Kill or let die?” - Students’ Reaction to a Moral Dilemma in an EFL Task

Andrea Huszákné Vendégh is an EFL teacher at a general secondary school in Budapest, who also holds a degree in mental health studies. She is a PhD student at ELTE University and is especially interested in positive psychology, mental health and emotional well-being in education. Email:



EFL teachers might work with a strictly prescriptive curriculum or have more freedom to shape their own syllabi; they might be more comfortable following a textbook or prefer to design their own courses using a variety of materials. Either way, they probably spend a considerable amount of time finding the most suitable tasks and activities for their students. They might find different aspects useful when selecting the best tasks: grammatical categories, vocabulary, or language functions. They might also consider what topics their students are interested in or what types of activities they find the most motivating. In this paper, I would like to investigate a further aspect of one specific activity: the students’ (emotional) reaction to a moral dilemma presented in the task.


Review of the literature

Before shedding some light on the task itself, that is, the possible origin and the many variants of it, some key concepts regarding two issues: (1) morality / ethics in ELT and (2) tasks must be reviewed.


Moral issues in ELT materials

It is general consensus that morality and character building is an integral part of pedagogy. As Johnston puts it “teaching is always and inevitably a profoundly value-laden undertaking” (Johnston, 2004 p. 12.). In the past twenty years, there has been an increasing interest towards issues of ethics, morality and values in the ELT field as well. Naturally, moral issues and ethical dilemmas are more likely to be included in ELT textbooks and other materials for older teenagers and adults, and it is so  for two probable reasons. On one hand, they would not be age relevant for young pupils; on the other hand, discussing such issues at depth requires a high level of language proficiency, which younger learners in most EFL (English as a foreign language) context do not possess. This might be the reason why most of the literature that deals with morality and ELT examine secondary and tertiary levels.

Widodo et al. (2018) have recently presented an overview of the treatment of moral and cultural values in ELT materials used in South-East Asian context. Perfecto & Paterno (2018) examined reading materials designed for grade 5 and 7 ESL students in the Philippines. Using content analysis, they found that quite a few values, that are considered to be “traditional and universal” like “courage, optimism, honor, determination, love for family, care for the elderly, and love for country” (Perfecto & Paterno, 2018 p. 36) are represented in the textbooks. However, they also observed that some of the material might not be age relevant for (young) teenagers.

In the same volume, Wu & Navera (2018) explored the Singapore context, analysing secondary school textbook materials and interviewing two materials writers. Their findings reinforce the thought that ELT is not value-free, however, referring to their interviewees, they point out that ELT teachers are not values education teachers, although might assume the implicit role as moral agents. Therefore, the main emphasis falls on linguistic features when developing ELT materials and values education is not explicit. The interviewees also treat sensitive topics like “lifestyle options, social taboos, potentially divisive topics like religion and race, and sensitive interpersonal issues like cyber-bullying and gambling” with “caution and guardedness” (Wu & Navery, 2018 p. 63), and they generally avoid them in materials written for secondary school students as EFL teachers might not be prepared to deal with them in their classrooms.

Two further studies by Le (2018) and Widodo (2018) explored the Vietnamese and the Indonesian context, respectively. Although the two studies used somewhat different approaches and methods, (a critical pedagogy perspective and case study in Le’s (2018) case, and critical discourse analysis in Widodo’s (2018)), they both analysed textbook reading materials and came to similar conclusions. It was found in both cases that “universal” and local cultural values are embedded in the materials, indeed. However, it remained dubious whether these materials (especially the “learning activities” beyond the texts) offer sufficient ground for meaningful, deep discussions, for instance, that may invite the students to think critically and express their own ideas, views and opinions. As Le (2018 p. 123) concludes: “most of the learning activities in the textbooks are only targeted at the exchange of messages at the expense of issues of students’ voice and identity.” Widodo (2018) misses “value-based English learning activities” in the Indonesian textbooks as well.

All the studies in Widodo et al. (2018) aimed at reading materials in published textbooks. Their findings raise the question whether any ELT materials themselves - no matter how carefully designed and well-written they are to include moral issues and values - can contribute to value education or character education without a teacher who is aware and prepared enough to guide or moderate a group discussion, for instance. 

What is a task?

Some researchers make a difference between a strong and a weak form of task-based language teaching (TBLT). In a ‘strong’ version tasks are the units of teaching, which means that “in this view, the need to transact tasks is seen as adequate to drive forward language development” (Skehan 1996, 39). Everything else is of secondary importance. In the ‘weak’ form tasks are a central but not exclusive part of the EFL lessons. As Skehan (1996) points it out, it is very similar to the general communicative approach, which might be regarded as the most prominent language teaching approach these days.

What a task is, has been widely discussed in TBLT literature. Skehan (1998) lists four criteria for an activity to be regarded as a task:

  1. Meaning is primary.
  2. There is a goal which needs to be worked towards.
  3. The activity is outcome-evaluated.
  4. There is a real-world relationship (p. 268).

Tasks can also be viewed as ‘workplan’ and as ‘process’ (Ellis 2000). Task-as-workplan “typically involves the following: (1) some input (i.e. information that learners are required to process and use); and (2) some instructions relating to what outcome the learners are supposed to achieve” (Ellis 2000, 195). Task-as-process, on the other hand, is the actual activity that is carried out by specific learners on the basis of the workplan. Ellis argues that “the activity predicted by the task-as-workplan may or may not accord with the activity that arises from the task-as-process” (Ellis 2000, 195).

As it has been said above, tasks are outcome-evaluated, which usually means that the three main aspects of language production, complexity, accuracy and fluency are assessed. These three aspects have been widely examined in task-based research (Robinson, 2001; Norris & Ortega, 2009; Skehan, 2009;  Ellis, 2009).

Ellis (2018) states that researchers’ and teachers’ interest in tasks may be different. Researchers employ tasks to collect data to derive theories from regarding second language acquisition, whereas teachers are more concerned with how they can aid their students’ language development using tasks. As it has been already referred to in the introduction, their most important question is whether the task will ‘work’. Using Ellis’s framework and guideline for the micro-evaluation of tasks, the present study is an account of “practitioner research” (Ellis, 2018) with some new elements added. Beyond the ‘success’ of the task, it will be argued, there is another aspect to consider: students’ feelings, emotions and reactions while carrying out the task. In this case, it is not foreign language anxiety - another well researched area in EFL - that the focus is on, but students’ emotional reaction to the moral dilemma that is presented in the task. The main interest is not centred on how they feel about having to talk in English but about the very topic of the task. In this sense, it is both an examination of the task as ‘workplan’ to see whether it ‘works’, whether it triggers the intended type of activity; and as task-as-process to see what kind of an experience the discussion was to the specific students being observed. Also, using Ellis’ (2018) categories, the study can be regarded both as ‘student-based’ (however, at this time it is not the students’ motivation but their emotional reaction that is examined) and as ‘response-based’, where students’ performance is analysed: whether they carry out the intended activity and whether they achieve the task outcome.

It seems that beyond effective techniques, including tasks for language development, there is more to EFL. It can play a role in students’ character building as moral persons, therefore the present study seeks to find answers to the following research question:

How do students respond to the moral dilemma of killing or letting die presented in a specific task?


The task

The task probably originates in a philosophical dilemma discussed by, for example, Foot (1967) and Thomson (1976), also known as ‘the trolley-problem’. They investigate the question whether it is right to do harm to some so as to cause good to others, in other words: to kill (or let die) someone (anyone) in order to save others. In both papers the authors consider a series of examples, in an attempt to find out what circumstances might justify killing (or letting die). ‘The trolley problem’ refers to one of these scenarios, where you suppose you are the driver of a tram that got loose and there is no way to stop it. Ahead of you there are five workmen on the track, who cannot escape because the ledge is too narrow. You can pull a lever that will divert the tram on a side-track, where there is one workman, who you will definitely run over if you pull the lever. Here is the dilemma: is it right to pull the lever?

The task that was chosen for the study was first published (to my best knowledge) in Rooks (1981) and bears the title ‘Who gets the heart?’. In this task the students are the members of a group of surgeons, who have to decide who should get a heart transplant out of seven critically ill patients. The students’ task is to discuss and make a rank ordering as to which patient should be first, second, etc. to receive the heart.

There are numerous variants of this task, a very popular one is the ‘Balloon debate’, where students have to decide which passengers to throw out of the hot air balloon in order to save the rest from crashing. (For further variants, see Appendix 1.)

For reasons explained in section 4.1.2. it was finally not the original ‘Who gets the heart?’ task that was used, but a new variant, a juxtaposition of the two. The context was changed, the students are not doctors ‘saving’ someone but viewers of a reality show ‘letting some people die’. The original characters were kept and the information about them only slightly altered.

According to the typology suggested by  Pica et al. (2009) it is a decision-making task, where the participants are all information holders, information requesters and information suppliers, a two-way information requester-supplier interaction is possible, but interaction is not necessary, interactants have a convergent goal orientation, and more than one outcome options are possible.

Examining the task against Skehan’s (2018) criteria, it is right to say that (1) meaning is primary in all variants of the task: the expected activity is oral discussion. (2) There is a goal to reach: selecting the patients to be saved or the passengers to be thrown out. (3) It can be outcome-evaluated either in the sense that the goal is reached or that a discussion was inspired. (4) There is real-world relationship, however, this one can be argued. Regarding the original task, it is dubious whether all students will end up working as surgeons. It might be more likely that they take part in a hot air balloon ride or in a reality show as members of the audience, and they have to ‘vote out’ participants. On the other hand, having to choose to kill (or let die) people is a little bit far-fetched, clearly not ‘real’. Nevertheless, the discussion, the reasoning that the task is supposed to generate does have communicational value and if not situational, then interactional authenticity (Ellis, 2017, p. 508).


The study


In this section the participants will be described, along with the procedure of the data collection and analysis.



The participants were 11 students, aged 17-18 in an EFL class in a Hungarian secondary school. They are taking part in the YILL (Year of Intensive Language Learning) programme, which means that they had been learning English for three years at their current school, with the teacher-researcher, in a relatively high number of lessons, and they had learnt English before entering secondary school for a varying number of years. Nevertheless, there are considerable differences between their level of English. The group originally consisted of 13 students but two of them had already passed the exam required to take the school leaving exam, therefore they were no longer obliged to attend lessons. From this point in this piece of research, whenever ‘teacher’ is mentioned, it should be understood as the teacher-researcher who facilitated the described activity and wrote up this account.


Data collection

The task was completed in an online lesson in April 2021. The participants were divided into three smaller groups of 3-4. This was a work format that they had already known well. The teacher uses various techniques when creating these smaller groups; sometimes it is the students’ choice, sometimes they are grouped randomly and sometimes the teacher places them into their group based on some criteria. This time, the latter technique was used. The starting point was not to put people together who (to the teacher’s judgement) openly dislike each other because it was thought to have impaired open communication. Another criterion was to put people with a relatively similar level of English and willingness to communicate (again, the teacher’s judgement from previous times was used here) together, so that each person had equal opportunities to share their ideas, and the possibility for anyone to feel intimidated would be minimised. However, it is understood that any attempt on the teacher’s behalf to create ideal circumstances by “manual” grouping might be altered by other factors and not reach its goal.

The students in each group were given the same task ‘The Hot Air Balloon’ (for description, see Appendix 2), which is a decision-making communication task. It was adapted from a task called ‘Who gets the heart transplant?’ (Rooks, 1981). First, the teacher wanted to use the original task with minor changes (the date) but the night before the lesson she realised that making students in the chosen group deal with the issue of life and death in the very realistic setting of the hospital was a bad idea as one of the students in the group had recently lost his sister to a suddenly appeared illness, and two other students in the class (one in this group, and a friend of theirs in the other group) had been struggling with and treated for cancer. Therefore, the setting was changed to a less disturbing but maybe an even more realistic one as the original: the student participants are not doctors selecting patients for an organ transplant but viewers of a reality show.

First, the teacher informed the students that they were going to complete a discussion task in small groups, and that their discussion will be recorded and used for research purposes. Written consent forms were also administered beforehand. Then they were sent the worksheet with all the information. The students were not instructed in any further way as to how they were supposed to carry out the task. They were informed about the pre-determined grouping schedule. After that, the students were given 15 minutes to read through the information and do the discussion in breakout rooms. This part of the lesson was recorded by one student in each of the three small groups, which resulted three pieces of audio and video recording of 14 mins 22 sec (Group 1), 10 mins 35 sec (Group 2), and 1 min 15 sec (Group 3). The students were asked to turn their cameras on for the recording, so that facial expressions, gestures and other forms of non-verbal communication could be examined but some of them did not. The audio of the recordings was then transcribed with mentions of relevant non-verbal cues from the video too, then coded and thematically analysed. The teacher only entered the breakout rooms once at beginning to make sure that the students were right on track. In two cases, the students had not started to carry out the task, had not started the recording but in one case, the teacher interrupted. The reason for this and the relevance of it will be explained later. The students were then aware that they were left to their own devices, the teacher was not listening in on them, but would, of course, listen to the recordings later. They were also informed that no one else would listen to or watch the recordings. These steps were taken to ensure that the students are at ease as much as possible when communicating.

The students were asked to fill in a questionnaire immediately after the lesson too. Ten out of the eleven students did. The questionnaire consisted of nine closed-ended and four open-ended questions (see Appendix 3).


Data analysis

The qualitative data gathered from the recording of the students’ discussions and the open-ended questions in the questionnaire was analysed thematically. It was expected that the arguments they used would shed light on some moral values and principles they might hold. Due to the low number of participants, the statistical analysis of the quantitative data from the questionnaire was not possible, so those responses were also considered as qualitative data.



Group 1

This was the group where the task generated the richest and liveliest discussion. Although it was not the focus of the present piece of research, and therefore not analysed systematically, it could be concluded that the three students in this group had a well-balanced conversation: they each spoke for relatively the same amount of time, and no one dominated the group. Also, their utterances reflected high levels of complexity and fluency, and mostly accuracy too. There were multiple examples of  negotiation of meaning, when they either assisted one another in interpreting the task (Example 1) or setting forth and accepting each other’s argumentation (Example 2).

Example 1:

P2: Ooh, uh do we have to come to an agreement or we just have to express our opinions?

P3: I think an agreement.

P1: Yes.

P2: Ah, alright ...

Example 2:

P3: If we just save one of them, Alicia, her sister will be depressed in her entire life.

P2: How do you know? What if they have a bad relationship?

P3: I don't think so because they are in a trip, so (vagy) I don't know what is this.

P2: Maybe they are forced to be together.

P3: ... in a TV show together.

P2: Oh, I see ...

(Please note that all the examples are quoted as they were originally uttered. Most of the time the students spoke in English, but in a few cases they used words in their native Hungarian, too.)

Examining the content of the discussion, two main themes emerged that are relevant to the research question. The first one is the appearance of their worldview, values and principles by which they argued for their choices and decisions. The aspects they considered were the age of the travelers, whether they had (young) children, and (with a weaker emphasis) their achievements in their professional lives. Another important feature of their way of thinking was - especially from the point of view of ethics - that very soon they began to think of the task as ‘saving’ four people not so much as ‘killing’ three of them. (‘Who shall we save?’ instead of ‘Who shall we kill?’) Participant 2 (P2) raised this idea at the beginning and the other two immediately accepted. There was some disagreement, but they all presented valid arguments and they managed to come to an agreement by the end. However, P1 became a little irritated at the end and gave up her original argument because of the time constraint of the task setting.

The other theme was the feelings and emotions the participants expressed towards the task either verbally or non-verbally. There was only one occasion of verbal expression, the very first utterance of P3: ‘When I first heard it, I was terrified ... of this.’ It was immediately followed by P1 telling her off playfully. Maybe P1 was too concerned of focusing on the task and did not want them to go on a sidetrack. Then they broke into Hungarian arguing about whether it was alright to express such feelings. (Un?)fortunately, this was the moment when the teacher entered the room, interrupted and attempted to clarify that it was OK to use their feelings when forming their arguments. It is dubious whether the interruption was helpful and/or necessary because no one expressed any feelings in their arguments afterwards, they mostly started giving their ideas with the phrase ‘I think we should ...’. On the other hand, the discussion had a great atmosphere: no one seemed to have become intimidated by the teacher’s interruption.

Non-verbal expressions included occasional sighs and smiles on the behalf of the two girl participants (P1 and P3), and some (nervous or embarrassed?) laughs. For example, when pondering the idea of “throwing out” one of the twin sisters, P3, who had claimed to be “terrified” by the task, released a big laugh as if of relief when P1 came up with the idea that if they “kill” one of the sisters, the other would jump too, so they (the group) would not be responsible for her death (see Example 3).  It seems that P3, who had taken the task quite seriously and had been genuinely shocked by the idea that they were asked to decide between other people’s life and death, took comfort in the thought that it was only a playful activity, and not real.   

Example 3:

P3: The four, wait-wait-wait-wait. Gaia, what to do with ... oh, yeah. ... She also has a really young children.

P1: But if we kill her twin sister, so what she would do?

P3: That’s a good ... she won't let to die ... her (unintelligible) ...

P1: She would jump, jump after her.

P3: Yes, so they choose the death not us (laughs), (P1: Yes!) throw them away, throw them out, away! (big laugh)

Another instant where non-verbal expression of emotions was strong involved P2 (see Example 4). He ventured a joke about one of the passengers being Korean which triggered a prompt response from the girls. P1 expressed her disapproval and P3 tried to salvage the situation by making a very sensible and compassionate comment of her own.

Example 4:

P1: But Shoohan Kim is too young.

P3: That's true.

P2: Yes, but he's Korean so it doesn't matter.

P1: Tsa-tsa. (smiles disapprovingly) Oh, my God.

P2: Alright, sorry, that was a bad joke.

P1: It was.

P3: ... but hopefully South Korean, so not north, so maybe not suffering right now. (Some sighs, soft laughs, P1 whispers ‘basszus’.)

Group 2

In Group 2, Participant 4 (P4) clearly dominated the discussion because of his higher language proficiency level and temperament, probably. However, this does not mean that he did not let the others speak. On the contrary, he would ask them questions and wait for them to contribute but they were often reluctant to do so. P7 was the second most communicative member of the group, and P5 also took part to a lesser extent - maybe due to his poorer English. However, P6, who – this is well known to the teacher – does have a good command of English was not willing to communicate. (He only had two utterances: “I agree.” and “Me too.”)

As for the relevant thematic categories that emerged, the first theme mentioned in the case of Group 1 - appearance of worldview, values and principles -, was the most prevalent here, too. P4 directly asked the others to decide on these first:

Example 5:

P4: (laughs) OK, uh, I think we should, uh, set a few ideas first like why we will kick out people, like what are the reasons we pick someone. Like, should we go with the women and children first kind of, uh, approach or, uh, we should, uh, kick out people without family or ... take the oldest ones? We should take these into consideration.

He did not receive a relevant response for this but the two criteria they eventually considered were (1) the passengers’ age and (2) whether they had young children, indeed. However, it is an interesting difference between Group 1 and 2 that in Group 2, they were not thinking of “saving” people, rather “kicking” and “throwing” them out.

There was no verbal expression of emotions regarding the task itself. As for non-verbal signals, there were some nervous or embarrassed (?) smiles and laughs, but it is more likely that they were triggered by the uncomfortable situation of not having a smooth conversation. It is unclear what the complete reluctance of P6 signals. According to the teacher’s previous experience with the group and this student, his refusal to speak is not unusual, so it can be assumed that it was not provoked by the task.

It is notable how they negotiated meaning and solved a communication breakdown on one occasion:

Example 6:

P7: I think A-mog-ne-za, I don't know how to say, but we should throw her because she's the old(est).

P4: No-no-no. We should pick the approach first, like it would narrow down things, ... which would be really useful. ... But ... maybe it's just me. ... Okay, no one’s interested in this, all right, well ... Yes, I do agree that, uh, we should throw out Jacobson.

P7: Why?

P4: Because he has no family, he's one of the oldest, he's 42 years old, while most of the people are, uhm, in their teens or 20s. ... So, that's why. ... (pause)

P7: And who is the second?

P4: Ah, what did you say again? Before I spoke?

P7: What? Ó, nem figyeltem (smiles). (English: Oh, I wasn’t paying attention.)  

P4: Doesn't matter, doesn't matter. 

P7: I was asked who will be the second we throw out. (Means: I asked who the second one we throw out would be.)

P4: Not that, never mind it doesn't matter. OK, we should pick another ... (longish pause), another unlucky victim. ... I would pick Amegneza Edort because she's the oldest.

P5: I agree with you Tibor (pseudonym).

P6: Me too.

P7: I've said that before. (laugh/smile)

P4: Oh! That's what I asked by the way ... I forgot ...

P7: First, yes.

P7 pops up an idea, but then P4 - still insisting on picking an “approach” first - ignores it and comes up with another one. P7 seemingly lets her suggestion go, and does not get it when P4 asks her about it (“Ah, what did you say again? Before I spoke?”). When P4 finally comes up with the same idea, she manages to communicate that it was her idea too (see the underlined line).

On another occasion, however, their communication clearly failed. P5 comes up with an idea, and does get relevant responses from the others, but then contradicts himself breaking into Hungarian (which everybody surely understands), and then the whole idea gets dismissed. (See Example 7.)


Example 7:

P5: Maybe Alicia? (pause)

P4: Yes, that would make sense. She’s no family and, uh, she's, well, not old but, uh, compared to the others she's, she's not as young as like Shohan, so yes it would make sense to me.

P7: I agree.

P4: Okay, we’re pretty fast, not gonna lie. (pause)

P7: But Alicia has a future (nervous gasp, smile), I think.

P4: Well yes, everyone still have a future ahead of them but, uh, we have to make this decision. ... We can pick anyone, another one but, uh ... I don't really want to throw out someone with four children, four young children or three children so ...

P5: But Galia maybe don’t, vagy hát nem tudom, ezt most hogy, lehet, hogy nem engedné, mer ugye mégis a-a-a ikertestvérét dobnánk ki. (English translation: ... or I don’t know, how, maybe she wouldn’t let it happen, as it’s her twin sister we would throw out after all.)

P4: Mmm. Well...

P7: But we've decided to throw out Amegnezia?

P4: Yes, she's the second one.

The latter two examples (6 and 7) are important from the point of view of the research question because they show that the students took the task seriously and thought that the expression of their moral values was worthy to share - in spite of communicational difficulties. In Example 6, P7 owned up to her argument that the oldest person should be thrown out and wanted the others to note that it was her idea too. In Example 7, P5’s code-switching, which might be due to his poorer command of English, could also be a sign of his emotional involvement. He felt so strongly about the case that he wanted to communicate his idea, even if he could not do it in English.

Group 2, especially the dominant student P4 were strictly focused on completing the task, that is, producing three names at the end. There was no arguing, when someone popped up an idea, the others quickly accepted it. However, it would still be unfair to say that they did not care, or did not get involved (except for P6, maybe), as the examples show.


Group 3

Unfortunately, the recording from Group 3 did not provide useable data, as it only consists of each four participants uttering one sentence with a conjunction (‘We should throw out ... because ...’) listing the names of their choices. It is possible that they did have some discussion, but it was not recorded and they just present their result. Their principles for the arguments are the same as in Groups 1 and 2, they chose the oldest people with no young children.  


Results from the questionnaire

Examining the responses in the questionnaire study, two main themes can be seen. The students reflected on (1) the moral dilemma they were asked to deal with and on (2) the task settings (group discussion). Their reactions to the moral dilemma can be grouped into three categories: negative, neutral, and positive. Some of them felt that it was a “cruel” task and that no one has the right to decide about other people’s life or death. They openly expressed their dislike towards this aspect of the task. Meanwhile others expressed neutral opinions. They reported that the task was unusual and strange, but they did not mind taking part because they either did not find it difficult to talk about the topic (1 participant) or they knew it was not real (1 participant). Also, there were some students who definitely liked the task. They said it was exciting, it made them curious, and they enjoyed taking part. Seven out of ten participants responded positively to the general question whether they liked the task.

Most of the responses regarding the task settings (group discussion) were positive. Their reasons for having enjoyed the task include: having a conversation in English with their classmates; being able to reach an agreement; the fact that everybody participated; that they could help each other make a tough decision; that they could express their opinions, and it mattered; and that they were asked to think logically.



The thematic analysis of the students’ discussion offered two main categories that can give some insight into the morals of the students under scrutiny. (1) Their argumentation, the process they made their decision, what worldview is reflected in their words, what values they hold. (2) The direct or indirect expression of their thoughts, feelings and emotions regarding the task itself.

(1) It is possible that originally this task was not designed to make the students have a deep discussion or become aware of the depth of the issue. The mere aims might only have been of linguistic nature: develop complexity, accuracy and fluency. However, we cannot overlook the fact that the task invites students to discuss matters of life and death, the issue of human values and of who is more worthy than others. The participants’ choice of values became very clear: in all groups they chose to save the youngest people with young children, which means that they picked the ones that have a future.

(2) Whereas many students expressed their general liking of the task, there were some who were concerned about the ‘cruelty’ of it. There was one occasion when a student explicitly expressed her distress during the group discussion. Interestingly, however, there was no direct expression of feelings or emotions in the questionnaire responses (question #2). It seems that most participants were conscientious enough to ‘do the task’: to produce three names, that is, to achieve an outcome, even though some of them felt that it was not right to decide about people’s life or death. They took comfort in the thought that the situation was not real and it was just a ‘game’.    

Philosophers like Foot (1967) and Thomson (1976) elaborate on the moral dilemma of killing or letting die - and which is worse. They state, and it is reflected in the students’ discussions too, that people generally perceive ‘letting die’ less serious that ‘killing’. It was the most prevalent in the case of Group 1 that they considered their activity in the task more like ‘saving’ four - and not ‘killing’  three but rather ‘letting them die’.

The students seemed to be quite mature about the basic and universal moral principles of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and values of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. They thought that ‘killing’ or ‘letting die’ was wrong but completing a task in a lesson (“being a good student”) was right. They valued young age and the life of parents taking care of young children high, realising the impossibility of the dilemma that it is ‘bad’ if anyone has to die.



This study focused on the reactions of a group of teenage students to a difficult moral dilemma they encountered in an EFL task. It was found that while the task did spark vivid conversations in at least some cases, and did provide an opportunity for language development, it might have also brought up heavy feelings that must be dealt with. Many questions can be raised at this point. Is it worth it? How ethical is it to expose students to a (possibly) disturbing experience? What can or should a teacher do to minimise such effects? If we realise the moral imperative “do no harm” (Dickey, 2018) in language education, we must ensure that such tasks are used with maximum care and responsibility and students are not left confused if they may be.



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Appendix 1

Some variants of the ‘Balloon debate’


Appendix 2

The Hot Air Balloon

The situation

There was a contest organised by a large TV company and as part of the prize, the winners were awarded a hot air balloon flight over the Atlantic Ocean. They have been travelling for a few days now, and they suddenly notice that - due to some technical problems - the balloon has begun to sink, and it will crash in the middle of the ocean very soon, possibly killing all the passengers before rescue teams could reach them. There is no way to fix the technical problem. They have already thrown out all the luggage and all other equipment. The only solution is that they throw out three of the passengers to save the other four’s lives. All of this is part of a reality show which you are watching in the studio right now, and your group has been selected to make the decision: Which three people should they throw out?


Information about the passengers

1. Amegneza Edorh, female, age 57. Mrs. Edorh, a brilliant poet and novelist from Nigeria, received the 2007 Nobel Prize for literature. An inspiration throughout the developing world because of her anti-colonialist writings, she has also gained fame as a social media figure. (Married: four children between the ages of 30 and 39.)

2. Soohan Kim, male, age 18. He is a secondary school student from South Korea, currently studying in London. He is a quite popular student, chairman of the student committee in his school.

3. Alicia Pagan, female, age 27. She is a promising Ph.D. student in biochemistry at Georgetown University. (Unmarried)

4. Galia Feinstein, female, age 27. Mrs. Feinstein is Ms. Pagan’s twin sister. She holds a Master’s degree from Harvard University in Computer Science, and currently operates a computer business with her husband. (One daughter, age 4)

5. Frank Cooper, male, age 34. Mr. Cooper is a founding member and currently CEO of one of the largest charity organisations in the UK, which provides help for the poor and people who have lost their home and property in natural disasters like flood, wildfire or earthquake. They operate both at national and international level. He is a widower (his wife died in a car accident) and has three children (ages 6, 3, and 2).

6. Martha Rosales, female, age 23. She grew up in the slums of New York. She had been unemployed and on welfare. Since she won the contest and gained some fame and financial possibilities, she has managed to put her life on track, she’s gone back to school to earn her high school diploma. Never married, she has four children (ages 8, 6, 5, and 1).

7. Peter Jacobsen, male, age 42. Considered the leading scientist in the world in the area of bacteriological diseases, Mr. Jacobsen had a lung transplant operation two years ago. He has completely recovered and is fully healthy now. (Never married, no children.)


Discussion of the dilemma

You are the selected members of the audience who will decide which three people should be thrown out first. After reading the information, discuss and compare your decisions within the group. Explain and defend your opinions. Listen carefully to your classmates’ opinions but do not be afraid to disagree with those opinions. Try to reach a group consensus on the best solution to the problem. One person in the group should write down the group’s decisions.


Appendix 3

In Hungarian

Kérdőív a 'The Hot Air Balloon' című feladat után

Kedves Diákom!

Miután részt vettél a csoportbeszélgetésben, kérlek válaszolj néhány kérdésre! A kérdőív anonim, tehát nem látszik a válaszadó neve. Minden esetben a Te véleményed, meglátásod érdekel. Nincsenek jó és rossz válaszok!
Előre is köszönöm, hogy válaszaiddal segíted a munkámat! :)
Huszákné Vendégh Andrea

1. Mennyire igazak az alábbi állítások szerinted?


Egyáltalán nem igaz.

Inkább nem igaz.

Inkább igaz, mint nem.

Teljesen igaz.

Szívesen vettem részt ebben a feladatban.






Nyelvi nehézségeim akadtak a feladat során.






Ki tudtam fejezni a véleményemet.






Hatással voltam a csoport közös döntésére.






Úgy éreztem, számít a véleményem.






Egyedül könnyen ki tudtam választani a három utast.






A csoport könnyen jutott közös döntésre.






Furcsának találtam, hogy ilyen feladatot kapunk.






Tetszett ez a feladat.







2. Milyen érzés volt erről a témáról beszélgetni? Miért? Kérlek, fejtsd ki egy-két mondatban!

3. Ha bármennyire is furcsának találtad ezt a feladatot, miért? Kérlek, fejtsd ki egy-két mondatban!

4. Ha bármennyire is tetszett a feladat, miért? Kérlek, fejtsd ki egy-két mondatban!

5. Van-e még bármi, amit szeretnél elmondani a feladattal kapcsolatban?


English translation

Questionnaire about the task ’Hot Air Balloon’

Dear Student,

After you’ve taken part in the group discussion please answer these questions. This questionnaire is anonymous, there is no way to know the name of the respondent. In all questions I am interested in your opinion. The are no right and wrong answers. Thank you for helping my work in advance.

Huszákné Vendégh Andrea

1. How true are these statements in your opinion?


Not true at all.

Rather not true.

Rather true.

Completely true.

I liked taking part in this activity.






I had language difficulties during the activity.






I was able to express my opinion.






My contribution made an effect on the group decision.






I felt that my opinion mattered.





It was easy for me to pick the three passengers on my own.






It was easy for the group to make a decision together.






I thought it was strange that we got this task.






I liked the task.







2. What did it feel like to talk about this topic? Why? Please answer in one or two sentences.

3. If you thought the task was strange to any extent, why? Please answer in one or two sentences.

4. If you liked the task to any extent, why? Please answer in one or two sentences.

5. Is there anything else you’d like to say in connection with the task?


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