When the Cambridge Primary Review conducted its Community Soundings in 2007, it encountered a widespread sense of the world as a threatening place for children. The Review’s Final Report (p 189) explains:
We were frequently told … that the wider world is changing, rapidly and in ways which it is not always easy to comprehend, though on balance they give cause for alarm, especially in respect of climate change and environmental sustainability.
However, it then adds:
Pessimism turned to hope when witnesses felt they had the power to act. Thus, the children who were most confident that climate change need not overwhelm them were those whose schools had replaced unfocussed fear by factual information and practical strategies for energy reduction and sustainability.
I have spent a quarter of a century thinking about how primary schools can help children engage with such information, and adopt such strategies. It remains work in progress. I hope that the following will help teachers as they create their own professional repertoire.
Let us begin with pessimism.
Frightening visions of the world often impinge on children’s consciousness. Aged six in Cardiff, my teacher told a horrified class about the nearby Aberfan disaster. Could this happen to us? My childhood nightmares revolved around nuclear war and the scene in the Sound of Music where the family crouches in terror, hiding from a Nazi search party. The nature of the challenges has mutated, but there remains much for children to be anxious about.
Spending a morning with year four children in a Worcestershire first school, I observed their efforts to make sense of some enormous numbers on the Worldometers website. As they watched the figures for births, deaths, carbon emissions and arms sales ratchet up in real time, like a demented gaming machine, the children began to decipher what they were seeing. They compared figures and applied what these meant to the real world around them. Within fifteen minutes, the children were cross-referring statistics on global literacy to what they had seen on Newsround about Malala Yousafzai.
The absolute figures for access to water and sanitation showed slow but steady progress. One child related this tellingly to population data: ‘About once every second someone else gets clean water and sanitation. But look at how many people there are: it’s not very nice.’ A nine-year-old child who can not only understand factual information, but interrogate it critically, and thereby create new knowledge, is already on a journey from pessimism to hope. That child will certainly not be easily duped by statistics, although he or she may also be in need of some wider perspectives and some practical solutions.
If we censor the world for children, in all its scariness and wonder, we can end up failing to protect them. In our quite proper desire to keep children safe, this can sometimes seem counter-intuitive. Time and again, however, surveys show that even very young children are already aware from family and the media of what is going on in the world. They will also often be very confused about it. If we delay our responses until children reach an imagined stage of developmental ‘readiness’, we merely allow fear and confusion free rein.
Many schools provide safe spaces where children can talk about what is going on in the world. This might be a daily ‘in the news’ slot, or through circle time, communities of enquiry, or within dedicated humanities, PSHE or RE time. Story can offer a powerful way in, offering as it does the protection that children are dealing with the world of fiction and the imagination.
I saw some powerful work recently from a year five class in West London, based on Pandora’s Box. The class created its own box, into which children placed what they most hated in the world. Importantly, clear ground rules had been established in advance, including the option to keep feelings private. Several families came from conflict zones, and many children related fears about violence and war. Others talked about unfair adult treatment, frightening things that they had witnessed, or deep-seated negative feelings about themselves. This activity was possible because these children had a high degree of trust in their peers and teachers, including a belief that their fears would be heard and responded to. Their own Pandora’s Box set out quite an agenda for the school, embracing curriculum (e.g. the literature, history and geography of war, conflict and refugees), wellbeing and safeguarding. Some of this had implications for the whole school and the local community. However, without the school having bravely provided a safe space for the children to reveal their ‘furies’, they might easily have remained silent and unattended in the children’s hearts and minds.
Pessimism requires a considered response. There is also cause for hope, but we may not hear so much about it. I think our highly-numerate year four child would be encouraged by these figures from the United Nations Development Programme:
- Since 1990, the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined by more than half.
- The proportion of undernourished people in the developing regions has fallen by almost half.
- The primary school enrolment rate in the developing regions has reached 91 percent, and many more girls are now in school compared to 15 years ago.
- Remarkable gains have also been made in the fight against HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
- The under-five mortality rate has declined by more than half, and maternal mortality is down 45 percent worldwide.
- The target of halving the proportion of people who lack access to improved sources of water was also met
(Of course, our canny child would not be alone in asking how these figures had been arrived at, what they omit, and about the use of a term like ‘the developing regions’).
In September this year, leaders from 193 countries agreed 17 Sustainable Development Goals, setting out objectives for sustainable human and environmental development for the next fifteen years. Crucially, SDG4 for ‘Quality Education’ also sets the following target:
By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.
The Cambridge Primary Review and CPRT have been ahead of the game, embracing sustainability and global citizenship as both a priority for the Trust and two explicit aims for all schools. The commitment has been implicit from the very beginning in CPR’s strapline – ‘Children, their world, their education’ – which was also was used for its final report and a 2014 seminar in which CPRT was involved, and there have been three recent CPRT blogs on this issue. The 2014 seminar also drew on pilot work carried out by the cross-European project DEEEP, considering the tricky question of how we measure progress against this UN target.
Frankly, all this may be a bit hard to digest. For me, the test is therefore what best serves the needs of particular children and their education. My instinct is to start with a question: what is happening and why does it matter? We can then move on to what different people are saying about it. It will be important to ensure that children have access to a good range of varied perspectives: this is one place where the specialists can help. From there, children can move on to the ways forward that might be available (there should usually be more than one, even at key stage 1). There may then be appropriate action that children can take: themselves, through others, often both.
From a pedagogical point of view, one of the great things about big global issues is that they may appear abstract, but they are actually very concrete. This means that children are engaging with real questions in real time, and this can lend a clear purpose to their enquiries, their talk, their writing. Moreover, because we are dealing with the real world, we are necessarily engaging with its glorious messiness. The world is perennially changing, what people say about it is contested, and our knowledge of it is constantly being updated. Such global knowledge is enormously rich: there is no answer-book for the big questions that face us in the real world.
This also means that we are to some extent necessarily co-learners. Indeed, it has been argued that human and sustainable development is itself a learning process, in which case we are all de facto participants on a shared learning journey. This can be challenging, but it can also be liberating for both teacher and pupils.
To put this into sharper focus, let us imagine that a year six class is learning about the forthcoming climate change summit in Paris. Yet again, world leaders are going to determine what is to be done about our collective futures. By borrowing an enquiry process that Tide~ has used in the past, we could ask:
- What is climate change? There is some solid science here, including the opportunity to take weather measurements, look at leaf-fall and bud-burst. Children could examine what so-called ‘climate sceptics’ have to say, and where the balance of evidence presently resides.
- Why does it matter? This allows children to move into geography, and the differential impacts of climate events on, say, the UK, the Sahel and small island states. They could use a ‘mystery’ to explore complex chains of cause and effect across the globe. They could follow online news reports about what people are saying in different places in the lead-up to the Paris summit.
- What can we do about it? This includes geography and science. Children could look at technical solutions in design technology, personal action and morality in PSHE and RE, the decision-making processes at Paris. They might write persuasive texts to send to local delegates to Paris. For a whole school response, a scheme such as Eco Schools would come into its own.
- What have we learned and how? This is a chance for children to share their learning with others, and with a purpose in so doing. For example, they could create an assembly, a film, a blog or news bulletin for their peers and the community, thereby meeting an ‘extended writing’ brief for National Curriculum 2014. In reviewing the ways they have learned about this issue, they may well devise further questions for the future. This is about empowering children not only as learners, but also as confident citizens.
There is a great deal of material for those wanting to go deeper into the pedagogy and ethics of global learning and sustainability. Elaine Miskell has produced a succinct document on some common pitfalls, and how they can be overcome. Teachers at Tide~ have produced a discussion paper on teaching about climate change as a focus for staff meetings. Thinkers like Vanessa Andreotti have written compellingly about how to challenge development stereotypes.
Eventually, the choice of what to do comes down to the individual teacher, the circumstances and opportunities that exist in her or his school, classroom and community, with specific children in mind. When I think about the many children I meet, like that year four child in Worcestershire, the fears that they share, the tricky questions that they ask, and the potential solutions they undertake, my own anxieties about the world start to feel more hopeful. If children can become agents of their own learning, authors of their own future and makers of sustainable change, those ‘darker visions’ of the world look a little bit brighter.
Ben Ballin works for the educational charity Tide~ global learning. He is also a consultant to the Geographical Association and Big Brum Theatre in Education. The example from Worcestershire previously appeared in the article ‘The World in Numbers’ in Primary Geography 33.
The ‘darker visions’ in Ben’s final paragraph is a reference to the scene-setting in the Cambridge Primary Review final report and a reminder of why the Review and the Trust are committed to equity, global understanding and sustainability. The report said (p 15): ‘This is the era of globalisation, and perhaps of unprecedented opportunity. But there are darker visions. The gap between the world’s rich and poor continues to grow. There is political and religious polarisation. Many people are daily denied their basic human rights and suffer violence and oppression. As if that were not enough, escalating climate change may well make this the make-or-break century for humanity as a whole. Such scenarios raise obvious and urgent questions for public education.’