In April I wrote for CPRT about the sort of aims and approaches needed for ‘learning global.’ Since then, the world has moved on dramatically, and the question of what it means to ‘know’ the world has become more acute.
The world’s most pressing questions now find themselves in a ‘post-truth’ environment. How can we best ‘deliberate the issues’ with primary children? I think this goes far beyond ‘core knowledge.’
The following news stories will help explain some of the difficulties involved in getting to know the world. I would not use them with children, but what makes them difficult for us as adults also helps clarify our own understanding.
On 12th September 2011, a fire ripped through the settlement of Sinai, in Nairobi, Kenya. It was caused by an oil pipeline leak, and many people were killed. On the same day, a British couple were attacked while on holiday on the Northern Kenyan coast. The husband was shot dead; his wife was kidnapped.
The story about the British couple was widely reported in the UK and remained in the news for many days. After a few reports on the day itself, the story about the Nairobi fire dropped out of the UK news. The amount of information that people received about these two events was quite different. What could be known or valued was determined by what seemed ‘newsworthy.’
What we get from the media (or a national curriculum) can only ever be a selection from the world: a selection usually made by others on our behalf. That is one problem about knowing, and especially about what gets counted as ‘core’.
Initial news reports from the Kenyan fire talked of ‘dozens killed’, and later ‘at least 75’. Because Sinai is an informal settlement, the real figure may well be unknowable. It is hard too to know the consequences of all this for an already marginal community, in terms of the loss of homes and livelihoods, let alone at a psychological and emotional level.
It is hard to know these things, but as I write this I can start to imagine – and that is another sort of knowing. It has to be handled with care (there is a risk of projecting our own assumptions onto this situation), but it has its place.
After the fire, people began to look at where the responsibility lay (or, as Voice of America reported, ‘Blame-Game Follows Nairobi Pipeline Blast’).
The newspaper and chat rooms were full of differing accounts: warnings about too many people living near the pipeline; government officials’ failure to relocate families; some blamed the residents for staying there; others pointed out that many had been displaced from elsewhere; many expressed fury at the Kenya Pipeline Company; at least one commentator talked of the murky politics behind the situation. BBC Nairobi correspondent, Caroline Karobia, said: ‘For the slum-dwellers, though, the reason is obvious: Poverty.’
How do we know which of these accounts to believe, many of them conflicting, some simplistic, some teetering on the edge of conspiracy theories? Can we know what really happened, and why?
I think that is possible to know: to seek truth, to find out, and come up with answers – often provisional, often contestable, but answers nonetheless.
What it means to know when we are dealing with contested knowledge, something so emotive, requires critical interrogation, exploration, debate, investigation and enquiry. It may well also require an element of ‘facts’ (where these places are, key statistics), but we need far more.
It also requires the sort of knowing that comes from the imagination: to not lose sight of the central injustices in this story, of the reasons why people might say what they say, do what they do. This story matters because it speaks to our humanity: it is not, cannot, merely become a case study. We need both ‘felt understandings’ and cool analysis.
There is a further risk when we are dealing with a story like this one: it becomes part of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called a ‘single story’: a narrative where the UK is ‘developed’ but Africa is ‘undeveloped’, full of poverty and indecipherable otherness.
The information we get is often distorted, unsubstantiated … and always partial. We think we know things, but our sources are sometimes unreliable, restricted, biased. We – and children – need spaces where we can critically explore crucial questions of reliability, accuracy and motive.
Here are some pointers to consider as part of a repertoire for helping children know the world.
Above all, we need narrative modes of understanding. Drama and story can help us see patterns, look for what is said and unsaid, explore different perspectives, detect bias and engage with the issues in an empathetic manner. We can deliberately seek out alternative texts and counter-narratives (‘different stories’), first-hand accounts, or news reports from around the world.
We need to be careful about ‘balance,’ as not every voice is equally authentic or evidenced (for example, the very small proportion of scientists arguing against man-made climate change). Children need to interrogate historical and contemporary texts (including visual and web media) – what is evidenced? what is opinion? why was it written?
Stories like Anthony Browne’s ‘Voices in the Park’ offer excellent opportunities for exploring events from different viewpoints, as do ‘flipped’ stories like ‘Maleficent,’ ‘The True Story of the Three Little Pigs’ and some of Roald Dahl’s ‘Revolting Rhymes.’
Drama, especially, gets under the skin of a story, exploring how people think and feel in demanding situations. Role-play techniques like ‘freeze framing’ offer children opportunities to explore people’s viewpoints and feelings. Debating-in-role gives them the opportunity to create an argument from a perspective other than their own, as can writing a persuasive text in role.
Even very young children can interrogate visual images: creating thought or word bubbles for a picture (are the thoughts and words always the same?); extending a photograph beyond its frame; considering where the photographer is in every image. They can create their own images for different purposes: to show a friend their home area, attract tourists or encourage the council to spend more. How do these images differ and why?
Such opportunities for questioning, dialogue and enquiry can bring light, as well as heat, to the difficult business of getting to know the world … and ultimately, enable resilience in the face of demagoguery.