Before you’ve finished your breakfast this morning, you’ll have relied on half the world. (Martin Luther-King)
The Cambridge Primary Review Trust prioritises a rounded primary education that does not shirk the ‘everyday complexity’ of the contemporary world. In February 2016, it published the report Primary Education for Global Learning and Sustainability, which called for further work on ‘the development of a pedagogy of global and environmental social justice.’
The following are some thoughts about what ‘learning global’ looks like. It draws on insights from a project at Tide~ global learning which involves teachers from the UK, Spain, Kenya and The Gambia.
What are we trying to do?
CPRT’s February 2016 report points out that ‘learning about global and sustainability themes raises wider points regarding the purpose of education.’
Our aims will dictate the approaches that we take. Most serious commentators on the purpose of education go beyond test results to consider both individual and societal purposes. CPRT aims for ‘Self, others and the wider world’ are particularly (but not exclusively) relevant here. The following two aims deserve a careful reading:
Promoting interdependence and sustainability. To develop children’s understanding of humanity’s dependence for well-being and survival on equitable relationships between individuals, groups, communities and nations, and on a sustainable relationship with the natural world, and help children to move from understanding to positive action in order that they can make a difference and know that they have the power to do so.
Empowering local, national and global citizenship. To help children to become active citizens by encouraging their full participation in decision-making within the classroom and school, especially where their own learning is concerned, and to advance their understanding of human rights, democratic engagement, diversity, conflict resolution and social justice. To develop a sense that human interdependence and the fragility of the world order require a concept of citizenship which is global is well as local and national.
It is also worth noting that a set of outward-looking aims are also now enshrined within the globally-agreed UN Sustainable Development Goals as SDG 4.7.
What are our theories of knowledge and learning?
The next step on our pedagogical journey is to consider knowledge itself. How do we know the world?
Let’s take the issue of climate change as an example. Knowledge about it is contentious. Scientific predictions and solutions vary. We are dealing with change itself, so new knowledge is coming into being all the time. Our response therefore needs to be flexible, rather than fixed.
With an issue like this (or conflict, the refugee crisis etc) Mr Gradgrind’s ‘facts’ are only going to get us so far. If we think that human suffering, injustice and environmental devastation actually matter, we need something more.
Since climate change is already a pressing reality for millions of human beings, meaningful knowledge about it is not just a moral imperative but a growing necessity. It is not accidental that countries like Bangladesh have made it a compulsory element in their National Curriculum.
It is that wider narrative that makes all the messy information meaningful. However, a nine year old child may need specific stories to access that big picture: the polar bear stranded on an ice floe; the teenager generating renewable energy from a hamster wheel; the Maldives’ president holding an underwater press conference to draw attention to his islands’ plight; a demonstration or a summit that brings people together around a call for change. Some of those stories will want to counter potential pessimism with tales of hopeful action.
If we are to make sense of big, messy issues, then we are most likely to do so as active makers of meaning. We can start to make sense of the stories and information we encounter through investigation, comparison, experimentation, experience, dialogue, drama, debate, critical reflection, synthesis and application. To borrow from Jerome Bruner, we will mostly be using ‘narrative’ ways of understanding the world.
Learning may ultimately happen in each individual brain, but the business of effective global learning is a social activity. As CPRT’s final aim and seventh priority remind us, dialogue is paramount. Our ideas – and the values that inform them – are in play with those of other people. We make meaning together.
Rather than imagining a helpful and omniscient answer-book for big global issues, I like Edward Said’s idea of thinking ‘contrapuntally.’ He takes his metaphor from an orchestra, and how its individual instruments play distinctive lines that together make a greater whole.
In the example of climate change, these instrumental lines can be played by different subjects (Science, Geography, Citizenship etc), by accounts from contrasting parts of the world (big carbon emitters like the USA, vulnerable countries like The Gambia, rapidly-industrialising countries like India), or by the stories of people with different roles and viewpoints (the climate scientist, the fuel company employee, the Alaskan villager needing to move her home). When we put them together, we make a bigger whole, and in so doing we avoid the trap of ‘the single story.’
How do we connect action to learning?
If we are talking about global learning, challenging pessimism and fostering hope, then we are not only talking about understanding but about positive action.
I think that it is best to imagine action and learning in a dialectical relationship, where one constantly leads on to the other. Positive action, as part of a learning process, is not only informed by new knowledge, but leads on to further knowledge.
Seen this way, positive action can serve as a way into deeper learning. For example, a Year 4 class adopts a simple energy-saving measure, switching lights off in empty classrooms. This only makes sense if pupils locate what they are doing within the bigger picture of climate change and energy use. (‘We are doing this because …’)
Pupils can then subject their idea to scrutiny. Is this the best course of action, given the big picture? How much energy does it save? Where does the electricity come from? (e.g. if it is all generated from renewable sources, is it having any effect on climate change?) Are there safety or security benefits to sometimes leaving lights on? If so, is there a way around this (e.g. installing movement sensors)? And so forth …
In this instance, positive action leads to legitimate learning, and thus to further action. All-knowing adults are not grooming children into predetermined forms of ‘behaviour change’ (where switching off the lights is always an unquestionable good), but empowering them to arrive at their own ideas about what is responsible and effective. Children are acting as agents both of their own learning and of social and environmental change.
Moreover, 2016’s solutions are unlikely to be those of 2056, so children’s growing ability to criticise, analyse and imagine plausible courses of action is not only educationally richer, but more likely to be useful and sustainable. Professor Bill Scott describes this as ‘learning as sustainability.’
Global learning lenses – a useful scaffold?
The following offers some useful pedagogical scaffolding. It comes courtesy of Tide~’s Spanish project partners at FERE-CECA in Madrid, and takes the form of four ‘global learning lenses.’ These can help us look into any global issue, for example the international food trade.
The Magnifying Glass opens up the issues, including becoming aware of hidden questions about values and the way we use language. We might start by looking at food labels, identifying where things have come from, and finding the places on the map. Using a questioning framework like the Development Compass Rose we can investigate images of growers and producers in some of these places. We could give them thought or speech bubbles, freeze frame the images, and discuss why they are thinking or saying those things.
The 3D Glasses offer diverse perspectives. These could be subject or place perspectives, the viewpoints of different people in the production cycle. Who earns what from growing a banana? We could debate-in-role as a banana grower, an importer and a supermarket manager. Are the processes just? Older pupils could look at an international news website and consider what people in different countries are saying about the latest trade talks.
The Microscope looks deeper and more critically into the issues. What would happen if we were to fill a lunchbox using different criteria, such as trading fairly, being environmentally friendly, healthy eating, living on a budget, tastiness? What would go into only one box? Into all? Which would we opt for and why? Older children might look at the way a big supermarket chain or a leading brand works. Who is involved and what are the processes?
The Telescope envisions solutions and engages us in ‘utopian thinking’. We might write or draw an imaginary classroom, school or community of the near future where all its food is provided fairly and with the environment in mind. From this, we might decide to set up a food growing project at the school, or to support a particular producer, and present our work to peers and parents. Outputs of this kind not only concentrate and focus learning, but lend it real purpose.
Like any pedagogical journey, we need to consider our aims, the kind of approaches that best suit the content (and the children) and to have some useful tools at our disposal. I look forward to hearing how readers’ global learning journeys go.