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Nurturing Global Citizens: ideas for embedding critical literacy within citizenship education

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Cat Davison talks about what it means to be a 'Global Citizen'.

This blog was first published on the Tony Little Centre website on 8 June 2021

This blog is by Cat Davison, Founder and Chair of EduSpots, a UK and Ghanaian registered education charity which won the Tes International Award in 2018 for its innovative model combining global citizenship education and community-led development. She is also Chair of the Schools Community Action group linked to the Independent School's Council and Director of Service and Partnerships at Sevenoaks School, where she also teaches Critical Thinking and Theory of Knowledge.

Schools increasingly indicate a desire to nurture 'global citizens'. By this, they typically mean that they want their students to identify a sense of belonging with a wider community, recognising their rights and responsibilities within the global context. Most definitions of global citizenship education (GCE) also highlight a need for informed action.

Whilst applications of notions of kindness and charity may be a positive starting point for many students, global injustices will not be solved through acts of giving alone. Students also need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to evaluate the impact of their actions upon global communities. This involves recognising the impact of our decisions and the role that our biases play in knowledge production. Recognition of these will generate a greater scale of impact upon society and ourselves than traditional models of global action work can achieve in isolation.   

Global Citizenship Education

What is a ‘global citizen’? Oxfam’s definition is useful:

‘A global citizen is someone who is aware of and understands the wider world – and their place in it. They take an active role in their community and work with others to make our planet more peaceful, sustainable and fairer.’ (Oxfam 2021)

Most accounts of GCE indicate the development of a certain set of outcomes that they want students to work towards, such as the ‘more peaceful, sustainable and fairer’ planet indicated in the above definition. To achieve these outcomes, I believe that four strands need to come together:

1. Critical literacy

2. Accepting (limited) pluralism

3. Developing empathy and understanding

4. Nurturing a disposition towards responsible, informed and collaborative action.

Challenges may emerge from the notion of a ‘global citizen’, partly due to differing levels of connectivity in the global context. We might wonder whether the notion of being a global citizen is a paradox due to the lack of existence of a global state or universally agreed values. Furthermore, some express a concern that the term could drift towards a ‘civilising mission’ of the West (Andreotti 2011, 166-167). Vanessa Andreotti (2006, 70) rightly raises the questions: ‘Whose globe? Whose citizenship?’.

Partly as a response to these concerns, Andreotti distinguishes between ‘soft’ and ‘critical’ forms of GCE, with the former focusing on developing a sympathy for others’ suffering, and the latter framed through a social justice lens, where students learn and act with others, considering the possibility of their complicity in inequality (Andreotti 2006). Andreotti concedes that the ‘soft’ form may be a useful starting point in education (ibid., 49). However, it is clear that without sufficient analysis of the causes of injustice, many students may unintentionally reproduce the ways of thinking that they are trying to question.

Critical literacy

Central to this critical approach to GCE is the development of ‘critical literacy’, by which most scholars mean the critical investigation of ‘multiple interpretations of text and related language and power relationships’ (May 2015, 5). In this process, students are supported in developing the skills to trace assumptions and appreciate ideas and text in the context of larger constitutional practices and power struggles, recognising that this process can be unsettling (Bourn 2014, 28).

Four key elements stand out from most accounts of critical literacy pedagogy:

1. Reflexivity (appreciation of how the individual’s own perspective impacts analysis)

2. Recognition of the possibility of multiple viewpoints

3. An analysis of power

4. Building a sense of creative agency

To achieve these, it seems important that teachers also engage as participants in the exploration process, taking the role of co-inquirers with students by scaffolding conversations rather than steering pupils towards pre-determined outcomes.

What follows are six practical strategies for embedding GCE in schools, based on my experience of founding EduSpots. Since 2015, over 400 local and global volunteers have come together to build a physical network of 40 community-led education centres or ‘Spots’, many solar-powered. We aim to offer a decolonised model for educational support in low-resource settings, centred upon our Community Leadership in Education Programme. We have offered students in the global context, including many at Eton College, the opportunity to engage in critical GCE education through our online courses and partnership projects.

Ideas for embedding global citizenship education

1. Embedding within existing courses

Every school will have elements of GCE embedded in their curricula, particularly in subjects such as geography, history, literature and economics. The Theory of Knowledge section of the International Baccalaureate (‘IB’) curriculum aims to develop students’ awareness of the processes of knowledge production. A new unit was recently added, ‘Knowledge and Indigenous Societies’, which partly focuses on exploring how communities might be disadvantaged in knowledge production and dissemination.

In addition to strengthening the critical nature of engagement in global issues, schools can look for opportunities to give students a chance to respond through practical action, through curriculum-embedded projects. This year at Sevenoaks School, we introduced a new Advocacy Project in our Year 9 Critical Thinking course, which looks at examples of creative advocacy campaigns linked to systems of belief. Students were given structured support in creating their own campaigns using media such as video animation, drama and painting. The projects aimed to strengthen students’ awareness of different paths for creating change and building political and ethical understanding, whilst developing critical thinking and creativity skills.

2. Designing a specific curriculum

Schools may also decide to devote a new curriculum subject to GCE. At Sevenoaks, we’ve developed a bi-weekly course for our Year 7 students named ‘Society and Change’, in which students are given space for open exploration of charitable ethics, environmental action, and sustainable development. The course focuses on critically examining accepted global paradigms and enabling students to respond through practical tasks such as evaluating their carbon footprint (using footprintfacts.org, a website designed by our sixth formers) and creating children’s storybooks which aim to spark change through metaphor. Despite their young age, students have shown an ability to understand and apply concepts such as paternalism, and explore the complexities behind reaching a global consensus on reducing carbon emissions.

3. Wider enrichment projects

In many cases, GCE might not be a priority for school-wide curriculum reform or innovation, and therefore schools may look to external providers to enable their students to access GCE enrichment. I first developed the EduSpots online courses on global development, postcolonial perspectives, social leadership and social entrepreneurship in 2018, when I was working at the African Science Academy in Tema, Ghana. After leading global ethics sessions with an inspiring cohort of gifted female engineering students, I realised that the voice of the African youth was largely missing from debates on global issues. This led me to develop online courses which aim to introduce students to often-excluded African scholarship and literature, whilst allowing students from diverse contexts to discuss practical ethical dilemmas via an online live discussion board.

Over a thousand pupils, teachers and community members have taken the courses, with students commenting that the structure of the course cuts through stereotyping, enabling them to work with students from different contexts, often engaging in a process of unlearning, ahead of collectively developing their understanding and forming responses. For example, a student from Zambia decided to support a peer in the UK in writing letters to the elderly in care homes in Sevenoaks during the first lockdown, and a student from the UK was able to question a teacher in a remote fishing community on their views on western intervention in their community. Students at Wellington College shared their learning through the courses through creating a reflective podcast on their ‘duke box’ podcast.

4. Cross-school weeks

Themes related to global citizenship can also be effectively explored through school-wide ‘weeks’, which enable students to appreciate the importance of interdisciplinary study and explore topics through multiple subject lenses. At Sevenoaks, alongside annual Green Weeks, we held our first Refugee Week which aimed to enable our students and partner schools to engage with the experiences of refugees and understand their rights through lessons and tutor group sessions. Students led a range of online talks from UNHCR, Sevenoaks Welcomes Refugees, and author Christy Lefteri. Local Syrians, with whom our students have worked throughout lockdown on collaborative projects, such as a ‘Taste of Syria Cookbook’, also shared their stories with our students. Students were encouraged to respond in different ways, with suggestions ranging across artistic exploration, reading, advocacy and creative fundraising.

5. Community service

It is important to note that GCE also encompasses local citizenship action because a fairer global society requires that we respond to injustice and inequality in our immediate setting, whilst also aiming to develop an awareness of the global reach of many of our actions. There is great value in the process of pupils creating their own solutions and students should be given opportunities for leadership and entrepreneurship within service projects. We should ensure that our own empowerment to enact change does not, inadvertently, impose values and outcomes upon those less equipped to influence decisions or lead change.

At Sevenoaks, we’ve developed a framework for service learning focused upon our activities aiming to be informed, collaborative, sustainable, inclusive and reflective. This framework feeds into the structure for wider student-led projects: for example, before students are supported in fundraising for a UK magician to visit a Syrian refugee camp, they would need to demonstrate that they’ve researched the cultural sensitivities surrounding magic in the Syrian context and reflected on the sustainable, inclusive and collaborative nature of the potential impact, working with community partners in the process where possible. If students can see the relevance of this planning process for developing critical literacy skills, they can gain a practical understanding which can feed into their daily actions and project-planning in the workplace, whilst strengthening the quality of community impact and relationships with partners.

6. Global partnership projects

I’ve positioned this last because I suggest that building specific global partnership projects may not be the priority for delivering the desired critical GCE outcomes. In particular, whilst volunteering trips abroad can have a highly positive impact on students and communities, they need to be planned with a clear sense of partnership and sustainability in mind, with any acts of ‘helping’ taking place alongside community members, who lead the change in the longer term. We are certainly wrong to assume that there will always be laudable outcomes from the process of forming school partnership projects (Leonard 2007, 66) and it would be wise for schools to engage with development professionals for advice before embarking on a significant development-focused project. Alternatively, projects can be designed where students engage in mutually beneficial acts of learning, such as evaluating plastics pollution in their local areas and together creating solutions.

EduSpots organises several ongoing school partnership projects which aim to build global understanding whilst collaborating to achieve shared aims. The EduLit service group at Sevenoaks have worked with a Ghanaian illustrator and community members in Tease to co-create ‘Kwame’s Adventures’, which enables Ghanaians to see themselves and their community represented in fiction. The students on both ‘sides’ were guided through a process of critical discussion on representation, power and decolonisation. Following this, students have collaborated to create phonics books which aim to replace western-dominated phonics books with those that offer Ghanaian concepts and images, ensuring that young students do not feel alienated from their learning resources. The group have raised funds for these resources to be printed and distributed in 15 Ghanaian communities. The EduSTEM group at Sevenoaks have been part of a collaborative practical science education project based upon similar principles and Eton students have worked collaboratively with EduSpots volunteers in developing a public speaking programme, focused upon strengthening understanding of diverse youth experiences.  

Conclusion

In many of the interventions suggested above, the process of critical and empathetic engagement and exposure to a diverse range of experiences is more important than the immediate short-term impact of any action. I believe that if we equip students with this GCE toolkit, many will leave school with a desire to contribute positively to local and global societies, whilst ultimately recognising that they might need to step back from the driving seat to enable communities to realise their own ambitions.  

References

Andreotti, Vanessa, 2011. Actionable Postcolonial Theory in Education. New York: Macmillan.

Andreotti, Vanessa, 2006. ‘Soft versus critical global citizenship education’. Policy & Practice: A Development Education Review, 3, pp. 40-51.

Bourn, Douglas, 2014. ‘The Theory and Practice of Global Learning’. DERC Research Paper No. 11, London: UCL Institute of Education.

Leonard, Alison, 2007. ‘Global school relationships: school linking and modern challenges’, in D. Bourn (ed.), Development Education: Debates and Dialogues (London: Bedford Way Papers, 2007).

May, Laura, 2015. ‘Preservice Teacher Bricolage: Incorporating Critical Literacy’, Negotiating Competing Visions