Learning to Change the World

By Connie K. Chung

Portions of the essay below was adapted and recently published in the book, Empowering Global Citizens, by Reimers, Chopra, Chung, Higdon, and O'Donnell

Researchers have noted that traditional global citizenship education (GCE) curriculum encourages students to understand globalization; to adopt a self-critical approach to how they and their nation are implicated in local and global problems; to engage in intercultural perspectives and diversity (Pashby, 2008); and to recognize and use their political agency towards effecting change and promoting social and environmental justice (Eidoo et al, 2011).  Schurgurensky (2005) observes, “transformative citizenship learning involves the nurturing of caring and critical citizens who raise important questions and problems in overt ways” and “probe the status quo” (Eidoo et al, 2011).  “Andreotti (2006) further draws the distinction between “soft” and “critical” global citizenship education and looks to critical literacy for a pedagogical approach that  “prioritizes critical reflection and asks learners to recognize their own context and their own and others’ epistemological and ontological assumptions. 

Furthermore, she argues that in order “to think otherwise” and to transform views and relationships, learners must engage with their own and others’ perspectives.  Andreotti’s ‘critical’ global citizenship model promotes citizenship action as “a choice of the individual after a careful analysis of the context of intervention, of different views, of power relations (especially the position of who is intervening) and of short and long term (positive and negative) implications of goals and strategies” (p. 7). Key concepts of critical GCE include transformation, criticality, self-reflexivity, diversity, complicity, and agency” (Eidoo et al, 2011). 

Existing Curriculum vs Our Global Citizenship Curriculum

While the AP curriculum emphasizes breadth of knowledge, and the US standards movement lists discrete skills, knowledge, or attitudes that people wish to impart to the students, our curriculum seeks to develop a depth of knowledge and “expert” thinking required to solve problems.  In our desire to integrate knowledge, skills and attitudes – that is, not only impart knowledge, but also focus on teaching skills and attitudes – that would prepare learners for the 21st century, we found that a focus on developing an interdisciplinary approach to curricular development was necessary.  When we looked at the AP curriculum as a possible framework for curriculum design, for example, we were impressed by the breadth of knowledge that was required by the program; however, we ultimately felt that we wanted to emphasize depth of knowledge, given the kind of “expert” thinking required to solve problems.

In addition, rather than imposing on the students a list of discrete skills, knowledge, or attitudes that we wished to impart to the students, we wanted the students to find and make meaning in their learning.   Thus, our curriculum focuses on learning that is integrated and grounded in current social, political, economic, and other concerns, focusing on issues that are complex, with no easy answers or solutions.  We believed that students would find value in, and desire to engage with, issues that were “real” and authentic; and that in being asked to engage with these real-life issues, the learners would be more motivated to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to understand and solve these issues.  

For example, our curriculum centers on issues like immigration and the impact of human migration on the environment, and the kinds of knowledge, skills and attitudes that are necessary to address these issues.  Such an approach led us to fields such as demography that is not a subject that is taught in many schools, but a topic that we thought was essential for learning how to address issues about population growth and its impact.  Another example of difference from other more traditional global citizenship education curriculum would be our curriculum’s focus on social entrepreneurship; while a few business classes may be taught in high schools, we deliberately brought the subject to the lower grades, and coupled it with developing students’ understanding of international development and notions of justice and equity.

Banks (2008) and Nieto (2002) note that a “transformative” education teaches people to develop decision-making and social action skills; identify problems in society; acquire knowledge related to their communities; name and clarify their values; and take thoughtful individual and collective civic action to address inequities and injustices. In structuring such a “transformative education,” focused on developing students’ cognitive knowledge (Fitzgerald, 2005) by focusing on topics such as the following: development and sustainable development; cultural identity and diversity; human rights and responsibilities; equality and social justice; peace, conflict and resolution; geographic, economic, political, social and environmental knowledge about the world.  We also sought to ground these pieces of information by introducing students to exemplars of change agents, both historical and current figures, who have worked and are working to create positive change in their communities. 

Like other global education curriculum, we focused on intercultural competencies to develop the values, attitudes and perceptions of students.  For example, we wanted students to understand how cultures can shape identities, including their own.  Through our curriculum, we sought to develop empathy in the students through perspective taking exercises (Bob Selman at HGSE has written on this topic).  We also draw upon literature and the arts to encourage creative expression in the global studies course.  In addition to individual development, we focused on the students’ development as members of teams, who are able to work productively in and lead effectively inter-cultural teams.  We built in curricular opportunities for student so develop skills in negotiation, mediation, and conflict resolution skills. 

Agents of Change

In developing the curriculum we also took into consideration such findings from a study about teaching justice to privileged adolescents (Seider, 2009), which noted that mere knowledge about the world’s problems will not only overwhelm students and lead them to disengage with the world.  For example, when faced with data about global poverty, students may react with defensiveness, so we incorporated into the curriculum, not just data about problems and skills to overcome them, but also examples of viable solutions to issues, and people working toward those kinds of change, to impart to students the idea that these issues can be overcome. 

We focused on introducing choice, developing capacity, and motivating them to contribute to the world around them, in small and large ways (2005).  We sought to cultivate in the students a focus on being innovative and creative in formulating solutions to real global challenges and seizing global opportunities.  To do so, the curriculum is largely project-based, with a cumulative sequencing of units within and across grades.   We include how geographic, disciplinary, and professional contexts matter in devising effective solutions to global challenges.   In particular, we sought to ground students in the reality of the world, but also infused the notion of agency and possibility, along with concrete skills and projects that would teach them to be agents of change. 

Along with curricular emphases on fairness and global citizenship, we also wanted to make sure that students felt that they had the freedom to choose how they wanted to engage with these issues, so that they did not feel the emphases was heavy-handed.  For example, at the high school level, the final projects are broadly conceived and open to the students’ own conceptions of how they wanted to apply these skills and knowledge, whether they wanted to be a scientist, an artist, or a politician.  We wanted a strong core body of knowledge and skills that would be ably used by learners who had developed the attitude of compassion, responsibility and efficacy about changing the world around them.  While the students will be thoughtfully guided by their teachers in developing these projects, they are ultimately encouraged and are able to carry out their projects independently.  

Project-Based & Group Learning

Through a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes that are taught in project-based, cumulative sequencing of units within and across grades, our various units about different cultures and regions of the world were intended to cultivate the students’ ability not only to seek and identify the best global practices and transfer them across geographic, disciplinary, and professional contexts, but also in their ability to recognize how these different geographic, cultural, and other perspectives matter in devising effective solutions to global challenges.   More than merely engaging in individualized learning, students are asked to interact with others, learn with others, and influence others.  For example, in grade 5 they are asked to create an awareness project about the MDGs; then in grade 6, they are asked to implement an advocacy project about the MDGs. 

Assessment: More than a Number

From kindergarten, students are not only learning, but are engaged in demonstrating their understanding of what they learned throughout the year.  We integrated formative and summative assessments throughout the course.  More than merely displaying knowledge, students are asked to engage in creating a product, whether it be a puppet show (kindergarten), a book (grade 1), a business (grade 3) a game (grade 4), or a social enterprise (grade 8).  Learning is constructed as cumulative, with knowledge building on prior experience and understanding. For example, in Grade 3, students learn to understand global inter-dependence through participating in creating a social enterprise project in chocolate manufacturing.  The learning objective is to build an entrepreneurial spirit in young children through an understanding of global food chains using the case of chocolate, specifically.  The primary geographic focus is West Africa, in chocolate manufacturing countries. 

The year ends with a capstone activity that gives the students the opportunity to engage in complex, activity-based tasks that incorporate the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that they have learned during the year. The capstone activity for grade 3 is to create a marketing campaign for the chocolate they have made and to differentiate their product based on the culture of their target market.  They build toward this capstone activity through the following units: 3.1 The life of a chocolate and its history; 3.2 Let’s make our own chocolate; 3.3 Understanding the culture of my market; 3.4 Marketing my chocolate in school; 3.5 Child Labor; 3.6 Taking my chocolate to the market; 3.7 Moving beyond chocolate.

Other capstone activities include the following.  Kindergarten – Take part in a puppet show performance on understanding difference; Grade 1 – Create a “Book of Me”;  Grade 2 - Educate others; Grade 3 -  Create a business (chocolate); Grade 4 - Create a game about civilizations; Grade 5 - Create an awareness project on MDGs; Grade 6 - Implement an advocacy project about an MDG; Grade 7 – Participate in extended service learning; Grade 8 - Create a Social Enterprise around a MDG.  In many cases, the capstone activities build on each other; in grade 5, for example, they are asked to create an awareness project to inform others about the MDGs while in grade 6, they are then asked to implement an advocacy project about the MDGs. 

Our aim is to have students who are capable of demonstrating innovation and creativity in formulating solutions to real global challenges and seizing global opportunities.  Our various units about different cultures and regions of the world are intended to foster the students’ ability not only to seek and identify the best global practices and transfer them across geographic, disciplinary, and professional contexts, but also in their ability to recognize how these different geographic, cultural, and other perspectives matter in devising effective solutions to global challenges.  They are able to think in nuanced ways, paying attention to local details and understand that there is variation not only across contexts but within contexts as well.