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Terra firma? The changing global learning landscape

| November 16, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Christine McGladdery

As a child, my family moved from England to Malawi.

Out of necessity, the plane taking us to our new home had to refuel twice, stopping in Zurich and Entebbe. Once safely on terra firma, our sole source of news was what the BBC World Service or the newly independent Malawian government deemed newsworthy. Wealthy people sent their letters via airmail, which took a mere week or so to arrive. The rest of us settled for regular mail, which could take two to three months to reach its destination.

Fast forward 45-odd years and we fly across the globe for business meetings, or conduct them via webinar or Skype and watch in real-time as Syrian migrants are barred entry to Europe.1 Although rapid mass transport and the emergence and expansion of cyberspace have contributed to increased interconnectedness and communication, they have also coincided with a rise in cultural and religious intolerance, identity-based political mobilisation and conflict.2 Speaking for the Youth Advocacy Group of the Global Education First Initiative in May this year, Jamira Burley stated: “While this generation is internet-savvy, socially conscious and world- changing, everywhere you look, young people are struggling with the political, social and economic constraints left by our predecessors.”

But how socially conscious and world-changing are our South African learners really, compared with their international peers? Are we nurturing a cohort of critical thinkers who can differentiate between propaganda and reality, who recognise that all social groups are not equal and that individual actions can make a difference, or are our children simply blissfully ignorant of global turmoil?

Investigating global awareness and action

Finding myself with a surplus of free time after 20 years of child-rearing duties, and having that nagging feeling that as an educator I could be doing more, I gave in to my midlife crisis and enrolled for a PhD. (There’s nothing like being issued with a student card to make you feel 30 years younger.) Combining my passions – travel and education – I am investigating the impact of international educational travel on developing global awareness in South African high school learners. At the same time, I’m hoping to demonstrate more inclusive, less expensive means of developing global- mindedness in secondary school students – such as participating in community service, taking an active interest in the news and incorporating 21st century skills in the classroom. When I was offered the position of exchange coordinator at Durban Girls’ College and given full support for my thesis by headmaster Thomas Hagspihl, I was finally in a position to start grappling with these issues.

What do our learners know and why

The results of my pilot study indicate that 92% of South African Grade 10 learners believe that all people, regardless of race or religion, should be able to live wherever they want in the world. However, only 58% would be prepared to accept migrants into South Africa if it resulted in a drop in their standard of living. Placed against the heartbreaking migrant tragedy currently unfolding in Europe,5 or the violent xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa earlier this year,6 it is clear that for about one-third of learners, there is a disconnect in perception between their rights and the rights of others. Similarly, 46% of learners only do community service because they’re obliged to according to the national life orientation curriculum,7 40% of them are not prepared to pay more to protect the environment and only 7% could recall that Nepal was the country that was devastated by earthquakes this year. Interestingly, 31% of learners could name Mmusi Maimane as the leader of the official opposition political party (the Democratic Alliance), yet a whopping 97% knew why Caitlyn Jenner recently made social media headlines.

So, perhaps our teenagers are not quite as socially conscious or globally aware as Burley would have us believe. In part, this could be a consequence of what is happening in our classrooms. At a recent forum on developing 21st century skills, I heard the quote: “Spoonfeeding in the classroom is a modern form of child abuse.” Whilst somewhat flippant when one considers that 30 million primary school-age children in sub-Saharan Africa don’t even attend school, it is testimony to a fundamental problem with our current exam-focused education system.

Making a change will be mandatory

Renowned advocate for education reform, Ken Robinson, recommends a fundamental shift in pedagogy from what he describes as an “industrial model of education” – focused on conformity, linearity and standardised examinations – to a personalised model that nurtures human potential and the development of 21st century skills. This sentiment is shared by educators working in schools in Hong Kong, Japan and the USA, who propose that pedagogical practices are probably more important than content in developing global competencies. In August next year, the Finnish education system will implement global citizen education (GCED) and similar initiatives are happening throughout Europe.

But what exactly is global citizenship education and how can we introduce it into our classrooms?

Diverse interpretations of GCED exist, but most are underpinned by educating for human rights and social and environmental justice while encouraging a feeling of connectedness and responsibility towards a global community.

‘T-shaped’ students

An excellent framework for promoting GCED in schools is provided by the UN’s Global Education First Initiative. The guidelines suggest that schools:

1. develop the values, knowledge and skills necessary for peace, tolerance and respect for diversity
2. cultivate a sense of community and active participation in giving back to society
3. ensure schools are free of all forms of discrimination, including gender inequality, bullying, violence, xenophobia and exploitation.
To which we could add, from Kathleen Lilley:
4. provide conditions for learning that enable learners how to think, but not what to think, about ethical matters.

Another lovely description of what GCED should be striving for is encapsulated by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) – which, in a recent report, describes an essential outcome of GCED as the development of ‘T-shaped’ students. The vertical ‘I’ represents the traditional part of education: the content, foundation and technical skills taught in classrooms. The crossbar of the ‘T’ represents the new 21st century competencies, or ‘soft skills’, needed to compete in a global world. Recognising that traditional education is no longer enough, the AAC&U report reflected that “employers do not want ‘toothpick’ graduates” (graduates who have learned technical skills, but not the ability to adapt to changing circumstances).

Exchange programmes a good place to start

Done well, learner exchanges – both real and virtual – are a fabulous means of integrating GCED and encouraging learners to engage with cultural and other differences. It’s something that we take seriously at Durban Girls’ College in KwaZulu- Natal, and we are currently expanding our virtual exchanges with international partners in both the primary and high schools. Our international and local exchange programme runs during the Grade 10 year, as our girls are mature enough to really engage with their experience without being disadvantaged academically. The beauty of exchanges is that even the presence of just one learner from another school in the classroom can have a profound effect on the entire group.

One of our international visitors recently attended a rugby game with her host sister. She commented afterwards how it was such a family affair and that in the UK, it is considered “seriously uncool” for teenagers to be seen at a sporting event with their parents. This sparked a discussion on family relationships and fed back positively to our local girls. By contrast, a number of South African learners reported battling to sleep at night in Australia and Canada, owing to a lack of burglar guards on their bedroom windows. This, and the thrill of being able to walk alone or catch public transport, enables learners to reflect on the realities of life in South Africa and to start critically engaging in discussions about different social systems.

Other interesting snippets from exchange participants that have generated lively debate include the perception that South African teenagers are far less promiscuous than their German and UK peers; that it takes a while to get used to kissing as the standard mode of greeting in Argentina; that paint-balling is far more fun in South Africa than in Australia, owing to having to first sit through a 45-minute safety lecture in Australia, whereas in South Africa they are just told “no shooting above the shoulders and have fun”; and that our visitors assume the white- knuckle grip every time they get into a car owing to our abysmal traffic (“Is obeying red traffic lights optional in SA?”).

Be the change you want to see

And, of course, we don’t have to leave the country to start meaningful engagement with others. My research of Grade 10 learners indicates that 88% believe that South Africa is enriched by the cultural and national diversity which exists within our country. That’s a strong foundation upon which to start changing mindsets and developing global awareness. Many teachers grew up under the apartheid education system, where discussions on religion and politics were prohibited at school. But we need to actively encourage, and sensitively manage, robust discussions in our classrooms about democracy, human rights and environmental justice. Our learners should be protesting the fact that the Chibok girls in Nigeria have still not been found,19 that child soldiers are still being recruited in Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and that Palmyra and other archaeological sites in the Cradle of Civilisation are being destroyed by IS.21 They should know who Malala Yousafzai is and that she embodies the potential power that each one of us has.

In conclusion, Michael Woolf provides a fitting description of our role as educators of 21st century learners:
Our obligation is to the young so that they might simultaneously look outward across boundaries and inward to the hardest frontier of all to cross: to travel from a sense of self toward a sense of empathy with the ‘other’.


1. See, for example: crisis/.
2. See, for example: FIELD/Cairo/images/RethinkingEducation.pdf.
3. See: bo_table =m4111&wr_id=46.
4. McGladdery, C. (n.d.) The Relationship between International Educational Travel and Global Awareness in South African High School Learners. Pilot study, N = 67, PhD research, University of Pretoria.
5. See, for example: 11843189/EU-refugee-crisis-Migrants-in-Bicske-station- Hungary-siege-continues-overnight-live.html.
6. See, for example:
7. See, for example: xY8RaCOWqTY%3D.
8. See, for example:
9. Discussion forum on 21st century learning and teaching, Curro, Umhlanga, 11 September 2015.
10. See: 28-out-of-school-children-en.pdf.
11. Aronica,L.andRobinson,K.(2015)CreativeSchools: The Grassroots Revolution that’s Transforming Education. New York City: Viking Books.
12. See:Merryfield,M.M.,Lo,J.T-Y.,Po,S.C.andKasai, M. (2008) “World mindedness: taking off the blinkers.” Journal of Curriculum and Instruction, 2(1).
13. See:
14. Ibid.
15. See:
16. See, for example: 197433/IEAA-symposium_Lilley2014.pdf.
17. See: GlobalCentury_final.pdf. 18. Ibid.
19. See, for example: talks-extremists-kidnapped-girls-33795436.
20. See, for example:
21. See, for example:
22. See, for example: 21362253.
23. See: Woolf, M. (2002) “Harmony and dissonance in international education: the limits of globalisation.” Journal of Studies in International Education.

Category: Summer 2015

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