Children need to be ready for the twenty-first century – but what does that mean?

Global Citizenship Education is a complex undertaking, encompassing IT-literacy and the promotion of peace and diversity. It suggests a deep overhaul of our ways of thinking, teaching, and looking at the world.

Alexandra Stenbock-Fermor
2 March 2017

Rohingya Education Centre in Penang. NurPhoto SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Rohingya Education Centre in Penang. NurPhoto SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.In the twenty-first century, we are more connected, informed, mobile and exposed to others than ever before. This is why the education sector has started asking whether our kids, beyond basic literacy and numeracy skills, are actually being taught how to make the world a better place. But to discuss this question, one also needs to ask; what makes the world a better place?

This could arguably consist of a set of socio-emotional skills, ranging from simple open-mindedness, to language skills, or IT-literacy, necessary because of the increasing connectivity, migration rates, and opportunities some youth have to move abroad and interact with different cultures. This broadly-defined mix of twenty-first-century requirements is encompassed under the concept of “Global Citizenship Education”, or GCED, which schools around the world are increasingly trying to implement.

The UN has been highlighting this need for new skills in its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 4.7 states: “By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through […] promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”

UNESCO also produced an ABC to Global Citizenship Education, which states that there is no widely agreed definition of global citizenship, perhaps with the aim of allowing different interpretations of it. Rather, UNESCO says GCED refers to “a sense of belonging to the global community and a common sense of humanity.” It has no legal status, but is rather a framework of action with three main dimensions; cognitive, socio-emotional and behavioural.

Led by UNESCO, a myriad of education experts, government representatives, teachers and students gathered in Bangkok in October, for the 18th UNESCO-APEID International Conference, sharing ideas on how to make children twenty-first-century-ready.

A flurry of initiatives was showcased, reflecting this diversity in interpretations of GCED. For graduates from Japan’s Keio University, for example, GCED could focus on new technologies; so they had the idea of introducing Skype into kindergarten classrooms. Small children are then able to make contact with other youngsters from around the world and be exposed to different cultures and languages, while also learning to use IT tools, such as Skype.

For professor Wing On Lee of the Open University of Hong Kong, however, GCED also needs to familiarise children with diversity rather than the homogenisation that sometimes comes with globalisation. “Globalisation isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity,” he says. “If we are really champions of globalisation, we need to have an intercultural mindset.”

As a time of extreme complexity, the twenty-first century has often seen the resurgence of nationalistic and sometimes xenophobic claims around the world. Professor Lee asks: “How do we strike the balance between strengthening common values, that cannot be compromised, and appreciating the diversity of proprietary values?”

One of the common values he is referring to is peace, with a definition broad enough for diversity to flourish, yet enabling everyone to relate to it. Peace doesn’t just mean the absence of war or physical violence, argues Toh Swee Hin, professor emeritus of the University of Alberta, Canada. It means constantly addressing every single form of violence, everyday – be it social, political, cultural, psychological, economic or environmental.

This would create an all-encompassing “culture of peace”, which the UN advocates in SDG 4.7, and which should be a core component of GCED. In practical terms, this would mean teaching children to prevent racism, xenophobia, or other forms of intolerance, as well as the lessons learned from colonisation and exploitation, and how the scars they left factor in today’s dynamics. Professor Toh argues that education on religion, at a time when it is often seen as a root of the world’s ills, is a particularly important feature for fostering a culture of peace. “We still have inter-cultural and inter-civilizational dialogues that aren’t fixed [and Global Citizenship should address them],” he said.

But going beyond classroom content, many GCED proponents say it should strive to instill twenty-first-century values into every aspect of a child’s personal development. A teacher, for instance, should exemplify creativity and a peaceful approach in values-education rather than hammering “good values” to be passively learned. Classes should be genuinely innovative and participatory so that learners are empowered to practice the values in their daily personal and social lives.

If someone is teaching a class to overcome racism, for example, but then goes on to treat a child differently on the basis of their cultural identity, the lesson’s value is lost. “Racism isn’t just personal, it’s also structural and systemic,” professor Toh says.

GCED is a complex undertaking, with IT-literacy and the promotion of peace and diversity being only a few of its aspects. It suggests a deep overhaul of our ways of thinking, teaching, and our outlooks on the world. It’s a holistic way of viewing education that defies narrow definitions, but one which many education experts agree is critical to pass on to further generations, for a sustainable future.

openDemocracy is partnering with the World Forum for Democracy, exploring the relationship between education and democracy. Read more here.

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