‘Cities in Common’ activity

One of the greatest strengths of using cities to explore global learning is that they have a great deal in common. This is true whether they are around the corner or on the other side of the world. This commonality can help to break down barriers and debunk stereotypes when it comes to global learning.

In working with a group of teachers, we explored the idea of using cities in common as an activity for unlocking global learning. The premise was to demonstrate that by starting small (with the city) we could begin with what we know, but very quickly ‘scale-up’ to consider the global.

What’s in a city?

What is a city. Say the word and it immediately conjours up images for us all, but what are they? How do we represent cities in our minds? How do cities represent themselves? This was the starting point for our activity and we used a creative input called ‘City in a bag’ to kickstart our thinking. These are very simply, four sets of children’s building blocks shaped to represent specific elements of four global cities – London, New York, Tokyo and Paris. [these available from the store ‘Muji’ online]

The teachers were split into four groups and each given a few minutes to try and identify their city from the blocks. For some that was very easy, but not in all instances and one city was not guessed. The guessing is not important, it is just a bit of fun.

Thinking about representation

Continuing with the blocks as a theme, each group of teachers was asked the following:

Without looking at any of the other cities, think about what your city is likely to have in common with the others? Do this from what is in your bag (the representation in the blocks) rather than what you collectively know about the place.

This might seem a little superficial, but it gets to the point that representation is important. Is the way a designer chose to represent the city in the bag really any different to how countries, cities or entire regions (Africa for example) are represented in the media. Don’t we run the risk of representing and misrepresenting every day in our classrooms?

The groups shared what they thought they would have in common and became quite involved in discussion about what was and was not in common. Discussion move as to why certain representations had been chosen and just as importantly why others had been left out. This in itself is a vital component of quality global learning.

Beyond the bag!

The second part of the activity encouraged the groups to come together collectively and think beyond the bag. The initial question we used was:

What might these cities have in common that is missing from the bag?

This generated a very long list quite quickly. The following is a snapshot of what this particular group came up with:

By this stage the list was doing what we think cities are particularly good at – generating commonality. We have found that beginning with commonality rather than difference is a particularly useful way to begin thinking about global learning. In the context of using cities it is significant because as we move on to more complex or taxing issues to do with cities there is an opportunity to start with “what we know”.

From local to global

To explore how we might scale up from cities and commonality to complex global issues, teachers were next asked to:

Identify any points of commonality that could easily bridge into key global issues?

Some of the issues raised included:

    * Transportation and oil crisis
    * Housing shortages
    * Poverty and inequality
    * Climate change
    * Population growth, migration
    * International terrorism

The teachers discussed how using cities to explore these global issues might help pupils to build confidence in the issues, because of their familiarity in the context. How is Cape Town dealing with Climate Change is more manageable than simply how do we cope with Climate Change. The important point is that it is no less valid and in fact may enable to us more easily to see the global in our own local. Teachers also suggested that pupils would find more interest and engagement in the issues by using a city, especially if it was one they had a particular interest in or connection with.

In summary then…

We would suggest that the familiarity of the city can help to build a level of confidence, interest and engagement in global issues that, without the contextual framework of the city (the element we know), might be more challenging. This is true for us as teachers as much as it is for our pupils. Cities offer an access point to unlock this and begin to scale up.