Cities as a lens to the world? Feature article

Features the work of a Tide~ group exploring the potential of a focus on cities as a lens to global learning that can help us provide opportunities, in the context of the new Key Stage 3 Curriculum, for learners to engage with complex global issues.

  1. The idea
  2. Starting points
  3. Framework
  4. Case studies
  5. Cross Curricula planning
  6. Websites

1.  The idea

Cities as a Lens to the World is an Internet based resource developed by members of the Tide~ network. It offers a gateway to begin unlocking the potential of cities for exploring and better understanding global learning. At the heart of this project is the idea that;

Cities are a lens to global learning and can help us to engage with complex global issues by starting with commonality.

This is our Big Idea. SECTION 1 includes a background paper called “From the city…to the world ~ cities as a lens to global learning”, that explores some of the thinking behind our idea. It puts forward the argument that:

‘Cities and urban areas are now the dominant context in which young people play out their lives and negotiate their learning. As educators it is essential to better understand the nature of this contextual environment. But beyond the need to better understand cities for their own sake, cities provide more tangible access points for our understanding of wider society. They are the primary means through which we conduct our increasingly globalised and interdependent lives, acting as a microcosm of society; a metaphorical window on the world. To better understand the city is to better understand the world.’

This section also includes the consultation document “Cities as a lens to the world” and a stimulus that gets us thinking about the surprisingly complex question “What is a city?”

2. Starting Points

Section 2 offers some “Quick start stimuli” to get you started. These have been developed with teachers and were devised to allow us (as teachers and pupils) to ‘start with what we know’. They could be used to raise debate within a staff team or as start-up activities for students.

They have also be used as a stimulus for group work in form time.

3. A learning framework

Cities are complex things, as are global issues. To open up this complexity we worked with teachers to develop tools that might aid our learning and understanding. Our energies became quickly focussed around a ‘real-life’ framework tool developed by the South Africa Cities Network (SACN). The SACN is a group of 9 cities that have been sharing the challenges and opportunities of rebuilding and developing cities in post-apartheid South Africa.

This section shares their framework and a version that teachers have interpreted and adapted for use in the classroom.

‘SACN Framework’ shows 3 stimulus sheets that help to understand the framework as used in South Africa.

These explain in simple terms:

  • What does it consider?
  • What makes up the ‘whole picture’?
  • How might we measure cities?

If you are interested in how this has been applied in South Africa, there is an additional slide that considers the ‘SACN in action’. This shows how the SACN have used their framework to help compile a report on the 9 cities using it.

The full report ‘SACN State of the Cities 2006’ is also available and includes some useful depth and case studies for those wishing to explore South African cities in more detail.

The teachers who worked through the SACN materials found it to be a very useful tool, but all raised the challenge of it being too complicated for students to access. We set them the challenge of coming up with a more accessible framework for use in the classroom and they produced a ‘Case study enquiry’ framework. It is offered as a stimulus to be adapted.

4. City Case Studies

In order to demonstrate how we might begin to access cities, we chose 6 cities from around the world and applied the case study enquiry to each of them. This exercise revealed the wealth of material that is freely available for using cities as a lens, but also raised questions about relevance for young learners and ease of interpretation.

This section presents the 6 case studies as a completed enquiry with short narratives and direct web-links to sites that we found useful in thinking through the questions. Some are more complete than others and this is the nature of information availability, influenced by language and attitudes to public information, amongst other things.

The 6 cities are:

   1. Stockholm (Sweden)

   2. Nairobi (Kenya)

   3. Mumbai (India)

   4. Cape Town (South Africa)

   5. Birmingham (UK)

   6. Curitiba (Brazil)

5. Cross-curricula planning

During open sessions with other teachers and in a Tide~ conference workshop, we trialled various different ideas using cities as a focus for cross-curricula planning. This section shares the process of developing two of these ideas into cross-curricula activities.

‘City Vision Activity’ uses the idea of cities creating a vision for themselves and their people. It asks what we would create in our own vision and then explores how the SACN framework might be useful in de-constructing that vision. What does it mean on the ground? How would we make it happen? Where are we now? What might we learn from others? The activity incorporates many different learning styles and numerous opportunities for real cross-curricula, inter-departmental planning.

‘Cities in Common Activity’ extends the idea of ‘starting with what we know’ and develops the idea of commonality as a route to accessing cities and global issues. The activity was based upon using wooden block cities as a stimulus, but could use many other forms of representation such as videos, photographs, travel brochures, websites etc. By starting with commonality the activity demonstrates how it is possible to move from the familiar (the idea of a city) to the less familiar (complex global issues) through the lens of the city. Teachers felt this was a particularly good activity for scaling up from the local to the global, whilst still recognising the global in our own locality.

6. Links ~ useful websites

In researching the cities work, we have come across several websites that we feel are particularly useful for teachers and students.  This section compiles some of the most ‘useful websites’ that we have come across so far.  There is a brief narrative about each and some include specific links to recommended content.


Many teachers have helped to inform the work on this project through the open sessions and the conference workshop.  The core group have been particularly helpful and we would like to thank those members in particular:

  • Helen Griffiths
  • John Hopkin
  • Darius Jackson
  • Angela Crane
  • Darryl Humble
  • Scott Sinclair
  • Rob Bowden

In addition we would like to thank Helen Griffiths for her help in developing and piloting the case study enquiry.