Global Learning: a challenge to teachers, a challenge to schools

This paper is based on a presentation given by Dr Fran Martin to the November 2008 Tide~ conference 'Primary global learning ~ Thinking about a new curriculum'.


The resource 'Global learning in primary schools' raises challenges for teachers and schools, for pedagogy and curriculum and for the Tide~ network.

Some of the thinking that underpins a book such as this gets hidden.  It stems directly from the creative work of teachers.  However, we do not get to see how issues were grappled with, what heated discussions took place, how decisions were made about what to select for inclusion and what order to put things in.

The publication provides a starting point for thinking and practice in global learning, but it also raises many challenges.

What does a global learning school look like?

It seems to me that a global learning school may be:

  • One that is prepared to ask and explore uncomfortable questions [eg about current practice, about our own worldviews and the assumptions, their beliefs and the values that underpin them, about our own cultural, social and ethical baggage and our emotional limitations];
  • One that helps us start to recognise, at a deep level, that ‘my norm’ is only one of ‘many norms’;
  • One that challenges perceptions of difference.

However, in order to have a ‘norm’ there needs to be an alternative to ‘the norm.’  Who chooses and decides what is the norm, and what isn’t?

This implies also understanding difference - and I think this is one of the biggest challenges that exists for teachers and schools committed to global learning.  The remainder of this paper will therefore focus on challenging how difference is understood, and exploring what that might mean for our own learning [through CPD] as well as for the curriculum and pedagogical approaches employed.

Sameness-difference: dichotomy

It is part of the human condition to make sense of the world by creating categories, which involves looking at similarities and sameness.  This also helps us understand ourselves and our identity.

This then leads to a sense of what is different from the category we have created: what is similar and different, like and not like?

We need to ask: Whose categories are these? Who is assigning things to the categories? And from whom is one being identified as different?

In this model, differences are perceived to be external to the dominant group.  ‘We [the triangles] are like this, and they [the other shapes] are like that.’

In a global learning context, this is not particularly helpful.

One response to this might be to identify what is similar to all, thus hoping to bring about an inclusive approach [eg ‘we are all shapes’].  The danger with this position is that important differences are ignored, and what is chosen as similar relates to the dominant group.

Saying we are all the same is effectively another way of saying ‘you are [or should be] like us’.  A focus on sameness as a way of levelling differences behaves as if there is no history to some of these differences: histories of real harm and deprivation in some cases.  Simply ignoring these is not likely to be helpful.

Sameness-difference: related

In this model there is recognition of a pluralist society, with an emphasis on celebrating diversity. 

In 'Global learning in primary schools' one of the core ideas and principles is that “children enjoy and value diversity - ‘everyone everywhere is of equal worth.’”  This includes some differences within groups as well as between them.

The dangers of this approach to difference are:

  • that it is merely an accommodation of those features of difference that can be comprehended and classified in terms of dominant standards;
  • at worst, it exoticises difference as something quaint, charming or curious, and this exaggerates the distance between self and other.  Again, this may not be helpful in terms of global learning.

In other words, difference as diversity is still evaluated from the dominant group’s point of view.

Moreover, difference is still seen to be external to self.  But where are the perspectives of those who are not in the dominant group on what is significant and should be celebrated?  Have they a voice?

If differences are identified, there is a risk that they will tend to be seen as a voluntary or personal choice … and not to do with social and political dynamics.  We sometimes see this, for example, in press reporting on groups such as single mothers.

A philosophy of difference

Rather than beginning with a presumption of sameness and then attempting to classify difference as deviations from some standard, a philosophy of difference begins with the concept of difference as a general condition, one that is common to us all.  Identities are not necessarily fixed and stable, as in the other scenarios.

Whereas difference-as-diversity focuses on external points of comparison and contrast, as shown in the second model above, in this third scenario difference is conceptualised as elements of enacted, lived identity.  We could call this ‘difference within’.

In this scenario, difference is seen as something which is continuous, blurry, fluid, open to change, and may involve multiple identities [for example, through the different roles we may play in our lives as sister, teacher, daughter etc].

This ‘difference within’ offers us a very strong starting point for understanding ‘difference without’ [which is also complex and open to change].  Exploring this is at the heart of what good global learning might aim to achieve, particularly in the sort of world we seem to be living in currently.

This has implications for intercultural conversations.  [I am using culture in the broadest sense, eg a culture of gender, of ethnicity, of race, of class etc].  The aim becomes not to resolve the differences between cultures, but to understand the tensions between the differences and to be able to live with them.

For example, the aim of school partnerships is often to learn about others, through intercultural conversations, and as a result to explore differences.  However, there are times when asymmetries of power and status make the stakes in such a conversation much more risky for some than others.

A relational view of sameness and difference implies that differences offer alternative perspectives that one can engage with and learn from.  Set against a background of commonality, where we all have ‘differences within’, these perspectives can be seen as contributions to our understanding and not threats to it.

What are the implications?

Acknowledging that issues are complex … and that this is not just a matter of supplementing a standard curriculum with a range of representative samplings from other points of view.

Pedagogy that is critical/questioning. Education should not simply be about transmitting an existing system of belief and value, unchanged, from one generation to the next.  There must be room for questioning, re-interpreting, and modifying that system in the light of a broadened understanding about where it fits … in the context of a diverse, rapidly changing world.

Exploration of assumptions.  This critical approach should involve an exploration, both of the assumptions and values through which we constitute our identities, and of the ways in which these assumptions are intimately wrapped up with larger social, cultural and historical patterns.

A recognition that tacit categories of sameness and difference could be re-made differently.  Done carefully, a questioning and re-examination of our assumptions can lead to truly profound insights about ourselves as well as others.  If the categories were made by people, they can also be re-made in different ways.

Access to a range of ‘voices’.  Questioning ideas and examining assumptions implies access to a range of voices, and a process of mutual learning.  On the other hand, the questioning and re-examination process is a pre-requisite of mutual learning.
What are the implications for curriculum & pedagogy?

Robin Alexander, in his book 'Culture and Pedagogy', shows how in many continental European countries [eg Russia, Germany], curriculum is not seen as separate from pedagogy,

Indeed, it is often subsumed within a discourse of pedagogy, and flows from pedagogical concerns.  Within this pedagogically-led curriculum:

  • Knowledge is socially constructed, not certain or unproblematic … and this has particular significance when looking at ‘big ideas that shape the world’
  • It requires collaboration … collaborative group work, talk as central, and scope for mutual and intercultural learning
  • It requires futures perspectives [for example, as developed by David Hicks]
  • It requires different kinds of thinking – creative thinking [exploring possibilities, ‘yes and’] as well as critical thinking [judgements, ‘yes but’].
  • According to Jerome Bruner, the curriculum reflects not only the nature of knowledge itself, but also the nature of the knower and of the knowledge-getting process.  We teach a subject, not to produce little living libraries, but rather to get a student to think mathematically, to consider matters as an historian does, to take part in the process of knowledge-getting.   This implies that knowledge is a process, not a product.  It has set up a dichotomy of:
  • Process orientation vs. product orientation;
  • Teaching students vs. teaching programmes;
  • Teacher as facilitator vs. teacher as manager;
  • Developing a set of strategies vs. mastering a set of skills;
  • Celebrating approximation vs. celebrating perfection;
  • Respecting individual growth vs. fostering competition;
  • Building on strengths vs. identifying weaknesses;
  • Promoting independence in learning vs. dependency on teacher.

However, if we take a ‘philosophy of difference’ model  then we need to think again about the relationship between such ideas.  We are not talking about ‘either/or’ but ‘both [eg both pedagogy and curriculum].

A Pedagogy for Global Learning

As Margaret Roberts [2003] has observed, the curriculum does not exist outside the space of interaction between learner and teacher.  What is more, learner and teacher roles may be interchangeable.

We may want to think about where this pedagogy exists.  Is it in books?  With experts?  In informal, culturally appropriate settings?  Is it based on child’s own interests and concerns?

In terms of mutual, collaborative, talk-based learning and a socially constructed curriculum, is it something which happens:

  • between peers?
  • between peers and knowledgeable adults?
  • through play-based approaches?
  • through child-initiated investigative approaches?

A final word about difference.  There is little to be gained if difference simply becomes another way of stopping conversation by dividing perspectives from one another, or by arguing the relativity of all beliefs and values.   What can be worth talking about under those conditions? 

We can, however, regard our categories as concepts [not as given, but as open to reflection and reconsideration] … and through this to find new ways to think about them, talk about them, together.


Robin Alexander (2001) Culture and Pedagogy. Blackwell

Jerome Bruner (1960) The Process of Education. Harvard University Press

Burbules (1997) ‘A Grammar of Difference: Some Ways of Rethinking Difference and Diversity as Educational Topics’. Australian Educational Researcher, 24(10) 97-116.

David Hicks (2002) 'Lessons for the Future: The Missing Dimension in Education'. RoutledgeFalmer.

Margaret Roberts (2003) 'Learning through enquiry: Making sense of geography in the KS3 classroom'. Geographical Association. 

Additional support

Geographical Association

Open Space for Dialogue and Enquiry - methodology for critical global citizenship Through Other Eyes Project - accessing a range of voices  to include Southern perspectives