1.  The Gambia and the UK
2.  Commonality and mutual learning
3. Working together, Educating for Sustainability
4. Learning from experience in the Gambia
5. Acknowledgements
6. Further reading

To begin with, it may be helpful to get a sense of The Gambia.

The Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa. Despite recent plans to develop it as a regional hub for economic services, it remains largely dependent on agriculture and tourism.

It is a secular democracy with a predominantly young, mostly-Muslim population, and many communities retain a strong sense of cultural continuity.

The Gambia is a former British colony: it was an enclave within French West Africa, and is surrounded on three sides by present day Senegal and on the fourth by the Atlantic Ocean.

It is a member of the Commonwealth and the OAU, and continues to maintain strong links to the UK and other partners internationally and within the Sahel region. English is widely spoken, as are a range of West African languages including Mandinka, Wolof and Fula.

The Gambia’s name comes from that of its main river, which runs down the length of the country. Its geography and economy make The Gambia particularly vulnerable to climate change. With many people’s livelihoods dependent on natural resources, sustainable development is a key issue for the country, and sustainability education has a growing profile.

Visits to The Gambia have helped the teachers I have worked with make theoretical issues around sustainability and development into something real and immediate. These experiences have offered an insight into what happens in the UK, as well … and into how issues in these different places are often connected.

Despite a strong sense of tradition, change is happening very quickly in The Gambia: there have been big electrification and road-building programmes, for example, while the growth of mass tourism on the coast has brought both benefits and difficulties.

In getting a sense of this, not least through dialogue with Gambian teachers, we have had opportunities to reflect on how processes of change can impact on people at local, national and global scales … and what such changes might mean for different places.

We have found the following websites useful in getting a sense of the country.

Government website:
National Environment Agency:
Nijii [historical and cultural overview]:
Observer newspaper:

In 2004, our group developed a two-page brochure on pdf Shifting Sands, to explain the issues in The Gambia, as they saw them.

2. Mutual learning and commonality

“Commonality … people everywhere have similar needs but may meet them in different ways.”

Mutual learning has been at the heart of the partnership with our Gambian colleagues … and the way we have worked together as groups of teachers, both in The Gambia and within our own groups.

Because of our common interest in learning and sustainable development, our ‘clever minds’ have sometimes thought along similar lines. We have also, however, learned to value each others’ differences and the many reasons for these. Indeed, those differences have often been the things that have offered the sharpest insights into what is going on, and have most keenly enabled us to think afresh and learn anew.

This dynamic of commonality and difference is something which we have kept coming back to. At one level, the concept of commonality has helped us see that experiences which may initially seem exotic often shed light on underlying similarities.

As we have thought these experiences through, we have often hotly argued about the ways in which we objectify people and places about which we have had little previous experience. Can we really say “they do this” or “they are like that”? Is there really such a thing as a “typical Gambian”?

It is great to set the world to rights during a heated discussion in a far away place, but it has also been important to apply those principles to our professional practice.

Such debates have helped us think about how we introduce ideas to learners. Does the language we use help, or get in the way of, children’s appreciation and valuing of the way other children live – including in places they too may have little or no direct experience of?

Fran Martin, at the University of Exeter, has been co-leader of several study visits as part of this project, and her involvement and ideas have greatly helped groups clarify their thinking. The debates we have had have also influenced her own work.

For example. In a book she wrote recently on Teaching geography in primary schools, she has succinctly expressed ideas about the need to explore commonality with learners: “Where children are exposed to images that show life in a distant place to be very similar to their own place, they are far more likely to develop a positive attitude towards that place, even if their original attitude has been negative.”

Fran’s book goes on to outline practical ideas for how planning around a distant locality can address these concerns, using a study of a Gambian locality as an example.

Global learning in primary schools includes activities for exploring commonality through the Geography curriculum, using photographs from Tanje Village in The Gambia. For the photo set, click here

Project discussions have also led us to think about how we enable colleagues to engage with some of the key challenges.

In my own work, I have often had to make presentations explaining key ideas about commonality and difference: for example, to teachers planning work around the sustainable schools framework or the Geography curriculum, or starting out on establishing an international school partnership.

The issues are complex, and as a starting point I have often found it useful to start with the everyday and the personal, such as commonalities between our own families and families in other places.

In the three pictures below, the children are all identical twins. This has a particular resonance for my own youngest children, who live in Birmingham [and are in picture 1]. The children in picture 2 are girls, like them, and are from Kololi on The Gambian coast. The boys in picture 3 are from the coastal village of Shishmaref in Alaska.

There are obvious and immediate points of contact, in terms of family relationships. Where these children live, however, and what the issues are there, have some commonalities … while also being different.

The climate in all three places is very different – and this helps explain why the children are dressed differently. What is more, Shishmaref is a village which may soon disappear due to global climate change. For different reasons, the Gambian coast is also vulnerable to climate change. This raises questions about what is happening in Birmingham.

All this begins to take us, gently, beyond the personal and into some of the complexities. It helps us to start exploring the commonalities between these children without eclipsing the differences in their lives. It helps us to set those differences within a framework of empathy and understanding. It also begins to engage with a further level of commonality, about how we engage with big global questions as fellow human beings.

1. Birmingham          2. Kololi               3. Shishmaref  Photo 3: Ashley Cooper,

There are few common global issues bigger than climate change

In The Gambia, a changing climate is being linked to coastal erosion [so severe that it may threaten the future of Banjul, the capital city]. Deforestation and desertification are aggravating that picture, and as climate patterns change that adds to the pressure on already stressed natural and water resources, and on agriculture and fisheries. This makes for quite a cocktail of issues, and the UN has identified the country as one of the ten most at risk from a changing climate.

In the English West Midlands the issue is certainly very much in the news, but while we have begun to experience problems which are probably related to climate change [such as the summer floods in 2007], it is still largely presented as a moral issue, rather than one with immediate and pressing practical consequences. In policy terms, the main concern has been with reducing our carbon emissions [which are, per head, many times those of The Gambia].

In terms of our learning, looking at these the two places together has helped us understand climate change issues better. It has sharpened our sense of reality about the issue itself, and that while living with it is something we have in common, the mix of causes and consequences are often quite different. It has broadened our sense of climate change as not only an environmental issue, but also as one about human development and social justice.

In sharing our concerns, and ideas about what might be done [as both citizens and educators], we have gained strength in the awareness that we are not alone in our responses, however small these might be. Learning from the perspectives of many different people in The Gambia has often caused us to question our own values and priorities, and to see this issue as something which is no longer simply abstract but shows real and human faces.

As teachers, it is both inevitable and proper that what and how we teach has been at the forefront of our consciousness throughout this project. Working with teachers in The Gambia, on how we address sustainability issues as fellow educators, has offered us a crucial level of commonality … and many opportunities for mutual learning.

“Mutual learning is about responding to the common agenda between schools [and teachers] in different parts of the world … about the relationship between schools and dispositions to development … about what we can learn from each other about development education.”  - Tide~ AGM report, 1999

“We are connected as countries to one another, in different ways and at various levels. What goes on in one country affects another. We must know what each other are doing and share what connections we have”  - Ndoti Mukubesa, 2001

How we make the most of such opportunities, and do so appropriately, is something we have given a lot of thought to. Early in the project, I went with a group to The Gambia, where we developed a discussion paper on mutual learning. The paper has been used as a stimulus for all subsequent groups, and is based on three key questions:

  • What are we giving?
  • What are we getting?
  • How can we work in an equal and open way?

For a PDF outlining the main arguments from the paper, click here

For a framework from the paper, which supports thinking about mutual learning issues, click here

Thinking about these issues has helped us when addressing questions about learning and mutuality in the context of schools partnerships.

The Tide~ Talk article Global learning and school partnerships - thinking it through signposts support for school partnerships based on mutual learning.

3. Working together, Educating for Sustainability

"Sustainable development is development that should take place, but with the future in mind"  - Mariama Ceesay, Bakau Newtown Lower Basic School

As a purposeful focus for our mutual learning, and a support to other teachers, we worked together as British and Gambian groups on teaching materials on sustainable development. These were published in 2002 as the Tide~/NEA resource Educating for sustainability.

The idea of this resource was that it would primarily be for use in The Gambia, but would be edited in such a way as also to be useful in the UK.

Sustainable development and a professional concern with education, were things we had in common … and this shared focus allowed us to learn a huge amount from each other.

How this worked mirrored the ways that the materials would be used:

  • For the Gambian group, it mostly meant establishing a teacher group and professional development process on similar lines to Tide~ teacher groups, and it offered an opportunity to explore enquiry-based teaching methodologies.
  • For the UK group, it mostly meant learning a great deal about sustainable development in the Gambia, and the nature of partnership working

We developed a CPD activity together, “What is sustainable development?” This offered us a chance to explore issues together, and the challenge was to make it flexible enough to be used in our own schools in both countries … and even as the basis of a plenary lesson with children and young people.

That the materials should be very versatile was particularly important in the Gambia, because quality teaching materials on sustainable development issues were in sort supply.

For a downloadable copy of this activity, click here

An additional dynamic was added by the launch of these materials in The Gambia at a high profile conference, attended by senior officials from the Department of State for Education and the British Deputy High Commissioner.  We and our Gambian colleagues were thrilled to see our work valued in this way, and together we used the opportunity to work together on planning and delivering a lively workshop on climate change at the launch.

Back in the UK, the energy and ideas we gained for this event served as a huge energiser in setting up a wave of initiatives on climate change education, setting the issue firmly in an international context, and leading on to discussion papers, conferences, projects and publications. Activity directly arising from that starting point is still going on!

4. Learning from experience in the Gambia

“Working with colleagues in this way has been a powerful way to create new ways to deliver the curriculum, develop thinking and challenge my own ideas.”

Since the joint publication, many teachers working with Tide~ and the NEA have continued to learn from each other, and this has energised our thinking and teaching in both places.

As part of Tide~ study visit courses for UK teachers, we have held conferences in The Gambia each year, and spent time on joint fieldwork: looking into the issues and their educational implications.

These events have been facilitated by teachers from both places, building our confidence in the issues and our skills in supporting others. Together, we have explores a multitude of ideas about sustainable development, culture, climate change, the geography of happiness and the rights of the child.

There is not scope here to do justice to all the lesson plans and teaching ideas which have come out of these experiences, or the longer term shifts in teachers’ thinking and practice which have sometimes come out of all of this. The comments in this section are from teachers on recent courses, and will give you some sense of this. Many of our ideas have also found their way into Tide~ projects and teacher materials.

The ideas underpinning the study visit courses are well explained in Fran Martin’s Tide~ Talk article Learning from experiences in the Gambia.

At the time of writing this article, we are planning a study visit course for 2009-10.

This project has now been running for over a decade. To mark its tenth anniversary, the 2008 Tide~ AGM brought together many of those who had been involved in this work, including Ajie Binta Kinteh from the NEA.

In preparation for the AGM, the 2008 study visit group were challenged to draft nine things from their experience which they felt teachers need to understand.

Click here for a copy of their paper.

The lively discussions at that AGM confirmed the continuing value of teachers coming together as part of this project: to learn from each other’s clever minds; to continue to challenge each other; and to apply this thinking to the complex and creative business of teaching.

We have come a long way in our mutual learning, and there continues to be a great deal of potential.

5. Acknowledgements

I have had the pleasure of working with a great number of teachers and educators on this project, and of learning a great deal from their enthusiasm and creativity. Some of those in lead roles are listed below, and an additional paper gives a full list of those involved.

click here for a copy of the paper.

The partnership with the NEA was set up by Scott Sinclair, Director of Tide~, and he has offered invaluable support in my ten years as the lead project worker on this initiative.

The following have played a lead role in Tide~ teacher groups:

  • Emma Swan, West Heath Infant School, Birmingham [1999]
  • Sue Penhallow, Albert Bradbeer Junior School, Birmingham [2000-2002]
  • Andrew Simons, Centre of the Earth, Birmingham [2000-2002]
  • Maxine Howell, Welford Primary School, Birmingham [2000]
  • Alun Morgan, Worcestershire County Council [2001]
  • Fran Martin, University of Worcester/University of Exeter [course co-leader, 2003-2006, associate researcher from 2006]
  • Sally Wood, Chaddesley Corbett Primary School, Worcestershire [course co-leader from 2006]

The following have led work at the National Environment Agency:

  • Ndey Sireng Bakurin [1999-2006, then as Director, Inter Sectoral Network 2006-8]
  • Ajie Binta Kinteh [from 2006]
  • Anneke Hielkema [from 2008]

Supported by the staff at NEA, especially Momodou Cham and Momodou B. Sarr, Executive Directors.

Members of the Educators for Sustainability Sub-Committee, especially Ena Corrah and Ousman Yabo, Chairs.

6. Further reading

The key Tide~ resource arising from this initiative is Educating for sustainability. NEA/Tide~, 2002. For details see section 3.

The following Tide~ Talk articles develop ideas from the initiative

Exploring cultural identities through art - Sue Wilkie
This article was inspired by the ideas and work of Gambian artists, and what this might mean for learners on the UK. It led to the formation of a ’think group’ on sustainability and the arts.

Learning about Distant Places at KS1 - Sally Wood
Despite an ongoing partnership with a Gambian school, Sally was concerned to find from research with young learners in her class, that many had developed negative stereotypes of Africa. This article shares some of that research, and explores its implications for teaching strategies.

Learning from experience in the Gambia - Fran Martin
This article shares some of the thinking behind the Tide~ study visit courses to The Gambia, and explores their value for teachers’ professional development.

Energy and climate change case study - Ben Ballin
This conference presentation takes a case study from a biofuels project in The Gambia to raise questions about global learning and sustainability.  A PDF is downloadable at the foot of this page.

Thinking through Africa - Sally Wood
Sally’s reflections on the impact of the Gambia study visit course for her own personal and professional development.

Leading study visits - Sally Wood and Ben Ballin

Sally and Ben reflect on the qualities needed to lead successful study visits, and suggest some of the elements that might be found on a course leader 'person spec'.

The following Tide~ resources include ideas from this project

Learning today, with tomorrow in mind, 2000
Includes a case study of sustainable development education in The Gambia, activities exploring tourism on the Gambian coast and the Kololi Indicators for ESD, developed by Gambian and British teachers.

Global learning in primary schools, 2008
Including section on locality studies and commonality [see section 2, above] and a CPD activity arising from a group’s discussions about how people might start to get a handle on a distant locality

How do we make sense of a place?

Lessons in sustainability, 2003
Includes activities linking climate change causes and consequences in The Gambia and the UK.

Food and farming, local & global, 2004
Examples of planning, using Gambian food growing projects as a stimulus for setting up a school garden in the UK.

Water issues, local & global, 2005
Including the KS2 teaching activity:

Getting water from the well

We also recommend the following:

E-learning resources on climate change developed with West Midlands Broadband Network, making good use of case study material from The Gambia: Thinking Through Climate Change and Floods – is climate change the cause?

Teaching geography in primary schools. Fran Martin. Chris Kington Publishing, 2006. Includes a section using The Gambia to explore issues in teaching about distant places. See Section 2, above.

Mutual Learning: the impact of a study visit course on UK teachers’ knowledge and understanding of global partnerships in Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices Vol 2:1. Nottingham: Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice. Fran Martin [2008]. An academic article about the experiences of Gambia study visit group participants, which advocates “Mutual Learning within a critical literacy framework.”

Global Partnerships for Mutual Learning.  This international research project based at the University of Exeter has taken the Tide~ Gambia study visit courses, and the Tide~/NEA partnership as a focus.

Downloadable materials

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