World Citizenship Education: more than Thick Sweater Day

Wouter Bulckaert
13 June 2019
[INTERVIEW] ‘Democracy, diversity and sustainability are themes that students are confronted with in the classroom on a daily basis’, says Jan Verschueren of Kleur Bekennen. ‘The conditions are therefore ideal for working on world citizenship education at school.’ But what exactly is world citizenship education? How do you approach it? And do actions like Thick Sweater Day also fit into that story?
Portret Jan Verschueren
Jan Verschueren

What is world citizenship education?

World Citizenship Education (WCE) aims to transform students into critical and responsible citizens, who are aware of the importance of international solidarity and who make an active and committed contribution to a fairer world.

The world is not a remote spectacle to young people. From an early age, they get a good perception of themes such as poverty, refugees, climate and terrorism. Through WCE, they are taught that they do not have to watch helplessly, but have the power to ask questions, to search for answers and to take action.

Many schools are already, often unconsciously, working on WCE. Primary schools traditionally pay a lot of attention to world themes such as waste, water, mobility or children's rights, or they discuss current topics such as refugees or terrorism. In secondary school too, teenagers notice that events happening elsewhere are increasingly influencing their own living environment.

World Citizenship Education (WCE) aims to transform students into critical and responsible citizens, who are aware of the importance of international solidarity and who make an active and committed contribution to a fairer world.

Which subjects are covered by WCE?

You can approach WCE from eight different angles. By focusing on sustainable development in class (1), you teach students to take into account the needs of current generations without compromising those of future generations. Another possibility is working on global economics and consumption (2), thereby teaching students that our prosperity depends on complex global systems which we can influence not only through policy choices, but also through behavioural choices.

Teaching about democracy and citizenship (3) is all about equal rights and obligations for everyone and political participation. This is also closely related to lessons on human rights (4) on the one hand and social justice (5) on the other hand.

Lessons on migration (6) also belong to WCE. Migration goes beyond the refugee crisis, because people can also move for ecological reasons. Given how extremely diverse society has become, teachers can also focus on diversity and interculturality (7). Finally, lessons on peace and conflict (8) also fall under WCE. All eight angles are strongly interlinked.

 

Can we conclude that WCE is much more than just a Thick Sweater Day or a charity event?

There is nothing wrong with a charity event. It can be a perfect starting point for WCE, as long as it is not a one-off event and you embed it in the school vision and culture. In doing so, you and your students can analyse the event: what are the problems the good cause wants to tackle? Why do we support it financially?  Why are the people we want to help so deeply in trouble?

By analysing the problem critically, students practice their skills as world citizens. We should not destroy the energy surrounding charity events. There are often very committed teachers behind them, although sometimes they are isolated.

It is important, however, to link such actions to the bigger story. After all, charity events are not only organised to raise money for a good cause, but also to contribute to the school’s pedagogical project. This also helps to convince more colleagues to participate, because these events contribute to achieving the attainment targets. WCE could grow into a school policy that gives students the opportunity to fully participate.

It is not necessary to let a Colombian fly over to talk about the south in class. NGOs want to get rid of that cliché image of the south and call for a fully-fledged WCE. The advantage is that the world is in your class nowadays. The presence of immigrant children, foreign-language speakers, refugees and underprivileged people make it a lot easier to put WCE on the agenda.

Teachers should not aim at making students ‘super world citizens’. This is not even desirable, because then you create morally superior beings who are not allowed to make mistakes.

How can students be encouraged to become world citizens?

In a WCE lesson, you do more than transferring knowledge. You also train skills, especially cognitive skills, as you teach students how to  think critically and how to distance themselves from their own prejudices. You introduce them to systems thinking and placing facts into the context of a larger whole.

In addition, students train their socio-emotional skills: empathy, respect and sense of responsibility. They learn to deal consciously with values and emotions. And finally, they have to learn to make choices, to take action for a better world.

Teachers can stimulate that commitment by teaching students to pay attention to injustice, to equal opportunities, to the importance of solidarity. That way, they no longer look at the world in a neutral way, but also want to commit themselves.

 

It is not easy to be a consistent citizen of the world.

Teachers should not aim at making students ‘super world citizens’. This is not even desirable, because then you create morally superior beings who are not allowed to make mistakes. They get criticised: ‘You wear fair trade clothes and get your vegetables from the organic farmer, but you also travel to Morocco by plane. Great global citizen you are!’

Instead, you have to explain to students how they can function in this complex world, what choices they can make, not only as a consumer, but also as a citizen. People choose where they want to go, but you can teach them the skills to think critically and thus give themselves a place (or an attitude) in this complex global society. You have to engage in education, not indoctrination.

 

This article was published earlier in the magazine ‘Klasse’.

Kleur Bekennen guides education actors through the diversity of world citizenship education and supports them to start working with it in a high-quality way. Its French-speaking equivalent is Annoncer la Couleur. They are both initiatives of the Belgian Development Cooperation.

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