Localizing Education in a Globalized World | By Jane Sunderwald

During the winter months I am a devoted Education student at the University of Alberta. In the spring, however, I morph into the bouncy, green-clad, forest-dweller who greets children as they pour off their buses on field trip days: a nature interpreter for Alberta Parks.

I often start the field trip by telling our child visitors that we are on Treaty 8 Land (I work in Alberta’s Peace Country). I ask them if they know what a treaty is. They do! They know because they have heard about foreign treaties, like the ones made in Paris or Versailles. However, they usually do not know about Treaty 8 itself, the agreement made between Indigenous nations and the British Crown which, in theory at least, commits all people to harmonious relationships on the rolling hills, muskeg-soaked forests, and spired mountain ranges encompassed by Treaty 8.

To me this anecdote demonstrates a larger trend in the education of our children: whilst educating our children to be ethical global citizens, we simultaneously move towards the homogenization of curricular content and away from the challenging yet meaningful relationships that can only be achieved at a local level. This homogeneous education is peppered with alarming statistics about global catastrophes like climate change or international human trafficking. This alarm is intended to somehow propel children towards compassion and action.

Simply put, children are made to accept that the world is in trouble and that they are responsible for people and places far away even though they have never built relationships or addressed issues in their own unique communities. The irony is that an understanding of locality is essential to understanding the globalized planet. Being a global citizen requires a deep responsibility to one’s own community because one realizes the impact a community can have on the whole world.

In addition, an onslaught of abstract information about the catastrophic state of the world can actually cause children so much anxiety that they shut themselves off from the issues altogether. I think that a place-based education, one which encourages constant interaction with local community and land, is essential to helping children of every age become responsible citizens both locally and globally.

Place-based education is a pedagogy (way of teaching) which is profoundly engaged with local community, such that the community is a primary learning resource and community members are engaged in the guiding of children. If I may alter the oft-quoted Yoruban proverb, proponents of place-based education believe that “it takes a village to educate a child”. As I write this, and as you read, I hope we can remember the face of the living child who is in the education system. Maybe she has dark brown eyes and wears her hair in bobble-tied pigtails. Maybe he has red hair and freckles and is embarrassed that his father has left us with a bottle of sunscreen to put on his face before recess. Maybe they have just gotten their driver’s license and used it to skip gym class to drive across the city to get their tongue pierced. Whoever the child is, let’s acknowledge the child’s need for community – for a village. More than that, let’s delight in their membership in the community, and see the potential they have to do good.

I believe that the mark of a good citizen is empathy; the ability to internalize the experience of others and subsequently promote their wellbeing. If we ask our children to be global citizens – to promote the wellbeing of others around the world – we must give children opportunities to develop an empathy powerful enough to reach across the globe.  The formation of empathy starts with the self and progresses outward. Children connect their own experiences to the experiences of others they see around them. Similarly, a deep understanding of the human experience in local systems can progress to an understanding of the experience of the foreign “other”, who may seem distant yet is related through global systems.

Fostering feelings of security and affirmation is a first step to helping our children overcome the stress of being in a school setting and move towards an empathetic mindset. Schools, while physically “secure”, can be insular spaces. Visitors sign in at the office, there is a chain-link fence around the playground, and waivers must be signed if children are to leave the grounds for a field trip. I suggest that in most situations, a long-term sense of security and belonging for a child will not be achieved by barricading them inside the school. Rather children will feel secure in their community when they have explored it, and have come to know the people among whom they live. By building relationships with services and safe places in the community, such as police stations, food banks, youth shelters, houses of worship, and wilderness and natural areas (yes, urban communities have nature too – we just have to look a little closer!) students become equipped with resources for their resiliency. We cannot ask children who have not experienced the love of the people and land around them to become loving citizens themselves.

While pouring affirmation into our children, we can start engaging them in service, and offer them the knowledge of local experts. This education fosters not only an understanding of local issues but will also give children the experiences necessary to conceptualize their community’s place in the broad web of global systems. They can begin to understand the impact their own communities have on others far away.

For instance, serving locally with food banks, soup kitchens, housing projects, senior’s residences, and other social initiatives can lend an understanding of global social justice while preventing a sense of “Western saviourism” in our children. Place-based service shows children both the value and challenges of serving others with authenticity and through genuine relationship. It demonstrates that injustice and suffering are not a traits unique to other countries. I am a big fan of grassroots movements. I believe that long-term change is most sustainable when the citizens of a community are empowered to create their own effective solutions, and it is this sort of empowerment I would like our children to receive. Grassroots experiences will allow children to embark on global projects with enough wisdom and humility to listen to locals in other places, recognize the unique needs of the foreign communities they work with, and properly assess the ethics of international programs.

Or, for example, gardening or helping on a local farm teaches about the agrarian sector. Junior high students might learn about the lifestyle of farmers, about local agrarian culture, infrastructure, water usage, the effects of climate change, land use policies, and provincial legislation on worker’s rights. Eventually, students can apply this knowledge to an understanding of the global food system, including investigating where our food comes from, ownership of the land on which food is produced, working conditions for agricultural workers, and the implications of the consumer. Exposure to the processes by which local and global communities sustain themselves and the land around them (or don’t) allows students to comprehend what would otherwise be abstract classroom lessons, and to use this understanding to shape their own behaviour accordingly.

One of the most pressing needs for place-based education is in environmental curriculum. Place-based educator David Sobel argues that young children who are indoctrinated on the realities of “environmental abuse” actually experience trauma and subsequently close themselves off to environmental crisis. Rather than attempting to shame children into defending the environment, it is essential for the health of both child and Earth that we let the two love one another without interfering. This means allowing our young children to foster their natural empathy for animals and plants and suns and skies. It means seeing outdoor experiences as intrinsically valuable at all grade levels, exploring the outdoors in all seasons, and engaging with the land-based knowledge of Indigenous cultures. It means allowing the environmental advocacy of our children and adolescents to develop naturally and be driven by their own empathy for living landscapes locally and even around the globe.

Throughout place-based lessons, it is important that children grow in their understanding of democratic systems and their potential to advocate change in both local and global affairs. This learning is best started at a local level where children can be welcomed into our judicial and legislative assemblies, permitted to share their valuable opinions, and become familiar with the complicated processes involved in democratic decision-making.

While I recognize that there are many movements in education that teachers may be pressed to try, I do think that place-based education is different. First, I think that Alberta’s current curriculum objectives open more than enough opportunities for community engagement to get a great start on place-based education. This means that teachers can start using the community as a resource without waiting for shifts in education policy. I see place-based education not as a separate class, but as a holistic method of teaching within existing subject areas and also as an opportunity for interdisciplinary practice. Second, I feel that place-based education is different than other educational fads because place-based education is ultimately about building relationships. There is nothing hyper-intellectual or elitist about place-based education; it relies on the basic human capacity for living and learning in community.

The current trend towards global education can cause curriculum content to be an indoctrination into broad Western ideals with the frightening statistics of our global challenges tacked on for effect. This homogenized, alarmist education does not equip children to become ethical global citizens. If our children are to develop the capacity for global, cross-cultural empathy, we need to engage them in the rich and challenging relationships of local community. By teaching children to care for their own communities, we show them how they can help achieve justice and joy in communities around the world.

Banner illustration courtesy of Wanderer Online Design Editor Bryan Tran.

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