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Teaching for Sustainable Development Through Ethical Global Issues Pedagogy: Participatory Research with Teachers

Principal Investigator: Dr Karen Pashby, Senior Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University
Co-Applicant: Dr Lousie Sund, Senior Lecturer in Education, Malardalen University 
Research Associate: Dr. Su Corcoran, Manchester Metropolitan University

There is an urgent policy imperative to support effective teaching of global issues. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals include Target 4.7: mainstreaming education for sustainable development (ESD) and global citizenship education (GCE). Critical scholarship in both fields has called for an ethical global issues pedagogy that takes-up, rather than avoiding, difficult questions about global inequalities. Despite consensus on the importance of including global issues in education, there is a lack of knowledge about how to enact critical scholarship in this field and to what extent teachers are currently resourced and open to engaging in a such a pedagogy. This project will generate empirical evidence about enabling and discouraging factors for an ethical global issues pedagogy and will propose, test, and mobilize a framework informed by empirical research with teachers of social studies subjects at secondary level in the UK, Sweden and Finland.

About the project:

In 2015, The United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Unlike the previous Millennium Development Goals which focused on so-called ‘developing countries’, all countries are required to meet the SDG targets. Target 4.7 outlines that by 2030 all learners must acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development through both education for sustainable development (ESD) and global citizenship (GCED).

We wonder: what research has been done in each area and on the extent to which they work together? And, to what extent are teachers in the north of Europe resourced to engage critically with ethical global issues?

ESD and GCED have tended to operate as parallel areas of research and teaching, and each has been critiqued substantively. As research and teaching are mobilised in support of SDG Target 4.7, it is essential to work across and critically engage with these fields. This project brings together two scholars with backgrounds in secondary teaching and teacher education who have been engaging in critical theoretical work informed by post and de-colonial analyses in the areas of environmental and sustainability education (ESE) (Dr. Sund) and global citizenship education (Dr. Pashby). A common concern in our own work (e.g., Pashby, 2013; Sund, 2016)  as well that of others, has been the tendency of ESD (e.g., Anderson et al., 2016, Karyia, 2012) and GCED (e.g., Andreotti & Souza, 2012) approaches to, despite good intentions, reproduce unequal colonial systems of power in how global issues are framed and taught. We feel that pedagogical responses are required that engage directly with intricate ethical questions and consider implications of how global issues within existing secondary school subjects.

Critical scholarship in both fields has called for an ethical global issues pedagogy that takes-up, rather than avoiding, difficult questions about global inequalities. Important critiques have been raised, for example, of the United Decade of Education for Sustainable Development for individualising ESD, failing to engage with complexity, and assuming a universal experience (e.g. Huckle & Wals, 2015). It is essential that we consider lessons learned from that work as responses to local and global to meeting target 4.7 are moblised. At the same time, we must continue to interrogate and engage in dynamic critical conversations about sustainable development and the extent to which ESD and GCE can contribute to meeting global challenges.

We draw inspiration from the International Youth White Paper on Global Citizenship, written by secondary school students from Brazil, Canada, Haiti, Kenya, Morocco, New Zealand, Palestine, Philippines, Slovenia, Sweden, and The United States and presented at the 3rd UNESCO Forum on Global Citizenship in March 2017:

“We recogniz[e] inequality as being caused by already existing gaps between people and nations. As youth from different countries and contexts, we worry about how an imperial instinct plays into this. The interdependence of economic systems and pre-established hierarchies make it harder for global relations to be equitable because nations often enter into agreements based on self-interest. We recognize that the different positions from which people enter into these conversations about major global issues make it difficult for some people to be heard and be part of the change…It's most likely that people who have more opportunity have the voice and end up speaking for everyone”

Their recommendations include:


  • “Addressing complexity and root causes of global issues to open up possibilities rather than promoting simplistic, feel-good citizenship responses”
  • “Exploring how different perspectives and worldviews originate, including what informs the opinions and beliefs of students themselves”
  • “Making transparent global power relations, colonial history and oppression in order to fully understand what structures our relations”

Critical Thinking:

  • “Help students seek out, listen to and incorporate marginalized perspectives in order to question and possibly unlearn mainstream ways of thinking and address inequitable balance between the dominant and marginalized perspectives”

School Structures:

  • “Provide teachers with professional development for the challenging work of global citizenship as expressed in this paper”

These youth raise a significant challenge for educators and researchers. Given that the SDGs call for action in all signatory nations, and despite a strong degree of consensus as to the importance of including global issues in education along with calls in scholarship for critical approaches that take up complexity including colonial systems of power, there is a lack of knowledge about how to enact critical scholarship. It is important to examine to what extent teachers are currently resourced and open to engaging in such work, and to work together with them to support ethical global issues pedagogy. This project is rooted in our shared premise that it is essential that theoretically grounded research engage with and be informed by the lived realities of classrooms and vice versa. We have the opportunity to connect with teachers in the UK, Finland, and Sweden where are strong curricular links in (upper) secondary policy the UK, Sweden and Finland, and opportunities for an approach that responds to critiques of extant approaches to ESD and GCE. Therefore, we are engaging in participatory research in those three national contexts.

There are three interactive components to the project:

a) operationalising theoretical work in the two fields (ESE and GCE) to produce a pedagogical framework for ethical approaches to teaching global issues;

b) collecting and analysing data from teachers via questionnaires, focus groups, classroom observations, and audio-feedback interviews to gain insights into the barriers and possibilities for this work and to examine classroom applications of the framework; and

c) producing a resource for teachers based on the framework that will be directly informed by teachers’ work in classrooms and will be peer reviewed by teacher-participants and experts in the field.

During the winter and spring of 2018 we have been conducting workshops with secondary and upper secondary school teachers in England (Birmingham, Manchester, and London), Sweden (Stockholm) and Finland (Helsinki). The primary purpose of the workshops is to share the framework developed by the researchers and to gain data across a set of diverse locations that will help us to produce a resource appropriate for teachers across Europe and elsewhere. We are drawing inspiration from the work of Professor Vanessa Andreotti, who, in response to the controversy surrounding the take-up by the KONY 2012 campaign by enthusiastic youth across the Global North, created the HEADSUP check list as a way to critical reflect on the extent to which approaches to global issues repeat historical patterns of thinking:

Teachers in the workshops are engaging with the framework and considering what language they can draw on for use with secondary students and what types of questions and activities they use currently or may use in the future that align with an ethical global issues approach. Researchers are visiting classrooms to see participating teachers apply what they choose to draw on from the framework in practice. We will co-develop a resource with teachers based on the workshops and classroom visits, and it will be reviewed by the participants and a set of expert advisors before being published online.

We have been truly inspired by the engaged and critical work educators are already doing in their classrooms and have appreciated the deep professional discussions and sharing of expertise at the workshops. There has been a lot of discussion regarding the dynamic relationship between raising complexities and challenges on the one hand, and teachers wanting students to feel optimistic on the other hand. One of the participants remarked: “how do we make students confident that there isn’t always a clear answer?”. This is a key theme emerging from the early part of the project that we will seek to consider in our analyses. We look forward to completing the last couple of workshops; to disseminating findings from the surveys, workshops, and classroom visits; and to drafting the resource together with participants. Most importantly, we look forward to sharing the completed resource with other educators.

We would like to thank the teachers who are participating in this project. We would also like to thank the collaborators and team of expert advisors supporting our project:

Karolina Sandhal: Regional Lead for the Higher Education Council of Sweden’s Den Globala Skolan (The Global School).
Ilona Taimela: Expert teacher and mentor Educational Department of the City of Helsinki, Steering Committee Member Global Education Task Force of KEPA (the Finnish platform for global development), and PhD candidate University of Helsinki.
Sanna Rekola: Lead in Global Education for KEPA, the Finnish Consortium of NGOs.
Professor Vanessa Andreotti, Canada Research Chair in Race, Inequalities and Global Change, Professor at University of British Columbia.
Professor Johan Öhman, Professor of Education at Örebro University’s School of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences.
Dr. Harriet Marshall National Leader for the South West for the UK government-funded Global Learning Programme (GLP). Ambassador with the TeachSDGs network.
Rilli Lappalainen, Secretary General of KEPA (the Finnish platform for global development), Vice Chair of the International Forum of National NGO Platforms, Board Member at the CONCORD Confederation for European Development NGOs, Coordinator of the Bridge 4.7 network

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