Sunday, April 25, 2010

Education for International Understanding

A couple of years ago I worked at a school whose mission was to provide education for international understanding. I have already written about my current and my last schools' mission statements, but over the past few days I have been reading the Futurelab report Digital Literacy across the Curriculum and what I've been reading has led me back to this old mission statement and the question: just what is education for international understanding?

The Futurelab report draws on the analogy of moving to a new country (something I'm very familiar with having lived in 7 different countries myself):
If you want to fully participate in the life of this new country you need to understand much more than the simple mechanics of the language which is spoken there. You need to know how what you say and what you do might be interpreted and why this might be. You need to understand that the same actions may have different meanings in different cultures and you need to recognise that there are certain social, cultural and historical influences that shape your understanding and knowledge.
Cultural and social understanding, therefore, begins with yourself - understanding how your own perspectives have been shaped by your cultural heritage will allow you to appreciate others. This immediately reminded me of the HSBC advertising campaign in recent years with a single image repeated three times and a one-word interpretation superimposed over the pictures. For example the same photo of a car has the words "freedom", "status symbol" and "polluter" over it, a rug has the words "decor", "souvenir" and "place of prayer" over it. The HSBC also had a similar advertising campaign where there were three different pictures all with the same word on them, for example the word "responsibility" is shown over a footballer just about to take a penalty shot, over a recycling bin filled with plastic bottles and over a goldfish bowl. In these advertisements word and images are very powerful.

Working in international schools for over 20 years has made me very conscious of different interpretations and of different customs in the various countries where we have lived. In Thailand we would always take our shoes off before entering a house or temple and even now I can't walk around indoors in shoes, it just feels rude. There are different values too. Our culture and our education system promotes independence, yet that is not a value that is held particularly highly by some cultures who value the success of the group or family more than one individual member. I once taught a Japanese student who returned to Japan and later told me she had been bullied because her hair was different from the other girls there (hers was long with different coloured streaks in the front - the other girls in her new school in Japan all had identical bobs). In Europe we had taught her to value being an individual and celebrate being different, back in her home country being different just seemed odd. Being open-minded is an attribute of the IB Learner Profile. Yet many of our students will return to countries where the culture is not open-minded at all.

From an IT perspective the Futurelab report suggests an interesting activity that I would like to try with a group of students as a jumping off point for cross-cultural comparisons. Going back to the HSBC advertisements where a single word can conjour up many images, depending on your cultural and social understanding, I would like to try something similar using Flickr. As images are uploaded and tagged by people all around the world with many diverse viewpoints, it would be interesting to compare images across cultures that have been tagged with the same words. Perhaps as a starting point we can have a look at the PYP attitudes (appreciation, commitment, confidence, cooperation, creativity, curiosity, empathy, enthusiasm, independence, integrity, respect and tolerance) and see if we can find some interesting and different images that reflect diverse understandings of these words.

Photograph by Rick Elkins


  1. Thanks, Maggie, another thought-provoking post. We are doing a unit in Year 4 under 'Who We Are' to do with understanding other people's cultures and perspectives, but I worry that it can descend into a facile look at food, flags, festivals... etc. You have addressed the kind of cultural understandings we should be looking for. Love the idea of combining a look at Flickr and the PYP attitudes - might try it.

  2. I really like the idea of using the HSBC advertisements as a model for a learning activity using Flickr. Have you seen: Shahi It is a visual dictionary for Flickr based on how people have tagged photos, it might help with this type of project. I need about 20 more classes to teach all that I want to this year, as it stands I only have 3 more class periods with each of my classes.