What is Global Citizenship Education?

By Maxine Cleminson

What is Global Citizenship Education?

Global Citizenship Education is a field of education that is not easy to succinctly define or even to position neatly in relationship to associated fields of study, despite the best attempts of academics, international organizations, nonprofits, and educators.  Many have attempted to map out the genealogy of the subject, suggesting connections to sub-fields of education such as environmental, civics, human rights, sustainable development, and intercultural studies. These education fields have arguably merged over time to sit under the umbrella term of Global Citizenship Education, but even that is difficult to map out as the interconnections between subjects are varied and complex.

There is also then the question of how these subjects fit into state standards, national curricula, and programs of study offered in schools. There are huge overlaps with topics studied in traditional subjects such as history, geography, civics, science, and social studies.

One of the most widely recognized definitions of Global Citizenship Education comes from UNESCO, who have embraced Global Citizenship Education as a key theme to deliver the UN’s sustainable development goal for education (SDG 4.7).  They aim to:

By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

Unesco, 2018

A big statement, but essentially UNESCO envisions Global Citizenship Education to encompass three domains of learning:  cognitive, socio-emotional, and behavioral. 

However, I would suggest that this model does not fully explore the drivers at the heart of Global Citizenship.

Global Citizenship Education and Social Justice

Famous astrophysicist Carl Sagan explained in his popular TV series Cosmos, that in studying science, “You have to know the past to understand the present”. This is a sentiment that is central to the field of Global Citizenship Education.   If we are to teach students to better know and understand the world of today, we cannot attempt this without considering the impact of historical events, policies, and practices.  The former imperial domination of the Global North over the South cannot be ignored, and neither can its more recent incarnation in the form of globalization.  As such, it is inevitable that we must view globalization through a lens that considers the continuing legacy of colonialism and inequality. For example, problems with representation of ‘First’ and ‘Third’ worlds, the epistemic violence of viewing the South as the inferior ‘other’ in need of rescuing, the absent voice of the global South in political debates and education, and the imbalance of knowledge and power.  

Taking this into account, a humanitarian/moral basis for caring about others around the world is not enough. We need to inculcate a desire for social justice as well. Similarly, a paternalistic sense of responsibility should become an accountability towards others.  Therefore, it is important that education aimed at shaping Global or World Citizens should have social justice at its core.

Global Citizenship Education as a Learning Process

If a desire for social justice is the central tenet of Global Citizenship Education, it is also important to view it as a learning process rather than simply an end goal. A Global Citizenship Education pedagogy should also encourage students to think critically and reflectively, and make connections from their own experiences to those of the wider world.  It should provide space for learners to reflect on their own and others’ assumptions about the status quo around them. It is by embarking on a process of learning, regardless of the starting point, that students (and educators) can begin to critically examine and challenge their privilege thereby moving towards a social justice goal.  Therefore, one could argue that the purpose of Global Citizenship Education should not simply be viewed in terms of achieving a fairer society, but also in transforming the outlook of the individual through their learning journey. In the words of Gandhi, “If you cannot change yourself, how can you change the world?”.

Global Citizenship Education as a Motivator for Action

With social justice as a core value, and an emphasis on the personal learning process through critical and reflective thinking, it is somewhat inevitable that taking action to make change is another central concept within Global Citizenship Education.  Traditionally, action motivated by Global Citizenship Education has been in the form of humanitarian work, charitable efforts, and fundraising by individuals.  However, sometimes the most important action is to challenge ones own thoughts and assumptions, and to participate in advocacy for systemic change. While this may not be “action” as understood in the traditional context of global citizenship, this is the sort of approach that will enact the change needed for a more just global society.

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