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Getting Our Values Right: A Case for Global Citizenship

By Leo Thompson
Getting Our Values Right: A Case for Global Citizenship

Graphic Created by Leo Thompson through CreativeCommons.Org 

As many of us think about unpacking the fairy lights, baubles, and tinsel for the festive season, we may also find time to pause and reflect. We reflect on what we do, what we have achieved, and where we are going. Occasionally we may go one step further and reflect on our values and what really is at the heart of soul of international education as part of the connected purpose of our work. 

To start with a bold claim: anyone involved in schools and colleges should directly or indirectly benefit students’ access to quality education, their safety, or their general well-being. If we don’t bring direct or indirect value to children as educators then our efforts are worth little more than a paycheck, lacking the meaningful purpose advocated by popular theorists such as Dan Pink. The Black Lives Matter and related inclusion, diversity, equity, and anti-racism/discrimination initiatives, as well as the recent COP26 conference and numerous calls to save our climate and environment, have reminded us of some important responsibilities. Hidden behind our desire for high-quality education is an even bigger ethical goal that connects all international educators: the bringing of greater well-being, sustainability, peace, and justice to the world through the impact of our numerous and remarkable schools. 

The importance of developing responsible students as a foundation for responsible adulthood has never been greater because our societies are contending with the antisocial toxins of insular egocentrism, divisive tribalism, and uncritical populism. Back in the 1800s, sociologist Émile Durkheim’s work was “concerned with how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence in modernity, an era in which traditional social and religious ties are no longer assumed, and in which new social institutions have come into being” (according to Goodreads). In almost textbook Durkheim fashion, we are currently spurred on to raise questions such as: why are the behaviours of citizenship important? And how should a good national citizen behave? When we turn our attention to international citizenship, then the scope of the questions is broader, more complex, and the stakes even higher as it indicated in this model below that attempts to loosely map the broad work done in global citizenship across countless schools, institutions, and agencies around the world. At the model’s core are our values and attitudes as they guide our actions and decisions.  

Global citizenship and intercultural understanding are an intersecting set of core values, attitudes, concepts, and competencies that empower us to contribute to our personal, societal, and global well-being and sustainability.

Global Citizenship and Intercultural Understanding “Unpacked”

Core Concepts: An understanding of…

  • Inclusion, diversity, equity, and anti-discrimination
  • Communication
  • Digital Citizenship
  • Ethical Action
  • Leadership
  • Service
  • Sustainability
  • Global Issues
  • Identity and belonging
  • Global Interconnectivity

Core Competencies: An ability to…

  • Understand, appreciate, and adapt to different ideas, perspectives, cultures, languages, and customs
  • Communicate, engage, and collaborate interculturally, in person and digitally
  • Challenge discrimination, injustice, and ignorance
  • Address global issues through social and environmental action
  • Support local, national, and global communities
  • Resolve conflict through respect, inclusion, and leadership
  • Connect ethical concepts to real world contexts and situations
  • Address inequality and unfairness through structures and systems

Core Values and Attitudes: Guiding Us…

  • Respect
  • Empathy
  • Diversity
  • Fairness
  • Justice
  • Inclusion
  • Openness
  • Curiosity

If the axiom is correct, the best measurement of people’s character is not what they say but what they do. Equally, perhaps the best measurement of our education systems is how students go on to behave when they are no longer being assessed and have left school or university? Alumni data on university entrance courses and ensuing successes speak little to the moral fabric of the person and how they behave in the smaller circles of their friendship groups, and the larger circles in workplaces, in society, and across the globe. Do they give back? Do they lead ethically? Do they contribute positively and bring a “net benefit” by giving more than they take to their societies and the world?

Lawrence Kohlberg (1958) argues that the highest and sixth stage of moral thinking is acting on the principle of Kantian style universal laws in the sense of what if everyone did that? Just as our own individual tastes differ, the Western values that still dominate international curricula certainly do not represent all values. There are, however, intrinsic values that connect vastly different cultures. Rushworth Kidder identified love, truthfulness, fairness, freedom, unity, tolerance, responsibility, and respect for life as a set of pervasive or “pan values” but of course that is open to debate.

The work in many schools, such as the Kuwait American School, to find common ground through established programs such Living Values gives some credibility to the claim that we can zoom out, or chunk up, and find a lens that unites us all and works across vastly different cultures and ways of seeing.

To proceed now to my argument, global citizenship and intercultural understanding have never been more important and must be central goals for all schools. For this reason, accrediting agencies such as The Council of International Schools (CIS) encourage or even require their member schools to address global citizenship as a fundamental aspect of their educational program. For instance, CIS Core standard A3 states: “The school puts into action its contextual definition of global citizenship embracing intercultural learning, both inside and beyond the classroom, as evident in the learning experiences of all students.”  Of course, CIS, other agencies, and a vast array of schools are not the only ones shaping the Global Citizenship agenda. Oxfam, UNESCO, The Global Citizenship Initiative, UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, alongside many others recorded on the Ban Ki Moon Centre Portal, are also movers and shakers.

To illustrate my point, just before the onset of the pandemic, I had just walked my boys to their Austrian school and was making my way back home on a scooter (unpowered roller variety). I could see a car broken down at a busy junction, a child in the back, an anxious woman stood behind it on a mobile phone. It was in the middle of the road with cars streaming around it. No one seemed to be helping in a classic example of the bystander effect. I leaned my scooter against a wall, went over, and offered, in unimpressive German, to get it to the curb. The lady gratefully accepted. A man stopped and jumped out of his car and joined forces, then offered to use his car engine to jump-start the defective vehicle. We succeeded, and I went over to collect my scooter, which had vanished. Okay, an inexpensive stolen scooter is certainly no big deal, but the act does underscore the need to address issues in society and reminded me that whilst one might be contributing, there is always the one who isn’t - a bit like a battle between good and bad that all educators must wage now and our students in their future.

If we simplify the work we do in schools, we essentially educate children on the basis of an agreed curriculum built around assessed learning objectives, values, and dispositions. But what exactly are those values and dispositions and are they the right ones? In the wider scheme of things, it may not be the child’s mathematical proficiency, held in such high esteem by so many, that defines their future, but their ability to lead responsible change with the necessary competencies, understanding, and dispositions. Whilst our public examinations, signature events, and graduation ceremonies may be the fairy lights, baubles, and tinsel of our international education systems, global citizenship and intercultural understanding may be the all-important tree. In the interest of our society, civilization, and planet, we must nurture it.


Leo is an international education consultant and School Support and Evaluation Officer contracted by the Council of International Schools.

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