Dr Harriet Marshall portrait

Written by Dr Harriet Marshall

Head of Educational Research at Lyfta and has been a global education advocate for over 20 years, as a teacher, researcher, consultant and education project leader.

The challenge of bringing the outside world into an indoor learning space has had a lot of attention recently as a result of ‘lockdown-learning’ requirements. However, many in the field of global learning have been actively working on this pedagogical task for decades in a variety of ways. Recently, practice has been ramped up a gear, thanks to youth mobilisation to stop climate change, David Attenborough’s chart-busting ‘Our Planet’, the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and a new range of digital global citizenship education opportunities.

Global citizenship education, sustainable development education or human rights education can be an empowering, enriching, and transformative educational experience. The extent to which UN states also believe this work crucial is manifested in Target 4.7 of the SDGs:

By 2030 ensure all learners acquire 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. (Source: sdgs.un.org)

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the resolution adopting the SDGs, pledged to ‘leave no one behind’ and recognises the dignity of all and equality among all. The plan therefore rightly highlights an opportunity to consider complex global issues relating to equality, diversity and inclusion in all sorts of settings – including schools.

There are many ways in which schools are opting to bring in global learning – from school awards (such as UNICEF’s Rights Respecting Schools) to working with regional Development Education Centres to engaging in programmes like the British Council’s Connecting Classrooms. Some teachers are familiar with publications such as Oxfam’s Guides for Teachers on the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ or ‘Global Citizenship Education’ and so use these to identify a curricular and pedagogic strategy right for the needs of their students. Research hubs such as the Development Education Research Centre (UCL London) have also now established global learning as a credible educational field by researching practice around the world and producing peer-reviewed publications such as the International Journal of Development Education and Global Learning. However, we do not yet know enough about effective global learning practice in SEND settings – but we do know that some exciting and transformative practice is taking place.

An increasingly popular methodology for supporting global learning and empathy-building combines both an ancient pedagogic technique with a modern-day one – storytelling and film making. We believe in capturing human stories through powerful short films which can then be turned into 360-degree interactive spaces for learning. Through this, students and teachers can navigate a virtual globe, explore different countries and visit various storyworlds. The films offer a unique glimpse into someone’s life and/or home and a snippet of how they see their lives and the world at a particular moment in time. No story provides a complete picture of an issue, but it helps bring things to life for students by using real-world examples and themes. Aligning this with lesson plans and resources mapped to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals will also help build cultural awareness and global citizenship amongst students.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways in which global learning can positively impact students with special educational needs (SEN) and/or disabilities by drawing upon schools already doing this through various global learning methodologies:

  1.   Enhancing independent learning and confidence building: Most case studies and reports emphasise how digital global learning resources can enhance independent learning and build confidence – something educators working with students with SEN have especially noticed and appreciated. One teacher from Elms Bank school has been using Lyfta’s global learning immersive digital stories with her class of students with autism. Although at first sceptical about how students might respond to the international storyworlds and subtitles, she noticed the extent to which the children engaged and empathised with the people featured in the stories and how it opened up opportunities for them. The teacher explained, “it brings the outside world into the classroom without having to go anywhere… it immerses them and engages them in a world which isn’t open to them, which they would find so difficult to be able to go and travel to places and talk to people…it allows them to do that without having to leave a space… without the pressures of unknown and the pressures of communication which might happen, they can become more independent”. Another example relates to how teachers and students are often similarly unaware of the details of global learning issues and this more level knowledge playing field can be empowering for students – offering them an opportunity to lead on topic direction or independent exploration on a range of levels. 
  2. Supporting blended, remote and flexible learning: Global learning through immersive platforms can support a blended learning approach in a variety of settings. Digital resources that offer flexibility and choice about delivery methodology support SEN teachers in their unique settings. From a group of physically disabled students in Finland who have enjoyed the post-viewing discussions after watching real-world videos covering specific scenarios and themes to a UK teacher in an alternative provision setting who found students actually participated thanks to the option of collectively inputting ‘student’ responses to global learning questions (thus navigating obstacles to participation such as the shame felt by ‘poor spelling’).
  3.     A useful opportunity to map, connect and combine different global learning approaches and pre-existing activities: Combining a whole school award with deeper-dive resources can provide the collective overview and the bespoke teaching methodologies required for SEN settings. For example, one teacher from the Venturer’s Academy said “I work with students who require a lot of sensory input to their learning so I’m using Lyfta to support them by creating an immersive learning experience. We are a Rights Respecting School and the platform works alongside this perfectly, enabling me to fully embed the Rights and SDGs across the school.” Other teachers have talked about how the practice of reflecting upon where global learning is already taking place in the school (such as gardening projects for sustainable and healthy lifestyles or international school-linking initiatives) can be helpful in many ways.
  4. Increasing engagement with physical activity (and other subjects): The UN’s SDGs combined with an immersive digital global learning resources can support PE teaching with children with SEN. For example, alongside the Youth Sport Trust and Lead Inclusion Schools across the country, we created a guide that uniquely connects PE, school sport and health and wellbeing together through immersive storyworlds aligned with the UN’s SDGs. The aim was to provide practitioners with the opportunity to engage young people in their schools that may not have previously accessed school sport, and develop confidence to access new opportunities, with the long-term outcome of increasing take up in physical activity. 
  5.     Global learning resources offering a non-sequential (and non-hierarchical) ordering of themes can fit in well with student interests and curriculum topics and priorities. Global learning is a lot about values and attitudes, but it is also about real world knowledge which has been reported as being perceived to be both relevant and interesting by students. Teachers in SEN settings have also talked about how immersive technology and storytelling can be used within a range of subjects, providing links and continuity to support student understanding.
  6. Global learning and digital global citizenship resources can be a way of teaching across different age-groups. Linked to point 5, opportunities for vertical teaching strategies are often useful when working with mixed-aged groups of students with different needs. The consistency of common themes can also assist in transition work.
  7. Building intercultural understanding and meeting those from other countries without traveling: One teacher at Rivermead School (post-16 Partnership) said how much she had enjoyed seeing her students engage with resources: “I work with students with SEN and we are a very small provision (seven students) but I have loved seeing their reactions and behaviour during our sessions where we discover new worlds. They are very respectful of other cultures and it is lovely to hear them discuss these later on that week or even a few weeks later.” Another teacher who worked with students with autism said that it was a unique opportunity for students to feel part of the world and meet people from other cultures or countries when they are highly unlikely to in their non-digital lives in the near future.
  8. A useful pedagogic technique for bringing in PSHE, relationships, challenging stereotypes, life-skills and self-care themes. Storytelling can help reinforce life-skills around subjects such as hygiene and health by addressing these themes but in a different context. The same can be applied to introducing more sensitive topics such as stereotyping and difference.

Prior to 2020, we could not have predicted the vital role remote learning would play in delivering the curriculum and enhancing human connection at a time of physical disconnection. While most evidence here is anecdotal and there is a need for more rigorous research on the extent to which global learning can facilitate a greater understanding of other communities and cultures, there are several educators working with children with SEN who have discovered many reasons to be optimistic. In fact, some settings may even be able to lead the way in developing innovative and useful methods, strategies and pedagogies when working with digital global learning resources.

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