A psychological approach to global learning

10 June 2013

Think Global, the education charity which runs this website and works with teachers to promote global learning, has published a thinkpiece called ‘Psychological Approaches within sustainable and global learning’ written by Jane Sander and Paula Conway from Commonwork (a Kent-based social enterprise).

I don’t know about you, but when I was a teacher I had every intention of reading articles such as this to help me reflect on my approach to teaching and learning. Sometimes I managed to find a quiet moment. Other times, the reality of a hectic teaching week meant that articles often sat in my reading pile for far too long!

This is a great thinkpiece from Commonwork, and I wanted to capture some of the key learning points for teachers, so that we don’t miss out.

Commonwork logoCommonwork in Kent has a dairy farm, a conference and study centre, and an educational programme. At Commonwork they believe there is much to be learnt from a psychodynamic model that can help us with the day–to-day challenges that we face when teaching about global issues.

The thinkpiece explores why some teachers and students find it hard to engage with global learning. In particular they refer to the Grow2Grow programme that works with vulnerable and disadvantaged young people who are in transition, have been excluded or are recovering from mental health problems, and young people in and leaving care.

The anxieties of global issues such as climate change, resource depletion, and unjust economic processes can sometimes make us feel helpless and anxious. There is always a risk that our students can feel like this too, unless we reflect upon when and how we introduce certain ideas in the classroom.

A psychodynamic model is helpful in understanding our individual and societal responses to the challenges invoked in a global learning agenda. In the article, reference is made to the relationship between a mother and child. It discusses three concepts to help describe this developmental process ‘the illusion of omnipotence’ (Winnicott ,1960), ‘splitting’ (Klein 1935), and ‘projection’ (Klein 1935).

After explaining these processes in the article (you will definitely need to read the full thinkpiece to engage with these) these were two of the comments that challenged me the most:

‘For many of us, things do not go well enough in the very early developmental phase of dependence and omnipotence. In situations that provoke acute anxiety adults may continue to use the strategies they used as a baby, rather than taking constructive action’

‘We all, to some extent, retain a residue of this baby sense of entitlement that cries “I should have whatever I want, as soon as I want it, I don’t want to know that anyone has suffered for me to get what I want because that will make me feel guilty”’

Can we see this in our own classrooms and are these some of the challenges that we face when we think about our own students’ complex reactions to global issues? Commonwork suggest some points to consider:

  • Be aware that bringing up issues with younger primary students could unsettle them
  • A teacher needs to know how to help students work through the issues that they are presenting
  • To avoid any feelings of helplessness and powerless, help students to take action, creating a sense of agency
  • Build stronger links between school and home, to make sure that students are not hearing different messages.

Commonwork definitely provides positive experiences for children in a supportive culture, which is not paranoid, over anxious or massively defended against reality. As teachers, we need to continue to work towards creating this culture in our schools and wider community in order to deliver global learning more effectively.

Four Feet, Two Sandals cover imageHere are a few ideas that might help you to consider the psychodynamic element of global learning in your classroom:

How can we avoid causing children distress and possible conflict with parents or the community when they don’t appear to offer the same values we are trying to teach? Does this blog resonate with any of your experiences within the classroom? If you want to share your thoughts on this topic, write your comments in the box below.

Amy West taught music at the Castle School in South Gloucestershire and now works as a Programme Manager at Think Global.


  1. Amy West

    From Isobel Mitchell (GLP south east national lead): This is fascinating stuff. I have often found it difficult and even inappropriate to introduce some students to issues such as poverty and conflict on a global scale, when they are struggling to cope with conflict and lack of opportunity in their own lives. I think one key is to start with young people’s own lives and the challenges they face. For example, I once ran a workshop on the impact of guns on people’s lives which was designed to introduce young people to the need for an international arms trade treaty. The workshop used case studies from around the world as a starting point for discussion. With a group of disaffected young people in east London, I was struggling to engage them in this until I realised that most of them had experienced the impact of guns on their own community, many of them had lost a friend or relative to gun crime – I scrapped the case studies and we started to talk about their own experiences which was a great way in to them understanding the global issues surrounding the global trade in arms. The unexpected outcome of the workshop was that the young people began to talk about things that had happened to them, which they had never been given a forum to discuss before.

  2. Jackie Zammit

    I think I would need to read the whole article before commenting fully but a couple of points. One suggestion is to:

    ‘Build stronger links between school and home, to make sure that students are not hearing different messages.’

    The reality is that very often they are hearing different messages between home and school. We cannot ‘make sure they are not hearing them’. Who is to say which message is ‘correct’ – that from home or school? I have been at both ends of this – as a parent I have had cause for concern about things my children’s teachers have told them [these are isolated incidents – they go to an excellent school – but even so…], and as an educator I have been concerned about some of the things children have said or done that have clearly been influenced by home.

    As an educator I believe in giving children the skills to think critically about all messages they receive whether from the media, books, school and even home, and then supporting them as they form and develop their own opinions. This doesn’t mean telling them that their parents are wrong and I am right – rather acknowledging that there is more than one way of looking at things. I believe they need to learn to listen to and respond to other perspectives and conflicting views, how to articulate their thoughts and respect the opinions of others, even if they don’t agree with them.

    In response to ways of dealing with big issues, for me it’s about making complex issues accessible to learners – even the very young. Very young children may already have a complex view of the world even if they can’t articulate it. For some children ‘Local’ might be Birmingham and Pakistan. For them ‘Global’ might be London or Edinburgh because they may not be so closely connected to those places. Poverty is a big issue for all of us to understand and we can’t pretend that it isn’t by suggesting short-term solutions that make us feel better. Through the cities project I was involved with at Tide~ I began to see how important it is to give thought to the way in which we phrase questions. To ask, what shall we do about poverty?, is a huge question. If we ask ‘What is Birmingham doing about poverty?’ or ‘what is Dhaka doing about poverty?’ we provide a focus and turn a heavy negatively loaded question, into a more positive one.

    I agree that picture books and fiction are an excellent way of ‘opening up the world’ for young people. In reponse to Isobel’s comments, The Gun by Bali Rai is an excellent book for exploring gun crime. It’s published by Barrington Stoke, a publisher producing books for reluctant readers. It’s short, very well written and stayed with me long after I read it – my marker of a good children’s book!


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