It is empirically well-documented that educational initiatives that attempt to address global challenges without critically examining historical and systemic patterns of oppression and inequality tend to promote simplistic understandings of global problems and solutions, paternalistic North-South engagements and ethnocentric views of justice and change. Therefore, the need for critical thinking, engagements with multiple perspectives and ethical forms of solidarity has been emphasized in recent policies and practices of global and development education. However, the challenges of engaging educationally with dominant practices in ways that enable learners to problematize and move beyond the enduring single story of progress, development and human evolution is often under-estimated.

One of the educational tools we have created to facilitate critical interventions in this area is called HeadsUp. This tool lists six problematic patterns of representations and engagements that are extremely common in narratives about poverty, wealth, and global change, particularly in North-South engagements and engagements with local diverse populations. The HeadsUp tool helps learners and practitioners identify:

Hegemonic practices (reinforcing and justifying the status quo)

Ethnocentric projections (presenting one view as universal and superior)

Ahistorical thinking (forgetting the role of historical legacies and complicities in shaping current problems)

Depoliticized orientations (disregarding the impacts of power inequalities and delegitimizing dissent)

Self-serving motivations (invested in self-congratulatory heroism)

Un-complicated solutions (offering ‘feel-good’ quick fixes that do not address root causes of problems)

Paternalistic investments (seeking a ‘thank you’ from those who have been ‘helped’)

This educational tool offers a set of questions for educational initiatives that goes with each of the problematic patterns identified:

Whose idea of development/ education / the way forward? Whose template for knowledge production?
Hegemony (justifying dominance and supporting domination) What assumptions and imaginaries inform the ideal of development and education in this initiative? Whose knowledge is perceived to have universal value? How come? How can this imbalance be addressed?
Ethnocentrism (projecting the views of one group as universal) What is being projected as ideal, normal, good, moral, natural or desirable? Where do these assumptions come from? How is dissent addressed? How are dissenting groups framed and engaged with?
Ahistoricism (forgetting historical legacies and complicities) How is history, and its ongoing effects on social/ political/ economic relations, addressed (or not) in the formulation of problems and solutions? How is the historical connection between dispensers and receivers of knowledge framed and addressed?
Depoliticization (disregarding power inequalities and ideological roots of analyses and proposals) What analysis of power relations has been performed? Are power imbalances recognized, and if so, how are they either critiqued or rationalized? How are they addressed? Do educators and students recognize themselves as culturally situated, ideologically motivated and potentially incapable of grasping important alternative views?
Self-congratulatory and Self-serving attitude (oriented towards self-affirmation /CV building) How are marginalized peoples represented? How are those students who intervene represented? How is the relationship between these groups two represented? Is the epistemological and ontological violence of certain individuals being deemed dispensers of education, rights and help acknowledged as part of the problem?
Un-complicated solutions (ignoring the complexity of epistemological, ontological and metaphysical dominance) Has the urge to ‘make a difference’ weighted more in decisions than critical systemic thinking about origins and implications of ‘solutions’? Are simplistic analyses offered and answered in ways that do not invite people to engage with complexity or recognize complicity in systemic harm?
Paternalism (seeking affirmation of superiority through the provision of help) How are those at the receiving end of efforts to ‘make a difference’ expected to respond to the ‘help’ they receive? Does this initiative promote the symmetry of less powerful groups and recognize these groups’ legitimate right to disagree with the formulation of problems and solutions proposed?

The HeadsUp tool was designed with the intent to support educational practices that can enable learners to:

  • develop more complex, systemic, multi-layered, and multi-voiced social analyses that challenge and provide alternatives for simplistic solutions to global issues;
  • cultivate awareness of how we are implicated and complicit in the problems we are trying to address – that is, how we are all both part of the problem and the solution in different ways;
  • expand frames of reference, acknowledging the gifts, contradictions and limitations of different knowledge systems, moving beyond ‘either /or’ towards ‘both/and more’;
  • engage from theory to practice and practice to theory reciprocally, understanding the essential and dynamic link between theory and practice and valuing each equitably;
  • open the social and ecological imagination to different forms of knowing and being, and to different futurities;
  • see historically marginalized people and communities as equally capable, intelligent, knowledgeable, and complex; and
  • recognize systemic ongoing harm without guilt, paralysis, quick fixes, or pessimism, in order to re-ignite our visceral sense of connectedness with and responsibility towards each other and the planet.

The HeadsUp educational tool also highlights that trying to challenge all the problematic patterns identified at once is very difficult because they are tied to the “common sense” of how we think about the world and each other (through the single story): how we are taught to perceive wealth, poverty, progress, development, education and change. Thus, if these patterns are challenged all at once, the resulting narrative/intervention can become largely unintelligible. In addition, interrupting these patterns also tends to create paradoxes where a solution to a problem creates another problem. The message here is that the transformation of our relationships is a long process where we need to learn to walk/breathe together differently in a foggy road – with the stamina for the long-haul rather than a desire for quick fixes. The questions below illustrate some of the paradoxes we face in educational practice:

How can we address…

  • hegemony without creating new hegemonies through our own forms of resistance?
  • ethnocentrism without falling into absolute relativism and forms of essentialism and anti-essentialism that reify elitism?
  • ahistoricism without fixing a single perspective of history to simply reverse hierarchies and without being caught in a self-sustaining narrative of vilification and victimisation?
  • depoliticization without high-jacking political agendas for self-serving ends and without engaging in self-empowering critical exercises of generalisation, homogenisation and dismissal of antagonistic positions?
  • self-congratulatory tendencies without crushing generosity and altruism?
  • people’s tendency to want simplistic solutions without producing paralysis and hopelessness?
  • paternalism without closing opportunities for short-term redistribution?

The EarthCARE network is committed to challenging the patterns identified in the HeadsUp tool, which are rooted in material and epistemological hierarchies, in order to create spaces for the flourishing of an “ecology of knowledges.” Such an ecology, in which there is symmetry between different and intersecting ways of knowing and being, creates conditions of possibility for people from diverse positions and histories to engage critically with the contributions and limitations of every knowledge system (including the most novel ones, which are only just in the process of formation). In this way, the EarthCARE  framework used in combination with the HeadsUp tool directly challenges some of the most fundamentally problematic practices that abound in global education, while offering alternatives to the practices of reactive dogmatism, essentialism, romanticization of alternatives, and/or absolute relativism that are presently creating intercultural paralyses and other barriers to collaborative approaches to global justice.

See also:

  • The educational challenges of imagining the world differently (article)
    (you can cite the tool using this article)
  • Critical and transnational literacies in international development and global citizenship education (article)
  • Through other eyes (learning activities)
  • Open spaces for dialogue and inquiry (learning activities)
  • Community engagement (educational frames)