At a time when division seems to permeate all aspects of the news, from politics and Brexit to acts of terror and the growing refugee crisis, it seems more important than ever to help our children recognise that there is far more that unites us than divides us and to value the richness of our differences rather than fear them. If future generations are truly going to live peacefully together in our fragmented world, then we need education policies which embed empathy, understanding and tolerance (DIALLS 2019).
DIALLS (Dialogue and Argumentation for Cultural Literacy Learning in Schools) is a three-year research project led by the University of Cambridge that includes pupils, teachers and researchers from eight different European countries as well as Israel (so that we think beyond geographical borders and consider issues of culture, heritage and identity as they extend more broadly beyond merely European concepts). The project aims to teach children in schools from a young age to:
- engage together in discussions where they may have differing viewpoints or perspectives,
- enable a growing awareness of their own cultural identities
- be sensitive not only to their own identities and cultures but also to empathise with those of each other.
DIALLS uses the term ‘cultural literacy’ to describe the attitudes and skills that people need to get along with each other in everyday living. To facilitate collaboration, individuals should value diversity and be willing both to overcome prejudices and to compromise (European Parliament, Council of the European Union, 2006). With this aim, DIALLS has developed a library of wordless picture books and short films from across Europe to stimulate discussions between young people (DIALLS 2019).
Following a development phase during which practitioners from across Europe and Israel planned and trialled lessons, children aged 4/5, 8/9 and 14/15 are now engaging in a series of 15 lessons designed to develop their dialogue and argumentation skills while exploring their own and others’ responses to the films and books, each carefully chosen to explore aspects of the DIALLS Cultural Analysis Framework Wheel (DIALLS 2018). The lessons are being used in over 300 classes across Europe and Israel as researchers record and analyse the children’s discussions.
One of the early lessons for the 4/5 year olds uses a delightful animated short film from the DIALLS library called Ant (2017) by German filmmaker Julia Ocker and produced by Film Bilder. The film was chosen to promote the development of cultural literacy by exploring the concept of democracy in Year 1 classrooms. The lesson design process challenges practitioners to consider what a complex concept such as democracy means in the life of lego-wielding, dragon-slaying, five-year-olds. In reality, when democracy is defined as having a voice in decision making, anyone who has spent much time with a five-year-old will know they have an unswerving belief that they have a voice in the decision making that impacts their lives. The challenge therefore becomes the need to promote meaningful discussion about these complex concepts, to help young voices articulate their views and to support them to mediate their understandings together.
In the Ant lesson, children are asked to place themselves on a continuum of agreement against the phrase ‘You should always follow the rules’. The gloriously upbeat animated film ‘is then used to stimulate individual thinking and meaningful group discussion to help children navigate their own and other’s views. In the film, an ant colony systematically collects leaves overseen by a whistle-blowing supervisor before a renegade ant flouts the rules and finds his own way to complete the task, which is hastily adopted by his peers.
As the five-year-olds animatedly discuss their new rebel friend, they are in fact sophisticatedly offering opposing views as to whether each and every one of us, whistle-blowing or not, has the right to a voice when it comes to decision making. The children are supported to listen and respond to each other’s views using talk prompts (Maine 2015), in this case ‘I agree…’ or ‘I disagree…’ to frame their discussions.
The children conclude the session by repositioning themselves on the continuum; some stalwarts retained their precise position whilst others proudly experiment with a new space on the continuum. What is clear is that although these positions are likely to change a great many times in the future, they are all very proud to hold their own view and take great satisfaction in others finding theirs’. As is central to the DIALLS project, the session aims not to secure agreement but to support children to develop dialogic tools to engage positively with each other’s differences.
The key, of course, as in all high quality education, will be the skilful guiding by practitioners to help children navigate these reflections, discussions and deliberations. Practitioners from across Europe and Israel who are taking part in DIALLS are engaging in ongoing professional development as they grapple with the challenges of supporting our young people to develop their own cultural literacy.
Beci McCaughran, primary teacher, UK
Maine, F. (2015) Teaching Comprehension through Reading and Responding to Film. Leicester: UKLA