Interview for Knack.be

Interview for Knack.be , 20/04/2017. On citizenship, the difference with “our norms and values”, and world-citizenship education. Here we publish the extended version of the interview.

Mark Saey makes a plea for world-citizenship: ‘Reform education and involve kids in society’

Bjorn Gens

A citizenship’s declaration or voting at 16? These are but two proposals to make of youth political citizens again. Philosopher and author Mark Saey doesn’t agree: ‘We need to change things in education’.

‘Lets not turn kids into adults too quickly.’ © iStock

In its plan PISA 2018 the OECD wants to for the first time also investigate citizenship in education. Since years the OECD compares educational results in several countries. In those PISA studies (Program for Student Assessment) Flemish education scores quite excellent. On citizenship however, many other studies show, Flemish education keeps scoring very poorly. A reform seems mandatory.

Philosopher-teacher Mark Saey alternates between teaching at the GO! public school of Oudenaarde (Flanders) and studying and writing in Rotterdam (The Netherlands). In 2014 he published Young people become world-citizens, in which he expounds an educational model to develop citizenship in youth by means of learning trajectories for world-citizenship. Saey is a member of a couple of education committees and his book has become one the reference points in scientific research on citizenship education.

You want to improve citizenship in education. The public debate on citizenship has been going on for months now. Do we really lack the norms and values to be good citizens?

MARK SAEY: Lets begin with making a distinction between citizenship on the one hand and the discourse on norms and values on the other. Because it’s not the first time this discourse is being held. It always resurfaces when the economic system falters and politicians ant to hide that or don’t want to acknowledge that. If not purely nationalist it’s more than not a discourse of the powerful to uphold their power. In that sense the debate about norms and values is a fake debate. Moreover it tries to convince people that one builds a community on the basis of norms and values that are connected to a narrow idea of culture. While our culture today is superdiverse because of globalization. We need to rather acknowledge that in every culture there are universal human values that can transcend any narrow idea of culture and therefore learn to accommodate differences.

And that is what you call citizenship.

MARK SAEY: That’s right. Citizenship means being member of society without dressing this in narrow cultural clothing. It transcends the discourse on norms and values which wants us to believe that you are a member because you belong to one certain culture. Citizenship differs from national pride or patriotism or nostalgic sentiments. That difference should also make us rethink integration policy. How does one become a member of society? Too often we use cultural norms to answer this in essence political question. Considering citizenship we need to focus on more universal political values like democracy, tolerance and human rights. And connect these to all relevant scales: form the local to the global. Today, more than ever, it’s about world-citizenship we should be talking. And to develop that, we need to change education. During the learning process pupils should be given the possibility to engage society and develop skills to function as upcoming citizens.

Have our youth become so indifferent that we need this focus on citizenship? Also professor Jonathan Holslag concluded so and proposed a new form of military or community service.

MARK SAEY: Indifference is something tricky. You can look at it from two different angles. On the one hand, not mentioning a few exceptions, less and less people show up for elections in several European countries, already for a while now. Different studies also show political parties and institutions losing legitimacy rapidly, especially among the younger generations. Is that indifference? One could also say they turn away from the current political powers. That would be far from indifferent without therefore being ideologically clear of course. But the question here should be: do you still trust the present political powers? For growing numbers the system has gone bad.

On the other hand it is equally clear that many youngsters simply are not interested in politics. Polls have shown us that only one in four can easily comprehend political news. Three out of four acknowledge that they have problems with it or can’t. Politics of course isn’t always that interesting but in essence not all that difficult either. So when many say that it is this means there is insufficient interest.

But should we now therefore reinstall military or community service? No. That seems to me too much the same failing system trying to discipline the people. What is necessary is a change in education. Learning integrally often can’t be done without practical application. That’s why I’m in favour to look for intelligent ways to connect the curriculum to glocal events in the neighbourhood. That’s the way to stimulate world-citizenship.

In your book Young people become world-citizens you expound an entire educational plan to make it possible for Flemish education to sufficiently stress the development of citizenship and critical thinking. Is one not aware of its importance?

MARK SAEY: Well, most European countries say, in official policy documents and through all kinds of citizenship-goals matrixes, that it is important. Only, as the most recent study for the EU Teaching common values again has shown, what is preached is seldom found in practice. In most schools the subject is touched upon, in a specific course or through related subjects in different courses or by means of small or short time projects. But the relevant subjects are given little importance compared to other subjects, and the projects more often than not are either too divorced from curricula either are too short lived. The challenge should by now be clear enough: how to implement a sustainable model for world-citizenship education that combines and mutually reinforces all relevant factors. A feasible model that respects both the official goals and the local conditions in which schools operate, and that shows how to connect these. In my book I have done exactly that. I present and illustrate a model in which the teachers of several courses or subjects work together, pupils make connections between their subjects and engage social problems in and outside school. Only that way you can really take things to higher level.

So, you don’t want to add courses to the curriculum but want to strengthen the different relevant components. Professor Patrick Loobuyck on the other hand wants to introduce a LEF-course, a general course on religion, ethics and philosophy.

MARK SAEY: LEF will – due to the njet in the catholic (and biggest) school-net, but also in atheist circles – probably never get very far. Also in parliament it now and then is debated but there is little change on the horizon. His idea is not bad, in the sense that he tries to strengthen knowledge about religions. That needs to be done, I fully agree. His proposal shares many things with my work. He also wants to improve the social knowledge and skills of our youth through education. His perspective however is not the same. Het treats secularism as the core of the matter, the relation between religion and state. Loobuyck wants to delink them more or further. My perspective however is: how do we improve citizenship in education. So the question is different. Both perspectives definitely overlap but drift apart when it comes to the focus in implementation: towards a new theoretical course or an integral approach.

How to improve education in practice is what counts here. What pupils nowadays learn in ethics/religion or history already teaches them something about society and politics. I don’t always see all that much difference between the present religious courses especially ethics, and LEF. And if LEF would ever be implemented, let it then be a mandatory course for every pupil. But when you want to introduce a new mandatory course, which other course then needs to go or be set aside? It’s not all that easy. Maybe we could make more progress stressing civic elements in the religious courses or drop civic goals in related courses as now our Minister of Education wants to do. Yes or no LEF to me is an overrated discussion because in practice the difference wouldn’t be all that big. An integral approach to citizenship education for the extended school, that’s the core of the matter. I have little against some new course about citizenship, provided no one loses his or her job, but that is not what is essential. So the model I propose does not depend on it, which should also be good news for the catholic school-net.

Kristof Calvo (Green political party) proposes to let youngsters sign a declaration of citizenship. Several political parties also want to lower the age for voting to 16 years. Do these proposals meet yours?

MARK SAEY: I don’t see the surplus value of such a declaration. When you finish secondary school you should have enough civic knowledge and skills. Why then a citizenship declaration? What’s education all about then by the way? Also lowering the age to vote won’t immediately improve pupils’ engagement. It could be an incentive to improve on their civic knowledge but here are also risks involved. I would leave this discussion to specialists, but personally I would be cautious. Lets not turn kids into young adults too quickly. It’s not the intention of citizenship education that kids save the planet and make adult decisions. All we need to do is properly prepare them for a complex world.

How does your model contribute to that?

MARK SAEY: Lets take this for instance. One of the big problems in Flemish education is that teachers are not at ease when it comes to teaching politically sensitive issues, because they can’t handle them or they think they would indoctrinate their pupils. They are partly correct in this attitude for there are so many topics to teach in such short time periods that pupils don’t get enough time or possibilities to critically reflect. Often they learn but to accept the given content. In my model ‘neutrality’ is guaranteed. In these long-term projects, with a theory part and a doing part, the teachers of one study-year or class group work together on a subject or theme with a feasible rotation-system – every course for but two to three weeks, connecting their course-specific goals to the theme. The pupils are first confronted with a glocal problem exemplifying the theme that represents a political fracture: open/closed society, capital/labour, just transition/green economy. They will then learn more about the problem in a phase of analysis that can take months and which teaches them how those problems have a global context. Process data and numbers in math or a scientific approach in biology or history or lessons about sustainability in the carpenter’s track, … Then they will investigate and debate, inter-culturally so you will, the relevant values and human rights together with possible solutions, in the religious/ethics/civic courses. In the last but one phase they confront or compare their findings with opinions of people outside school – local politicians, civil society organisations, … And at the end they round everything up in a well argued paper, presentation, action or creative installation. This way the school teaches its pupils to take their learning process into their own hands.

How should it be implemented in the Flemish system? Is a new model a good thing for most schools? The workload already is immense.

MARK SAEY: I hope the Flemish educational system will finally adopt an integral world-citizenship approach. It would improve our schools and better equip future citizens for the glocal problems we face. I often visit schools to explain the approach and find out with the teachers how it can be useful to what they are already doing. But without backup from higher levels quite some problems remain you cannot change as an individual with only a good idea. Citizenship is not given its due weight. Neither can educational organisations, although they often have lots of expertise. They still have to adapt to what subsidies demand and to what today is the demand coming from mostly just individual teachers or small groups of idealists in schools. It all is too optional or even accidental. To change this three things are crucial. One, the approach must really be integral and help schools to perform better on several fronts. Two, the school-nets have to backup and support this, not just in their policy documents or on promotion days. They don’t have to “command” it but do have to actively point out the need, existence and benefits of an integral approach to all their schools. Three, teacher trainings have to catch up with the best practices in the field and teach their students what global perspectives and world-citizenship education is all about.

A last thing to note is that this model is not completely new. Researching existing project methods and reading lots of statistical studies by others I searched for an existing functional basis for the model I was developing. I decided on the GIP (Integrated test) that already exists in the vocational, art and technical tracks of secondary education and that has long since proven its value. I just added a more general pedagogy and the transversal/citizenship goals to it. And, now being a learning trajectory for world-citizenship, its jury is composed of not only teachers and professionals in the private sector but also of professionals in the civil society sector and educational organisations. On the medium term it can also reduce teachers’ workload because it harmonizes several learning practices in schools. Initially, like all things, it requires preparation. But once in place it will serve the schools for many years. You’ll see teachers work together much more and there will be a positive impact on school policy. This I hope will also be of interest to every principal. The goal is to in each track have a comparable WELT project: World Education Learning for Tomorrow. Preferably in all last four years of secondary education. Pupils in vocational and technical education will get more general knowledge, pupils in general education will discover more practical ways of learning. This could be another way to make our unequal system more equal, at least for citizenship education. That way all pupils would become world-citizens.