Essay

From me to we

IMAGINE THE GREAT Hall at the University of Sydney, packed row after row with teenagers, being asked to write on a postcard what they want most for their lives and the world they are inheriting from their parents. The pens and pencils in their hands capture the capacious vision of a world that embraces a desire for an inclusive family of mankind with equal access to justice and opportunity. Their words are significant, but what is more important is the personal intent in their statements: these students are not indulging in a superficial, feel-good exercise. Their statements are inspired yet pragmatic; optimistic yet grounded; confident yet realistic; courageous yet reasoned.

These young people are committed to becoming agents of change, to initiate it, to link the measure of success in their personal lives with the success they see in the lives of their fellow man. These postcards from the head and heart represent the voices of Australian high school students who have been systematically exploring the theme of global citizenship through the High Resolves Initiative (HRI).

We founded HRI four years ago because we believe that any hope of responding to the increasingly complex challenges of our world requires a critical mass of future leaders with the desire, skills, vision, creativity and confidence to accomplish what previous generations have failed to do: acting with solidarity in the collective interest of humanity. HRI's mission is to motivate high school students to view themselves as purposeful global citizens and to acquire and practise the skills they will need to lead their communities, and the world, to a brighter future.

Obviously, mere intentions and good deeds will not suffice: the problems are too intractable and the time too short. New capacities and unprecedented creativity, born from years of disciplined training, will be required. Today's students will need to be inoculated against the automatic and blind imitation of the past and be trained to tackle the myriad problems facing our civilisation.

Unfortunately, as Sir Ken Robinson, the internationally recognised leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources has noted, education systems have not been designed to cultivate most of these traits. In fact, the rigid approaches of many schools do exactly the opposite. Fresh new approaches are needed to break from failed formulae.

 

WHEN WE SPEAK with people who have sucessfully incorporated a path of service into their lives, they frequently refer to some peak experience during their youth that transformed the way they thought about the world. We designed the Initiative to offer an experience of awareness and self-discovery that can materially change the life trajectory for thousands of students.

The HRI curriculum is delivered through a creative mix of interactive simulations, role-playing exercises and small group discussions in a growing number of Australian schools. Participatory learning is central to the design of all modules. Facilitators and undergraduate recruits guide the students through five modules – collective identity, justice, conflict resolution, collective action and leadership – that give them the skills to design and launch initiatives to improve their schools and to serve their communities. Feedback from the schools has been extremely encouraging.

‘Students are more acutely aware of their rights and responsibility as global citizens and more aware that their individual choices and individual actions do indeed make a difference,' wrote Robert Phillips, principal of Hornsby Girls' High School; and Mary Ann Das Neves, prinicipal of Girraween High School, noted, ‘There is no doubt that this program has a life changing effect on students ... it takes them from being helpless observers of the world's problems to being leaders who have a conviction that they can bring about change.'

The contribution of HRI can be measured by the change in the life path trajectory of its participants and the many projects spawned as a result. But we believe these measures will pale in comparison to its contribution to creating a community where a critical mass of its leaders is trained to think and act in the collective interest.

Although the HRI experiment is only four years old, it has already generated valuable insights about the transformation of this generation. We recognised that it was essential to build the mindsets and capacities to drive constructive social change in the real world, provide provocative experiences which trigger a response, develop a staged learning process and provide opportunities for real-world involvement.

Schools prepare students to enter universities or the workforce, not to engage in social change. Yet there are specific mindsets and capacities that are needed if one is to be effective at engendering such change.

Starting with mindsets, we identified five frames that are critical to understanding and dealing with the challenges of the twenty-first century. First and foremost, it is critical for young people to view themselves as global citizens belonging to one united human race. They also need to view the world's issues through the lens of justice, because it is difficult to foster unity without justice and to have the integrative mindsets necessary to analyse and resolve conflict. They need to learn the dynamics of how to enlist others in collective efforts and to see leadership as service, which is the domain and responsibility of all.

Having isolated these mindsets, the challenge quickly became a pragmatic one of breaking each down into the capacities that need to be developed. We were inspired by the long list of capacities critical to development that were identified by the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity – collective identity, justice, conflict resolution, collective action and leadership.

 

MUCH HAS BEEN about the different learning style of Generation Y. Traditional 
teaching techniques are not very effective with them. Students cannot be taught the skills of engagement through lectures or readings and the subject matter does not necessarily lend itself to electronic or digital media. Learning takes place most effectively through participatory techniques involving simulation and interactive exercises.

One must eschew the very notion of trying to ‘teach' these skills, and design experiences that allow the specific learning to take place naturally. The HRI Justice module draws on the principles elaborated in John Rawls' masterpiece A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971). At the core of Rawls' theory is the concept of the veil of ignorance. Fairness is defined as what you would choose if you did not know which share you would receive. As compelling as Rawls' argument is, no lecture on the theory of justice is likely to capture and hold the attention of teenagers for more than a few minutes. It is possible however, to devise an experience that does. We begin by dividing students into pairs instructed to split a cupcake or a chocolate bar. In the first round, one person cuts the cupcake and chooses who eats which piece. In the second round, one person cuts and the other person chooses. Typically, the division is much more likely to be 50-50 in the second round. With this simple exercise, the students gain an initial intuitive understanding of Rawls.

The learning is then deepened through a discussion of how to divide $100 in various scenarios. Those who ‘flip a coin' need to understand that procedural fairness does not necessarily result in substantive fairness, but how do you help them learn that? Oxfam has designed a ‘hunger banquet' where students are randomly assigned roles – about half are designated low-income and given only a bowl of rice for lunch; a third are middle-income and receive beans and unlimited water as well as the rice; and the others are high-income citizens who are served lasagna, chocolate cake and juice. In this case, random selection may seem like a fair process, yet the outcome is definitely not fair. The lesson is not easily forgotten, especially for those who have only the bowl of rice for lunch.

The Collective Action module is based on a theoretical construct about the choices facing two prisoners, which explores the tension between short-term individual interest and long-term collective interest. The prisoner's dilemma is at the heart of many global problems from global warming to the financial crisis. Scholars like Robert Axelrod, the author of The Evolution of Cooperation (Basic Books, 1984), have used computer simulations to model the dynamics of this class of problems.

The trouble is that many teenagers do not find the academic work in this space accessible, yet understanding the nature of the implicit tradeoffs is absolutely critical to their development as future leaders. To help them learn this lesson, HRI uses a role-play simulation exercise where students are ambassadors from thirty countries negotiating their carbon dioxide emission reductions over fifteen years. The problem is structured so that they all benefit from lower emissions, but prefer other nations to carry the burden.

As you would expect, the simulation usually results in an undesirable macro-outcome as emission reductions are abandoned by country after country and students realise how hard it is to cooperate. Over time, some learn how to forge, and sustain, a coalition. Most struggle with the challenge of how to react to those who continue to free-ride despite all the eloquent or passionate speeches that occur in the room.

The insights triggered by these simulations are far more visceral and lasting than those generated by scholarly discussion alone. We are convinced that participatory learning is a more powerful way to build these capacities.

 

IN MOST SCHOOLS, citzenship and leadership education takes place through a series of disconnected workshops and experiences without a thoughtful overarching design for capacity building. Interestingly, this is in stark contrast to the way the core curriculum is approached.

Consider the way mathematics as a critical knowledge system is taught in schools. Over the years, the constituent subsystems of mathematics – arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus – have been thoughtfully arranged over the curriculum. A student would not be taught calculus before mastering the basics of arithmetic and algebra: subjects are taught systematically and in a logical progression.

Our experience suggests that the study of citizenship should be similar, that specific capacities and frames need to be mastered and there is a natural and progressive sequence to learning them. This can be represented as a staircase, with progressive mastery which helps students develop certain capacities, and build on them as they move through the modules.

In order for students to become purposeful global citizens most need to reset their frame of reference to see the human race as one single (yet diverse) race and to develop the capacity to have a positive relationship with people from other cultures. Thus, the first module on Collective Identity helps students develop the capacity to interact with other cultures in a way that leads to the advancement of all cultures and not to their degradation. Building on that capacity in the second module, students begin to explore the concept of justice as fairness through simulations that force them to see situations from a different perspective and approach distributive issues with greater objectivity and compassion. In short, the students first develop a general sense of solidarity and follow that by learning how to act on that through justice. These are the introductory modules for all Year 8 students in each HRI school.

About thirty students are then chosen to continue with the advanced modules on Conflict Resolution and Collective Action, as an intensive two-day workshop at the beginning of Year 9. At the end of this workshop, they are asked whether they would like to continue as part of a Leaders Group for the next two years. The turnover rate is negligible at this stage – almost all students choose to continue, often very enthusiastically.

 

THE FOCUS IS then on putting learned capacities into practice in real projects. Even in this final phase, the learning is progressive. Students begin with lunchtime sessions on leadership, learning from great thinkers and writers. Then they are trained to facilitate the Year 8 modules to further assimilate this knowledge by teaching the skills they have learnt. Over time, they begin to arrive at a sense of their passion and a clearer picture of where they wish to engage. By Year 10, they design and execute a project in their school and finally the crowning activity project which delivers real value to a selected community organisation.

The holistic and progressive nature of the curriculum makes the learning extremely effective. Capacities continue to build on each other and the learning from service projects in later years reinforces the earlier years. The HRI experience has demonstrated that engaged high school students crave real-world opportunities to apply their energy and skills to make the world a better place.

These lessons are interesting in their own right, but they suggest an even more important overarching insight: it is possible to be systematic in kindling the desire and building the capacities needed to become a purposeful global citizen. HRI functions as a human resource engine for many other worthwhile agencies and organisations in Australia. Students begin a journey in Year 8. Experiences build important new capacities and awaken the motivation and desire to make a contribution to the world. The newfound passion channels talent into a range of new and existing activities, organisations and community networks that benefit from this fresh new injection of energy.

There is no doubt we can be as systematic about leadership and citizenship education as we are about the mathematics or science curriculum. And, given the state of the world, we have no choice but to do just that.

The high school teenagers crowded into the Great Hall and writing down their hopes for the world at the Sydney High Resolves Annual Summit last year are already on a journey to make the world a better place. The postcards on which they inscribed their intent will arrive in their mailboxes later to ask the question: Did your words become your reality?

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