As the world around us increasingly divides into ‘us and others’, the University of Cambridge Primary School is taking part in a new research project to help children discover for themselves that far more unites us than divides us.

This isn’t about finding answers – we aren’t trying to get people to agree, nor even to seek to agree. This is about listening and understanding. It’s about a way of being

Fiona Maine

At times of dramatic change and conflict, words can become weapons. Europe is transforming: migration, economic crises and Brexit are shaking the continent’s sense of identity, and debate has turned quickly to division and misunderstanding, to angry Twitter exchanges and pumped-up political stand-offs.

Now, a new Europe-wide project led by Cambridge’s Faculty of Education and closely linked to the University of Cambridge Primary School (UCPS) is encouraging better dialogue – by initially removing language altogether.

The three-year DIALLS project (Dialogue and Argumentation for Cultural Literacy Learning in Schools) will use wordless picturebooks and short films as a stimulus for discussion by children in primary and secondary schools. Exploring their individual and collective responses to the texts within school – and with peers in partner countries from Portugal and Cyprus to Israel and Lithuania – will, researchers believe, help children understand their own cultural identities, while also recognising and respecting those of others in a fast-changing and diverse Europe.

“Our approach is to use the skills of dialogue to promote understanding,” says Dr Fiona Maine, a visual literacy specialist and principal investigator for the €4.4 million project, funded by the European Union Horizon 2020 programme and involving nine universities. “To have an effective dialogue, you need to understand other people’s perspectives and where they are coming from, and perhaps critique your own views.”

Texts without words, needing no translation across borders, are an ideal stimulant for cross-cultural debate, Maine says. “These texts are ambiguous, and so give rich opportunities for discussion.”

A preliminary collection of dozens of materials gathered from across Europe since the project’s launch in May 2018 reflects the fact that many picturebooks have resonance for readers of all ages.The Mediterranean, by the Swiss illustrator Armin Greder, is for older readers and tackles themes of displacement and violence, its beautiful charcoal images confronting the tragic reality of refugees lost at sea. Baboon on the Moon, directed by Christopher Duriez, is a quirky animated film in which a baboon is taken from the jungle to top up the moon’s light each day. At first glance, it’s more playful, yet it addresses similarly powerful notions of home and belonging that could be discussed by all ages.

The next task is to whittle the initial selection down to a core set of 45 texts, likely to include some 30 books, with films and potentially artworks making up the total. It is here that children will themselves get involved in the research, with pupils at UCPS – the UK hub for the project – reviewing and choosing alongside their teachers.

“Student voice is important in the selection,” says Maine. “We’ll ask children which they like, but also which they feel give them real opportunities for discussion.”

The chosen texts, divided for different age groups where appropriate, will then be used by partner schools in each of the nine participant countries to stimulate discussion over 15 lesson sequences. The aim is twofold: children in 300 classes across Europe will explore their responses to the ideas prompted by the books and films, but in doing so will also develop their skills in dialogue and argumentation (the structuring of discussion by hearing and building on others’ points of view). These, in turn, underpin the fundamental goal of the project: to develop children’s “cultural literacy” – not in the sense of knowledge of a defined European culture of art and literature, but in an openness to engage with many different interpretations of it.

“For effective dialogue, in essence, you have to be tolerant, empathetic and inclusive of other positions,” says Maine. “Cultural literacy is not about accessing culture, but about a disposition to engage. Through understanding your own heritage, cultural identity and values and how they are positioned, you are better able to see that actually everybody has a slightly different experience. So it is not about saying ‘us and others’: we are all ‘others’.”

Children’s exploration of this ‘otherness’ will begin in the classroom as they discuss texts with fellow pupils, moving on as the project develops to discussions with children elsewhere in their own country (in England, 30 schools will be involved at first, with more in the third year once resources on using the texts are online).

Children across Europe will be able to share their ideas using a specially created digital platform. One landmark will be a semi-virtual conference in May 2020 bringing together school students to share ideas on the themes explored in the wordless texts, leading to the creation of a “manifesto for cultural literacy for young people in Europe” to sit alongside a set of freely available resources for teachers.

Along the way, children will also develop their own ‘cultural artefacts’ – artwork, stories or short films to be made publicly available in a virtual gallery. In the UK, participating teachers will have access to the Faculty of Education for professional development.

For UCPS, with its close ties to the Faculty and strong research mission, the DIALLS project sits perfectly with its own curriculum priorities. “The real key perhaps to the project is to connect teachers and academics and children, and doing that through different texts,” says UCPS Headteacher Dr James Biddulph. “It fits in with our school’s focus on developing compassionate citizens who are actively involved in their world.”

But with its pan-European scope and ambition to promote understanding, is there a risk the DIALLS initiative could seem unduly idealistic in an era of transition, enormous complexity and debates that can seem so intractable that many in the adult world are tempted to turn away and tune out? How can we expect children to make sense of Europe and its different – and changing – cultures, when even we adults frequently seem unable to do so?

For Maine, the goal is not to find cosy solutions to the world’s problems, but to give children more tools to manage difference positively. “This isn’t about finding answers – we aren’t trying to get people to agree, nor even to seek to agree. This is about listening and understanding. It’s about a way of being.”

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