How do we become global citizens?

Global citizenship education comes in many different shapes and sizes. It matters whether you live in Japan or in Western Europe; it’s different for kids in kindergarten compared to university students. Exactly what does it mean at Maastricht University, and how can we foster it within and beyond our curricula? Herco Fonteijn received €250,000 from the NWO to work on these questions and more in the coming years.

Under its Comenius programme, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) has been awarding grants focused on educational innovation since 2016. This year, Fonteijn received a Leadership Fellow grant for his proposal to enhance global citizenship and social engagement through UM’s study programmes.

The first question is an obvious one: what is global citizenship?
“It’s hard to say exactly. The term is used all over the world with slightly different meanings. In Japan it’s about adding value to communal goals. In more individualistic societies like ours, it’s often about acquiring competences that help you land a job. And you can start working on global citizenship in kindergarten, but obviously in different ways than you would with young adults at university.”

Put it another way: what does global citizenship mean to you?
“I’m more interested in what students and staff at our university think it means here, and how we can best pursue it. That’s one of the three pillars of this project. For example, all our study programmes with the word European or Global in the name already have elements of global citizenship education.”

Such as?
“Although there are many variants, there are three components of global citizenship that are generally recognised. First, global literacy: the ability to identify global problems and see other perspectives. Then there’s social responsibility, which also involves developing soft skills and attitudes such as empathy, courage and moral sensitivity. And finally, transformative engagement, which means working with others to actually apply acquired knowledge and bring about change. If we in Maastricht decide which variant is best for us, we then need to look at how we can incorporate it within and beyond our curricula.”

Global citizenship 1

Aren’t there already initiatives within the three pillars you just mentioned?
“Definitely, but there’s always room for improvement. And the interpretation may differ from one faculty or programme to the next. You can now work on projects with people from different cultures online, remotely, or add value closer to home through neighbourhood mediation. In the coming three years, we’ll experiment with teaching methods aligned with the desired outcomes of global citizenship education. For example, there are interesting virtual-reality simulations that let you recognise and experience inequality. But we’re also going to look at how we can strengthen ties with organisations around UM to make them more accessible to our students. And the university will find some way to recognise these activities within the study programmes.”

Global citizen 2

Can you learn empathy?
“Absolutely. Not in a three-week course, but by paying attention to different perspectives in a study programme, for example. Self-awareness and personal responsibility also play a role. Who are you? Who do you want to be? You develop because you live life while learning to relate to the knowledge you’ve acquired. You can also shape education in that sense. Lecturers are crucial in this regard; they lead by example.”

How can you assess empathy? Or courage?
“It’s easier for empathy than for courage. A lot of global citizenship education takes place outside the curriculum, in the context of student associations or volunteer work, because the thought of testing often scares teachers and students away from risky learning activities. The challenge is to create the space to work on these types of competences during your studies.”

Can PBL help?
“The advantage of PBL is that, in theory, students work on complex problems. But in practice they’re usually able to solve these problems by reading and discussing a chapter from a book. I think students should also learn that some issues are unsolvable, so what do you do then? How do you deal with uncertainty or conflicts? This hasn’t really been addressed in our type of PBL. And it would be interesting to let students identify the problems themselves, rather than simply giving them to them.

Global citizen 3

Is €250,000 enough for such an all-encompassing project?
“Education innovation doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. And just throwing money at it won’t do the trick either, although it is nice that global citizenship education has been incorporated into the quality agreements with the education minister, which means the university is also making resources available. Education innovation is primarily about daring to create the space to do something different, out of curiosity and a desire to share it with others. I think that’s why you become a teacher.”

Only, at universities, teachers are usually first and foremost researchers who also have to teach.
“Fortunately, here in Maastricht, many researchers are also passionate about teaching. For me, internationalisation and innovation are closely related. If this is an international university, that has to mean more than just having many foreign students. Can you study Global Studies without having a sense of social justice and empathy? You wouldn’t think so, so I assume this theme would be on the agenda even without this Comenius grant.”


Text: Femke Kools
Illustration: Ted Struwer

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