Review of Ellis, M. (2016)

Ellis, M. (2016). The Critical Global Educator: Global Citizenship Education as Sustainable Development. New York, NY: Routledge.

Reviewed by Glen Water

In the field of international education, frequent debates occur on the intersecting topics of globalization, sustainable development and the type of citizenship education necessitated by these issues. Maureen Ellis enters these debates with her critical and theory-dense book: The Critical Global Educator: Global Citizenship Education as Sustainable Development. Ellis argues that global citizenship education needs to be reframed as sustainable development because the current neoliberal, passive, and instrumentalist education models are engendering the values and mindsets that perpetuate the socio-cultural, economic, and most notably environmental injustices the world is witnessing today. Thus, Ellis calls for “Global Citizenship Education as Sustainable Development (GCESD)” (IX), an education that takes a trans-disciplinary view of the world and is deeply rooted in critical realism. She believes this approach can help to mold educators to have the “passion, disciplinary expertise, and legitimacy” (IX) to create the sustainable structures necessary to address the urgent issues facing the globe.

As the title suggests, Ellis draws heavily from critical theory to support her argument for shifting global citizenship education to center on a more critical focus as this focus can provide a means of sustainable development. In the first chapter she provides her biographical journey detailing how her personal and professional experiences, including as a teacher, curriculum designer, and consultant, led her to inductively understand the theories that framed her research including critical realism, critical social theory, critical discourse, and critical linguistics. In Chapter 2, these theories frame her analysis of the current policies in global education that espouse a citizenship centered around techno-scientific discourses, consumption norms, and neoliberal skills and knowledge, all of which she skillfully argues have continued the colonization of minds, the degradation of democracy, and the destruction of the environment. However, she notes that globalization has also led to opportunities to face these challenges through the creation of discourses around social justice, human rights, and sustainable development.

In Chapter 3, Ellis argues that GCESD, as it is framed in critical theory and is trans-disciplinary in its approach, can provide an education that addresses the challenges and embraces the opportunities of globalization. She shows how GCESD can enable a critique of the dominant policies that have led to these challenges while empowering learners with transformative perspectives and experiences that are possible in a global education. She builds to this argument through an extensive review of the existing literature, weaving together different “philosophical traits, sociocultural critique, and emancipatory praxis,” (79) to argue for the critical mindsets and theoretical knowledge that critical global educators need to possess to create this type of education. In Chapter 4, she elucidates that central to these mindsets and knowledge is the usage of the Cultural-Historical activity theory (CHAT) framework. By using this framework global educators can begin to understand the dialectic relationship between what people think/feel and how they act, an understanding that is an essential step towards building the consciousness that is fundamental to critical education.

Additionally in Chapter 4, she introduces her research consisting of preliminary surveys, focus groups, and interviews with pre-service and in-service teachers, teacher educators, academics, and development workers and administrators. The results of this research showed that despite teachers having positive intentions about their work in global education, many were uncertain of their role and lacked a theoretical framework by which to orient their work. Thus, she posits that many current global citizenship teachers do not have enough understanding of larger political and economic issues, which she argues is essential for conducting critical citizenship education. These results added to her argument that the use of a CHAT framework can enable global educators to critically identity personal interpretation and political orientation, a process she has noted is necessary to teach citizenship education as sustainable development. In Chapter 5, she adds to the critique of current citizenship education by analyzing key documents of global education generated by both major education development NGOs and British government offices. According to her analysis, these documents still focus on skills and passivity and reinforce education as a sorting mechanism rather than generating the consciousness that is necessary for global citizenship as sustainable development.

In Chapters 6 and 7, she demonstrates how using CHAT in 18 semi-structured interviews can elucidate the mindsets and knowledge necessary for critical educators to function as the transformative professionals necessary for GCESD. She again highlights the need for a strong disciplinary and theoretical foundation for these teachers, but also adds the importance of educators being able to understand their own identities and cultural politics. In order to push the field to adopt this more critical approach she closes the book by offering for eight recommendations that collectively emphasize the need for increased theoretical rigor, trans-disciplinary critical research, and linking that research to the policy world.

Although the author supports her strong theoretical basis with extensive surveys, focus-groups, and interviews on citizenship education and sustainable development, one limitation of the research is that the subjects of this research are primarily limited to British based educators. The initial survey of 335 student teachers was conducted at her British alma mater. Additional focus-group interviews and interviews included teachers at only “UK and mainland European universities” (88). As the environmental issues in sustainable development are global in nature, her research methods do not address potential key differences in what traits and knowledge possessed by teachers in different contexts like the developing world. However, by providing a strong theoretical framework for GCESD, which could be applied in multiple contexts, it opens the door for additional research on what this could look like in local classrooms around the world.

Aligning with her belief in trans-disciplinary approaches, Ellis builds to her call for critical education by skillfully weaving together different concepts and academic terms from a variety of disciplines. Despite her claimed intended efforts “to provide insight to practitioners, educators, and policymakers,” (IX), some may find that the density and complexity of the theories that she includes difficult to navigate. Her clear love of linguistics adds insight but also can make comprehension more challenging. It is not a book for the teacher or policymaker who does not possess a strong academic theoretical background, and thus this book will best be utilized by academics, in the field of citizenship education, who already have a strong understanding of critical theory.

Moreover, many of the characteristics and examples she uses to describe a global educator who uses GCESD are oriented to academics as educators rather than classroom teachers. For example in Chapter 5, when she is analyzing the DfES’s “Developing the Global Dimension in the School Curriculum, ” for KS1, or years 1 and 2 of the schooling experience, she highlights the section on “Slavery, empire, colonialism, and the Commonwealth” and its lack of attention to “cosmic, big-history” understandings and “political-economic intersectional injustices” (116) Specifically she criticizes the lack of attention to national borrowing and how this could be connected to the national narrative of “greed, credit, and moral debt to death” (116). Although academics would find this example illuminating of the current lack of critical, trans-disciplinary global education, classroom teachers may walk away from the example questioning the feasibility of teaching complex and interconnected economic and historical issues to five-to-seven year old children.

However, as a whole, the theoretical strength of the work adds academic credibility and weight to the much needed call for global citizenship education as sustainable development. Thus, this book provides an insightful argument for the need to reframe the global citizenship education in a way that is emancipatory for teachers and students and can provide transformative capacity to address the global environmental, sociocultural, and political injustices in the world.