Developing critical literacy or reproducing epistemological inequality? A critical analysis of the Reading Spots Online Course.

This essay was submitted in Feburary 2018 as part of an MA in Education and International Development at UCL. I thought I’d share it in case any participants of the course last term were interested in reading my analysis of it, or anyone out there was interested in global learning and critical literacy – I’m always keen to share ideas and collaborate! If anyone is interested in this project at all, do get in touch! 

Cat Davison 17/03/2018

1.1 Introduction

‘An Introduction to Key Themes and Debates in International Development’ (‘The Course’) is a 10-week online course that I wrote between September and December 2017, with the purpose of encouraging pupils at Brighton College (UK) and African Science Academy (ASA) (Ghana) to critically reflect upon issues in global development, particularly considering western epistemological hegemony within both our education system. Its approach was informed by my broader study of an MA in Education and International Development at UCL; my choice of this unit (the Practices and Principles of Development Education) was in part to enable me to have the knowledge and pedagogical skill-set to both create this course, and complete an informed analysis of it.  I have been given a sponsored sabbatical year by Brighton College to develop the work of Reading Spots, a UK registered charity I have co-founded to support the creation of community-led libraries in remote areas of Ghana and facilitate an active global citizenship education programme.

This paper will specifically focus on the success of the course in enabling pupils to develop skills in ‘critical literacy’, a practice that most formulations of development education, global learning and global citizenship education highlight as central to the success of their pedagogical approaches. The Course was not created with this specific focus in mind, but this emphasis will be central to its reformulation with different pupils in September 2018.

1.2 Format

The course was targeted at Sixth Form pupils, offering a multi-dimensional critical exploration of the concepts of poverty and development. The format of the course comprises a narrative with various extracts from literature, academic articles and videos, with a particular focus on the inclusion of the African voice, although it was ultimately edited by me. Pupils were required to complete a weekly task which involved reflecting on various forms of material, and contributing to a discussion board. The course also served as a form of volunteer training for pupils ahead of their trip to Ghana – this was particularly in recognition of the potential harms caused by sending volunteers into development contexts without educating them about the ‘local social setting, work context, or goals and philosophies that drive overarching development agendas’ (Cook, 2008:18). A shift away from a charitable giving mentality towards one of ‘mutual learning’ and social justice is encouraged throughout the course (Andreotti 2006), and pupils are introduced to the suggestion that ‘the helping Self often involves implicitly and unintentionally denigrating Others’ (Cook, 2008:20).

1.3 Positioning

My method of critical analysis draws from Andreotti’s approach in involving myself in an ‘exercise of enquiry that is both reflective…and reflexive’ (Andreotti, 2006: 7). Throughout this exercise, I am positioned as the author of the course, and thus whilst I will endeavour to critically evaluate its approach neutrally, I am ultimately immersed within the value system being promoted. I have loosely followed Golding’s ‘Community of Inquiry’ model, and thus taken the role of a ‘co-inquirer with students’ where I am ready to ‘re-discover and re-construct’ ideas through scaffolding the conversation rather than steering pupils towards pre-conceived viewpoints, thus recognising the plurality of development education frameworks, objectives and practices (Golding, 2011: 480). Golding describes this role as being like an ‘adventure guide’ – whilst this analogy holds in terms of being experienced in the terrain and open to new discoveries, it is also important to note that some ideas need to be given more weight than others in the field of development, due to the nature of the evidence which points towards certain approaches having a greater impact upon human well-being. We will examine the balance sought between enabling pupils to move towards unlimited outcomes and a set of clear values, later in our analysis.

2 Global Citizenship Education

The term ‘Global Citizenship Education’ (GCE) has been recognised by some scholars as a ‘nodal point’ or ‘place of arrival’ of other areas of education such as development education, global learning, environment education, human rights education, education for equality, and sustainability education (Mannion, Biesta, Priestley & Ross, 2011). GCE became a particularly popular term in England when citizenship became part of the national curriculum with Bourn noting a growing perception within educationalists that the term ‘global’ was ‘more relevant and accessible’ than ‘development’; however, the categorisation of pedagogical frameworks in this field are constantly changing, and will continue to ‘evolve and change’, as it moves alongside a changing global terrain (Bourn, 2014: 11-14).

Some suggest that the multiplicity of meanings (Oxley and Morris, 2013) or a ‘lack of a concrete definition’ of the term ‘global citizen’ means that it is employed as an ‘empty signifier’ (Zemach-Bersin 2007:19), or that may even contribute to what Andreotti terms as the ‘civilising mission’ of the west (Andreotti, 2011: 166-167) as ‘the very possibility of ‘being global’ is unbalanced’ (Dobson, 2005: 259) due to the differing levels of connectivity globally. Indeed, Andreotti (2006:70) questions ‘Whose globe? Whose citizenship?’. Davies (2006) goes further and challenges the validity of the term, asserting that the very concept of being a ‘global citizen’ is ‘a paradox or simply an oxymoron’ due to the non-existence of a global state.

Oxfam (2015) disagrees and offers a definition of the global citizen as someone who ‘participates in the community at a range of levels’, ‘is willing to act to make the world a more equitable and sustainable place’, and ‘takes responsibility for their actions’ through the recognition of a shared human experience. Oxfam’s accompanying pedagogy is presented as a linear process: pupils are encouraged to ‘learn, think, act’. Whilst the simplicity of this slogan highlights the need for research and critical reflection, the mantra over-simplifies the pedagogy it is proposing, and presents an unhelpful divide between the respective acts of learning, thinking and action, when it might be best if they are simultaneous co-workers in a continuously adapting approach. Global citizenship education is a non-linear process rather than a ‘fixed and finite concept with specific goals and outcomes’ (Bourn, 2014: 12); crucially it aims to build a transformative skillset by enabling pupils to develop ‘knowledge, skills, values and attitudes’ required to ‘contribute to a more inclusive and peaceful world’ (UNESCO 2015: 15).

There are four core elements embedded in most accounts of GCE: critical literacy, accepting (limited) pluralism, developing empathy and nurturing a disposition towards responsible action. For GCE to be effective, these elements should feed into each other, with critical analysis at the centre. Andreotti draws a difference between ‘soft’ and ‘critical’ forms of GCE, with the former focusing on developing a sympathy for others’ suffering, and the latter engaging in an approach framed through a social justice lens, considering the possible complicity of the individual in inequality (Andreotti, 2006). Andreotti concedes that the ‘soft’ form may be useful starting point in education (Andreotti, 2006:49); however, it is clear that without an understanding of how political systems contribute to suffering, they may ‘reproduce the systems and ways of thinking they are trying to question’ (Bourn, 2014: 24). This is where critical analysis is vital: pupils need to be equipped to challenge hegemonies both in respect to how knowledge is produced, but also in challenging the world as it stands – rejecting the ‘distribution of wealth, power and labour in the world’ as inevitable (Tarozzi and Torres, 2016: 19). Thus, following Cook’s approach, our ‘global citizen’ is ‘someone who reflects on their complicity in global power relations, considers their responsibilities to those who are disadvantaged by current global arrangements, and who actively resists perpetuating them’ (Cook, 2008: 17).

3. Specific Focus: Critical Literacy and Pedagogy within the GCE Context

3.1 Definitions

 Like GCE, the term ‘critical literacy’ has been defined in many ways, with most approaches referencing the importance of a critical investigation of ‘multiple interpretations of text and related language and power relationships’ (May, 2015:5). Those encouraging critical literacy look at all forms of representation as sites of ‘struggle, negotiation, and change’ (Norton, 2007: 6). Critical pedagogy is therefore best understood as giving pupils the ability to ‘trace assumptions and implications’ (Andreotti, 2006, 10). It should encourage pupils to understand text in the context of ‘larger constitutional practices’ (Norton, 2007) thus investigating the sources of knowledge production and reproduction, alerting pupils to the exclusion of some groups and ensuring that knowledge is subject to logical analysis on an equal basis – ‘social justice cannot anymore be defined by whatever the strong decide’ (Hoppers, 2009); indeed, critical literacy pedagogy invites an analysis of the link between ‘learning and social change’ (Giroux, 2011: 172).

3.2 Freire

Critical social theorists see traditional models of education as passing knowledge onto pupils without critical analysis and thus reproducing inequality: this approach is what Freire termed the ‘banking concept of education’ (Freire, 1970: 53), often referred to as ‘chew and pour’ in Ghana (e.g. Adjei, 2007:1048) where pupils are turned into ‘containers’ to be ‘filled’ by the teachers (Freire, 1970: 53). Instead, Freire proposes an approach where teachers facilitate pupils in the construction of their own knowledge, in a context relevant to their own way of life. Freire states that ‘human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection’ (Freire, 1970: 69), alerting us to the fact that literacy programs do not always lead to the ‘autonomy of man’ (Freire, 2001:27). He proposes that education ‘must enable people to be the subjects rather than objects of literacy projects, and as such; have agency in the construction of their social reality’ (Mór, 2007:42).  Giroux builds upon Freire’s work highlighting that in order for critical pedagogy to have an impact, it must ‘include the message that all citizens, old and young, are equally entitled, if not equally empowered, to shape the society in which they live’ (Giroux, 2011: 102).

3.3 Unpacking and Applying Critical Literacy

Critical literacy pedagogy will be applied differently in different contexts; however, I have identified four interrelated practices that appear in literature exploring approaches to critical literacy – if these elements are successfully threaded into global citizenship education, they enhance other elements of GCE identified because if pupils are not able to analyse the veracity of information in the global context, then they will act in potentially harmful ways and fail to recognise epistemological imbalance. We will apply this analysis of the concept of critical literacy to Week 1: ‘The Role of Perspective’ of the Online Course ( The first week is a useful extract to examine as it introduces pupils to many of the core themes in the course, and is a good representation of the format offered throughout.

Figure 1: Unpacking Critical Literacy (all elements should be encouraged simultaneously rather than in a linear form) 

3.3.1 Reflexivity

The concept of critical literacy in the context of promoting global learning must ‘take account … the existing perspectives of the learner’ (Bourn, 2014: 5), recognising that our perspective is influenced by cultural ‘baggage’ (Andreotti, 2011: 229). Therefore, activities will be sought to make pupils and teachers ‘more open and vigilant to the micro-processes through which relations of dominance could be recognised’ (Lau, 2015: 98-99). Andreotti notes that Spivak cites the importance of ‘unlearning their privilege’ (Andoretti, 2006: 75), with Kapoor instructing us to retrace ‘the itinerary of our prejudices and learning habits… stop thinking of ourselves as better or fitter and unlearn dominant systems of knowledge” (Kapoor, 2004:641). The concept of ‘tracing an itinerary’ of prejudice returns us to Golding’s notion of the teacher as a ‘tour guide’ – it is vital that teachers support pupils in analysing paths that have led to misinformation.


Throughout the course pupils are asked to acknowledge that ‘how we see a thing…is very much dependent on where we stand in relationship to it’ (Thiong’o, 1969). In order to achieve this, Andreotti suggests individuals should be encouraged to ‘shift their development focus from ‘making a difference to them’ to ‘mutual learning’. Through the inclusion of African participants from ASA in the discussion forum, pupils were immediately required to learn from Africans rather than ‘help’ them, moving away from the idea of the ‘North ‘educating’ the South’ that is often wrongly conflated with global citizenship education practices (Andreotti, 2006,9); indeed, in this instance, the reverse was true in the discussions, with UK pupils keenly questioning African pupils.

The course starts with a direct call to all pupils to evaluate their biases. I offer a first-hand account of an encounter with a blind man in Takoradi, Western Ghana: a blind man enters the trotro (public bus) and I wrongly assumed that he was a beggar, or boarding illegally rather than being a paying customer. In offering a personal experience, I intended to start the course by making it clear that it is normal to have discriminatory biases, and suggest that acknowledging the existence of ‘unchecked biases’ (Course, 2017) is the first step towards developing a more critical approach to the world.  Following this, I reflect on the origin of the viewpoint, stating: ‘it is also a telling sign of disability in Ghana that I’d only ever seen a blind person begging at the road side before, and never sitting in the transport alongside me’ (Course, 2017). Most pupils could infer from this that my perspective on the blind has been formed by repeated experiences of blind people begging on the roadside, although I could have made the precise source of this inaccurate inductive reasoning clearer.

The theme of developing self-awareness is developed further through asking pupils to watch a TED Talk by Adichie, ‘The Danger of the Single Story’, which explores the negative consequences of the ‘single story’ of African poverty being perpetuated (Adichie, 2009). In the narrative, I ask pupils to consider a few questions as they are watching, including: ‘in what areas have you been influenced by only hearing a ‘single story’?’ Whilst this question does ask pupils to be reflexive, it may be too open a question to prompt any specific self-reflection: a targeted question such as ‘what single stories of poverty have you been influenced by?’ may have been more effective.

Pupils are also asked to reflect upon the role of the media in storytelling through the inclusion of the Guardian ‘Three Little Pigs’ advert (Guardian, 2012) which retells the story of Three Little Pigs from a radically different perspective, and instructs viewers to find ‘the whole picture’ – this served to reinforce Adiche’s message, and open pupils to the idea that even accepted stories given in the mainstream media may be misleading. I might have also referred pupils to the current prevalence of ‘fake news’ (e.g. see Hunt, 2016) and the social media ‘echo chambers’ (e.g. Wallsten, 2005), in order to further place the critical guidance in the wider ‘post-truth’ global landscape.

I later explicitly state that:

‘The most important starting point for introducing themes in international development, in my mind, is exactly this: to develop critical self-awareness of how our own perspective, culture and upbringing shapes how we frame the reality we are analysing, considering, crucially, our power-relationship with that reality.’ (The Course, 2017)

Through affirming the same point through different mediums, the pupils were able to recognise the importance of reflexive thinking; however, perhaps this message is too explicit, and pupils should be encouraged to discover this for themselves as Freire (1970) might indicate. In addition, the impact of these metaphors might have been greater if they were central to the specific task given for the week. For example, in the task given at the end of this first post, pupils are asked to watch Innocent’s ‘Chain of Good’ advert (2013), and comment on ‘how are the following portrayed:  Africa, development and charitable giving?’ – it would have extended the depth of pupils’ critical literacy skills to analyse the advert by also considering the impact of their own perspective. Due to the inclusion of African pupils in the discussion, pupils were, however, able to discover that pupils viewed the advert differently, with the pupils from ASA highlighting inaccuracies unseen by UK pupils such as the labelling of a ‘good school’ which did not match up to what their contextual knowledge of ‘good school’ within the Ugandan context.

3.3.2 Multiple Perspectives

Whilst reflexivity is vital, pupils should simultaneously try to step into the ‘shoes’ of others, recognising the existence of differing viewpoints – this is a focus of Andreotti’s ‘Through Other Eyes’ initiative, an online programme which hopes to guide educators and pupils towards exploring how different groups interpret ideas and themes linked to development (Andreotti, 2011). It is vital to expose pupils to various differing texts: Mellor and Patterson (2000: 510) explore this in the context of teaching Shakespeare, encouraging teachers to enable pupils to see that texts ‘promote interested versions of reality’, with Behrman encouraging pupils to move away from Euro-centric ideology (Behrman, 2006). Foss compares this process of pupils considering unpacking layers of constructed meaning to peeling an onion (Foss, 2002: 394); however, perhaps the peeling metaphor implies a certain deconstruction of meaning rather than viewing ‘everything as it is’ (Wittgenstein, 1953), immersed in ‘life forms, a livelihood and a way of life’ (Hoppers, 2009).


Appiah rightly argues that conversation is vital: we may not be able to move towards the same values, but in understanding the reasoning behind the opinions of others, we will be better able to understand their perspective (Appiah, 2007). However, it is clear that GCE aims for pupils to agree on some core values such as a belief that all humans should have the ‘same basic rights, security, opportunities, obligations and social benefits’ (Hoppers 2009). The decision to create discussions between pupils in the ‘North’ and ‘South’ itself immediately brought the ‘objects’ of our discussions of poverty in Africa, into the conversation, thus enabling them to be viewed by UK pupils as dynamic subjects. Appiah also suggests that it might be helpful for us to consider what our values have in common, with Martin arguing that school linking activities that focus on similarities between schools and pupils better develop ‘positive attitudes and a sense of connection’ (Martin, 2007: 155) – indeed, one pupil remarked that engagement in the course with Ghanaians on points of connection ‘gave a sense of unity’ (Brighton College, 2017). This exploration through areas of mutual concern is something that could have been better explored in the course, perhaps through greater reference to towards areas of concern affecting both groups.

In order to provide a range of voices, my intention was to ensure that the material was to be suffused with African voices, scholars and metaphors. I presented pupils with two metaphors located within Ghanaian philosophy and the Ghanaian aural tradition. Appiah refers to human experience as a ‘shattered mirror’ where each element reflects or represents different values and perspectives, but none can claim to be the entire reflection of humanity (Appiah, 2007). This image serves to create the idea that epistemological equality involves ensuring that ‘all forms of knowledge get recognised and valued especially from where they originate’ (Hoppers, 2009). This image was further embedded in the pupils’ learning through reference to a traditional Ghanaian Anansi story, often told aurally: ‘The Pot of Wisdom’, in which Anansi (a cunning spider) wrongly assumes that he can hold all the wisdom of the world in a pot.  His epistemological error leads to him dropping the pot, and the story suggests that this led to wisdom being ‘scattered all over the world’, with people collecting it ‘and taking it home to their families’ explaining why ‘no one person has all of the wisdom in the world’. The use of the Anansi story serves two purposes: firstly, it encourages pupils to open the doors of their intellect to different perspectives and not to be epistemologically arrogant; secondly, it offers a very visual image of knowledge not only existing in different contexts but being used by different families, moving pupils away from a Euro-centric bias and towards the notion that there is ‘more than one way of learning’ (Bourne, 2008:14).

3.3.3 Analysis of power

Critical literacy is a powerful tool to use to ‘transform discriminatory structures’ (Blackledge, 2000:18); and ‘critique and engage society along with its inequalities and injustices’ (Kretovics, 1985: 51). This must include ‘reflection on and consideration of what is meant by social justice’ – a question at the core of the critical literacy approach (Bourn, 2014: 28), also analysing the ‘influence of colonialism and the complexity of globalisation’ (Bourn, 2014: 5). Foucault (1965) observes that dominant knowledge systems often present a version of reality that is reproduced, with postcolonial scholars applying this analysis of power to the relationship between the colonised and coloniser. The effects of this epistemic violence are portrayed differently, with many pointing to the negative psychological impact of groups of individuals being positioned in the role of the ‘other’ (Andreotti) or ‘oriental’ (Said, 1978), leading to alienation from their cultural upbringing (Adjei, 2007; Adichie, 2007) or even causing mental illness (see Fanon, 2001; Dangarembga, 1988).

Bourn suggests that there may be a danger in the current authority of Sen’s human development approach (Sen, 1999), in that it fails to recognise the role of the Global ‘North’ in shaping the development agenda (Bourn, 2014: 25). If Sen’s account is to truly value each individual’s freedom, he must recognise that development may be viewed differently.  In the Course, I highlight Escobar’s suggestion (1999:49) that we should search for an alternative to development in ‘social movements, as symbols of resistance of the dominant politics of knowledge’, many suggest that ‘what development means is a question, which has to be left to individual communities’ (from Daly, Kumar and Regan, 2016). However, if we do not create an epistemological hierarchy we might move towards postmodernism. Young and Muller (2016) suggest that we should prioritise teaching of certain ‘powerful’ knowledge, which they argue better extends capabilities with STEM knowledge as ‘the closest we can get to universal knowledge’. It is clear to me that different types of knowledge exist, with some forming its legitimacy through correspondence to the external world (e.g. see Ayer, 1936) and others being embedded in a certain ‘form of life’ or ‘language game’ (Wittgenstein: 1953). Generating an ability to distinguish between and navigate through different types of claims is vital if GCE is to be successful.


 Pupils are pointed towards the asymmetry of our development discussions:

‘Whilst we may be in the fortunate position of being able to educate ourselves to think about their lives and their development, they may not be with respect to us, or indeed have a sufficient voice in the analysis of their own progression as a country, or as citizens. Should we even be commenting on their development, if they cannot, upon ours? (Course 1, 2017)

I observed that as a result, many pupils often stopped to question the legitimacy of their perspective: for example, during a discussion of the postcolonialist approach in ‘Week 3’ I asked pupils to share thoughts on the naming of libraries in the Ghanaian context, many stopped to question why our perspective on this topic held much relevance. Furthermore, one pupil mentioned in conversation that she now recognised the cognitive ‘injustice’ of the lack of voice from ‘normal teenagers’ in our dialogue concerning Africa (Brighton College, 2017). However, a danger with the above text is that I may have inadvertently placed a distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’, creating an unnecessary binary between both the UK and African perspectives and participants.