It's a fallacy to think that children are not interested in politics or are unaffected by major world events. I can remember as a child cowering under the table when the 1962 Cuban missile crisis appeared on my parents'
television screen. War, conflict, poverty, homelessness and the environment are just some issues that are important to many children, even those living in comfortable Western societies. You don't need me to tell you that we are living through a turbulent period. September 11, the Afghan War and the conflict in Iraq have all made the world seem a less safe place, so what impact must these be having on children as they are bombarded with images on their TV screens and on the front of newspapers? Children know a lot more about what is happening on a global basis than we often give them credit for. However, they often find it difficult to articulate their thoughts and feelings, especially face-to-face with an adult.
Despite living in an information age of 24-hour news programmes, the internet and teletext, there is still a lot of ignorance about other people's cultures and there is a lack of understanding about how others live. Teachers are reporting increased tension both in the classroom and the playground as a result of the current conflicts. There has been a rise in religious intolerance. There has been an increase in bullying. There has been a growth of racism. It's a truism that much of the mistrust in our world is due to ignorance and lack of understanding. It's also a failure of people to consider alternative points of view. That's why I believe ICT can be a force for good, because it makes it easier to communicate with others across both time and distance.
Of course, with citizenship now being part of the curriculum, a number of schools have already forged links with overseas institutions and that's a good thing. But I'm more interested in people talking to each other and discovering more about each other rather than simply working together on curriculum-based projects. That is why MirandaNet has established the World Ecitizens Fellowship (WE) - a non-profit making organisation that aims to promote understanding of other cultures and customs, especially among younger people. We now have 25 WE chapters in places such as Africa, Australia, Bulgaria, Chile, China, Japan, the USA as well as the UK.
The projects involve communities working together towards conflict resolution. Collaborations focus on joint activities like developing creativity, communication and life and thinking skills. To support these projects MirandaNet Fellows have developed a web-based learning environment. This website provides a place where World Ecitizens can join together to envision a sense of a shared future; create a sense of shared history; and capture and share learning experiences. It is a safe learning space, which we see as a rich and exciting resource for community exchange and international understanding.
Since the WE environment was set up last January, communities and classes of young people have produced posters, video clips and comic strips about citizenship issues of their choice. Some young people have worked with artists and writers in residence. In one project exploring homelessness, children from East London produced a graphic novel and a video highlighting the issues they had researched.
The publishers of cult comic 2000AD worked with schools and homeless charities. Two freelance cartoonists were involved, as were film-makers from Kushti Moving Image. These young artists were keen to lend their skills to help the children communicate effectively, and they were impressed by the children's professional approach.
The George Mitchell School in London examined a variety of citizenship themes such as social exclusion and immigration. Holy Cross Convent School in Kingston upon Thames has established collaborative internet and video-conferencing links with the Ikeda Junior High School in Osaka, Japan, allowing them to share each other's culture through sound and video.
The World Ecitizens website started with UnITy, a project supported by Domex and the Department for Education and Skills, in which UK teachers and students collaborated within schools, across the wider community and internationally to begin building a knowledge base and communication hub with children from the UK, Portugal, Ireland, Bangladesh and China. In these projects, children are getting the opportunity to think about how the world can be made a better place.
It's ironic that in today's so-called global village, the world seems more divided than ever. With ICT we have the opportunity to bridge cultural and political divides; to help bring young people together to share thoughts, ideas, hopes and aspirations. If we can help spread the message that all of us are citizens of the same planet and that we all share a common humanity, then many of the barriers that divide us can be broken down. What could be a better use for ICT?
Christina Preston is the chair of MirandaNet, a fellowship of interested parties in education which includes Microsoft, Toshiba. Promethean and the Institute of Education, University of London. She was was talking to George Cole.