The problem with Pisa

I was recently fortunate to be invited to talk with a group of Australian school principals from an AITSL (Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership) and Asia Education Foundation professional learning tour of high performance global school systems. The world’s governments are looking to countries such as Singapore and South Korea, to learn the secrets of success in the OECD Programme of International Student Assessment (Pisa). However, the Australian principals that I met with were far more questioning of the OECD results. Perceptive educators can identify the problems with the testing system that takes place every three years. I only hope that policy makers with short-term incentives feel compelled to similarly interrogate the OECD educational standards and testing methods.

What is Pisa?


Pisa results are limited. School systems occur within a pedagogical and wider socio-political context informed by cultural expectations. These cannot be replicated in other countries. The OECD results, which celebrate education in Singapore, South Korea and China, also hide significant aspects of education systems such as the shadow education industry- supplementary out of school privatised tutoring.


Hong Kong Tutor Kings

Some of Hong Kong’s celebrity tutor kings and queens (image from



Competition for sessions with Hong Kong’s celebrity tutors, the myriad of after school academic classes that thrive in the spirit of Singaporean ‘kiasu’, all have an impact on mainstream performance and equity. The question remains to what extent the formal education system relies on the tutoring industry and how it alters pedagogy.



Comparative education is an enormously beneficial field of study within a large, open global and cultural framework. Yet the use of standardized tests, in subject areas easily evaluated in comparison, narrows the educational outcomes for children. The OECD Pisa tests do not measure education. Education is about more than a confined set of measurable knowledges. Moral and civic motives of education are not quantifiable by the Pisa tests. Does that conclude that they are not important? In a globalized world with unequal development and environmental crisis, a crucial educational aim must be international understanding and responsibility.


Dr. Yong Zhao expounded on the problems with Pisa in no less than 5 parts in his blog illustrating how, amongst other things, Pisa has halted the East Asian drive to reform education. Furthermore, on the 6th May 2014 an open letter from leading academics and educators was published in The Guardian, explaining how Pisa tests are having a negative effect on global education with suggestions for making the measuring process more meaningful.


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Graphic novels and new media literacies

I have a literacy corner in my classroom with a variety of interesting books. The most popular books by far are the graphic novels. They have folded pages and frayed edges- signs of good use! Children of all reading abilities love graphic novels and comics. The use of complex multi modal literacy in graphic novels is now educationally recognised. The excellent graphic novel The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman was recently added as a prescribed text to the senior Victorian English Curriculum in Australia. Finally the fear of graphic novels as somehow less worthy literature is dispelling, and teachers now value the contribution graphic novels make to enhancing literacy education.

complete maus

Image from The Conversation

Graphic novels are stories in comic strip format. Illustrations, panels, printed text, word balloons and captions give contextual information and create meaning. Children’s lives are multimodal. Globalization, with the exchange of culture and spread of technology has led to the need for multi literacies. Think about the ways we have to use literacy each day- emails, signs and icons, videos, tweeting, Facebook, gaming, … A pedagogy of multi literacies requires extended modes of meaning. These modes are “dynamic  representational resources, constantly being remade by their users as they achieve various cultural purposes” (Cazden, Cope, Fairclough & Gee 1996 p 64). Speak to adolescents about their use of images on Tumblr blogs and you will discover how quickly these resources change in meaning.


Graphic novels, comics and manga versions of children’s literature offer readers an understanding of the impact of our visual culture. Language acquisition is based on thinking visually (Britsch 2009). It is how we make meaning of the language we learn. Graphic novels, comics and manga assist children’s ability to interpret their world. Language alone does not represent reality. Our lives have become increasingly multimodal as communications extend and change, and global socio-cultural linguistics diversify the English language.

“Graphic novels give the brain more of a workout per sentence than any other type of media” (Lyga 2006)

Let’s examine a twentieth century novel transformed into a graphic novel


The novel A Wrinkle in Time was written by Madeleine L’Engle in 1962. In 2012, a graphic novel version was published by Hope Larson. It encourages a new generation of readers to the classic with meaningful images. Read page one from the original text and compare the first page of the graphic novel.

“It was a dark and stormy night.

In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraith-like shadows that raced along the ground.

 The house shook.

 Wrapped in her quilt, Meg shook.

She wasn’t usually afraid of the weather.”


The graphic novel introduction page establishes time, setting and atmosphere. The reader makes inferences from the diagonal strokes, bent trees and dark shadows to create a foreboding mood. The type used for the sentence “It was a dark and stormy night” appears handwritten, suggesting a personal narrative. The reader sees the image of the wide shot and uses vectors on the roof to draw the eye to the attic window, identified in the close up.


This image interprets page 5 of L’Engle’s text “she left the twin’s room and went downstairs, avoiding the creaking seventh step”. Look at how text and images work together to show meaning. The “intuitive processes” (Mouly 2011 p 12) detect movement, direction, weight, sound and time.

Visual images contribute to visual culture which in turn is part  of a wider culture (Mirzoeff 1999). The image of Margaret Murry in the graphic novel echoes the distressed female in Lichtenstein’s pop art, showing the socio-historical continuum of comic images. Our visual memory connects the images to make meaning. The reader must also discern characters’ non-verbal gestures. Facial expressions are examined and then culturally cross-referenced. This is a serious brain workout!



The remarkable image depicting people listening from inside their houses uses the detached symbol of the ear with lines of movement to represent the act of listening.


The numerous symbols suggest many people hearing. Arnheim’s (1971) theory of prior knowledge to make meaning, is apparent.

Screen Shot 2012-10-18 at 11.30.43 PM

What is illustrated is as important as what is not. Here the black void creates impact and drama. The simple 9 panels are actually sophisticated “sequential art” (Hoover 2012 p 175).


Graphic novels are complex forms of literature synthesizing linguistic and visual meaning. Uses for graphic novels in the classroom can include analysis, extension reading, encouraging literacy across a range of reading abilities and as a springboard for original text composition. It’s encouraging to see many scholars researching the impact of graphic novels in literacy education. May graphic novels continue to be included in prescribed reading lists!

Arnheim, R. (1971) Art and Visual perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. Berkeley: University of Berkeley

Britsch, S (2009) ESOL Educators and the Experience of visual literacy, TESOL Quarterly, 43 (4) p 710-721

Cazden, C., Cope, B. Fairclough, N., Gee, J. (1996) A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. Harvard Educational Review 66 91) p 60-91

Hoover, S. (2012) The Case for Graphic Novels. Communications in Information Literacy 5 (2) p 174-186

L’Engle, M. (2007) A Wrinkle in Time. London: Puffin Books

Larson, H. (2012) A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux

Lyga, A. (2006) Graphic Novels for (really) young readers. School Library Journal 52 (93) p 56

Mirzoeff, N. (1999) An Introduction to Visual Culture. Routeledge: London

Schwarz, G. (2002) Graphic novels for Multiple Literacies. Journal of Adolescent and adult literacy 46 (3) p 262-265

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Are international schools creating global citizens?

There are different interpretations of a global citizen, so what exactly are international schools promising when they claim to be educating for global citizenship? Do international schools want to instill a moral responsibility for global issues or give children of the mobile elite the capital for a head start in a competitive world?


The theory of cosmopolitanism underlies the definition of the global citizen. Humans have been debating what a cosmopolitan citizen is since the Hellenistic period. We can agree that the cosmopolitan individual is one who engages meaningfully with different cultures and feels at home in the world. Cosmopolitanism is the ability to balance identity in both the local and public spheres. Yet there are 2 main types of cosmopolitanism being articulated today in the context of neo-liberal globalization. One is an ethical feeling of responsibility and social justice. The other is a pragmatic economic global competence. Which understandings of cosmopolitanism do international schools choose?


Concentric circles of identity and allegiance as promoted by Professor Martha Nussbaum

image from

 International schools are usually made up of diverse multicultural student populations, so is that enough to give students cross cultural competence, to make then internationally minded global citizens? Third culture kids have the potential to be global citizens according to both interpretations of cosmopolitanism but it requires more from international school educators. The hegemony of international schools can help children of the mobile elite transition from one country to another. Yet, by supporting this form of global education, students avoid contact with profound difference, simultaneously becoming more global and more isolated (Dolby & Rahman 2008).  Third culture kids travel in a tunnel of privilege. In essence, many are just tourists (Cambridge & Thompson 2001). 

Indeed these children are more open to different cultures. Research shows that exposure to other students and staff from different parts of the world can increase cultural awareness traits and enhance the ability to compromise (Hayden, Rancic & Thompson 2000). However, teaching staff is drawn mainly from the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, limiting the exposure to non-western knowledge (Shaklee & Merz 2012).

Regardless of curriculum, international schools need to do more to encourage active global citizenship. Teaching and learning with truly global perspectives (not just western liberal ones) will allow students to see how they can impact the world through their actions. Educators need to gauge if compulsory action such as CAS programs in the IB curriculum actually foster social justice or just tick boxes. Schools could begin to look outside of the teaching staff to educate students for global citizenship (Marshall 2007). It’s up to teachers and school administrators to give students opportunities to become advocates for the world and the issues that it faces.

be the change

image from

Non-government organizations promote moral cosmopolitanism and active citizenship. Here are 5 ideas for improving active citizenship at your school:

1. Look at the ladder of youth voice and rubric by Oxfam sociologist, Adam Fletcher. What kind of action does your school initiate?


2. Organize a school assembly or school project

3. Chose a day on the calendar of action for a class or school project

4. Become a Fairtrade school.

5. Start a UNICEF club at your school


Cambridge, J. & Thompson, J. (2001) ‘A Big Mac and a Coke’: Internationalism and Globalism as Contexts for International Education’. Centre for the Study of Education in an International Context, University of Bath

Dolby, N. & Rahman, A (2008) Research in International Education. Review of Educational Research, 78 (3), 676-726

Hayden, M., Rancic, B. & Thompson, J. (2000) Being international: student and teacher perceptions from international schools. Oxford Review of Education 26 (1) 107-123

Marshall, H. (2007) Global education in perspective: fostering a global dimension in an English secondary school. Cambridge Journal of Education, 37 (3) 355-374

Shaklee, B. & Merz, S. (2012) Intercultural communication competency for international educators, International Schools Journal, 32 (1) 13-20



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Resilience, the myth of fixed intelligence and the power of ‘yet’.

The importance of grit and resilience, the ability to get back up again when things get tough, is not new. However, now the research/practice gap is closing. St Hilda’s Anglican School for Girls in Perth, Australia, made headlines recently when it adopted a new policy to reduce praise, to foster an ability to cope with difficulties. The self-esteem movement, it seems, is officially over.

Dr Carol Dweck’s research into mindsets and perceived notions of fixed intelligence offers an insight into why some students give up when faced with learning setbacks. Children who have found success easy often fear looking ‘dumb’ when tasks get more difficult and they start to make mistakes. Children believe that they have lost their ‘intelligent’ status in the false understanding that intelligence is a fixed state. This is more likely to happen during transition phases in education.

So what helps create this defeatist attitude? Praising children’s intelligence is to blame. Telling a child how smart they are closes their mindset according to Dweck, making them fearful of making errors. When we praise their effort, and provide support, children’s mindsets stay open to learning and challenges. They are also able to set goals and manage stress when things don’t go to plan.

What about tests? Don’t test results tell us in an instant if we are ‘intelligent’ or ‘dumb’? Isn’t that what we base our educational systems on? Favourable test results can have the same impact on our psychology as being praised for being clever. As no one wants to look stupid, a bad test result can change the way children look at learning. It can close their mindset and discourage growth. There is a way of using appropriate tests without shutting down the desire to learn, as Dweck says,

“I think that undue emphasis on testing can be harmful if it conveys to students that the whole point of school is to do well on these tests and if it conveys to them that how well they do on these tests sums up their intelligence or their worth as a student.

The same tests might not be so harmful if they were simply seen by educators and students as assessing students’ skills at that point in time and as indicating what skills students need to work on in the future. In this case, the tests needn’t dampen students’ excitement about learning.

The current zeal for higher standards and more testing follows a period in which many educators believed that giving students lots of successes would boost their self-esteem and love of learning. This did not work. Instead students became used to low effort and became uninterested in challenges. Their self-esteem did not rise. So, many educators are clamoring to forget about self-esteem and return to the good old days of high standards, with the risk of widespread failure. What’s the answer? Are these the only two alternatives?

There is another alternative, one that addresses students’ achievement and their self-esteem: Teaching students to value hard work, learning, and challenges; teaching them how to cope with disappointing performance by planning for new strategies and more effort; and providing them with the study skills that will put them more in charge of their own learning. In this way, educators can be highly demanding of students but not run the risk that large numbers of students will be labeled as failures.”

There is a powerful word that Dr Dweck has reminded me of. It is a most underused word and a word that educators need to use more in the classroom to encourage a learning mindset, to let children know that with effort, they can develop and achieve progress. It is the word yet. If a child says that they are not good at something, the door to learning is closed. If the child says that they are not good at it yetthe mindset remains open to future endeavour.

The research into mindsets emphasizes the significance of word choice. Humans respond to intricate meanings in words, that can have huge effects on our motivation. This places a responsibility on educators to choose words carefully, to praise effort thoughtfully within a context of support and positive goal setting. For further information on mindset research, listen to this podcast. I think it is essential listening for every teacher.

A guide to building resilience is available for download from the Australian Scholarships Group

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Leading Educational Change

“This isn’t a theory. There are already points of disruption across the whole planet here and I’m just encouraging you to believe in it and to try to move our systems into the twenty-first century”.


 global forces and education

We know that globalization and technology are influencing and changing educational practices around the world and the values that underlie them. Education has been caught in the economic force of integrated markets, production and consumption. Yet education is also contributing to this force, for skills and knowledge delivered by schools, drive the global economy. In turn, the global forces influence educational institutions. It appears that globalization has blurred the boundaries, not just of nation states but also the foundations of the value and aims of education, while systems and government policy slowly try to respond to the rapid socioeconomic changes.

 factory education

National education systems have been criticized for their slow pace of response to global economic change. Educational systems are historically built within the industrial paradigms and many still operate in an anachronistic pyramid structure. Children are still being prepared for integration into the old industrial social order, sieving the ‘intelligent’ children from the ‘dumb’ children, creating a factory for national development. Yet the industrial model is obsolete. Nation states are no longer homogeneous and populations are mobile,

“Each of the approximately two hundred countries on this earth is a destination, transit, or source country of international migration, or a combination of all three”

Süssmuth, R. (2007), Our Need for Teaching Intercultural Skills, in Suárez-Orozco, M. (ed.), Learning in the Global Era: International Perspectives on Globalization and Education, London: University of California Press

This calls for education to prepare students to adapt linguistically and culturally. It also insists on effective, relevant teaching and learning.

 what’s important?

So what should we teach and what is of societal value? What are the skills that children need? At the nexus of educational, socio-economic and environmental change is the hope for transnational values to address global concerns. We all face unequal global development and human rights issues, challenges of environmental sustainability, cross-cultural interaction and conflict. Dialogues on the search for transnational values highlight the problem of cultural interpretations of ‘value’.

Comparative education is essential in discussing what and how to teach. Finland and Singapore are currently being held up as exemplary education systems because of PISA scores and commitment to teacher development. Yet cultural differences means that you cannot transplant systems. We can, however, learn from them. Here is an interesting article on comparative Singaporean and Finnish systems-

 How can I lead educational change?

“I’m just a teacher and this is the curriculum” and “This is the way I was taught and I know it works” is not going to cut it- sorry. Teachers are at the front-line, leading the way in twenty-first century learning. The responsibility lies with teachers to keep up with societal changes, educational developments and technological change. Building a professional learning network and being brave is a good starting point- making time to read and analyze research, discussing new ways of learning and reflecting. We need to think critically about what and how we teach. What skills are we developing? Above all we need to give students a voice in teaching and learning. In this way, we can be leaders of change ‘from the ground up’.

“We are not the future. We are right now” Shelley Wright

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explorations of children’s literature

Children’s literature is a powerful genre. Everybody has a favourite childhood book that has influenced them. My favourite was Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. Often we want our own children or the children that we teach to enjoy the same book. No other category of literature is so loaded with social, cultural, historical, ideological, educational and commercial power. This makes it an interesting subject for literary criticism and I think it is important for teachers to critically appraise the books that are used in the classroom.


A significant aspect of children’s literature is that it is written by adults. Children are characters in the book but whose childhood does the book represent? Is it a real childhood or a  theoretical one? When one group constructs another, then power becomes an issue. For much of  children’s literature, the actual child is voiceless. Adults tell the stories and adults profit  financially from book sales. Cyber spaces are becoming areas where children can have a voice in  their own storytelling and I will be exploring this notion further in subsequent posts. 

In diverse plural societies in a globalized world, the need for multicultural literature and the examination of cross-cultural responses has become more important. Cultural authenticity is key. As children’s literature is so full of  direct and indirect meaning, it’s essential that teachers critically analyze the books that we introduce into our classrooms.

A critical analysis of a children’s classic

Below is a full critical analysis that I made of the children’s book Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel. It is a favourite in school libraries and often categorized as multicultural literature. In this interpretative essay, I uncovered the truth about this book, discovering that it is far from an authentic multicultural piece of children’s literature…

tikki-tikki-tembo An analysis of the text Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel reveals a depth of meaning to the picture book. Tikki Tikki Tembo has been a durable text in English speaking educational environments for 40 years. It is a populist book and a text used by primary school teachers alike. Different readings and interpretations occur in light of significant theories, which focus on different aspects of the text- race, gender and class. The Foucauldian idea that power is available everywhere but depends on the discourse can be used when analyzing children’s literature. No interpretation is more meaningful yet the exploration of the postcolonial viewpoint, encompassing critical race theory and notions of a western constructed orient are particularly suited to Tikki Tikki Tembo. Ultimately how the text is read influences how children are placed in society.

It is from a formalist and structural perspective that most educators would support a use of the text in classrooms. The picture book has conventional, effective patterns in the narrative and illustrations that children find enjoyable. That is not to say that the meaning is not worth studying as in a traditional formalist view (Ryan 2007) but the meaning has been diminished by criticisms of authenticity over time. The use of rhythmic alliteration “Tikki Tikki Tembo” and repetition, for example “step, step over step” and “pumped the water out of him and pushed the air into him and pumped the water out of him and pushed the air into him”, encourages students to join in with the reading. In fact, given the effective structure and audible literary features, the text is best read aloud making it useful in the ESL primary classroom. The uses of illustrations in the picture book, from a formalist perspective reflect the text congruently (Sipe 1998) and aesthetically defining characters and the setting. The signs in the illustrations follow a structural framework, with recognizable symbols of everyday life- house, water, man, mother, children.

 When viewing Tikki Tikki Tembo through the lens of historical knowledge, it is important to critically examine the constructed nature of the past (Jenkins 1991). Children’s literature and history are interconnected, both informing each other (Watkins 2005). History is a discourse that interprets the past, influenced by theory and power (Jenkins 1991). The historical context of a text is not a static fact, as history is not “closed” (Giroux 1991 p508). Therefore, when viewing a literary text historically, the context of the book is fluid. The purpose for the text and its values ( Sarland 1999) can be seen in different historical light depending on the view of past truth- for example as a push for multicultural awareness in a 1968 counter culture or a continuum of western obsession for controlling China.

Tikki Tikki Tembo was published in 1968 in New York. From a liberal socio-historical perspective, it is part of a post World War Two American cultural interest in China and Asia in general, as United States foreign policy increasingly saw Asia as strategically important in the Cold War (Klein 2003). China was a closed Communist nation in the throws of The Cultural Revolution and the cult of Mao (Meisner 1999). Tikki Tikki Tembo satisfies the western curiosity and symbolic consumption of Asia (Klein 2003), whilst presenting a simpler and more understandable vision of China than the confusing political reality.

The text, Tikki Tikki Tembo, published in the twentieth century postcolonial period harks back to a pre-colonial time. The British and French Empires from the 19th Century had fought over China for colonial rights. Bradford (2001) argues that all books written in the twentieth century were produced in the “pattern of imperial culture” (p 196). This text is therefore receptive to a postcolonial reading. Arlene Mosel wrote the book within the context of a postcolonial China, (excepting the continued colonial annex of Hong Kong in 1968) and evokes a simpler, peaceful time as evident in the illustrations. The restricted palette of the graphics to basic earthy hues of brown, blue and green emphasize simplicity. There is not just an element of “historical amnesia” (Gandhi 1998 p 7) in reminiscing of early pre-colonial times but a lack of historical accuracy from a postcolonial perspective in the text as a whole.

When viewed through the critical race theory with a post-colonial perspective, Tikki Tikki Tembo could be accused of implying western superiority. As young children make generalizations about cultures (Ramsey 2009), the text could imply that Chinese people are unhappy and cold. In the text, the Chinese mother is portrayed as emotionally hardened, neglecting her second son. She is inhuman and mysterious, fulfilling a stereotype of Asians as inscrutable (Cai 1994). The adults are generally unhappy and the children enjoy a carefree life in a natural Arcadian pre-industrial environment, portrayed in active scenes, flying kites and dancing. They look like generic primitive Asian stereotypes, though not specifically Chinese. This is expressed through the naïve folk illustrations. The naivety of the depictions, especially in the unrealistic illustrations of moving bodies reinforces the primitive, simple tone. The physical stereotype is seen most prominently in the depiction of the Old Man with his long beard.

Tikki Tikki Tembo is an example of cultural misrepresentation as the story is not Chinese (Kromann-Kelly & Changlu 1986). There was never a custom to give children long names and the name Tikki Tikki Tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruche-pip peri pembo “does not sound Chinese, ancient or modern” (Cai 1994 p 185). Translated stories have often used different character names to suit the target language and culture (Lathey 2010) yet in Tikki Tikki Tembo there is a lack of linguistic authenticity. The costumes in the illustrations are more Japanese, for example the children wear clogs and the curved roofs of Japanese architecture present in pictures of the buildings (Cai 1994). The western ‘retelling’ of a traditional Chinese folktale is misleading.

The western author of Tikki Tikki Tembo, Mosel speaks for the Chinese ‘tradition’, because “According to Europeans, Europeans must describe and analyze the Orient because Orientals are not capable of describing or analyzing themselves” (Nodelman 1994 p 29). Gandhi (1998) states that sociolinguistic theory demonstrates how “discourses, or discursive formations” (p 77) are about power and by Mosel speaking for the Chinese immediately infers superiority. The authoritative tone of the narrator shows this; “ Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, it was the custom…” reinforcing that the author knows the truth. Mosel (1968) crosses a ‘fence’ (Naidoo 2010) between cultures but speaks for the other side and highlights the politics of children’s literature, “Who has the power to make the fence, alter the fence? Who is in, who is out? Who has the power of speech? Who is silenced out?” (p 76).

The craft of taking a (supposedly) old tale from one culture and adapting it for another leads to inevitable “Cultural filtering” (Mo & Shen 1997). As Lathey (2010) states, interpreting foreign stories inevitably changes the values and content of the text to appeal to the culture of the child reader. Hearne (1993) questions whether “only members of an ethnic group truly represent the lore of that group?” (p34). Child readers of Tikki Tikki Tembo without any teacher led critical multicultural interpretation will accept the story as truth and will in some way influence perceptions of Chinese people. The text requires engagement with Giroux’s ‘pedagogy of difference’ (1991) and a critical analysis from a multicultural viewpoint, encouraging students “to examine the social construction of difference” (Botelho & Rudman 2009 p 17).

Mosel’s text is an example of western obsession with the mystical east. It has been a trend in art and literature “a combination of admiration and appropriation” (Nikolajeva 2009 p 89) to feed western imaginations of a truly foreign place. Said further states that the creation of Orientalism was not purely a trend but a mindset that justified colonialism (Said 1979). The characters in Tikki Tikki Tembo are clearly in a far away place though not specifically anywhere, especially reinforced by the confused but generic Asian illustrations that are part Japanese, part Chinese. Indeed, the location for the book is “unmappable” (Spooner 2004). The geography of the mountainous landscape emphasizes their remoteness, “in a small mountain village” (Mosel 1968 p1). The remoteness of the geographical setting and the nondescript “long, long time ago” (Mosel 1968 p 1) intensifies the ‘othering’ of the Oriental characters, “detached in time as well as in space” (Nikolajeva 2009 p 91).

Nodelman (1994) connects the construction of ‘the child’ in children’s literature with the European construction of ‘orientals’. It is the creation of ‘the other’, a notion that there are “opposite” (p29) people, unlike those in control of narratives and ultimately “not quite human” (p29). The idea of the mystical east, present in the western creation of the orient is evident in the reference to “evil spirits”.  In addition, the depiction of the Old Man’s dream expresses this notion with the swirling patterns, bleeding ink stains and pictures of imperial buildings. The femininity of the orient (Nodelman 1992) is seen in the vision of the young woman in the Old Man’s dream. Nodelman (1994) highlights this ‘feminization’ of the Orient, from a power relationship between east and west, “For Europeans for whom the orient is subject to the gaze, it is therefore, metaphorically, female- and that allows Europe to represent itself and its own authority as male” (p30).

Mosel chooses language which makes the Chinese characters caricatures. There is a repetition of the word “honored” or “honorable”, which does not demonstrate the Chinese contextual meaning but becomes a meaningless stereotype of how Chinese people speak. It is almost as if Mosel had written it to be read with a Chinese accent, for example avoiding the more fluent present continuous tense “The water roars”. Stereotypical Asian references are used in the oriental words “Blossom”, “fish”, “rice cakes”, “Precious Pearl”.

The text lends itself to a feminist reading. The narrative creates a frame to express the oppression of the only female character, the single mother trapped in a traditional patriarchal society. She is pictured constantly in the domestic sphere at the home, unhappily performing domestic duties and is seen washing in four pictures. She is not given the nurturing characteristics of a mother. Rather she is portrayed as emotionally distant especially from her second son.

 As language constructs gender (Sunderland 2010), the female is represented through the language used to describe her and the words that she uses (Sunderland, J. 2012). An examination of the words used for the female character create Mosel’s notion of femininity. The mother does not possess essentialist female traits of soft nurturing motherhood. She called her child “Chang, which meant “little or nothing”. (Mosel 1968 ) demonstrating her detachment from her traditional female duty as mother. The negative words that the mother says to her sons further illustrate tension between the genders in the text e.g. “That Troublesome boy”, “Tiresome Child, what are you trying to say?”, “Unfortunate Son, surely the evil spirits have bewitched your tongue.”

The fantasy woman that occurs in the Old Man’s dream represents the male creation of traditional femininity. With a psychoanalytical approach, the Old Man through age, is given decreased masculinity by the author, resulting in his need to control the woman in his dream. The fantasy woman is one that the Old Man can concoct and dominate in his dreams. She embodies traditional notions of feminine beauty with her long flowing hair and silky gown. The Old Man resists leaving his fantasy woman, “Miserable child, you disturb my dream… If I close my eyes perhaps I will again return”.

The psychoanalytical perspective of the picture book focuses on the Old Man’s dream as according to Freud dreams contain the unconscious material that drives conscious thought (Ryan 2007). The Old Man regresses to his childhood in his dreams “I had floated into a purple mist and found my youth again”. The woman in the Old Man’s dreams is his mother. According to Freud and psychoanalytical theory, “full separation from the care-giver is made possible when the child acquires the ability to make mental images or representations of tits initial care-giving object” (Ryan 2007 p97) thus showing the man’s detachment and sense of self.

The Marxist perspective is influenced by the historical context of the text and it’s connection with the class struggle “literature is a product of the popular historical and social formations that prevail at the time of its production” (Sarland 1999 p41). In a Marxist interpretation, Tikki Tikki Tempo is set in an emerging capitalist period. According to Marx, an existing capitalist society is essential before a socialist revolution can occur (Gandhi 1998). The Mother represents the bourgeoisie in this economic system. She uses the old well, a symbol for the means of production that are owned by the ruling class.

The class struggle occurs between the Old Man, the exploited working class and the bourgeois Mother and her sons. The old man is expected to rescue the bourgeois children from the well, one that has the ostentatious name “Tikki Tikki Tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruche-pip peri pembo, which meant “the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world!” (Mosel 1968). The bourgeois family forces the Old Man to be available with the life-saving ladder each time the children dangerously play near the well. The use of irony in “your mother’s ‘Precious Pearl’ has fallen into the well” is the climax of class tension. Whilst the woman lives in a house in a community of other similar houses, the Old Man is depicted apart from the mainstream community, alone on a hill, under a tree. He is surrounded by nature and portrayed as an extension of the natural world. When the mother and the son summon him, disrespectful language is used in comparison to the “Most Honorable” title given to the mother. This is especially significant for a culture so rooted in filial piety and respect for age ,“Run and get the Old Man With The ladder” and “Come right away”.

From a liberal humanist perspective, Tikki Tikki Tembo celebrates the feudal values of a pre-industrial rural life and the common human values of love for family and communal spirit. The idyllic landscape is an “escapist response” (Sarland 1999 p39) to the changing developed world in 1968. The Old Man helps the boys out of the well celebrating the communal spirit of a society before the evils of mechanization and urbanization. The old well represents modernity and danger. The kite, an image of a butterfly tied to earth, represents humanity and the children’s happiness. In the first picture the kite is flying in the sky, yet in the second and third pictures the kite is caught on the frame of the well and gradually falling to the ground- illustrating the affect the well is having on human happiness. The kite is seen triumphantly flying high in the sky on the last page.

Interpreting the book through different perspectives highlights the different theoretical perceptions and constructed notions of the child. Rudd (1999) considers the notion of the child as central to the purpose and meaning of a text. The child characters in the book are crucial to the action of the text. They both fall down the well, creating the main source of conflict in the Marxist and feminist interpretations. Yet the children, in their action, can be perceived as vulnerable beings and therefore lacking power reflecting social hierarchy. The fact that the Mother cannot hear her sons reinforces their voiceless state, “I can not hear you”, “what are you trying to say?”.

Tikki Tikki Tembo is a picture book that has received much criticism for it’s lack of cultural authenticity but endures as a text used by teachers. The various interpretations of the book through the lenses of history, structuralism, post colonialism, feminism, Marxism, psychoanalytical and liberal humanism show that the text has a wealth of ideological meaning that is imparted to children. The text does not occur in a socio-political vacuum and is infused with ideology depending on how it is read. Ultimately, literary criticism of children’s literature is an adult domain, excluding the intended readers from the discourse.


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 Cai, M. (1994). Images of Chinese and Chinese Americans mirrored in picture books. Children’s Literature in Education, 25 (3) 169-191

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Giroux, H. (1991). Democracy and the Discourse of Cultural Difference: Towards a Politics of Border Pedagogy. British Journal of Sociology of Education 12 (4) 501-519

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Jenkins, K. (1991). Re-Thinking History. London: Routledge

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Lathey, G. (2010). The Role of Translators in Children’s Literature: Invisible Storytellers. New York: Routledge.

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Mosel, A. (1968). Tikki Tikki Tembo. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

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What is global citizenship?

Let’s begin an exploration of global citizenship…

 How often have you read ‘educating global citizens’ as part of school mission statements? Global citizenship education is becoming central to how schools define themselves, yet is it just a marketing catchphrase? What does it mean to be a global citizen and how do schools create them?

Oxfam provides a good definition of a global citizen. A global citizen is someone who:

“is aware of the wider world and has a sense of their own role as a world citizen

respects and values diversity

has an understanding of how the world works economically, politically, socially, culturally, technologically and environmentally

is outraged by social injustice

participates in and contributes to the community at a range of levels from local to global

is willing to act to make the world a more sustainable place

takes responsibility for their actions”



The Moral Element of Global Citizenship

Global citizenship education prepares children for life in an interdependent global environment of intense social, economic and cultural exchange. Beyond encouraging practical cross- cultural skills, global citizenship education centers on what Giroux calls a “moral commitment” for outcomes of peace, hope and equality. Global citizenship is based on ethics and values education. The individual is at the center of a global community. Through complex layers of identity, responsibility and action, the individual is part of the wider network of global connections. Therefore, the mindset of global citizenship requires a development of identity and self. Nussbaum illustrated the individual’s moral obligation to humanity as a whole through concentric circles of self, family, local community, continuing to country and world. Global citizenship is engaging with diversity, and recognizing our common humanity to tackle the challenges that we face as inhabitants of a planet.


Global citizenship is based on critical thought, identity and action. Human agency – action-  is an essential outcome of global citizenship education. Awareness of injustice compels an effective global citizen to move to improve society. The Oxfam definition calls for individuals who do not accept inequality and are willing to act, so teachers must be transformative and give students opportunity for action.  Global citizens actively participate when they perceive social injustice through advocacy, volunteering and engagement with their local community for a global cause. Action should not be equated with ‘charity’. Action is everyday decision-making and choice. This is an empowering exercise for everyone but especially children.


Giroux, H. (1988). Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Learning. Westport CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Nussbaum, M. (1996). ‘Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism’ in M.Nussbaum & J. Cohen (eds.) For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism. Cambridge: Beacon Press.

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Filed under global citizenship, values education