Core Components of Cultural Literacy

In this chapter, we explore how the artifacts created by the students in the Cultural Literacy Learning Programme (CLLP) address tolerance, empathy, and inclusion—the key attitudes of cultural literacy as defined in the DIalogue and Argumentation for cultural Literacy Learning in Schools (DIALLS) project. Cultural literacy is a dialogic social practice involved in relating to others (Maine et al. 2019, 390). It includes an assumption that we may perceive these others as different from us, and that through tolerance, empathy, and inclusion we are able to engage with each other in meaningful and constructive ways.

Dialogue, the key tenet of cultural literacy as it is understood in DIALLS, is necessary for democracy characterized by plurality and dissent. Tolerance, empathy, and inclusion as core components of cultural literacy are relevant to the public debate that is a hallmark of democracy. Particularly in deliberative democracy, dialogue is essential to equal participation in decision-making and to improving the quality of democracy (e.g., Dryzek 2000).

The data used in this chapter consists of 228 cultural artifacts made by students in five lessons who were given five different cultural texts to inspire their explorations of tolerance, empathy, and inclusion. These artifacts are mainly drawings, but the data includes collages using readymade materials, such as magazine clippings. Some of the artifacts were created individually while others were made collaboratively, in small groups or with the whole class. Some of the jointly created artifacts consist of several individually created parts.

Concepts not only reflect reality, but also create and shape it, for example by constituting norms and practices (Lähdesmäki et al. 2020). Concepts are constructed and contested in debates and used as powerful tools to both change and maintain the status quo (Wiesner et al. 2018). Tolerance, empathy, and inclusion are impactful and influential concepts frequently used in debates on contemporary problems, such as the polarization of societies and racism. Therefore, the following exploration of tolerance, empathy, and inclusion in the students’ artifacts starts with a brief discussion on the respective concepts.

Tolerance: Helping Strangers

Tolerance is an attitude to perceived cultural or physical differences between people or differing opinions. Tolerance can mean refraining from interfering with an opposed other (Cohen 2004, 69), while a broader understanding of tolerance includes recognizing the other as equal instead of deviant, inferior, or marginal (Galeotti 2002, 9–10). Nevertheless, the concept of tolerance implicitly refers to something that is perceived not only as different but also to some extent as negative or undesirable—but that should be tolerated (Klix 2019). As such, the concept can sustain prejudices rather than mitigate them, create pejorative conceptions of the “tolerated” others, and undermine their self-esteem. Moreover, the power relation between the tolerating agent and the tolerated subject(s) is unequal. What is regarded as different and by whom are questions which raise deeply problematic issues of inequality (Galeotti 2002, 8). To repair the power imbalances and to avoid unnecessarily judging and labeling things as desirable/undesirable—and in need of tolerating—altogether, it would be useful to replace the concept of tolerance with other concepts, such as openness, respect, acceptance, and appreciation of diversity. These other concepts are included in the definition of tolerance used in the DIALLS framework (DIALLS 2018).

Understanding tolerance in terms of recognition puts equality at its heart. Sometimes some differences can be markers of oppressed or excluded collective identities; people with these identities may be refused or offered second-class membership in the polity and lack the preconditions for full participation in democratic citizenship (Galeotti 2002, 6, 9). Tolerance is thus ultimately a question of justice, recognizing differences, and ensuring they hold an equal position in the public sphere (Galeotti 2002, 10).

The lesson on tolerance with the youngest age group in the CLLP was based on a book called Owl Bat Bat Owl (2015) by Marie Louise Fitzpatrick. It tells a story of owls and bats who end up living on the same branch of a tree. In this lesson, before starting to make the artifacts, the children were supposed to discuss respect and why it is important to respect people who are different. In the lesson plan, based on the book, the students were invited to discuss why it is “important that the two families learned to live together and share.” The lesson goals focused on listening to others and respecting their ideas. The instructions for creating in-lesson artifacts ask the students to picture the “owls and bats living happily together”; after the lesson, the students were encouraged to make a collage of local nocturnal animals showing “how they all live together happily.” These tasks demonstrate how animal characters were used in the lesson to deal with the questions of human life. This tradition of animal fables is used in several other CLLP lessons as well. Most of the artifacts on tolerance in the youngest age group were made by children in Cyprus (34) and the UK (14), while the other nine artifacts were made in Lithuania, Portugal, and Spain.

Most of the artifacts by the youngest children follow the book Owl Bat Bat Owl carefully: The children have drawn the moon, tree, bats, and owls and used the same colors as those in the book (Fig. 4.1). In some artifacts, however, the story is relocated into daylight and some other elements, such as flowers, have been added to the scene. The instructions for the artifact advised the children to picture how the owls and bats live happily together. This is explicitly repeated in the captions, in which the children emphasize happiness, friendship, and the sense of togetherness. The instructions for the artifact also asked what the animals might do together. The children have given answers to this in their captions by mentioning activities such as sharing space and food, helping each other, playing together, and having a party. This lesson, thus, comes close to the DIALLS theme of living together (see Chapter 5).

Fig. 4.1
figure 1

The images from two different countries, Cyprus (left) and Britain (right), exemplify the unified character of the artifacts and their similarity with the book that was used as a cultural text to stimulate the youngest students’ exploration of tolerance in this lesson

In the second age group, a short film called La Cage (In a Cage 2016) by Loïc Bruyère was used to catalyze students’ ideas on tolerance. The film shows a bear in a cage on display in a park. Time passes, seasons change, and visitors walk past the cage, until one day his longtime friend, a bird, with other birds of different species, frees the bear. The lesson was designed to start with a whole-class discussion on freedom. After watching, the students were given a list of emotions and invited to reflect on the emotions related to the film in a group activity, followed by whole-class discussion. In the lesson plan, the goal of this reflection was learning to recognize “others’ emotions when they are in a difficult situation,” which refers to empathy rather than tolerance. The cultural artifacts were made in the same small groups. The groups were asked to make a poster with the title “Save the animal from the cage.” The task invited students to feel empathy not only to human beings but also to animals—at least those in a zoo (see Chapters 5 and 6). The data comprises 18 artifacts from Cyprus, 13 from Portugal, and six from Spain.

The fact that the children were given a precise task, to make a poster on freeing animals, explains the uniform shape of the artifacts and their titles. Many of the images depict an animal in a cage and the bird. In Fig. 4.2, there is, however, no cage, but the whale is inside a delineating, separating frame and the bird crosses the boundary and creates a connection with the whale. This echoes how, in the film that was used as a stimulus in this lesson, a bird brings a change to the long-term captivity of the bear. That the instructions also gave a list of emotions for the students to work with contributed to the seeming lack of direct references to tolerance in the artifacts. Instead, the captions mention animals feeling sad and lonely in cages and happy after being released.

Fig. 4.2
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This drawing, titled “Save the whale,” was made in the lesson on tolerance by a Cypriot student from the second age group

While the film shows different bird species collaborating, some of the artifacts similarly highlight collective action to free the animals using various means, from a truck to a helicopter. Some of them also express notions of civic action and public debate: One caption explains how people organized demonstrations to save the animals and another describes how “many people got together and spoke out” to find a way to rescue the animals. These images and texts reflect complex ideas of expressing opinions, influencing, and mobilizing in a public sphere. As such, they connect with another DIALLS subtheme, civic competence, included in social responsibility (see Chapter 6). They also reflect the idea of dialogue, which is defined as a core component of cultural literacy in the DIALLS framework. In general, the artifacts do not indicate negative tolerance as noninterference (Cohen 2004), but rather active collaboration against oppression.

The catalyst for addressing tolerance in the oldest age group was a short film called Super grand (Super Big 2014) by Marjolaine Perreten. In this age group, students from Germany, Lithuania, and Spain produced a total of 11 artifacts addressing tolerance. The film depicts a giant child in a superhero cape arriving in a city. The child tries to help the inhabitants but they are afraid of the child because the child is so big. When a volcano near the city starts to erupt, the child stops the eruption, with their parent, who is even bigger. The story suggests that one should not be afraid of difference, since it may prove to be an asset in the community. In this sense, the storyline follows the logic of many superhero narratives, where difference is transformed into a superpower that helps the community (on otherness and superheroes, see Goodrum et al. 2018).

As a warmup exercise, the students were asked to give examples of tolerance. After watching the film, the group was encouraged to discuss how we could live out tolerance and how appearances might be deceptive. The question given for the discussion with the other class, also included in the lesson (see Chapter 1), was: What means might help to promote tolerance? After this, the students were asked again to give examples of tolerance and empathy and whether the lesson had changed their thinking. The students were not asked to reflect on the role of making art or creative practices in exploring abstract issues such as tolerance during the lesson, as the cultural artifacts were made only after it.

The instruction for the cultural artifact invited the students to continue the story of the film by drawing in groups or pairs. Most of these drawings described how people cheer and applaud the superhero who has saved the community (Fig. 4.3). The artifacts can thus be interpreted as expressing the theme of tolerance as it is framed by the book: the gigantic girl’s different size is turned into a superpower to be celebrated, emphasizing how differences should be tolerated and even celebrated. However, the book and the artifacts seem to suggest a problematic approach to tolerance and celebration: They need to be earned through doing something useful and even extraordinary for the community. This approach does not highlight tolerance as a matter of justice and equality (see Galeotti 2002).

Fig. 4.3
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In the artifacts on tolerance made by the oldest age group, such as this artifact by a student from Germany, it was common to depict celebrations of the superhero’s bravery in defending the community against danger

Some students in the oldest age group made their own short films, thereby widening the range of the multimodal creative practices to audiovisual artifacts. In a film called The Bird, the students deal with intense experiences of tolerance and intolerance. A bird called Paul is violently bullied at school because he likes reading. One day he is beaten so badly that he needs hospital treatment. His situation improves when he saves another bird, Dani, from drowning, and they become friends. The film has a long temporal horizon, which helps viewers to see that situations change in time. Paul and Dani spend all their school years together and find other likeminded friends in high school. At the end, Paul is planning to become a psychologist to be able to help children with similar difficulties. In a sense, the film follows the logic of superhero narratives by transforming Paul’s difficult experiences into a “superpower” that he can use for the benefit of others.

Two other films made by students use Playmobil figures that look tiny next to the hero of the story, a big doll in one and a drawn image in another. The films, similarly to drawings based on Super Big, present a happy end, in which the giant hero gets thankful applause and cheers for saving the community from danger. All the artifacts follow the Super Big film by playing with proportions, although relocating the story to another setting. They all depict music, joy, and parties expressing how fear and prejudice turn into relief, gratitude, and acceptance. Tolerance here means respect and appreciation of difference (see DIALLS 2018). The artifacts show the superhero as an individual who is alone, whereas the other members of the community are illustrated as part of a big group. Thus the unequal power relations (see Galeotti 2002) between the superhero and the rest of the community are made visible although not problematized.

To summarize, in the lessons focusing on tolerance, the cultural texts used for all age groups depict a situation in which the actors are strangers to each other at first but end up helping each other. Based on mutual help and sharing, they develop a sense of togetherness. Respectively, artifacts on tolerance in all the age groups focused on helping each other.

Empathy: Recognizing Emotions

The DIALLS project’s definition of empathy drew on Buber’s notion of I-Thou (1958) which describes the necessity of moving away from an objectifying world view that highlights “other” (I-It) and instead includes the relational sense of engagement (I-Thou)—underpinned by genuine dialogue (Buber, 1947). The project approached empathy as “what happens when we put ourselves into another’s situation and experience that person’s emotions as if they were our own” (Lipman 2003, 269; DIALLS 2018, 22).

It is more common to feel empathy—consideration of others’ emotions, positions, and perspectives—toward one’s own ingroups than outgroups. These empathy biases may strengthen stereotypes and prejudices against people we do not know, who seem far away, or appear very different from us (Bloom 2016). We need to develop notions of empathy that avoid these pitfalls.

Solhaug and Osler (2017) define intercultural empathy as fostering encounter between multiple groups with perceived cultural differences. It includes both cognitive and emotional aspects, feelings and expression of empathy, empathetic awareness, acceptance of cultural difference, and empathetic perspective-taking (Wang et al. 2003). Intercultural competencies influence our ability to recognize and enable solidarity across differences. Solhaug and Osler (2017, 6) emphasize the capacity and willingness “to empathize and identify with others in a spirit of solidarity.” Perceiving similarities and being open to different perspectives can facilitate intergroup relations and trigger positive feelings, a sense of togetherness, and inclusiveness, for instance in schools. This is important for inclusive citizenship in the current global and European climate.

Solhaug and Osler (2017, 9) highlight experience and knowledge of diversity as an important predictor of intercultural empathy. It can be learned through experience, and schools are crucial arenas for intercultural contact, for practicing and learning the inclusiveness that can stimulate intercultural empathy and inclusive citizenship (ibid., 8, 23). Teachers can harness this potential to create harmony and mutual understanding by inviting students to reflect on and discuss diversity, and to address potential controversies and concerns that could affect inclusive citizenship in practice (ibid., 13, 28). Open dialogue is a way to engage with differences and controversies in class through deliberative democratic practice (ibid., 27; see also Habermas 1994; Englund 2006; Hess 2009).

Conceiving of it as a process that involves both affective and cognitive components, Morrell (2010, 114) claims that empathy is necessary for citizens to show toleration, mutual respect, reciprocity, and openness to others. All this is needed for deliberative democracy to function, so that everyone affected can be involved in decision-making processes. Empathy as openness and responsiveness to other perspectives is needed for developing political judgment, a core skill in democracy. For Arendt (1993a, 217–221), political judgment is dialogic and multi-perspective (though she denies that it is about empathy). “The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion” (Arendt 1993b, 241).

This kind of political judgment relates to the principle of audi alteram partem (listen to the other side), a cornerstone of justice and equality. According to this principle, no person should be judged without a fair hearing in which each party has the opportunity to respond to the evidence against them. The same idea is central to the parliamentary pro et contra principle for fair debate of opposing arguments in the same discussion (Palonen and Rosales 2015). Empathy, listening skills, and openness to other perspectives can be seen as prerequisites for these principles to work. The reverse is also true: inclusive processes of deliberation, where people are encouraged to consider others’ positions, can enhance empathy toward outgroups and eventually result in altruistic behavior (Grönlund et al. 2017).

Activity has been defined as a core dimension of empathy (Aaltola and Keto 2017), and according to Solhaug and Osler (2017, 6), empathy is required for collective action. For Fraser (2009, 2013) parity of participation means the ability of members of a society to act together as peers, willing and able to put themselves in each other’s shoes and take others’ perspectives into consideration—in sum, parity of participation is about being empathic.

In our data, empathy is explicitly dealt with only one lesson for the youngest age group. Based on a book called On the Trail (2016) by Anna Ring, students from Cyprus produced 39 artifacts exploring empathy, students from Portugal, 24, and students from Spain one artifact. The book describes how a girl and her father notice that someone is stealing food from their house. They soon find out that the thief is a stray cat and start chasing her. Once they discover that the cat is stealing food to feed her kittens, they change their mind about the “thief” and help to take care of the cat family. The instructions for the lessons proposed a discussion about finding reasons for why someone does something, ability to change your mind, and the importance of not judging someone’s action straight away. For the cultural artifact, the students were asked to picture “happy/sad/angry/excited children” with thought bubbles to indicate several reasons for their feelings. Hence, the task focuses clearly on affective rather than cognitive or active components of empathy (Morrell 2010; Aaltola and Keto 2017), even though the film offered ideas about changing one’s mind and giving help. While this lesson enables approaching empathy through the ideas of dialogue, deliberation, and openness to other perspectives (Arendt 1993a, b; Grönlund et al. 2017; Solhaug and Osler 2017), it does not explicitly encourage the children to engage with these aspects of empathy.

Making this artifact gave the children the opportunity to recognize their own emotions (Fig. 4.4), which is important if empathy means understanding others’ feelings and insights. Most of the artifacts deal with happiness. For example, the children explain in their captions that they feel happy for several reasons and related to various activities, people, and locations, such as playing, friends, animals, family, parties, and nature. The reasons the children give for happiness include going on a trip to the mountains and making a snowman, playing with dad and being tickled by him, sleeping over at grandma’s in the summer, the ice cream man passing by, going to school with friends, and playing with a cousin.

Fig. 4.4
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A collage exploring empathy by students in the first age group from Cyprus depicts a range of emotions

Inclusion: Doing Things Together

As a central aspect of inclusion, the DIALLS project (2018, 11) emphasizes the need for building deep mutual relations with other people. Inclusion is about membership of a community. Social inclusion has been described as individuals and groups participating as valued equals in the social, economic, political, and cultural life of the community; it involves mutually trusting and respectful interpersonal relationships at the family, peer, and community levels (Crawford 2003 as quoted in Babacan 2005, 11).

Inclusion is often discussed in the context of diversity and asymmetrical power relations (e.gYoung 2000; Ahmed 2012). Groups that perceive themselves as excluded may seek full membership of the society. In some cases, those already included may seek to include others in particular groups, institutions, or the society at large. A broad literature on inclusive education explores the equal opportunities of students from various backgrounds to participate in the school institution (Jagdish 2000; Allan 2003; Potts 2003; Armston 2006). Inclusion has a flip side: Exclusion can refer to rights, recognition, socioeconomic status, access, and barriers to participation (e.g., Hayes et al. 2008). Inclusion and exclusion are thus core issues of justice and equality.

Elements contributing to social inclusion include access to social goods and services, resource allocation, empowerment, participation in decision-making, and institutional trust (Babacan 2005, 11). Citizenship as a legal status, access to rights and active public participation is a significant vector of inclusion (Babacan 2005, 12–13); however, citizenship has exclusive implications. Inclusive citizenship includes values such as justice, recognition, self-determination, and solidarity (Kabeer 2005 as quoted in Lister 2007, 50–51). When solidarity is understood as the ability to identify with others and act with them in their claims for justice and recognition (Kabeer 2005, 7 as quoted in Lister 2007, 51) it comes close to belonging (see Chapter 7), which is crucial for inclusion. Creating understanding between people fosters inclusion (Babacan 2005, 11), which connects it closely to empathy and other dimensions of cultural literacy.

Inclusion was the explicit topic of only one lesson for the youngest age group in our data. Fifteen artifacts from Cyprus, 23 from Portugal, and 21 from the UK dealt with inclusion based on a film called Big Finds a Trumpet (2017) by Dan Castro. In the film, two characters, one big and one small, interact with a trumpet. They need to find ways to take turns in playing the trumpet and play it without disturbing others. The instructions for the discussion advise the group to identify what skills the main characters in the film have and what are they good or less good at, and provide justifications for these interpretations. In their cultural artifacts, the students were asked to draw a character to be glued on a lolly stick. Finally, the group was supposed to discuss how the pictures differ to create debate on “how we are all different but we all accept each other.”

The task given for this lesson was very general, referring as much to tolerance as inclusion, and so some teachers may have adjusted the task. For example, the children were asked to write in a thought bubble and draw things which they are good at, such as drawing, playing football, swimming, playing cards, and waking up early to go to school. This task probably stems from the question for the discussion on the film, asking what the main characters are good or less good at. Perhaps making these artifacts can help the students to recognize their own strengths, which makes them feel they belong to a group and can welcome others, and thereby develops their thinking about inclusion. Students in another group also made an artifact that was not mentioned in the lesson plan, a collage depicting the games they play together. This may have encouraged students to reflect on their own group and how they spend time together, and as such rouse their team spirit. This reflection may promote inclusion, provided everyone can participate in the activities. Both tasks show that different people have different skills and preferred activities, which may feed into the idea that this diversity makes the group or community stronger.

Conclusions: Entangled Attitudes

The attitudes of tolerance, empathy, and inclusion are closely connected, also to other CLLP themes, particularly to living together. This entwinement was visible in the lesson plans and the instructions for making the artifacts. Consequently, the artifacts made by students elaborated on the three attitudes simultaneously.

When dealing with these abstract topics, students drew from their own experiences and concrete things in their lives. Influences from contemporary popular (children’s) culture were less frequent. Even though the students used their own experiences, the artifacts share a notable number of similarities, thus manifesting the dialogic chain of thinking (Maine 2015; see also Chapter 9). The unifying influence of the school context (see Chapter 1) is clearly present in the data. The artifacts reflect the instructions and cultural texts used in the lessons so strongly that based on these artifacts, we cannot get a complete picture of how the students themselves understood tolerance, empathy, and inclusion.

Emotions play a central role in the lessons and the artifacts made in them. Emotions are a channel through which the three attitudes are expressed. Although the link between emotions and the three attitudes is somewhat abstract in the lesson plans and the artifacts, emotions can be seen as essential in developing tolerance, empathy, and inclusion. In effect, learning about emotions is needed in schools and in the surrounding society, and creative practices can contribute to this. Previous research has discussed how various artforms can increase empathy and influence others (see, e.g., Stout 1999; Fialho 2019; Lähdesmäki and Koistinen 2021). They can provide a space for using the imagination, constructing relationships with “the imagined other” (Leavy 2017, 199), and imagining their experiences.

Creative practices provide a channel to train cultural literacy and its key elements, tolerance, empathy, and inclusion. Dialogue, a core component of learning cultural literacy in the CLLP, helps people to gain new knowledge and to understand various standpoints (see Arendt 1993a, b; Morrell 2010; Grönlund et al. 2017). It enables encounter and provides experiences of diversity. Such interaction can mitigate prejudices and encourage people to look beyond the polarizations constructed in populist discourses. It strengthens critical thinking and can help to combat misinformation and conspiracy theories. All this makes dialogue an important resource for democracy.