Harvard Dialogues on Global Education

Exactly what constitutes global education?


by Robert Harrison
Curriculum Manager
International Baccalaureate Organization

Exactly what constitutes global education? At a recent similar discussion ("What Kind of Education Enables Us to Cope With an Interconnected World") sponsored by Cambridge Assessment (UK), a panel of industry and education sector experts tried to forge some consensus about what  'knowledge and skills are attractive to higher education institutions and employers around the world and whether there is a common set of skills, body of knowledge, level of understanding or a mindset that enables students and countries to flourish.'

The panel--with some notable dissent from the august and very traditional perspective of a Senior Tutor from the
University of Cambridge--identified five common threads. In an era of intense globalization, they agreed, students need:

1.       an understanding of pressing global issues

2.       multilingualism, both in terms of multiple language proficiencies as well as fluency in global English

3.       information technology (information literacy) skills

4.       collaborative skills and experience

5.       capacities for innovation and creativity.


Interestingly, educational thinkers from India and China (Hong Kong) added:

6.       an appreciation for diversity/ understanding of language and cultures

7.       the capacity for independent thinking.

This portrait of global education stands in contrast to the way many universities continue to think about what's essential in students' preparation for academic and economic success. At the Cambridge event, the weightiest player in the room calmly insisted that in the 21st century, universities continue to seek students who were just about the same as they'd always sought: young people with intellectual acumen possessing command of a reasonably-fixed body of specialist subject-area knowledge.

I was struck by the disconnect. It isn't as if the 'Oxbridge' system isn't aware of and responding to changes in the way the world works. A good look around the James Martin 21st Century School at Oxford University shows a fascinating and high-powered model.

But it's a lively question to consider how best to balance traditional disciplinary subject-matter content mastery with the pursuit of 21st century global knowledge, skills, and attitudes. I wonder if the ways nations, states, local educational authorities, and classroom teachers move between and combine these two demands may be the most important big-scale decision facing primary and secondary educators today. 


Hi Robert,
I am a student at the University of Florida finishing my Master's in elementary education. It is my goal to incorporate teaching global issues into my curriculum, and I definitely agree with the five common threads of global education that you listed above. However, I'm wondering if you think these apply to teaching global technology at the elementary level.

At this young age, I do believe it is possible to embark on global education and to begin to develop these needs for globalization. However, elementary aged students' understanding of global issues will obviously not be as deep and complex as that of other students, and some topics must be treated with caution. I have encountered educators who don't think that these issues have a place in elementary ed classrooms and think they need to be taught in middle and high school. What is your opinion? Do you think that there is an age that is too early to teach global issues?

I think it matters what we mean by 'issues.' Certainly we need to value childhood and protect a space in which children should not be unnecessarily burdened with adult problems that aren't developmentally appropriate. And certainly it's true that young children begin with small circles of concern that gradually widen as they encounter the world in all its wonder and complexity. With those caveats, however, it seems to me that we need not to sentimentalize childhood or devalue the unique perspectives that children bring to the human family. The world no longer-- if it ever did-- divides itself neatly into concentric circles of concern (family, neighborhood, school, community, region, nation-state, continent, hemisphere, world). Communications, transportation, and economic changes mean that global concerns are everywhere now, including in the lives of young children and their families, and so global challenges are (I would argue) already a subject of inquiry and concern for children everywhere.

Children have curiosity and insights into the environment, development, rights, conflicts, and cooperation and governance that schools and communities shouldn't ignore; they watch the news and listen to their parents, and they can very world-wise learners. At the very least, they should be learning to think of themselves as part of a shared humanity inhabiting one earth, with their own rights and responsibilities.

It's hard to imagine an educator (or parent) expecting children in elementary school to eliminate blood diamonds, fight genocide, or shape policies and plan relief for migrants and refugees (though we could argue, ironically, that each of these tragedies has its greatest effect on children). But even within the relative small circle of concerns that are real to five-year-olds, fairness, safety, movement, and shelter are important concerns worthy of both local and global imagination and understanding. These fundamental concepts and the attitudes and values we hold about them have begun to be shaped at an early age.

Many early childhood educators have developed resources and reading lists (children's literature is replete with wonderful stories and non-fiction texts) that develop global perspectives and raise issues responsibly across a spectrum of developmentally-sensitive levels.

Hello Erika,

As a fifth grade teacher who has humbly entered into the complexities surrounding elementary global education, I appreciate Robert's thoughtful response to your question. I agree with his contention that we should not sentimentalize childhood. Yet, sometimes it can be difficult to anticipate a child's appetite and capacity for certain topics until they are actually launched. My fifth grade colleagues and I have found ourselves taking our cues from the students. Our study is inquiry-based so we use their curiosity to drive the depth and direction of our curriculum.

We begin our study by having our students look at Peter Menzels' photography in the books, Hungry Planet and Material World. The students record their observations and questions about the pictures of people from different parts of the world posing with their week's worth of groceries (Hungry Planet), and their personal possessions (Material World).

The first year we tried this, the very logical and immediate question many students asked was, "Why are some countries poor?" It was a natural response to the obvious visual disparities in the photographic displays, but we recognized that most children frequently grapple with this question on their own. We also knew the answer was complex and we could potentially overwhelm them with the exploration of such a sophisticated subject. Fortunately, we were able to solicit help from World Savvy, a global education non-profit. Cate Biggs, the editor of the World Savvy Monitor, created a powerpoint presentation for our students entitled The Five P's of Poverty. The students devoured it. They felt empowered by the concrete information it introduced. Being able to see that people were poor for reasons that were unrelated to their character and intelligence helped to neutralize the topic. Later, many of their parents proudly commented that their child's understanding of the root causes of poverty had surpassed their own.

Because we are self-contained classroom teachers, we have the luxury of making our global citizenship study yearlong and interdisciplinary. However, I can't report that it is without complication. Just this week, our fifth grade team encountered an unanticipated challenge related to the recent discoveries about Greg Mortenson's truthfulness (or lack of it). Greg and his book, Three Cups of Tea (the junior version) is at the center of our hero/ change-maker study. Some of our students had written essays about why Greg was a hero using examples from the book. Other students had been inspired to independently raise money for Greg's organization after reading his memoir (?). Our teaching team is still reeling from the disappointing revelations and our students are profoundly disillusioned. We are currently trying to reframe the debacle into a learning opportunity.

So yes, this work is untidy, but as Robert so elegantly stated, children already possess an awareness and interest in global issues like conflict, social justice, and the environment. It makes sense that, as their teachers, we should begin to help them wrestle with these meaningful topics. I would personally argue that global education should not be limited to secondary school studies.