Ford Foundation Professor of International Education
The limited reach of the programs which exist to engage the minds of our children and youth with the global affairs that will shape their lives is all too aparent. The Peace Corps has for many years, through its Coverdell World Wise Schools Program, been offering at no cost to schools lesson plans and instructional materials about global affairs. Their mailing list includes 17,000 teachers--an impressive number for sure, but a very small fraction of the 7.2 million teachers and school staff in the nation. Similarly, of the more than 132,000 elementary and secondary schools in the country, just over 1,000 offer the International Baccalaureate program.
In a recent article examining the challenges to US global leadership, Capt Wayne Porter and Col. Mark Mykleby make the case for a new national strategic narrative that moves from containment to sustainability, based on understanding and responding to a 'strategic ecosystem' that is complex, uncertain and presents challenges, risks and threats. They advocate that way 'to achieve sustainable prosperity and security, is through the application of credible influence and strength, the pursuit of fair competition, acknowledgement of interdependencies and converging interests, and adaptation to complex, dynamic systems'. Given that their hope is that this strategy can serve as a national narrative that guides collective efforts to promote development, understanding of the ecosystem and complex interdependencies that are the foundation of their analysis is a prerequisite to broad-based adoption of their strategy. Given the paucity of our efforts in global education, it is reasonable to ask: how many of our college graduates, let alone high school graduates, are prepared to understand the ecosystem that Porter and Mykleby have in mind?
Over the last few years the World Economic Forum has produced reports of the major global risks in the areas of economics, geopolitics, the environment, society and technology. An examination of the K-12 curriculum standards of the states with the most rigorous curriculum in the US shows that they constitute inadequate preparation to understand those global risks, much less manage them or turn them into opportunities.
Given the realities of global interdependency it is unsurprising that a growing number of groups (examples here and here) have recently advocated for global education at the K-12 level in the United States. But two misconceptions stand in the way of adequately equipping high school graduates with the expert level of skills they will need. The first is the conflation of global competency with teaching core subjects at global levels. The popularization of international assessments of student knowledge and skills in the subjects of language, mathematics and science, have generated an interest in emulating the educational practices of the nations where students achieve at the highest levels in those tests. Such comparative study is indeed valuable, but the global competency necessary to understand and act on global challenges will not emerge simply from teaching math and science at the highest levels. Explicit instruction in those global topics and challenges is necessary to equip students to understand and act upon them. The second misconception that stands in the way of providing such instruction is the widespread belief that we can produce deep global competency with 'global education light'. At the extreme these 'light' approaches include the popular 'world cultures day' which many schools celebrate, with food festivals from around the world, and small stands with cultural artifacts from around the world displayed in the school cafeteria. Less extreme, but equally insufficient, are the various modalities of 'infusion' through which we believe we can produce high quality global education. Infusion starts with the premise that it is not possible to gain important spaces in the curriculum for global education, so we must look for small windows of opportunity into the existing curriculum to make connections with global topics. While these approaches may be useful to promote the appreciation and interest for global topics, they are insufficient to promote the kind of expertise students gain in a focused course, with a clear scope and sequence, which are the approaches we use to teach most subjects we value, whether these are math, chemistry or history.
The adoption of infusion as an approach to global education, while practical in responding to the many constraints facing our schools, particularly in an era where the heavy emphasis on assessment is biased towards a few core subjects, accepts defeat before even trying to prepare our students adequately to lead in a rapidly changing and growingly interdependent world. It is a step back relative to the aspirations articulated by Isaac Kandel eighty years ago, on which we have made so little progress. If successful they will produce students who understand global affairs as much as our graduates of most of our foreign language programs can communicate in those languages, perhaps with interest and self-confidence but not with great skill. We might call these effective approaches for 'global appreciation' but not for 'global education'.
We need to begin to develop explicit curriculum that leads to deep understanding of global affairs, this requires articulating a clear progression, defining the components of competency, defining standards of performance, and identifying what is appropriate and effective teaching at various points in the progression. It means, in addition to developing such curriculum, also identifying effective instructional materials, standards of teacher competency, and making the time to teach and learn this subject. Defined in this way global education presents a five-fold challenge: developing the instructional sequence, developing powerful pedagogies, developing assessment tools, building capacity, and holding school leaders and teachers accountable for creating these opportunities.
Because the gap between this conception of Global Education and the current state of affairs is clearly much greater than the gap using 'lighter' versions of 'global appreciation,' the risks is that recognizing the gap will lead us to paralysis, to concluding that this is not a domain we can do much about in the near term, even as we recognize its important.
It is my intent in these lines to be provocative because I do not believe that burying our head in the sand will be particularly helpful to preparing our students to respond to the monumental global challenges we have passed on to them. I recognize that articulating a clear vision is aspirational, that it will take time and work to make the necessary progress in translating that vision into changed conditions in schools for a significant number of our students. This blog, and this blog series, as well as the Think Tank on Global Education which they are leading to, are an opportunity to flesh out this vision and a strategy to achieve it.