Harvard Dialogues on Global Education

It's time to get serious about global education

by Fernando Reimers
Ford Foundation Professor of International Education
Director, International Education Policy Program
Harvard Graduate School of Education

In 1928 Professor Isaac Kandel of Columbia University addressed the annual meeting of the Association of Secondary School Principals. In his talk he made an eloquent case for why teachers should prepare students to understand global affairs. Judging from a number of recent expert reports (examples here and here) evaluating the state of international education in our K-12 schools, it is apparent that we have as a nation made little progress in achieving that aspiration. As shown by the level of foreign language proficiency of high school graduates, by their knowledge of world history and geography, and by their understanding of global affairs, our schools are not helping our students to understand, much less to lead in, the world in which they live.

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. 


As a high school chemistry teacher, I believe that by de-emphasizing the importance of science in advancing the goals of global education, we lose an opportunity of winning over skeptics. I teach an elective on the Chemistry of the Environment with the emphasis on the fact that the chemist, who is partly responsible for the environment problems we face, will be just as central as others in cleaning up the environment and providing solutions for sustainable use of resources such as potable water and energy that is sustainable. In order to win over skeptics, at least in high school, we need to go through the steps of competency and authenticity before we can deal with complexity that is required to make global education relevant. If we do not, this movement will face the same fate that interdisciplinary education faces---"education light". In other words, depth and breadth have to be in balance/dynamic equilibrium (competency) before most educators can pay attention to closing the global preparation gap (complexity) of learners. The order to which I refer above can be captured, as Prof. Reimers suggests, through themes such as the environment as an organizing and unifying principle. For example, choosing water and energy from many disciplines can and does provide a rich milieu in which to focus global education. STEM-first proponents (like me) as well as those from the other "firsts" from the arts, the humanities and social sciences, world languages,etc. will see value in gathering around the "how to" teach in a rigorous and sustainable manner as long as there is evidence of sufficient rigor and complexity. Most educators have a deep appreciation of the globally relevant importance of water and energy. I believe through conferences such as the one we are hosting at Phillips Academy from the 6th and 7th of May, educators (including those who have influence in shaping curricula) can become learners as we begin the conversation of how best to share practices in our respective classrooms.

I think you define the problem well when you describe the fact that our content crammed curriculum pushes global awareness into the
margins. The key thing is therefore not to add to this content with further lists of countries, events, leaders etc. I would argue that it
is not knowledge of particular events, countries and cultures that are needed. I believe the reference you made to the progression in
competency is the key here. Learners start life with an understandably narrow field of view and as they develop, schools need to ensure this expands beyond the classroom, city and country level.
The key to what is needed I would argue, is not just awareness but engagement. We need global citizens who are actively and positively
engaged. For this to be a progression, we therefore need very young learners to be actively engaged within their own field of view,
effectively modelling the behaviours that will grow in parallel to widening view of their surroundings. Student voice and student
engagement is rarely seen in this light in schools and is even less frequently tracked and supported as a progression. I am extremely
keen that any discussion around global education needs to be a progression in this way and not seen as something separate that relates to others. A continuum of engaged learning starts with
developing the competencies that underpin it.

We have seen learners as young as eight years old, peer assessing work from children in different countries and realising through reading their stories and watching their creative, self expressive videos that culture is rich and diverse but much more connects than separates us. I have yet to witness a series of taught lessons that achieves the same results. Personal empathy and reflection at an individual level starts extremely young but without taking time to nurture its
progression, others can easy manipulate stereotypical views in later life that can be extremely difficult to reverse.

I'm a chinese student. Hope to know more about Harvard.wish you could tell me more about it and if allowed i also want u to teach me something useful in study,thank you !

I disagree that striving for an "infusion" approach admits defeat. It is pragmatic and has a much better chance to be accomplished. More importantly though, is that there is not going to be agreement on what constitutes global studies. It threatens to become vacuous or hijacked by special interests. It is more appropriately for every teacher in every subject to always strive to push the boundaries or experience from the local to the global and then back again. This way, global thinking gets continuously integrated into our thought processes and it forces all subjects to grapple with their place in the global structure. If we allow global studies to go off by itself everyone else has a license to forget about it because "they" cover it over there.

But more to the point, if we truly believe global awareness is important than we should have the confidence to believe it can and will be infused throughout the curriculum. For example, if having a global awareness is important to say, chemistry, then a chemistry curriculum worth its salt will have a global component built into it. Likewise, it is hard to imagine teaching history or any social studies class without taking into account a global context and the impact of multiculturality. If this is not being infused already it should be.

Pete, I think that your point about how high-quality chemistry classes (for example) must include an global component is a good one. It is crazy to think that we can continue to teach academic content without acknowledging the global component of that subject. But, I think that Professor Reimers is also correct that infusion is not enough--schools need to change their thinking about what kinds of students they should be producing and devote the same kind of instructional time as they do to literature, for example, to orienting students in the complex and interconnected world in which they live. If so many of us agree that global competency--however you define it--is vital for the success of students and vital for peace and prosperity in our world, then why aren't we making it as much a priority in schools as P.E. or math or any of the other classes that are taught?

I have been working in the ITESM for almost 20 years, 8 years teaching theory of knowledge in the IB program and currently with Laura Ruiz in Social Programs of the Virtual University of the ITESM. I find extremely relevant and interesting the discussion about Global Education.
As a University System the ITESM is addressing the theme of Global Education y several ways. First of all, through the incorporation of transversal courses in the curriculum students can discuss and reflect on global issues. By implementing social service programs that link students with their communities and throughout professional practices in our country and abroad. The Tec of Monterrey has an education model student centered that incorporates innovative ICT. In this way, the students can form part of a global network of knowledge; something similar occurs with the teachers. All different stakeholders, students, teachers and the community collaborate in programs that help students to be global.
The IB program incorporates the TOK component in the curriculum which on purpose intends to develop critical thinking, international mindedness linked with knowledge issues and intercultural respect; but due to its interdisciplinary nature is related with the subject areas of the curriculum.

The same debate has been going on regarding whether whether civic education should be integrated in an entire school curriculum, or whether it should be taught as a discreet subject, or additionally, whether it should be an extracurricular activity or a combination of any or all of these approaches. (See http://iccs.acer.edu.au/index.php?page=initial-findings and http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~jtpurta/)

While I agree that global competency should be taught as a discreet subject, as well as infused throughout the curriculum, and agree with both Nell's and Fernando's thoughts on the matter, I'd like to also push back with some data that has been generated in the area of civic education. The most recent IEA survey on civic achievement (IEA, ICCS study 2009), found a wide variety among nations by whether civics is taught as a separate subject, infused throughout the curriculum, as an extracurricular activity, or a combination--with no clear patterns emerging. Further, empirically, there is no clear relationship between teaching civics as a separate subject and civic knowledge, beliefs, or skills.

So my question is: How do we know that teaching global competencies should be a discrete subject, or infused, or both? Are we basing this on personal experience? Political experience?

Recent Comments

  • Julia Van Alst: The same debate has been going on regarding whether whether
  • Martha Camacho: I have been working in the ITESM for almost 20
  • Nell O'Donnell: Pete, I think that your point about how high-quality chemistry
  • Pete: I disagree that striving for an "infusion" approach admits defeat.
  • LiYanBing: I'm a chinese student. Hope to know more about Harvard.wish
  • Dan Buckley: I think you define the problem well when you describe
  • Temba: As a high school chemistry teacher, I believe that by