Harvard Dialogues on Global Education

Re-framing the debate about global education - Why we need a game changer


by Gerhard Fischer
International and World Languages Education Consultant
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

It appears to be difficult to bring the many good K-12 international education programs[1] to scale. We are stuck for several reasons. If you had asked me ten years ago what the most important contribution to international education would be, I would have suggested changes in the school curriculum. That's what educators do, after all. I still think that we need to change the curriculum, probably best through infusing global perspectives across disciplines. Today, however, I will argue that we simply need to expose as many teachers, administrators, school board members, and community members to other cultures, other languages, and different views of the world. Whenever I ask educators in the Midwest how many of their fellow teachers and administrators have ever had a significant personal international experience, their educated guesses range from 30 to 40 percent. I believe it will be awfully hard for those other 60 or 70 percent of teachers to prepare their students for a world they have themselves never experienced or that they may not even be curious about. In other words, we are stuck in an education environment in which we constantly have to promote, advocate, and prove the value of international education. I don't think we are in a position yet where we can change curriculum effectively without providing international experiences for teachers and administrators first. We need to win their hearts before we can win their minds. Designing new curricula, though, is primarily a rational exercise.

The current frame of our debate about the importance of international education is grounded in long outdated but still dominant paradigms of schooling. The dominant argument for the value of international education in our schools rests on the assumption that it gives students an advantage in the job market of the global economy. This kind of argument goes back to questions such as what knowledge is worth most and to scientifically based curriculum writing and activities analysis. It is, in other words, an approach that essentially asks businesses what skills they need right now and dictates backward planning of curricula.

This approach is problematic. When Wisconsin debated a new state statute in the mid-1990s that would require the opportunity for every student in the state to learn a world language, beginning in 7th grade, there was enormous pushback. The main counter arguments included the assumption that not every child needs another language, because not every student would ever travel outside the country. I don't think those attitudes have changed greatly[2]. And I don't think that most parents in the American Midwest believe that their kids will compete for the kinds of jobs we keep talking about. Reducing our advocacy to the "jobs argument" will keep us at the current level of global education with very little room for growth. As with so many areas in our curriculum, some tend to be reserved for our highest achieving students.

As long as we design a global education curriculum within this framework, we will not make significant advances:

  • Higher test scores in reading, writing and arithmetic (newer terms are en vogue these days) are still considered the key for improving the education of our students. They are absolutely important, but our national discussion seems to assume that anything beyond that is a frill that we can focus on in good times, but not in bad times. As most world language teachers will tell us, though, their programs have never seen increased support in good times, yet they have seen plenty of cuts in bad times. As long as we design curricula with very narrow and specific goals, we will find it hard to build a solid foundation for international education for all students.
  • Beliefs in scientific curriculum making are strong and alive in the U.S. They rest on the core assumption that reason alone will create the necessary educational success. Necessary for what? The making of a democratic society? Or necessary for the accumulation of personal and national wealth?  So, how do we argue for global education?

These are the kinds of conversations among policy makers, businesspeople, and education leaders. The interesting thing is that once we look at good international education programs in the schools, the conversation immediately shifts from the economic need to something much broader and valuable: Students meet friends in other countries, and they explore topics of great importance mostly through the lens of empathy and friendship. Take the fourth graders from Golda Meir Elementary School in Milwaukee: their teacher is traveling to Denmark with them for the 17th year in a row. All year long the students prepare for that, and much of their curriculum uses examples from Denmark or other European countries. The student population reflects the overall demographics of the Milwaukee Public Schools, and most students or parents cannot pay for this trip by themselves. But the entire school community has bought into providing their students with a solid international education. They fundraise and make things happen. Denmark, I hear you asking? But who wants to learn Danish? And indeed, in a purely back-mapped curriculum, those kids would study Mandarin Chinese right now. Where, after all, are the economic opportunities?  Do we think that these kids come back changed from their trip? Do we have evidence that the entire school community is impacted by this wonderful opportunity? Absolutely.

This is what I am getting at: If we keep framing the debate about global education purely in terms of the job market, and if we keep buying into the old frame of the purpose of schooling in terms of a direct path into good employment, we will keep missing the mark, and we will remain stuck. If, on the other hand, we acknowledge that this country is still predominantly very inward-looking, if we acknowledge that ingrained assumptions about American exceptionalism may not encourage curiosity about other people and cultures, we need a different approach. I believe that we will make significant progress by simply allowing our citizens (school board members, administrators, teachers, and eventually students) to interact with other cultures. I am deeply moved by the emotional impact of such programs, and I have decided to put my emphasis on creating such opportunities. I argue that we will not make headway with any curriculum changes unless we engage our fellow citizens emotionally in global education. We will not succeed with reason alone.

[1] I am using the terms "global" and "international" interchangeably for the purposes of this blog entry.

[2] Enrollment in world language programs in Wisconsin still hovers slightly above the 50% mark, remarkably unchanged from the numbers about 15 or twenty years ago. Also, most of these students take only the minimum of two years of another language. 


True, the economic argument is not the only one, nor is it the most comfortable one for educators. But we can't forget that in this culture, money talks. Money --and JOBS--talk. So the human dimension of cultural interaction and enrichment through different perspectives cannot operate alone for international education to advance. The economic dimension has to be part of our arsenal. And really, it is undeniable that our kids are going to need how things are done in other cultures for very practical reasons. This argument can provide leverage to get the economically-minded to support the ideas and programs aimed at the cultural and perspectival programs and connections we desparately need.

Bravo... this is the precise and delicate argument that we must be making in our field. International Education in the US today is about moving away from our historic isolationism. Isolated geographically and politically in this hemisphere, American students are far behind their peers in the geographic east with regards to contact with other languages, cultures and ways of thinking. I find it limiting to only argue with the language of competition (which economic arguments often boil down to) when in reality we need to be teaching our students not to compete with the world, but to integrate and collaborate with the world. Giving teachers international experiences causes them to love the world (can you think of a single person who ever when abroad and didn't come back with a passion for the people and places they visited?) and you teach with passion from a place of love. I have seen it work in my school when teachers participate in travel and exchanges. Fischer says it well here and I hope the conversation in our profession begins from this important place.

For the past year I've helped document story after story (in Wisconsin)on how international education experiences change the lives of the young people involved. Dedicated, motivated individuals (educators, parents, community members, business leaders) are the ones who can help adjust the focus from strictly market-based to a more humanocentric approach, which will in turn lead to increased economic opportunity.

For more on how transformative a travel experience can be, follow the link below to the Golda Meir student blog chronicling their most recent trip to Denmark.