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How to Thrive in the 21st Century

Educating a new generation of global citizens prepared to create, collaborate, and navigate the world’s complexities
multicultural group of students working around a laptop

When Fernando Reimers, a professor of international education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), talks and writes about what he wants children around the world to learn, the conversation runs deep and reaches far. Individual success, he says, increasingly depends upon students’ interpersonal dexterity, creativity, and ability to innovate. And our collective success — our ability to navigate complexities and to build and sustain a peaceful world — also hinges on these kinds of skills. Together, these skills form the basis of an emerging set of core competencies that will influence education policy and practice around the world.

In Teaching and Learning for the Twenty-First Century, Reimers and his co-editor, HGSE lecturer Connie K. Chung, explore how school systems in six countries are defining and supporting these global competencies. Their aim is to develop a shared framework for promoting the skills students will need in order to thrive as global citizens in a sustainable world in the decades ahead.

“Young people are in a context where they’re saturated and inundated with issues from around the world,” says Chung. Between new technologies, multiplying media, and layers of intercontinental connection, “global citizenship education is a ‘must have’ and not a ‘nice to have’ — for everyone,” says Chung.

Between new technologies, multiplying media, and layers of intercontinental connection, “global citizenship education is a ‘must have’ and not a ‘nice to have’ — for everyone.”

Reimers and Chung used the National Research Council’s 2012 report, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century, as a jumping off point for their investigation of policies and curricula that are best positioned to nurture global citizens. That report (read the research brief here) identifies three broad domains of competence: cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal. “This is not just talking about knowledge,” says Chung. Rather, it includes such strengths as intercultural literacy, self-discipline, and flexibility in social and work domains.

The Cognitive Competencies

As Chung suggests, the 21st-century global citizen’s cognitive skill set includes traditional, testable basics such as math and literacy, but extends beyond that to encompass a particularly strong emphasis on the world in which we live. “Current events highlight some of the fears around otherness,” she says. The key to informed citizenship is getting to know other cultures — and valuing them.

In addition to rounding out kids’ knowledge base to include a nuanced understanding of world geography and cultures, schools must teach them the skills to use this knowledge as active and engaged citizens.

That means being able to:

  • Communicate effectively and listen actively
  • Use evidence and assess information
  • Speak at least one language beyond one’s native tongue
  • Think critically and analyze local and global issues, challenges, and opportunities
  • Reason logically and interpret clearly
  • Become and remain digitally literate, including the ability to “weigh and judge the validity of the content that’s in front of you,” Chung says.

In some ways, digital literacy is a linchpin of the other competencies. “Technology gives us humans the possibility to collaborate in ways that are unprecedented, to think and produce things no one could produce individually,” Reimers says.

The Interpersonal Competencies

Empathy is a cornerstone 21st-century global competency. We’re all familiar with empathy between individuals: someone’s hurt, and another person deeply understands the pain. But Reimers and Chung envision the concept on a global scale. Empathy resides in the ability to consider the complexity of issues, Chung says — in an interconnected worldview that recognizes that “what we do impacts someone else.”

Anchored in tolerance and respect for other people, interpersonal intelligence breaks down into several overlapping skills, including:

  • Collaboration
  • Teamwork and cooperation
  • Trust
  • Leadership and responsibility
  • Assertive communication
  • Social influence

As Reimers says, “We need to make sure that we can get along, and that we can see our differences as an opportunity, as a source of strength.” Both regionally and nationally, students need the skills to transcend the limits of fragmentation, “where people can only relate to those who they perceive to be like them.”

The Intrapersonal Competencies

A particular blend of honed personal characteristics underpins the cognitive and intrapersonal competencies. Reimers points to an ethical orientation and strong work and mind habits, including self-regulation and intellectual openness, as traits that 21st-century educators must nurture in their students.

“We need to make sure that we can get along, and that we can see our differences as an opportunity, as a source of strength.”

The world is less predictable than it used to be: “People know that half of the jobs that are going to be around 10 years from now have not been invented,” Reimers says. That means teaching young people in such a way that makes them flexible and adaptable. It means enabling them to think of themselves as creators and inventors who feel comfortable taking the initiative and persevering — the skills necessary for starting one’s own business, for example.

Instilling in students the value of thinking beyond the short term will give them the best chance to tackle some of the world’s most daunting challenges, including climate change. For example, educators in Singapore were challenged to imagine their country not five, 10, or 15 years down the road, but 30 years in the future, Chung says. Encouraging students to think on that kind of a time scale helps them to grasp the reverberations of their actions and decisions.

Values, Attitudes, and Moving to Pedagogy

In Teaching and Learning for the Twenty-First Century (which has been published in Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish editions as well), Reimers, Chung, and global colleagues interviewed education researchers and stakeholders in Chile (in a chapter by Cristián Bellei and Liliana Morawietz), China (by Yan Wang), India (by Aditya Natraj, Monal Jayaram, Jahnavi Contractor, and Payal Agrawal), Mexico (by Sergio Cárdenas), Singapore (by Oon-Seng Tan and Ee-Ling Low), and the United States (by Chung and Reimers). They explored curriculum frameworks, seeking to understand how values and attitudes unique to each country and region were informing policy goals and ultimately shaping students’ learning opportunities.

Drawing on that survey of 21st-century competencies and the frameworks for their support, Reimers, Chung, and their digitally connected global network of educators are now teasing out a pedagogy for educators everywhere. Reimers and Chung co-authored (with Vidur Chopra, Julia Higdon, and E.B. O’Donnell) another new book, Empowering Global Citizens, which lays out a K–12 curriculum for global citizenship education called The World Course. Its aim is to position students and communities to thrive amid globalization — to lead, to steward, and to safeguard this complex world in the current century and beyond.

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