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Cultivating Kids Who Can Navigate Our Complex World

Authors revisit ideas about global engagement in the classroom, emphasize intercultural understanding and dialogue
Children drawing a world map

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of several recent crises that have demonstrated the interdependent world we all live in. As Verónica Boix-Mansilla and her co-author Anthony Jackson explain in the recently published second edition of their book: Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Students to Engage the World, “virtually every major issue people face — from climate change to national security to public health — has a global dimension.”

Boix-Mansilla says the new edition of her book is influenced by a deeper understanding of the social-emotional dimensions of learning and an egalitarian mindset. She believes that students don’t just need help gaining skills and knowledge of global and intercultural issues but also nurturing their character. “It’s really a matter of the kind of person that you are,” Boix-Mansilla explains, and having “sensitivity towards what happens beyond your immediate environment. Your openness to other people's cultures, to the recognition of your own lenses, and your commitment to inclusion and sustainability.”

In her book, Boix-Mansilla highlights four aspects of a global competence framework she co-developed with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), to help students:

1.    Investigate issues of local, global, and intercultural significance.
2.    Understand and appreciate different perspectives and worldviews.
3.    Communicate and build relationships across differences.
4.    Take action toward more sustainable and inclusive societies.

Boix-Mansilla, a lead researcher with the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero, offered the following advice for educators to assist K–12 students, and even younger children, think and act globally:

First pose the question: Who are we and how are we connected to the world?

Teachers and students should begin by finding ways to know each other and the people in their community, appreciating the diverse and rich cultural, linguistic, and religious experiences that students themselves — including those from immigrant homes — may bring to the classroom, says Boix-Mansilla. Teachers can then “mine the global connections and the global assets that the community has,” and show their students that “the world is around us right now — we don't always need to travel to Indonesia in order to understand our inter-connections.”

Draw a map together.

Boix-Mansilla points to a technique she sometimes uses in teacher professional development sessions that can also be deployed in the classroom. Using a shared map of their city, learners are asked to interview each other about their lives and respond using the map. The students then consider where they can see the world on their maps and are encouraged to identify people or places they know with ties to other countries, to create an awareness of how present the world is around us.

Embrace different languages, including your own.

While globalization has lifted many out of extreme poverty, Boix-Mansilla says there is also a keen awareness of those who have been left behind. To develop empathy, intercultural understanding, and effective dialogue, especially in these politically polarized times, kids can learn different languages but also be taught to see that, even in their native tongue, there are “many languages,” including formal and informal words for different settings — think of words you might use at school versus at home — and how we all communicate through body and visual languages. Connecting, communicating, and building relationships with people, places, and planet is what matters.

Teach global competence across ages.

Global issues are not only for the most privileged or mature students and can be taught, in a developmentally appropriate way, from early childhood. In one example in her book, Boix-Mansilla describes a pre-K classroom in Washington, D.C. where children learned about the monarch butterflies who migrate annually from their city to Mexico. The children also raised butterflies in their classrooms, planted milkweed, (essential for their reproduction outside the school) and made multiple drawings of the butterflies’ transformation from caterpillars.

Teach global competence across disciplines.

“You don’t need to be a social studies teacher to teach for global competence,” explains Boix-Mansilla. “You can teach about the world across the different disciplines,” including math, art, music, and more. Whether students apply functions, predict the planet’s carrying capacity, learn about different literary genres when writing their family's migration story, or explore hip-hop culture around the world, students come to think about the disciplines as lenses through which to interpret the world.

Think relevant, deep, and long-lasting.

The researcher encourages educators to help their students engage in big questions. Global competence curriculum should focus on deep learning that is relevant to students, communities, and society as a whole and that is long-lasting, she says. Topics that may resonate locally and globally could include climate change, sustainability issues, migration, and poverty, for example. In her book, Boix-Mansilla highlights a teacher in New York who, after teaching a unit on the French Revolution, led a series of Socratic seminars about national identity in modern day France. The teacher used materials produced by Facing History and Ourselves to explain the debate over Muslim girls wearing headscarves in French schools. The students were encouraged to debate questions including, “What does it mean to be a French person today?” and “In what ways are the ideals of the French revolution still alive in today’s France, and in what ways are they being challenged?”

Create cultures of global competence in your classroom.

Long-lasting habits of mind, mindsets or dispositions are most typically learned through a process of enculturation — by participating in a school or classroom culture where global competence is valued, visible, modeled, and celebrated, and where reflecting about and engaging in the world becomes a habitual mode of learning.  Boix-Mansilla and her research team developed a series of global and social-emotional thinking routines as high-leverage learning tools that teachers can use to nurture global mindsets. “What would happen," she asked, "if we opted to weave opportunities for perspective-taking across everything we teach for a year?” She says teachers in her studies often choose to do so with impressive results by the end of the year.

Encourage students to make a difference.

“One of the most refreshing aspects of the global competence framework is that it brings the possibility of seeing young people as current citizens, not citizens in the future, but citizens of today — able to make a difference in the world around them,” explains Boix-Mansilla who encourages teachers to prepare young people to both understand and act on matters of global importance.  

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