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Growing Up Globally

Professor Fernando Reimers outlines the value of integrating global awareness, skills, and understanding in K-12 education

May 29, 2008
Professor Fernando Reimers

While different societies and cultures are becoming increasingly interconnected through globalization, schools around the world are insufficiently preparing students to seize the opportunities created by globalization. In a 2006 article, Citizenship, Identity and Education: Examining the public purposes of schools in an age of globalization, Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Fernando Reimers stressed the importance of teaching tolerance and global values, as well as developing foreign language skills and knowledge of world history, cultures, and geography. 

As he discussed ways in which global values can be incorporated into school curricula, and some of the obstacles to doing so, Reimers—director of HGSE's International Education Policy program—noted that young people are growing up in an increasingly interconnected world and will need to develop global citizenship skills to function effectively. These are skills of three kinds: cross-cultural efficacy, an interest and positive disposition toward cultural difference; foreign language skills; and knowledge of world history, geography and global processes such as trade, international law, environmental and health challenges. In order to assess global events such as the war in Iraq, they need to understand global politics; in order to have an informed perspective about global warming, they need to understand global economics, environmental sciences, and geography; and in order to communicate successfully with their neighbors from other cultures, they need to appreciate cultural differences and have skills that allow effective and respectful cross-cultural interactions. In order to engage as citizens, to vote at the local and national level, they need to understand how local issues—such as the rising cost of gasoline or environmental degradation—are shaped by world events.

If individuals do not understand the global interdependencies that influence public affairs in every country, regarding trade for example, or environmental degradation, they are likely to make poor decisions as individual consumers, producers, or citizens.

Despite the need for global awareness and skills, Reimers said, schools and international organizations have increasingly moved away from educating children about global civility and international human rights. At the end of World War II, UNESCO was founded in order to promote ways to establish the lasting foundations of world peace, and its efforts to promote universal education were understood to be about planting the seeds of peace on the minds of children.

In recent years, that goal has been largely crowded out by an almost exclusive concern with access to school and educational attainment, with less regard for the quality and purpose of education. In addition, in some nations education goals have focused very narrowly on the development of skills that are presumed to contribute to national  economic competitiveness, the formation of national identity, and local relevance, without sufficient attention to the development of the skills that contribute to effective citizenship and global citizenship. However, as Reimers warned in an interview for Usable Knowledge, "If individuals do not understand the global interdependencies that influence public affairs in every country, regarding trade for example, or environmental degradation, they are likely to make poor decisions as individual consumers, producers, or citizens."

Creating a Relevant Curriculum

While the Millennium Development Goals and the Education for All Goals established an ambitious agenda to provide a basic education worldwide, they did not, according to Reimers, focus on ways to help students develop relevant skills to expand their options in life. "Reflecting on much of my past research and policy advisory work to support the expansion of educational opportunity," said Reimers, "I realize that I had tried to support the improvement of educational quality without really asking what the purpose of education should be. I have of late realized that it is very difficult to disentangle concerns with quality from concerns with about the relevancy of education. Since  9/11 I realized something that should have been obvious to me, but was not: that highly schooled individuals can choose to use their talents in very destructive ways and to undermine global civility, rather than foster it. I understand now that education quality is fundamentally about purpose, about relevancy, about the content and pedagogy of instruction."

Bringing Global Values into Schools

So, how do schools begin to foster global values in their students? Based on years of research studying how to improve the quality of education in Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Mexico and many other countries in Latin America, as well as his work as an advisor to governments, private groups, and foundations involved in education reform, Reimers recommended developing three sets of competencies.

  • The promotion of attitudes that reflect an openness, interest, and positive attitude toward cultural differences. This will empower children who do not have the opportunity to develop such attitudes at home and will also engage students for whom cross-cultural navigation is a more frequent experience.
  • Teaching world history, geograpy, and international law and institutions, including human rights. In most U.S. text books, children do not learn about the United Nations and international legislation, so they are poorly prepared to appreciate the role of international law or international human rights in fostering global governance. With greater exposure to subjects such as anthropology, political science, world history, and world literature — among other topics — students develop a deeper understanding of global issues.
  • Foreign Language skills. With the existing pressures in American schools under the No Child Left Behind legislation, it is difficult to find time in the curriculum for foreign language acquisition. This is an essential component, however, of communicating with groups who speak a language other than English. Furthermore, the U.S. is in the fortunate position of having a rich resource of native speakers of foreign languages to support language programs.

Reimers is working toward the achievement of these goals in his capacity as co-chair of the Global Education Advisory Council of the Massachussetts Department of Education, and as a member of a panel of the National Academy of Sciences reviewing 14 federally funded programs to promote the internationalization of American universities. He also serves on the board of other organizations working to internationalize the curriculum of K-12 institutions in the U.S., in addition to his scholarly and advisory work to improve the quality of education in developing countries.

The Path Ahead

While the promotion of global values, tolerance, and cosmopolitanism in schools around the world is both desirable and achievable, it faces considerable challenges. In addition to the obvious need for increased teacher resources and teacher support in order to implement new programs, Reimers cited three additional factors: the lack of political will on the part of national and state governments; the resulting insufficient knowledge base to support effective citizenship and human rights education; and the limited ability of international institutions to implement educational change. Furthermore, schools are sometimes used as places to foster intolerance and nationalism rather than global civility.

Taking Responsibility

In order to promote global civility, governance and peace, Reimers believes that individuals need to acquire the appropriate tools to interpret and respond to the conditions of their environment and the events that shape their world. Reimers writes that "Educators can help their students develop the capabilities to make sense of those conditions in ways that lead to productive and peaceful cross-cultural dialogue and conflict resolution."

According to Reimers, leadership in this area can come from multiple sources: from international organizations, governmental or non-governmental; from national governments, either in the education sector or other sectors; from public-private partnerships; from state and local governments; from schools of education or NGOs developing curriculum or educating teachers; and, of course, from individual teachers and social entrepreneurs. In addition, Reimers recommended that groups who are already doing good work in individual schools or in small-scale projects should be recognized and an established body of practice codified from their work.

Whatever the challenges to implementing an international curriculum to promote global civility, Reimers believes it is essential to teach children ways to communicate peacefully and constructively across cultural differences. "Globalization has connected economies and countries to a much greater extent than ever before," he said. "This can result in new anxieties, mistrust and conflict, or it can result in unprecedented collaborations across cultural boundaries to address the challenges of our times. Which way things turn will depend to a great extent on what teachers and schools choose to do about global citizenship."

For further reading:

Fernando Reimers. "Teaching Quality Matters: Pedagogy and Literacy Instruction of Poor Students in Mexico" in Benjamin Piper, Sarah Dryden-Peterson and Young-Suk Kim (Eds.) International Education for the Millenium. Toward Access, Equity and Quality. Harvard Educational Review. No 42. 2006.

Fernando Reimers, Carol DeShano da Silva, and Ernesto Trevino. Where is the Education in the Conditional Cash Transfers of Education? Unesco Institute of Statistics. Montreal. September 2006.

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