A Curriculum for Changing the World

Preparing students for an interconnected, global society — starting in kindergarten

By Heather Beasley Doyle, on May 8, 2017 2:28 PM
A Curriculum for Changing the World : Preparing students for an interconnected, global society — starting in kindergarten #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

Can you build a curriculum to change the world?

In Empowering Global Citizens: A World Course, Fernando Reimers and four co-authors offer an interdisciplinary K-12 curriculum that aims for nothing less. It seeks to develop the specific cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal competencies crucial to thriving in the 21st century. Among those skills: the social and emotional ability to understand and work with people from diverse cultures; the creativity to develop sustainable solutions to complex problems; and a sense of confidence that individuals can (and are obligated to) make a difference.

A Global Curriculum

A curriculum, ideally, should give young people the knowledge they need to approach the future with a dynamic, accountable, forward-thinking mindset, says Reimers, the faculty director of international education policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The World Course is a curriculum specifically designed with the future in view — with the idea that our future will be an interconnected one, with complex challenges that demand a sense of citizenship and collaboration that expands beyond national borders.

To be globally competent, students will need traits like critical thinking, intercultural literacy, digital literacy, and cooperation, Reimers and his colleagues say. They’ll need to know how to work together on shared projects; how to use technology as a tool for learning; and how to see themselves as agents for innovation and sustainability.

Taking its lead from the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the curriculum — unit-based, with sample lessons that teachers can customize — is divided into two large segments, kindergarten through grade eight, and grades nine through 12.  It builds gradually, from closely guided instruction and activities to independent, project-based learning. The curriculum emphasizes pedagogy, focusing on “how you teach, not just what you teach,” says Connie K. Chung, associate director of HGSE’s Global Education Innovation Initiative and one of the book's co-authors. (The other co-authors are Vidur Chopra, Julia Higdon, and E. B. O'Donnell.) To that end, Empowering Global Citizens advocates for materials and resources to personalize learning, for schools to build partnerships with parents and communities, and for leadership that “supports cultures of continuous improvement and learning.”

K-8: Introducing Diversity and New Perspectives

The World Course kicks off by helping kindergartners see that “our world is diverse and beautiful, and we can learn about it different ways, like counting, interviewing, describing, storytelling and viewing pictures.” A different theme undergirds each successive academic year. The themes grow with the children, providing an ever-widening, deepening view of the world, from cultures, government, and geography to the environment, entrepreneurship, and values.

The themes communicate:

  • What we have in common and how we differ
  • The value of social entrepreneurship
  • The evolution of civilizations
  • The power of ordinary citizens to improve society and the world
  • The ongoing reality of population migration

Students immerse themselves in the themes through classroom activities, projects, and film and literature. Each year ends with a capstone project; students might make a book, create a documentary, or create a social enterprise.

Students learn to bring an inquisitive mind to people and experiences. They’re taught to interview and to partner with peers in other countries. Teachers emphasize the long arc of history and the importance of the values espoused in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights through activities and lessons highlighting its various components.

By the time they enter high school, students have learned “to find and make meaning in their learning,” rather than simply master a list of skills. 

High School: Taking Control of Your Learning

Ninth-graders continue the World Course by completing two of the five semester-long courses designed specifically for the curriculum — courses on:

  • The environment
  • Society and public health
  • Global conflicts and resolutions
  • Development economics: growth and development in Latin America
  • Technology, innovation, and globalization

At the end of ninth grade, students identify an issue or challenge they’d like to pursue. In tenth grade, they begin a 3-year, multi-pronged inquiry into the subject. The project includes:

  • Independent research
  • An internship with a mentor or organization
  • The development and implementation of a plan to address the issue
  • A final senior-year presentation to the school community

True to global-citizen form, students don’t carry out their projects in a vacuum. They’re placed into advisory groups based on their topics. And advisors, sometimes outside mentors, guide students for the duration of their research. Students also serve as peer coaches while working on their own projects.

Remix It

Reimers hopes that the World Course will provide globally minded teachers and administrators the resources they need to educate 21st-century citizens — and also to challenge others to consider global citizen education more seriously. The book was written using a creative commons license, which allows the educators to “build on it, remix it” and create their own derivatives to infuse into their practice, Reimers says.

Additional Resources

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Faculty in this article

Fernando Reimers

Fernando Reimers' investigation of 21st-century learning skills and global competencies is driven by the belief that education is a universal human right and that education should prepare learners to become architects of their own lives, to contribute to their communities, and to invent the future.


Connie Kyung-Hwa Chung

Connie K. Chung is the associate director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a multi-institution collaborative that works with education institutions in eight countries.