Preparing Young Americans for a Complex World

Last year, the Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic commissioned a survey to assess the global literacy of American college students. Over 1,200 people participated; less than 30 percent earned a passing grade. Below are six questions they included, each of which a majority of respondents answered incorrectly. See how you, or your students or children, do. (Answers below.)

1. In which of these countries is a majority of the population Muslim?

a) South Africa

b) Armenia

c) India

d) Indonesia

2. Which language is spoken by the most people in the world as their primary language?

a) Russian

b) Mandarin Chinese

c) English

d) Arabic

3. Which country is the largest trading partner of the United States, based on the total dollar value of goods and services?

a) Canada

b) China

c) Mexico

d) Saudi Arabia

4. Approximately what percentage of the United Statesfederal budget is spent on foreign aid?

a) 1 percent

b) 5 percent

c) 12 percent

d) 30 percent

e) 40 percent

5. Which countries is the United States bound by treaty to protect if they are attacked? (select all that apply)

a) Canada

b) China

c) Japan

d) Mexico

e) North Korea

f) Russia

g) South Korea

h) Turkey

6. True or False: Over the past five years, the number of Mexicans leaving the United States and returning to Mexico has been greater than the number of Mexicans entering the United States.

Why is it so important to understand the world and the United States’ role in it today?

To begin with, the American economy is inextricably linked to the global economy. It’s estimated that one-fifth of jobs here are now tied to international trade. Moreover, many of the world’s major challenges — climate change, instability in financial markets, food and water insecurity, infectious diseases, migration, war and terrorism — are complex, interdependent and borderless. And with 40 million foreign-born residents, the United States is itself a global society with deep emotional ties to many nations and cultures. To survive and thrive, Americans have to learn how to manage greater complexity and collaborate across lines of difference.

During the Obama administration, the federal Department of Education recognized this imperative. Since 2012, its strategy has emphasized “global and cultural competency” as a core educational priority. In 2018, the Program for International Student Assessment, an international testing system that sets benchmarks for student performance in which the Department of Education participates, will add global competence as a new domain.

Nevertheless, many American schools have remained poorly prepared to deliver education in “global competence” (defined by American education leaders as “the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance.”) The focus on traditional achievement and test scores has narrowed the delivery of instruction at a time when students need to learn to think more broadly. In the wake of “Brexit” and the election of Donald Trump (both far more popular among older voters than among the young) — and amid the global rise of nationalist movements — schools need to help students navigate the forces shaping the world they will inherit.

“What are the values, attitudes, skills and behaviors that must be cultivated if we’re going to live in a peaceful world?” asked Dana Mortenson, one of the -founders of World Savvy, an organization that has worked with thousands of teachers to integrate global competence into their lessons.

What’s needed is not just scoring well on standardized tests. “It’s an openness to new opportunities and ideas,” she added. “It’s a desire to engage. It’s self-awareness about culture and respect for different perspectives. It’s comfort with ambiguity. It’s the skill to investigate the world through questions. Empathy and humility are big pieces of all of it.”

Teaching these higher-level skills and attitudes might seem a tall order for schools that struggle with the basics. But World Savvy has seen impressive results among its partner schools, a majority of them in high-poverty areas. By raising the bar, teachers say, it becomes easier to engage students.

That’s been the experience of Carla Kelly, a special-education teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx who completed a Global Competence Certificate, a 15-month graduate-level program developed by World Savvy, the Asia Society and Teachers College at Columbia University.

“I saw that I needed to teach so that my students could contribute anywhere in the world,” Kelly said.

Kelly teaches a variety of subjects — including science, health, Spanish and life skills — in a school that has students and faculty members from 46 countries. She tries to integrate global competence concepts throughout her teaching.

In a unit on nutrition, for instance, students explore foods from around the world, graphing diets against life spans. “We compared diets high in starchy vegetables with places where they eat dark green or sea vegetables,” she said. The connections the students drew were powerful: They learned that people in China live longer than black people in America. They discovered that wherever the American diet was introduced, life spans declined.

In a unit on death, Kelly added an exploration of 11 funeral rites. Students learned that in Ghana, caskets are woven in the shape of objects beloved by the deceased; in South Korea, a person’s remains may be pressed into jewelry; and in Tibet, the mountaintop “sky burial” in the open allows a dead person’s soul to exit the body and be reincarnated. “I asked them to choose five rituals that would be a good fit with their values and cultures,” Kelly said. “I wanted them to make connections, to see how other cultures see life and death.”

“Every class that I’ve revised to include international representation,” she added. “I found that the students made more connections because they had a cultural anchor. And when I assessed what they retained I got content-specific vocabulary because it stuck, especially where they could see aspects of themselves and of people they knew. And the questions I got were better. I stopped getting ‘what’ questions and started getting ‘why’ questions, and ‘what if’ questions.”

At Mill Valley Middle School in California, two teachers, Rod Septka and Maggie Front, working with more affluent students, have seen this approach evoke a similar response. When the recent drought in California was daily news, they looked at how people in the state were conserving water. Then they examined how people cope with water-related problems in Bangladesh, Israel, Sudan, Bolivia, China, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Peru and Syria. The students did extensive research and data gathering. One student was astonished that so many people around the world couldn’t just go into their kitchen and get water from a tap. Then the water crisis in Flint, Mich., became news, and they looked at water access in terms of wealth and race. That led a student who had been previously disengaged in school to discover her activist voice, said Front. And studying water rights brought her to a related concern: women’s rights.

“A lot of this helps the kids to understand what actions they can take toward solving world issues,” said Front. “It’s not the mission to create activism, but that tends to come out of it.”

In a culminating experience, the students, working in twos, carried five-gallon buckets of water for half a mile. They experimented with ways to do it efficiently, while minimizing spillage, and collected data about time, distance and volume to calculate how long it would take them to provide water for their family. “It was a lot harder than they thought,” said Septka. “It gave them a newfound appreciation for people who have to do things differently than we do.”

Each of these teachers described learning alongside the students, making mistakes, and improving their own global competence in the process.

For now, teacher education that is focused on this area remains at a nascent stage, says William Gaudelli, an associate professor at Teachers College at Columbia University who is a founder of the college’s Global Competence Certificate program and the author of a book titled “Global Citizenship Education: Everyday Transcendence.”

“By and large, our curriculum in the United States is a European great civilization approach — Plato to NATO — with some add-ons for cultural diversity,” he said. “But the condition we live in is fundamentally global. There’s literally nothing that’s not connected far beyond our borders. When people 100 years look back on our generation, they’re going to wonder: How did they know so much about what was going on and do so little to educate about it?”

For Mortenson, a core hurdle is moving beyond the “aversion to complexity in our education system.”

“The system was set up that way because the idea was to standardize knowledge,” she said. “That was appropriate when someone was being trained for a job they might hold for 40 or 50 years. But the world has changed in such profound ways that developing an understanding of complexity is paramount. Whatever the policy, the idea that things are simple, or black and white, and we can put a blanket on them and feel that it’s going to have the desired impact — that idea can become very dangerous.”

*Answers, with percentage of respondents who gave the correct answer.

1. d (29 percent)

2. b (49 percent)

3. a (10 percent)

4. a (12 percent)

5. a (47 percent), c (28 percent), g (34 percent), h (14 percent)

6. True (34 percent)

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