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
2. Which language is spoken by the most people in the world as their primary language?
b) Mandarin Chinese
3. Which country is the largest trading partner of the United States, based on the total dollar value of goods and services?
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)
e) North Korea
g) South Korea
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)
When the AP United States history students at Aragon High School in San Mateo, California, scanned the professionally designed pages of minimumwage.com, most concluded that it was a solid, unbiased source of facts and analysis. They noted the menu of research reports, graphics and videos, and the “About” page describing the site as a project of a “nonprofit research organization” called the Employment Policies Institute.
But then their teacher, Will Colglazier, demonstrated how a couple more exploratory clicks—critically, beyond the site itself—revealed the Employment Policies Institute is considered by the Center for Media and Democracy to be a front group created by lobbyists for the restaurant and hotel industries.
“I have some bright students, and a lot of them felt chagrined that they weren’t able to deduce this,” said Colglazier, who videotaped the episode in January. “They got duped.”
One student responded loudly, “Fudge nuggets!”
The exercise was part of “Civic Online Reasoning,” a series of news-literacy lessons being developed by Stanford University researchers and piloted by teachers at a few dozen schools. The Stanford initiative launched in 2015, joining a handful of recent efforts to help students contend with misinformation and fake news online—a problem as old as dial-up modems but now supercharged by social media and partisan news bubbles. The backers of these efforts warn that despite young people’s reputation as “digital natives,” they are woefully unprepared to sort online fact from fiction, and the danger isn’t just to scholarship but to citizenship.
Stanford’s myth busters, led by education professor Sam Wineburg and doctoral student Sarah Cotcamp McGrew, have field-tested 15 news-literacy tasks of varying difficulty, with about 50 more in the works. Can middle-school students spot “native advertising” (ads masquerading as articles) on a crowded news website? Can high-school kids check the authenticity of an alarming image posted on Facebook? Will students investigate the sources of controversial claims? Will they seek corroboration? By and large, according to a report the group published in November, the answer in each case is no.
“Overall,” the report concluded, “young people’s ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.”
The news literacy initiative is based in the Stanford History Education Groupthat Wineburg founded in 2002 to train teachers how to use primary sources and help students critically evaluate historical claims. The group also created a free digital curriculum called “Reading Like a Historian” that’s been downloaded more than 3 million times, according to Wineburg.
“We live in a world where our library begins with G,” Wineburg said, for Google, and the Common Core’s push for evidence-based reasoning falls flat if students trust everything that pops up in their Google search results.
Even before a deluge of fibs and fakery swamped our recent election cycle, Wineburg and company realized that readers of online news need many of the same skills used by a good historian, such as identifying the sources of claims and asking questions about their evidence. After all, what shows up in your Twitter or Facebook feed can come from anywhere, and a post-election BuzzFeed analysis suggested the fake stuff spreads faster than real news, thanks to hyper-partisan readers blindly sharing sensational headlines.
“This isn’t just a problem with kids,” said Wineburg. “Reliable information is to democratic functioning what clean air and water are to public health.”
Fortunately, long-neglected civics education seems to be on the rebound in many states, which has helped groups like the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University get their message into K-12 classrooms. The center has run a course for undergraduates since 2007 and has since expanded into secondary schools by hosting summer teacher-training workshops and making course materials available online through its Digital Resource Center. In January, it plans to launch a massive online open course (aka MOOC) called “Making Sense of the News: News Literacy Lessons for Digital Citizens.”
One early K-12 adopter of the Center’s news-literacy lessons was Janis Schachter, a social studies teacher at Northport High School in Long Island, New York. Schachter took one of the center’s first summer trainings and has taught Northport’s news-literacy course since 2011 as an elective that meets New York state’s “participation in government” graduation requirement.
“My students are all about social media. They’ve never known life without it, and it’s where they get all their information,” said Schachter. “Whether that information is from a news organization or from your uncle, it all looks the same to them.”
Gradually, Schachter’s students learn how to sort through it all—to check for multiple, informed, and named sources, and for claims backed by evidence they can independently verify.
“I tell the kids, it’s not fair that we have to do all this work, but the reality of the internet is that we do,” said Schachter, who also stresses that students only need to verify news they plan to act on, whether by voting, protesting, or just spreading the story by sharing it.
Still, learning news-literacy skills is one thing, and the motivation to use those skills is another. If that tantalizing headline in our Facebook news feed fits our political outlook, why do the digging that might undermine it?
The fact that so many of us now get our news in partisan online echo chambers sets up “a perfect storm for fake news,” according to Joe Kahne, an education professor at the University of California, Riverside.
In some good news, a new study Kahne co-authored, based on a national survey of young people ages 15 to 27, found that self-reported media-literacy training did make people significantly less likely to believe a factually inaccurate claim even if it aligned with their political point of view.
Kahne plans to study news-literacy efforts to discover what specific strategies get young people to value facts, whether they bolster their existing beliefs or contradict them. For now, one popular suggestion by news-literacy educators is to tap teenagers’ instinctive aversion to people telling them what to think.
“One of the messages we’ve tried to stress more and more lately with the rise of fake news is this: Do you want to be fooled?” said Jonathan Anzalone, assistant director of the Center for News Literacy. “Wouldn’t you rather make up your own mind?”
The following resources—from Facing History and our partners at StoryCorps—are designed to help your students gain critical thinking skills, empathy and tolerance, and a sense of civic responsibility.
Set the stage. Before you begin the classroom activities below, download “Fostering Civil Discourse: A Guide for Classroom Conversations” and review the suggestions for creating a classroom contract, providing opportunities for student reflection, and facilitating discussion about sensitive topics.
Consider the impact of identity. Use activities in this lesson to help students determine how their identity contributes to the way they respond to other people (and how other people respond to them). This will be useful preparation before discussing difficult topics.
Use #WhoWeAre videos in the classroom to build community. StoryCorps partnered withUpworthy to create a series of real-life stories told by everyday Americans. These animated videos are designed to build bridges of understanding between people and help us recognize our shared humanity. We encourage you to view all of the stories and think about which will best resonate with your students. You can view the whole collection here, but three to start with are:
After showing a video to your students, provide some time for silent reflection through journaling or using aThink-Pair-Share teaching strategy. Students can create identity charts for each of the people in the story, or use the following questions to frame a classroom discussion or as a prompt for a Big Paper silent conversation:
- How are the people in the story different from each other? How are they similar? What challenges did each person overcome?
- What was at stake in the story? What was gained and what was lost?
- What choices did each person face? What do you think were the different factors weighing on their minds? What do you think of the choices each of them made?
To finish the discussion introduce the concept of the Universe of Obligation. Ask students to individually create one for each of the people in the story and think about how it has shifted through their experience. To finish this exploration, ask students to create their own Universe of Obligation. Then as a class, create one for the United States. Does everyone in the class—or in the country—agree on what the country’s Universe of Obligation is or should be?
Strengthen community at home. Encourage your students to participate in StoryCorps’ Great Thanksgiving Listen, by downloading the StoryCorps app and interviewing an elder or loved one about their story. StoryCorps has created a Teacher Toolkit and multimedia resources page to support classroom participation. Help students build context for understanding the 2016 election by asking their elders about their memories and experiences in past elections. Use the “Elections and Civic Engagement” Great Questions list, available on page 18 of the Teacher Toolkit or in the questions section of the StoryCorps app.
For more helpful tips, read StoryCorps’ Facing Today blog, “The Anatomy of a Great Interview.”