Global Education: of core importance

We live in an age when pundits, presidents, business leaders, and the general public alike extol the importance of global education. Yet the curriculum in most of our elementary and middle level public schools in Maine consigns social studies and geography to the category of second-rank subjects, and views world languages as a ‘frill.’

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills redefines core subjects to include geography and world languages. The organization’s framework points to the importance of global awareness in students and suggests that students need to:

  • Learn from and work collaboratively with individuals representing diverse cultures, religions, and lifestyles in a spirit of mutual respect and open dialogue in personal, work, and community contexts
  • Understand other nations and cultures, including the use of non-English languages

Very little time is allotted in our schools to subjects that provide a global education to students younger than high school age. This means that children reach high school knowing little about the world outside their communities. While many of their counterparts throughout the world are trilingual – or bilingual at least – our fourteen year-old students are proud of themselves if they can say ‘hello’ in a second language.

Beginning serious language study for the first time in high school is rarely successful – students are generally too self-conscious by then to take the risks necessary to learn another language, and the window of opportunity for developing near-native pronunciation has closed. Unable to locate major continents like Africa or Asia without an effort, let alone individual countries, our students are without cross-cultural competence. By the beginning of high school most students have absorbed the culture’s hidden message that knowledge of the outside world is not important. The result is graduates who are entirely unprepared for life in the twenty-first century.

Yong Zhao, in his book Catching Up or Leading the Way, talks about ‘cross-cultural competency.’ He stresses that in the ‘flat world’, or ‘global village’ we now inhabit, we absolutely need to be able to ‘live in and move across different cultures easily.’ Schools should educate students in ‘a global perspective … a set of global skills – cultural knowledge and linguistic abilities …’ (p.192). He points out the obvious – that ‘proficiency in foreign languages is an essential component of cross-cultural competency.’ (p.174)

International students at my husband’s school , Acadia Center for English Immersion, explain the important place language learning holds in their schools back home in Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa. They are surprised that language learning is not considered a ‘core’ subject in Maine’s schools.

Schools in Maine need to ask more of our students. It is not enough in the 21st century to know how to read and solve math problems on a test. We need to hire teachers who themselves have an international perspective. Some people say that students in Maine have trouble just mastering the basics and shouldn’t strive for more. I think students in Maine are fully capable of learning what their counterparts in the rest of the world are learning.  I think a key reason a lot of students don’t want to be in school is that they feel what they are learning is boring and outdated. I think they’d be a whole lot more interested in being in school if they were globally connected.

We really don’t have a viable choice at this point when it comes to global education – not if we are serious about educating our students so they can have satisfying lives in the increasingly globally interconnected world.

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Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.