Middle Schools and Global Learning

Students at an international studies school prepare for the World Affairs Challenge. Photo courtesy DCIS.

Students at an international studies school prepare for the World Affairs Challenge. Photo courtesy DCIS.

I spent a good bit of my career thinking about the future of middle grades education and how it can be systematically improved for all students. I deeply believe the next critical frontier for middle grades education—and the springboard for reforming American education in genera—is to meet the demands of a challenging, exciting, uncharted global era.

Why Global Knowledge and Skills are Critical
So why is it critical for all students to develop international knowledge and skills? Why does that matter? It matters because of at least four huge trends in our society that are shaping everyday life in this country and around the world: globalization of the economy, national security, cultural diversity, and democracy and citizenship.

Everyone knows the American economy of the 21st century is increasingly an international economy. But what few people think about is this new economy comes with a new set of demands. These include the fact that other economies are expanding rapidly: take China, India and Vietnam, for example. International trade is accelerating tremendously; one in five American jobs are now connected to international trade. With new information and communication technologies, almost anything can be done anywhere. The nature of work itself is changing, too. As more routine jobs can be done by computer or outsourced to cheaper labor markets, the economic advantage will go to people who can analyze and solve problems, recognize patterns and similarities, and communicate and interact with other people, especially those who do not share the same culture.

National Security: In a post-9/11 world, lack of international understanding is a threat to national security. We cannot very easily make peace with people we don’t understand and can’t communicate with. I heard an interview with an US Army General stressing the fact that what’s needed in Iraq and Afghanistan is not so much tactical intelligence to defeat an enemy militarily, as much as situational intelligence, ability to understand and communicate, so as to win people over to our side of the conflict.

With regard specifically to language instruction, the federal departments of State and Defense are clearly and urgently calling for a K-16 pipeline in world language instruction. These agencies recognize that the lack of capacity to speak the world’s languages is truly a threat to national security. They have characterized the events of 9/11—this generation’s sputnik, in terms of it being a wake up call for the need for a stronger emphasis on language studies.

Diversity is another strong motivator. It matters because right here in the US, especially in schools, our society is becoming enormously more diverse. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, 56 languages are spoken, a trend mirrored in districts throughout California and the nation. A situation the requires not only the tolerance and respect that comes from greater awareness of other cultures and histories, but an interest in seeking out and working collaboratively with those who are different to achieve common objectives.

Civics matters because the definition of what it means to be an informed citizen in this country, and to participate in our civic and political institutions, increasingly requires knowledge of world events as a backdrop for making informed decisions about local issues. Everyone needs to understand how the world impacts local issues, and vice versa, how local issues can impact the world and how because of globalization our actions have local, national and international implications.

Current world economic crisis is an excellent if scary case in point. Who knew that sub-prime mortgages people got at their local bank or credit union could potentially cause a world wide credit crunch and financial meltdown? Obviously it’s not just that simple, but it is the case that what’s happened locally and nationally within the US has had huge international ramifications.

About a decade ago, Asia Society created the National Commission on Asia in the Schools to understand more about what students know about Asia and how well teachers were prepared to teach about Asia. Consider this:

  • 25 percent of college-bound high school students did not know the name of the ocean that separates the US from Asia
  • 80 percent did not know that India, not the United States, is the world’s largest democracy.
  • Young Americans were next to last in a nine country survey of knowledge of current events.
  • Most teachers are not prepared to teach about Asia. Of the top 50 colleges and universities that train teachers, just a handful require any coursework on Asian history for their students preparing to teach world history

What the Commission found, documented in this report Asia in the Schools, was quite disturbing. The commission summarized its findings by saying “Vast numbers of US citizens—particularly young Americans—remain dangerously uniformed about international matters. The knowledge deficit is particularly glaring in the case of Asia.”

So there are vast changes going on in our society and there is a knowledge and skills gap in our education of youth in relation to those changes. Can we get them ready? Clearly, that depends on what we as educators do. But it also depends on the values and assumptions that drive our decisions.

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