Middle Schools and Global Learning

Students in a classroom. (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.

Next: Equity and Excellence

Equity and Excellence
As some of you know, over the past five years Asia Society has worked with school districts and charter authorities to open a network of small, internationally focused schools in low income urban communities. The network is called the International Studies Schools Network (ISSN) and it consists of 12 schools, some serving grades 6-12 and some 9-12, and, again, the vast majority of students are from low income minority families.

At the opening of one of our schools, there was a ground breaking ceremony for a brand new building that would house the school. After the speakers and ribbon cutting, a reporter pulled me aside and said. “I totally get why they’re adding a high school to continue helping these students develop their math, and science and English skills. But why do these kids need to know about the world?”

The meaning of the reporter’s question was clear. Given where they come from, isn’t it enough of a challenge to boost academic outcomes for these students so they even have a chance for college. Why bother to teach them, and why should they be expected to know about the world beyond our borders?

The reporter was expressing what I think is a prevalent view of what “those kids” need, that is now even codified in law. If you look at the language of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), for example, the language has actually been changed in the legislation so that now, the goal for federal efforts to help poor kids is to reduce the achievement gap between disadvantaged kids and their more advantaged peers. The goal used to be creating equal opportunity for all students.

At Asia Society, our guiding belief is simply that closing the achievement gap is a necessary but insufficient goal. If we really want to provide equal opportunity in 21st century, education must also include a response to globalization, and that response must include a focus on low income and minority kids. Having the knowledge and skills to be successful in the 21st century is the new definition equal opportunity. "All well and good," says the teacher faced with daily pressures of getting everything done, "but NCLB and all the other accountability standards we are faced with is what I have to deal with. I know I need to focus on getting my kids ready for a global age but I can’t do that if it takes me away from getting achievement scores up."

NCLB attempts to meet both the execellence and equity mandates of our education system. In the book I co-authored with Gayle Andrews, Turning Points 2000, I hope you'll see the foundation for taking middle schools into the global era. We said that purpose of middle grades schooling is, indeed, the intellectual development of young adolescents, first and foremost. And what’s critically important from a developmental perspective, middle grade students are ripe for learning about the world and how it works because they are so rapidly developing the brain capacity to understand complexity. We know from brain research that the development of the brain in adolescence is more rapid and more robust than at any other stage of development except early infancy. At this age, they are more able to be out in the world, and to participate in a wider universe of activities. As they move through adolescence, it goes from “its all about me and my community right now” to “its still all about me but in relation to what my future might be outside of my immediate community” and now, that broader community can include the world itself.” While intellectual development is the ultimate goal, you can’t get there from here unless the relationships within the school aren’t close and supportive. Relationships are the means by which learning happens. Indeed, Turning Points was and remains an excellence and equity agenda. What Gayle and I wrote about nearly a decade ago was in many ways the foundation of the kind of globally focused middle grades education.

Next: What Does Global Competence Really Mean?What Does Global Competence Really Mean?
The question remains: can the kind of education for adolescents described in Turning Points infused with international content, perspectives and skills produce better outcomes for students? Our contention is that it isn’t either/or – either closing the achievement gap, or equipping students with global competencies. Rather that thoughtfully infusing an international perspective within a rigorous instructional program can drive school improvement. It can make learning more rigorous, relevant and engaging to students and lead to better outcomes on the very accountability measures that you live by every day. If there is any one message I hope I can convey to you it is that international studies is not really a new program or a new approach, and certainly not something that gets layered on top of existing practice. It is simply a way of teaching that embeds the kinds of knowledge and skills students must have to be college ready and work ready in the 21st century within highly rigorous instruction and relationship driven, culturally rich

Defining the knowledge and skills students need for the global era, or defining global competencies, if you will, is still a work in progress. Our views on this are still growing as we continue to talk with thoughtful adults in a wide variety of walks of life, as well as kids themselves.

Take a look at Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network Profile of a High School Graduate. This is our guiding vision of what success looks like when schools are able to produce students that are college ready and globally competent. The Graduate Profile spells out what we mean by the kind of knowledge, skills and dispositions young people need to compete, connect and cooperate with others in a global era at the end of high school and as such, they provide a clear set of goals that we use in framing education for the students in our schools beginning in the middle grades.

What are some of those skills?

Knowledge about the World

  • Have an opportunity to learn about world cultures, have experience of becoming expert about world culture or world issues.
  • Understand deeply how the world’s people and institutions are interconnected and know how critical international economic, political, technological, environmental and social systems operate interdependently across nations and regions.
  • Deep content knowledge in science, math – importantly, know how to used scientific and mathematical knowledge to explain and understand the world, hopefully contribute to solutions to world issues.

International Skills

  • Are “literate for the 21st century” and are proficient in reading, writing, listening and speaking in English and in one or more other world languages.
  • Analyze and evaluate global issues from multiple perspectives, gather and synthesize relevant information from around the world, and draw conclusions that consider the impact from various viewpoints.
  • Are proficient in the use of a digital media, can evaluate the validity and integrity of information, and can identify sources of bias.

Values, Habits of Mind

  • Understand and value the opportunity to work collaboratively with individuals from cultural backgrounds different from their own and can see the world from the perspective of others.
  • Are comfortable and competent in different cultural settings and know how to shift behavior and language to respectfully interact with people from different backgrounds.
  • Understand that decisions and actions taken in the United States may have international consequences and that events worldwide may have national and local implications.
  • Understand their responsibility to make ethical decisions and responsible choices, to weigh the consequences of their actions for themselves and others across the globe, and toact toward the development of a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world.

See full definition here.

Next: A Profile of a Student's School Day
A Profile of a Student's School Day
So that’s what we mean by global competencies, and, again, the Graduate Profile is the beacon we use to figure out what instruction should look like beginning in the middle grades. But what does middle grades education look like when it’s intended to both accelerate learning and prepare students for success in a global era?

To give you a sense for that, I’ve put tried to capture that sense by positing a day in the life of Eduardo, a middle grades student attending City International Studies School. Eduardo is fictitious, but much of his experience is drawn from 6-12 ISSN schools – a composite of what success looks like in schools serving the middle grades that “go global.”

Each of our ISSN schools is unique, but they grow from a common design. So here’s what its like inside these schools.

Eduardo comes early to City International Studies School because he and another student in his 8th grade Algebra I class are this week’s “techno tutors.” Working with their math teacher and one of the school’s technology team (a 12th grader), the students design and produce a short tutorial on a specific Algebra topic that is recorded and then placed in the school’s Podcast archives. Other students who, like Eduardo, can at times find Algebra daunting can download the tutorial in school or at home, whenever and wherever they need help.

School usually begins with a 15-minute community meeting, but the faculty chose to modify the schedule today for a brief question and answer session with an official from the Palestinian Information Office. The official has been invited as part of a series of dialogues which will later involve spokespersons from the Israeli Consulate and from other interest groups with offices in the city, on the origins of unrest and options for peace in the Middle East. These kinds of “conversations for understanding” on world issues are a regular part of the school culture at City International.

Today, since it is an “A” day in the school’s block schedule, Eduardo’s first class is English/World Literature where he continues work on an essay and multi-media project jointly assigned by his English and social studies teachers. Among a series of project options, Eduardo’s group chose to do an analysis that compares the U.S. and Japanese perspectives on the causes of World War II, and to use their findings to discuss the issue of when a country should go to war. Much of today’s work will involve providing and receiving suggestions for improving the written portions of their presentation using one of the “critical friends” feedback protocols that they’ve been taught to use.

After the morning break, one of the best parts of Eduardo’s day comes next: Advisory. He enjoys it, in part, because his small advisory group meets in the student lounge of the school library, a hodge-podge of donated, gently used furniture that contribute to a décor affectionately described in the school paper as “shabby chic.” Students participate in the Council process during which their advisor asks them to express their thoughts and feelings on what she calls “micro-aggressions” against people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds – unintended “put downs” by people that may mean well but don’t realize what they say reflects bias. What are examples we see in the media or in everyday life in our community? Is it best to say something or just take it in stride? In the remainder of Advisory, Eduardo meets with his advisor individually to go over his Passages Portfolio, a collection of student work that demonstrates his development during the middle grades which he will present to the school community at the end of eighth grade.

Up next: Integrated Physical Science (IPS), where Eduardo soon finds himself in an animated discussion with his work group on the best strategies for “solving for substance X.” Throughout the year, the IPS teacher has designed opportunities for students to learn the methods of science and to frame questions and pursue solutions just as scientists do. Now the class must apply their knowledge to first figure out what a mysterious substance is, second, research where in the world the substance is most prevalent, and third, describe “what difference it makes” to the people in the region where it is found. For the latter part of the project, Eduardo’s project group must cite at least one source outside the U.S.

At lunch, Eduardo chats with the school principal about the trip to the Concordia Language Village in Minnesota he will be making in the summer to further develop his Chinese language skills. Like most students at City International, he plans to travel abroad during his high school years, perhaps to China, or to a Spanish-speaking country to further hone the language skills first provided to him by his parents.

Eduardo’s next class, Chinese, is staffed by a credentialed Chinese language teacher, and supported by a Chinese visiting teacher from Shanghai. In addition to the normal curriculum, the class is preparing for a Friday field trip to a nearby nursing home for primarily elderly Chinese immigrants where they will practice conversational skills with residents. These visits occur once a month but Eduardo spends additional afternoons here as part of a service learning project that involves working with a Chinese- American youth group to develop oral histories of the residents’ experience before and after immigrating to the U.S. The school day ends with Physical Education, where the current block is Yoga. Eduardo enjoys the graceful movements of this ancient Indian physical art form but is also looking forward to the next week when his class will participate in something a bit more active: lacrosse!

Eduardo’s hypothetical experience, grounded in the real world of ISSN schools, represents what bringing the world into world class education means for middle grades schools.

Next: How to Boost Your Students' Global Learning
Practical Advice on How to Boost Your Students' Global Learning
Asia Society released a new publication called Going Global: Preparing Our Students for An Interconnected World. Going Global is a compendium of best practices drawn from middle grades schools and high schools across the country, including ISSN and Goldman Sachs prizewinning schools. It provides practical advice on how to get started as individual teachers, teams or whole schools to systematically integrate international knowledge and skills in your school.

The book is organized around a few key areas bullet-pointed below, with some annotation on what it means in reall practice.

  • Creating a Global Vision and Culture A clear signal to students and adults alike that a school puts a priority on the development of international knowledge and skills is a mission statement that says so. The mission statement of the Denver Center for International Studies, which serves students in grades 6-12, leaves no doubt about its aspirations for students.“The Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS) prepares students for college by developing multilingual, interculturally competent students who are actively involved in a rapidly changing world.” (Denver Center for International Studies, 2008.) DCIS provides a good example of a school serving middle grades students whose global culture includes the external symbols of its international focus but goes well beyond that in its day-to-day practices. This is the school, as we spend our day with Eduardo, where regular morning assemblies feature speakers representing different cultural perspectives present their views on important world issues. This tradition of intercultural discourse engages students in serious discussions from multiple vantage points. As a member of the International Studies Schools Network, DCIS faculty have embraced the ISSN’s Graduate Profile, which describes in detail the knowledge, skills and dispositions that define a student’s global competence. Faculty at the school use the Graduate Profile for alignment of curriculum, assessment and instruction and the creation of learning opportunities outside the school that enable students to meet the learning outcomes that the Profile defines. DCIS' faculty has developed a portfolio system, beginning in the middle grades, to help students in their advisory program document their personal development toward the goals of the Graduate Profile. Says principal Dan Lutz, “We want them to understand, as they learn about the world cultures, how they are developing their own global competencies along the way.” (Asia Society, 2008 p.5)

  • Transforming Curriculum and Instruction by Integrating International Content It was hopefully evident from Eduardo’s day that international content and skills was woven seamlessly throughout his course work. Let me just dip a bit more deeply into examples within a few subject areas on how educators are their students in thoughtful internationally focused inquiry.

    Teaching the global history of science shows the international dimension of scientific inquiry. Moreover, students can learn science by using the tools of scientific inquiry to solve world problems. In Earth Science, for example, rather than simply memorizing facts and concepts from a textbook, students might be engaged in analyzing the causes and consequences of earthquake activity worldwide and then propose solutions to minimize damage and loss of life.

    Internationalizing English language arts requires expanding the traditional canon of literature to include writing about or from different parts of the world that is available in English. Broadening the base of literature can help students understand universal themes, such as how adolescents come of age and seek their identity in many countries. Literature from around the world can help break down cultural barriers within the school and provide a solid foundation for exploring the world’s cultures. In social studies, Geography enables students to examine the physical patterns and processes that shape human use of the earth. In turn, students can examine how human presence on earth can have significant environmental consequences.

    History courses are enriched for students by understanding that the history of the world and of the United States are histories of global interactions. There are myriad opportunities to developing a deeper understanding of our own history by comparing the American experience with other nation’s experience on pivotal issues like the fight for civil rights for all citizens.

    Language study enables students to communicate with people from other cultures, especially when they have frequent opportunities for authentic conversations. Moreover, language study can be a vehicle for gaining insight into world cultures. New technologies provide opportunities for students to immerse themselves in language through, for example, conversations with native language speakers over Skype, and reading target language newspapers and websites.

    A really terrific example of internationally focused interdisciplinary learning occurs at the Metropolitan Learning Center in Bloomfield, CT where students in grades 6, 7, and 8 engage in an in-depth, interdisciplinary study of two real-life case studies in all areas of the world. For example, in sixth grade, students study health and pollution issues in urban North America within the quarter-long theme of environment and health. Since asthma is a major health issue and is something these urban students know about from their own experience, students do an in-depth study of asthma. Instead of juststudying the physiology of the disease and stopping there, they look at statistics for all of North America, do scatter plot graphs of asthma, and examine the direct and indirect causes of asthma (for example, one direct cause—indoor environmental pollutants; one indirect cause—poverty). They read a novel about life in urban America; they write letters to city council members and state representatives; and they compile statistics to support their arguments in their letters. The students then expand their study of environment and health to examine other world areas where environmental degradation is having an impact—the Arctic and Antarctic regions, for example—and tie that back into their earlier local study. As my colleague Caryn Stedman, head of curriculum at MLC says, “These middle grades students use their discipline-based skills of scientific inquiry, math, literacy, social studies, and health to do what people in the real world do—synthesize the skills and knowledge in a meaningful way”

    A consistent effort to make the global connection in authentic ways across the curriculum. To utilize the habits of mind to consider the global perspective within each subject area and across subject areas.

    Furthering the development of students’ international competencies requires innovations in assessment well beyond traditional standardized tests. What students need are authentic and reliable ways of demonstrating their learning against valid benchmarks. One example is the work Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network is conducting with the Stanford School Redesign Network. A set of rubrics are being designed for each academic content area to outline standards for“college ready” student work as well as the knowledge, skills, and dispositions representing global competence.

    Once completed, these rubrics will be used as part of a high school graduation portfolio system and, beginning in the middle grades, a system to drive the instructional planning of schools. The aim is to clearly articulate what student work that demonstrates college readiness and global competence “looks like”, and to use this information to align curriculum, instruction, and assessment to these criteria from the middle grades throughhigh school.
  • Recruiting and Preparing Internationally-oriented Teachers To develop global competencies, middle-grades students need teachers prepared to thoughtfully infuse a global focus within powerful, engaging pedagogy. Teachers need opportunities to deepen their own international content knowledge and time to plan and review their work, including as part of interdisciplinary teams. To do so, linkages need to be created between schools and an array of resources for adult learning. Universities, colleges and community colleges often have faculty members with deep international knowledge with whom middle grades teachers can connect. In fact, Title VI area studies centers that receive federal funding specifically to promote the study of Asia, Africa, Canada, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and other world regions are expected to offer professional development for teachers as part of their mandate. Numerous education and international affairs organizations offer conferences and workshops to develop teachers’ international knowledge and skills. For example, the National Consortium for Teaching About Asia offers seminars in 46 states to encourage teaching and learning about Asia in world history, geography,social studies and literature courses.

    Perhaps the most potent way for teachers to develop a more global focus is through international travel. Travel provides opportunities to bring back cultural, linguistic, and historical knowledge, which teachers can weave into curriculum and instruction and share with colleagues. Fulbright programs, Rotary Clubs, and other organizations offer funding opportunities to support teacher travel.
  • Expanding Student Experiences Connecting middle grades classrooms to international resources within the community creates opportunities for students to both learn about the world and take action, through service learning, on important world issues. A vital and often overlooked asset in every school community is the cultural background of students and their families. As a nation of immigrants, be it recently arrived or in the distant past, parents and other community residents bring a rich tapestry of knowledge and experience that can enhance classroom learning. The diversity of families’ heritage and experience is an enormous asset waiting to be tapped. Middle-grades schools, with students in leadership roles, can identify key cultural and international resources within the community – from museums and cultural organizations to restaurants and social organizations – and create an “international asset map”. Once identified, students can be a part of the outreach effort to bring the community into the school.

    As middle-grades students learn more about the world and its challenges, they need to learn first hand that with knowledge comes the power to effect change for the better. Service learning provides the opportunity to connect local action to global issues. Eastside Middle School, in White Plains, New York, created the Global Run Project in 2005, in which students choose humanitarian projects, research all aspects of the global issues that it involves, conduct video-conferences with students in other countries, and then take action through fundraising and community awareness. The Project now involves at least 20 schools in ten countries.

There are a great many other examples of ways schools are trying to meet the educational challenges and opportunities brought on by globalization, but what you can gather from my quick review, and will be more evident if you have a look at Going Global, that there are pockets of excellent practice dotted across the country.

The same is true at the policy level -- Asia Society has for several years also supported, in conjunction with the Longview Foundation, a network of states that are attempting to integrate international knowledge and skills within state policy frameworks, for example, in state content and performance standards, graduation requirements, demonstration school programs, and statewide awareness campaigns.

But what we’ve found over and over again, is that these efforts of practitioners and policymakers are going in isolation from one another. And that there is a real hunger to come together, to share ideas and work collaboratively on common dilemmas.

That’s why Asia Society has launched the Partnership for Global Learning. The Partnership for Global Learning is a new organization established to provide leadership and structure to advance the field of international education from the margins to the mainstream of American education.

The Partnership for Global Learning is a membership network of teachers, schools, administrators, policymakers and colleagues from universities and education organizations designed to promote sharing of best practices and to advancement of education policy to include greater focus on developing American students’ global competencies.

Join like-minded colleagues who are also on a journey to internationalize middle grades education from the school house to the state house to the White House.

As a nation, we do, indeed, face both the “old” problem of persistent poor academic achievement, especially in disadvantaged communities, and the new demands of globalization, which are equally critical in privileged and disadvantaged communities. To meet these challenges we need new approaches in elementary schools and in high schools, but what we know is true is that you can’t get there from here without the middle grades.

Anthony Jackson is Asia Society's vice president for Education Programs. He wrote Turning Points, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Developments’ report on the education of adolescents in the early 1990’s and later co-authored Turning Points 2000 with Gayle Andrews.