Slowing Down in The Fast Lane: Changing Pace in Global Education

Global education empowers learners of all ages to engage with, and act on issues of local and global significance. It prepares them to understand the interconnectedness and complexity of the world. Issues such as human rights violations, inequality, poverty, global health, and climate change are global in nature. Global education is not a distinct course or set of courses but rather the cultivation of skills and dispositions to tackle problems of global significance. Through these programs, students acquire the knowledge and attitudes necessary to act in a responsible, culturally competent, and empathetic way. They become active promoters of more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, secure, and sustainable societies.
Many global education programs implement global competency frameworks to help guide the work. Frameworks provide actionable steps to help practitioners develop lessons, units of study, year-long curriculums, taking students through specific sequences in the learning process. These sequences include investigating the world, understanding and appreciating multiple perspectives, communicating and collaborating, and acting.
The growing implementation of these frameworks in the field of global education is a positive and promising development. They guide teachers in fostering the acquisition of knowledge and the development of skills and dispositions, regardless of student age, subject matter, or instructional pedagogy. At times, however, the emphasis on the last stage—acting—has come at the expense of both a deeper understanding of root causes of the global challenges and the people who those issues most directly affect.
The severity of the COVID-19 pandemic—along with the deepening of other large-scale crises such as climate change, mass displacements, habitat destruction, and systemic racism—has led me to rethink the pace of which practitioners apply these frameworks. Educators need to better understand the deep, interconnected, and systemic causes behind such crises and cultivate the necessary intercultural competence if we are to avert or be better prepared for the ones just over the horizon. Crises that, by their very nature, transcend differences will only be met effectively by those who have the skills to empathetically engage across them. As educators, are we allowing our students the necessary time to investigate a problem? Are they engaging with the stakeholders whose problems they are trying to understand? Do they have the intercultural skills to do so effectively? Are we moving our students toward the action stage of the framework too fast?
At Buckingham Browne & Nichols (MA), the global education program has a strong and ongoing commitment to global competencies. Students learn to be open and curious, collaborate and communicate across boundaries, appreciate multiple perspectives, and recognize that the world is made up of interconnected and interdependent systems. We develop these competencies throughout our pre-K-12 curriculum, study abroad opportunities, local and global memberships and partnerships, study abroad opportunities and school-sponsored travel, and extracurricular activities. Teachers use the best practices in pedagogy to meet the goals of our global education program, and solutions range from kindergarteners designing a playground for our school’s daycare, six graders redesigning cubbies for sustainable trash collection, or 12th graders partnering with local nonprofits to design tools for enhancing resource management in areas affected by climate change.
Like other global education programs, we, too, must consider changing our pace to first understand the breadth and depth of economic, political, and environmental sources’ underlying global problems. We must listen to, communicate with, and empower those most impacted. If educators do not focus on those stakeholders, they might be unintentionally creating a savior, Western-centric approach in which they craft solutions for “others” to apply.

Tackling Root Causes of Systemic Problems

Traditionally, global education programs have applied a systems thinking approach to allow our students to understand and visualize the complexity and interconnectedness of problems. To facilitate the creation of meaningful solutions, teachers have at times slipped into a reductionist perspective when breaking down issues by allowing students to offer partial solutions or focus on only one aspect of the problem. Paradoxically, this practice becomes the opposite of what global education aims to achieve. Further, absent an engagement with those most affected, solutions might be biased toward students and practitioners' own understanding of particular issues. Ultimately—and inadvertently—this leads to a failure to address problems in an effective way.
Focusing on the proposed solutions may come at the expense of meaningful root cause investigations. If students apply their knowledge to solve a real problem—such as building a prototype of sorts, creating a plan to make schools more sustainable, or proposing a plan to achieve peace in a war-torn area—educators may believe the program’s objective is fulfilled.
Without digging deeper to understand the complexity of the problems students are trying to solve—precisely the ones where stakeholders’ voices were not heard—I fear that educators may be driving students to act too quickly and feel a premature sense of accomplishment. With curriculum and time constraints and a focus on outcomes rather than process, students aren’t provided enough time and access to authentic sources, such as local news media or conversations with community members.

How to Slow Down

Educators have powerful guidance for creating a pedagogy of slowing down and refocusing analyses on root causes and inclusive processes. In An Ethics of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students, author Ron Berger argues that the best way for students to produce something of real value is to work through multiple drafting rounds before coming up with a product, which in the context of global education is a solution to a problem. These rounds are guided by ongoing constructive critiques by peers, teachers, stakeholders, and experts. Students spend days, weeks, and sometimes even an entire year interrogating a problem through continuous reflection. Thus, they produce solutions that are both meaningful and useful.
But slowing down is also a forward-looking process. At Buckingham Browne & Nichols, in addition to the four major categories of the global competency framework, our program includes a category called Envision. Envision allows students to pause before moving into the next phase and reflect on what is possible. During this phase, they reimagine what the future might look like in an interconnected world.
In a fast-paced, outcome-focused environment, there are real benefits to shifting gears. Here are some examples of what this looks like at Buckingham Browne & Nichols.
To move forward more effectively, I’m calling on educators to focus on root causes and deep systemic analyses. Altering the tempo will allow us to suggest more appropriate solutions, ones that are meaningful and long-lasting.
Karina J. Baum

Karina J. Baum is director of global education at Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


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