Going Global Without Going

We tend to think of a global learning experience as something monumental, an expedition. What if we were to reframe our thinking so that every walk, every small trip, every moment, in school and out, also holds the possibility of global learning? 

Obviously, there are banner global travel programs in many schools. At my school, Riverdale Country School (New York), we send students for “peak experiences” to Namibia, and China, as well as to the other boroughs of New York City and districts in New Orleans. These experiences are wonderful, even life changing. However, a reliance on travel programs and national service trips as the primary way to help students develop essential global competencies sets up an odd tension between “school” and the “real world.” As a result, students do not necessarily see travel experiences as an integral part of their education. Perhaps more  important, they tend not to think of school life as holding opportunities for developing a global mindset, cultural competency, and a host of other 21st-century skills.

At Riverdale, we began thinking about this problem a few years back, and the conversation has led to new initiatives and shifts in our pedagogy and in our overall approach to education.

We want to ensure that what we do in our classes has relevance for our students when they take part in a travel program. We also want to ensure that we have clearly stated aims for our travel programs that connect with the daily life of the school. In short, we want the curricular and cocurricular to connect and support each other — to be clearly linked through our mission. With the distinct possibility that all schools will be credentialing more activities and courses that occur off-campus and virtually, it seems that we all need to come up with a broader systematic framework today in order for us to organize, explain, and benchmark the educational experience of our students.

New Directions

At Riverdale nine years ago, to start this process of thinking about the broad outcomes, we asked faculty members to respond to three prompts: What are the current outcomes of a Riverdale education? What are our aspirational outcomes? And what obstacles prevent us from meeting our dreams? From that first faculty meeting, we spent five years developing our overarching and intertwined outcomes for a Riverdale education, as well as a new mission and new learning principles (see sidebar).

Our mission, outcomes, and principles have guided our work over the last five years, resulting in a number of initiatives including ongoing curriculum renewal; blended-learning experiences; a focus on argumentation; successful efforts on diversifying our school and working with the faculty on cultural competency; more interdisciplinary classes; “hacking spaces” such as the library with new furniture to recreate spaces for learning; and expanded global studies opportunities to include places like Namibia and Australia.

All of this work contributes to making our students better scholars, better citizens, better thinkers, and better humans. Nonetheless, I am struck that some of the work that requires the least effort, funding, and travel can be the most effective in equipping our students with essential global capacities and dispositions. I would like to highlight four of these programs that could be replicated in other schools. 

Parts of a Whole

Good critical thinking, knowledge about the history and geography of the world, and the effective use of technological tools for learning and communication are central to many schools’ missions and programs. Here, I focus on four elements that are not as fully fleshed out in many schools, elements that have been the focus of our work at Riverdale in recent years: developing character strengths and skills, suffusing design thinking through the school, helping students understand how to learn serendipitously, and modeling a combined global and 21st-century mindset — what we call an “R+ mindset.” 

Character

Over the past nine years, with Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania and David Levin of the KIPP Charter Foundation, we have done research on the development of noncognitive capacities, or character skills — best described by Paul Tough in his New York Times article and his subsequent book, How Children Succeed. This work has led to the development of a nonprofit, the Character Lab, which supports, funds, and disseminates the results of “translational research” on these skills in schools.

By now, most of us in education are aware of the importance of capacities such as optimism, self-control, curiosity, and zest. We know what experts such as Tony Wagner and Jim Heckman have said about the link between these capacities and deeper learning. And yet, these capacities are not intentionally and rigorously developed in schools. It has been more of a matter of luck.

To remedy this, we have been looking at the recent brain science with implications for education, which has been spurred on by researchers such as Marty Seligman, Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth, and David Yeager. In particular, we are working to develop manageable interventions and assessments for schools that translate research into practice. These capacities are so important for young people to acquire in order to lead meaningful and purposeful lives. They also prepare one for living in a global and changing world. As we consider school reform, we need to include flexible standards for character that help our students become better global citizens.

One outcome of this work at Riverdale has been the development of a “Character Growth Card,” to supplement the normal academic report card, as a means to provide feedback and self-understanding to our students. The “Character Growth Card” has given us an insight into how best to help students develop these core capacities.

Design

A number of years ago, prompted by Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, we also started looking at design thinking and how it could be suffused throughout our work together as adults and with our students. We decided to work with IDEO, a lead developer in the design-thinking movement, to develop the creative capacity of our faculty and students. Among other things, the work has prodded us to redesign classroom spaces and faculty professional development, and to rethink how we run meetings and how we think about human learning. Human-centered design inspires more empathy in both the designer and the user, and is directly connected to making individuals better thinkers, better global citizens, and better humans.

We ran several workshops and events on design thinking at the school, partially funded by an E.E. Ford Leadership Grant. This led to the development of the Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit that has been downloaded more than 100,000 times in more than 120 countries.

We began by asking the faculty to engage consciously in learning the design-thinking process and applying it to their work. This helped form pockets of “design thinking” throughout the school. The elementary and the middle schools have instituted project-based learning weeks that have a central design component. We have hired roving “makers” on both campuses to help students build things they dream up and also create maker experiences within the curriculum. This has led to beginning an engineering course in the high school and a technology and design course in our elementary school. Interestingly, teachers are also seeking student opinions more often in order to hack their classroom spaces or develop curricula. It has also led to the founding of the Teachers Guild platform with our partners at IDEO that helps support teachers’ development as designers of their spaces, the learning experiences they create, and their schools. It is an organic and profoundly interesting tool for professional development and colleagueship across the nation.

The concepts of perspective and process inherent in good human-centered design maps add much to the capacities of empathy and journey found in travel opportunities. Designing well is a capacity that is linked both to global competencies and also to 21st-century skills. A greater focus on design can help all schools forge those links more intentionally. 

Serendipity

How can we learn best “on the go” or without classroom walls? For the last three years, we have been challenging our teachers and students with this provocation. In 2012, four teachers taught a two-week course after school that explored capitalism’s link to global concerns about socioeconomic inequity. In the course, the students visited Zuccotti Park (the lower-Manhattan site of the Occupy Wall Street protest camp), talked to union leaders and charter school directors, learned from the police department about the geography of policing in New York City, and met with corporate leaders. This intellectual immersion into city life in many ways mimics what one experiences when visiting a foreign country. We called this “Project Knowmad.”

Project Knowmad has now developed into a set of weeklong experiences, run in mid-June, that uses New York City as a classroom. Riverdale middle school students are out in the field every day investigating interesting ideas, meeting people, visiting amazing sites, and working as a team to ask and answer questions about a specific topic. In 2015, we ran eight of these programs that covered a lot ground, from what it is like to be a photographer in New York City, to what city engineers do, to how today’s “sharing economy” works. Students learn nimbly as the program and context changes throughout the day and week. They work with their teachers in new ways: as collaborators looking for questions and answers together.

This “interstitial” and serendipitous learning “on the fly” is good because it models the type of lifelong learning implicit in the new thinking about skills and knowledge. It also models a type of experiential learning that is both academic and practical. We have been creating more of these serendipitous experiences for students as we think through changing our orientation practices, field trips, and senior projects.

Global learning is mobile learning. Any school can create programs that offer students this type of local “pop-up” learning experience in any place and time. 

Modeling

It is important to have our students acquire this global+21st-century mindset, but how can that happen unless faculty members also model the very capacities and skills we want to develop within our students? To that end, we have actively supported pure faculty travel grants to countries such as India, France, and China. We have also crafted professional development opportunities that offer teachers and administrators an opportunity to experience different ways of thinking and to develop different habits of mind.

One program that we have been using successfully with our administrative team is the Rotman School of Management’s I-Think Program with its focus on “integrative thinking.” Roger Martin, the former dean of the Rotman School, in his book The Opposable Mind, describes integrative thinking as “a way to integrate polarities in finding good solutions.” In our professional lives, all of us will face difficult choices and decisions. Martin, and some of the exemplary business leaders he interviewed, see these moments as opportunities rather than quandaries. Integrative thinking offers us as a way to resolve a tension rather than opt for one option or the other.

Our administrators have embraced the workshops with the Rotman team and have already brought integrative thinking to bear in their everyday work lives. Although we have not yet translated this to classroom practice, as the I-Think team has done in Toronto, having administrators grapple with new ways of thinking is an important step in developing adults who are comfortable with change and ongoing learning, and who can rise to challenges. These are all global capacities we want to develop in our children. 

The Purpose-Driven School

All schools do a variety of good things, but the point of these efforts often is not always clear to people. We believe that “connecting the dots” for everyone — clarifying the purpose of our work and its outcomes — is an essential part of any program’s success. To that end, using Roger Martin’s “Playing to Win” framework, we have been working on identifying key questions as we think strategically about the years ahead. In particular, we are focused on connecting in a more tangible way the cocurriculum with the formal academic curriculum so the two are not silos but interconnected elements working together in service of the school’s mission.

The truth now is that good grades and SAT scores are seen as a minimum requirement for entry to many colleges and universities. Admissions offices want to see applicants who are passionate about some topic or endeavor and who have demonstrated deep interest and focus in that pursuit. They want to know if an applicant has shown creativity and imagination in approaching the high school years while preparing not only for college but also for life. Schools know this, of course. Yet, to date, there is little intentional process for helping students develop these creative and imaginative capacities.

At Riverdale, we want to become more intentional about how young people find this area of focus or emerging expertise in high school. Inspired by Bill Damon at Stanford and his research, we wish to help students work at finding a sense of purpose. To that end, we are now working with IDEO on the “Purpose Project”— a digital reflective portfolio tool in beta that will capture in nuanced and sophisticated ways at how young people grow their capacities over time. We are also looking to work on a comprehensive renewal of our cocurriculum that will entail the following elements and eventually enable it to merge into the whole curriculum:

  • outcome and rubric development;
  • portfolio assessment tool that connects the outcomes to the programs;
  • curriculum and program development; and
  • faculty professional development in the next phase of our design thinking work with IDEO via The Teachers Guild.

We see these steps as a way to make the concept of a light and useful “rucksack” for global citizenship and 21st-century learning more tangible for our school community and as a way to bring a number of initiatives together. This work is, indeed, emergent. We need to figure out ways to enunciate common outcomes and find ways to build intentional interventions and programs that help develop the new capacities, new learning, and new knowledge. And we need to do it all in ways that are sustainable and that do not always demand global travel.

In the end, it is not always a matter of going somewhere, but rather of building a mindset. And that, we believe, can happen intentionally every day in the classroom and out in the field.

Author
Dominic A.A. Randolph

Dominic A.A. Randolph is head of Riverdale Country School (New York).