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We Must Prepare Students for a Globally Interconnected World

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What's happening in our world is stunning. Consider these startling facts:

•  Of 100 people in the world, only 5 live in Northern America; 60 live in Asia.

•  By 2025, our planet will host 37 megacities; 3 will be in the U.S. and 21 are expected to be in Asia. A megacity is a metro area of more than 10 million population.

•  The world population is expected to increase from 6 billion in 2000 to 9.3 billion in 2050, a 50 percent increase in 50 years. Of that accumulated growth, 4.3 percent is expected in the more developed world and 60 percent is expected in the less developed or developing world.

•  During the first half of the 21st century, only one continent, Europe, is expecting a population decline, an anticipated drop of 3.2 percent. On the other hand, Africa will grow an estimated 122 percent percent, the Near East 132 percent, Latin America and the Caribbean 49 percent, and North America about 47 percent.

Perspective is essential. Context is critical. The concept of a fast-changing world is not a cliché, and it isn't fantasy. It's a stark reality.     

Since we are of this world, not separate from it, we face a growing sense of urgency. If it hasn't already, international learning needs to become basic. Science, technology, engineering, math, and the arts (STEAM+) will always be important. However, if we hope to have a viable future, we'd better pay attention to the importance of international relationships, cultural understanding, languages, and diplomatic skills. We can embrace the accelerating need for international/global education or deny it, but it isn't going away. If, as a nation, community, or education system, we don't stay ahead of the curve, we will surely be left behind.

If Greece catches a cold, people in countries around the world start to sneeze. If a nuclear reactor goes off kilter an ocean away, we start testing for radiation. On this relatively small planet, we are interconnected.

Columnist Tom Friedman grabbed our attention with his classic book, The World is Flat. Every day, exponentially increasing computer power and telecommunication bring us together. In essence, people end up working side-by-side, even thought they may physically be across oceans, half a world away. Convergence and connectedness are a reality. Friedman wonders whether the world has gotten so flat so fast that our political systems can no longer keep up with it.

The word, globalization, often becomes a political football rather than simply a definition of what it happening before our very eyes. A Harvard Future of Learning Institute defined globalization this way: "The accelerating traffic of people, capital, and cultural products around the world. It embodies opportunities and risks for individuals and societies worldwide." 

A genetic researcher from Beijing, working at an institute in Rome, has just finished an international conference in Galveston when I catch up with her on the way to the Houston airport. A South Dakota farmer monitors weather conditions crop yields in China and Argentina to get an idea about the price he'll get for his soybeans. These stories are becoming less and less remarkable. It's how the world works. Here's the driving question for schools, school systems, colleges, and universities: What are the implications for education? 

What are the implications of this increasingly global society for education? Should we add global knowledge as a graduation requirement?  Should world languages be a regular part of the curriculum?  Should educators be better prepared to teach about the world and to be encouraged to be even more curious about people, places, and cultures beyond their own chosen horizons?  Should we emphasize diplomatic skills, such as: open minds, natural curiosity, patience, courtesy and good manners, a sense of tolerance, and the ability to empathize with others, to put students in someone else's shoes?

Should our students, all of us for that matter, become even more familiar with the importance of government, business, personal, and educational and scientific relationships among people and nations? Are we capable of thinking globally and acting locally?  Do we understand the need to balance competition with collaboration to get important things done?

On this small planet, drifting through the vastness of space, we fight over territory, power, authority, religion, economic advantage, traditional energy resources, water, the environment, and a host of other massive issues. Will we be able to address these issues peacefully and thoughtfully?  Part of the answer is education that gets today's students ready for the future in a global knowledge/information age. Are we up to the challenge?

As a discussion starter, ask students to brainstorm answers to this question: "What are the characteristics of any country capable of being a good member of a family of nations?"

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