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Are We Effectively Preparing Students for a Globally Connected World?

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By Ian Jamison

The emergence of a new strain of nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic is a disturbing trend for those who believe students should learn to respect other people from all faiths and cultures. Some of Donald Trump's comments, for example, are a reflection of ideologies that are neither practical nor desirable in an increasingly connected world. Regardless of where educators might stand on the political spectrum, they should be troubled by attitudes that seek to sow and exploit fear and mistrust of foreigners, immigrants, Muslims, and other groups.

As our society becomes more globally diverse, the ability to appreciate this diversity and get along with others who think, act, and worship differently from us is critical. In school or in the workplace, millennials are highly likely to encounter others from different races, ethnicities, and religions. How they interact with their peers from other walks of life could determine how successful they are in their careers. More importantly, it will shape the future of our society as a whole. Therefore, the ability to understand and respect others who are different--often referred to as "global empathy"--has become an essential job and life skill.

Empathy is not something that can be taught in the same way as math, though. To develop empathy, students need to have open and honest conversations with others who are different from them--without those conversations descending into discord. They should know how to listen to other points of view, and seek to understand various perspectives.

In light of the many contentious issues that today's students must navigate, it's important to ask: are we doing enough to prepare them for a globally connected world?

The Importance of Dialogue

To truly learn global empathy, students need opportunities to engage in substantive conversations with their peers from other cultures, so they can exchange ideas and learn from each other. To do this successfully, students must understand what effective dialogue is and is not. This lesson is best taught by contrasting dialogue and debate. In a debate, there is a winner and a loser; but in a dialogue there are two winners. I learn from you; you learn from me. We may compromise or agree to differ, but neither side should "lose."

In our work with schools, we describe dialogue as "the process by which I come to understand others' lives, values, and beliefs better--and others come to understand my life, values, and beliefs."

Effective dialogue requires these five skills:

  • Global communication. When students take part in dialogue, they aren't just learning from others; they're also teaching others. To be understood by others who might not share their background or primary language, they must focus on clarity and simplicity while avoiding jargon, slang, or cultural assumptions.
  • Active listening. We listen with more than our ears: we also show our attention with our eyes, our bodies, and in how we react to each other. By listening actively, students are showing that they value others' ideas; they aren't just waiting to share their own point of view.
  • Critical thinking. Students should be able to identify assumptions, biases, and whether some arguments are more valid than others. Critical thinking empowers students to analyze information, reflect on its sourcing, and make informed, rational judgments.
  • Questioning. Good questions help enrich students' understanding. They don't just lead to more information; instead, they should enable students to dive into the experience of other people more deeply and begin to appreciate and understand how their peers see the world--and why.
  • Reflection. Students should be given the time and space to reflect on what they've learned from others, and the impact this has made on their own thinking.

Connecting Students with Their Peers Around the World

Technology can help foster global dialogue by connecting students with their peers from other cultures. These conversations should occur in a safe space with clearly articulated rules, and they should be moderated by a facilitator who has been trained to ensure that both groups have a positive experience.

It's important to make sure that everyone's voice is heard, or at least that everyone has a chance to take part. Students also must learn to be non-judgmental. They should understand that dialogue is a space where they can challenge each other's deeply held beliefs and values, but in a productive way. Instead of saying, "You're wrong," for example, students could say, "I'm uncomfortable with x, because of y."

Generation Global offers a free video conferencing platform and curriculum for connecting students online, and helping them learn effective communication skills. Students learn how to respect and value others' identities, discover what influences them, and build critical thinking skills.

Integrating empathy-building video conferences into the curriculum is easy. Educators have used Generation Global in social studies, language arts, science, history, and world religion classes--and even in advisories or homerooms. For instance, a history lesson about a world event is a great opportunity for students from the countries involved to learn each others' perspectives about the event in question.

Watching students converse with one another about their countries and cultures--and about their own prejudices and stereotypes--can be incredibly powerful. One facilitator recently remarked, "What struck me the most about this videoconference was the change and growth [that was] apparent. It is rare that, within one hour, you see students' opinions, mindset, and perspective change--and I saw exactly that. At one point, tears came out of my eyes."

More than any generation in human history, the students we educate today will live and work with others representing a wide range of cultures, values, beliefs, and perspectives. It is imperative that we give them the tools to build societies that welcome diversity rather than fearing it. Practicing effective dialogue skills with their peers in other countries is a powerful first step.

Dr. Ian Jamison is Head of Education at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. An experienced trainer, Ian trains teachers around the world on the Generation Global's pedagogy of dialogue, working in a number of challenging environments. He is an advocate of the power of dialogue for empowering people to address challenges, build understanding, and positively transform societies. Ian taught Religious Education for 20 years and has experience of subject leadership in a number of schools, including Head of Religious Education. He won the Guardian Award for Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School in 2007. You can follow Generation Global on Twitter @Gen_Global.

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