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Global Competence at the Middle Level: A Critical Imperative

Middle school students are at a turning point between childhood and high school. Research shows that these adolescent minds are incredibly curious about the world around them. Judith Conk, senior consultant to Asia Society International Studies Schools Network, explains why it's critically important to make global learning part of an innovative approach to student engagement.

By Judith Conk

A fresh emphasis on innovation and global competence sends a new imperative to middle level schools that is both exciting and challenging.

Schools must provide an education for each student to prepare them for success in this rapidly changing world rather than educating them for the world in which their parents and teachers grew up. Our middle-level students now will be buying, selling, and communicating, either face-to-face or through technology, with people whose backgrounds and cultures are different from their own. They will be working in collaborative teams that represent increased diversity and various points of view. They will be using technologies that have not yet been invented. Middle-level educators cannot continue to prepare students to live in the world of typewriters and landlines—of silos and isolation—when that world is quickly disappearing.

One recurring theme in the literature examining the characteristics of young adolescents is curiosity, often associated with increased responsible risk taking. A curious young adolescent is frequently compared to a preschooler or toddler who is beginning to make sense of the world. Yet, does the middle-level education build on that dimension?

This incredible curiosity presents both challenges and opportunities. How do educators harness this force to help students gain the experiences that will assist them in creating mental models for decision-making in the future? How do educators involve students in learning that is significant to their world and honors their voices? Most of all, why should educators do these things? Education for global competence may be part of the solution.

Coupled with what we know about the characteristics of young adolescents is the recent research, led by Robert Balfanz from John Hopkins University, about the relationship between high school graduation rates and the middle grades experience. Balfanz identified indicators that appear in the middle grades and can serve as predictors of dropping out in high school. Among the indicators noted in the research, belief, behavior, and effort were critical and linked to such things as educational experiences that allow students to demonstrate their strengths, even when they face academic challenges, as well as learning activities that allow young adolescents to work collaboratively and feed their sense of adventure.

Tied to all of this is the concept of middle-level student engagement. Unless educators can engage the minds, the imaginations, and the curiosity of young adolescents, they will not be able to help them make connections to the curriculum and may derail them from the path to graduation and life-long learning.

Educators have often given lip service to the idea of genuine engagement but have frequently chosen the path of expediency: expediency to cover some abstract curriculum, expediency to teach to the test, and expediency to group and sort students into tiers or tracks. Students have thus been subjected to curriculum that is disconnected from them and their lives and immune to local and global issues and pathways to learning that better meet the true learning strengths of young adolescents.

For middle school students to successfully navigate life in a world that is constantly evolving at incredible speed, they must have special types of learning experiences. With this principle in mind, the Asia Society promotes global competence and has influenced the way that middle-level schools across the country are redesigning teaching and learning.

Through a process of curricular design and nationwide vetting, the Asia Society and the Council of Chief State School Officers were able to operationalize the definition for global competence, identifying four pillars that form the framework for helping policymakers, leaders, and teachers make global competence a reality at all levels of schooling: (1) knowledge and inquiry about the world, (2) recognizing and weighing perspectives, (3) communicating ideas, and (4) taking action.

The framework's four pillars connect directly with the major goals of This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents , specifically that each young adolescent should:

  • Become actively aware of the larger world, asking significant and relevant global questions and wrestling with big ideas and questions for which there may not be one right answer.

  • Be able to think rationally and critically and express thoughts clearly.

  • Read deeply to independently gather, assess, and interpret information from a variety of sources.

  • Use digital tools to explore, communicate, and collaborate with the world and learn from the rich and varied resources available.

Using the four-pillar global competence framework as a guide for middle-level curriculum development helps teachers create learning experiences that prepare students for the important roles they will play as in the world. With this type of learning available to them, students engage more fully in their learning, experience new possibilities, and begin to make a difference.

What can you do in your own middle school to help make this type of learning a reality?

In a future post, Judith will blog about how to implement these ideas in your classroom.

In the meantime, I urge you to read "The World Awaits" also by Judith Conk in the September 2012 Middle School Journal, from which this article was adapted.

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