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Harnessing Student Diversity to Foster Global Awareness

In 2018, OECD's PISA exam is expected to include, in addition to reading, math, and science, a section on global competence. The Common Core State Standards consider global awareness an essential feature of college and career readiness. And businesses are increasingly calling for globally competent employees. Given all of this, how can educators foster global competence? Vanessa Shadoian-Gersing, international education expert and consultant at Education First, suggests that using the diversity that already exists in the classroom is one way to begin.

 By guest blogger Vanessa Shadoian-Gersing

We know that to thrive in today's increasingly interconnected society, students must be able to understand diverse perspectives and communicate with people from different language groups and cultures, yet how can we ensure this need is not lost among the multiple competing priorities facing school systems today? And how can educators find practical ways to expose their students to these critical skills?

What's working
A number of school systems involved in globally-minded initiatives are making strides in leveraging diversity as an asset to enhance global awareness by challenging students to tackle real world global issues. Educators in K-12 school systems would do well to take note of these examples and the benefits they can bring, and to adopt similar approaches to enhance global awareness within their contexts and strengthen the global aspects of language, social studies, math, and other content areas. For instance:

  • The Herricks Union Free School District on Long Island, New York is integrating global competence into its curriculum for all students. One of the ways it is doing so is by using the assets of its community to enhance global awareness. For example, it is leveraging the linguistic and religious diversity of its student body in engaging discussions in which these aspects of global studies courses come alive.
  • Toronto is embracing its diversity as it seeks to increase student achievement within this large urban school system. The Toronto District School Board has a district-wide Internationalization and Global Education Strategic Plan. And just one example of how it is turning the diversity of its largely foreign-born student population into an advantage is by engaging middle school students in leading lessons on global challenges and responses to them.

Use What You've Got
Instead of viewing global awareness as an add-on, or something that must supplant other priorities, educators can start by maximizing relevant aspects of existing initiatives and leveraging assets already in their schools and classrooms. Indeed, with diverse student populations now the majority demographic in US public schools, there is no better time to recognize and tap the assets these students can bring to the classroom.

Even in the absence of comprehensive, system-wide initiatives, educators can take small steps to elevate diverse perspectives in their own schools and classrooms. For example, teachers can make the most of their students' cultural or linguistic backgrounds to create engaging learning opportunities or respond to global events, e.g. a teacher might invite a Cuban-American student to interview his family as a way of introducing an international perspective about recent proposed changes in US-Cuban relations. 

Small Step for Educators, Giant Leap for Education
The OECD's Toolkit on Teaching for Diversity is one place to start. It outlines the opportunities that classroom diversity presents for learning and the ways it can enrich curricular content. The toolkit also explains why self-reflection is important for educators and assists them in getting started.

Capitalizing on classroom diversity can also enhance student learning. When teachers encourage and value diversity in the classroom, they create a virtuous circle in which everyone benefits, i.e. diverse students feel valued and respected, increasing their chances of success and engagement, and this engagement further fosters learning in global awareness and understanding. Providing high expectations for all learners will create a positive learning environment and lead to higher achievement for all students.

So, to quote a financial advisor, "leverage your assets and diversify your portfolio." The nation's long term success and prosperity depend on it.     

Vanessa Shadoian-Gersing is an international education specialist. During her previous tenure at the OECD she coauthored Educating Teachers for Diversity: Meeting the Challenge and developed the companion Toolkit on Teaching for Diversity.

Follow Vanessa and Asia Society on Twitter.

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