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Teaching Global Competence: Lessons and Strategies From Hong Kong

Vanessa Shadoian-Gersing, a former OECD analyst who writes and consults on global education, recently traveled to Hong Kong to work with teachers and students on global education. Today, she shares some resources, strategies, and lessons learned.

by guest blogger Vanessa Shadoian-Gersing

Recently, I had the opportunity to facilitate training to build capacity in global competence at schools in Hong Kong. As someone who typically works with school systems, I always consider it a privilege to interact with teachers and students. Our group of international facilitators conducted a series of on- and off-site sessions with participating schools (which included several high schools and an elementary school). This program was a pilot of sorts but yielded several lessons and strategies that could be used in classrooms around the world. 

Building global understanding by pushing boundaries
human_library.jpegWe began with a human library, a non-formal learning method from Denmark that promotes greater understanding among people from varied backgrounds. As the name suggests, a human library includes "books," which are people who share their stories in conversations with "readers"—in this case, members of participating schools.

As it turns out, our "books" were often judged not by their stories but by their covers: their countries of origin. Though perhaps not surprising, one can imagine the challenge I faced in accurately representing a diverse nation such as the U.S.

Participants were particularly curious about the U.S., and questions ranged from light-hearted inquiries about, say, musical preferences to easy-to-dispel stereotypes about culinary habits and obesity levels. The primary students were most interested in games and were surprised to learn that all Americans are not blonde.

Yet some teachers and students, particularly those from the most competitive high schools (Hong Kong currently streams students by performance level), pushed the envelope with bolder topics. Considerable diplomacy was needed for certain political questions: What do Americans think of mainland China? Our democracy movement?

Other questions prompted thoughtful discussion of less flattering aspects of American culture. Several participants wondered about the American penchant for monolingualism. We discussed incentives (e.g., economic, geopolitical) for learning world languages and contrasted the policy approach of Hong Kong with that of Singapore. I spoke candidly of our shortcomings and highlighted some recent advances in our world language-learning landscape.

The best reflection of one's own country is often seen in the mirror of another's, and the concerns students raised about violence and personal safety were vivid and troubling examples: If I visit America, will I be shot [because I'm not Caucasian]? This prompted discussion about the premise of, and current discourse around, the second amendment. But the sensitive issues raised merited much more in-depth exploration than our time allowed.

Though broaching certain topics was challenging, it was important to move our conversations past the surface level. True global understanding is unachievable without openness, humility, and a willingness to leave personal comfort zones, nor does it happen overnight. It requires an ongoing process of inquiry, critical reflection, and constructive dialogue among all parties involved. My hope is that the teachers and students we worked with will continue along this path. 

Fostering related aspects of intra- and inter-personal competence
Given participants' interest in these deeper topics, we added a variety of complementary facets of global competence to the off-site sessions.

Mindfulness
To pave the way for the day's activities, we began each morning with a short meditation session to clear the mind and heighten awareness. Meditation was new to most, and students were particularly interested to learn that it could improve their focus and help reduce their (infamous) stress levels.

Recognizing perspectives
Global competence entails perspective-taking, which requires that individuals first be aware of their own attitudes and tendencies, so we dedicated a half-day to this. To begin, participants took a simple personality quiz and were grouped accordingly to discuss commonalities and differences. Participants were asked where these tendencies originated (most responded they were determined by genetics and God). 

Participants were encouraged to think further about the source of their tendencies—some of which may be innate, yet can also be greatly impacted by environment. Equipped with this realization, participants reflected on their most significant external influences (many were surprised that television was among them). We wrapped up by discussing what shapes individual and societal beliefs and how perspectives can differ and shift in subtle ways.

Session takeaways varied due to participant language skills and starting points, yet everyone seemed to experience "aha" moments. Students and teachers from the elite schools were more comfortable in English and had prior exposure to some principles, while those from "lower-tier" schools (which included some students from mainland China) were less familiar with the language (English or Cantonese) and content. The groups were deliberately mixed, so we were encouraged to see students help one another understand and participate fully.

Leadership
The last session was dedicated to aspects of decision-making and leadership. The main activity was a modified lost-at-sea exercise that involved role-playing characters from a simulated shipwreck, with the goal of getting everyone safely onto a life raft.

Hong Kong is grappling with how to foster 21st century skills like leadership in culturally relevant ways, and participants' actions during the exercise revealed volumes about this struggle. Certain "self-leadership" behaviors were noticeably rare (such as asking questions and taking initiative), more so in the group of "crew members" than in the designated leadership team. Cultural norms around authority and individualism likely contributed.

Connecting the dots
The final exercise invited participants to practice mindfulness, perspective-taking, and creative problem-solving in the context of a natural disaster scenario. Students were asked to imagine they were the size of mice and to build shelter for an impending storm using only the materials found in an outdoor space. Approaches varied considerably, and teams earned prizes for originality, resourcefulness, sustainability, and strategic thinking.

Though our time did not permit in-depth exploration of the many other inter-related facets of global competence, participants and facilitators learned a tremendous amount. For those interested in introducing any of these approaches in their own contexts, below are several resources and tools to get started.

Resources

Follow Vanessa and Heather on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of the author.

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