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Five Ways to Build an Asset-Based Mindset in Education Partnerships

Editor's Note: In the developed world, we often approach international partnerships with a deficit mindset, says Jennifer D. Klein, author of the new book, The Global Education Guidebook. She shares ways we, and our students, can move toward a more positive, asset-based mindset. Join Jennifer for #Globaledchat on Twitter this Thursday, June 8 at 8pm Eastern time. Just type #Globaledchat into the search box to join the conversation! 

By guest blogger Jennifer D. Klein

equity_partnerships.pngGlobal education experiences are too often developed on a foundation of deficit thinking, particularly in the most developed parts of the world. While many global educators are aware of the problem and working hard to reverse it, examples still abound: global partnerships that always end in fundraisers, the assumption that classrooms in the developing world must be behind the developed world academically, community service experiences that feed savior complexes instead of undoing them, and the very use of terms like "developed" vs. "developing," which implies that one is behind the other. Even the lack of a common language between classrooms is sometimes perceived as a problem more than a gift, even by well-intentioned educators, because it makes communication more complicated. Most of these errors originate in deeply ingrained and often unconscious biases that come from a history of colonization and exploration that objectified, exploited, and stole from cultures being "discovered."

Global education shouldn't exacerbate power differences, and many global educators work to reverse the paradigm by building partnerships founded in a "learning from and with" mentality, in which all partners bring equal, if different, value to the table. When teachers work to create partnerships using such asset-based thinking, they can create collaborative relationships that work to undo our colonial past and establish new paradigms for global learning. Following are a few key strategies that can help.

1. Build the relationship with your partner classroom on a foundation of mutual benefit, respect, and power.

All of the suggestions below play into this most fundamental of equity elements: global educators who want to reverse dominance paradigms strive to ensure that both planning and learning processes emphasize consistent and equitable collaboration. They strive to honor all voices, all perspectives, and all experiences, to always assume the best intentions, and to always "share the well," a phrase used at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta to suggest that educators should always share power, time, and resources.

2. During planning and learning experiences, start with questions rather than assertions and look for points of intersection.

All teachers have goals and demands, and the most equitable partnerships meet the curricular needs of all teachers involved. That doesn't necessarily mean that both teachers have to be teaching the same material to the same age groups; they might share content, they might share age groups, or they may have neither in common. What makes their partnerships successful is their ability to ask each other probing questions, to explore each other's ideas, and to see their curricula as a Venn diagram, looking for points of intersection that benefit both classrooms.

3. Get students involved in recognizing deficit mindsets when they emerge, and in strategizing ways to flip the paradigm.

We often underestimate the role that students might play in ensuring equity in our classrooms. Global educators striving for equity can engage their students in the effort to think critically about authentic challenges in real time through global partnerships, getting them involved in determining the potential warning signs of a deficit mindset. Once students have been involved in establishing the criterion for equity, they will become an incredible filter for everything that happens in the classroom. My students were the first to point it out when I made deficit-based assumptions in my own classroom—and we all learned a great deal from our collective effort to define and ensure equity in our interactions with each other and the world.

4. Lean into discomfort when inequities emerge or partnerships become controversial.

I believe it is an inherently human instinct to lean away from discomfort and controversy, though that tendency can vary along cultural lines to a degree. The bottom line? We can only resolve what we engage; we can only ensure a more just and peaceful world if we lean into controversy and difficult conversations, if we become comfortable with discomfort and intentionally engage in the hard work that equity and social justice require. I could only learn from my students by being open to their correcting me. Likewise, we can only flip the paradigm if we can let ourselves really hear and try to understand perspectives, grounded in real experiences, which differ from our own. Keeping it easy means we float on the surface, missing the opportunity to dig into the deeper complexities of the human experience.

5. Beware of orienting solutions toward solving problems for your partners; instead, build partnerships in which students solve for the world they know and learn from the world they don't.

As a writing teacher, I always told my students that they should write what they knew, emphasizing that their own story was the one that was most authentically theirs to tell, whereas to tell the stories of others requires extensive investigation and even then may be rife with misrepresentation or generalization. In global development, the "solve-for" mentality has birthed many unsustainable and inappropriate solutions, all because one group assumed they knew better than the other. Equitable global education strives to foster change makers and problem solvers who know that learning from and with leads us all to better solutions in our own communities.

In global partnerships founded in equitable action, students learn from and with each other, but the solutions they build are for challenges in their own communities, informed by what they learned from their partners. In the best examples of global partnerships, students all over the world work on the same challenge as it manifests in their own backyards, and they collaborate so that their actions bring together multiple perspectives and experiences, which lead to sustainable, multilateral development. This also creates an important opportunity for local partnerships that can help humanize global challenges, ensuring that students recognize the connections between global issues and local realities—and making abstract concepts like poverty more concrete for younger learners. Such partnerships also help students recognize change makers and leaders in their own communities, giving them opportunities to participate in authentic, meaningful action alongside individuals and organizations working on the same issues being addressed in the students' school or program.

As Canadian anthropologist and National Geographic writer Wade Davis put it, "Other cultures are not a failed attempt to be you." If we can help our students recognize this through global partnerships that really equip them to collaborate on equal footing with their global counterparts, maybe they can begin to see other cultures as the gift we so urgently need. 

Connect with JenniferHeather, and Center for Global Education on Twitter. 

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