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Framing Global Education - A Wisconsin Perspective Via Germany

Editor's Note: My colleague and friend, Gerhard Fischer, consultant for world language and global education at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, is retiring after almost forty years of working in the global and world language education field. He grew up in Germany and is a dual German and US citizen—truly a global citizen. I asked him to reflect on where the field is at and where it needs to go.

By guest blogger Gerhard Fischer

Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl passed away a few days before this writing. He was my chancellor, even though I never voted for him. Even I have to agree with many of the eulogies that give him credit not only for German unification, but also for his role in unifying Europe. He continued the tradition of his predecessors in office, especially Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt, who worked tirelessly with their counterparts in other European countries [i] to create a union of countries that would stabilize peace on a continent that had been ravaged by war throughout the centuries.

Today's ongoing squabbles in the European Union appear to disregard what those leaders stood for. This union is not about the bottom line, it is not about a credit line, and it is not about who pays more into the European budget than they are taking out. This is not a zero-sum game. Just remember the images from the two World Wars, think about All Quiet on the Western Front [ii], visit the battle fields around Verdun to understand the dimension of what has happened in the meantime—historical arch enemies such as France and Germany have developed strong bonds of friendship, and young people today cannot imagine border checks or passport controls as they travel and work all over Europe.

The Power of Student Exchanges

This happened by design, not by accident. First, there were enlightened leaders who understood how peace and prosperity could be achieved. Second, educators in all European countries got together and reviewed historical accounts in their textbooks to make sure old stereotypes would not be continued. Most of all, though, young people from all over Europe went on student exchanges and spent time with families abroad. Learning foreign languages was not only encouraged but was at the core of the curriculum. Thinking about getting better jobs was not why we learned about each other, or why we went on exchange trips to other European countries. Fulbright exchange programs began right after World War II and added a much needed transatlantic dimension to reconciliation efforts. [iii]

Build Bridges for a Peaceful World Society

The process worked beautifully: Instead of building walls, bridges were built. Global education and learning languages served a greater purpose of public good. Howard Gardner referred to this larger purpose of global education in his preface to Educating for Global Competence: "What is needed more than ever is a laser-like focus on the kinds of human beings that we are raising and the kinds of societies—indeed, in a global era, the kind of world society—that we are fashioning. [...] And if we are to have a globe worth inhabiting, we must attend unflinchingly to the kinds of human beings that will inhabit it, and the ways in which they deal with one another under often trying circumstances."

I prefer to frame the purpose of global education as Howard Gardner does. As a matter of fact, I would like to frame education the way John Dewey did in Democracy and Education, where he defines the primary goal of public education as building a strong democratic society. This is not at all at odds with the pursuit of knowledge and the learning of skills that make students valuable and successful workers. But life is larger than work, and communal cohesion and citizenship are larger than employment. Therefore, when the overall goal and purpose of education is reduced to a vocational pursuit, when the goal of education is reduced to preparing students for jobs, we are missing the larger goal and purpose of education. Likewise, global education should primarily be framed as Howard Gardner suggests; as our strongest effort to create the best possible society we can. It is within this larger frame that we should discuss the need for globally competent citizens in a productive society grounded in sound moral judgment.

The Wisconsin Global Education Achievement Certificate

The Wisconsin Global Education Achievement Certificate (GEAC) was created with these assumptions in mind. Students who complete this certificate, known as Wisconsin Global Scholars, learn languages, enroll in coursework that emphasizes global inquiry, and write reflections on world literature or film. Finally, they document their participation in global school activities such as student exchange programs and interaction with students and families in their communities with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

WISummitpic.JPGStudents who graduate with this set of experiences are expected to see the world from different points of view as described in Educating for Global Competence. The goal of this program is not greater access to good jobs, even though employers consistently tell us that they are looking for employees with this kind of background and these skills. The overall goal is to educate our students to be responsible citizens in the global society Howard Gardner refers to. Some of them may end up shaping the course of world history the way Europe's and US political leaders did after World War II.

The Wisconsin global education experience since creating the Global Education Achievement Certificate in 2013 can be described as follows.

  1. Eighty-five high schools have been approved to run this voluntary program. All participating schools must create the opportunity to meet the GEAC requirements for their student population. This means they must have global elements in place in their curriculum, and they must actively promote global activities in their school community. Eventually, we are trying to shape more globally focused school cultures and environments through persuasion and not by mandate.
  2. Student response has been enthusiastic. We hold an annual Global Youth Summit to support the certificate program once a year. Students and teachers participate on a Saturday with incredible interest and enthusiasm. Our students are hungry for global learning experiences. That bodes well for the future.
  3. Conversations with curriculum directors and teachers about global course content have been among the most positive experiences along the way. We have created a highly positive culture of discourse about what global content in any given content area may be. Even though the GEAC program is voluntary, schools must apply to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for approval to run the program. Courses suggested for inclusion in a local GEAC program must have a clear global focus. Conversations with schools regarding approval or disapproval of specific courses are invariably learning experiences for everyone. In many cases, course content is adjusted to make the global component more visible.

Change School Cultures

This focus on changing school cultures and integrating curriculum serves the interests and needs of our globally minded student population as well as the societal need for globally competent citizens. It includes attention to the needs of employers as well as the creation of knowledge. Globally competent students, or Wisconsin's Global Scholars, have the skills and dispositions necessary to work in a global economy. They understand the significance of global scientific research and can distinguish right from wrong, partly because they are in a position to see alternatives to the way things are done at home. Unquestioned affirmation of values will not be good enough, when a critical understanding of alternative approaches to worldwide challenges will strengthen domestic decisions and democratic structures.

Watching our students at the Global Youth Summits instills great optimism about the constructive value of global education. These students are curious and serious about learning about the world. They will end up in all kinds of careers and be valuable employees or employers. Their global competence will strengthen both global economic competition and a vibrant democratic society.

The Past is Prologue

Let me finish with a few quotes from a publication of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction from 1943. Frank Klier is the author of a booklet about Language Teaching in Wisconsin Public High Schools: 1941-1942. His observations ring true today, as he discusses the reasons for a decline in world language enrollments during the war years. "The dollar-and-cents philosophy," writes Klier, "[...] and the pre-war tendency toward isolationism" are two reasons for that decline. In a historically utilitarian education environment, "preference has been increasingly given to school subjects with a surrender value; i.e. an immediate money value in a vocation." Klier's final comments on the "need for languages in war and peace" are these:

"The hope of understanding other peoples in a world made small by post-war means of communication and transportation rests on the hope that more persons than ever before will know languages other than their own, and through those become acquainted with the manners and customs, the psychology, the spirit, the ideals, and the aspirations of other nations [...]."

These were the concerns in Wisconsin education in 1943. They are not entirely different from what we are talking about today. I am very optimistic that future generations of globally competent students will shape a world community based on values similar to the creation of the European Union and a strong transatlantic alliance in the post-war period. That, to my mind, is the overarching goal of global education.

Connect with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Photo credit: Kerry G. Hill. Caption: Students participate at the 2017 Wisconsin Global Youth Summit.


[i] Presidents Charles De Gaulle, Giscard D'Estaing and Francois Mitterand built the foundation for the modern European Union with Chancellors Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl.

[ii] Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Propyläen Verlag. 1929. The first movie adaptation dates back to 1930.

[iii] Of course, there were other political considerations that included building a strong Western economic and military alliance as the world slipped into the Cold War. 

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