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Empowering 21st-Century Youths: Lessons From Singapore

Editor's Note: Christine Powell, a special education teacher from Southern California, is a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching grantee who has traveled to Singapore to complete an inquiry project centered on secondary special education students and career-transition pathways in a changing society. Here she shares how what she learned can be applied to classrooms in the United States.

By Guest Blogger Christine Powell

Singapore has a world-class education system informed by a national curriculum and high-stakes testing. The words of Singapore's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, called for a nation fully engaged in 21st-century skill building, "to keep united Singapore's multilingual, multicultural, multireligious society, and make it rugged and dynamic enough to compete in world markets."  As a Fulbright recipient, I saw firsthand this vision of Singapore reflected in many classroom activities, service-learning projects, and class trips to neighboring countries. Upon realizing how Singapore is preparing its students to be globally competent, I wondered if the United States is doing enough to empower 21st-century youths in a globally connected world. 

The Current State of Affairs 

The United States is on the precipice of tremendous economic change.The U.S. economy is expected to create 55 million job openings by 2020, and although it is difficult to predict precisely what new jobs will be needed in the future, what is known is that students will need an increasingly complex set of skills to compete for jobs in a rapidly changing global marketplace. U.S. companies have expressed that students will need new competencies to compete on the global stage. 

A 2019 article published by LinkedIn, "The Skills Companies Need Most in 2019," cited a need for graduates and job seekers to have increasingly complex technical competency, a deep understanding of analytics, perspicuous problem-solving abilities, and strong interpersonal abilities. These skill sets are going to need to be explicitly taught and developed in students to prepare them for changes taking place now on an international scale. Our students are no longer competing for jobs with just other U.S. students; technology and international student exchanges have increased the need for U.S. education systems to think ahead and project the needs of our society so we can prepare students to meet those needs and be up for the challenges required to succeed in this dynamic skills space. How do we as American teachers prepare our students?

Learning Global Competence 

The United States has within the last decade focused on college- and career-readiness objectives, and those areas are only a part of making sure our students are adequately prepared. The Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) has already developed and put into place a framework for 21st-Century Competencies intended to "help all students schooled in the Singapore Education system have a good sense of self-awareness, a sound moral compass, and the necessary skills and knowledge to take on challenges of the future ... upon the completion of formal education." 

What is needed is a focus on global competency skills. Preparing students to be globally competent means we must begin to teach the skills necessary to prosper in the 21st-century workforce and be competitive with others on an international stage. The following four areas make up the big picture of what global competence entails with ideas of how teachers might infuse these competencies into classroom lessons.

International Inquirers     

U.S. teachers as well as students need to be exposed to countries, international events, and world politics. Making comparisons, acknowledging differences, and forming connections help to clarify where the United States is situated on the world stage, both concretely and abstractly. Teachers can look to connect lessons and content to international events and happenings. The world is a fascinating place, and by extending our classroom boundaries, we also expand a student's thinking. In Singaporean classrooms, current events in Malaysia, the United Kingdom, China, and the United States are routinely used as discussion starters, bringing global perspectives to the practice of information sharing. You, too, can encourage students to research and write about a current international event or have them pick a country and do preliminary research connected to the curriculum. Making time in your lesson for students to watch CNN in 10 (global news stories explained in 10 minutes) is a great conversation starter. 

Open to Diverse Perspectives

Globally competent students can recognize and appreciate perspectives other than their own. This skill set is connected to valuing diversity and an understanding that others may not hold the same values, beliefs, and mindsets as we do. For example, Singapore has adapted and embraced the many influences that have made it so unique, including the influences of its Southeast Asian neighbors: Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Singaporean schools offer an array of food choices, including both Halal and non-Halal fare. Co-curricular activities for students include Malay dance, Wushu (Chinese Kungfu), and Boys Brigade, where they learn to play the bagpipes. While high school students are taught lessons in English, they are also required to take language lessons in their mother tongue (Mandarin Chinese, Malay, or Tamil). 

Singapore quote.pngThe need to understanding diverse perspectives is also critical for U.S. students. A few strategies to encourage and nurture students in the areas include reading international news outlets online and having class discussions centered on equality, diversity, and inclusion. Events happening on the international stage let students see how cultural norms impact a society's concerning policies and governing laws. The most important skill students can glean in this area is to seek to understand others without applying personal opinions. This lesson plan from highly effective teens is a good way to address this concept for secondary teachers.

Effective Communicators 

All teachers can agree that supporting our students to become competent communicators is paramount, not only for global competence but also as a necessary life skill. Explicitly teaching appropriate verbal and nonverbal communication is essential in an age of computer screens and isolated technology use. Class presentations are still a go-to activity to enhance public speaking and having students fill out a rubric following individual student presentations can provide valuable feedback to the presenter. I had the opportunity to observe one class where students were writing, rehearsing, and filming one another to practice their public-speaking skills. They were tackling controversial issues in Singapore, such as recycling and water shortages. Understanding how to address diverse audiences, utilizing clear, coherent language, and being able to put your thoughts into writing are all skills needed to be productive citizens. Additionally, having an international pen pal, either online or via snail mail, can help reluctant writers put their thoughts in writing, especially knowing they will get a letter in return.  

Action Takers 

Skilled and prepared students are action-oriented. They feel confident in their abilities and knowledge and want to explore the world. In many Singaporean secondary schools, students are required to do a service-learning project. This can be a simple activity of picking up rubbish in the school neighborhood, visiting and bringing lunch to geriatrics in their community, or more extensive MOE-sponsored trips to Singaporean islands or neighboring countries to assist with rudimentary building projects, goodwill visits, or school site exchanges. These activities are also worthwhile for American students, and with teacher encouragement and scaffolding this might manifest first with in-class activities such as planning a (future) trip overseas. This activity could include creating a budget based in the country's currency and real-time exchange rate or researching how to get involved in global issues in that country as identified through online research. Other students may find their niche by participating in Model United Nations or by connecting to change leaders on social media to inform and provide insight. Unless or until service learning is part of our education model, our students will be passive participants.  

The need to shift our teaching to incorporate the competencies our students need in life is apparent when U.S. students' skill sets are compared with those of students in other academically advanced countries. If teachers start to address the four areas of global competencies in their classrooms, students will develop a broader lens from which to view the world, leading to the development of successful global citizens. 

Connect with Heather and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

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