Asia Society: Equipping Students for the ‘Head-Spinning Changes’ of Globalization

The first 16 years of the 21st century have seen an explosion in technological innovation, rapidly connecting and integrating our world. This ongoing trend has created many winners — but also losers. “We live in a world of head-spinning change,” said Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “Not all of this change is for the better.”

Gurría was speaking Thursday at the launch of Asia Society’s Center for Global Education, a new center focused on transforming education to give students around the world better global competence, which refers to a skillset needed to thrive in an internationalized and multicultural world. It plans to do this by bringing together influential educators, businesses, and government officials to commission research, publish insights, and partner with schools and education systems to change policy and practice.

Introducing the Center for Global Education — moving global competence from the margins to the mainstream. Gurría noted that emerging economic, digital, cultural, demographic, and environmental forces, combined with unprecedented access to information and communication, are bringing big opportunities for young people. But these same forces are also aggravating problems like income inequality and intolerance among those who’ve been unable to capitalize. “In order to participate in an interconnected world, you need to have learned the value of cultural differences,” Gurría said, noting that people from very different backgrounds are increasingly coming into contact and having major social and economic influences on one another. “You need to be able to process digital information critically and you need to understand the complex world of market integration and cultural exchange.” Understanding and tolerance are crucial, he added, noting that the key to realizing these ideals is global education.

Irina Bokova, director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and honorary chair on the Council for the Center for Global Education, linked the rise of nationalism, extremism, and terrorism in many regions to the side effects of globalization. She said that without the proper support to learn the skills to thrive amid technological disruption and embrace internationalism, young people will feel excluded from society and risk being “lured” by radical tribalist ideologies. “Nowadays, confronting challenges of climate change, challenges of extremism, [and] challenges in increasingly diverse societies, we have to look at the education, curricula, teachers, and values,” she added.

Ido Leffler, co-founder and CEO of the school supply company Yoobi and advisory co-chair on the Council for the Center for Global Education, echoed the idea that teaching students from all socioeconomic backgrounds 21st century skills effectively and promoting the acceptance of diversity go hand-in-hand. He said that most of what young people learn today comes from outside the classroom — on smartphones, online videos, and peers. Thus, educators need to make what they teach relevant to this new reality. “So how do we bring relevance into the classroom so they can filter what they’re seeing on a day-to-day basis outside of what they’re learning in the classroom?” he asked.

He also noted that having diversity in the classroom at a young age goes a long way toward eliminating fear of different cultures and ethnicities — something that still seldom happens in the United States, where a child’s school is usually decided by their ZIP code. “We are more interconnected and interdependent in today’s world than ever before,” he said. “That is why each of us has a responsibility to ensure that students of today and leaders of tomorrow are not only equipped with the knowledge and understanding of global issues, but are also appreciative of people from different backgrounds.”

For years, Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network has been setting model schools for teaching global competence. It’s a model that the organization hopes to scale up with the launch of the Center for Global Education. Speaking at the launch, Felix Ruano, a graduate of one of these schools who was raised in a low-income immigrant family, said that growing up, the idea of going to college seemed far-fetched. But the three years he spent being exposed to different cultures and ideas created a “dramatic transformation” which “completely validated” the concept of global education to him. He now studies at Harvard. “We live in dynamic times,” he said. “Young people like myself are no longer just witnesses to global challenges, but direct players with the ability to form opinions on groups and cultures that can be hard to shake as we enter the professional world.”

Bokova said that huge looming challenges like terrorism, climate change, and the refugee crises are why it’s important to get it right with the young generation. “Young people are leaders of change, but we see that they also carry the heaviest burden,” she said. “The world is globalizing quickly and the planet is under tremendous pressure, so young people have to be supported.”

To that end, the United Nations last year released its Sustainable Development Goals, recognizing the new skills needed to thrive in this changing world. Attendees at Thursday’s launch, many of whom are actively working to provide this kind of support to young people, agreed the challenges ahead were considerable. But as Asia Society Trustee and Center for Global Education Council Member Frank Brown put it: “Teaching global education is a fight worth fighting and worth winning.”

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