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Building Global Mindsets as a Foundation of Global Competence

Homa Sabet Tavangar


Looking around at trends in a wide range of nations, it may seem like the very opposite of a global mindset is taking hold. This is particularly relevant for educators. I take away a vital lesson from the backlash against globalization: Effective 21st-Century education must be relevant and responsive to the profound challenges posed by the much-maligned global economy, and create opportunities for all learners to find their sphere of influence in a big, messy, integrated, open system. Learning how to make the world a better place (which can begin right in our own neighborhoods) seems less an idealistic dream, and more like an urgent call.

The global economy is here to stay. Where education has served to build “global competency,” global perspectives, or even simply global friendships, participants have been able to transcend the limits of borders and history. When schools take steps – even very simple steps – to bring the world into the classroom, fear can be replaced with inquiry, and walls with opportunities.

Filling the Empathy and Skills Gap With a Global Mindset

Even for schools that consider themselves to be international, building global competence and global citizenship takes effort. In some schools, this might look like vigilance against elitism, or efforts to build empathy, so that attitudes of superiority, exceptionalism, and entitlement are recognized, discussed honestly, and guarded against. Of course, curricula need careful assessment, but without a concerted effort at filling the empathy gap, the  problems of our time that are creating deep societal divisions will only worsen. It takes cooperation across leaders, teachers, parents, community members and all ages of students – and can get messy.

Amidst many approaches through which we can address the empathy gap, school communities that proactively work toward building global citizenship and a global mindset are particularly successful. The model of global mindset which I use here rests on three foundational pillars: Intellectual Capital, Psychological Capital, and Social Capital. The simple model can serve as a powerful framework in considering how to fill the gaps in skills, as well as empathy, which challenge today’s students.

Source: Thunderbird Najafi Global Mindset Institute

While this model was created with the purpose of preparing global business leaders, I find it equally, if not more, instructive in K-12 educational environments. The qualities of Global Mindset can deepen or illuminate 21st Century learning and innovation skills, which are characterized by 4C’s: Cognitive complexity, Collaboration, Creativity, and Communication. These 4C’s overlap with intellectual, psychological and social capital, instead of being contained in one category or another.

For example, Communication (one of the 4C’s) calls for knowledge of the world and an appreciation of its complexity (Intellectual Capital); while fluency and effective communication rest upon a passion for diversity in order to drive curiosity and self-assurance that allows for mistakes and iteration (Psychological Capital), and a level of empathy and diplomacy that creates fluency beyond what plugging words into Google Translate can ever deliver (Social Capital).

Integrating these pillars becomes a powerful practice at the K-12 level, since the opportunity to deliberately practice these qualities earlier in life creates a greater chance that this mindset will stick, becoming a part of a global citizens’ identity and life.

The following questions can help drive classroom activities, school culture, and teaching practice.

Intellectual Capital:

Global Business Savvy (applied to K-12 learning, we can think of this as Knowledge of the World): If you needed to have a layover in Helsinki, Kuala Lumpur, or Accra, would this take you way off your direct route home? Is their currency so devalued that you might benefit from shopping at that airport? What is the political structure in the country? Can you share opinions on their society and government freely with the citizens without fear of punishment?

Cognitive Complexity: Superimpose the question of international transit layovers, with foreign currency exchange rates, potential delays along the way, climate, and political and cultural norms to make complex decisions about the real cost of that cheaper airplane ticket, and potential risks of being stuck in that airport.

Cosmopolitan Outlook: While this matter falls in the intellectual capital category, it also contains an important element of empathy skills. When one practices a cosmopolitan outlook they learn to process information so that it takes account of diverse perspectives, and the impact on populations other than their own. This is the quality that helps one notice when speakers, writers, scientists, stories only represent the experiences of one subgroup and how much poorer the experience might be without the range of perspectives.

Psychological Capital:

Quest for Adventure: Do you not only go along with change, but find ways to embrace it? How do you recognize and develop skills of flexibility, and comfort with the unknown? How can a trip around the corner turn into an experience of discovery?

Passion for Diversity: When one possesses a passion for diversity, a goal of “tolerance” for diversity becomes far too limited. Can you experience or inquire about new cultures, beliefs and practices with your whole heart?

Self-Assurance: With self-assurance, healthy risk-taking becomes part of the learning process. One feels empathy with others, so that asking questions about authentic experiences that differ from your own is not seen as a barrier.

Social Capital:

Intercultural Empathy: Rather than observe the lives of others who differ from you from a detached perspective, can you put yourself in their shoes? How might this affect the way you see the decisions they make? Consider what you have in common (not only differences) with those whose lives differ significantly on the surface from yours; how does this change your potential relationship? How might you treat them differently?

Interpersonal Impact: When someone is in a position to be of service to you or your family, do you consider how you treat them and some of the conditions and challenges they are living through? How does this impact the way you treat them? This has been a particular challenge for expat children, living between cultures, served by individuals from the host country and not being shown an example from other adults of treating those working in service positions with kindness and humility. In what other ways can your life or learning create interpersonal impact?

Diplomacy: From the youngest ages children can learn to navigate between complete honesty and diplomacy. For example, they might try a new food they don’t care for. Rather than make a face, refuse to try it, or show another form of disapproval (often resulting in offense to the host), they try a bite, graciously decline more, and learn to keep their displeasure to themselves. Consider other examples of where diplomacy could enhance bonds in collaborating on group projects, navigating social obligations in a new city, or reacting to opinions you disagree with.


Challenge digital citizens to make meaning

The wealth of multi-media tools to create, collaborate, code, and connect should facilitate global competency. However without deeper inquiry, design and models for how to transform these from entertainment to impact, their effectiveness is limited. It is crucial, starting in upper elementary, to explore how to channel social media for positive use.  This might take the form of dipping your toes in the proverbial waters by blogging (on your own blog or guest-blogging for another publication); participating in book clubs with readers from around the world, such as the Global Read-Aloud; live-streaming a science lab; creating podcasts tied to curricular lessons; or sharing visuals on platforms like instagram, Flikr, Kidblogs and Edmodo. You could create a fictional Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat account for a character in a book you’re reading or from history, and get social from their point of view. Follow accounts like @MalalaFund, @Girls_Inc, @UNICEF, @TakingITGlobal, @soccerwoborders to see how these groups are making a difference. Used in conjunction with an ongoing Skype or other conversation platform, diverse perspectives can naturally offer feedback on classroom products, and raise the quality bar. These help transform students from passive consumers of content to active creators, bringing alive lessons and serving as a model for social media use beyond celebrity stalking.

Another low-hanging fruit for engaging digital citizens around diverse perspectives and building a global mindset from wherever you are, is found by watching films made in other countries. With guidance from a willing teacher, watching a film can go from a passive experience to an active, engaged, curious exploration of big life themes and various academic disciplines. Get a taste of various films by watching their trailers, then graduate to feature-length films. Movies such as Not One Less (China), Like Stars on Earth (India), Children of Heaven (Iran), or The Red Balloon (France) for the youngest viewers, might suffice to create a powerful discussion prompt exploring similarities and differences. Consider cues you see on geography and language, on different perspectives of education, what different living environments look like and how they are built, how kids play or entertain themselves in different settings, and expectations versus reality in hard-to-visit places. It also can help foster empathy and bring alive a culture that we might otherwise know only through negative stereotypes.

The diverse forms of expression embedded in films from faraway lands likewise can broaden creativity and possibilities for communication -- just to name a few of the many 21st century learning skills you might tap into. Books such as Growing Up Global and The Global Education Toolkit for Elementary Learners contain lists of outstanding, age-appropriate foreign films and discussion ideas. Consider starting a film club in connection with creative writing, a movie night for fundraising, or simply celebrate cultures that form a rich tapestry of our global community.

Concluding Thought

The challenge of embracing a practice to build global mindsets is that you can’t memorize facts or plug in a formula to demonstrate mastery. The mindset can be built into school culture through efforts that are as diverse as the interests in your community, and often get reflected through unexpected opportunities. Much like building a muscle, the global mindset is potentially there, but needs to be exercised – possibly awkwardly at first – and then becomes second nature in its use. At the same time, its practice may be continually humbling, challenging and awe-inspiring, a true reflection of our wider world.

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