The Importance of a Global Education
Interview with Dr. Merry Merryfield
Global education has significantly increased in importance and prominence in K-12 education over the last two decades. Not only are students learning about the world through new technologies, they are also interacting with it. Being fully immersed in the twenty-first century has placed new importance on understanding cultures other than our own. New technologies are placing distant peoples only clicks away.
In an email interview with Dr. Merry Merryfield, one of the foremost scholars in the field of Global Education, I asked her to address what it takes to offer a truly global education and why it is important.
Brian Knighten: Can you define "global education"?
Merry Merryfield: Global education prepares young people to understand and interact within a culturally diverse and globally interconnected world. Its content includes the study of world cultures and religions, world literature, the interrelatedness of world history, global issues, global economic, technological, environmental, and political systems, non-state global actors, and cross-cultural communication skills.
Knighten: Can you describe the difference between "global education" and "international studies," if in fact there is one?
Merryfield: They are related but I think there are some important differences. International studies might be called the grandfather of global education. It often includes the study of countries and world regions, languages, international relations, international exchanges and study abroad. Many people who major in international studies want to work abroad or for international organizations. Its focus on international understanding often includes the study of international organizations and mechanisms. International studies is more likely to be found in universities and it is often dominated by political science.
Global education has developed as a K-12 effort to teach young people about their globally connected world. It focuses on teaching students to see the world through multiple perspectives of diverse people and it purposefully addresses stereotypes of The Other. Unlike international studies, it is centered on the concept of connectedness – recognizing local/global connections, the commonalities all humans share, and understanding how national borders have become practically irrelevant for many global actors, from multinational corporations to polluters to terrorists. It also focuses on the development of globalization over time and space. The World History Association applies global education to history. Global education purposefully challenges ethnocentrism, national chauvinism and cultural relativism through cross-cultural experiential learning.
There is also development studies, the examination of issues of economic and political development.
Knighten: What are some of the most effective ways to implement global education at the classroom and school-wide levels?
Merryfield: First, teach against stereotypes, exotica, and the simplification of other cultures and issues facing the planet.
Whether it is in teaching about diverse local cultures, world cultures, literature, environmental studies, US or world history, global educators purposefully address stereotypes and challenge exotic images that students bring with them into the classroom. They develop lessons to replace misconceptions with information on the complexity of cultures, cultural conflicts, and global issues. They teach critical thinking skills so that students learn to challenge sweeping generalizations. The identification of students’ prior knowledge as well as stereotypes and images of the culture or country under study is considered by many global educators to be their first step in planning a new unit.
This element of global education influenced ninth-grade world cultures units on the Middle East in these ways:
- Identify students’ stereotypes and images of people under study. Example: Teacher has students brainstorm what they know about Muslims, Arabs and the Middle East in general and identify where their ideas come from.
- Provide knowledge to directly address misinformation or limited knowledge. Example: When students confuse the terms Arab and Muslim, the teacher has students map where they live and use primary sources to differentiate diverse Arab cultures and the Muslim world.
- Train students to recognize how exotic content compares with knowledge of everyday life in gaining cultural understanding. Example: Teacher exposes students to Edward Said’s ideas on Orientalism and ways Europeans constructed “the Orient” in their writing and visuals. Has students identify exotic images of the Middle East in popular media, entertainment and textbooks and compare these images with the visuals and stories in websites and those shared face-to-face by local Egyptian, Lebanese and Iranian students about their lives back home.
Secondly, foster the habit of examining multiple perspectives and primary sources of The Other.
Perhaps the most common strategy shared by global educators is their attention to students’ learning about events and issues through multiple, usually conflicting, perspectives. Through the classroom routine of examining different points of view on an historical event, a controversial issue or a story in the news, global educators work to develop in students a habit of the mind to look for and consider other perspectives, especially those of "The Other," people of minority cultures and Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, etc., whose voices are rarely heard in mainstream texts or media. Even when the class may agree with one side of an issue, they come to appreciate the need to understand points of view they disagree with in order to fully understand the issue or event from a global perspective. This habit of seeking out diverse perspectives is central to global education. Access to knowledge, experiences and perspectives of minorities and people of other cultures is considered critical for understanding events, issues and realities of everyday life. So a unit on Latin American cultures or history would not be complete without reading primary sources or interacting with people from the region.
This element of global education influenced eighth-grade units in US history on explorers of North America in these ways:
- Help students develop the habit of examining diverse points of view of events and issues. Example: Students read excerpts from Rethinking Columbus that provide Native American and other perspectives on Columbus’ actions.
- Have students read literature, history, news, and use websites and other primary sources developed by people in other cultures. Example: Students use websites and email to exchange sources of information and discuss with Puerto Rican students the effects of early explorers on the US and the Caribbean.
- Help students learn to deal with conflicting information. Example: Students use available primary documents to write a new history that integrates diverse perspectives and knowledge.
Thirdly, teach about power, discrimination, conflict and injustice and their effects on the construction of knowledge, the use of language and people’s world views.
Global educators provide ways for students to understand power in a global context and the effects of discrimination and injustice on people’s lives past and present. Students critically examine the perspectives, values and world views that underlie mainstream academic knowledge, information from the popular media, and unstated assumptions of popular language use. Global educators help students become aware of how people with cultural capital or economic and political power shape knowledge and language that is transmitted from one generation to the next. Below are examples of how this element of global education influenced tenth-grade world history units on European colonization of Africa.
- Teach about injustice and how people have worked against oppression. Example: Students create a timeline of ways in which Africans worked for freedom against European domination from the 1500s to the anti-apartheid era.
- Have students develop critical reading skills to recognize bias and underlying assumptions. Example: Students analyze colonial documents and travel writing for their assumptions about race, power and rights.
- Teach contrapuntal literature and history that writes back against the literature of the oppressors. Example: Students read excerpts from Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and other African literature to understand colonialization from Africans’ experiences and knowledge.
- Have students learn to evaluate effects of colonialist and post-colonialist language and recognize how one’s worldview shapes how one makes sense of historical and contemporary events and issues. Example: Students read excerpts from [works by] Ngugi wa Thiongo and examine long-term effects of racist colonial language (bushman, pigmy, kaffir, witch doctors, huts, primitive, etc.) and images on Americans’ perceptions of Africa by surveying people in their community.
Fourthly, provide students with cross-cultural experiential learning.
There is no substitute for authentic learning with people from diverse cultures, especially if the experiences are structured around equal status and collaborative goals that have meaning in people’s lives. Global educators find many ways to increase their students’ experiences with people different from themselves through work with international students from local universities, immigrant organizations in the community, service learning projects, exchanges through email or videos, and by taking students on trips to other places in the US and overseas.
Today many schools have culturally diverse populations. Their challenge is getting students to learn about, work with and appreciate their classmates of different races, religions, national origins or linguistic backgrounds. Global educators recognize that a monocultural, monolingual school is one of the most difficult places to teach global perspectives as students are more likely to lack experiences in working with people different from themselves.
This element of global education influenced seventh-grade world geography units on East Asia:
- Find ways for students to work in equal or interdependent status with people of different cultures. Example: International university students from China, Korea and Japan work with students for two days as they prepare research reports on changes in family life in Asia from 1945-2002.
- Provide long-term or ongoing cross-cultural learning instead of ad hoc experiences where students cannot build relationships. Example: Divided in working groups, students discuss issues facing their communities with key-pals in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore over a three-month period and report back to their classrooms regularly on what they are learning.
- Provide experiences where students experience being in a linguistic or cultural context different from their own. Example: Students visit a Chinese immersion school and spend the day with a counterpart in an immersion experience.
Knighten: What qualities do you look for in a syllabus that would be considered truly "global"?
Merryfield: Does it examine issues and events from perspectives of people of different backgrounds in different world regions?
Does it include issues important to the planet, not just to one country or region?
Does it help students understand how their lives are connected to the lives of people in many different countries? Does it help them understand that what they do affects people's lives in faraway places and what people do in other countries also affects them?
Does the content help students understand how the world really works?
Will students understand who has power globally and what they do with that power? Will they understand why genocide and slavery continue to happen? Why so many people on the planet do not have clean water, primary health care, freedom of expression or political rights?
Knighten: What are some of your most recommended resources for teaching globally?
Merryfield: Go to TeachGlobalEd.net, which was developed to answer this question!
Knighten: Over the years, how has global education changed?
Merryfield: More balance has developed in addressing global issues so that many points of view are included. As more women and people of color have entered the field there has been increased attention to issues of social justice, immigration, culturally relevant teaching, authentic voices and instructional materials that teach complexity. Online technologies have made available online courses, online interaction, and online resources from around the world.
Knighten: What role does study abroad play in helping teachers with global education?
Merryfield: As a former Peace Corps volunteer (Sierra Leone, 1977-79), I think immersion experiences in another culture are incredibly important if teachers are to understand the meaning of culture (cultural lens, cultural baggage, etc.), reflect on culture learning and teach cross-cultural skills. However, people do not have to live outside the US to have profound cross-cultural experiences. In Columbus we have almost 30,000 Somalis and some of the teachers in our program have had in-depth cross-cultural learning through work in that community.
Knighten: If you could give one suggestion to teachers who want to begin teaching with a global focus, what would that be?
Merryfield: Most teachers find it is easy to add diverse perspectives to the one they are already teaching. So if a teacher is teaching about an historical event, she can use primary sources to have students examine different people's perspectives of that experience – say the story of the Alamo from both American and Mexican sources. Or if the teacher is teaching current events, he can have students compare online newspapers from different countries on a particular event or issue. In a Spanish class it could be looking at the cultural differences that exist within a country like Argentina in order to defuse stereotypes and get at the complexity of ethnicity, class and geography.
Dr. Merry Merryfield is a Professor in Social Studies and Global Education in the School of Teaching and Learning at Ohio State University. Her latest publication, co-authored with Angene Wilson, is Teaching Global Perspectives in the Social Studies (Silver Spring, MD: National Council for the Social Studies, 2004).