Earlier this summer I had the chance to talk about 21st century learning with Dana Mortenson, an Ashoka Fellow and the founder of World Savvy, an organization that works within the K-12 education system to provide students with the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes to be leaders and changemakers in their communities. Founded in 2002, World Savvy has reached more than 250,000 youth and 2,000 educators.
Michael Zakaras: How would sum up the problem you’re trying to solve, and why is it especially urgent right now?
Dana Mortenson: The problem is that we are trying to address the needs of society in the 21st century with an education system that hasn’t progressed past the 20th. We’re living in a world with borderless challenges, with greater diversity in our communities than ever, with less U.S. hegemony, and that means the way we have to collaborate to solve problems has changed. But our education system doesn’t focus on global competence – and in many cases it’s set up to do the opposite, to focus on rote memorization. It’s very much out of sync with the realities of the world, and we’re going to have to adjust. We simply cannot expect to have youth prepared to enter this world if we are mass-producing graduates without the core knowledge and skills needed to thrive.
MZ: World Savvy helps students develop 21st century skills for global competency – what does that mean and what are those skills?
DM: The way we define global competency is in four buckets: knowledge, skills, values and behaviors needed to thrive in an interconnected global community. And it really begins with teaching kids how to think, not just what to think. For example, with knowledge we’re too often looking to quiz students about the names of global leaders. Of course that matters, but we need to move out of a frame where knowledge is the cornerstone. The half-life of information today is so short, it really matters how we use that knowledge – how we decide what is most important and relevant and accurate. And how we look at the complexity and interdependence of global issues – and their connection to our history and to where we’re going.
For skills, we’re talking about the ability to collaborate well – to think creatively and critically in diverse environments that are constantly shifting. We’re talking about coping and resiliency and problem-solving too. Change is difficult, and it implies that you need to be resilient – that you need to be capable of shifting your perception.
And of course, empathy: How do you think compassionately and openly about others around you? It’s about doing more than just acknowledging that there are other perspectives – that’s too passive. It means really valuing those perspectives, not just tolerating them. It means making a distinct effort to integrate them into your world view and your decision-making. And this is where behaviors come in too: To what extent are you taking informed action on issues and encouraging others to do so as well? So the four pillars interact closely, and the way we address global competency is as an evolving dynamic concept where people build strengths in all four areas.
MZ: Why is it that so few of our schools are effectively incorporating global competency into the curriculum and classroom?
DM: There are many reasons, but it begins with the fact that change is hard. We are huge champions of teachers but it requires a major shift in our teaching culture. If you taught 20 years ago, to be an effective teacher you were the provider of information. There was no Internet. No Khan Academy. Teachers were the keepers of information, right or wrong. Now, with so much available to learn and access, young people are constant consumers and producers of information. The teaching profession has had to undergo a cultural change to keep up with this. With the half-life of information so much shorter, teachers need to become something more like facilitators. And that means that they have to be more comfortable with the fact that there isn’t always a right answer – that what’s most important is how you approach problems and think about them.
It is not an easy shift for a whole sector to make by any means, especially one as complex as education. Meanwhile, our education system has been taking a lot of hits lately – it has been very maligned, often unfairly. So it’s no surprise that there’s quite a bit of defensiveness and reluctance to big change. But we need to keep identifying the internal champions who can help facilitate this change incrementally, beginning with embracing a new role for teachers and with embedding global competency into the curriculum.
MZ: Is seems like the bigger goal is a culture change: a change in how we think about the purpose of education and how we equip our youth for the world. What can we do - as educators, parents, NGOs, businesses - to help change the conversation and move the needle in our K-12 system?
Luckily there is a growing cohort of folks that understand the importance and the urgency of what we’re working on. One of the sectors that has done really well has been business. The fact that it’s a global interconnected economy is indisputable. But many CEOs, because they work at international businesses, have been coming out describing global competency as a core need. In fact, for too long it was almost seen as un-American. But they have come out and said: We can’t hire managers as we grow overseas if they aren’t capable of managing emerging markets in inner Mongolia or central Africa. So they have been huge in moving the needle and saying: this is what we really need.
For educators, it’s about remembering the purpose of education: They are there not just to make students college ready, but to mold informed citizens who can engage economically, politically, civilly in our democracy. All three require global competency. So as educators we need to keep these goals in mind and ensure our teaching is aligned. Heck, even our military is recognizing this skill set with its focus on winning hearts and minds. They’re asking: How can we equip our forces to understand the environment and culture and people to facilitate our long-term goals and build lasting peace? That begins with empathy and understanding and global competency. So it’s not just an academic exercise – this stuff is highly relevant in our world from just about any perspective.
In terms of parents and NGOs, everyone has a tendency to separate global knowledge as a nice to have rather than need to have. But what helps is when parents make it a local and personal issue. You don’t walk into a 2nd grade classroom and show pictures of dead children in a genocide. Rather you touch on what is meaningful to those students in their own lives. And as our communities become more diverse, they can bring this into the conversation in as minute a way as building a community garden in their neighborhood. They might ask: what is as culturally responsive way to engage poor community members in that effort? Or a parent might lobby for more language program in their child’s school. Or an NGO might realize that its community is becoming more diverse so it will train its staff to be more sensitive and responsive to a diverse community.
MZ: How do you draw the link between empathy and changemaking and global competency? Why is it so central to developing a generation of global citizens?
DM: In a sense, empathy is very practical. Developing global competence is dynamic – you don’t become globally competent suddenly. It’s an exercise of ongoing learning and reflection because we’re living in an environment of constant change. Empathy is critical because it allows you to be aware of the impact of the changing environment to the various people in the equation. You may know how someone feels about a problem right now, but because things change rapidly, being empathetic means as those dynamics shift, you are constantly going back to think about how decisions would impact different kinds of people. In this way it’s about sustainability: You just can’t make good decisions that last unless you are empathetic – it’s a key ingredient in your toolbox, and without it you’ll get stuck.
And again, it’s essential because it enables us to overcome “us and them” thinking and actually leverage our differences as an asset. For example, one of our offices is in the Twin Cities, which has become much more ethnically diverse than it used to be in a short time. If youth don’t have empathy and the right mindset, we’re going to end up with serious issues at the individual and neighborhood levels. And if you can’t even solve the minute problems, how can you even begin to think about the big complex ones?
MZ: How do you embed something like empathy into the curriculum and culture of schools?
DM: Kids are smart and intuitive. When anything is put on a platter in the form of an exercise – for example, we’re going to do a race lesson now about how stereotyping is bad – they feel their intelligence is undermined and they won’t internalize the lessons.
It’s better to start from a place where everyone is an expert whether they know it or not – and that means starting with their own identities, by contemplating their world view and what has influenced and biased it. It has to be a lens through they interpret the world – it can’t simply be “Empathy Fridays” or something to that effect.
Here’s a good example I like to share: If you are a history teacher, one of the critical pieces you look at throughout history is the relationship of borders and border conflicts. But truly understanding the meaning and complexity and emotion behind border questions takes much more than geography. So we designed an activity to help students in San Francisco develop a more nuanced perspective. The exercise took students to Little Saigon – and this neighborhood has lots of Vietnamese students and other immigrants so it was personal and resonated with them. We took them to a park that bordered the community, where the city had put up a banner arch to name the community of Little Saigon, and showed them a San Francisco Chronicle article that laid out the borders. But the community members themselves felt it was bigger than the boundaries city officials had outlined; so students, armed with knowledge of these differing perspectives, set out for a walk in the community with nothing but chalk tied to a walking stick. Their task was interview people to ask where they thought the community began and ended, and take note of the businesses, languages spoken, and community markers. At the end of three hours when we all reconvened in the park again, they had drawn a line around the borders of the community from their viewpoint, based on their explorations. They discussed the fluidity and subjectivity of borders, and who defines them, and what the consequences are when we do.
Now when they go back into their history classes they are equipped with the experience and perspective to have a higher-order discussion about the racial, ethnic, religious and other factors at play. They’ll understand how complex an issue it can be, and they’ll understand the importance of engaging all stakeholders in the conversation.
Unfortunately, our education system still doesn’t value this outcome – this kind of learning – nearly enough. We’re still asking kids to identify WWII battles without talking about their significance in nuanced ways. That’s one reason why we repeat many of the same mistakes over and over as a society and as a planet, and it’s really at the core of why we’re doing what we’re doing.