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Global Competency Isn’t Just a Buzz Word

Written by Michael Zakaras

Laura Hay |

Photo: Weebly

Dana Mortenson, founder of World Savvy, discusses the skills children will need to thrive in a fast-changing world.

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 justwhat 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.

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