When I returned from my trip to Colombia, our yearly “back to school” letter from our school superintendent was waiting for me. Along with the usual logistical information that we need for the start of the school year, he outlined some “big picture” goals that we will be focusing on as a district. One of the goals for the coming school year that he emphasized was a focus on the cultivation of “thriving dispositions” in our students. These “dispositions” were the work of my all time favorite committee that I have worked on–Whitefish Bay’s Transformational Educational Practices committee. A group of teachers, parent and community members who came together to try to create vision of how to best prepare our students for the 21st Century.
Throughout my time on this committee I kept seeing so many ways that global education can foster these skills in our kids. My coursework in global education and my own attempts to “break out” of my classroom walls this year have led me to sincerely believe that all content areas and subjects can be made more engaging or authentic when you infuse a global perspective into your teaching. But there is another truth my perspective on global ed. I have a natural bias towards this kind of teaching–I love to travel and I love to launch into big projects of any kind. These tendencies have led me to become somewhat suspicious of my own enthusiasm.
These past weeks have given me a chance to gain some distance from my own teaching practice and view global education with more objectivity. I think it is worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on how what I saw in Colombia connects to the “seven thriving dispositions”.
Critical thinking: I found it to be interesting and informative to see and hear many references to the pedagogical work of the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire during my time in Colombia. His work views education as the ” ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.“ It was clearly evident that Colombians view education as an essential means of social mobility and transformation. Again and again teachers spoke of education as a path of empowerment for their students. I saw this the most clearly in my visits to the rural schools where teachers encouraged students to take responsibility for their own learning. These students are some of the most vulnerable learners in Colombia, both economically and socially. The Nueva Esculea curriculum which was being implemented in these schools was designed to help students “learn to learn”. Many key decisions were made by student leaders–the student elected government was included in all areas of schooling–from instruction to discipline of their peers.
Agility/Adaptability In an effort to be responsive to the current changes and developments in the global labor market, the Colombian national government has significantly increased its investment in vocational training, ” standardising, shaping, evaluating and certificating national work competencies; and establishing a strong connection between labor market and the education system.” We were able to take a tour of a national vocational training school–SENA. Tuition for these schools is free and students can learn practical skills from hotel management, accounting etc. as well as technical skills such as applied robotics and computer automation. They have partnered with international companies and work with the Colombian business community to focus on high demand jobs. On our tour of this school we saw a class learning to program a robot, electrical engineering students learning English and fashion and design students working with high tech sewing machines. In the past the technical training provided by SENA has been considered something that only the poor would take advantage of, but in recent years, university students have come to realize that they have much to gain from the “real world” training that they can receive at these vocational schools.
Curiosity and Imagination I did not observe much in the way of open ended investigations or inquiry during my time in Colombia. The teachers I met with are interested in a including this more in their teaching, but the limitations of class size and resources has made this something that they have not been able to do. They were very interested in a presentation by my co-teacher about Project Based Learning, but were skeptical about its application in their schools–(even though open ended projects are built in to their new English language curriculum.)
Initiative/ Entrepreneurism Most of the schools I visited served poor or very poor student populations. Entrepreneurism was seen as a way to keep them in school–especially in the rural schools where parents might take them out to help with the harvest etc. At one school I visited, the final project of a unit of study was a market where they sold products that they had created in their class. At another school, they taught crafts such as beading and weaving as a way to earn extra money. The SENA trade school offered start up grants to students who wanted to start their own businesses. These projects were built out of a direct necessity that had an immediate application for the students lives.
Access and analyze information If there was one resource that seemed to have the biggest impact on teacher capacity and student performance, it was access to technology. The digital divide is stark in Colombia–especially between rural and urban schools. All of the schools that I visited had computers of some kind, but only some of them had internet access. There were no classroom libraries, and even the school libraries had minimal resources. Because of this, students had limited opportunities to access any information outside what the teacher provided for them.
Effective Oral and Written Communication The Colombian government has determined English language fluency to be an essential skill for the 21st century. This push to promote English has brought about rapid change in the way English is taught–the most of important of these being an emphasis on conversation, (instead of grammar). The new English language text books have compelling themes that are designed to get students talking: Stereotypes and Identity, Eating and Lifestyle Habits Around the World, and Teen Culture are just some of the chapters that they study as they learn English.
Collaboration The only place where I saw group work fully embraced was at the SENA trade school, where students worked together to complete projects, just as they would do in the work force. SENA also had direct instruction on the “soft skills” needed for collaborative work.
This simple act of trying to see these seven dispositions through a “global lens” has helped me to better understand what they are and how they can be applied to my school community. This is all that global education is. Looking at a topic or content area through a different filter as a way of seeing it with greater clarity. I am more committed than ever to continuing to find ways to help my students do the same in their learning this year and I am excited to encourage my teaching colleagues to do the same.