Global Issues and Local Change: Teaching about power, possibility, identity, and inquiry for global competence

“In “E’s” country, abusive child labour is common; about two million children between ages 10 and 15 work in mills, mines, and other factories.

Children work 12 hours a day, six days a week, sometimes in night shifts. Sometimes they work 82 hours per week. Boys breathe in soot as they pick debris out of coal by hand.  Children are described as ‘stooped and skinny, often missing thumbs and fingers.’”[1]         

When I asked my 15-year-old tenth graders in Silicone Valley about where they thought the situation of child labour described in the above paragraph took place, they would inevitably answer, “India,” “China,” or “somewhere in Africa.”  They looked surprised when I said that it describes actual events in the United States.  “E” was Edgar Gardner Murphy and he had worked with others to found the National Child Labour Committee in 1904 and to convince his home state of Alabama to pass laws against child labour in 1907. 

I shared these gruesome details about a real-life situation that was changed for the better -- not just to capture the attention of my teenaged students, and not only to encourage them to question how we come to harbour such negative images of other places in the world while having mostly positive impressions of our own -- but also to give them a sense of hope and possibility in a World Literature class where we swept through what seemed like a course on “World Devastations” from the Holocaust (Elie Wiesel’s Night) to apartheid (Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country).  While child labour remains a global issue, I hoped that by sharing information about how it can be addressed successfully and locally, that students would have a sense of power, connection, and gratitude, in that were it not for the efforts of human rights activists like Murphy who worked with others to change political, economic, and cultural systems, they could well have found themselves in these inhumane situations. 

While there is so much to discuss about how to develop global competence in students, I’d like to follow this vignette with a few suggested practices:

1.     Pair problems with possibilities. 

It is helpful to accompany knowledge about challenges in the world with examples of people who have acted successfully to address seemingly intractable problems.  Mere knowledge about the world’s problems is not enough. Research shows that when faced with data about global poverty, for example, students from privileged backgrounds may react with defensiveness.  Incorporating and demonstrating viable solutions to issues would be more helpful in imparting to students the idea that these issues can be overcome.[2]

Students can be encouraged to explore the websites of organizations such as Ashoka and the Skoll Foundation that are teeming with examples of social entrepreneurs who are successfully addressing important social problems.  In addition, because these examples come from all over the world, students can engage in discussions about how geographic, disciplinary, cultural, political, social, and other contexts matter in devising effective solutions to common global challenges. 

2. Develop identity as well as inquiry. 

Scholars Suárez-Orozco and Qin-Hilliard observe that “Globalization threatens identities of both the original residents of the areas in which newcomers settle and those of the immigrants and their children.”[3]  Carola Suárez-Orozco wrote that cultivating a strong sense of students’ own history and identity will reduce fears of diversity and increase the understanding of the global context in which people live.  Immigrant students, in particular, are at the risk of adopting an “ascribed identity,” one projected on them from the outside, by other people, based on their class, ethnic, or religious affiliation, rather than ones they compose themselves.[4]

Some of these tensions among different people groups have come up recently as countries are sorting through the aftermaths of national elections.  A common theme that seems to be emerging after these votes is that many people lack basic knowledge about how socially, politically, and economically intertwined our communities and countries are; how beneficial globalization has been, and not just for elites; and at the same time, how harmful globalization has been for many.[5]  There is also a lack of awareness that it is not just globalization but automation, technology[6], and decisions made by business and political leaders that are creating tectonic shifts, as part of what many call the fourth industrial revolution[7].   Thus, even as we might encourage students to develop a positive and confident sense of who they are, we also might model and develop in them a disposition toward inquiry, a humility, and a sense of not having all the answers, even as we and they navigate a world full of not just ambiguities and anxieties, but also possibility and opportunity. 

3.  Pair powerful knowing with powerful acting, with others.

There is also a rich body of research in the field of positive youth development that shows that giving opportunities to adolescents to act to contribute to their communities not only cultivates necessary competencies but also develops a sense of purpose and meaning.[8] Students in the UWC schools[9], for example, not only learn to work with the communities around their schools, but also design and run their own conferences about peace and sustainability.  On our website at the Global Education Innovation Initiative[10], we have catalogued 50 global examples of programs that foster social, emotional, cognitive competencies in students while teaching attitudes and values with empowering, student-centered pedagogy.  We include in our list of 50, programs that pay particular attention to developing global citizenship competencies in students.  A recent curriculum resource on global citizenship I co-authored with colleagues provides many examples of project and problem-based learning[11].

In addition, in my interviews with over 100 people working in community organizing - including many people with advanced degrees in business, law, medicine, public policy, education, and theology - I found that people were eager to learn about how to act powerfully with others to create positive change in their communities, but that these tools and strategies to build relationships and to act on their knowledge to create a better world, are not often taught in the majority of our schools. There is a need for students to learn about power, possibility, identity, and inquiry, as they become local and global citizens – and teachers have a critical calling in shaping not just individual students’ futures, but also the future of our nations and the world.   



[1]Adapted from Gary Haugen (1999). Good News about Injustice: A Witness of Courage in a Hurting World. Westmont, IL: IVP Press.

[2]Seider, S. (2009, May).  Social Justice in the Suburbs. Educational Leadership, 66(8).  pp.54-58. ASCD. 

[3]Suárez-Orozco, M. & Qin-Hilliard, D.B. (Eds.) (2004).  Learning in the Global Era: International Perspectives on Globalization and Education.  Berkeley: University of California Press. 

[4]Suárez-Orozco, C. (2004).  Formulating Identity in a Globalized World.In Suárez-Orozco, M. & Qin-Hilliard, D. B. (Eds.)  Learning in the Global Era: International Perspectives on Globalization and Education.  Berkeley: University of California Press. 

[5]https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/16/learning/lesson-plans/rethinking-globalization-investigating-the-benefits-and-drawbacks-of-global-trade.html

[6]http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21714341-it-easy-say-people-need-keep-learning-throughout-their-careers-practicalities

[7]https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/

[8]Damon, W. (2008).  The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life.  New York: Free Press. Levine, P. (2013). We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America.  New York: Oxford University Press. 

[9]www.uwc.org

[10]www.gse.harvard.edu/globaled

[11]Reimers, F., Chopra, V., Chung, C., Higdon, J., O’Donnell, E.B. (2016).  Empowering Global Citizens: A World Course.  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.


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Connie Chung

Connie K. Chung is the associate director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she conducts research about civic, global citizenship, and 21st century education.

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