Why global education still mattersStudents perform a traditional Chinese fan dance, said to be part of the Chinese culture for more than 2,000 years, during the school’s annual China Night in January. Credit: Carlos Osgrej
By Guest Columnist JASON MARSHALL, executive director at Wesley International Academy
Maybe you have seen the photos of school children wearing hats with 6-foot extensions on either side to promote social distancing. For many parents of school-aged children, the summer looms large with wonder about what school will look like this fall. Will distance learning continue indefinitely? Will kids who return be allowed to eat in the cafeteria? Participate in recess?
As the executive director of Wesley International Academy, a K-8 public charter school in Atlanta, I know our leadership team and stakeholders task force have been asking these same questions and analyzing possible scenarios for months. There are concerns about public health, of course, as well as worries about the toll ongoing isolation can have on educational attainment and mental health.
Wesley International Academy is an International Baccalaureate school with a vision to develop students who are global citizens. In recent months, international fear and caution have escalated, and we have watched national borders close while ideological isolationism rose. It may feel like this global disconnection is here to stay, but in many ways, the world has never felt smaller. This pandemic revealed how quickly transfer can happen between individuals, throughout urban and rural communities, and beyond national borders. What began as an issue for one country to address quickly became a global conversation about cooperation, coordination, and problem solving. As an educator, I believe recent events have revealed that a global education is just as – if not more – important now than ever before.
We will continue to be connected to our global community. Moving backward in time is simply impossible. While our globalized world may be taking a pause, international business, travel, and connection will resume. In fact, a June 2020 poll from the Global Business Travel Association found that 68% of respondents who said their company had cancelled or suspended travel expected to return to international business travel within eight months or less.
When we acknowledge that the international connection will resume, we can recognize that this crisis cannot push us to ignore our interconnectedness. In fact, it has illuminated the need for greater connection, collaboration, and communication globally. Together, we have the opportunity to get in front of global threats and work together for creative solutions. Wesley’s IB curriculum encourages students to ask questions, dive into topics of global significance, think critically, and take risks. We are preparing students for a future that acknowledges our global interconnectedness and is preparing them with invaluable skills to address emerging challenges that are sure to arise in our global community.
A second strength of global education in today’s climate is that it equips students to tell deeper, more accurate stories about the world around them. As fears took hold about COVID-19, many politicians and media outlets were quick to scapegoat China as the origin of the new coronavirus. For many Americans, China felt like a distant, foreign land, and it was easy to not question the rhetoric. At Wesley, however, our students study Chinese Mandarin language from kindergarten through 8th grade, and select middle school students visit China every summer.
Wesley students have a broad understanding of the country’s language, landmarks, cultural practices, food, holidays, and cultural stories. Students who have visited have hands-on experience standing on the Great Wall, ordering food, and sharing classrooms with their Chinese peers. And all our students have personal relationships with Chinese teachers, many of whom have lived some or most of their lives in Asia. Like all Wesley teachers, our Chinese teachers adapted and showed up every day for digital learning during the unusual final months of our school year.
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her famous TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story, says: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” At a time in history where a single story of China as the origin of the virus dominates the media, our students had a breadth of education and experiences to add to the story. They had years of language study and cultural knowledge, as well as ongoing, weekly interactions with their dedicated Chinese teachers who continued to help them tell a deeper story of China.
Finally, when we recognize our interconnectedness and the diversity of stories in each place, we know we will need the leadership of those who can navigate these global realities. We are preparing young students to be leaders on the world stage. A global education equips them to listen and learn, to adapt and grow, and to speak and lead. Since kindergarten, Wesley students have been learning about other cultures, engaging in project-based learning, and honing language skills. These practices allow them to explore and create, as well as develop empathy and understanding.
The pandemic will not last forever, but it will leave an indelible mark on our young people who experienced this global emergency in their formative years. They will not assume that what affects our neighbors in another country cannot and will not impact them. Instead, their generation will look for leaders who can engage on a global scale and navigate the unique challenges and opportunities this connectedness will bring.
Many have tossed around the phrase “new normal” to describe parents working from home while children attend online class meetings and ask for more snacks. But the truth is that this isolated reality is a temporary one. As the pandemic subsides, new norms will emerge and some of our rhythms will return. We will move forward more aware than before of our global reality and the risks and opportunities it offers. Students engaged in a global education will be uniquely prepared to step into that future as leaders, creative thinkers, and problem-solves. Global education most certainly still matters.
Note to readers: Jason Marshall is the Executive Director at Wesley International Academy, an Atlanta public charter school for grades K-8 developing global citizens through a world-class IB education.