Making Connections: Beginning to Measure New Skills That Matter

Global Connections

As an educator, I’ve always been wary of narrow data snapshots that purport to paint a complete picture. All that matters cannot possibly be measured. Surely we can (and should) attempt to assess student and school progress toward important indicators of success. We need to know how we’re doing—who our classrooms and schools are serving well and how instructional strategies and broader systems must shift to meet the needs of all our students. I remain mindful, however, that data tells partial and incomplete stories. Nevertheless, as we gather more information, we are able to tell more stories and ask new questions. How does this connect to global competence and collaboration?

For the first time, the OECD’s PISA Test, the well-known assessment and comparison of educational systems, will include a section on global competence. The test includes a cognitive assessment as well as a background questionnaire that asks students, teachers, and schools to self-report on four dimensions which broadly include:

  • Examination of global topics and issues (e.g. international conflicts, global health, hunger and malnutrition)
  • Empathy and perspective-taking (e.g. Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place)
  • Adaptability and positive interactions (e.g. When encountering difficult situations with other people, I can think of a way to resolve the situation)
  • Propensity and ability to take constructive action (e.g. I boycott products or companies for political, ethical, or environmental reasons)

This represents an exciting opportunity. Believing that simply because global competence will now be internationally measured there will necessarily be immediate change would be naive.  However, what gets measured (and what becomes the basis for international comparison) is often what gets emphasized. Collectively advancing efforts around global competence can yield effects beyond what is stated in the OECD’s goals. We know that adolescents are especially attuned to issues of fairness and justice and become more interested exploring the rights and perspectives of others (Kellough & Kellough, 2008). Additionally, connecting academic content to global issues and concerns can increase students’ motivation and make learning more authentic and meaningful for adolescents (Scales, 2010).

So how do we do it? While sustained attention to curriculum adaptations (and in some cases, overhauls) is essential, there are instructional moves that can support the work of developing more engaged, globally competent learners. As a former English teacher, I cannot help but connect this effort back to critical literacies. Ira Shor (1999) wrote:  

“We can redefine ourselves and remake society, if we choose, through alternative rhetoric and dissident projects. This is where critical literacy begins, for questioning power relations, discourses, and identities in a world not yet finished, just, or humane.”

In my own classroom, posted on the wall, was a list of questions meant to inform our analysis of all the texts we read. Fiction or nonfiction, print or digital media, image or song, we employed a critical lens. Answering these questions required a close reading of any text (and I mean text in the broadest possible sense). Students were engaged in deep, critical thinking that made space (and required) multiple perspectives, viewpoints, and at times, research into new and different cultures.   

First, we read for the essentials:  

  • Whose voices are reflected or centered and whose are silenced or omitted?
  • What are the lifestyles, values, and points-of-view that are represented and which are omitted?
  • How might different readers with different identities interpret this?

Then, in response to each of those questions, we probed deeper into Why?

  • Why were some groups and identities privileged over others?
  • Who benefits from these representations and who is marginalized?

And then, we imagine that things might be otherwise by asking:

  • What if we reimagined this text?  Whose perspectives can be added or centered?
  • What action can we take to speak back to this text?  

While these questions are perhaps most easily incorporated into the humanities—English and Social Studies—I would also argue that there is a place for them in language, science, math, art, music, and most other classrooms. Explorations of environmental policies and their consequences on public health, the politics of mathematical formulas and calculations, the privileging of dialects, representation in the arts—these are just scratching the surface. The questions above provide a framework for analyzing the texts and media students study as well as public policies ranging from the global to the local. Whose voices inform decisions on tariffs and what perspectives are silenced or omitted? Who benefits from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and who might be negatively impacted?  

Those four OECD dimensions are aligned with critical literacies and questioning, and perhaps the new attempts at measurement will support efforts to develop those critical skills.

I’ve often conceived of my work as a teacher as that of making connections—connecting what students already know and can do to texts and strategies and supports that lead them to what they will someday know and be able to do; connecting the lives students already know to the life and world that might someday come to be; connecting students’ current worlds to broader terrains, including those across the globe. Deep and sustained engagement in connection-making and critical practices are foundational to developing not only global competence in our students, but developing engaged, informed citizens.

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Amanda Winkelsas

Dr. Amanda Winkelsas is Director of the UB Teacher Residency Program and clinical faculty in the Graduate School of Education, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.

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