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Taking Action on Global Education

Following a special seminar at UNESCO Bangkok on 16 October 2015, Fernando M. Reimers of Harvard University and Eleonora Villegas-Reimers of Wheelock College reflect on global education in view of building a sustainable, inclusive and peaceful world:

The recently approved Sustainable Development Goals place education at the core of this latest global compact to advance development. In this ambitious compact, education is conceived in more ambitious ways than it has previously been; not only is education one of the seventeen goals, but education is also central to the achievement of most of the remaining 16 goals. As a result, the Sustainable Development Goals have not only raised the bar for education leaders in terms of the actions that they must advance but they also represent a paradigm shift for how educational leaders and institutions should think about what it means to advance educational opportunity

This shift means that leadership to achieve these goals can no longer be about sustaining the actions that were so helpful in achieving the education goals of the last compact, the Millennium Development Goals, but that they will require disruption and innovation in leading efforts to make education systems not only more accessible but also more relevant. The goals are no longer to get every child in school, and to achieve gender parity in educational attainment; the goals are to educate all students so they can develop the skills, the knowledge and the dispositions to advance the actions necessary to have sustainable development and to empower them to do so. This is a tall order indeed. 

Meeting those goals will require innovation in high quality curriculum, innovation in pedagogies, high quality and available professional development for teachers, and the construction of improvement networks that can sustain communities of practice as they advance the implementation at scale of needed powerful pedagogies to equip all learners with the skills that the Sustainable Development Goals call for. In what follows, we illustrate what these innovations represent with respect to one of the items of the new education agenda which we believe is key in achieving those goals: global education.

Global Education --the development of a cosmopolitan mindset, of the skills and dispositions to understand the world, globalization, global interdependence, and to collaborate productively across identity boundaries to address the challenges of our times-- is hardly a new aspiration. Terentius, a liberated slave turned playwright in the Roman Republic expressed this aspiration in his play Heauton Timorumenos when he stated "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto", ‘Nothing human should be foreign to me, since I am human.’ The notion that education, the intentional act of supporting humans as they gain new understandings, should help achieve such cosmopolitanism, was implicit in Jan Amos Comenius’s call for education for all, four centuries ago, as a means to achieve peace.

This notion is also implicit in article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as in the preamble of UNESCO’s constitution, positing that education might address the mental barriers that prevent people from resolving their differences in peaceful ways. Over the last few centuries many educators have sought to help their students gain these global competencies through various activities, including global study, studying in culturally diverse classrooms and schools, engaging in projects that involve global collaboration, studying globally relevant curricula, studying abroad, and in other ways. These opportunities for global education, however, have not been at the core of what education systems have done when they have sought to educate all children. They have been peripheral, serving particular populations, often privileged students, sometimes students in conflict or post-conflict regions, or simply the lucky beneficiaries of innovative programs and models such as the International Baccalaureate, UNESCO Associated Schools, or the United World Colleges.

The educational imperative of the Sustainable Development Goals is to extend similar opportunities to all children: in effect, to leverage the phenomenal global educational architecture built as a result of the inclusion of education in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to place it in the service of empowering all learners so they can meaningfully engage in building a sustainable, inclusive and peaceful world.

In order to accomplish all of that, four areas of emphasis are needed: defining goals, innovating curriculum, new ways of teaching and learning, and available and high-quality teacher professional development.

1. Defining goals:

The first step in implementing innovation in global education is to identify the end goals of the process. What would be considered success? It is definitely more than access to education for all children; those goals must focus on what it is that the process will develop in terms of   the knowledge, the dispositions and skills that students will develop, acquire and strengthen during their education careers. Thus, it is not only access to education, but to a learning process of quality which will help the next generation achieve the world envisioned in the Sustainable Development Goals. The reason for this paradigm shift is based on research: In spite of the fact that the Global Education Movement  produced the remarkable transformation of providing most children around the world the opportunity to be schooled, there are numerous troubling signs that many of those who benefited from such opportunities lack the capacities to understand the world of today, to be tolerant towards difference, even more to be able to collaborate with fellow human beings in other nations or regions, or across cultural and ethnic differences.

On the attitudinal front, for example, data from the World Values Survey, a cross-national study of values conducted by a global consortium led by researchers at the University of Michigan, show that there are high levels of intolerance across many dimensions of difference. For example, when asked what are important qualities that should be cultivated in children, ‘Tolerance and respect for other people’ is mentioned by 85% of the population in Australia, but only by 40% of the population in South Korea and 50% of the population in China. Furthermore, in some nations, the percentage of the population that expresses tolerance and respect for others as an important quality is declining, from over 70% a decade ago in China to 50% now, from 65% to 40% in South Korea, from 70% to 55% in Singapore, from 80% to 70% in the United States.

The same survey shows that levels of trust are very low for people of another religion, another nationality, immigrants or people who speak another language. The percentage of the population who would trust completely someone of a different religion is under 10% in Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore or the United States.

On the knowledge front, competence is also dismal. In what has come to be known as the ‘Ignorance Survey’, Hans Rosling has shown how inaccurate the factual knowledge of basic facts about the world, such as distribution of the world population, decline in poverty rates, increase in literacy rates, is among adults in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom or Sweden. Particularly troubling is the fact that university graduates are not significantly more knowledgeable than those who have not had access to college. For example, only one in 20 persons in the United States know that the percentage of the population living in poverty globally has declined over the last two decades.

Clearly, if people don’t know the facts about the world, and if they have not developed the affect to work with others across line of difference to address global challenges, the prospects to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, or to support such an agenda, are limited. Hence the need to integrate into the curriculum of instruction, for all students, ample and adequate opportunities to study what the SDGs are, why they matter and for students to develop the dispositions, the skills, the affects, the attitudes to care about them, and the competency to act effectively towards achieving them.

2.  Innovative curriculum content

Once the goals are clear, reaching them will require a curriculum that is aimed not just at the development of knowledge of the facts, or even at the cognitive dimensions of understanding such facts, and being able to have the skills to address them, but also at the development of the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills indispensable to translate such knowledge into effective action, particularly collaborative action. Such interpersonal skills include communication, collaboration, team work, cooperation, coordination, empathy, perspective taking, trust, service orientation, conflict resolution and negotiation. Intrapersonal skills include intellectual openness and curiosity, flexibility, adaptability, artistic and cultural appreciation, personal and social responsibility, intercultural competency, appreciation for diversity, adaptability and the capacity for lifelong learning. Also important are elements such as work ethic, the ability to take initiative, self-direction, responsibility, perseverance, productivity, persistence, self-regulation, meta-cognitive skills, anticipation of the future, reflexive skills, professionalism, ethics, integrity and citizenship, self-monitoring and self-assessment, as well as attention to physical and mental health.

Designing curriculum with attention to these three dimensions, of cognition, interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies, is indeed an ambitious target, one requiring significant revision of existing standards and curricula.

3. New modes of teaching and learning

The implementation of such curriculum will require also pedagogical innovation. The full range of competencies described requires more than children sitting in their desks and teachers who play the sage in the stage. They require students engaging in different forms of learning, extended learning projects, student and peer centered education, more robust collaborations between schools, communities and workplaces. It also requires the use of new curriculum tools not only for teaching but also for assessment. New technologies have opened the doors for many innovative teaching practices, and those will be necessary to meet the goals required now. Finally, none of these will be possible, unless teachers are well-prepared and ready to teach for learning and understanding.

4.  Available and high quality teacher professional development

Achieving the necessary change in pedagogical cultures so that classrooms can deliver 21st century pedagogies will require sustained attention to professional development on an unprecedented scale. In fact, we should probably reimagine what teacher professional development looks like, and stop calling as such many of the activities that went under that name in the past, short courses delivered in haphazard fashion to some teachers here and there.

Clearly, the consistent practice of robust pedagogies that produce deep learning of competencies such as the ones named here will require professional teachers who can construct a practice to charter into new, ambitious and challenging territory. This is work best undertaken in good company, and in order for teachers to sustain these practices they will need to be part of coherent networks committed to ongoing improvement. The design of such networks, and the reconceptualization of the teaching profession as one where good practice is best sustained by productive collaboration in a social network is, arguably, one of the exciting opportunities that the implementation of the new agenda, inspired by the Sustainable Development Goals, opens up.

The challenges ahead in advancing such an agenda are indeed daunting. So daunting, in fact, that it might be tempting to deem their achievement unrealistic. But, while they call for more than business as usual, it is helpful to remember that the Global Education Movement of which this new agenda forms part, launched in earnest after the inclusion of education as a basic human right, achieved nothing short of remarkable progress. A fundamental transformation of the human experience that provided most people the opportunity to be schooled. It is the awareness of the fruits yielded by similar goals and covenants in the recent past, including the significant reduction in global poverty, and the concomitant expansion in educational access and equity achieved by the work which the Millennium Development Goals inspired, that leads us to be very hopeful about the challenges ahead, and the many opportunities they offer us to deeply transform the global educational architecture so it can, indeed, empower all learners to create a world that is sustainable, without poverty, and at peace.

Fernando Reimers is Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice of International Education, Director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative and of the International Education Policy Program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Eleonora Villegas-Reimers is Associate Professor of Education at Wheelock College.

For more information, please contact Ramya Vivekanandan [r.vivekanandan(at)]

Written by  Fernando M. Reimers & Eleonora Villegas-Reimers

Related links:

• Video of Special Seminar:

• Sustainable Development Goals

• Professor Fernando M. Reimers’s website: