Global Learning and Project-Based Learning: Practical Perspectives on the Necessary Connection

It’s been over a year since Jennifer Klein and I traded perspectives on the state of global learning in the wake of GlobalEdCon 2012. In my piece, I hearkened back to the UN Dialogue Among Civilizations as a model for global learning; a concept that was popular again at the end of the last decade as it was at the end of the 1990s when the Dialogue was launched. Though in some ways the excitement for global learning has waned in the last few years due to shifts in the global economy, the work Jennifer, Barbara Petzen and I have been doing in the past year with select World Leadership School clients has led me to a realization about my practice, and the practice I hope to encourage among teachers looking to go global.

Based on my recent trip to Berkeley Carroll Middle School in Brooklyn, the realization is pretty simple. Dialogue is just words, and students want something more.

From a student perspective, it’s hard to deny that individual students still experience a thrill when meeting, and talking with peers from around the world. And we need to admit that this is a thrill that is just as strong coming from the other side of the digital divide, if not stronger. But “dialogue” itself is not enough to sustain relationships. This is a point Jennifer made in a more recent blog on her work, but it’s also a point I observed quite clearly during a student presentation in an 8th Grade World History class at Berkeley Carroll. Students were not content to “explore” or “understand” the spread of the Jasmine Revolution from Tunisia to China in 2011, they wanted to be able to know how to use and manipulate imagery and symbols from that world-changing event for their own purposes. They wanted to make their own statements about the world in order to make their own changes in the world. To put it succinctly, these students wanted to be able to do with what they knew, not just demonstrate that they knew it.

From the perspective of teachers working with students who want this kind of global learning, Jennifer’s blog is worth a read as it points out important strategies for launching effective relationships; those that go beyond that thrill to the practice of global learning. If you’ve dabbled in global learning, you know that we need to do that as teachers because the “exoticism” of others tends to fall off quickly—for both sides—and the relationships fall into disuse as new and more exotic Others are sought to keep the thrill alive. The teachers I worked with at Berkeley Carroll know this experience, and if it sounds familiar to other relationship problems you, or your students may experience, don’t be surprised! The Other on that other side of the globe is human, after all! They want more than dialogue, too. Indeed, from this perspective dialogue is what we do first, not the end itself, because dialogue helps us find out what we might do together.

The moral of the story, according to Jennifer, is to “work at it” as you would any long-term relationship. That doesn’t imply that you need counseling or therapy, but I do think it does imply that global learning is necessarily project-based learning. Global learning is something that a whole school works at over several developmentally appropriate projects across a range of subjects and grade levels, not something that a few teachers just “deliver” to meet global standards, or that a small committee crafts in a single all-school project. The teachers and administrators I worked with at Berkeley Carroll Middle School came to realize that what is good global learning for their students is just as good for them as facilitators of those learning experiences. They have projects to take on, such as scaffolding global learning experiences in the classroom, across a grade level, and along the vertical scope and sequence of their curriculum. So too, they need think about how much time they can spend going global, and how much they need to attend to local and state concerns as expressed by their parents, and their school accreditation process. Both of those will go better, and be more global, if they’re done as part of collaborative efforts in global learning, not after the committee report on how to do it.

So, from the final, and perhaps most important perspective as a professional learning community, Berkeley Carroll Middle School is beginning to realize that students don’t just want us to bring the world to their classroom, because students can do that on the web when, and where they want. Students want to do more with what they’re learning right here in their own communities, so teachers are going to have to do more with the learning experiences they’re designing, and they’re going to have to do more of it with subject matter expert partners from their community in order to do it in a way that feels authentic to their students. Students want to be able to interact with the world with the help of a teacher, and his or her network of professional contacts. They want to be able to address their questions, their concerns and what they see as the challenges they face in the world today. As teachers, we need to align our projects with theirs, because the simple fact of the matter is that we’ll live in their world before they live in ours. Helping students build their world so that we might live to see it is a project any school that’s going global must be prepared to take on. Berkeley Carroll, like many other WLS partners, seems ready to take on that challenge.

Leave a Comment