SOE News

From the dean
Preparing educators and researchers to think globally

Some years ago I was sitting with Albert Ulroan, an Alaska Native Elder, on the summer tundra under a clear, limitless blue sky near the edge of the Bering Sea. Other than a few white canvas wall tents that marked villagers’ fish camps scattered along the muddy shore, our 360-degree view of the horizon was unobstructed by any man-made structure. As we talked, I noticed a distant mustard-colored cloud in the West. I asked him what it was. Looking out across the sea, Albert, who knew as much about the weather and winds as any professional meteorologist, replied that coal-burning power plants in China belched it out. Nodding toward the cloud, he added, “All that will end up in our food. We have to talk with the Chinese. It’s not just their problem – it’s our problem.”

Albert’s worldview included a deep understanding of the relationship between big problems and their broader context. When I hear people talking about “global awareness” or “global citizenship,” I often think of Albert. He saw big problems – whether pollution, climate change, or diminishing sea mammal and fish stocks – in their true global context, unobscured by the artifices of national boundaries. Solutions, he recognized, required both a level of cooperation and understanding and a reordering of priorities unprecedented in human history. Long-term survival depended on global engagement.

Schools of education share responsibility for cultivating such a perspective in future educators and researchers. Although controversial in some circles, the growing inter-connectedness of the world is undeniable. A key question for those of us in ed schools is: How do we prepare educators and researchers to reflexively operate from such a perspective? 

The challenge is acute in the United States. Compared to most other countries, we, in most cases, inadequately prepare our citizens to engage the world beyond our shores. For example, whereas countries such as China begin foreign language instruction in first grade, early language immersion remains rare in the United States. A recent Center for Applied Linguistics survey found that, over the past decade, while foreign language instruction has remained stable in high schools, it has decreased substantially in elementary and middle schools. How much of this is due to the narrowing of the curriculum under the pressures spawned by NCLB is difficult to determine. But it seems undeniable that educational policies, emanating from state houses and Washington, D.C., have played a major role in drowning out the call to educate world citizens with high-level language skills. Mastering another language is more than a linguistic accomplishment – it is also learning another way of interpreting and representing the world. 

Teaching abroad, I was impressed that my students were often more knowledgeable about the U.S. political system and current events than students I taught in the United States. This is due in part to the United States being the 500-pound gorilla in world affairs: Because of our military and economic power, what happens in the United States can have dramatic repercussions for folks elsewhere. Witness the recent worldwide financial crisis. Also at play, however, appears to be a puzzling lack of curiosity among many in the United States about the rest of the world.

The School of Education faculty recognizes the critical responsibility to encourage our students’ curiosity about the world and provide first-hand opportunities to learn more about global issues and international perspectives. To this end, many are forging international research alliances and creating international learning opportunities for students. Below I briefly describe a few of these efforts. 

  • Rune Simeonsson directs the Transatlantic Consortium in Early Childhood Intervention supported by the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). Over the next four years, 48 graduate students from five universities in the United States and Europe will undertake extended study in other countries and earn a graduate concentration in Global Education and Developmental Studies.
  • Xue Lan Rong is developing, with Xi’an International University, a summer program (Learning about China and Teaching in China) for M.A.T. students. The students will take courses in both the United States and Chinese cultural contexts and will teach in a Chinese high school for three weeks in Xi’an. Students will also visit Beijing, Shanghai and other cities in China.
  • Suzanne Gulledge is working with faculty at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, on innovative uses of technology in teacher preparation and professional development. She also designed and teaches a course – North Carolina: Perspectives on Immigration, Teaching, Culture and History – that has involved traveling with her students to Scotland and Ireland. This fall, she will lead a group of middle grades education majors on a semester-long experience in South Africa, where the students will complete internships in South African schools while studying at the University of Cape Town.
  • Rebecca New is collaborating with Italian colleagues on a study of Italian early childhood services and the Italian concept of partecipazione [akin to civic engagement] and continues to work with educators in Reggio Emilia. She has also started collaborative research with a Norwegian colleague and has facilitated Memos of Understanding between the School of Education and the University of Milano-Bicocca in Milan, Italy, and the NLA Teachers College in Bergen, Norway.
  • Olof Steinthorsdottir is studying classroom environments, teacher-student interaction patterns, and students’ and teachers’ perceptions of mathematics in Iceland as a follow-up to results from 2003 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) that showed Icelandic girls outscoring boys in mathematical literacy – a finding unique to Iceland among the 57 participating countries.

In addition, I recently traveled to Bangkok to discuss a project to improve science instruction in rural Thai schools in collaboration with the Kenan Institute in Asia, the Thai Ministry of Education, and Teachers College, Columbia University. Nick Cabot and Olof Steinthorsdottir will lead this work. 

As we bring new faculty into the School, we identify scholars who have interests in international research and collaboration. We will also continue to look for funding opportunities to support students and faculty in working with schools, educators and researchers abroad. As our faculty gain even greater international experience, I believe we will see increasing attention to global issues and questions in our programs and courses. Again, I don’t believe we have a choice. As my friend Albert understood, the most pressing problems we face are global in nature and will only be solved through global approaches.