February 23, 2009

Education in the 21st Century: Thinking Locally, Acting Globally (3rd in a series)

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 Part 1 of this series can be found here; part 2 is here.

I recently joined Teachers Without Borders (TWB), an organization of teachers committed to enacting global change through education.  TWB goes a bit beyond professional networking sites like the Global Education Collaborative and Classroom 2.0 in that Teachers Without Borders offers opportunities for professional development and even mentorship on an international level, and it possesses the ability to identify and support educational leaders who are willing to put the effort in to making a difference.  It’s interesting to see the number of organizations that have developed around international collaboration between educators and students.  Teachers Without Borders promises to take training and collaboration to a level beyond mere networking.  Like Doctors Without Borders, Teachers Without Borders is a nonprofit dedicated to bridging cultural and geographic gaps for the betterment of humankind; unlike Doctors Without Borders, which is a centralized organization, TWB is decentralized and more driven by its members. It’s also one of the few organizations whose focus is the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, and recognizes that teachers are on the front line of world change. Going beyond mere networking, TWB has specific goals and a plan for affecting change through education.  (Best part is that membership is free!)

This mindset and recognition of the power and contribution of educators is yet another recent development in the field of education thanks to technology and Web 2.0.  With the advent of the internet, more and more education professionals are finding themselves in a position to affect change, and not just within their own brick and mortar schools.  The International Baccalaureate program got the ball rolling some 40 years ago, but even then it was a situation of teaching in isolation and often with doubt of how much of a difference it made.  This is probably one of the most exciting times to be involved in the field of education.  Through the transformation from pen pals to global collaboration, from being “sealed” in the classroom to dissolving the walls via podcasts and live blogging, education is taking on a look that was could not have been imagined when the 19th century assembly-line model of education was developed (and is still clung to a bit too fiercely, if you ask me).

However, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and I sometimes wonder, and even worry about, those teachers in the field who simply can’t (or won’t) take up the mantle.  Content with their “if it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for them” mentality, they don’t realize that while many things about young people haven’t changed, there are more things that have changed, and by not keeping up and learning how to capitalize on those changes, they endanger their students’ future success.  It has often been observed that teachers are attempting to equip their students to work in jobs (and even fields) that haven’t yet been created and to solve problems that either don’t exist or we don’t know are problems (but will soon enough).  The world is changing fast, and our students need the skills to keep up.  The most important of these will likely be the ability to cross cultural and socioeconomic divides to work in a team, regardless of race, gender, religion, orientation, or distance.  If teachers don’t lead the way in this and show our students how this can be accomplished, then who will?  The educational model that many of us grew up with and were later trained in just doesn’t work anymore, and it’s time for all educators to step up and move beyond what makes us comfortable.

Along with this, it becomes an educator’s responsibility to be not just more culturally sensitive, but more culturally respectful.  With increased contacts between “worlds,” as it were, the differences can and will become obvious, and they have the potential to become either a source of friction or a source of momentum.  It therefore behooves teachers and their students to set the example for others to follow in the realm of international and intercultural relations.  Relationships between teachers and students have become increasingly paramount in the new education model, and this holds particularly true once classroom communities reach out beyond the brick walls and begin to interact with others who will likely think differently.  This has the potential for incredible enrichment or monumental disaster, depending on the approach of the educator involved.  It will be the teacher that sets and keeps the tone of communication between their classroom and the classroom half a planet away. Now more than ever, it will be teachers and their students that can and will change the world.
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