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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are American Students Prepared to Think Globally?

By Peter DeWitt — March 23, 2014 6 min read
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If American reality television is any indication of our priorities, it seems as though we are self-absorbed, addicted to money, fairly shallow and have an obsession with material objects. Reality television seems to show the worst part of who we are, and as much as that seems like a one-size-fits-all stereotype, there are many examples that point us in that direction. After all, more and more reality shows pop up, and then when we go to pick something up from the grocery store, we see those same characters on the covers of magazines.

I understand all of that sounds harsh, and it’s meant to. I feel as though the symbol that we see day in and day out on television doesn’t paint a very good picture of us, and many of us would rather see that change. We would like to show that we do have a much more global perspective of the world, and that not everything is about...me, me, and me.

If you do any international travel, or have friends who live internationally, it’s probably a discussion you have had with them. We seem to have to do a bit of myth-busting over what Americans are really like. It often helps to break that preconceived notion that we may all be like those characters we see on television. However, if you people watch and come across a few of our fellow residents, there is a bit of a propensity for ethnocentrism. There are Americans who almost seem to expect that everyone should speak their language when they are abroad.

Making this more complicated is the fact that so many people from other countries seem to speak English. I get that restaurants and other establishments want to make money, so speaking English is important...even vital...to their success, so Americans really don’t have to worry about speaking the language of the country they visit, although it would be good to at least try.

But...this goes on a bit more than just trying to speak the language.

In New Zealand, I noticed that most Kiwis say hello in a Pacific Island language before they speak English, and there are many respectful formalities around when and how they speak. It’s not just intriguing to watch, I find myself envious of it at times. It’s more than just language, it’s a sense of pride and respect around the individual cultures that share New Zealand land. There is a sense of pride, culture, and respect for each other that seems to be missing at times in American culture.

Proximity is Key

Clearly, by nature of proximity, Europeans have access to dozens of other countries that are merely a drive away, and it’s also less expensive to travel to other countries when they border them, rather than for Americans who have to pay for the expensive flight, which means access is even more difficult for people without means and impossible for those living in poverty.

New Zealand is a much smaller country, and I’m sure they have had their good and bad times, but there seems to be more unity among diverse populations. Like America, New Zealand has a great deal of diversity that share the same space, and they make it work very well. So...can American children who are not exposed to a variety of cultures, even those cultures that may only be a neighborhood away, be prepared globally for a world they haven’t had the opportunity to explore?

What do they need to understand to be prepared for their global world?

Global Mindset

Truth be told, I have always had a love for travel, although I never really left my hometown for anything other than a trip to Disney World when I was five, and frequent trips to Massachusetts to visit my sister when I was in my teens. Not exactly a global perspective, but it did become important for me to understand the various nationalities that were within my own family.

My older brother joined the military, and then after he did his four years he worked in the Middle East for fifteen years, and still travels frequently today. As a way for my students to understand the whole wide world out there, my brother used to send us post cards from whatever country he was visiting, and then visit the classroom when he was in the U.S. I wanted students to see what would be possible for them if they chose to leave their town or perhaps their country.

Is that how we get our students think globally...and live locally?

If our students are to be prepared for a global economy, they need to be prepared to work with international populations. Lately I have been wondering how students can think globally when their access is so much more difficult, or their experience with cultures within their own counties and states is even limited for various reasons. Sure, we always have the internet, but that has limitations. Diversity is not something you can experience alone in books or on the internet.

Budget Cuts Don’t Help

In these days of budget cuts, language programs are one of the first programs to be cut. It seems to be less of a priority to expose children to other languages, even when we know research suggests it’s beneficial, which is strange, because when I began teaching I worked in a private school for boys for a little over a year. As much as the students came from backgrounds that were far more academically and monetarily enriching than I experienced, the school had a great sense of community.

One of the pieces of curriculum that was a staple was the fact that the students all learned French beginning in kindergarten. It started out as fifteen minute sessions, and the time expanded as they moved up from grade to grade. The school added in Latin in fifth grade, so the students were exposed to a strong sense of diverse language by the time they left eighth grade. Add in the fact that their parents travelled with them to Europe, and those students had exposure to experiences very few students have in life.

  • When we don’t expose students to other languages at a young age, does that impact their sense that there is a greater world out there than the United States?
  • Do they find ways to celebrate their own cultures at the same time they learn that other cultures matter as well?
  • Can we invite storytellers into our schools so students experience diversity?

    • Can we do it enough that it matters?
    • Do racial tensions prevent students from inter-mixing and learning from one another? If so, how do we get passed that?
    • Do we teach them how to listen to each other, rather than speak by each other?

Even when students take Languages other than English (LOTE), do they lose much of what they have learned because they are not immersed in the language all the time? Or is it important enough that they are taking LOTE, which will help give them a better understanding of other cultures?

In the End

As young students living around the globe learn English as their second or third language, we have many students only able to speak one...which is their own. How can we get students to think at a global level, like their international peers, if they are only exposed to “American” ways of life? How can we instill a patriotic pride for their own country, with a better understanding and respect for the various cultures that all share American land? How do we break the overexposure to reality television which sends a very narrow minded view of life in order to prepare them for a world that is far bigger than the one country they live in?

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.