If the nature of education is to prepare children for the future, then where does school give them the opportunity to explore it, asks David Hicks of Bath Spa university. He believes the way to do this is by bringing an international dimension into the curriculum. Children are confronted with distressing images of war, famine and global warming, but many of them feel powerless to make a diference. Meanwhile, globalisation presents new challenges, as technology, the rapid spread of ideas and multinational industry shrink the planet.
It is clear that young people will have to cope with a rapidly changing world. An international dimension in teaching does not simply mean "non-British", replacing Pennine sheep farmers with (often stereotypical) images of Masai herdsmen. It goes much deeper, examining common global themes which highlight the world's interdependence.
Many schools have forged links with schools overseas, have assemblies on current affairs and international food days - but that is only a start. The global dimension infused throughout the curriculum can foster a different way of thinking, teaching social and community responsibility, citizenship and caring about others. In an age when many teachers report a decline in the sense of community, these are important lessons.
Malcolm McKenzie, principal of Atlantic college, an international school in Wales, sees a strong link between international-mindedness and community action. When they recognise that people are interdependent, both globally and locally, children want to protect the planet. Too often young people cannot make sense of their local environment because there is nothing to compare it with. "Learning about difference is the best global educator,"
says Mr McKenzie. "It takes us where we have not been before, where we are not immediately comfortable but where we are challenged by the shock of the new."
The global dimension is by nature cross-curricular and encourages children to make connections - a higher-order thinking skill. Balsall Common primary school near Coventry, last year jettisoned traditional teaching in favour of the international primary curriculum which takes just such a thematic approach - and received an extremely rare "outstanding" report from Ofsted.
"In all the discussions we have, we bring in the point that the world is changing," says the headteacher, Trevor Davis. "It is a wonderful opportunity to make the world a better place."
Few schools are willing to rejig the curriculum quite so radically. In Dudley, West Midlands, schools are piloting The Learning Journey, a virtual global curriculum based on a balloon journey round the world (see below).
Crucially, pupils can communicate with children in other countries to find out what they think of common problems. A Western viewpoint - often criticised in so-called international curricula - is not imposed. A year after it began, teachers are already full of praise for the broader knowledge, the teamworking, negotiating and critical thinking skills it develops in their pupils.
Research has found that children are very optimistic about the planet between the ages of seven and 10, but become increasingly pessimistic in secondary school. "Sadly, by the end of school there is a distinct feeling that the world is a terrible place," says Professor Hicks. "But if you ask pupils to think about what the world will be like in five years' time, they then realise there is a range of options. They move away from thinking things are fixed and they cannot do anything. It makes them more active and optimistic."
The global dimension tries to make sense of a changing world. That is why it is often linked with teaching about the future. Pupils' interest in international affairs is high. Since September 11 teachers report that pupils want to know about Iraq and other current wars, not just the Second World War. They want to understand how the decision is made to go to war.
Last year's Make Poverty History campaign and Live8 also raised awareness.
Pictures of starving children elicit an emotional response from donors and often exploit the subject while ignoring the causes and consequences of global poverty. Explaining that may be tough, but, says Harriet Marshall, lecturer in international education at Bath, "If you can't teach controversial issues, you can't teach global."
Global education is not easy to provide. Few teachers are conversant with the issues. The Department for Education and Skills says the global dimension should include sustainable development, social justice, diversity, interdependence, conflict resolution, environment and human rights, but each one is a huge and complex topic in its own right. And space needs to be found in the curriculum. These concepts need to be embedded across subjects.
Large non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam, Actionaid and Save the Children provide a plethora of resources, but have their own campaigning agendas. That is no reason for teachers to shy away. The international dimension teaches important skills which reach right across the curriculum.
Big companies are full of praise for the computer literacy skills of British students, though the technologies that make the world smaller can also isolate us. Instead of discussing, negotiating, delegating and compromising, pupils sit at a screen. Face-to face communication, once taken for granted, now needs to be taught.
Companies want employees who can work independently as well as in teams, solve problems, be creative and speak foreign languages. Above all they must be resilient, and not give up at the first hurdle. A globalised curriculum teaches pupils to discuss, weigh different options, think in terms of solutions, and teaches them how to accept and understand change.
"A curriculum fit for purpose in the 21st century should encourage the development of critical thinking in pupils who are not only aware of global issues and events from different points of view but also realise that they can be effective participators in working on their solutions," says the QCA's David Gardner. But perhaps the most important reason to teach the international dimension is voiced by Mr McKenzie: "We have to prepare students to be citizens of the whole planet, not merely part of it."
*David Hicks: Lessons for the Future, the missing dimension in education (Trafford Publishing)
Resources and Links
* The Learning Journey www.tlj.org.uk
* Developing the Global Dimension in the school curriculum from the Development Education Association can be downloaded at:www.dea.org.ukschools deapublications.htmlNoNocurriculum
* Resources on the Global Dimension at www.globaldimension.org.uk
* The United Nations cyber schoolbus, about global issues and the UN : www.cyberschoolbus.un.org
* Oxfam's Education for Global Citizenship, A Guide for Schools is available at: www.oxfam.org.uk
* The website Cool Planet with lesson plans and activities is at: www.oxfam.org.ukcoolplanet