Global citizenship is crucial in schools, but will not work if teachers continue to define learning by preparation for exams.
Leading figures in Scottish education faculties heard that a global dimension to learning would be superficial unless teachers felt able to take risks.
An event such as the catastrophic tsunami of 2004 provided a "litmus test", according to Strathclyde University professor of education Brian Boyd. It was an opportunity to suspend the curriculum and concentrate on global issues of huge proportions, but he was not convinced that many teachers would have the confidence to do so.
It was not clear whether global citizenship was a "new paradigm" or the "emperor's new clothes", Professor Boyd said at Making Connections: Taking a Global Approach to Initial Teacher Education, a conference held in Stirling last week.
Alan Britton, deputy director of Glasgow University's Education for Global Citizenship Unit, said a "risk-averse culture" was holding back this type of education, with secondary teachers reluctant to look beyond traditional subject boundaries and preparation for exams.
Judith Robertson, head of Oxfam in Scotland, said global issues had to elicit more than "pity and blame", and that a more sophisticated understanding of poverty relied heavily on well-informed teachers.
She questioned who benefited from relationships with schools in impoverished countries. In places where resources were scant and teachers were not paid, schools "should not spend valuable time maintaining links with their Scottish counterparts".
Her comments followed a call earlier this summer by the Scottish Parliament's European and external relations committee for the Government to commission research on the impact of school twinning. Evidence suggested these arrangements could do more harm than good, because of the partners' inequal relationship.
Rosa Murray, the General Teaching Council for Scotland's professional officer for chartered teachers, said global citizenship must not become a niche subject, as it was crucial to understanding "a more varied set of local, national and international contexts" than previous generations had had to deal with.
Meanwhile, Learning and Teaching Scotland has published research that talks up the prospects of sustainable development education playing a greater part in the curriculum. The findings were based on interviews with 122 people involved in this area.
www.LTScotland.org.uksustainabledevelopmentaboutnationaldocumentsatime of opportunity.asp.