Wisdom in the age of artificial intelligence

Recently, Harvard Business Review released a new bundle of articles and pieces called “The Age of AI: How it will impact business, industry, and society.”  Educators have been grappling with how to respond to the rapid changes in automation, technology and globalization for over a decade now.

Remembers this original “Shift Happens” video?

It was first shown over 10 years ago, before YouTube was even used for wide dissemination. It’s since been updated a number of times – the last version the creators did is here, and others have created a 2017 version – but I love the original if not just for the nostalgia of remembering MySpace, then for this oft repeated line that has now become mantra in education innovation conversations:

rajeeb-dey-from-enternships-on-rethinking-recruitment-12-638

This is an important conversation, and in the last ten years, answers of all sorts have arisen in response. Learning needs to be personalized, authentic, skills- and project-based. Students need to have agency, voice, choice, passion, and autonomy. Schools need to innovate, redesign, prototype, and break down walls. Teachers need to understand global trends, reflect, anticipate, respond, and transform their practice.

And yet, in the midst of this, we have to remember that there is no one right answer, no magic bullet to it all. We can feel like we’re forever grasping at the next buzzword to provide the antidote to that knotted feeling in the pit of our stomachs as we ponder, “Are we actually doing what will matter for these young people in their future?”

In the rise of artificial intelligence – artificial in the sense of robots, and in the sense of being feigned – what we need more than ever is wisdom.

Wisdom is a strictly human possibility. Wisdom requires experience, knowledge, and judgement, and it requires an intuitive ability to apply these traits to turn belief into action.

A machine can be very, very intelligent. It can accumulate, process, and even create all sorts of things, but it can never be wise. Artificial intelligence operates within the realm of mathematics: it operates with logic, probability and statistics. And while this mathematical language gives rise to truly remarkable and complex possibilities and applications, it will never give rise to discernment or sagacity, to knowing why something should or should not be done.

No matter what new programs or credential or redesigns we implement in education, one thing that must pervade it all is the need to be wise. Knowledge is cheap and intelligence is programmable, so the best opportunities we can provide for our students are those in which they can develop and apply their own wisdom. In the age of artificial intelligence, we need to be more human than ever.

As we explore changes to traditional curricula, timetables, and physical structures, we must remember that wisdom cannot be imparted nor can it be gained alone or from technology. Whatever it is that we choose to do, we must do it by connecting with our students, our students with each other, and all of us to the human experience. We must make ourselves and our students future-ready by being here in the now and developing that which can never be replaced, that which we have understood for a long, long time: knowing when to be serene, when to be courageous, and having the wisdom to know the difference.

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Be the dog: efficiency v. effectiveness in embracing the individual

My last post, a while ago, involved my musings of occupying the middle: the idea that we should start using and rather than or and start embracing both ends of a spectrum rather than choosing between them. Today I thought more about a specific spectrum:

Efficiency ⇔ Effectiveness

Of course, we always want to be both efficient and effective. But sometimes it can feel like we are choosing between the two. At this time of year, with IB Diploma exams bearing down on the students in their final year, I feel I have spent the past couple of weeks waffling between the two ends, debating between the necessary efficiency of getting through the last few learning objectives in a chalk-and-talk way and effective teaching that engages students more in the discovery process which I know will lead to better engagement with ideas and long-term retention.

I felt caught between, “OK, last two weeks before revision time, let me just teach you the content that you will need to know to score well on the exam” and “Wait, I know if I teach you explicitly these three studies for this particular syllabus objective you will be able to answer the essay question, but you really won’t have a true grasp of something as complex as ‘Why relationships may end or change’.” Yes, that’s an actual, very compelling and interesting, learning objective from IB Diploma Psychology. Which I taught in two 60-minute lessons.

And this dilemma does not only arise at the end of the course; in fact, it is a daily balance that educator must maintain both in the classroom and in leadership roles.

Today during a short and impactful workshop with the thought-provoking Kevin Bartlett of Common Ground Collaborative and Kelly Armitage of International School Bangkok, they showed two adorable videos that I felt really brought this to a conundrum to a metaphorical epiphany for me:

 

And so I find in education, often I have to remind myself, “Be a dog. Not a cat1.”

The cat was far, far more efficient. It took her 11 seconds to get her compatriot down the stairs whereas the dog took 9 times longer to get the puppy down the stairs. If the goal was to get to the bottom of the stairs fastest, the cat won by a long shot.

But it’s pretty obvious where this analogy brings us, right?

If we want students to succeed, and we want educators to help them do so, we have to have a shared understanding of success, and therefore how we get there. If education is about giving students skills to do it themselves rather than simply getting to an arbitrary end point (e.g., university admissions, report card grades, honor roll) that we have defined as educators and parents as fast as we can, then we have to rethink how we do so effectively rather than just efficiently.

In fact, a great deal of the education system is built around efficiency, not effectiveness. A lot of the practices that we see in place despite all the research out there telling us to do the contrary is because it was built on models of industrial efficiency, in which we cater to the ‘average’ student to get him through a standardized set of expectations in a standardized set of time as efficiently as possible.

Recently I read a phenomenal book, The End of Average by Todd Rose, which laid out a fascinating history of how we came to define ourselves by the average and build systems around it. Rose then makes a compellingly simple argument that no one is average and that instead, we need to replace averagarianism with the science of the individual.

In my Psychology class, when I taught ‘Why do relationships end or change?’ in 120 minutes, I did so by imparting a standard set of information to all 15 students. Information that I knew would serve them well on the examination if they would just remember it and write about it in the standardized way that I knew would match the standardized markscheme. I did so knowing that some students could answer the question at levels of sophistication much higher than what I was teaching, some students couldn’t understand everything I was explaining, and that none of them, really, were learning exactly at the level at which I was pitching it — the average. But I did it anyway. For the sake of getting through the learning objective, I taught to the average, and thus really taught to no one. I accepted that with the course drawing to a high pressure end, I had to be efficient. I gave the students a cat-like push.

 

This is an incredibly frustrating reflection on my own practice. Why did I do that? Why did I teach in a way that contradicts my fundamental beliefs about learning?

This frustration scales up. Why do we as educators continue to do things that we know all the research tells us to do to the contrary? Why do we assign grades when we know they are meaningless for learning? Why do we put students into groupings by their year of birth rather than their ability or passion? Why do we do chunk the school day into short periods of learning sequenced by timetables rather than purpose? Why do we chunk the school year by the agrarian calendar? In each and every one of these instances, and so many others, the answer is not one we know we don’t like but don’t know how to change: because it’s the most efficient way to get the average student through the system.

Fortunately, in The End of Average, Rose offers an antidote to the trap of the average: the science of the individual. In the book, he outlines three simple principles:

end20of20average20infographic205-thumb-620x1347-409457

Infographic from CBC Books

In the dog video, we can see each of these principles at play:

The jaggedness principle – that while the puppy is terrible at going down the stairs, he’s probably really good at something else, like being unbearably adorable.

The context principle – that while the puppy may be able to walk fine on floors, he has not yet mastered the stairs. He is not inherently a ‘bad walker,’ just in this particular context.

The pathways principle – that the puppy would eventually get to the bottom of the stairs when he was ready.

By embracing each of these principles, we can make the shift from average to individual, from efficiency to effectiveness. This needs to happen at every level of education. In the classroom, I need to challenge myself to remember each of these principles when designing and delivering learning from my students. As a school leader, I need to challenge myself to remember each of these principles when making contributions to school-wide decisions about students, teachers, and learning. As an individual, I need to remember these principles while deciding on my career path and defining myself as a human.

Every day, whether for my student, my colleagues, or myself, I need to remember: be the dog.

 


1 I have to note that I love cats and the cat video made me laugh out loud. I have been co-habitating with a cat named Bangle for the last six years. The process of teaching her how to go to the toilet (literally) was a process that could not be efficient – I had to work on her timeline – but was in the end effective. And now I am known as that lady with the cat that pees in toilets. 

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Occupy the Middle

Today during the meeting of my extracurricular service group – MushieMushie – a group of 11-to-16-year-olds discussed how to merchandise products using our mascot and hero, MushieMan, designed by a NIST alumnus some 5 years ago.

mushieman.jpg

While he’s cute, the point of the blog post is not to show off MushieMan. It’s prompted by this comment one of the students made:

Wait, so you want us to be like one of the evil corporations?

He made this comment because we discussed marketing techniques like creating collectibles, offering discounts for repeat customers, and branding. We were getting excited by the prospect of generating profits to benefit Freeland Foundation. But there was an almost palpable feeling of guilt in the room. Can we, a bunch of good-doers, do what the ‘bad guys’ do to us all the time?

Truly, his comment is very reflective of the binary way in which we often view our world:

  • Charities = good! Businesses = bad!

  • Democracy = good! Dictatorship = bad!

  • Environmental Activists = good! Poachers = bad!

And so on.

Education is partly responsible for this. In this student’s case, I have no doubt a lot of what he’s studied throughout school has led him to be inspired by a lot of the items I mentioned first in the list above, while criticizing the second items.

But the potential unintended effect is that students start to develop a dichotomous view of the world; a view that’s comprised largely of:

This or That

Them or Us

And that is the fundamental cause of so many problems that we have in our world. We create our identities, form judgements, and make choices based on notions of false boundaries. We see the world in black and white and take a stand on one side or the other when we really need to see both.

To be more aware, better educated citizens who are equipped to truly understand our world, we need to shift from this type of linear, mutually opposing type of thinking, to a more systems and cyclical, mutually supporting type of thinking.

This or AND That

Them or AND Us

To do this, we have to close the loop. Embrace complexity. Teach our students and ourselves examples of those who build bridges, innovate, and use the best of all fields and approaches. Social enterprises are good examples of this type of embrace across traditional lines:

folie2

 

Interdisciplinary units and learning in education are another way to show students the true connected nature of understanding and problem solving.

northeasternuniv

 

Margaret Wertheim’s (now pretty old) TED talk from 2009 about the beautiful integration of crocheting, hyperbolic geometry, and coral reefs remains one of my very favorite examples of how much beauty, grace and understanding can come from bridging loops and gaps:

 

Let’s stop thinking of math v. arts; us v. them; economic success v. social justice.

Let’s occupy the middle. And teach our students to do the same.

 

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Defining Success

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”- Viktor E. Frankl, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’

How do you define success? When you die, what words will be spoken, what emotions will be felt, what actions will be taken, if you’ve been successful?

It’s a somewhat morbid thought. And a somewhat cliched one. But there it is. I went there.

We spend a lot of time in education talking about student learning. That’s a pretty good start, seeing as how that’s the whole business of education to begin with. We devote hours and meetings to defining learning; looking for learning; grappling with what learning looks like, sounds like, feels like and how we facilitate opportunities for learning. Those are sound endeavors, indeed. Oftentimes schools and educators are easily distracted by the endless stream of buzzwords and fads, jumping from one initiative to another with each new professional development experience or groundbreaking book — think Michael Fullan‘s metaphor of schools as Christmas trees with pointless ornaments or Simon Breakspear‘s idea of leaders taking schools through endless ‘pedagogical diets’ — so it’s important to maintain our focus on those we ultimately serve: our students.

However. To talk about student learning is necessary but not sufficient.

About eight years ago now, I saw this quote for the first time as an attendee at my first Compass workshop:

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 7.29.04 AM

And it stuck.

Yes, we need to talk about student learning. But student learning for what? What is the point of all this learning? Their personal success? Our personal success?

It’s terrifying to think that we continue define success in all the wrong ways. For our students: the highest test scores, the exclusivity and status of university acceptances, the best paying jobs.  For ourselves: the highest job title, the most numbers of hours worked, the greatest number of education thinkers and leaders we can quote.

It’s terrifying because it’s damaging. To all of us.

Turn on the news today, or any day, and we find headlines showing just how much damage we do to one another. So long as we define success as an individual achievement, a path of attaining our own fulfillment, a journey to show that we are better than the other, we are at risk of more work and more education for all the wrong things.

We don’t need more education. We need the right education.

For all of us educators – especially those working in the most fluid and privileged of schools, where our students by the virtue of their birth and family will be successful in terms of security and economics, we need to focus on one single, very simple concept:

Learning to create a better world.

And every single thing – every single thing – that we do individually and collectively must be able to answer to that calling. Whatever it is that we’re leading, that we’re reforming, that we’re embedding into the curriculum, that we’re attending workshops and conferences and endless meetings to figure out – we have to ask ourselves, “How does this help to create a better world?” Whatever it is that we’re individually doing for our own lives, our own personal and professional choices and actions, we have to ask ourselves, “How does this help to create a better world?”

And if the answer is, “It doesn’t” or “I’m not sure,” then we need to pause, take stock, reorient, and then begin again.

So take a moment. Look at your to-do list, that beautiful stream of tasks that feels so good to cross off one item at a time, and ask yourself that question. Evaluate your answer. Define success. And give yourself up, as Frankl says so wisely, to a cause greater than yourself.

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Creativity in Education

Why must we make time for creativity in schools?

It’s a simple question. But a provocative one. Like other good questions, this question begs additional questions to be asked: What is creativity? What is a school? Should we make time for creativity? If yes, why? If not, why not? How do schools help or hinder creativity? How do we ‘make time’ without some sort of Harry Potter inspired Time Turner?

I had the honor and good fortune to be invited to attend the IB Peterson Academic Symposium, wherein these questions were at the heart of a series of presentations, films, and conversations for two days with the academic staff of the IB. It was intellectually invigorating to hear from such a diversity of perspectives, and my thinking about the question was provoked, affirmed, challenged, and expanded.

 

 

A few insights …

Creativity isn’t always fun.

Dinos Aristidou really brought this point home for us. While creativity can be fun, and while engagement and motivation are the precursors to any truly creative endeavor, we must be careful not to equate creativity with any moment in which kids are enjoying themselves and teachers are being more ‘fun.’ Kids can love something they’re doing in a class that at a cursory glance may look creative – think, for example, of any of these type of Friday afternoon ‘filler’ activities that may actually be very engaging; you may hear laughter – but there is nothing actually inherently creative about what the kids are doing.

Creativity – the act of bringing ideas to life, the process of actualizing what could be into what actually is – can be extremely arduous and time consuming. Think, for example, of artists spending weekends and long nights in art studios getting ready for their art exhibitions, or of engineers spending countless hours tinkering with and refining their innovations. We must be careful not to label anything that is ‘fun’ as something that is creative, and conversely must not shy away from creative acts that may not, actually, be very fun.

Creativity isn’t chaotic. Conditions can be created for it to flourish. Frameworks and structures exist for it; I’ll give an example shortly.  

Creativity takes multiple iterations; therefore, in order to be creative, we must be resilient. We must be ‘comfortable with being uncomfortable.

On the second day of the Symposium, we had the privilege of having Simon Dao, a research scientist at MIT and adjunct professor at Northeastern, facilitate an interesting series of activities designed to help us become more creative ourselves, based in his research. Dr. Dao’s research hinges on this question: “Does creativity have to be hit or miss?” In other words, is it possible for us to teach students so that whenever they createe something, whatever that ‘something’ is, it is guaranteed that 99% of the population would consider this ‘something’ creative?

In his research, he found that a key marker of what makes something be perceived as creative by 99% of the population is that is it non-obvious. In other words, then, creativity is the ability to see non-obvious connections. In an interesting series of experiments for the last 9 years, Dr. Dao’s team had participants perform a challenging task – in one example, inviting participants to draw the perfect circle without any assistance (e.g., they weren’t allowed to use radial tools, to fold or cut the paper, or to trace another object). Each attempt was blind-rated by a researcher for the creativity of the method the participants used.

What they found is that the more times the participants tried, the more creative and more non-obvious their methods were considered by the raters. In other words, as your iteration count is increased (i.e., the number of times you try), the more your work is perceived as creative. Solutions that take 6 or more iterations to develop are, in a sense, by definition more non-obvious because most people stop after 1 or 2 iterations.

This makes a compelling case that creativity requires resilience. It requires the ability and desire to repeat the same task over and over again, treating each ‘failure’ as a learning experience so that you can eventually get to the more creative, non-obvious solutions. This was summarized beautifully in the profile of Albany Senior High School, an innovative school in New Zealand where fellow educator Lloyd Gutteridge works, where he encourages students to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

This point was again reiterated by Dominic Barton, the Global Managing Director of McKinsey & Company. Dominic shared with us a study within McKinsey wherein they followed different cohorts of new employees to McKinsey. What they found is that those who rated themselves as the most fulfilled after some time with the company were actually those who had met with more failures.

In fact, this idea of resilience was built within a 5-step reiterative process that Dominic shared with us:

  1. Set audacious goals
  2. Open the problem to move solvers (i.e., crowdsource; open your problem to other organizations and others in different industries)
  3. Engage and iterate (i.e., try and fail, try and fail, try and fail, etc.)
  4. Eat your own cooking (i.e., try your idea yourself)
  5. Get back on the horse (i.e., resilience)
  6. Repeat.

You have to be audacious. As Henry Ford famously said:

And more importantly, that Henry Ford had to get back on the metaphorical horse multiple times in his life as he encountered various failures over and over again.

This has really important implications for us as educators. In systems wherein we often have a limited timeframe to get students to some predetermined ‘end point’ at which time they are given some stamp of approval or non-approval -i.e., a grade – kids don’t have the time or opportunity to iterate over and over because they have to move onto the next predetermined topic. Also, just because we know that it’s important for kids to iterate – c’mon, we’ve all tried to get kids to write multiple drafts of something – doesn’t mean that they will be motivated to do so. The question is then: how do we motivate kids to want to iterate multiple times? How do we build resilience into our students, many of whom are pampered and never truly have to face failure?

I asked Dr. Dao: What is it that distinguished those participants who were willing to go to the 11th or 12th attempt of drawing a perfect circle (about 7% of the participants) v. the overwhelming majority who gave up after a few times? He didn’t quite have the answer yet. We need to keep trying to find out!

Creativity is a necessity for our future.

This was a theme that was repeated over and over again throughout the Symposium. There are several trends that we know about, not least of which:

  • Global financial powers are shifting dramatically – financial powers are shifting to Asia at a rate never before seen in human history
  • Existing markets are hyper competitive
  • Technology is improving at a rate 3-5x faster than management
  • The average lifetime of companies is shrinking. In 1932 a successful company typically stayed afloat for 90 years. In 2011? The average lifetime of a successful company is 18 years.

As Lloyd summarized nicely in his presentation of the Blue Ocean Strategy:

Survival in business requires that you do not run a race faster your competitors but that you run a race only you can win.

All global trends point to what we’ve known in education for a while now: that we are educating students who will live in a future that will look drastically different than the one we live in now. Let’s hope that (1) they can rise to that challenge and (2) that they can make that future a better, more positive future than the one we live in now. But knowing this isn’t enough. If technology outstripping businesses, then it is leaving education behind in the dust, leaving us wondering why it got so dusty all of a sudden. Education must change. We must act to change it.

Creativity can rise in the face of real problems and in the real world.

Another related point to this idea of motivation and addressing global trends is that we need to engage students with the real world. It’s interesting, right? We often think we need to prepare kids for the real world, as though there is some magical entrance to the ‘real world’ once students finishing jumping through the necessary hoops – K12 education followed by tertiary if they’re talented enough at hoop jumping – and that once they get there, they will be equipped with entering it.

No.

First, we see over and over again that current education is woefully inadequate at making people successful in the real world. Second, and perhaps more profoundly, students and schools don’t live in some magical vacuum outside of the ‘real world’ that their parents and normal people inhabit. Shocking news alert: students already live in the real world!

We have already seen that to foster creativity, we must engage students with challenges and problems that are meaningful, that they may be motivated to want to solve not to please a teacher or receive a stamp of approval, but because it’s interesting and has real consequences. Can schools try harder then to interface with other organizations — NGO’s, governments, businesses? Can we try to explore the intersection of industry and education so that our students have the opportunities to try addressing real world problems?

Ayesha Khanna, a fellow speaker, is opening a new Academy in July designed to do exactly this – engage students with real problems and then give them the skills of entrepreneurship, communication, etc. to be able to work on these real problems. Students then interact with businesses and real people to get market validation for their creative solutions. Awesome!

Schools tend to kill creativity. For example, mathematics is an inherently creative subject but very few students see it this way.

I won’t repeat with the brilliant Sir Ken Robinson says in his TED talk “How Schools Kill Creativity” here. In my own non-peer validated and loosely conducted research at my school, I found that the older students got, the less they perceived themselves as creative. There are tons of reasons for this, many of which I have already addressed – that we don’t give kids the opportunity to be resilient and try multiple iterations, that we don’t recognize creativity as something essential and rather view it as something fun, and that we don’t engage students enough with authentic problems that they need to be creative to solve.

But also, that the way we teach certain subjects absolutely kills the creativity that is inherent within them. Mathematics is a perfect example of this. Matt Parker, a stand-up comedian mathematician of the hilarious and fascinating YouTube channel Stand Up Maths summarized this beautifully in a few key points:

  • Mathematics is the discovery and exploitation of patterns. Mathematicians play with patterns to solve puzzles.
  • In schools, we teach teach kids the skills of mathematics but then don’t actually give them the opportunity to solve puzzles.
  • That’s like teaching kids to shoot free throws over and over again but never giving them the opportunity to play basketball.

The solution seems relatively easy then, right? Let the kids play mathematical basketball, so to speak. Give them problems to solve!

That’s quite a lot of thoughts and insights. I am invigorated and excited by the conversations, but also daunted by the scale of the task ahead of us. I love the way that Karen Kuhn, poet and lecturer at the Adam McKiewicz University put it:

Creativity is beautiful. It is the manifestation of a once-felt intuition.

We need to give students the opportunities to feel intuitions. And then to manifest them meaningfully.

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Synergy.

Bangkok ServICE 2015: Synergy

Bangkok ServICE 2015: Synergy

This past weekend, International School Bangkok hosted the 4th annual Bangkok ServICE Conference. Connecting students and educators across about a dozen schools, the Conference in its fourth iteration continued to inspire, connect and empower its participants. Including me.

The theme this year was “Synergy.”

syn·er·gy
ˈsinərjē/
noun
the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.

We feel this sentiment repeated a lot, especially in our line of work, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, that by collaborating together, we can achieve so much more.

And, you know what? Clichè as it is, it’s true.

I remember the very first meeting, four-and-a-half years ago between a handful of teachers at ISB discussing this idea that we should maybe do something together, with our students, around service. We really didn’t know at that time what it would be. We just knew that it should be.

And now, four years later, it has been. It is. Will continue to be.

And that is awesome!

Today, the teacher chaperones from the different schools met to discuss where we’re headed next year while students busily worked away on action plans addressing a range of issues from combating human trafficking to helping out street cats and dogs. Personally, it was sad to recognize that it was going to be the last official meeting I would share with Chris Tananone, an educator at ISB who inspires me with her boundless energy and deep commitment to service. Next year, Chris, who has championed service learning and global citizenship since before these terms were buzzwords in education will retire and I will sorely miss her presence in our Bangkok network.

But during that meeting, I felt this great sense of comfort.

This comfort that though Chris is retiring, that though the each of the 20 odd educators in the room will undoubtedly eventually leave this network as we repatriate, move onto different schools, or change roles, the network will continue to live on through student collaborations and future educator connections. Synergy.

The Bangkok ServICE network won’t save the world. But I can’t help but think that if more people continue to put their minds, hearts, and energies together, we just may — here we go with the cliches again — make it a bit of a better place.

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How I became a global citizen.

Well, this post title is a bit misleading. If I’m truly to reflect on how I became a global citizen, then this post would be really quite short. I was born into this global community in a hospital in Ping-Tung, Taiwan, by the same doctor who delivered my mom 25 years prior. Thus, I became a citizen of this globe.

But that’s not really the question I suppose I’m trying to ask. The question I’m trying to truly think about is, “Am I a global citizen who is living and contributing positively to this world?” And if my answer to that is yes, then the next question becomes, “What’s the story of how I became this kind of global citizen?” And then, following on as an educator I want to ask, “What role does education have in creating global citizens who will help, not harm, our world?”

It’s been over two years since I’ve written in this blog. In the meantime, my journey has taken me from trying to understand the nexus of sustainability and education to asking ever deeper questions about the purpose of education in creating the kind of world I want. I would say “we” want, but it has truly been a personal journey in thinking about the current state of the world, the global issues we all face, and trying to figure out my own part in all of it: as a citizen of the globe myself and as an educator.

This past weekend, at the Global Citizenship Summit II, I had the space and time and access to fellow thinkers and educators to really dig into these thoughts and questions. I am grateful to all those who were there; my thinking was challenged, my voice was heard, my understandings deepened. It left me buzzing with ideas, a solid action plan with my colleagues to carry forth at school, and with a need to personally synthesize some of my thoughts. So here we go.

Defining Global Citizenship

Global: “of, relating to, or involving the entire world”

Citizenship: “the quality of an individual’s response to membership in a community”

Some of the most interesting conversations I had this past weekend begged the question, “What is a global citizen?” People raised interesting questions of cultural imperialism, that perhaps as a group of well-traveled, Western, similarly-minded educators working in the very specific context of elitist, wealthy international schools, we were sitting in ivory towers and our conversations and programmes may actually create more division in this world, not less. Others raised interesting points about the words citizen and citizenship having negative connotations of governments, nationalism, and divisive attitudes.

Those conversations led me to the start of this post. Perhaps I was overthinking it. Perhaps it’s as simple as this: to be a citizen means to be part of a community — with all its rights and responsibilities — and we are all citizens of this globe. I mean, it sounds over-simplistic: I’m not from Mars; therefore, I am a citizen of this Earth. And that’s what it all really boils down to.

So, it’s not about elitism. It’s not about being a global citizen because we are well-traveled and have worked with people from all over the world. It’s not about ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ It’s not about deciding who gets to be a global citizen. It’s not about creating a single unifying definition of how a global citizen should act or be.

It’s about the simple fact that we — whether an international educator who’s chosen to live in dozens of countries and whose Facebook photo albums aspire to be some amateur National Geographic highlight reel, or an American who’s chosen to live within one zip code and takes pride and comfort in staying close to his family, or a Thai villager doesn’t get a choice about where she lives and whose life is devoted to her family and local community  — we are all, by default, global citizens. Because we’re not Martians.

Though our choices are fundamentally different due to our circumstances, in our environmentally, economically and geopolitically linked world, every person’s choices has global ramifications; no one is ‘more’ a global citizen than another.

Perhaps, then, the truly interesting question is about citizenship: What is the quality of my own response to being a member in this global world? Again, none of us get to choose whether or not we’re global citizens (no chance to get citizenship to Mars yet, people), but we do get to choose the kind of citizen we want to be.

As such, I must ask myself …

Am I a global citizen who is living and contributing positively to this world?

Yes. (Or at least I try.)

If I were a year 9 student in my own English class, that would probably be the extent of my response to the question. But I’m not, so I guess I’ll try to dig a bit deeper.

I do my best, with mixed success, to make sure each of my personal choices and actions maximizes good and minimizes harm. I am kind to others. I smile a lot. I love and care for a beautiful street cat named Bangle. I listen to diverse peoples and opinions. I think about my own prejudices and try to combat them. I volunteer my time and energy to projects I think will make our communities better. I try to minimize my negative environmental impact and increase my positive environmental impact. I help students develop the skills and values I hope will help them make a positive contribution. I stand up for causes I believe in.

I’m sure some of my actions have led to negative impacts on others and I know I make mistakes, but on the whole I think I have made and continue to make positive contributions to our world.

What’s the story of how I became this kind of global citizen?

It was my friend and colleague, Kenny Peavy who got me thinking about this when we got dinner the night before the Summit. He asked, how did a boy from rural Georgia and a suburban Taiwanese-American girl end up becoming these kind of global citizens? The kind that so actively thinks about and considers how to make positive contributions, in very different ways? What’s been each of our personal stories?

My story starts with a crush.

I was a 16-year-old in public school in suburban DC. My entire concept of being a global citizen consisted solely of the fact that being Taiwanese made me feel awkward in a mostly white community, and I resented my family needing to bring dumplings to international days in elementary school.

Like most 16-year-olds, my greatest drive in life at that time was not to make a positive contribution to the world, but to get the cute boy I liked (so.much.ohmygosh) to pay attention to me. I’d walked by posters of clubs that I’m sure I’d now consider as an educator ‘service’ or ‘global issues’ clubs, but I neither knew nor cared to know what they were about.

But then I found out that the boy I liked (so.much.ohmygosh) had joined an after school club: a gay-straight alliance called Stand Proud. I became Stand Proud’s newest member shortly after that. Did I, at the time, truly care about battling homophobia or promoting equality? Um. No. But you can guess where this story leads.

At the start, I sat in on the meetings for the snacks and socializing; joined the AIDS Walk Washington DC because it was a Saturday with my friends; and attended various LGBT rallies (and even spoke about what it means to be a youth ‘straight ally’) with very little understanding of LGBT issues. Over time, as you’ve probably guessed, I did genuinely begin to care about equality and LGBT rights. What had started in pursuit of a crush (no, I never did end up dating the boy; though we are friends on Facebook to this day and he is still an active figure in fighting for LGBT rights) and in teenage defiance of my parents’ more traditional beliefs became my first encounter with advocacy and, perhaps, my first venture into contributing positively to this world. Or at least starting to think about it.

Thus, no, it wasn’t any formal school program or requirements that made me want to become a more responsible, active global citizen. Of course, saying that it started with a crush is an oversimplification. My family’s humble background, immigrant work ethic, and growing up bicultural certainly all contributed to who I am today and where my values lie. And since my failed crush in high school, other powerful experiences including typical liberal arts university activities and clubs (Take Back the Night, anyone?) and the privilege of living and working abroad have continued to push me to be an active global citizen for good.

At this point in writing, I have to pause for a moment and reflect on my reflecting (oh yeah, I’m that kind of teacher). Am I tooting my own horn? Am I suggesting that my journey has made me the ideal global citizen? No, and no. I’m simply trying to understand what got me here … so that I can start to think about how to get students to their own ‘here.’ Again ‘here’ being a place where (s)he lives and contributes positively to our globe, which looks very different for each of us. So, then …

What role does education have in creating global citizens who will help, not harm, our world?

An important, but not exclusive, role.

My short answer for now, as this post has taken me the better half of a beautiful day to write, is that because education shapes minds, builds skills and develops attitudes, we’d better do our part to make sure that the minds, skills and attitudes of the young people who experience education with us become forces for good in this world rather than harm.

Especially for us international school educators working with the some of most privileged youth in the world, we must recognize that the choices and actions of our students have a disproportionately large impact on our global community, and as such we have an incredible opportunity — and responsibility — to contribute to developing their global citizenship. This David Orr quote has always haunted me:

“The destruction of the planet is not the work of ignorant people. Rather it is largely the result of work by people with BAs, BScs, LLBs, MBAs and PhDs.”

Though education is not the sole contributing factor, or even in most cases the most important contributing factor, to global citizenship (thanks, unrequited crush), we must, within our sphere of influence as educators, do as much as we can, how we can, and when we can, to develop the people who will make our world a better place.

 

Thanks to these educators for getting me thinking so deeply I had to blog again. More entries soon, I hope. I have far more questions I need to ask and a lot more thinking to do.

 

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