Our Messy World: Learning From and With, Not About

Jennifer D. Klein
“No one can be authentically human while he prevents others from being so.”  
–Paolo Freire, from Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not in the habit of quoting the U.S. military, but I have to admit that I love the way they describe the current state of the world as “VUCA.”  This deceptively simple acronym captures a world filled with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, and in doing so actually offers us a roadmap for how we might engage students with the very real, very messy world in ways which challenge our need to simplify global problems into something we can teach in 45-minute periods.  The truth is that our kids want to understand the mess, want to see the world and their knowledge as less compartmentalized and simplified, want to develop the skills needed to navigate true complexity.  In fact, research suggests that the brains of our young “digital natives” may be better able to handle such chaos because they are adept at managing multiple sources of information and experience simultaneously.

Too much of the time, global learning feels like seeing a new city through the windows of a tour bus–we can tell we’re someplace new, seeing something we haven’t before, but we are merely observers, onlookers who are unengaged in the real day-to-day life of the place we’re seeing.  In the best-case scenario, we develop a distant, flavorless sense of what the city contains; in the worst-case scenario, we become imperialistic voyeurs to the world’s most significant problems.  If we extend the metaphor, it becomes clear that our best solution is to get off the tour bus and into the chaos of real streets and homes, into the community we’ve come to learn from–and I mean we need to do this inside our classrooms, not just during international travel experiences.  Our students are hungry for it, for the unchaperoned wanderings through foreign cities which will build their curiosity and engagement, for the uncontrollable experiences which will foster their ability to navigate that VUCA world, for the messiness of real human experiences and interactions.  If we want any of the 21st Century Skills fostered in the classroom to transfer into the world, we have to stop protecting students from the complexity and teach them to meet and manage global chaos instead.

I am increasingly concerned by our natural tendency as educators to try to simplify the world into a well-designed classroom experience which serves our curricular demands.  Certainly, the world and its problems are messy, and there are layers of complexity which are beyond many students to understand, but keeping global learning clean and easy to fit into the scope and sequence of our curricula often means offering less-than-authentic experiences for our students.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we do this on purpose–our lives as educators are filled with demands and pressures, expectations and limitations.  So when we try to bring the world into our classrooms, we want the experience to fit within those demands.  But in doing so, we’re actually suggesting that the world should be willing to bend to the deadlines on our calendars, willing to help us fulfill our standards neatly and cleanly, even willing to put itself on display so that we can meet our educational goals.

It’s also a natural tendency to want our global partners to have the same equipment and stuff we have, with only subtle variance of decoration in our classrooms.  It’s a natural urge for parity, I think: We want our partner classroom to connect using the technologies our own school is using most, we want them to read the books we’ve selected and consider the discussion questions we’ve crafted.  We hope our partner teachers will be willing to teach our themes and follow our schedules, and we push for age and academic parity in a nuanced world which can rarely provide both simultaneously.  We don’t even realize we’re being culturally-biased in how we approach the partnership–it is quite natural, after all, for humans to see “reality” according to the constraints and pressures of their own experiences.

That said, teachers who strive to build global classrooms in the developed world need to realize that such an approach to partnerships just exacerbates the impression that we are exploiting classrooms across the developing world for the sake of our own students. Our pressures and demands do count in the partnership, but so do the needs and demands of the other classroom.  And rather than seeing disparity and complexity as an impediment to collaborative learning, we have the opportunity to teach students to meet others where they are and to build an authentic relationship with others as they are, rather than seeking a mirror for ourselves.

In our efforts to simplify global learning experiences, most educators still think of “Cross-Cultural Competency” as the goal when they strive to improve students’ ability to communicate and collaborate across cultural differences.  I find myself increasingly concerned that this painful oversimplification is so often how we describe the work of global education.  The word “cross” implies the crossing of one boundary between two cultures, yet when we try to imagine the professional lives our students will live, their work will rarely take them across just one such border at a time, whether those borders are physical, cultural, socio-economic or political.  More than likely, their work in almost any field will include the real, practical need for Inter-Cultural Competencies, for the messy, complicated work of communicating and collaborating across various cultures and languages, of creating agreement and direction among multiple global stakeholders with varying needs and demands.

Model United Nations and similar educational structures offer one way to create that more nuanced inter-cultural experience for students.  In MUN-style simulations, discussion is focused on relevant current events from multilateral perspectives, and students represent a variety of nations.  Instead of following the traditional “fight until one side wins” paradigm of traditional debate, MUN asks students to collaborate multinationally to develop and pass resolutions which address the needs of all stakeholders.  Whenever I start to worry about the state of the world, judging a Model UN conference always snaps me back into a state of general hopefulness–even if the topic is as seemingly far-fetched as how the UN Security Council would respond to an alien invasion, it is inspiring to watch students navigate the needs of all constituencies and strive for better solutions.

If we truly want students to embrace the idea that all constituencies matter, then we have to provide a model for that way of living and teaching.  What if we approached our own global partnerships as we ask students to approach a Model UN conference, with the goal of true collaboration toward the wellbeing of all?  What if we let students drive the tour bus, as it were, rather than needing to contain and control the experience for them?  We could even hand over the keys entirely and create a space where our students get to decide what constructive global collaboration should look like.  If we clean away the messiness, we’re cleaning away what kids will really confront in the world–and, frankly, we’re taking away their chance to practice dealing with that complexity, demonstrating instead the all-too-common adult practice of avoiding that which feels too complex to solve.

I loved how Honor Moorman put it in a webinar we did together for Asia Society in October: she said we tend to approach global education as an exercise in learning about others more than learning from and with them.  In my view, this is a mistake as big as the West’s bloody history of exploring and developing the world rather than engaging with and learning from it.  We may not mean to do it, but we can become mindful about changing the paradigm by coming to any global experience with more questions than answers, more curiosity and flexibility than rigid demands and expectations.  By doing so, we have an opportunity to foster listeners and learners through our classrooms, students who draw out other people’s stories more than they share their own, who seek to understand what others bring to the table rather than assuming that their own agendas should rule the experience.  We have a chance to develop a new way of thinking about how we all interact with the world, and to start seeking the kind of dialogue Paolo Freire hoped was possible, in which all perspectives are valued and all constituencies are recognized as fully human.

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