Global Competence: The Knowledge and Skills We'll Need to Succeed in an Interconnected World

Dec 03, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

Whether it's acknowledging the fundamental importance of our economic ties to China, confirming our strong business and strategic connections with India or announcing new military strategies in Afghanistan, President Obama's actions over the past two weeks reflect a new reality. In matters of national security, environmental sustainability, and economic development, what we do as a nation and in our everyday lives is inextricably intertwined with what governments, businesses, and individuals do beyond our borders.

That's the good news. Or at least it can be, if we view the "flat" world of the 21st century as a half-full glass of opportunity rather than a half-empty one of declining futures. The other good news is that this new reality helps us more clearly define the role that education must play in preparing all students for success in an interconnected world.

The concept of global competence has emerged as a way of articulating the knowledge and capacities students need in the 21st century. What are the elements of global competence?

Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Knowledge
The bottom line? Learning content matters, here and everywhere else. Global competence requires knowledge and understanding of seminal content and skills within academic disciplines and the capacity to use disciplinary methods of inquiry creatively and productively. How our "Common Core" standards compare to the curriculum in Brazil, China, Russia, or Nigeria matters, too. It is with people from places like these that our students will collaborate and compete.

Global competence also requires the ability to understand prevailing world conditions, issues, and trends through discipline-based and interdisciplinary learning. A competitive advantage will go to those students in San Francisco or Sao Paulo who know what's going on in the world and how the world works, from climate change to migration trends to human rights. Educating students for global competence requires substantive, developmentally appropriate engagement over time with the world's complexities.

Gaining this knowledge and understanding depends on acquiring and applying four key cognitive capacities - essential dimensions of global competence. Today's globally competent youngsters are able to:

Investigate the World
Global competence starts with asking important questions. Globally competent students can frame "researchable" questions - questions that do not necessarily have one right answer, but can be systematically engaged intellectually and emotionally. They ask questions that are globally significant, questions that address important phenomena and events that are relevant world wide - from elementary school students' inquiries about how to recycle plant debris to fertilize the school garden to high school students' impassioned debate on how to create sustainable cities in the midst of arid deserts. Globally competent students can explain how a local issue like their school recycling exemplifies a global process far beyond their back yards. They can articulate the significance of their questions and know how to respond to these questions by identifying, collecting, and analyzing credible information from a variety of sources, including international resources available through digital technology. They can weigh and integrate evidence to express a coherent response that takes into consideration geographic, cultural, economic, political, and other contextual factors and provide a compelling, evidence-based argument that considers multiple perspectives and draws defensible conclusions.

Recognize Perspectives
For global competence, the golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" becomes the platinum rule, "Do unto others as they want done unto them." This seismic shift in perspective - from inward-out to outward-in - has profound implications. Globally competent students recognize that they have a particular perspective that others may or may not share. They can identify influences on the development of that perspective, compare and contrast their perspective with others, and integrate their own and others' viewpoints to construct a new one, when needed.

Communicate Ideas
Globally competent students understand audiences that differ on the basis of culture, geography, faith, ideology, wealth, and other factors and they may perceive different meanings from the same information. They can communicate effectively, verbally and non-verbally, with diverse audiences. This includes speaking more than one language. They're media savvy as well; they know how to choose and effectively use appropriate technology and media with diverse audiences.

Take Action
What skills and knowledge will it take to go from learning about the world to making a difference in the world? First, it takes seeing oneself as capable of making a difference. Globally competent students see themselves as players, not bystanders. They're keenly able to recognize opportunities from targeted human rights advocacy to creating the next out-of-the-box, must-have business product we didn't know we needed. Alone or with others, globally competent students can creatively construct options for action based on evidence and insight, and assess their potential impact, taking into account varied perspectives and potential consequences for others.

Global competence is a crucial upgrade in our understanding of the purpose of education in a changing world. Students everywhere deserve the opportunity to succeed. Knowing what knowledge and skills they need to seize that opportunity and designing schools to help attain them are essential. Asia Society's International Studies Schools Network is one such effort to create schools for the 21st century. Also, the definition of global competence described here is at the heart of the Council of Chief State School Officers' EdSteps Project to collect samples of work that demonstrate global competence as part of a ground breaking effort to assess student performance using real examples of work done by students and professionals from across the nation and throughout the world. See it here and read this blog again soon for more details about several schools already pioneering global competence, with exciting results!

We want to hear your thoughts!
Do the qualities described in this article encompass what students should know and be able to do in a global economy? Please share your perspectives and experiences in the comment board below.