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Why international education is needed now more than ever

Could some of the world’s biggest challenges be solved if we all adopted the IB Learner Profile?

US presidential candidate Donald Trump said he wanted to build an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful” wall between the US and Mexico back in September. Two months later he became “the leader of the free world.”

Across the Atlantic, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he wants to build a 30km fence along the border with Jordan to stop refugees entering the country.

Nationalism is growing around the world, fuelling “us-and-them” attitudes, creating wider divisions and highlighting growing intolerance. Bulgaria banned the wearing of niqabs and burqas in public places, and since the UK recently decided to leave the EU, in what has been dubbed Brexit, hate crimes towards EU nationals rose by 41 per cent.

It’s a time that calls for an appreciation of diversity and intercultural understanding and respect – attitudes that are encouraged within international education. For example, the IB aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who will help create a more peaceful world. This begs the question, if everyone were internationally-educated, would the world be a better place?

Robert Harrison, head of MYP development and former curriculum manager for global education, talks to IB World’s editor Sophie-Marie Odum about the important role education plays in creating a beacon of hope and positive change for the next generation.

Sophie-Marie Odum: Why does globalization and interculturality frighten so many people, in many cases causing brutal harm and major offence?

Robert Harrison: Recent studies have suggested that people and communities actually have quite a lot of capacity for understanding and incorporating ‘the other,’ but when the pace of change is as great as it’s been in many parts of the world these days, we can have real trouble adapting in pro-social ways.

One of the defining challenges of our time is learning how to manage rapid change. And the challenges are even bigger if we frame the problem differently, and concentrate instead on dealing with what put those changes into motion. Change can be very scary. It unsettles us. Sometimes we react defensively. Our highly connected world forces us to encounter and confront highly charged issues that stir up strong emotions. It’s not easy to think and talk about culture, identity, race, power and privilege, inequality and justice.

Anger, fear, and perceived loss are powerful drivers of human behaviour. We need to remember that there are also benefits—and not only costs—to globalization and diversity. We work on attending to our own social and emotional responses to the rapid movement of people, capital, and ideas that characterize the world today.

SMO: As international education—specifically the IB—promotes international- mindedness, respect, and tolerance, why is it needed now more than ever to help ensure a better future?

 RH: An internationally-minded education invites students and teachers to see the big picture – to think about our common humanity and interdependence on a global level. So many challenges today cross national borders, cultures, and ethnicities. We can only address them by working together. That means not only being tolerant but being actively empathetic. International education moves us toward engaging with people who have very different viewpoints and life experiences. It offers us important opportunities to do the hard work of finding common ground.

International education has always been concerned with helping students and the larger community explore the vital question, ‘How are we going to live together?’ on, as Thomas Friedman puts it, ‘an increasingly hot and crowded planet’?

SMO: What are the benefits of international education for children of all ages?

RH: All children are part of the human family, and it’s a truism to say that the future belongs to them. We have a responsibility, as internationally-minded educators, to create with them a welcoming community of openness and trust. We can learn to listen carefully, with a big dose of humility, to people who have different experiences of the world.

There are some good words in the IB Learner Profile that give hints about the ways international education can help students make the world a better place: empathy, compassion, respect; resourcefulness and resilience in the face of challenge; thoughtful consideration of our own ideas and the ideas of others.

An international education starts with the idea that we are all in this together –that we have a responsibility to each other and our planet. In order to work together, we have to understand each other, so international education begins with critical engagement with language and culture. Internationally-minded education helps students, and teachers, become sophisticated critical and creative thinkers. It lets us practice dealing with difference and complexity. It helps us all learn to live with uncertainty.

SMO: Is an international education enough? In the future, can DP graduates, and former IB students, stamp out today’s deep-seated intolerant and close-minded attitudes?

RH: In 1949, Marie-Thérèse Maurette (Director of one of the first IB schools, the International School of Geneva) asked, ‘Techniques d’éducation pour la paix, existent-elles?’ She had some ideas that international educators are still pursuing.

Of course, the world has only become more complicated since the close of World War II. Beyond peace and conflict, today we face swirling crises of social rights, economic and cultural sustainability, development and governance.

There’s no silver bullet or magical solution. But IB World Schools are very good at inspiring creative entrepreneurs and ethical leaders, and perhaps more importantly, community members who are responsible, active and well-informed. IB World Schools and their alumni may have opportunities to exercise greater influence that surprises us all. Our great hope is that the IB can inspire schools to stand as beacons of humane, high-quality education. And we hope that the IB inspires other education systems to value global engagement, open-mindedness and a commitment to life-long learning.

SMO: Have advances in digital technology improved intercultural understanding or made it worse? 

RH: There’s no doubt that technology is increasing the speed at which we interact; it also brings people and ideas together in rapid, confusing and conflicting combinations.

Technology itself is value-neutral – it’s up to us to decide how we will use it. Digital communication technologies make it possible for many more voices to be heard, and many more people to contribute to our common life.

But technology can just as easily spread misinformation—for example, ‘fake news’—and provide an outlet for the most divisive and hateful impulses of individuals and groups. That’s why it’s so important for educational communities like the IB to prepare students to be knowledgeable consumers and ethical producers of media and information technologies in a digital age.

Do you think international education could make a difference? Share your thoughts with [email protected]