Global citizenship

Bordering on a definition with Harvard’s Mitalene Fletcher

For most people, global citizenship is just an idea.

An important idea, of course. But you can’t wrap your arms around it or point to shiny examples of how it’s done. Attempts to define the term end in a slew of syllables that don’t add up to anything concrete. In a lot of ways, the concept looms too large to feel personal.

What it means to be a global citizen can and should be different for everyone. It’s also too critical of a topic to leave open ended. Enter Dr. Mitalene Fletcher, co-chair of the Think Tank on Global Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Having heard her speak about this very subject at EF’s Global Education Symposium, we knew she’d be able to offer some guidance.

Her perspective? Global citizenship is a way of thinking, and learning, and living—and defining these things is an individual process that’s always in progress. At its core, the practice is about people. Its possibilities are reflected in Mitalene. They are present in you. They can be amplified through your students, if you’re willing to work for it.

Meet Dr. Fletcher

A conversation with Mitalene is a course in global competency. Her expertise is inspired in part by working alongside the foremost thinkers and researchers in this space. And to the extent that it’s possible to assemble a definition of what a global citizen is (more on that later), she fits it.

“The work I do in global education,” Mitalene reflects, “is informed by the way my identity has been developed over the course of my life.” As a first-generation Canadian growing up in southwestern Ontario, she recalls how much of her childhood was spent “joyfully waiting for relatives to arrive from different parts of the world, bringing wonderful things in their suitcases that made my parents come alive with memories of home.” (Her mother and father emigrated from Barbados and Grenada by way of the United States.)

While attending Queen’s University in Canada, Mitalene expanded her worldview even further, befriending students from Botswana to Bangladesh in the school’s international center. Her first foray into education—as a high school teacher in Scarborough, Ontario—brought more of the same. “My school was predominantly students from South Asia and the Caribbean,” Mitalene explains, “so they took me to lots of places through their writing.”

Eventually, she earned a master’s degree in educational theater and her Ph.D. in international development and education from New York University. Mitalene’s research focused on the redevelopment of the teaching force in democratic South Africa—an interest that was piqued studying abroad there as an adult. “So all of those things together, I think, have created in me this openness and desire to learn with and from other people in other places.”

Mitalene and Reimers with Think Tank attendees (Photo by Abigail Egan)

A Think Tank is born

These days, Mitalene is the Director of PreK-12 and International Programs in Professional Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), where she distills research from Harvard faculty into learning experiences for teachers and school leaders. She’s co-created efforts such as the Middle East Professional Learning Initiative and has helped design programs for the likes of UNICEF and the Ministry of Human Resources in India.

When she landed at Harvard in 2008, Dr. Fernando Reimers, now the Faculty Director of International Education Policy at HGSE, was in the thick of his writing on global competency. “His argument was, let’s reorganize schooling around the purpose of advancing global competence,” recalls Mitalene, “because what could be more important than helping people develop the skills to reach across borders and collaborate with others on some of the world’s biggest challenges?” Given that she works in professional education, her next question was obvious: How can we turn these ideas into a learning experience for teachers?

And thus, the Think Tank on Global Education was born. Starting out as the administrator of the program, Mitalene now co-chairs the Think Tank with Reimers. Running annually since 2010, the two-day institute offers instruction in curriculum development, educator training, strategy and scaling, and community building. Though the field has evolved dramatically in the last decade, she insists that “educators have always been teaching about the world and doing some form of global education.”

What could be more important than helping people develop the skills to reach across borders and collaborate with others on some of the world’s biggest challenges?

Why a global perspective matters

Mitalene has noticed a “new coherence and intensity” around the global education work happening in schools. And she has a hunch as to why. “Information is crossing borders more rapidly. People are crossing borders—whether they want to or not—in greater numbers, and some of the world’s biggest challenges are in our face more,” says Mitalene. Because of this abundance of information, “we have an opportunity to really lean into our work in education to make it as relevant as it can be.”

In many places, educators are helping students make sense of what it means to be a good local and global citizen. Mitalene notes that certain districts provide the opportunity to earn a certificate in global competence along with a high school diploma. At one school the Think Tank collaborates with, there’s an initiative to ensure their library materials represent the stories of refugees resettling there. No particular solution outweighs the others. There are just more and more pockets of progress appearing in schools and districts across the country.

Even so, it’s not uncommon for people to feel uncomfortable with the idea of global education. Maybe they worry if you’re thinking about people elsewhere, that implies you’re not thinking about the people in your own hometown. As far as Mitalene’s concerned, that oppositional construct isn’t useful, “because we do share a planet.” A better solution? Try to make room for both realities.

Whether your focus is far away or close to home, the value of a broader awareness of what’s happening beyond your physical boundaries is the same. Mitalene speaks to how important this awareness is, and the reverberations of a miseducation: “A lack of understanding of other people leads to lack of trust, and a lack of trust can lead to disdain. Disdain can lead to hatred, and hatred is destabilizing, fundamentally. It not only destroys relationships; it can destroy lives, and livelihoods, and society. So, what’s at stake—to the extent that global citizenship encourages understanding of the self and the other in a really active way—is it can help to mitigate against this rift of hatred.”

Success is simpler than you think

With any new initiative in education, there’s the problem of competing priorities. But Mitalene doesn’t think efforts to increase global competency are going anywhere, and she isn’t shy about this stance: “I’m of the opinion that a relevant education is an education about the world.”

To support that point, she offers a story about a team of educators from Connecticut who returned to the Think Tank to share their successes. “I kept waiting for them to use our terminology, like global competence, global citizenship, global education, and they never did. And finally, it dawned on me: what they consider education—good education that engages parents, that engages students, that gives opportunities—a global education is [already] embedded in that. There is no daylight between the work they’re doing to advance student outcomes and global education.”

Perhaps that’s the point at which we know we’re succeeding—when global competency is a part of every teacher’s practice, and the term “global education” ceases to exist.

Let the world in

For Mitalene, being a global citizen isn’t something you achieve, at least in a finite way. “I think it’s [about] being open to exploring the world and then acting in positive ways toward the world,” she says. “There is no end to becoming a global citizen.” Rather, it’s a role you accept and build upon over your lifetime. Mitalene describes the process in two steps: developing consciousness, and then competencies.

When it comes to consciousness, she raises a central question: “How can people understand that their lives are part of a larger narrative that transcends borders and isn’t bounded by their lifetime?” One key topic in global education work, Mitalene points out, “is to open up dialogue about where people see themselves in the world and what responsibilities they can take on.” Whether it’s pollution, economic prosperity, or gender equality, “everyone has to decide for themselves how they want to be in the context of that reality.” So, encourage inquiry and exploration of different perspectives, and let your students decide for themselves how to take action.

As far as competencies for global citizenship, Mitalene cites the work done by her colleague Reimers as an essential resource. “Some educators who come to the Think Tank say buzzwords like global citizen and global competence make people in their communities nervous,” she continues. Education frameworks like the 21st-century competencies developed by Margaret Hilton and James Pellegrino are valuable in those situations. They take the focus off of nomenclature like global citizenship and put it on skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration instead.

I’m of the opinion that a relevant education is an education about the world.

Prepare to ask questions

Similar to a muscle you can flex and strengthen over time, your interpretation of global citizenship should always be evolving. And one of the most efficient ways to stretch this consciousness is through traveling—whether that’s within your own neighborhood, to other parts of North America, or as far as a different country or continent.

If you decide to show your students this reality, Mitalene recommends setting them up for as much understanding as possible. In addition to discussing the differences students could encounter before they get on a plane and go, she suggests establishing learning objectives that have a life beyond a trip, and making space for reflection after you return home. “I would hope that students don’t feel pressured to necessarily find answers,” she says, “but to just discover more and more questions that they can then explore in an ongoing way for really deep learning.”

There’s also the matter of giving as much as you take. Through her work at HGSE, Mitalene recently had the chance to travel to Lebanon, where she visited education centers for displaced Syrians. She realized that when you’re in another place and taking pictures with locals, you should stop and think about what you’re doing with those photos. “I was really deliberate. I did take pictures of some of the kids in their classrooms. But then I made sure to send those pictures back. [Because] they’re not just for me to show my friends.” It was a shared experience, and the opportunity to remember and reflect upon it should be, too.

The good news? If you are practicing global citizenship in a way that encourages inquiry, Mitalene doesn’t believe you need her guidance on the best way to contribute to a larger good. “All we can do is ask questions and then just think about our actions really carefully.”

Now pay it forward

We hope inviting you into this conversation with Mitalene has given you a head start at defining this deceptively simple, yet head-spinning subject. It is a process every person must undertake for themselves. And if it prompts more questions than answers, that, Mitalene assures us, is the point.

At its best, global citizenship really is about people. It’s a collective effort that benefits a common humanity. That’s why we teamed up with Mitalene to write this, why she partners with her colleagues at Harvard to train educators on the topic, and why she advocates for collaboration among teachers interested in giving young people a global education.

Ultimately, advancing global citizenship is a joint effort between you and your students. “Why are we educators?” Mitalene asks. “It’s because we want to nurture the next generation of people who are going to be citizens of this world.” And what do we owe them? “Surely, it is an education that will help them walk in peace and love with the ability to make the world much better and much healthier than it is currently.”


What’s next?

Your global education doesn’t have to end here. Find a wealth of resources recommended by Mitalene in this post.

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Kim Hart

Kim is a writer and an associate creative director at EF. In a past life, she wrote about everything from online poker to deodorant. (She likes writing about educational travel better.) When not at work, you can most likely find Kim on the internet or eating cheese.

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