Building bridges and opening doors

Building bridges and opening doors

As a 17-year-old on Auckland’s North Shore, I was desperately unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. My wiry frame was not All Black material and I needed a new direction. Thankfully, a teacher handed me an application for a year-long AFS Intercultural Exchange and helped me to write it, and six months later I was living with a Muslim family in an isolated region of Malaysia. They spoke no English, I spoke no Malay. We were from opposite ends of the Earth.


More recently, Cognition Education supported my participation in the Future of Learning Institute at Harvard University. A key question driving the Institute was “how can our schools best nurture global citizenship?” Principal investigator Veronica Boix Mansilla introduced three forces within which we framed our inquiry: global media, global migration and global markets.


Global media is represented by the ubiquity of information and the utility of social media in young people’s lives. Global migration is defined by the flows of people across borders; because of conflicts, environmental crises and economic opportunities, people’s movements are redefining nation states and creating new communities and cultures unlike ever before. And the global market is characterised by the speed and distance with which money, materials, products and ideas are exchanged. 


In an interconnected world, young people are influenced by these forces in all aspects of their lives. Their future employment will be defined by these forces too. As such, teachers and schools play an influential role in the development of young people’s global competence. This is the ability to make critical sense of these forces, have the skills to successfully navigate the impacts that these forces have, and to develop the intellectual wherewithal to embrace the vast opportunities (and risks) that these forces offer.


From Boston, I reflected on New Zealand’s geographic isolation and the extent to which our schools have embraced these forces and translated them into connected, current, and relevant learning experiences for young people. The future-focus principle of The New Zealand Curriculum encourages us to “look to the future by exploring such significant future-focused issues as sustainability, citizenship, enterprise, and globalisation” (p9). I think exploration is an important starting point, but I’m curious as to how well we’re genuinely equipping young people with the skills to excel as globally competent citizens. This is the underlying question that drives my professional inquiry.


My experience in Malaysia was transformative. I quickly learned the language; I came to appreciate the routines and rituals of Islam; I became a part of the community and I learnt to respect the divisions and alliances defined by gender, age, and ethnicity. Through new ways of interacting and communicating I developed competence in another culture and in the process formed a stronger understanding of my own.


When we talk about global competency, it is about making meaning, creating connections, and building relations across cultures and contexts. When we also understand and act upon the global forces that define our lives, we come a little closer to being able to call ourselves global citizens. As presented by Harvard’s Fernando Reimers, a competent global citizen can:


– communicate in more than one language

– communicate appropriately and effectively with people from other cultures or communities

– comprehend other people’s thoughts, beliefs and feelings, and see the world from their perspectives.


How do we create learning experiences and outcomes that resemble those of an intercultural exchange without leaving the confines of our communities?

Using the forces of media, migration, and markets to our advantage, contemporary classrooms are diverse and connected microcosms of the world around us. We can develop young people’s global competencies within our very own communities. To do this though, our pedagogy needs to be creative and critical and we need to be connected authentically to learner and community needs. We also need to embrace the fact that many of our young people are already multilingual and multicultural, and can offer us important guidance on what it means to be a global citizen and globally competent.

Further guidance also comes from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In 2018 the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) will evaluate global competencies for the first time. And as an introduction, the OECD has published Global competency for an inclusive world, which clearly defines a range of global competencies and provides a strong structure for designing engaging cross-curricular learning programmes in our schools.

Through my work at Cognition, I have collaborated with teachers and learned from diverse systems across multiple education contexts around the world. At a personal level, global competencies have allowed me to build bridges and open doors with confidence.

Inspired by how my teacher ignited a world of possibilities for me, it is no coincidence that I now ignite similar possibilities for New Zealand’s teachers through professional learning and development. Although New Zealand is small, our exposure to global media, migration, and markets means we’re not as isolated as we think. I believe global competencies are our foundation, as a country, for future peace, sustainability, and prosperity.


Chris Henderson is a Principal Consultant for Cognition Education.