What Is Global Competency? Ask PISA | Jonathan Martin | 6 Min Read

1/6/2021 seems bound to join the ranks of infamous days, alongside 9/11/2001, 12/7/42, 11/22/63, and only a handful of others.  As it should.  In the still-only 60-odd days since that appalling event at the, nay, our U.S. Capitol, many educators have been asking themselves: what is our responsibility, and what is our best course of action, to better educate the young people in our care such that we will not see any repeat of this horror in the years and decades to come?

Questions such as this have been bouncing around edu-Twitter and elsewhere, and helpfully folks have suggested many of the usual—and to be clear, quality—programs, such as Facing History, the Stanford History Education Group, Teaching Tolerance, Second Step. Others have focused on what skills we should be teaching, and rightfully so, recommending critical thinking, data literacy, and numeracy, empathy, social justice. 

Rarely, though, are non-domestic, global resources or strategies suggested.  Frankly, as much as I admire progressive and student-centered U.S. educators for their creativity and compassion, their insight into learning design, authentic assessment, and holistic education, I fear sometimes that they—we—are still a bit too provincial.  I had a taste of this a few years ago when communicating with some in the Mastery Transcript Consortium community, asking if they knew of and/or were interested in learning more about New Zealand’s loosely analogous secondary school transcript model.  Most often the answers I received were, sadly, “no”, and “not really.”  (Sidenote: I’m glad to see Intrepid Ed News seeking to broaden its perspective, and include among its columnists, educators from abroad such as my good friend Richard Wells of New Zealand).

Fortunately, there is a valuable recent resource well suited for the task at hand—learning from global education practices how we might better educate our students toward a better understanding of empathy, civic responsibility, and social justice initiative.  This comes from OECD PISA, which just published last year its research on what it calls global competence, a skill set that is a strikingly on-point corrective for the terrible events of Jan. 6.

PISA offers this as its definition: “Global competence is the capacity to examine local, global and intercultural issues, to understand and appreciate the perspectives and worldviews of others, to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development.”

Global competence was selected as the supplemental skill-set, above and beyond the core Reading, Math, and Science skills, for the PISA global assessment in 2018.  Surely some challenge the idea that this competency can be effectively measured in a conventional testing arrangement, but PISA has clearly worked hard to create a multi-faceted approach that includes both a student survey of their awareness of global issues, their dispositions toward responsibilities, the actions they have taken on behalf of their beliefs; and a cognitive test with both multiple-choice and constructed-response items that assesses how well students understand global issues such as climate change, international trade, and refugee resettlement.

Great skepticism can be found among many close observers of PISA, Yong Zhao perhaps most prominently. There is reason to be concerned that PISA’s famed global rankings (“Finland is the best education system in the world… no now Shanghai is!”) are systemically flawed, that we can’t effectively measure the reading and scientific skills that PISA does with what is mostly (not entirely) a multiple-choice test and that PISA’s prominent place in global education is narrowing educational policymaking to what PISA measures and not much more.  We must ensure we use large grains of salt when considering PISA research.  But, by and large, these common PISA critiques don’t, or don’t much, relate to its research in global competence.

The PISA report on global competence, entitled ARE STUDENTS READY TO THRIVE IN AN INTERCONNECTED WORLD?, (volume VI of the PISA 2018 results) includes, as all PISA reports do, an abundance of tables displaying various ratings for all participants, (27 countries chose to participate in the global competence cognitive test and survey, and an additional 39 administered the survey only; the U.S. and U.K. except Scotland did neither) in these four categories (and their many subordinate domains):

  • Examine issues of local, global and cultural significance;
  • Understand and appreciate the perspectives and worldviews of others;
  • Engage in open, appropriate, and effective interactions across cultures; and
  • Take action for collective well-being and sustainable development. 

The emphasis in this report on ranking nations is considerably smaller than in most other PISA reports, but if readers are interested, Canada, Hong Kong, and Scotland were among the top scorers in the cognitive domain.  Helpfully, PISA offered a second analysis, adjusted or normed for cognitive skill as demonstrated in Reading, Math, and Science, and here, “Canada, Colombia, Greece, Israel, Panama, Scotland (United Kingdom), Singapore and Spain showed the highest relative performance in global competence, while Albania, Brunei Darussalam, Kazakhstan, Korea, and the Russian Federation showed the lowest relative performance.”

But this is not what’s important, of course.  What’s important is what differentiates high performance in global competency from low, and what we might be able to learn and apply from this finding. The PISA report researchers provide several insights that ought to be factored into any school’s curriculum planning.  

First, second language learning is not just valuable for career opportunities, linguistic sophistication, and travel; it does appear to have a strong relationship to improving the attitudes represented in global competence. “Speaking two or more languages was positively associated with awareness of global issues, self-efficacy regarding global issues, cognitive adaptability, interest in learning about other cultures, respect for people from other cultures, positive attitudes towards immigrants, awareness of intercultural communication and the ability to understand the perspectives of others.”   (In fairness, as the authors point out, this association or correlation works in both directions; in some cases, surely, it is because students already have positive attitudes that they choose to study second languages.)

Second, schools should consider expanding the array of global competence-learning activities they provide students, such as developing conflict resolution skills, analyzing global issues in collaborative groups, and considering how people from different cultures have different perspectives.  “Students’ attitudes and dispositions are positively and significantly associated with the number of [such] learning activities with which they are engaged.”  What’s more, as PISA head Andreas Schleicher has emphasized, positive attitudes correspond to positive and constructive action taken by the young people participating in these surveys.

Third and finally, educational leaders must ensure that educators are predisposed and prepared to provide students appropriate guidance.  Among their priorities must be to close a gender gap in which boys have far more opportunity than girls (based on self-reporting) to participate in class discussion, but considerably less than girls to practice skills in conflict resolution and in understanding multiple perspectives. Teachers are role models; as is often stated, “the students are watching.”  As many as 10-15% of students across industrialized nations report that their teachers themselves are displaying negative attitudes toward certain groups of people, and, accordingly, “students who perceive discrimination by their teachers towards particular groups, such as immigrants and people from other cultural backgrounds, exhibited similar negative attitudes.”  But even the best-intentioned of teachers need support; in high proportions, teachers and principals alike reporting having received little or no professional development in teaching for global competence, especially in topics such as “teaching in multicultural and multilingual settings, teaching intercultural communication, teaching second languages and teaching about equity and diversity.”

The challenge to our social fabric posed by the events of Jan. 6 is profound.  Every one of us charged with any form of duty to guide young people must take this crisis in hand and embed corrective action into our work, and we should look far and wide for guidance in how to do so.   Global best practices, as established by thorough research, should be among our sources, and the PISA global competency study provides useful information to this end. 

Jonathan Martin

Jonathan E. Martin taught at and led schools in California and Arizona from 1989 to 2012; over the past decade he has been a writer, school consultant, and professional development provider to more than a hundred schools and thousands of educators in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand. His affiliations have included EdLeader21, OECD PISA, NWEA, NAIS, Mastery Transcript Consortium, Blackbaud, Enrollment Management Association, CWRA, and Think Through Math. He is the author of Reinventing Crediting for Competency-Based Education (Routledge Press, 2020), as well as scores of e-books, special reports, and white papers over the past 10 years. He currently directs professional learning for a global not-for-profit educational organization.

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