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International Mindedness: Definitions and Issues

Much of this short article will discuss why international mindedness is so problematic, so let me declare my commitment to it as an idea (and hopefully as an attitude and as behaviours.) I am fortunate to be a Trustee of the Alliance for International Education. I have also been closely involved in the development of both the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) and the International Middle Years Curriculum (IMYC), both of which put the development of international mindedness at the heart of what they stand for. What follows is my own views about some of the issues we have to struggle when we talk about international mindedness. But, as the singer Ewan MacColl, once said ‘It’s the struggle that makes it worthwhile.’

What does internationally minded mean?
By definition, international mindedness is a ‘good thing’. It would be a brave soul in 2017 who said that they don’t think we should be internationally minded or that children and students shouldn’t experience its development in school and in their lives. Not even Donald Trump would go that far. However, if we are going to talk about something – let alone build a curriculum around it or devote considerable amounts of teacher and student time to it – it would help if we began to share some notion of what it means. In the case of international mindedness, I’m not sure we do. It often seems to be a huge dumping ground for everyone’s pet themes such as peace studies, the environment, globalization, the economy and more. Even the word ‘international’ has multiple meanings in the names of different international schools, from a clearly national school outside of its ‘home’ location to a school that only accepts students who come from countries outside of its ‘host’ country – and everywhere in between.

The result of all this is that discussions about international mindedness are messy and decisions almost impossible to agree on. I have been helped hugely by one sentence from Howard Gardner, who said that the whole purpose of human development is ‘a decline in egocentricity’. This idea is powerful to me because it involves an increasing sense of the sharing and creating community with others rather than trying to build community around ourselves. It also suggests a continuing process rather than a goal that can be ‘achieved’. I find it helpful because it describes the journey we make as humans from the two year-old screaming in the supermarket because they can’t get their own way to Nelson Mandela coming out of prison to negotiate immediately and respectfully with those he had previously fought and who had been his captors. (Neither of these images is meant to assume that two-year olds aren’t, when they are not egocentrically screaming, lovely or that Nelson Mandela is faultless.) 

What does this mean for different ages?
Because my main interest is in how learning happens and how we can help it to happen, I have always been as focused on young children as I have on older students or adults. Discussions and definitions of international mindedness in education too often are driven from the perspective of 16-18 year-old school leavers.  But international mindedness begins when children are very young and continues to develop through their schooling. We need to put as much work into defining what a ‘declining sense of egocentricism’ might look like when children are 5, 7, 9, 11 as we do when we are 18; its roots are laid down when we are young.

But let’s think about those 18 year-olds, too. We talk too often of our hopes for the development of international mindedness in 18 year-olds in ways that suggest they will be fully-formed. They won’t, and to think they will places unrealistic expectations on these young people and on those who work with them. Howard Gardner said that the ‘whole purpose of human life’ was a declining sense of egocentricism, not the whole purpose of schooling. Schooling is the beginning of the developmental process of our human lives; not its only chance. It’s going to take much longer than 18 years to become ‘Nelson Mandela’. Thinking about myself, I might need two or three lifetimes at least.

What does brain research tell us?
I’m going to miss out more than I can include here but it is important to indicate at least that brain research can be helpful to us. Let’s focus on two things research has helped us learn.

First, the brain hard-wires continually revisited experiences. (It doesn’t hard-wire good experiences, the brain isn’t moral in that way.) This is why the primary age is so crucial in the development of international mindedness; the different repetitive experiences  – good or bad, helpful or unhelpful – of the young child’s brain lay down are hard wired responses that are very difficult to unlearn.

Second, the part of the brain that handles most complex thinking –  the pre-frontal cortex – hits its development between the ages of 18-24. It’s no surprise that so many of us fail to live up to the expectations set for us by the age of 18. The part of our brain that has to do all the complex work has only just started to help us.

What does ‘developing international mindedness’ mean in practice for curricula and schools?

  • It means that curriculum outcomes or international mindedness must be defined in terms of what most children of different ages can achieve rather than what the gifted few demonstrate to us.
  • It means that in order to help children develop those outcomes we have to create practices that take into account where those brains are developmentally. A ‘declining sense of egocentrism’ at the age of 5 might be no more than coming to the realization that when someone borrows your eraser they are not stealing it and that letting someone borrow your eraser can help make your table a more pleasant place to be. At the age of 16 it might involve student on projects that embed them inside cultures significantly different than their own and providing them with a ‘crisis of engagement’.
  • It means that other languages are important precisely because they are a way of finding our way respectfully into other cultures and having the opportunity to diminish our egocentricity in a context that would otherwise be very difficult. But learning languages isn’t a guarantee of anything. Depending on our hard wiring, even the act of learning them can increase our separation from others.
  • It means that our own behaviours in class and around children and students and with our colleagues, parents and others have to model a declining sense of egocentrism, too. The idea that teachers are some of the most powerful people in children’s lives is not necessarily a good thing.
  • It means much more, too, more than this article has space for. The good news is that as we continue to refine and agree what we mean by international mindedness and as we develop our curricula, our practice in classrooms and our mindsets as school leaders and parents should focus on helping children and students get better, not get there. International mindedness is way too important idea to deserve anything other than a rigorous, collective struggle.

Martin Skelton,
Group Director of Education, ISP

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