Monday, 21 September 2015

Education towards global competence in the 21st century


Last week saw the inaugural education conference at my school's parent university, the first Srinakharinwirot University Conference in Education (SWUICE). The theme of the conference was 'Education towards global competence in the 21st century'. 

The keynote speech on the first day was given by Professor Roger Moltzen, Dean of Education at Waikato University, New Zealand. Professor Moltzen gave a very interesting address, outlining what he considered to be the necessary elements for an education that would provide learners with the opportunity to become globally competent citizens. Although there were some other interesting speakers and sessions at the conference, in this post I would like to reflect on Professor Moltzen's keynote address, because he touched on some points that I think are at the heart of a number of debates in education at the moment. 

Professor Moltzen outlined what he considered a globally competent citizen might look like. Some of the attributes of a globally competent citizen which he identified are I suspect attributes which many educators have been instilling in their learners for many years. However I think there are some ideas, especially those relating to globalisation and technological advances, which are going to become increasingly important for learners in the 21st century. Therefore I think it is worth reproducing his ideas here. 

What does a globally competent citizen look like?

  • Can understand and appreciate, but also critique, their own culture, language & history
  • Is informed & engaged with matters of social justice equity & inclusion
  • Looks for and finds purpose in their lives
  • Their disposition towards learning is more important than their hard knowledge due to rapid changes in knowledge & information
  • Is prepared to take a stand & take a road less travelled
  • Is opinionative & prepared to be contentious (we should be actively encouraging students to develop their own points of view)
  • Is able to make appropriate decisions about when, where & how to express their views & act on their convictions
  • Is ethical, behaves with integrity & takes responsibility for their actions
  • Is aware, curious & interested in learning about the world & it's peoples
  • Is committed to environmental sustainability, both locally & globally
  • Understands the why, not just the how, of social, cultural, ethnic, linguistic & religious diversity
  • Is cross-culturally sensitive, informed & confident
  • Speaks at least two languages
  • Has well developed people skills - emotional intelligence (how do schools deal with this?)
  • Thinks & acts critically, creatively, & caringly
  • Has well-developed problem solving skills, & approaches tasks innovatively & laterally
  • Is open to new ideas & seeks out multiple opinions, perspectives & approaches
  • Listens & observes
  • Can accommodate ambiguity, recognise complexity & is able to suspend judgement
  • Realises that they can make a difference
  • Is community-minded with a service orientation
  • Understands the world through disciplinary & interdisciplinary eyes
  • Is resilient 
  • Identifies & creates opportunities for personal or collaborative action to improve conditions

Professor Moltzen further suggested that education is increasingly no longer about the right answers, but about asking the right questions. He described an example of an assignment he sets with his students, where the students submit a question of their own, which they then have to answer. The assignment is then assessed both on the quality of the question and of the answer. He stressed the key factor for him when assessing these assignments was the need for original thinking in the development of the question and the way in which it was answered. He also noted that students had initially liked this approach (thinking it was easy!), but as they moved into it more deeply, became aware that it wasn't as simple as it might have seemed at first. 

He finished with two key questions for us as the audience:

  • How well do we as educators model global competence?
  • How do we develop the attributes that produce globally competent citizens?


A number of interesting points appear in this list, but I'll focus on two that stood out for me. The first is the idea that a disposition towards learning will become increasingly more important than storing knowledge within the individual. This resonates with connectivity theory, a theory of learning proposed by George Siemens in 2005 which incorporates both individual knowledge and knowledge contained within networks. As knowledge and information continue to increase exponentially, learners cannot possibly store these data within themselves, but need to know how to access, evaluate, and analyse them. 

The second point I found compelling was the idea that an interdisciplinary orientation will become increasingly important. This is something that various approaches in education are seeking to address, for example project-based learning and STEM/STEAM initiatives. However, with the confines of national curricula and high stakes examinations it is not always easy to incorporate these pedagogies. 


I think that in his keynote speech, Professor Moltzen identified some of the key issues that many of us as educators are increasingly thinking about. I certainly found myself agreeing with the attributes of a globally competent citizen which he described. The question I find myself asking, from a classroom practice perspective, is how to reconcile the need for content knowledge, curriculum requirements, and examination-style assessments, with the need to enable learners to become globally competent citizens. Are these two approaches even compatible, and if they are, in what ways can we best help our learners become globally competent citizens? 

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Essay submission day

I usually get a chorus of cheers at the start of the first semester from my Grade 12 biology students when I announce that there will be just one major homework assignment for the whole semester. Strangely these cheers soon change to groans when I tell them that the assignment is a 1500 word fully cited and referenced academic essay!

The rationale

I am aware that there is a continuing debate going on around whether teachers should be setting homework at all, and a few of the opposing viewpoints are summarised nicely here. Some research suggests that whilst homework may not have much effect on achievement for younger students, for high school students it can have beneficial effects on achievement. I will return to homework in a future blog post - for now I will focus on these essays & why I assign them. The rationale for this activity is that my students will shortly be going to university, and many of them will need to use academic writing skills, whatever degree subject they choose to pursue. They will also need to carry out independent research and find relevant articles and background information for themselves. Thus this essay task gives them an opportunity to gain some experience in these areas. This is not an easy task for my students since they are Thai and therefore learning (and writing) in their second language. 

The work

Before setting the essay itself, I assign three very short pre-essay tasks to give my students the opportunity to practice three important skills: paraphrasing, summarising, and the correct use of in-text citations. These tasks are awarded a simple completion grade; the main purpose is to get learners familiar with these skills. 

For the essay itself, there are some important points to note. Firstly, although it is first and foremost a biology essay, students have complete freedom to choose any topic with a biological focus. Many students choose to do a 'pure' biology essay. Other students, who may be less interested in biology, are able to choose a different approach, for example bioengineering or biochemistry. Another popular choice is to take a psychology-oriented approach, for example I have previously received essays about the psychology of sleep, and one about how the teenage brain affects teen behaviours. I think it is important for students to have this level of choice since this is a major piece of work which they will need to spend some time with - hopefully if they choose to write about something they are already interested in it will increase their engagement with the task. From my point of view it also makes the task of grading the essays far more enjoyable by having a set of completely different essays, rather than the same topic appearing repeatedly. 

The second point to note is that I give my students a time frame of three months to write the essay. They are free to submit their essay at any point during these three months, although they are informed that it will not be graded until everyone has submitted their work. This is an attempt by me to minimise deadline bottlenecks for my students at the end of the semester. Of course, being teenagers, I generally get fewer than ten percent of the essays submitted earlier than the deadline!

Thirdly, I make it very clear to students that plagiarism will not be tolerated. Very occasionally I have had to return work to students ungraded, and ask them to re-submit an essay that has not been extensively copied and pasted. I even had a student submit work that came from a website that claimed it wasn't a cheat site, but a collaborative one, when it clearly was simply in the business of selling complete essays. Fortunately these cases are rare, and the vast majority of students do a good job and are careful to fully cite and reference their work. 

Some examples

Each year I look forward to seeing the diversity of topics chosen by my students. The range of diversity can be seen in some of this year's list of essay titles, which, in no particular order, are: 

  • Life in the underwater world
  • Why do we die?
  • Bird migration
  • Infectious disease
  • Stem cells
  • The fatal Ebola
  • Viruses
  • Biodegradable plastics
  • The digestive system
  • Biological weapons
  • DNA profiling
  • Cancer treatment
  • The meaning of animal behaviour
  • Plant diversity and evolution
  • The classification and evolution of dinosaurs
  • Coronary surgery
  • How does Golden Rice help vitamin A deficiency?


As already mentioned, my students are Thai and therefore a task such as this is particularly challenging for them. However, it is clear from the generally high standard of essays that I receive from my students that they put a lot of time and effort into these essays, and I am frequently pleasantly surprised at the insights and thoughtfulness displayed in some of their work. Although there is some (generally!) good-natured grumbling about the task, I think in the end my students can see the benefits of doing this work.