Monthly Archives: February 2017

World-changing curriculum

In Empowering Global Citizens: A World Course, Fernando Reimers and four co-authors offer an interdisciplinary K-12 curriculum that aims for nothing less. It seeks to develop the specific cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal competencies crucial to thriving in the 21st century. Among those skills: the social and emotional ability to understand and work with people from diverse cultures; the creativity to develop sustainable solutions to complex problems; and a sense of confidence that individuals can (and are obligated to) make a difference.


A curriculum, ideally, should give young people the knowledge they need to approach the future with a dynamic, accountable, forward-thinking mindset, says Reimers, the faculty director of international education policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The World Course is a curriculum specifically designed with the future in view — with the idea that our future will be an interconnected one, with complex challenges that demand a sense of citizenship and collaboration that expands beyond national borders.

To be globally competent, students will need traits like critical thinking, intercultural literacy, digital literacy, and cooperation, Reimers and his colleagues say. They’ll need to know how to work together on shared projects; how to use technology as a tool for learning; and how to see themselves as agents for innovation and sustainability.

Taking its lead from the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the curriculum — unit-based, with sample lessons that teachers can customize — is divided into two large segments, kindergarten through grade eight, and grades nine through 12.  It builds gradually, from closely guided instruction and activities to independent, project-based learning. The curriculum emphasizes pedagogy, focusing on “how you teach, not just what you teach,” says Connie K. Chung, associate director of HGSE’s Global Education Innovation Initiative and one of the book’s co-authors. (The other co-authors are Vidur Chopra, Julia Higdon, and E. B. O’Donnell.) To that end, Empowering Global Citizens advocates for materials and resources to personalize learning, for schools to build partnerships with parents and communities, and for leadership that “supports cultures of continuous improvement and learning.”


The World Course kicks off by helping kindergartners see that “our world is diverse and beautiful, and we can learn about it different ways, like counting, interviewing, describing, storytelling and viewing pictures.” A different theme undergirds each successive academic year. The themes grow with the children, providing an ever-widening, deepening view of the world, from cultures, government, and geography to the environment, entrepreneurship, and values.

The themes communicate:

  • What we have in common and how we differ
  • The value of social entrepreneurship
  • The evolution of civilizations
  • The power of ordinary citizens to improve society and the world
  • The ongoing reality of population migration

Students immerse themselves in the themes through classroom activities, projects, and film and literature. Each year ends with a capstone project; students might make a book, create a documentary, or create a social enterprise.

Students learn to bring an inquisitive mind to people and experiences. They’re taught to interview and to partner with peers in other countries. Teachers emphasize the long arc of history and the importance of the values espoused in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights through activities and lessons highlighting its various components.

By the time they enter high school, students have learned “to find and make meaning in their learning,” rather than simply master a list of skills.


Ninth-graders continue the World Course by completing two of the five semester-long courses designed specifically for the curriculum — courses on:

  • The environment
  • Society and public health
  • Global conflicts and resolutions
  • Development economics: growth and development in Latin America
  • Technology, innovation, and globalization

At the end of ninth grade, students identify an issue or challenge they’d like to pursue. In tenth grade, they begin a 3-year, multi-pronged inquiry into the subject. The project includes:

  • Independent research
  • An internship with a mentor or organization
  • The development and implementation of a plan to address the issue
  • A final senior-year presentation to the school community

True to global-citizen form, students don’t carry out their projects in a vacuum.They’re placed into advisory groups based on their topics. And advisors, sometimes outside mentors, guide students for the duration of their research. Students also serve as peer coaches while working on their own projects.

Learning a word

Discussion protocols can be an important tool for prompting and structuring class conversation. These protocols create an outline of procedures for students to follow, often including assigned roles, specific directions, and details on timing.

Instructors use protocols for a variety of purposes, including:

  • To enhance the structure and clarity of an open-ended task, such as brainstorming or generating ideas;
  • To distribute participation by encouraging students to take turns and to alternate between speaking and listening;
  • To assign clear roles and tasks so that students can maximize opportunities for collaborative work.

Some educators may worry that protocols can lead to an overly structured discussion that is less free flowing and organic. But structure can be useful when the discussion topic is controversial or when students feel reluctant to participate. Protocols can help educators highlight multiple perspectives about an issue or prevent one voice from dominating the conversation. Protocols can also encourage students to ask questions or give honest feedback.

Sarah Leibel, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, finds protocols to be an invaluable teaching tool that can promote equity, create structure, and infuse energy into the classroom. They can “really democratize a space, ensuring that everyone has a voice and has access to the conversation,” she says. Protocols can scaffold conversations She finds that protocols scaffold conversations so they unfold in an efficient manner that allows students to interact with readings and with each other in deeper ways. Leibel also appreciates the way some protocols get students up and moving. “I want to build community quickly in the room, have many different people interact, and have many ideas surface,” she says.

Leibel recommends developing a go-to set of protocols to use consistently throughout a course, so that students become familiar with them and can jump right into the activity.

Among her favorites is The Final Word [PDF], also known as Save the Last Word — a text-based protocol that supports students in engaging deeply with key passages. One student selects a quotation from the text and reads it aloud. Other students take turns responding to the text, and the original student closes the discussion with a reflection.

Here are two other recommended protocols for digging into a text:

  • Four A’s: Students discuss assumptions, what they agree with, what they argue with, and what they aspire to, based on a specific text.
  • Socratic Seminar: Students discuss what the author was trying to convey by using evidence from a specific text. Students build on one another’s ideas without intervention from the instructor.

See the full handout for a cross-disciplinary range of protocols that promote critical thinking, perspective-taking, data analysis, and more.

Teaching Tolerance Today

When the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) launched its Teaching Toleranceinitiative in 1991, the goal was to intervene early to prevent the formation of prejudice — the kind of hate that could fuel the Klan-related crimes the SPLC was fighting.

At the time, the school integration movement seemed in full force, and the project’s work drew on the notion that bringing people together — not expressly to get along, but to engage in meaningful work alongside one another — would allow them to see the world from each other’s perspectives and would break barriers between groups, promoting harmony.

The ideas were grounded in research around contact theory, says Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, in an interview recorded for the Harvard EdCast. “We had a lot of suburban schools that had once been 100 percent white, that were being newly integrated, and the idea was that this was really important in those kinds of places. What we did not know at the time was that 1989 was the peak of school integration in this country, and it has in fact decreased ever since” she says.

The ensuing 25 years — with a movement away from integration, with tidal waves of school reform, and with growing awareness of inequities in schools and the limitations of contact theory — have seen the scope broaden for Teaching Tolerance. The organization now focuses on “prejudice reduction, intergroup relations, and promoting equitable experiences in our nation’s schools,” Costello says. “In the last year, we’ve begun to reimagine our mission again. We are now thinking that what we really have to do is to educate for a diverse democracy.”

The climate of political and cultural divisiveness is making group’s practice-related resources feel newly relevant, often essential, and, at times, controversial. “We have heard from so many teachers who are really struggling” to navigate the current climate, Costello says. Among the thousands of teachers responding to two national surveys Teaching Tolerance conducted last year (the first during the 2016 presidential campaign, the next after the election), one was a science teacher who reported teaching a STEM lesson about the importance of having more women and minorities in science. “She said, ‘The next day a parent complained that I was spouting liberal nonsense.’ Now that’s a science class — so yes, we’re seeing a lot of hesitation to talk about diversity, to talk about the value of diversity,” Costello says.

“We used to get criticized because ‘tolerance’ didn’t go far enough,” she continues. “And it seems like now, it’s too much for some folks. I always thought of it as a basic American value.”

That’s essentially what Teaching Tolerance advises: Educators should talk about tolerance “as a basic American value, talk about it early, talk about it often, and talk about it in a lot of different contexts, so that when the context does seem a little bit political, it’s part of a bigger picture.”  Today’s best practices? They’re the same as always, Costello says. Among them:

  • Strengthen communication with parents and make sure they are partners in education.
  • Start the year with clear classroom norms, and engage students in creating those norms.
  • Practice dialogue.
  • Work to develop in students the skills and spirit of inquiry.

What are the resources teachers are looking for these days? A lot of it falls into the ‘Oh my God, what just happened in the news, what do I need today?’ category, Costello says. Another key topic: supporting kids from immigrant families. “Educators want to know what the law is, how it’s changing, how they can best address the emotional needs of these kids, and how they can support the families,” she says. Digital literacy is another big source of concern.

Teaching Tolerance will engage all of these topics in the coming year. The organization is also launching a racial history project that will result in recommendations about how that history should be incorporated into K–12 curricula. And it’s focusing on civic literacy, too, recognizing “that a diverse democracy not only involves getting along with people, but also having a sense of agency and having a sense that ‘I can do something.’ So we want to support teachers as they support the development of those skills and dispositions in students.”

Study at home

New research suggests it’s family involvement, Not just camps or trips, That keeps kids primed for learning all summer

Where’s the best place for summer learning? (Hint: Don’t look far.)

As the achievement gap has widened over the past quarter century, educators have increasingly focused on summer pastimes as both a key factor and a solution. Higher-income children are more likely to fill their days with outdoorsy camps, music and coding classes, and travel. Making those experiences more accessible to and commonplace for all children, the theory goes, can help ensure that low-income kids keep learning at the same rate.

But time spent at home, reading independently or talking about books and stories with parents, seems to have a greater influence on children’s academic growth than summer camps or vacations, new research suggests. It’s a reminder that despite the social-emotional benefits (and the fun) of camp, quiet days with family can offer valuable learning moments too.


The study, conducted by education policy researcher Kathleen Lynch, parses out how various summer activities, such as attending camp, reading and talking about math at home, vacations and daytrips, and summer school, have distinct academic effects. It suggests that families of all socioeconomic backgrounds have made strides in creating an enriching summer for their children.

Lynch looked at two cohorts of kindergarten-age children, one from 1999 and the other from 2011. Both cohorts were nationally representative and included more than 4,000 students. The study examined the relationship between summer activities and socioeconomic status (SES); the relationship between summer activities and literacy and math scores; and whether SES-related gaps in summer activities changed between 1999 and 2011.

It found that the gap between the number of high- and low-income children who attend camp (here, defined as non-school-based summer programs) and visit new places has increased over time:

  • The proportion of high-SES children attending camp increased from about 40 to 53 percent, whereas the proportion of low-SES children decreased from about 9 to 6 percent.
  • High-SES children were increasingly more likely to visit to museums, zoos and aquariums, new cities, amusements parks, and beaches and lakes. Low-SES children were increasingly more likely to spend more time at home watching television or playing computer games.