Meeting in the Middle: Striving for Equity in Global Partnerships

The original version of this blog appeared in Education Week on 6/5/17.

Read more in the new book: The Global Education Guidebook: Humanizing K–12 Classrooms Worldwide Through Equitable Partnerships

I had a globally-minded grandmother, and through her I first learned to see people from other cultures through an asset lens. She would show me my grandfather’s photographs and paintings, created all over Europe and Asia, always emphasizing the inherent capacity for beauty and art which every culture possesses. She would approach the table of every international stranger in every restaurant we went to; it embarassed my father terribly, but she was always invited to sit and chat — and I often sat with her and learned about other cultures and ways of life through the conversations she began. She modeled an authentic curiosity about the lives of others, a way of engaging which immediately demonstrated that she saw others as whole and complete human beings with more to teach us than we had to teach them.

In my opinion, global education experiences are too often developed on a foundation of deficit thinking, particularly in the most developed parts of the world. While many global educators are aware of the problem and working hard to reverse it, examples still abound: global partnerships that always end in fundraisers, the assumption that classrooms in the developing world must by their very nature be behind the developed world academically, community service experiences which feed savior complexes instead of undoing them. Even the use of a world language in the partner classroom is sometimes perceived as a problem more than a gift, even by well intentioned educators, because it makes communication more complicated. Most of the problem originates in deeply-ingrained and mostly unconscious biases that come from a history of colonization and exploration which only objectified, exploited and stole from cultures different than their own.

Global education shouldn’t exacerbate power differences, and many global educators work to reverse the paradigm by building partnerships founded in a “learning from and with” mentality in which all partners bring equal if different value to the table. When teachers work to create partnerships based on such asset thinking, they can create collaborative relationships that work to undo our collonial past and establish new paradigms for global learning. Following are a few key strategies that can help.

1. Build the relationship with your partner classroom on a foundation of mutual benefit, respect, and power. All of the suggestions below play into this most fundamental of equity elements: global educators who want to reverse dominance paradigms strive to ensure that both planning and learning processes emphasize consistent and equitable collaboration. They strive to honor all voices, all perspectives, and all experiences, to always assume the best intentions, and to always “share the well,” a phrase used at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School (Atlanta, GA) to suggest that educators should always share power, time, and resources.

2. During planning and learning experiences, start from questions more than assertions, and look for points of intersection. All teachers have goals and demands, and the most equitable partnerships meet the curricular needs of all teachers involved. That doesn’t necessarily mean that both teachers have to be teaching the same material to the same age groups; they might share content, they might share age groups, or they may have neither in common. What makes their partnerships successful is their ability to ask each other probing questions, to explore each other’s ideas, and to see their curricula as a Venn diagram, looking constantly for points of intersection of benefit to both classrooms.

3. Get students involved in recognizing deficit mindsets when they emerge, and in strategizing ways to flip the paradigm. We often underestimate the role that students might play in ensuring equity in our classrooms, assuming it is our job as teachers when global partnerships actually provide a unique opportunity for students to think critically about authentic challenges in real time. Global educators striving for equity can engage their students in that effort, getting them involved in determining the potential warning signs of a deficit mindset. Once students have been involved in establishing the criterion for equity, they will become an incredible filter for everything that happens in the classroom. My students were the first to point it out when I (accidentally) made deficit-based assumptions in my own classroom — and we all learned a great deal from our collective effort to define and ensure equity in our interactions with each other and the world.

4. Lean into discomfort when inequities emerge or partnerships become controversial. I believe it is an inherently human instinct to lean away from discomfort and controversy, though the tendency varies along cultural lines to a degree. The bottom line? We can only resolve what we engage; we can only ensure a more just and peaceful world if we lean into controversy and difficult conversations, if we become comfortable with discomfort and intentionally engage in the hard work that equity and social justice require. I could only learn what I did from my students by being open to their correcting me. Likewise, we can only flip the paradigm if we can let ourselves really hear and try to understand perspectives, grounded in real experiences, which differ from our own. Keeping it easy means we float on the surface, missing the opportunity to dig into the deeper complexities of the human experience.

5. Beware of solutions orientations that have students solving problems for their partners; build partnerships in which students solve for the world they know and learn from the world they don’t. As a writing teacher, I always told my students that they should write what they knew, emphasizing that their own story was the one that was most authentically theirs to tell, whereas to tell the stories of others requires extensive investigation and even then may be rife with misrepresentation. In global development, the “solve for” mentality has birthed many unsustainable and inappropriate solutions, all because one group assumed they knew better than the other. Equitable global education strives to foster change makers and problem solvers who know that learning from and with leads us all to better solutions in our own communities.

In global partnerships founded in equitable action, students learn from and with each other, but the solutions they build are for challenges in their own communities, informed by what they learned from their partners. In the best examples of global partnerships, students all over the world work on the same challenge as it manifests in their own back yards, and they collaborate so that their actions bring together the multiple perspectives and experiences that lead to sustainable, multilateral development. This also creates an important opportunity for local partnerships, which can help to humanize global challenges, ensuring students recognize the connections between global issues and local realities — and making abstract concepts like poverty more concrete for younger learners. Such partnerships also help students recognize change makers and leaders in their own communities, giving them opportunities to participate in authentic, meaningful action alongside individuals and organizations involved in addressing what students are learning about in school.

As Canadian anthropologist and National Geographic writer Wade Davis put it at the Global Education Benchmark Group’s annual conference in April, 2017, “Other cultures are not a failed attempt to be you.” If we can help our students recognize this, through global partnerships that really equip them to collaborate on equal footing with their global counterparts, maybe they can begin to see other cultures as the gift we so urgently need. Most of our problems originate in human ego, in the assumption that humans from developed nations are better equipped to solve the challenges other communities face. It’s the same thinking that devalues indigenous and non-academic learning as inferior, and thinking this way robs us of the opportunity to learn from cultures that have sustained themselves, their communities and the land they live on for longer than the developed world can even imagine. Instead, I believe that global partnerships founded on equity can foster global citizens who always assume that more minds and perspectives lead to better solutions, who recognize that our borderless challenges require a collective effort, and who never assume that problems go away by simply throwing money at them.

— Jennifer D. Klein, Director of Educator Development, World Leadership School