The names on the classroom door say it all: Saynab, Jexus, Victoria, Abdullahi. All around Whittier International Elementary School, a public school in Minneapolis, it's obvious the entire community cares passionately about the greater world. Flags and maps decorate almost every wall. If you listen closely, you'll hear the rhythms of 14 different native languages, from English to Swedish to Somali.
Whittier is a magnet school that is an authorized International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Programme. A nonprofit education organization that was started in 1968 to develop inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring young people who help to create a more peaceful world, the IB program is making its way into public-school districts across the country. "One of the purposes of the IB is for kids to develop a sense of self and understand how their actions influence the world," says Whittier principal Shawn Harris-Berry, Ph.D.
While the social benefits of such an international outlook are obvious, global awareness has other advantages for kids, including helping them learn to approach problems creatively and come up with solutions that are fair-minded. "When I was growing up, the message was, 'Here is a photograph of children in Africa with flies on their head -- help them,'" says Dana Curran Mortenson, the cofounder and executive director of World Savvy, a global-education program that operates in public and private schools in New York, San Francisco, and the Twin Cities. "Today, we want children to understand the root causes of poverty. Like many global challenges, it's a complex issue where there shouldn't be an 'us' and a 'them.'"
Giving children a more global outlook prepares them for the future. They'll be more likely to be able to tackle the environmental, economic, political, technological, and public-health challenges they'll inherit, says Fernando M. Reimers, Ed.D., professor of international education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. And experts agree that a global perspective is going to be a key skill in our ever more digitally connected workplace. "Companies on the S & P 500 now generate 46 percent of their profits outside the U.S.," says Mortenson. "If you want students who are capable and competitive, we need to be able to prepare them differently. Kids who grow up with an international outlook are comfortable knowing that there may not be one clear-cut answer but a variety of perspectives."
Unfortunately, many American children do not know much about life beyond U.S. borders. The 2010 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher found that teachers rated their students' knowledge of the world quite low, and a National Geographic-Roper survey supports these sentiments. "Only 37 percent of young Americans can find Iraq on a map -- though U.S. troops have been there since 2003," says Mortenson. "We want to change that so our kids are more responsible and conscientious."
The best way to give kids the benefits of a global perspective is to start promoting an interest in other cultures when your child is young -- as early as preschool. "Think of it as a journey," says Jennifer Manise, the executive director of the Longview Foundation, a world- affairs education nonprofit in Falls Church, Virginia. "We are citizens of the world. To understand that is helpful."
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Parents magazine.