Thinking Globally – a teacher blogs

3 September 2012

Maths teacher Ed Read reflects on the skills his students need to be learning.

It has been said that the top 10 “in-demand” jobs today did not exist ten years ago. The implications of this are startling and, to an educator, faintly terrifying. How am I supposed to teach my pupils the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed in the world when in five years time the economy could look completely different? Globalization is moving faster than we educators can keep up with.

I teach maths, and people often say to me that maths exams are getting easier. I looked up the O-level maths exam my father sat and some of the questions completely stumped me. The Shame! But does this mean that maths education is not as good? I am not sure. My father sat that exam in 1966, long before the pocket calculator arrived, and the fact is we want today’s pupils to have different skills than we used to. My father’s mental arithmetic is likely to always be better than mine, but it will never be better than my Casio’s. So are maths exams easier or are they just testing different skills? For those curious about the research behind claims about exams, this article by Ben Goldacre makes for interesting reading.

It’s getting harder and harder to predict what skills we will require our citizens to have. In a constantly shifting market what skills will always be needed?

Hercules and the Hydra by John Singer Sargent - click to view on WikipediaHere are my thoughts:

1. To know how to learn. Every shift and change will mean having to learn new skills and new trades, people need to be able to adapt.

2. To think and act creatively. A constantly changing world will need constantly changing solutions.

3. To think and act critically. Seeing potential problems before they emerge will be essential in the hydra-headed market.

4. To think and act globally. Our world is increasingly integrated and interdependent, having a cultural awareness and being part of a global community is going to be ever more important, but also exciting.

These are the core skills that I believe everyone will need to prosper. This is by no means an exhaustive list, I was going to put the ability to communicate, but even that has changed radically over the last 10 years – who could have predicted Twitter? The communication skills of today may be completely different to the communication skills of the future.

My grandfather left school at 14 and started work on a farm: he knows how to fix a horse to a cart, shear a sheep and milk a cow. When he was 16 he began work in the mines. In his late 30s he moved away from the town where he grew up and worked first for British Steel and then for a chemical engineering company. He told me proudly recently that in his life he has spent a grand total of one week unemployed. He retired in 1989, the year I was born. I have none of the specific skills he has and I am not likely to ever learn them. But what I hope my grandfather has passed on to me is his ability adapt to change, because the world is moving a lot faster now than it did for him.

So how do we make sure our young people are equipped to do this? As a teacher this is a question I ask myself every day. We should no longer be teaching students what to think, but how to think.

In my next blog I’ll talk about what we can do to instil these skills in today’s students and tomorrow’s workers. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you – what skills do you think will help our pupils to navigate tomorrow’s world?


  1. Paul Hipperson

    My feeling is that your approach (and that of too many teachers, agencies and policy makers) is putting the cart before the horse. Basing education around the needs of the economy and the labour market is still teaching students what to think, not how to think – ie that productivity takes priority over equity and justice. This is selling our children short. Teachers should resist the pressure to justify what they do by the effect on the economy and should state that educating the whole person (at the expense of the economic unit of produiction) will lead to economic equity, justice and sustainability.

    The priority should not be to be able to adapt to change but to recognise injustice, hypocrisy, and inequality (thhese things change very little!) and have the courage and intelligence to change them as a matter of urgency.

    I disagree with your emphasis in point 4 that thinking globally is about recognising intergration and interpendence. We must first recognise (challenge and overturn) the injustice and inequality when thinking globally, otherwise we are just teaching kids to accept them as an inevitable fact of the global environment (again this is selling children short).

    At we are committed to overturning the approach to education and global learning that prioritises the economy and incremental improvements that are subservient to the status quo. We feel that we should be teaching kids to challenge received opinion, to question authority and not to be fooled that we are in the process of making the world a better place.

    Sorry to be a bit negative, but we feel that teachers must engage in a self-critical debate about Global Learning as a matter of urgency. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

  2. Anneliese Gamper

    Although I agree that an educator’s main role is not preparing young people for work and a future economy this is still a part of the job and an expectation of society. Compromises have to be made and as much as (personally) I would like school to only be about fostering a joy of learning and love of knowledge this view isn’t shared by everyone. Indeed many of my students found the activities in school which give them practical skills in preparation for future jobs, one of most powerful reasons to be there at all.

    I would also argue that thinking critically is preparing young people to question authority and challenge received opinion. Ed’s article offers some ideas for skills – useful for activism, creativity, problem solving and relationship building as much as for a future workforce – without saying these are the only ones we should try to foster in our young people. I would add encouraging ‘positive’ action in young people through teaching and learning activities in schools. Aside from “recognise (challenge and overturn) the injustice and inequality”, what skills would you like to see added to this list Paul?

  3. Paul Hipperson

    Hello Anneliese. I didn’t read anything concrete in Ed’s ideas. He says (to paraphrase) that Learning to Learn is a good thing and I think we all agree with that, but I didn’t pick up anything more specific. Ed’s approach to “thinking globally” is based entirely on the needs of the job market and how to maximise your employability and commercial / work opportunities. I think this utilitarian approach should be challenged, especially if it is coming from a teacher.
    I am not too concerned about what skills should be learned in an academic environment, I am concerned that the scholar is able to acquire knowledge that is accurate and relevant. In schools today the curriculum (with or without the Global Learning add ons) is distorted to present a Euro-centric, consumerist, neo-liberal version of reality that should and must be addressed urgently. ‘Fostering a joy of learning and love of knowledge’ is also not my concern and you are mistaken to suggest that it is. Providing and delivering access to accurate and relevant knowledge is my concern (non Eurocentric, non consumerist, non neo-liberal). When kids have access to this more authentic knoweldge, they will use it too change the world as they see fit and we will finally start to see real progress. We as teachers must examine each subject area, dismantle the distortions and steroetypes within each one and start to teach reality as it really is. I sensed that you were defending Ed’s article and criticising my comments. I look forward to hearing your reactions to my response to your criticisms as this debate is crucial.

  4. Paul Hipperson

    I am also uncomfortable with compromising my personal convictions in the way that you advocate and I believe that teachers have, by compromising in this way, relinquished control of their own professions.

  5. Paul Hipperson

    And I don’t necessarily believe in encouraging ‘positive’ action in schools. Teachers are teachers, not development practitioners or campaign managers. Our job is to trasmit accurate and relevant knoweldge. ‘Positive’ action before this knowledge is acquired is positively dangerous.

  6. Max Hogg

    Hi Ed, Anneliese (how are things going at TG?) and Paul,

    Paul alerted me to this interesting debate. I agree with his point that this shouldn’t be all about the labour market, but Paul I think perhaps you’ve done a bit of a disservice to Ed’s argument here. As I read it Ed has used the economy as a hook for global learning – he’s not saying that turning young people into productive workers should be the only aim of schools. On the other hand Ed I would be really interested to hear from you as a maths teacher about some of the non-economic reasons why global learning is so vital – I’m soon to be a trainee maths teacher myself so have a strong interest in this!

    Paul I’ve got to take issue with one of the things you’ve written: “We must first recognise (challenge and overturn) the injustice and inequality when thinking globally, otherwise we are just teaching kids to accept them as an inevitable fact of the global environment.” I think in arguing for this you are in danger of telling children what to think, and in selling children short yourself.

    I believe the most important skill we can give to young people in school and elsewhere is the ability to reflect critically on the messages, explicit and implicit, that they receive from the world around them (AND from their teachers) and to come to their own conclusions about significant global and local issues, informed by positive, intrinsic, people-, community- and natural environment-oriented values. The difference in our positions is I believe we need to give young people the values and skills to recognise *for themselves* the massive global inequalities and injustices you write about. By all means lets provide young people with authentic knowledge, but not tell them what to think, however strongly we ourselves might think these things.


  7. Paul Hipperson

    Hello Max, Annaliese and Ed. Great to see the debate is active. Max, I agree entirely with your point about getting kids to ‘recognise for themselves’. My first reaction to Ed’s post necessarily mentioned the need to bring in the issues of inequality and injustice, because he didn’t mention them. In my next post I said “When kids have access to this more authentic knoweldge, they will use it too change the world as they see fit and we will finally start to see real progress”. I don’t want to tell kids what kids what to think, I don’t want to make them into active global citizens, I simply want to ensure that teachers give them access to a real understanding of the world (not one that complies with NGO, media and government norms). They will then, having left school, do whatever is necessary to right wrongs. To quote myself in this debate again: “I don’t necessarily believe in encouraging ‘positive’ action in schools. Teachers are teachers, not development practitioners or campaign managers. Our job is to trasmit accurate and relevant knoweldge. ‘Positive’ action before this knowledge is acquired is positively dangerous”. On this note I am very shocked to learn (thanks Think Global for making me aware of this) that Oxfam is advertising the Global Dimension as good for Ofsted! I’m afraid that any organisation that chooses to take this approach loses my respect. It also demonstartes a crisis at the heart of the Global Dimension: Please share this debate with others. It is so vital!

  8. Paul Hipperson

    Also, I think that the ‘what to think’ and ‘how to think’ dichotomy is a fallacy. In selecting certain educational approaches and content and rejecting others, teachers are everyday putting across to kids what they think they should learn. We pretend that we are keeping education as apolitical as possible and we are just there to encourage kids to decide for themselves, but in reality the curriculum (and extra-curricula activities) reflects, supports and instills the prevailing (noe-liberal) politics of our society. I would take issue with anyone who claims that they are just teaching kids how to think – it is self delusionary and simply not possible. As another example, we don’t teach kids how to think about development, we teach them (a neo-liberal version) of what it is and simply encourage them to support it. On these issue, I would recommend Edward Said’s Orientalism to each and every teacher.

  9. Heloise Howarth-Moore

    Hello Ed, Paul, Annaliese and Max,

    This is a very interesting debate.

    I think all teachers should think critically about what it is they are actually trying to teach. For many it seems to be a case of toeing the line and cramming content in for exams. Ed’s 4 skill areas are very market-orientated but he does go on to say that we need to teach children ‘how’ to think, not ‘what’ to think; Does he mean ‘how to learn’ as he talks about adapting to a rapidly changing world?

    I agree with Ed that children need to leave school ready to learn any new skill they might need in the workplace; as Annaliese says, it is often learning workplace skills that is most interesting to students in school. I don’t doubt that such skills have a fundamental place in our education system – after all, it would be crazy if pupils were leaving at 17 without having learned how to edit a word document,
    I do believe, however, that there are fundamental skills which many pupils do fail to learn and might have a better chance of learning without the one-track-focus on exams that we have. More than 30% of pupils ‘fail’ maths and English and however much we admire someone achieving an E when predicted only a G, they have still ‘failed’ in the eyes of society. Surely we’d be better focusing on ensuring they have core skills such as working out percentages, mortgages, basic writing skills and so on…until they have them.

    Back to thinking. Paul is right about injustice, hypocrisy, and inequality. These are rampant in society and yet little touched upon in schools. Pupils might learn about waving a placard or writing to their MP but what about teaching about the root causes of injustice, inequality, poverty etc? This doesn’t mean telling them what to think, and selling the children short again, as Max worries. The point is that the root causes of injustice, inequality and poverty are simply not being taught in schools. Pupils may do ‘the trainer game’ in geography and know that the person who sews the trainer gets 15p and the brand-owner and retailer gets £68 but do they know why? And do they learn about inequality in the UK? That they are part of an unequal system in which they will probably earn 150 – 200 times less than their CEO? (the Equality Trust) Do they know that Britain is getting less and less equal every year? And that societies that are more equal enjoy greater happiness in a wide range of measures? (Depression, crime rate, success of lower achievers at school -The Spirit Level) Only when teachers share this knowledge with children will future generations be motivated and equipped to challenge the direction we are heading.

    As for development, much of what pupils learn comes from resources provided by and possibly delivered by NGOs whose agenda is uncertain and who face no regulation about what they teach in schools.

    Teachers don’t need to tell children what to think. But they do need to think critically about what they ARE teaching. What are their sources? Who has asked them to teach it? Are they cramming content for exams? Making Ofsted happy? Or challenging half-truths to make the world a better place?


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