Expressing a Global Perspective: Experiences in a Mexican Classroom

 

Clark Johnson

How can we help students to develop a global perspective? We need to provide opportunities for students to:

n Increase their knowledge of the world and its interconnections

n Recognize their own and other viewpoints about the world

n Express themselves in ways that deepen their understanding of the world as a whole

The teacher who seeks to expand the global perspectives of students needs strategies that focus on both knowledge and point of view, since it is through combining these dimensions that students create the lens through which they experience, understand, and seek to change the world. For students to identify their own viewpoints about the world, and to recognize the limitations of their own perspectives, is a crucial point of departure for global understanding.

A global perspective “implies the wholeness, the complexity, and the interdependence of all life on the planet.”1 We get close to the concept of a global perspective when we talk about the need to understand global systems.2 But an understanding of systems is limited to just that: systems. The world is not only systems; it involves ideas, values, and often-chaotic human relations. Furthermore, when we talk about systems, we often define them in terms of various components—political, economic, or environmenta#151;perhaps recognizing their interconnections, but unavoidably compartmentalizing the idea of global wholeness. The question to ponder is: Does the sum of the parts necessarily create the whole? After students have studied some of the component parts, it is important to ensure that their overall global perspectives have benefited from their studies.

The examination of issues offers another opportunity for students to define their own and other perspectives and adopt a global approach.3 It is important that students not only investigate designated world problems, but also take stock of the world in ways that transcend a prescribed list of issues. Students need to create their own understandings about emerging as well as persistent global problems. Those who can recognize the particular lens through which they observe the world are likely to be most apt at comprehending the reality of other worldviews.

 

Expressing a Global Perspective: Teaching Strategies

The objective of the following exercises is to allow students to identify, express and understand their own global perspectives. The exercises were carried out with a group of high school seniors in Irapuato, Mexico, during the 1996-1997 school year (see “Life at the Tec” in this article). The students who performed the exercises were enrolled in Panorama International, a course with objectives similar to many global studies courses offered in the United States. The commentaries on the results are included to provide a glimpse into the mindsets of one group of young Mexicans as they think about the world.

 

“Shape of the World” Exercise

This small group exercise is designed to help students share their perceptions of the most important trends affecting the world today. Working without prompts, students translate their own ideas about some of the large dynamics affecting the world—past, present, and future—into images and phrases. The exercise allows students to express their thoughts using multiple media that draw on both the left and right side of the brain. It involves two to three class sessions with some homework.4

I began this exercise by asking each student in the class to create a picture or symbol of the world within a circle drawn on a piece of paper. I then divided the class into groups of three or four students, who shared their pictures/symbols before agreeing upon a common symbol to be presented within a circle on a poster-sized sheet of paper.

After completing their symbols, the members of each group drew four arrows entering the circle. On each, they listed one phenomenon that is having an important impact on the world today (present trends). They next drew four arrows exiting the symbol for phenomena they consider to be declining in importance (past trends). Finally, on arrows pointing toward the symbol but not entering it, they listed four phenomena that they expect will have an important impact on the world in five to ten years (future trends).

When all of the posters had been placed on the wall, students considered the trends they listed in terms of general categories, such as “family, values, and traditions,” “technology,” and “social problems.” For homework, each student wrote a brief essay reflecting on the trends that make up the “shape of the world.”

Students did this exercise at the beginning and the end of the semester. It was my hope that the initial exercise would help students recognize the existence of varying perspectives in the classroom. Repeating the exercise at the end of the term was designed to help students (and their instructor) compare their current ideas with their initial impressions and reflect on what they had learned.

Results. Figure 1 represents the results of the two exercises. It was predictable that after a semester devoted to world politics and economics—with little emphasis placed on ecology and social relations—students’ perceptions of trends would change somewhat.

In their essays reflecting on trends, some students noted that their initial perceptions had not changed very much. Others thought their initial indifference and/or naivete about the world had developed into a more informed understanding. Still others identified a change toward a more optimistic view of the world, one they saw as characterized by more cooperation and less conflict than they had previously believed. Overall, these young people shared a deep concern about the change in traditional family values and what it may portend for the future.

The real value of this exercise lies in the degree to which it allows students to express and reflect on their own global perspective and its evolution over time.

 

Two Mapping Exercises

1. Mental Maps of the World

In an attempt to learn how much my students knew about world geography, I asked each student to draw a map of the world on a blank sheet of paper. This took place on the second day of class with no further instruction and about 20 minutes allotted to the task. The exercise revealed not only what general sense students had about the map of the world, but where their perspective was focused when they thought about it. It was useful to me in planning lessons and to students in developing more self-awareness about their own global perspective.

Case has described his experience in examining freehand maps drawn by a group of pre-service teachers in British Columbia. He notes that “the vast majority depicted North America in the center of the map with a relatively high degree of accuracy and detail,” while “other continents were relegated to the ‘outer reaches’ of the page and often reduced to vague blotches far smaller than their actual land masses warranted.” He adds that the maps revealed “uneven, distorted treatments of the various continents.”5 His descriptors offered a rubric for evaluating the mental maps drawn by my students.

Results. Out of a total of 80 student maps, 66 placed Mexico on the left side of the page, while only 10 located it in the center. I would describe only 6 maps as placing any continents on the outer reaches of the page, while almost half the students drew the continents in appropriate size and with relatively appropriate shape. About half the students drew Mexico in its appropriate size.

The areas of the globe that received the greatest detail were Latin America (23), Europe (16), and Mexico (15), while the United States received the most detail on only 2 maps. Another 22 maps treated the various continents fairly equally.

 

2. Perspective Maps of the World

Another way to help students examine how they understand the world involves drawing maps that consciously address the question of global perspective. On the third day of class, I drew on the board a “perspective map” of the world as seen from my home in Mankato. I purposefully drew Minnesota grotesquely large, and the United States over-sized as well. I located Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and New York City. In recognition of the immigrant settlers dominant in the area, I included Norway and Germany. While North America dominated the map, I included all the continents, naming specific countries in regions in terms of presumed meanings to the people of Mankato (e.g., the Middle East for oil, Mexico for winter vacations, Cuba for the U.S. government’s continued preoccupation with Castro).

After modeling the exercise, I asked students to draw two perspective maps. One would represent their view of the world from Irapuato, providing an opportunity for students to reflect on how residents of Irapuato in general view their connections with the world at large. The other would represent their idea of how the world looks from another country (one chosen by each student to study in depth during the semester). Making both maps required a shift in perspectives, and allowed for comparisons that helped to solidify understanding of why global perspectives vary.

Results. Maps drawn from the perspective of Irapuato typically focused on Mexico and the immediate region. Most included international connections, the majority involving ties between local companies and their foreign “parents,” or ties with foreign markets for the sale of regional farm and food processing products. Japan was frequently shown as a or the primary power in the world, while many students expressed the importance of key trading partners such as China, Japan, Brazil, Canada, and the United States.

Some of the Irapuato maps indicated cultural ties, including movies and television programs from Brazil, and ethnic links to Spain. All maps that went beyond Mexico included the United States, even if not identified by name. Many students indicated personal links with countries in North America and/or Europe. Africa, if depicted at all, was drawn as very small; only a handful of students identified any African place names—and these were usually Egypt and the pyramids.

The results of the student maps involving a shifting perspective are not included as involving several countries and being too diffuse to summarize.

 

Political Cartoon Exercise

The political cartoon is another effective vehicle for helping students become more aware of their own and other global perspectives. A good political cartoon expresses its idea with an economy of words and images chosen to capture the essence of a situation. During the semester, the class worked together to analyze a political cartoon about Sweden’s perspective on the Cold War.6 As follow up, students prepared to draw cartoons expressing their own viewpoints on the politics and economy of Latin America today as part of an exam.

Results. I prepared a rubric to measure the student cartoons based on what the class was studying about Latin America. It included topics ranging from the decline of military dictatorships to narco-traffic to increased economic interdependence among Latin American countries.

To my surprise, 51 of my students selected the theme of U.S. dominance over Latin America as the main focus of their cartoons. Of the remaining 29 students, 18 selected another topic, and 11 chose a mix of one or more topics with U. S. dominance. And I had not even included the U.S. role in the region in my list of anticipated topics! This experience brought home to me the overriding importance of understanding global perspectives. My students’ views of the role of the United States in Latin America were far more important to them than what we had studied about economic alliances and social challenges during the semester.

It is interesting to compare the cartoon exercise with the results of a poll conducted by La Reforma, a major independent daily newspaper in Mexico. In evaluating a list of groups and institutions in terms of their influence on Mexican politics, a majority of those polled named the U. S. government as having the most influence—more than either President Zedillo or Mexico’s ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (P. R. I.). 7

 

Essay Exercise: Writing about a Large Topic

Essays are essential to helping students express their perspective on the world based on their understanding of a global topic. The larger the topic, the more students need to grasp its global ramifications. During the semester, we studied the concept of “balance of power,” and tried to assess the balance of power in the world today. This experience provided the basis for a final exam question: “Is there a balance of power in the world today? Why or why not?”

Obviously, there is no right or wrong answer to this question, although any effective response demands rational analysis of the current global situation. Equally obvious, one’s response will reflect one’s own global perspective. Of the 81 students who answered the question, 69 argued that there is not a balance of power in the world today. Of these, 30 students cited unequal economic distribution as the primary reason for why there is not a balance of power. Another 10 students pointed to an unequal distribution of power in a mix of forms, including military, economic, cultural, and/or technological power.

These responses caused me to speculate about how high school students in the United States or Europe would answer the question. Would as many students perceive the world as lacking a balance of power? If so, how many would point to economic inequality as a primary factor in creating a global political imbalance? What are the implications of the global perspectives held by my students in Mexico? And, what perspectives held by American high school students will be most influential in the shape of things to come? v

 

Notes

1. Payson Hall, “A Global Perspective: A Frill or a Necessity?” Speech delivered to ROLM Company, Radford, VA, March 27, 1990. Printed in Vital Speeches of the Day (July 15, 1990), 605-608.

2. Willard M. Kniep, “Social Studies within a Global Education,” Social Education 53, No. 6 (October 1989), 399; Merry M. Merryfield, “Institutionalizing Cross-Cultural Experiences and International Expertise in Teacher Education: The Development and Potential of a Global Education PDS Network,” Journal of Teacher Education 46, No. 1 (January-February 1995), 19-27.

3. Merry M. Merryfield and Connie S. White, “Issues-Centered Global Education” in Ronald W. Evans and David Warren Saxe, eds., Handbook on Teaching Social Issues (Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1996).

4. Adapted from the MDI Group’s “Shape of the World” exercise in Anne Hope and Sally Timmel, Training for Transformation (Zimbabwe: Mambo Press, 1987).

5. Roland Case, “Key Elements of a Global Perspective.” Social Education 57, No. 6 (October 1993), 318-25.

6. The cartoon, distributed to U.S. reporters who accompanied former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger on a trip to Stockholm, appears in Elgin F. Hunt and David C. Colander, Social Science: An Introduction to the Study of Society (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1996).

7. Francisco Vidal, “El Otro Poder,” La Reforma (Mexico City, Feb. 23, 1997).

 

References

Avery, Patricia G. and Jan Gamradt Armstrong, with JoAnn Trygestad and Susan Sedro. “Students’ Geopolitical Perspectives.” Social Education 55, No. 5 (September 1991), 320-325.

E. Boulding. Building a Global Civic Culture, Education for an Interdependent World. New York: Teachers College Press, 1988.

Hanvey, Robert G. An Attainable Global Perspective. New York: Global Perspectives in Education, 1976.

Johnson, Clark. “The Template of the Investigative Reporter” in Helen W. Richardson, ed., Social Studies: Bringing the World Closer to Home. Atlanta: Georgia Council for the Social Studies, 1995.

National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1994.

 

Clark Johnson is social studies coordinator at Mankato State University, Mankato, Minnesota.


Life at the “Tec”

 

Hector gets up from his seat, hands in his work, and leaves the classroom saying, “Thank you, Mr. Johnson.” I’m taken aback. Never before has a student thanked me after taking an exam. Alma does the same, as do Fernando and Mariana. They’re expressing their appreciation for my giving a social studies test in their second language that is one very difficult examination.

I’m spending a year at Tec de Monterrey in Irapuato, Mexico. My “norma#148; job is preparing secondary social studies teachers at Mankato State University in Minnesota. I decided that the best way to take advantage of my sabbatical year was to “practice what I teach” in a Mexican high school far removed from the Minnesota winter. After all, that’s how I got started in the profession 21 years ago—teaching English as a second language in a small school in Mexico.

The “Tec,” as it is commonly called, is part of a 26-campus system of high schools and colleges located throughout Mexico. Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (I.T.E.S.M.) is the official name of the system, which was founded 53 years ago to meet the demand of the industrial sector for professionals to help develop a modern economy. In the late 1960s, this highly-regarded system expanded, and now receives some credit for the remarkable economic growth of Mexico in recent decades.

Students at the “Tec” are among the highest achieving students in the region. All are Mexican, and come from Irapuato or surrounding towns. As a group, the students come from wealthy or upper middle class families, although scholarships help some students from middle class families to pay the relatively high tuition.

The “Tec” benefits from sharing a college library that—while relatively low in books and reference materials—compares favorably with high school libraries in the United States. Its real strength is the easy availability of computers in two labs of 30-40 each, which allows students ready access to the Internet. The library also provides rapid access to hundreds of journals available on CD-ROM using Pro Quest.

I teach two classes to high school seniors: International Panorama and Introduction to Social Sciences. I teach in English, which most students have been taking since they began school. My students have already completed History of Civilization I and II during their sophomore year, and take History of Mexico and Socioeconomic Structure of Mexico concurrently with my courses during their senior year. The school also integrates the humanities with the social sciences through semester courses in Fundamentals of Reasoning, Problem Resolution, Human Relations, Creativity, Philosophy, Processes of Thinking, and Methods of Scientific Investigation.

It doesn’t take long for me to discover that the educational system of Mexico is driven by testing far more than is American education. Based on the curriculum guides, 60-80% of student evaluation is based on exams. It causes me to adjust my teaching methods. I personally buy into alternative performance assessments in teaching social studies, and while I try to incorporate this model into my classroom, I also follow the maxim—when in Mexico, do as the Mexicans do.

The quantity and quality of homework is an even bigger surprise. The syllabus for International Panorama outlines a 17-week semester divided into three partials (four weeks of instruction and one week of exams) and a two-week final exam period. During the first partial, my students produce two sets of maps, a reflective essay on a class exercise, and a panel presentation with an accompanying 3-5 page paper—all this in their second language.

My students prove very adept at discovering information, whether using the Internet or off-campus contacts. On the other hand, they rarely read the assigned material. They are accustomed to a standard format for homework, and are surprised when I replace it with rubrics to use as guides in creating projects. Most students respond well to the challenge. Their previous work in such humanities classes as Methods of Scientific Investigation and Ways of Thinking pays off in my classroom, as we speak a common language about higher level thinking and methods of research.

An important emphasis of the curriculum is to develop students’ understanding of the political and economic situation in Latin America. As conducting a simulation is one of my favorite activities, I look for possibilities, and discover one titled “Lalucha” that appears to fit the bill perfectly. Using role play and negotiation, this simulation enables students to express the conflict among peasants, urban workers, the middle class, the military, and the oligarchy in a fictional Latin American country. I’m a little wary about trying a simulation that highlights class struggle in Latin America in a Mexican classroom filled with upper and middle class students. Nonetheless, reminding myself that all is possible in Mexico, I give it a try.

I am thoroughly surprised by how quickly and deeply my students dive into the activity. It’s a far cry from a quiet rural Minnesota classroom and, as I let the process continue, I have to overcome my fear that the entire school faculty will enter my room demanding that we pipe down. Reflection at the end of the simulation shows that these students—so far removed from the day-today-struggle of the campesino (peasant farmer) and working classes— nonetheless recognize the challenge that lies before their country and their neighbors to the south. What role they will play in the struggle is yet to be seen.

“Maestro.” “Teacher.” “Profe.” As I climb the stairs to my office on a Friday afternoon, I stop to chat with students, who show a genuine interest in me as a person as they comfortably engage me in conversation. Yes, that’s another pleasant surprise about teaching in Mexico. In many ways, it’s the nicest thing of all.

 

† Joel S. Cleland, “Lalucha: A Teaching Simulation on Conflict in Latin America,” The History Teacher 27, No. 3 (May 1994).