Thinking Globally With Art at Project Zero

As an AP Art History teacher, and now an AP World History teacher (jumping back into that again!), I find it very important that our students become literate to the world of ideas around them. This takes several forms these days; some will push for a more globally oriented course whereby students become aware of the rest of the world at large in order to increase their perspectives. I appreciate this attempt but I also find that our students, today, are especially illiterate of the ideas that form the foundation of our society – notably those that are at the bedrock of Western civilization.

Now, this latest notion may play into the hands of detractors, in particular those that are critical of geographically-based orientations that may create a sense of superiority. And I’d agree as such constructions are based on the circumstances of one’s birth – there is little one can do to control that. However, to recognize the uniqueness of one’s station or situation requires exposure to others and their specific contexts as well. Western civilization, at its heart, has the rule of law made accessible to all of its citizens – of course, we can quibble about the actuality of that reality but the fact that it exists as an ideal is important. Free trade and the rights of the individual towards freedom of expression and autonomy are also some other notable characteristics that Western civilization has pushed. We do not gain much by overlooking these or worse, projecting them in places and situations that they really do not exist. It is important to see the world as it truly is and, using this evidence, to make an understanding of it and evaluate it.

It was with some trepidation that I ventured to explore the concept of “global competence” as it was popping up throughout the institute. It smelled like another standard to be compared to and those who didn’t make the cut were ostracized. Yet, what I came to find was very different – refreshingly different.

First, the definition of global competence is “the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance”. As noted in my previous article, outlining some of David Perkins ideas about “wilding” up education, we are keeping in sight the notion that the result of understanding should be action. Acting does not imply anything other than remaining passive and not waiting around for someone else to come up with a solution or present a situation.

The other component here is the scope – issues of global significance. These are not small, local problems, but vast, extensive ones. These are the type of topics that have no specific answer to them, but are multifaceted and require an unpacking of many ideas. Again, as teachers, these are topics that should interest our students and remain relevant to them for a longer period of time.

The final concept here, that I think it critical, is the notion of a disposition. This is an embedded characteristic of an individual, not something that may take shape every once in a while, but something that makes up the essence of an individual. To be globally competent, then, is to be aware of our interconnectedness as a human network. It is something that is imbued in your work and your daily approach. Is there a more significant ideal that we could aim for with our students than to think of others not as abstractions but as individuals unique to a situation? To see each other and share a sense of empathy?

It is along these lines that I wanted to investigate how to help bring such an approach into my classes. Which brings me to my interest in this session, “Thinking Globally With Art”, presented by Nathalie Ryan. As a means to introduce large and unfamiliar topics, there is no greater onramp than using art. Everyone can look at something and glean details from their observations. So many ideas emerge that may it easier to generate a conversation and stimulate more interest. This is where I was introduced to the concept of the thinking routine.

The heart of Project Zero is that learning is a consequence of thinking and making things learning-centered requires the thinking routines to be habits students are engaged in.

The mini-courses at Project Zero put these techniques on display and enabled us to feel our learning so that we could apply it in our practices. Using established thinking routines, students can become familiar with a topic and explore it without the need to be lectured to and told what to think about. We were each given an image and were asked to use the “See, Think, Wonder” thinking routine to explore the image and share it with our group. We were asked what did we see, what we thought about based on what we saw, and what we wondered about from the image. These basic questions are engaging students on deeper levels and forcing students to be more reflective about what they were experiencing.

After listing a bunch of adjectives and even nouns as it related to the image, we listed some questions that emerged that would help us establish what we were thinking about. We had an image of a giant fence that sprawled down into the ocean that divided a beach in half. We formulated questions like, which side of the fence was which? Why did the fence stop where it did? Whose shoe was in the image? What are the papers strewn about? Who did they belong to?

Next we were directed to look at several other images in a gallery walk and, after having done that, we were to create a list of similarities and differences between the images we looked at and our original image. After doing that, we were to formulate a connection.

As it turns out, the images were created by Richard Misrach for his work, Border Cantos – he also collaborated with Guillermo Galindo – to present what life is like at these edges of the US and Mexico.

There were other variations such as the “Listen, Think, Wonder” routine as well as the “3 Ys” routine (why might this matter to me, why might this matter to those around me, why might this matter to the world…).

Each of these not only familiarized us with a global topic – in this case, immigration – but it also had the extended benefit of getting us in touch with the perspectives of others. Another routine we were introduced to was the Step Inside routine and this was achieved by writing a simple “I am” poem. This required us to write a poem, using a template, from the perspective of a person, object, animal, element of nature, or anything formal about the work we were looking at.

Ultimately, it is a multifaceted and interdisciplinary approach that helps build up greater awareness and perspective. The goal of learning, however, is to take action and this is noted through the flow chart which starts with investigation and moves to recognizing perspectives, communicating ideas, and finally to taking action.

To learn more about global competency, please take a look at the document created by Veronica Boix Mansilla and Anthony Jackson here at Asia Society’s website.