5 Things All Top Global Learning Schools Have in Common

Global learning is increasingly essential to K-12 education, a fact that the U.S. Department of Education highlighted with the creation of its International Strategy 2012-2016. Released in late 2012, the strategy was the first of its kind, avowing:

“It is no longer enough to focus solely on ensuring that students have essential reading, writing, mathematics, and science skills… In today’s globalized world, an effective domestic education agenda must address global needs and trends and aim to develop a globally competent citizenry.”

Schools and educators are, of course, instrumental in fostering global competencies (i.e. the cross-cultural knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the 21st century) by providing an ideal global learning environment. But what does an ideal global learning school look like?


To help answer this question, and to recognize outstanding global educators, the intercultural education leader AFS-USA and the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS) teamed up to identify top global learning high schools throughout the U.S. The two organizations selected a total of 80 institutions to receive the “AFS Top Global Learning School Award,” which recognizes exceptional commitment to the pursuit of enhancing students’ global competency.

So what did these top schools have in common? Here are five key traits that helped them stand out from the pack:

  1. A Commitment to Diversity

    Experiencing diversity is essential for developing global competencies, which include the ability to recognize others’ perspectives and communicate effectively with diverse audiences. The schools honored by AFS-USA and NSHSS demonstrate a strong commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion in a variety of ways. Ohio’s Kirtland High School, for example, provides classroom opportunities for Muslim students to speak about their faith, promoting a greater understanding of Islam. And at Jerome I. Case High School—an International Baccalaureate school in Racine, Wisconsin—students and faculty have used theater to promote awareness of transgender issues, producing an original play on the topic starring an AFS Exchange Student from South Africa.

    Where global learning is concerned, the opportunity for students to experience a broad spectrum of lifestyles, opinions and perspectives is key.

  2. An Open Door Policy

    Welcoming exchange students from other countries is one of the most effective ways to introduce students to the kind of cultural diversity that exists globally. Nearly every recipient of the “AFS Top Global Learning School” award regularly opens its doors to exchange participants, typically for a full academic year. These students participate in all manner of academic and extracurricular life, bringing global perspectives into the classroom and community.

    This year’s top schools have reinforced their “open door” policy in a variety of ways. For example, Green Fields Country Day School—a private school in Tucson, Arizona—waives tuition for international students, and Wisconsin’s Madison High School hosts cultural nights to celebrate diversity and help international students feel at home in the community.

    For global educators, keeping an open door is every bit as important as keeping an open mind.

  3. A Focus on Change-making

    Google Chief Educational Evangelist, Jaime Casap, believes that, “We need to create a generation of critically-thinking, collaborative problem solvers…students who know and understand world issues.” He also believes that preparing students to tackle such problems requires teaching global competencies.

    Indeed, the ability to communicate and collaborate across cultures will be imperative for addressing 21st century challenges that know no borders. Additionally, global citizenship—the related condition of understanding one’s own place in the world and striving to give back to the global community—will be essential for mobilizing efforts to address these challenges. The United Nations predicts, for instance, that not one of its Sustainable Development Goals will be attainable without significant global volunteerism.

    Top global learning schools understand this need to instill global citizenship in their students and to encourage the type of critical thinking that yields positive change. At Douglas MacArthur High School in San Antonio, Texas, faculty and staff strongly encourage their students to take part in AFS-USA’s Project: Change contest, which prompts participants to develop an idea for a volunteer project that could have a meaningful impact abroad. Winners are awarded a full scholarship to carry out their project on an AFS program in their proposed country.

    This type of critical thinking, combined with the real-world experience of carrying out projects in a foreign setting, is global learning at its best. As Casap says, “Instead of asking our students what they want to be when they grow up, we should ask them what problem they want to solve.”

  4. A Global Perspective

    This may seem obvious, but in fact, it’s one of the primary factors separating the global learning best from the rest.

    While global competency development is slowly being incorporated into standard K-12 curriculum, schools still benefit from thinking outside the norm when it comes to facilitating global learning. Shaking things up by adding international exchange participants to the student body or encouraging students to pursue non-traditional education opportunities abroad can go a long way towards fostering 21st century skills. For global educators, therefore, being able to prioritize student development in line with global standards, even while accommodating local academic or community realities, is key.

    No school exemplifies this “big picture” perspective better than Missouri’s Joplin High School. The school’s campus was damaged beyond repair by tornados in the spring of 2011, but that didn’t stop them from welcoming exchange participants in September of that very same year. The school and community prioritized global learning even as they worked to rebuild, demonstrating a remarkable global perspective in the face of substantial local challenge.

  5. A Belief that the World is a Classroom

    Global learning starts in the classroom, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Top global learning schools understand this, and they promote opportunities for their students to gain real-world experiences that build on the intercultural lessons and concepts explored in the classroom. Such opportunities include field trips to attend cultural events, virtual exchanges with classrooms in other countries, or immersive exchange programs abroad. Maranacook Community High School in Readfield, Maine, for example, has sent more than 25 students on AFS study abroad programs, helping them to solidify their foreign language skills and grasp the nuances of cross-cultural engagement on a whole new level.

    As the Asia Society states, “Learning about and with the world occurs within and outside of school.”