Klaus Seitz

Global Learning – Challenges for Education in School and outside School

A few days ago I asked my nine-year-old son what main message he would want to give his listeners if he had the opportunity to speak in front of more than 600 people. Without a moment’s hesitation, he blurted out: “I think Pokémon’s cool!”

His suggestion showed me once again that globalization is accompanied by the worldwide spread of unspeakable garbage, and how little educationists can do about it, even at home. If you don’t know what Pokémon is all about – a cult among kids and young people which has become all but global, like wearing a baseball cap back to front – ask the person sitting next to you when I have finished.

But I had really intended to start my paper somewhat more formally.


In a respected educational textbook I came across this powerful plea: “There is no point in writing papers about what everyone knows, quoting from each other’s books and regurgitating the same old stuff.” In the light of this sensible exhortation, I immediately have an apology to make. I shall hardly be able to avoid regurgitating much of what is already known, already written elsewhere, and familiar to some or all of you.

The author who once asked for “less din, less repetition and less unnecessary effort in schools” was calling for a revolution in learning – for learning through discovery based on the learner’s own actions, learning which aimed to unearth new knowledge rather than wearing itself out asking pupils unnecessary questions, the answers to which had been known for ages.

But given that this is a plenary address, I can hardly adopt new, innovative learning methods, either.

The lines I quoted are rather more than 350 years old. In them, the founder of modern education, Jan Amos Komensky, known as Comenius, was criticizing the educational practice of his day, which was generally limited to the rote learning of a fixed canon of knowledge.

The second basic educational concept that we should bear in mind when we think about learning in the age of globalization also comes from Comenius, who became a cosmopolitan European through force of circumstance, being constantly obliged to flee war and political persecution. It is this: education is part of a universal perspective, embracing all of humanity. And there are two aspects to this:

  • All people, regardless of their social position, gender, age and ethnic origin, are equally capable and in equal need of education.
  • The universality of education also implies that education must always look at our one world as a whole, must draw on the riches of all of human culture, and must aim to improve humanity’s living conditions and to create a world order of peace.

I wanted to recall the visionary, cosmopolitan programme of Comenius in order to demonstrate to you that not all of what we mean by the fashionable magic formula of globalization is entirely new. There is no need constantly to reinvent the wheel of globalization, however much the vocabulary used may change. Astonishingly, at the previous conference ten years ago in Cologne, neither global learning nor globalization was mentioned once. But while the new vocabulary does of course reflect some changes in the world situation, these are perhaps fewer than we think and imagine.

The basic concept of global learning can trace its antecedents to numerous traditional ways of thinking about education: to the idea of education for world citizenship of the European Enlightenment, to the educational programme of the world peace movement before the First World War, to the “Education for a World Community” of the League of Nations in Geneva, to Rabindranath Tagore’s concept of education for tolerance, to Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of liberation, and by no means least to the commitment shown in development education in schools, action groups, churches and non-governmental organizations which is the subject of this conference.

These concepts and fields of practice clearly do not form part of the mainstream of educational thinking and action. They have constantly been obscured by national civic education programmes, enduring educational provincialism and the dominance of a culture of school-based learning, and have been relegated to an educational no-man’s land and the fringe preserve of alternative learning. We have no need of professors proclaiming new concepts of education for the 21st century – what we need is to build on these traditions, to activate the available potential, and to dust off and exploit the experiences of alternative education.

Which brings me to my first proposition:

“Global learning is the attempt, in the context of a globalizing world, to renew the demand for education for world citizenship which is committed to making people’s living conditions throughout the world more humane.”

But I need to modify this call for a return to our educational traditions by means of a second proposition:


“The education of yesterday is no longer adequate for the tasks of tomorrow. We need an education offensive, and above all a change of direction.”

“Education is an indispensable prerequisite for moving towards sustainable development” – this is one of the key messages which I should like to take away from the opening speeches of this conference. We were told forcefully that greater investment must be made in education, if current problems in a convergent world are to be resolved constructively and peacefully through solidarity.

This opening proposition will suffice for my purposes, so that I can spare you, and myself, further political arguments for the growing need of education. My task is rather to sketch out an approach to education which aims to respond to the precarious state of the world by means of education. You will have the chance to explore this notion and to discuss it more fully and specifically later today through the examples and suggestions to be found in the various forums and working groups.

A new education offensive is called for everywhere in the hope that it will channel the trend towards globalization into a humane path of development. But such an education offensive cannot be limited to a mere expansion and reduplication of our traditional attempts at teaching. We would, I think, be setting about it the wrong way if we were simply to expect the coming generation to spend yet more of their lives in formal education. It may well be that the way in which our educational establishments are organized is a contributory factor in the development of the mind-set that has led to the global problems facing the world. Paradoxically, the greatest potential for ecological and military disaster is, after all, to be found in the rich societies in the North which have the best-equipped education systems and the most teachers, researchers and professors. Education has never stopped us yet from pursuing unsustainable development.

Traditional methods and contents of learning are not capable of responding to the new complexity and constantly changing social conditions in a world that is drawing ever closer together. The education of yesterday is no longer adequate for the tasks of tomorrow. On the threshold of a global age we need a far-reaching revision of the concepts of learning, a new direction leading to innovative types of future-oriented learning that is open to the world.

The oracle of the Federal Ministry of Education and Science (BMBF) itself points to three startling weaknesses of present-day schools:

  1. While what we need today above all is integrated, interdisciplinary, systemic thinking, the range of school subjects that we have inherited still splits the world into pieces.
  2. While it is necessary, in the light of rapidly developing and changing knowledge, to be able to seek out and acquire for oneself the knowledge that may be relevant at any one time, schools remain largely obsessed with passing on knowledge that can be tested, even though this is already obsolescent by the time pupils leave school.
  3. And finally, schools socialize their pupils for living in a particular national context, while education now needs to become international.

We need not more but different education. We need a whole new direction, which requires in turn fundamental changes in the contents, methods and structures of learning.

In the apposite words of Daniel Bell, the nation-state is today too small for the large problems of life, and too large for the small problems of life. New structures that go beyond the nation-state are required for the management of the world’s domestic affairs. In education, as in other fields, we must replace the world views based on national culture, which have to date guided our perceptions and the selection of the subject-matter to be taught. We must look for new ways of seeing and new benchmarks which will enable us to appreciate both the global issues facing humanity and the local environments in which we live, and to combine the two.


A major strand in the current discussion about the prospects for such new learning at a time of globalization goes by the name of “global learning”. I should like to be able to give you a ready-made proposal for how to teach global learning, all wrapped up in a handy package for you to take home and use. It is not only shortage of time which prevents my doing so.

Even if we were to sum up the wide range of experiences and suggestions on offer at this conference, and all the vast array of expertise on display here, we could still not condense the peculiarities of global learning into a neat set of seven key issues for our age and four key skills, or pack them up in a learning kit with ten tips for trendy teaching. And why not? There are two main reasons:

  1. “Global learning” is not a programme of teaching devised by educational policy-makers or researchers around a table. Instead, the term refers to a wide diversity of practice, albeit committed practice, which has hitherto generally been found on the fringes of established teaching, in project weeks at the end of the school year and outside school altogether in the independently organized activities of “Third World shops”, action groups and Agenda 21 initiatives. One important purpose of this conference is to see that these experiences are exploited in the more conventional activities of schools and other educational establishments. My third proposition is therefore:
    “Global learning is the theory behind alternative teaching, which should be used to re-orient school and out-of-school ­education.”
  2. The second reason why it is difficult to define the principles of global learning relates to its very subject-matter. An educational process which explores the complexities and contradictions of the emerging world society, its concurrent convergence and divergence, and its global increase in wealth along with the dramatic rise in social exclusion and impoverishment, must necessarily express these contradictions within itself. Globalization – and the opportunities and dangers which it brings – is experienced and perceived very differently, depending on whether we gain or lose by this development, whether we are its perpetrators or its victims. Given the growing worldwide interlinking of social relationships, the standpoints from which we may view it and define it are also becoming more numerous.
    “Just as there can be no neutral interpretation of the global situation, the aims and activities of global learning cannot be defined without reference to a particular starting point.”

I therefore look forward with great anticipation to the closing remarks of our colleagues from Zimbabwe, Haiti, Senegal and Zambia, who have had the chance to reflect on the limitations and constraints of what we in Germany mean and do by way of global learning during their tour of various education projects. When I had the chance to meet them a week ago during the team visit, I realized once again that the debate about global learning must itself take place in a worldwide, intercultural context, within a far wider framework than that offered by this conference.

We have to distance ourselves from the idea that we can deduce what needs to be learnt, or even a global core curriculum, from a superficially objective description of the world situation and a list of global problems. Global learning will prove far less straightforward than that, and will demand different approaches, priorities and potential solutions, depending on the social and educational context. At a time when doubt is called for, we cannot teach certainties.


Yet however careful we should be not to be too prescriptive, some requirements for global learning have naturally emerged from the discussion about it.

Two of the key elements are well expressed in the International Encyclopedia of Education, even though we must remember that three ­quarters of its authors are from the English-speaking industrialized countries:

“Global learning is a teaching-learning strategy according to which students learn about global problems and acquire their knowledge in an integrative way. Thus global learning has two characteristics: it deals with global problems and takes a multidisciplinary teaching-learning approach”. (Husén and Postlethwaite (eds.), Oxford 1989, p. 384)

This definition recognises that “global”, oddly, has two meanings. On the one hand it means the guiding notion that the content of education must today reflect the transnational, worldwide context, and on the ­other, it means methods that foster integrative, interdisciplinary ­learning from a variety of perspectives. The idea of global learning can therefore be said to contain the following individual elements:

a) A Global Perspective

The call for a global perspective in education was made as long ago as 1974 in UNESCO’s recommendations on education for international understanding and world peace: that an international dimension and a global perspective should be implemented at all levels of the education system, and that the move towards thinking and acting from a world perspective should not be implemented primarily through additional subject-matter, but as a universal principle of learning.

Global learning thus aims at a way of learning and thinking which enables local circumstances to be seen in the context of their global implications, and local action to be matched to global requirements.

The French anthropologist Edgar Morin illustrates these close links between the global and the local by the image of a hologram: “Not only is every part of the world increasingly being bound into the world as a whole, but the world as a whole is also increasingly present in every one of its parts.”

b) Integrative Learning Procedures

We are quite familiar from the whole Educational Reform movement with the call for the harmonization of learning by “head, heart and hand”, and with the need to address all dimensions of experience and learning styles equally. For the purposes of global learning, it is particularly important to link action-oriented education with areas of social policy, so that solutions have to be found for actual rather than simulated problems, be it the sustainable design of school infrastructure or the involvement of local pressure groups and associations in activities to combat xenophobia and right-wing radicalism in the community.

c) An Overall Goal of Globally Sustainable, Fair Development for the Future

This normative element is phrased in neutral terms, as is usual in the debate in the United States. It has been obvious, at least since the adoption of Agenda 21, that education has to relate to the global goal of sustainable development. Not only the factual and social content of education, but also its ethical responsibility, must be set in the context of universal world citizenship. Global learning is bound to a normative guiding concept of human development and social justice. It seeks to help and encourage people to play an informed and responsible part in shaping world society.

Agenda 21 calls for environmental and development education to ­become an integral part of all sectors of education and all school subjects, so that education for a sustainable future is not merely a task relegated to fringe teaching. Similarly, the goal of global sustainable development is intended to be the guiding principle for all political action, and not simply for an area of politics called development policy, which is to be held in low esteem.

d) The International Task of Education

Finally, it should be borne in mind that efforts to introduce global learning as a permanent feature are themselves part of a global education programme and of a worldwide social movement. The implementation of education for understanding and peace between peoples, and the introduction of education for sustainability, cannot be left to the jealously guarded sovereign discretion of ministries of education. It is an integral part of the international task of education, which is laid down in various agreements made under the aegis of the United Nations, notably Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The six-yearly reports by UNESCO on progress in implementing the recommendations on education for international understanding, and the various country reports to the Commission for Sustainable Development, provide an international forum for the observation and comparison of progress in fulfilling this task of education.

The consequence for the practice of global learning is that we need increasingly to see our own teaching in this international context, to discuss and develop our own curricula with partners in other countries, and to work together across national boundaries. In short, we need to place the theory and practice of our own global learning within an international framework. The non-governmental organizations working in the field of international cooperation, and especially in development, have a wide range of contacts and experience, of which greater use could be made in learning in formal educational settings.


How is it that the programme of development education has become transformed into a concept of global learning? The main reason is probably to be found in the worldwide political upheaval of the late 1980s and the globalization of the issue of development. Crises of social development can no longer be confined to a far-away Third World. The industrialized countries themselves have become a focus for development. We know today that the model of development associated with industrial societies threatens the natural basis of life, that the Western level of consumption cannot be made universal, and that it results in poverty and injustice in other parts of the world, and we realize also that the North too is affected by unequal development, mass unemployment and a recrudescence of poverty. Traditional paternalistic thinking about development – “they have the problems, and we have the solutions” – no longer works in this situation. Germany is also a ­developing country.

The revised syllabuses in most of the federal Länder clearly reflect the global changes since the end of the Cold War. The problem with these is not so much a lack of relevant topics to do with world politics and global issues, but their disconnected multiplicity and their fragmented arrangement. Issues of world development and North-South relations are treated in isolation as additional topics which have no direct connection with other subjects. Furthermore, development is portrayed as a subject that has nothing to do with the world in which pupils live, a far-away issue for which it is difficult to arouse sympathy: “Rural emigration: the example of India”, or “Regional efficiency of socio-economic institutions in threshold countries”. Global learning is not intended to lecture learners about far-away problems that are none of their concern, or to induct them into purely abstract knowledge about a globality that is outside their experience.

The goal of global learning is rather to encourage a subtler appreciation of learners’ own multicultural living environment, and its long-established global links, and to make the reality of the world society visible to some degree from within.

Finding the links in the world in which we live is the real starting point for the principle of education with a global perspective. This will necessarily open learners’ eyes to the fact that their homes, their environments and their identities, their individual perceptions of life and their collective perceptions of development, must henceforward be seen from a world perspective in an interconnected world.

It is an encouraging sign that in Hamburg, for instance, “global learning” is now to be introduced, alongside environmental education and intercultural learning, as a new task for schools; and it is high time that sustainable development became the statutory guiding principle underlying the education provided in schools, as is the case in the new Berlin Schools Act. Not much will be gained by all of this, however, if it merely means replacing, updating or adding to teaching topics dealing with development and if no fundamental paradigm shift, a thoroughgoing widening of horizons, takes place at the same time in school learning.

Even the recommendation made by the Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder (KMK) on “One World/Third World in Teaching and Schools” does not devote sufficient attention to the global aspect of the need for a reform of general education. As the representative of a non-governmental organization I particularly regret that it neglects the role of NGOs as actors and partners in learning about development. Generally, education has not yet really taken to heart the requirements of global learning. As in the past, it will still take public pressure from outside, lobbying by NGOs and the evidence of successful and lively education outside schools to bring about a real shift towards future-oriented learning that is open to the world.

But my purpose here is not to point to the shortcomings of state education policy. From the discussion paper “Global Learning as a Task and Field of Action for Non-Governmental Development Organizations” you will have seen that the organizations and movements working ­together in VENRO are highly critical of their own shortcomings in carrying out this educational task. In our work we often neglect what is definitely a pedagogical obligation by turning political questions directly into learning tasks without bearing in mind that any subject-matter must have some particular content. In our concern for the state of the world we easily lose sight of learners’ own specific situations.


Serious questions have to be asked about all four of the aspects of global learning which I have discussed. We need to address these questions when dealing with the theory and practice of this field of education.

a) The Global Perspective

Just as globalization does not lead to a uniform but to an extremely fragmented world, the goal of implementing a global perspective cannot be equated with achieving a uniform world view. The global perspective adumbrated in global learning might mean adopting a view that is not tied to any particular standpoint. All that it can mean for the planning of education, and for the actual process of education, is learning continually to look outside one’s own horizons in the knowledge that these are limited.

If we regard our own point of view as absolute and confuse a global world view with a godlike extraterrestrial perspective, we shall be taking a hegemonic stance which is irreconcilable with the goal of global learning. The scepticism which many colleagues in the South express towards programmes of global learning drawn up in Western Europe and the United States derives largely from the historical experience that the colonial and neo-colonial powers have always hidden their claims to the right to rule behind universalistic ideologies of world citizenship. The global age began with the conquest and exploitation of Africa and of Central and South America. It would be a disaster if global learning were to be caught up in this steely tradition.

Global learning therefore aims at the realization that one’s own world view is culturally determined and particular, and at the willingness to treat other ways of looking at things with respect and curiosity. The topics and subject-matter taught must be illuminated by a range of interests and approached from a variety of angles. In the process, global learning needs particularly to listen to the voices of those who suffer through globalization. As far as possible, education programmes should therefore facilitate international encounters, and should let those with particular views speak for themselves, or should at least call attention to the authentic sources of these views. The question therefore arises:

How can a global perspective in education be reconciled and linked with recognition of the wide range of standpoints from which the world is viewed, which are culturally determined and governed by particular interests?

b) Integrative Learning

If global learning is to stand for integrative learning, learning that combines perceptions, feelings, thoughts, judgments and actions, we must not overlook one crucial difficulty: the complexity of the relationships in world society will not infrequently be reflected in learning which genuinely deals with the problems of the world in which we live.

Globalization occurs not only before our eyes, but also behind our backs. And just as watching the television news makes us aware that we are world citizens, the structure of the coffee trade will also reveal itself if we look closely into our coffee cups.

The experience of the debt cancellation campaign, which achieved the miraculous feat of motivating hundreds of thousands of people of all ages to take an active interest in the problems of the world financial system, shows that it is quite possible to combine active learning in the local environment with abstract global structures.

Despite encouraging individual examples, however, the question remains:

How can integrative learning be matched with the building of skills for integrated, abstract thinking?

c) Ethical Requirements

If the scope of individual responsibility is expanded, in line with the desire to take on responsibility for world society, until it becomes immeasurable and global, there is obvious danger of moral overload. Partial responsibility for interconnected global processes cannot be ascribed to individual actions, let alone individuals’ good or bad intentions. In this respect, the popular slogan “Think globally and act locally” has feet of clay. There is still no ethic of world citizenship which offers guidance for everyday actions without unnecessarily oversimplifying the complexity of world relationships.

For the time being we often content ourselves with making unrealistic moral demands, thus running the risk of falling into either haphazard activism or the ineffectual teaching of opinions. If we aim at an ethic of individual world responsibility, we give way to the illusion that we can use a bicycle brake to force down the intercontinental jet of globalization, to borrow the image of a cartoon by Ulrich Beck.

How can the requirement for responsible action in the world society be expressed realistically in terms of the psychologically feasible and ­socially possible?

d) The Internationalism of Global Learning

Global learning must itself take the form of collaboration across national boundaries and must face up to international disagreement about the appropriate ways of responding to globalization through education. There will be considerable difficulties and breakdowns in communication, particularly as a result of the wide diversity of socio-economic conditions in the various regions of the world. We may, for example, wonder whether two countries can share a common educational perspective when the aim in one of them is to equip every pupil with a laptop while, in the other, many pupils do not even have a pencil, let alone a textbook. The OECD countries are currently able to invest around US$ 5000 per annum in every pupil, while the poorest countries have just US$ 38 at their disposal per head for education.

Given extreme social and economic inequality and crass differences in educational infrastructure, how can we plan international cooperation in education and conduct a common educational discourse about concepts of global learning?


In order to bring about the intended change in education, four steps need, in my view, to be taken as matters of priority:

  1. Comprehensive internationalization of curricula, meaning both updating subject-matter to take account of the multiculturalism which has now existed for a long time in our schools and tertiary education establishments, and opening it up to the cultural achievements of other world regions and to the urgent global issues that concern us all.
  2. Improved initial and inservice training for teachers in schools and other educational establishments, to enable them to teach about global and intercultural issues.
  3. Greater integration between formal education and activities and organizations operating outside schools, which also calls for adequate institutional and financial security. This means not only mobilizing additional resources, but also creating new forms of sponsorship to support development education.
  4. And fourthly, the creation of a forum for broad social debate about education for a sustainable future, in which the Federal Government and the Länder, the civil society, researchers and practitioners will all have a voice.


There is no doubt that the education system needs to help to humanize globalization, although what teaching can do to improve the world is severely limited.

Jean Monnet, often seen as the father of European unification, is supposed to have said, shortly before his death in 1979, that: “if I had to start building Europe all over again, I should start with culture.” The belated recognition by the erstwhile President of the European Coal and Steel Community that reliance on the power of economic interests started European convergence off on the wrong tack, illustrates both that European cultural and education policy is a belated afterthought, and that global learning has its problems.

The convergence of the world is driven primarily by the economic imperative, and education is trailing behind the globalization of business. As in the fable of the hare and the tortoise, education is always behind, is not setting the pace and is at best a corrective to social change.

Under the pressure of spreading globalization, our education systems will in the next few years undergo far-reaching restructuring. There is an obvious danger that a programme of lifelong learning and world education may unintentionally serve to mould people to the demands of the capitalist world market. The aims of a global learning which builds on the Enlightenment tradition of education for world citizenship are in stark contrast to the imperatives of world dominance and hegemonic strategies of economic globalization. Global learning can therefore not be restricted to training in international communication skills and “worldly wisdom” since this would allow the global players to succeed in their strategies in all parts of the world and to shape other cultures to their ways of thinking. The internationalization of education means more than the international compatibility of qualifications and course structures, and the encouragement of foreign language skills. What is needed above all is development of the ability to understand one another and to cooperate in a world beset by huge problems affecting the entire world, problems which can only be resolved through global ­partnership.

The promoters of global learning must nonetheless be open to the debate about education for the future, which is currently dominated by economic considerations. They must, for example, ask themselves more closely what skills will be needed by the coming generation in order to lead successful and responsible lives in a globalized labour market. The newly awakened interest of society in education is, despite its questionable motivation, the bandwagon on to which the global learning debate must jump if it is to be escape from the social fringe to which it is still confined.

Development that is sustainable in the future cannot be prescribed because, as Julius K. Nyerere put it so tellingly, people cannot be developed but can only develop themselves. The project of humane global sustainable development will certainly fail unless it is underpinned by the involvement and willingness to innovate of the public. Given the limits to the effectiveness of state action, it has become indispensable for the public to play an active part, for non-governmental organizations to be drawn in, and for levels of public awareness to be raised, if global crises are to be overcome. This alliance between the renewal of civil society and development-oriented education shows how global learning must also develop crucially in the future.

We come back once again to the utopian vision of Comenius which I cited at the outset. He sought a general reform not only of education but also of politics. Whatever high hopes may be placed in education, it is clear that while education may be necessary, it is not a sufficient means of improving the world. People reveal their humanity through the way in which they live rather than through their education.

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