The World Affairs Challenge

By: Jennifer D. Klein Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Community World Affairs

There is little more inspiring than watching several hundred teenagers try to solve the world’s problem in a day. After 20 years in education, I remain moved by the positive change young people can envision well enough to argue and work toward it, whether that be through globally-oriented competitions or local community service work. Perhaps it is a bit idealistic to think that young people could solve real global issues now, before they’ve been empowered by a college education and substantive job experience, but every time I attend an international educational event like the World Affairs Challenge, which brings Colorado students together to compete and collaborate on real solutions, I become more convinced that the world will be better off in their hands.

The movement toward internationalizing education has taken hold in schools across the United States, particularly since discussion of 21st century skills began in the late 1990s. Our experiences on 9/11 further reinforced the need to teach our young people to build more constructive relationships with the larger world. Pedagogically, global education seeks to humanize the world for students; it is one thing to understand a global issue in the abstract, but it is quite another to feel a sense of global interconnectedness with (and even responsibility to) the humans experiencing that issue daily. Global education prepares young people, as early as kindergarten, to see the world through another cultural lens, developing students’ curiosity about and pluralism toward global perspectives and experiences. Schools with a global orientation are developing the cross-cultural skills young people need to become leaders who know how to collaborate across both visible and invisible borders to solve the world’s problems. These are no longer the "soft skills" global education was relegated to in the past; the capacity to work across cultural and geographical borders is increasingly vital to a myriad of corporations and professions, and this is pushing global curriculum into the mainstream in schools.

Beyond the very practical need for Americans to learn a wider array of world languages—for the sake of international politics, business, and development—we also need a generation of leaders who, even before they leave middle or high school, feel empowered to engage with the problems of the world. Global education is most engaging for students when it contains an action orientation, a design which naturally leads to and fosters active solution building in response to the global issues being studied. Young people are generally viewed as a disenfranchised group, yet youth under 25 years old currently represent nearly half of the world population—as such, we need them to feel empowered to create positive change. Young people crave this empowerment; as one middle school participant remarked about the World Affairs Challenge, it "…made me feel like just because I'm a teenager doesn't mean I won't be included in helping make this world a better place." This orientation is key to the goals of global education, and the absence or presence of an action component often decides whether students react to the complexity of global issues with paralysis or constructive engagement. By focusing curriculum on collaborative solution building and constructive action and less on competition and argument, teachers have the opportunity to channel students’ compassion into practical collaborative responses—with transformative results.

Founded by Dr. Josef Korbel nearly 40 years ago, the Center for Teaching International Relations (CTIR) provides international education services for youth, teachers and administrators in the United States. CTIR pursues its mission by helping K-12 teachers bring a global dimension to their classrooms via curriculum materials and professional development, and by creating avenues for K-12 students to engage directly in global issues. CTIR strives to help schools foster students who inquire, research and engage in global issues and ideas, teachers of all levels and disciplines who creatively infuse their curriculum with global topics and perspectives, and school classrooms in which young people acquire a deep understanding of and appreciation for global, political, economic, social and environmental systems. CTIR currently accomplishes these goals through two keystone programs: the World Affairs Challenge for students, and the International Studies Schools Association Annual Conference for teachers, to be revived in the winter of 2012.

The World Affairs Challenge brings together teams of middle and high school students to explore and solve the world's pressing problems through an issue-based and creativity-based academic program which culminates in a day-long tournament at the University of Denver. The WAC’s broad thematic structure encompasses a variety of global topics, allowing all students and teachers to find a topic they feel passionate about. The program poses essential questions that help students discover the issues most important to them, select a specific topic of study (i.e. water-borne diseases in Cambodia, or poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa), and then prepare for tournament day. A middle school participant said of the experience, "[The WAC] has made me a better and more aware person… This experience has been truly life-changing."

This year, the 20th anniversary World Affairs Challenge will be built around sustaining the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) beyond their 2015 deadline and is dedicated to the memory of Georgia Imhoff, long-time board member and supporter of CTIR. There are eight goals to be achieved by 2015 that respond to the world's main development challenges, but few organizations are talking yet about what will happen after 2015. The MDGs are drawn from the actions and targets contained in the Millennium Declaration that was adopted by 189 nations—and signed by 147 heads of state and governments—during the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000. The 2011 WAC will challenge students to provide sustainable solutions to those MDGs which, even once fulfilled, will not fully resolve the problems they aim to address.

The World Affairs Challenge includes the following components:

•The Formal Presentation:

Each team of 6-10 students creates a 10-15 minute presentation/skit showcasing their research findings and related solutions. The presentation must be international in scope and fall under one of the eight MDG categories, and must focus on a specific global issue within that category. Students may present in any creative way that communicates an understanding of the topic’s complexities and proposes an achievable, sustainable solution.

The Quiz: Students have 30 minutes to complete the 50-question, multiple-choice Global Awareness Quiz, which encompasses events, institutions, places and people in the national and international news.

• The Collaborative Question: Participants are assigned to new teams with peers from other schools, and they receive a "real world" question, simulation, or problem. This year, the CQ will be a ficticious crisis set on January 1, 2016, based on the current trends and challenges of MDG fulfillment. Students must come to consensus on how to respond to the crisis from a set of governmental and non-governmental solutions they are offered. The CQ process helps young people synthesize knowledge and develop leadership skills, teaching them to work with others and listen to a variety of views as they work toward consensus. Students also have a valuable opportunity for discourse with the adult judges in their group, who are generally prominent local leaders in globally-oriented professions. Participants are assigned to new teams with peers from other schools, and they receive a "real world" question, simulation, or problem. This year, the CQ will be a ficticious crisis set on January 1, 2016, based on the current trends and challenges of MDG fulfillment. Students must come to consensus on how to respond to the crisis from a set of governmental and non-governmental solutions they are offered. The CQ process helps young people synthesize knowledge and develop leadership skills, teaching them to work with others and listen to a variety of views as they work toward consensus. Students also have a valuable opportunity for discourse with the adult judges in their group, who are generally prominent local leaders in globally-oriented professions.

The World Affairs Challenge has provided transformative experiences for a wide range of middle and high school students from varied socio-economic and geographic backgrounds across Colorado. Several years ago, a student team from Rifle, Colorado came to participate. All the students spoke English as their second language, and some were recent immigrants to the United States. The teacher sponsor from Rifle said that only about 25 percent of this community’s students graduated from high school, and the percentage who went to college was much smaller.

The night before the WAC, the team nearly backed out because they feared they would be outclassed by the more affluent students from Denver. The teacher convinced them to go ahead with the competition. The team presented in Spanish with English translation; they met all the goals of the WAC and were so compelling that they won the whole competition. The teacher said that the experience boosted the students’ interest in learning and gave them so much confidence that everyone on the team graduated from high school. Even more importantly, half of the team went on to college, and the other half raised money to help provide scholarships for them.

The students from Rifle attended the WAC through the generosity of scholarship sponsors, and there are many stories like theirs, of students who were able to see themselves as change makers because CTIR is determined to provide equal access to global programming. Global educational initiatives are still painfully underfunded in most schools, and the WAC needs the financial support of conscientious individuals and corporations in order to be deeply enriching for a broad range of students, regardless of socio-economic background. In past years, both local and global corporations have helped to sponsor the WAC financially, and in doing so, they forge a direct connection with their own supply chain, with the young global citizens who will someday enhance their corporations with a pluralistic, constructive world view. Local corporations have encouraged their employees to become involved as judges or volunteers, and the WAC is always grateful for judges with a background in global development, as these adults can take the Collaborative Question dialogues to a higher level for students. Many organizations have also offered in-kind donations or pro bono assistance with key event needs, and all forms of support help to make the day rich and meaningful for students. Ultimately, the future of corporate America depends on the work being done in globalized classrooms, and many corporations feel that an investment in the WAC is an investment in that future.

People often call youth the next generation of leaders, yet young people are already creating significant change around the world. Programs like CTIR’s World Affairs Challenge recognize that youth are already a vibrant, constructive force, and these programs merely harness and direct their urges so that young people feel empowered to be partners in solution building. As a high school participant put it, "[The WAC] is awesome. You get to meet new people, learn new things about the world and its problems, and you get to, in general, think differently about how you spend every day and how it's affecting those around you." The fact that students begin to reflect sincerely on their own behavior and their role in the world indicates the power of engaging students in world issues. Through activities which allow students to practice solving global issues collaboratively, the WAC and programming like it help educators influence and inspire pluralistic, constructive young leaders who can envision the kind of world they want to create and who are already taking steps to get there.

Jennifer D. Klein taught high school and college English for 19 years, and has a background in experiential, project-based global education. As the founder of PRINCIPLED Learning Strategies, Jennifer is now working with the Center for Teaching International Relations as Educational Director for the World Affairs Challenge.

For more information about how to get involved in CTIR’s work in K-12 global education, please contact CTIR Board Chair Steve Werner at stevewernerconsulting@gmail.com or ctir.denver@gmail.com. For more information about how to support the World Affairs Challenge or participate as a judge, go to www.worldaffairschallenge.org or contact Maro Casparian at ctir.wac@gmail.com.