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Teaching Public Issues Discussions for Global Citizenship

John P. Myers


Global Citizenship in World History

     Although perhaps not quite the "borderless" world that some scholars have claimed, more than ever before the ideal of global citizenship has become an important goal for schools.1 There is a growing consensus that schools need to prepare globally conscious youth with the habits of mind to tackle issues that spill over national borders facing the world in the 21st century, such as the environment, population trends, conflict, and rights and diversity.2 Peter Stearns made this case in starker terms by linking world history with the necessity of global citizenship: "the American public . . . is dramatically under-informed about international places, trends and issues and that this is a severe constraint on responsible citizenship."3

World history can play a major role in helping students to navigate the global dimension of what it means to be a citizen in the 21st century by helping students "grapple with questions about where they come from and where they are heading, who they are and how they want to be remembered, and whether and how they can make a difference in the world."4 Thomas Bender makes the case that history's political purpose should be to "encourage and sustain a cosmopolitan citizenry, at once proud nationals and humble citizens of the world."5 Educators have already recognized the potential of world history, as well as the challenges, to making global citizenship a reality in the school and university classroom.6 Despite the potential of world history for helping students develop a cosmopolitan worldview,7 we have to remind ourselves that it is not an automatic outcome.8

One challenge of making global citizenship more than an educational catchphrase or the latest trend requires teaching strategies that help students to develop a sense of personal connection to global issues and their own role in the world. Likewise, Bentley asserted that "as the field of study that deals most directly with the whole record of human achievements, world history is essential as the enterprise that enables human beings to understand themselves and their place in the world."9 In this respect, world history challenges the traditional and long standing role of school history to develop national identity and loyalty to the nation state. As one of the teachers in our project lamented, colleagues in her high school history department "only cared about American history."

Undoubtedly, all educators would like to think that they have an impact on their students' lives. However, in an age of curriculum standards and high stakes testing that pressure teachers to cover more and more content, this goal can sometimes take a backseat. This is especially the case in a discipline that has too often been reduced to memorizing names, dates, and places. One challenge to bringing global citizenship to the world history classroom is that some students have strong patriotic feelings and national pride. Students are not blank slates; they have perspectives shaped by their identities, national and otherwise. They bring unique beliefs, perspectives and interpretive frameworks to the classroom that powerfully filter how they make sense of what they learn about the world.10 World history teachers are likely to be familiar with the Eurocentric perspectives of their students: the belief that the U.S., and West in general, is superior; the assumption that the path to development is to follow Western nations, especially the U.S., which Stearns described as the "modernization pattern;"11 and the widespread belief in, and uncritical acceptance of, American exceptionalism. Eurocentric perspectives have traditionally been transmitted through "heritage" versions of American history12 and Western Civilization approaches to world history.13 World history challenge these deeply-held beliefs, which can lead to disagreements and, sometimes, heated reactions if they are not at least recognized.

Inset 1

Key Questions for Global Issues Discussions

What matters about this issue?

Where do you stand?

What can be done?

Global Issues Discussions in the Classroom

     In a project that I undertook with three world history teachers, we attempted to bring global citizenship into the world history classroom. Our goal was to target global citizenship as a goal of world history rather than a 'hoped-for', incidental result. We fully embrace Stearns' injunction that "There must be enough time in social studies and history courses to grapple seriously with the contemporary world," which he further suggests could be accomplished by linking the past to the present, working backward in time from contemporary issues, or carving out more space in the curriculum at the end.14 Like US history courses, which only rarely reach the final decades of the 20th century—and if they do, often wrap it all into a few classes—world history courses rarely give the past century their due. In our project, we chose to reserve more space in the course calendar for the past century, particularly the latter half. We recognize that some teachers will prefer different ways of structuring the course to make space for the contemporary period in history courses, and that our approach is but one option. There are good reasons to consider regularly linking the past to the present across a world history course, particularly because this approach helps students see all of world history as relevant to their lives.

     We also believe that engaging students in global issues requires teaching that go beyond the traditional lecture approach by focusing on how students make sense of and use historical knowledge in their lives. Our approach was for students to engage in global issues discussions over the personal meaning and relevance of world historical events. "What does this issue mean to you?", "Where do you stand?", and "What can be done?" may not be questions that are commonly thought of as part of a world history course. However, in answering, students are exposed to conflicting values and perspectives from their peers while also making sense of world events in relation to their lives. By answering these questions, students considered controversial issues of allegiance, moral responsibility, and agency toward significant global issues. Our goal was to help students to decide which mattered to them and why.

     For us, these questions are an essential habit of mind that should be built in regularly across the scope of any world history calendar. Taking an issues approach is certainly not limited to the contemporary period, although that was our focus in this project. Interested and creative world history teachers will be able to apply this approach to other historical periods, and many teachers already use this strategy. The key is to identify the thematic issue and then connect it with the ways that it takes diverse meanings across events. Themes that we believe are particularly important to include are the struggle for human rights, globalization and equality (in the economy, politics and culture), the environment, and conflict and power.

     In this project, the teachers and I wanted the discussions to help students think about how contemporary global issues matter (or not) to them. This may sound simpler than it is. History classrooms are notoriously organized around lectures and "covering the material," which leaves little time in many teachers' minds for strategies like discussions that slow down coverage. As a result, in most classrooms, there are few opportunities for students to test out their thinking directly with their peers by arguing and debating about the meaning of historical events. Others have carefully documented the challenges of teaching and assessing discussions in world history classrooms.15 Even when teachers want to hold discussions, it is challenging to get all students to participate in what they rightfully see as uncomfortable and potentially risky.

     The project occurred in a large public high school in suburban Pittsburgh. Traditionally, the course had not involved discussion and the teachers were also interested in this strategy as a way to increase student interest. Also, the teachers complained that there was little support for world history in the school history department, which they thought were only concerned with American history.

Our Approach: Discussing Global Issues

     In our use of public issues discussions, we aimed to provide students the opportunity to consider what global issues meant to them personally, how they affect their lives, and consider what they might do about them. We based our approach on the public issues model that was first developed in the Harvard Social Studies Project in the 1960s. The public issues model involves the teacher guiding classroom discussion of controversial moral and philosophical issues that are of public significance.16 Public issues discussions as we implemented them are different from other types of discussion, such as Socratic questioning or debate, in some key ways. In the public issues approach, there is an emphasis on clarifying the values that motivate different positions on any given issue, which requires a shift from teaching "the facts" to inquiry that considers "my stand" and how it affects us. Unlike debate, where the goal is to "win" by making the most convincing argument, or Socratic seminar, where the goal is to understanding the intricacies of a particular text, public issues discussions focuses on clarifying values and taking a personal stand. Our hope was for students to think deeply about what the way that nationality has divided the world into "us" and "them" means to them as individuals. Topics such as the Arab-Israeli crisis and the environment are ripe topics for students to debate and explore their own global awareness and commitments, in a world that is increasingly, and often problematically, interdependent.

Planning and Calendar Considerations

     Finding time to add to an already over-crowded world history curriculum may be a longshot for many teachers. The pressures of testing and covering the curriculum are very real, not to mention all of the unplanned interruptions to instruction that happen in schools. There are also many instructional strategies that can be used to enrich teaching world history. We suggest that public issues discussions could be used selectively but regularly. One approach would be to use them less frequently during the first semester, such as for carefully chosen units to train students in the expectations for discussion and to give them practice identifying issues and connecting them to the present. Then, use them more frequently in more modern units. One consideration for giving up something to make room is that by engaging students personally in the study of world history may make those content-driven lessons more effective. Ultimately, it is never easy to add to a tightly planned and packed course calendar; nonetheless, discussions are a powerful tool that need not dominate instructional time.

     The world history course in our project emphasized knowledge of world cultures and historical patterns. The textbook, World History: Connections to Today,17 is organized in a primarily chronological format based on thematic topics such as "Industrialism and a New Global Age" and "World Wars and Revolutions." We decided that the best fit in the curriculum for the issues discussions was the modern unit, "The World Today," which breaks from a thematic approach by organizing according to issues in geographic regions, such as "South Asian and the Middle East (1945–Present)." Each of the six chapters in the modern unit links historical studies with contemporary events, including genocides in the world and worldwide immigration. The final unit is devoted exclusively to case studies of contemporary issues across the world. The teachers supplemented the textbook with a range of multimedia resources, such as video clips and film, multimedia PowerPoint presentations, and short articles. The teachers also used active learning to build on this curriculum. For example, they annually implement a role-playing project, the Global Summit, which follows the Model United Nations approach. In the Global Summit, students take on the roles of national teams to research and negotiate solutions to major global issues in a conference-style deliberation. As part of this project, we also conducted a videoconference in which students in the world history classes discussed culture and global issues with students in Bolivia through the Global Nomads Group program.18

     The discussions occurred at the conclusion of a chapter after several days of studying the issues through teacher lectures, quizzes, and class activities. The teachers believed that students needed first to be knowledgeable about the issues and then could consider them in relation to their own lives. Discussions were done in a whole class format, in which the class was rearranged to form a large circle, in order to reduce the tendency for teacher-centered classroom talk. The teachers' role was to initiate the discussion by asking an open-ended question, refer students to curriculum examples, and facilitate by asking follow-up questions or redirecting to maintain progress. Because the teachers had not incorporated student-led discussions, it was important to address the students' readiness for discussions. To activate the students' thinking, the teachers planned activities that involved pre-writing, cooperative discussion, and brainstorming activities preceding the global issues discussions.19 Research has shown that students are more likely to participate in discussions, and make better contributions, when they were prepared in advance.

Putting Discussions into Practice

     The discussions began with an activity to activate the students thinking about the topic. Sometimes this was a short in-class writing assignment (a "quickwrite"), that asked them to reflect on a broad global issues such as human rights. Laptops were distributed to students so they could respond to the question and post online to the class website. Then the teacher would organize the seating so that all students were facing each other. Once the discussion started, the first phase was to establish relevant cases connected to the curriculum and for students to clarify their different positions. Then, a series of discussion questions would be listed on the screen and the discussion would start with the teacher asking one of them. Students responded keeping a focus on the cases. For example, for one discussion following a chapter on genocides in the world, the series of questions included:

  • Based on our study of genocides, why do you think these happen?

  • Did studying any of these events affect you personally? Why do they matter (or not)?

  • Do we have any responsibility to do something?

     In the final phase, the teacher placed the attention on the moral values and beliefs behind the different positions. Sometimes the teacher would challenge a particular position or ask the class in general about the implications of one path or another. The teachers' role was to push student thinking and keep them consistently focused on the discussion. They would also interject their view at times especially if the discussion was lagging, but that was rarely the case as the students really enjoyed the freedom to "run" the discussion. Inevitably, students took different positions on national and universal rights, the nation and the world community, and our group and others. An important role of the teacher is to assist students in recognizing and making visible the ethical principles that inform their views—this can be done ongoing during the discussions or the teacher can wait to the end to debrief the students' experience in the discussion.

A View from the Classroom

     The global issues discussions were engaging for both teachers and students, at times leading to heated exchanges and disagreements as the students became more personally invested. The discussions required students to confront their own assumptions about the world and their role in it as they confronted different views on our responsibility toward global issues. The following example illustrates how the discussions exposed students to diverse views on the meaning of citizenship and global responsibility as they reflected on their own views. About thirty minutes into the 3rd period World Civilizations class, Mrs. Davidson and her 10th grade students are in the midst of a lively discussion. On the board is a single question to start the discussion: "When do you feel responsible for the international issues that we have studied this semester?" Students and teacher listen and talk directly to each other about the cases of genocide that they had studied this semester. Jordan suddenly speaks up for the first time that day:

Jordan:   I think that like what happened in Rwanda it doesn't affect you so why would you want to learn or care? Well, yeah they can, but it's not like you can just go and help them, you could, but it's not really that important to a lot of people.
Stephanie:   I think the biggest problem with all global issues is putting yourself in someone else's shoes. Because right now everyone in America is really well off and we don't understand what they're going through. [Several students nod their head in agreement with Stephanie.] I think that's kind of like when you raise awareness it helps out because you know more about that person. You still can't put yourself in their position but you get a feel for what they're going through.
Jordan:   So like as a kid, you don't know that at all. So you can't really care too much about the issues because you don't really know what's going on.
Susan:   Um, well, I don't think. . . I don't care as much about those in other countries. It's just like people sitting here on park benches. It's just like the environment is nicer here than it is there, so there are problems, homeless, here just like there.

This exchange clearly got the attention of the class and the discussion turns toward the challenge of understanding and caring about problems that people across the world are facing. The students raised complex issues about the challenges of being concerned with global issues that only surfaced during the discussions. Teachers did not tell students how to think during these exchanges, which allowed students to take stances on what they learned from the curriculum. The teachers and I believe that these exchanges are important because they allow students to grapple with their own beliefs and feelings about complicated moral issues of studying global issues. It also marked the process of considering what global citizenship means.

     At the same time, we realized that it is difficult for teachers to remain completely impartial—the teachers, like many of the students, had strong views about global citizenship and the importance of being one, which was sometimes expressed during the discussions. Teachers who want to incorporate global issues discussions in the classroom should expect some students to react against the characterization of global citizenship or even reject it outright. In our project, this happened in most classes although by only a small number of students. We observed on occasion students make humorous remarks to disrupt the discussions, sometimes interjecting negative and even jingoistic comments about other nations. For example, during a discussion of the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar and the reluctance of the government allow in aid workers, one student interjected that "Maybe the CIA should kill the government!", followed by laughter from most of the class. Although such comments may be exaggerated for effect, the teachers agreed that they represent a common perspective held by a significant number of students. American nationalism is strong and remains as the uncontested belief of many. The power of world history and global issues is that they bring to the forefront some implicit assumptions about the world that are part of American exceptionalist and Eurocentric perspectives.

     Nevertheless, students' comments often demonstrated concern for global issues and sincere consideration of how what is happening across the world can be present in their own lives. For example, this student's comment was typical:

Other people say like we should take care of our own first. Well, we're already way, like astronomically better off than these other countries that are suffering. And sure we have our own problems, but those can be fixed at a later time if they're not as pressing as other countries. There's suffering, there's genocide going on in Rwanda, there's people dying in our country and the poor are better off than some of the wealthy in other countries.

This student argues that we should be concerned with the places and people with the greatest need, irrespective of national borders.

     For teachers interested in incorporating global public issues discussions in their classrooms, three recommendations emerged from our project. The recommendations are as follows:

Recommendation 1: Prepare for Risky Discussions

     Students are often uncomfortable discussing their personal beliefs in a classroom setting. It's risky because sharing beliefs exposes them to potential criticism, disagreement or embarrassment. Effective discussion of controversial topics in history classrooms requires a safe classroom climate in which students feel comfortable to take a stand and argue with peers. Although there is not a simple formula for creating such a classroom, there are a number of strategies that have been proven to work.

     One of the first steps for encouraging free-flowing discussions is to create a learning environment that is safe for students to express a diversity of opinions. Creating such a climate requires a systematic approach to discussing world history content in the classroom, not just as an occasional distraction or reward from "covering the content" and "getting through the textbook." Students may feel comfortable expressing their opinions in class yet lack real opportunities to do so in a way that supports their intellectual development. Another feature of a safe classroom climate is where diverse perspectives are encouraged and even commended. This means above all that views, even those that the teacher and majority of the class may not share, need to be recognized and encouraged. Ideological diversity in this setting is important as the views of all students contribute to making any discussion include a broader range of ideas and perspectives. Diverse perspectives make students reflect on and re-consider their own views. Students in our project often commented that they were often surprised about what other students thought, and that it made them stop and consider a novel perspective. As one student stated, "I learned about like how they [peers] feel about different things. Like some of them said that they wouldn't go to help, others said that they would do everything they could. And it just kind of gave me a better view how they are as people."

     When a classroom norm is that all views are acknowledged, students who hold minority opinions will be more likely to participate, making the discussion more interesting and intellectually rich. At the same time, this strategy does not mean all views are equally valid. Teachers need to step in when students introduce view that are not publically acceptable, and would be considered racist, conspiracy theories, or otherwise hurtful and untrue. The teacher should set a standard for the range of acceptable political views, taking into consideration what the administration and parents deems acceptable. A good rule of thumb is for teachers to make explicit to students what this range is, such as if radical positions outside the mainstream (and textbook) are fair game, or not.

Recommendation 2: Make It about Your Students

     It is also important to give students some real responsibility in the discussions by focusing it on them and their thinking. The teachers in the project described in this article were initially uncomfortable with the idea of a student-led discussion—they had always been in control of their classrooms and didn't know how students would respond. It took time for them to give responsibility to their students. As difficult as it is for some teachers to give up control of the class, showing that you trust your students can make an enormous difference in their willingness to express their views and invest in the discussion. The teachers learned that sometimes discussions are more engaging when they sit back and let students take the lead. They also learned to jump right in when the discussions occasionally lagged or got off topic.

     Students also need to be encouraged and prepared to make up their own minds about global issues. Discussions that simply "check" if students know the content run by teachers will not make the curriculum meaningful to students' lives. The teachers used frequent journaling and short writing activities to encourage students to become more aware of their thinking about issues and to help them develop a stand before the discussions started. "Priming" their thinking is an important strategy because for many students (and adults) it's difficult to think up smart responses and contribute comments without some forethought. These practices also allowed students to focus on what global issues mean to them. Our goal was to use their knowledge of "What happened?" as a launch to discuss "What do these world events mean to you?"

Recommendation 3: Challenge Student Beliefs and Interpretive Frameworks

     World history also matters to students because it gets them thinking outside of the norms and largely uncritical assumptions about the world that are part of their daily lives. These messages are reinforced by the news and most American history courses. One of the most powerful effects world history can have on students is to make them re-consider how they see the world. Seeing the world in a new light, however, is not a simple matter. The teachers had experience with students making Eurocentric assumptions about the world. Furthermore, research shows that students do not always revise their (wrong) beliefs about the world because teachers tell them something, which is what makes discussion so important. World history provides new knowledge and perspectives that challenge students' assumptions that reflect a Western and Eurocentric lens. Discussions of controversial global issues are a powerful teaching strategy precisely because they challenge students' beliefs and taken-for-granted ways of seeing the world. Asking students to consider what global issues mean to them and what we should do about them sometimes confronted them with new perspectives that took them out of their comfort zone.

     In our project, the teachers strongly believed that their world history course needed to counteract the messages students had received about the world. Interestingly, what we saw happen was students came to reconcile a sense of global awareness with their understanding of being American and remaining loyal to the nation. In fact, the discussions were most energized when students defended diverse positions. As students' attention was brought to the differences between their beliefs and those of their peers or the textbook, they began to consider these views as possibilities and even change their current thinking. It also does not mean that all students come to the same understanding or the same position. The students in our project did not all suddenly think of themselves as global citizens—however, they did come to think of what it means in more sophisticated and complex ways.

     Ultimately, it is important to remember that learning is not only the facts students reproduce on a test. Teachers should also pay attention to the meanings and perspectives that students take with them from what they learned in class that become part of their identity in the long term. Issues discussions are one strategy teachers can use to help students put their knowledge of the world to work.

John P. Myers is a former middle and high school history teacher. He is presently associate professor in the School of Teacher Education at Florida State University. He was associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh from 2004–2012, where he served on the Advisory Board of the World History Center and provided professional development workshops. He can be contacted at


1 John P. Myers, "Rethinking the Social Studies Curriculum in the Context of Globalization: Education for Global Citizenship in the US." Theory and Research in Social Education, 34, no. 3 (2006), 370–394.

2 An interesting recent development is the new AP Seminar course, part of the AP Capstone program. This course focuses on contemporary global (and local) issues and student interests.

3 Peter N. Stearns, "American Students and Global Issues." World History Connected 4, no. 2 (2007), Accessed 1 December 2014.

4 Roy Rosenzweig, "How Americans Use and Think about the Past: Implications from a National Survey for the Teaching of History," in P. Stearns, P. Seixas, and S. Wineburg, eds., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (New York: New York University Press, 2000): 267.

5 Thomas Bender, A Nation among Nations (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 14.

6 James A. Diskant, "Engaging Students to Become Global Citizens: Redefining the Role of World History Teachers to Become Facilitators and Problem Solvers." In, World History Connected 7, no. 2 (2010), Accessed 15 January 2015. Brian Girard and Lauren M. Harris, "Considering World History as a Space for Developing Global Citizenship Competencies." The Educational Forum 77, no. 4 (2010): 438–49. John P. Myers, Chantee McBride and Michelle Anderson, "Beyond Knowledge and Skills: Discursive Construction of Civic Identity in the World History Classroom." Curriculum Inquiry 45, no. 2 (2015): 198–218. Peter N. Stearns, Educating Global Citizenship in Colleges and Universities: Challenges and Opportunities (New York: Routledge, 2009).

7 Susanne Popp, "Integrating World History Perspectives into a National Curriculum: A Feasible Way to Foster Globally Oriented Historical Consciousness in German Classrooms?" World History Connected 3, no. 3 (2008), Accessed 12 January 2015.

8 James A. Quirin, "World History and Global Consciousness: A Case Study in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning." The History Teacher 42, no. 2 (2009): 159–75. Quirin found in a study of his own course, "The World and Its People," that it improved students' global consciousness, even those who received low grades. The course is based around several learning activities that, as a core course also taught by non-historians, is not required to cover the same content as a traditional survey course.

9 Jerry H. Bentley, "Why Study World History?" World History Connected 5, no. 1 (2007). Accessed 15 January 2015.

10 John P. Myers, "Making Sense of a Globalizing World: Adolescentsí Explanatory Frameworks for Poverty." Theory and Research in Social Education 36, no. 2 (2008): 95–123.

11 Stearns, "American Students."

12 David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

13 Ross E. Dunn, "The Two World Histories." Social Education 72, no. 5 (2008): 257–63.

14 Stearns, "American Students," par. 17.

15 Jack Betterly, "History or Hysteria: Teaching and Evaluating Discussion." In World History Connected 1, no. 1 (2003). Erik Vincent, "Teaching by Talking: Discussion-Based Learning in the AP World History Survey." In World History Connected 8, no. 1 (2011).

16 Donald W. Oliver, and James P. Shaver, Teaching Public Issues in the High School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966).

17 Elizabeth Gaynor Ellis and Anthony Esler, World History: Connections to Today (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2001).


19 John E. Henning, The Art of Discussion-Based Teaching: Opening up Conversation in the Classroom (New York: Routledge, 2008).

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