Introducing the AFS Global Competence Readiness Index for Schools

by Melissa Liles, Chief Global Engagement Officer, AFS Intercultural Programs


As AFS launches our new Global Competence Readiness Index for Schools, as a member of the team who developed it, this has been an opportunity to reflect on how my own schools helped prepare me for a global future.

Growing up, there was never a doubt in my mind. I simply knew that one day I’d have a career that would let me discover new places and meet new people all over the world. While I wasn’t quite sure exactly what form that path would take (on any given day “foreign diplomat”, “international airline pilot” and “globe-trotting photojournalist” were equally attractive to the 12-year-old me who was born long before Dora the Explorer made her debut), there was just no doubt that someday, somehow, I’d find a way to travel and satisfy my global curiosity for a living.

Luckily for me, this early drive was fostered by my family who, during my pre-internet (yes—prehistoric!) “paper and pen” pen-pal phase must have spent an untold fortune on international stamps and stationary…

Even more importantly though, my schools and teachers actively encouraged me to explore my curiosity in all things diverse. In providing regular opportunities for international and intercultural learning, they set me up for success in an interconnected world.

From an avid participant in intercultural activities in school to leading education efforts in a global organization

How, exactly? There is of course no one magical formula, but, fortunately, the schools I attended all incorporated different global exposure and skill-building opportunities into their learning environments:

  • With many students in my Houston, Texas (U.S.) elementary school neighborhood coming from Mexico and Vietnam, our social studies, history and language courses regularly spent extra time learning about these communities and what prompted their mobility—as well as about earlier immigrants and indigenous peoples.
  • In addition to dedicated language learning classes, communicating in different ways was presented as a part of regular schoolwork. For instance, even though I dreaded (and still do) sports, my sole consolation when it came to gym time was to look forward to daily warm-up exercises. Why? Because our physical education teachers taught us how count up to twenty in Spanish, German and Japanese. To this day, I begin my sit-ups with “ichi, ni, san…”
  • Every spring, my school held a multicultural fair which, as you can imagine, I attended most eagerly. Activities included gleefully pelting each other with cascarones to wish each other good luck and make a colorful mess. And with what was admittedly significant parental help, I shared my own contributions ranging from borscht to baklava. Yes, these fairs were mainly about foods, costumes and customs from different places, but “top of the cultural iceberg” artifacts like food can be a gateway to deeper discovery and understanding of cultures.
  • Later in my high school years, our school not only hosted international students, but also helped me set out on an educational program abroad in Picardie, a hidden gem of a region in northern France. They helped coordinate academic credits for the year with my host school and even arranged for me to meet up with some of my classmates who took part in a “Spring Break” trip to Paris. Later, the school nominated me for a month-long scholarship program to the Tunisia, an experience which further transformed my life and sparked in me a new language passion.

Global issues learning. Second language learning. Curriculum (micro)integration. Events. Educational exchanges and trips.

Opportunities like these are but a few that global-ready schools provide to help students broaden perspectives about themselves and the world around them. They encourage learners to appreciate other cultures and be open to new ideas, attitudes and traditions, not simply impose their own on others (believe me when I say my year in France was eye-opening; lesson 1 learned ever so painfully: most French youth are not impressed by American fashion). They foster sensitive communication and mindful collaboration skills. They demonstrate concretely how diversity combined with respect can make communities stronger and more interesting.

Global-ready schools take steps to help students build critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are required in all professions—from science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to education and childcare to finance and business. This is crucial considering the UN’s projection that one billion—that’s 1,000,000,000!—young people will enter the workforce in the next 10 years.

In short, we need global-ready schools because they will build our future-ready population.

And unlike when I was in school, this is not a nice-to-have. Today, we can’t escape that, like it or not, we are dependent on one another in ways we may never imagine and the diversity that it ushers into our lives. So whether viewed from a “for the greater good” or, conversely, a “make our country great” position, it is in all of our interests to make the most of our differences. Today, global competence is a must-have.

Global-ready schools build future-ready populations

This is why the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s PISA test will assess global competence of teenagers worldwide, for the first time this September. It’s also why experts around the world call for teachers and schools to get more intercultural learning training and support at all levels, from policy-setting to practical implementation.

So, how can you find out if your school is prepared to educate for a global future? At the request of our network of schools in over 60 countries, AFS has developed the Global Competence Readiness Index. This powerful tool was developed by expert educators and school leaders from around the world. It will help you reflect on and assess where your school stands in terms of fostering global competence for students. Then, in no more than 15 minutes you can get a profile of your school, along with a list of specific action steps to take to advance your work in preparing global citizens. It even includes hands-on materials including lesson plans and activities to help you and your school do this. Get your school’s profile today.

To come full circle, at this point you might be wondering: “Did she ever realize her childhood dream?” Well, over the past 15 years my work in international education has taken me to more than 50 countries. Along the way I’ve forged lifelong and life-changing connections with amazing students and passionate educators in places as diverse as Egypt, Honduras and Norway. I even picked up a Dutch spouse! I’m awed and proud that my work has helped positively impact over 150,000 young people—and similar number of host families and teachers—who have taken part in AFS programs and made steps in their journeys to also become active global citizens during my time on the job.

I thank my global-ready schools for setting me on this path.

About the author: Melissa Liles currently heads AFS’ global engagement and thought leadership. She led AFS’ education efforts worldwide from 2008 until 2017. During this time she redefined the organization’s educational approach, launched a state-of-the-art global training initiative for over 50,000 adult learners, developed curricula used today in 60 countries to foster deeper intercultural learning for students, families and schools participating in AFS exchange programs, and established a roster of recurring conferences dedicated to global citizenship education in Asia and Oceania, Latin America, Africa and Europe. She has chaired the AFS Educational Advisory Council of distinguished international academics since 2009. 

Read this article in Spanish, translated by our friends at Travolucion.