by Daniel Obst, President & CEO of AFS Intercultural Programs

This month I traveled to China to participate in the launch of a new program: the AFS One Classroom initiative that supports global competence development among teachers and students. The meeting was convened by AFS China in conjunction with the China Annual Conference for International Education (CACIE) organized by the China Education Association for International Exchange (CEAIE), which provided useful insights and put the work of AFS in a broader context.

China is a key country for international exchange, being (by far) the world’s leading source of international students. With average annual growth of 9% over the last couple of decades, the number of Chinese students abroad has more than doubled since 2010. Now, China sends more than a 600,000 students abroad annually and also hosts 500,000 international student each year. China’s recent One Belt, One Road initiative envisions a massive investment in, and development of, trade routes in order to promote economic cooperation, strengthen exchanges and mutual learning between cultures. Developing intercultural skills and closer cooperation between schools and academic institutions will be essential to the long-term success of this initiative.

AFS China brought together nearly 100 participants from 12 countries, including leaders from AFS Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Russia, Thailand and Turkey, as well as teachers and principals from nearly 50 schools from China and abroad to launch the AFS One Classroom initiative. This program will help broaden the minds of young people, enable them to communicate and interact effectively and appropriately in different cultural contexts, and equip students, teachers and school principals with global competence needed to learn, live and thrive in the 21st century.

The initial focus of this initiative will be on virtual classroom exchanges, with the initial goal of connecting at least 100 schools worldwide. In the months ahead, AFS will define a framework for the virtual exchange with content, lesson plans, and learning objectives. A starting point will be for all schools to complete the AFS Global Competence Readiness Index for Schools, a self-assessment tool accompanied by a custom report and actionable resources that helps educators determine how prepared their schools are to foster global competence among students. Eventually, the initiative will include in-person class exchanges, language courses and other social impact projects.

AFS China’s One Classroom initiative is off to a good start: 36 partnerships between Chinese and foreign schools have already been signed.

The CACIE Conference put the AFS initiatives into a broader context and was a great opportunity to connect with more than 2,500 delegates from around the world that attended the event. I participated in a special panel on “Internationalization of Higher Education and Student Mobility.”

I was especially inspired by the remarks of Dr. Esther Brimmer, CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Education, made during the session. She spoke eloquently about the need for internationalization to be embedded into the core mission of academic institutions and about the importance of people-to-people contacts in building mutual understanding. Her statement that “the exchange of people and ideas is what helped created the modern world,” rings especially true.

This is at the core of what AFS does: developing active global citizens who are prepared to make a positive difference in their communities and the world. In my remarks during the panel discussion, I urged educators in China to prioritize the development of global competence and to think of it as a power skill, rather than a ‘soft skill’. Global competence, or preparedness to communicate, collaborate and lead across differences to tackle the world’s greatest challenges and help more people benefit from a global economy, is essential to society — if we want to solve global and local challenges; if we want to turn the tide on intolerance and ignorance; if we want to thrive in more diverse communities. It is also essential to the workplace: according to hundreds of employers, by far the most highly valued skill (even higher than technical skills) was demonstrating respect for others, followed by working effectively in diverse teams, open to new ideas and ways of thinking. As a successful best practice example, AFS has developed a Global Competence Certificate, a blended learning program that facilitates deep reflection about intercultural learning that supports educational institutions in their efforts to advance global competence development in their students.

Last, but not least, it was an honor to receive the Best Partner Award 2018 from CEAIE for AFS’s work and efforts to expand intercultural exchange with China and support schools with global competence development.

China is key player in international education and a giant in international trade. The recent disputes around trade indicate once again how important it is for more people in China and abroad to engage with each other. After all, as Dr. Brimmer said, exchanges and dialogue are an asset, not a threat.