The COVID-19 pandemic: In our lifetimes, have we ever experienced a more all-encompassing transpersonal, transnational global problem?

Global learning was invented to help people understand and address such problems. But in our lifetimes, have we ever experienced a harder time to teach and learn? In addition to the sudden and complete transition to education online, teachers and learners just can’t think straight. We aren’t sleeping. We’re scatterbrained. We feel anxious because solving the problem seems so complex, and the future seems so unpredictable, there are so many new factors emerging every day, so many unknowns. It’s a painfully difficult time to do any learning, much less global learning.

But this has me thinking: Global learning is always difficult to do. It’s difficult for precisely the same reasons it’s so difficult to think straight during a pandemic. It’s difficult because global learning is about learning how to conceptualize, and be comfortable with, complexity, unpredictability, and emergence.

To be clear, not all problems, and not all courses, demand global learning. Simple and complicated problems involve linear thinking, replicable processes, and predictable causes and effects. Traditionally, educators help students learn how to understand and solve these problems by facilitating analysis—breaking things down into their constituent concepts and skills. Teachers design courses around developmental, observable learning objectives, digestible course units and modules, and criterion-based assessments, ensuring that students are mastering the fundamental building blocks of knowledge. This approach makes good sense when it comes to teaching people about simple or complicated things. But it doesn’t work so well when we are dealing with complex questions, problems, and phenomena.

Global learning problems are complex because they involve:

  • Multiplicity, a high number of connected elements;
  • Interdependence, elements that are mutually reliant on each other; and,
  • Diversity, a high degree of heterogeneity or divergence.

We can’t do global learning just by examining the parts because that distracts us from the point of global learning—seeing the whole.

When it comes to global learning, instead of breaking things down into their disconnected parts, we need to help students identify what holds the parts together—their organizing principle. In complexity theory an organizing principle is known as an attractor, a point toward which the disparate elements of a system are pulled. An attractor brings momentary order to chaos.

If you want students to get a hold on complexity, then your global learning syllabus needs to have at least one organizing principle—maybe more. The organizing principle you choose will be a lens through which students can see multiplicity, interdependence, and diversity. It will also be a framework that helps students connect and combine ideas that previously appeared disconnected and uncombinable. The organizing principle can help guide your students’ thinking past analysis—problem identification—toward synthesis and creation—solution making.

This post is the first in a series about organizing principles for global learning. I’ll focus on how principles of scale, flow, and power can be used to infuse global learning into courses across the curriculum taught on campus, in the community, online, and abroad. I’ll also explore the importance of de-stabilizing your organizing principle and of having students develop their own principles, in order to increase their ability to view the world from multiple perspectives and adapt to change.

But for now, I’m curious: What are the organizing principles already at work in your courses? What principles are you curious about? How are you making sense of complexity?