When you think of global learning, which word comes to mind: unity or diversity?

I recently posed this question to faculty during the introductory session of a global learning course design workshop. It was a synchronous online session, so I used Zoom’s polling function, and then each of the 12 participants explained the reasons behind their answers.

Some faculty talked about global learning as a means of understanding diverse cultures, interpretations, and beliefs. Others spoke of exploring common problems or looking for common qualities binding people to each other and their environment. One professor was attracted to global learning as a way to increase diversity—she wanted to get each student individually to think about our common world in multiple ways. Another wanted students to identify diversity within groups of people or places they previously perceived as unified or homogeneous.

As the discussion progressed, I could see facial expressions changing—the cogs were turning in people’s minds as they listened to each other. Soon responses sounded like this: “Well, at first I was going to say that global learning was more about X, but now I’m thinking it’s more about Y…” Although 2/3 of the participants initially thought global learning was more about diversity, you could see the tide shift toward the concept of unity, and then back and forth multiple times.

By the end of the discussion, one thing was clear to everyone present: there is no clear answer to the question of whether global learning is more about unity or diversity.

The concepts of diversity and unity, difference and sameness, the many and the one, all underlie the process of global learning. Global learning is about analyzing and addressing complex problems that cannot be understood, much less solved, by any single person, group, country, approach, perspective, discipline or sector alone. It involves connecting different perspectives on the causes and effects of these problems (Landorf, Doscher, & Hardrick, 2018)

The concepts of unity and diversity can serve as an organizing principle for your global learning course if you set them in dialogue with one another.

Let’s take a look at a concrete example. The TED Talks below demonstrate what it’s like to view the world through the prisms of unity or diversity. You might use these talks to help students distinguish between these two perspectives, compare and contrast their underlying values and applied merits, and hold them both in mind simultaneously.

First, diversity. In her TED Talk, “The Dangers of a Single Story,” Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie cautions against the stereotypes and misunderstandings that result from only hearing one narrative about another person or country. After recounting a series of anecdotes in which others questioned her authenticity as an African, Adichie concludes that, “Stories matter. Many stories matter…when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

Next, unity. Rachel Yoder and Michael Herman are theater professionals who, after hearing one woman’s story, helped build a maternity clinic in Tanzania that transformed the life of a community. They conclude “There is Not Humanity Without Unity.”

The musician Ani DiFranco says, “I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.” I would love to hear how you use help students discover strength in diversity and comfort in unity in the courses you teach. Reach out to me.  Feel free to share this post with colleagues you think might find it useful.