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Learning to shape a shared future with Asia

by Natasha Redden | Jun 26, 2020

Hamish Curry, Executive Director, Asia Education Foundation

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Pandemics reveal just how interdependent our world is.

Think of scientists working together in global teams to discover a vaccine to fight COVID-19; country leaders working together to secure communities and borders; or students gaining access online to the world’s greatest galleries and museums anywhere, anytime.

During lockdown social media sparked waves of heartfelt singing around the globe that strengthened our spirit and showed us the humanity that brings us together in this time of crisis. Think how essential the human capabilities of empathy, intercultural understanding and resilience have been to all of us at this time. Feel grateful to those schools that helped students make better sense of this interdependent world by fostering awareness and action on global citizenship.  

But think, too, of how an invisible coronavirus revealed outbursts of racism often directed at China and Asian Australians. And of the destructive role played by fake news in driving misinformation and inflaming prejudice. Respect, empathy, critical thinking, intercultural and ethical understanding were often lacking, leaving individuals and communities with fearful and divisive views of the world around them. 

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In COVID-19’s wake, exposing racism and protecting marginalised voices in our societies has been front and centre in the streets of the United States and here at home in Australia. We are all keeping a watchful eye on the growing uncertainty of our world: a looming global economic crisis; a dangerous rift between Australia and China; the unimaginable scale of COVID-19’s toll on our neighbours Indonesia and India; and disruption for us all in how we travel, learn, connect and make sense of our world. 

“We have never in the post-Second World War era experienced this kind of disruption to the daily interactions that sustain our diplomatic, commercial, educational, and artistic and cultural engagement with our immediate region," writes Asialink CEO, Penny Burtt.   

“While Asia has its success stories, we mourn the loss of life and the hardship inflicted, especially in those countries with weaker health and social welfare systems and less capacity to withstand the economic torrent. And yet alongside the sense of loss is our conviction that cooperation among the countries of the region and ensuring Australia remains actively engaged with Asia, is absolutely critical to our national interests. Indeed, cooperation between the countries of our region will be a vital part of the solution to overcoming COVID-19 and rebuilding our communities and economies together when we do. 

For now, we have to be more creative than ever in utilising the more limited tools we have to keep the conversation going between Australia and Asia and finding new and innovative ways to cooperate.” 

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We have closed our borders – but now is not the time to close our minds. 

Forging closer cooperation with Asia on education has to be a priority for Australia. Never before has it been so important that young Australians can shape and navigate the world with confidence, knowledge, intercultural capability, ethics and empathy. What is certain is that we live in a global, complex world and Australia’s future is inextricably tied with the societies, economies, and geography of our region. With 750 million youth across Asia-Pacific aged 12-25, compared to 4.3 million young Australians, we must empower our schools to connect and collaborate in ways that build a shared future with our region. 

In 2019 the Mparntwe (Alice Springs) Education Declaration was agreed to by all Australian Ministers of Education. It says that all young Australians will have the opportunity to be “informed and responsible global and local members of the community who value and celebrate cultural and linguistic differences, and engage in the global community, particularly with our neighbours in the Indo-Pacific regions.” (P 5) 

Let’s work together to make that happen now.  

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This will take real commitment from across Australia.  

Past Australian Education Declarations have committed to similar goals. But, as a nation, it’s fair to say that we didn’t invest enough in achieving those goals. In 2020 Asian languages at senior secondary level continue to flatline and decrease. No national data has been collected about Asian languages uptake in Australian schools for the past 10 years. Where is the investment in providing an evidence base to help us turn that trend around?  

We simply don’t know what students learn about Asia in school. There has been no monitoring of the uptake or learning outcomes of the Asia and Australia cross-curriculum priority or Intercultural understanding General Capability in the Australian Curriculum. Crucially, our educators often lack the resources, experience, data, and connections to grow and sustain intercultural learning. 

A global mindset and skillset for every young Australian 

What we do know is that students and educators in every school must be supported to develop a curiosity and connection with the world - a ‘global mindset’ that is informed, open, and defined by deep intercultural understanding. We know that every student and educator needs a ‘global skillset’ underpinned by respect, empathy, ethical understanding and the capabilities to achieve intercultural resolutions through collaboration within Australia and with our Asia-Pacific neighbours. 

That’s why AEF has put intercultural learning at the centre of our work. 

It means we want to support schools and school systems to equip educators and young Australians to navigate and shape an interdependent world. To develop their mindset and skillsets as intercultural learners. To harness extraordinary learning opportunities, and minimise being trapped by unfounded assumptions, bound by stereotypes and lack of knowledge, or skewed by prejudice. To give every young Australia the knowledge, capabilities, attitudes, and networks to creatively engage with Asia and the world.  

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Here are some actions we’re committed to taking in 2020 and beyond. 

  1. Amplify the voices of young people to empower our next generation to shape a thriving intercultural future.  
  2. Grow our award-winning international school partnerships using innovative pedagogies and technologies to connect Australian classrooms with the Asia-Pacific. 

  3. Equip our teachers and school leaders with the understanding, pedagogies, data and curriculum to develop better intercultural learning.

  4. Expand our already strong relationships with schools, educators, governments, organisations and funders across Australia and 23 Asia Pacific countries to activate a powerful coalition of advocates who support intercultural learning for every student. 

  5. Develop an updated evidence base of what students, schools and education systems can do to develop intercultural learning. 

There is even more we can do, and please know that our actions will not stop here. AEF’s work over 28 years has had a significant impact on education, reaching thousands of schools across Australia and the region and transforming lives. We know what works to develop intercultural learning. 

So many great schools and educators are working hard to achieve these outcomes and we want to amplify their work and support others to grow their abilities. Our networks across Australia and Asia Pacific can be a collective strength in activating a shared learning future with Asia.  

Join us on the journey.

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