Infusing Global History into Elementary and Secondary Classrooms

Virginia Grimaldi

Last month, I spent an illuminating day supply teaching a fifth-grade class at an International School. In the morning, we had a news report activity, where students had to research a global issue and provide their audience with an overview and questions. One presenter informed the class that scientists had recently proven that New Zealand technically qualifies as a continent and how many New Zealanders have been pushing for it to be recognized as such. [1] The resulting discussion got me thinking about how the world would look today if other Early Modern superpowers such as China or the Ottoman Empire had begun colonizing the globe before the Europeans had their colonial hay day.

After lunch, I went back up to class and sketched a bare-bones world map on the whiteboard. Once the students came in, I asked, “Where would you draw the borders of the world if it were up to you?” I got back puzzled stares. Even though we had just discussed a “global issue” an hour prior, my fifth graders could not make sense of my question which sparked a fascinating flurry of student confusion: “Miss, everyone knows where the borders are.” I proceeded to put up a physical map of the world on the

Virginia teaching a group of Chilean students the continents and oceans. 

projector. I asked the students what they noticed about the physical map when compared to the political map. The room filled with a lot of reassuring expressions of new understanding. One student asked, “So how did the map with the borders get created?” I showed the students historical maps with different borders to demonstrate that they are not fixed entities, but change over time. The next hour was a fruitful discussion that brought the newspaper report from the morning to life. This experience had me wondering if globalization is happening faster than our curriculum can keep up with, even with all the global perspectives being infused into the curriculum documents.

Ontario’s new history curricula (2015) is infused with ‘global’ parlance. Here are some illustrative selections from the Ontario history curricula:

The study of history enables students to more fully appreciate heritage and identity, both in Canada and around the globe, the diversity and complexity of different societies, and the challenges and responsibilities associated with participation in the international community. It also enhances students’ understanding of the historical roots of many current issues around the world. In doing so, it helps prepare students to fulfil their role as informed and responsible Canadian and global citizens.[2]

It is important for students to understand that they belong to many communities and that, ultimately, they are all citizens of the global community.[3]

There is an increasing concern that Ontario schools today are not adequately preparing students for the challenges of a changing world.[4] I argue that global history education makes learning history more meaningful to students and that by teaching it to students prior to university, we may not only get more students interested in history at the university level, but more importantly, we help students (our future citizens) develop the intellectual, personal, emotional, and social skills needed to live, learn, and thrive in a rapidly globalizing world. So, what exactly constitutes a “global education?”

Global education recognizes that we live in an interdependent world and it aims to develop understanding of the interacting factors that cause poverty, social, economic, and political injustice, inhumanity, conflict, and environmental abuse in one’s home country as well as internationally. It is concerned with how things happen, who makes decisions, who has the power, and who doesn’t. It promotes inquiry into prejudice and discrimination. It is about developing the skills and attitudes that advance commitment to responsible action.[5]

There is no greater opportunity to transmit a global education to students than in a history class. Historical studies allow for a long-range analysis that can encourage students to view contemporary issues through the prisms of the past. Moreover, a commitment to global education makes sense for teachers, especially Canadian ones, since the values inherent in it are also core values within Canadian society. These include the acceptance of others, open-mindedness, respect for human rights, concern for justice, and a commitment to democracy.

Between 1992 and 2007, full-time undergraduate enrolment in Canada grew strongly in most major fields of study, yet history experienced a decline.[6] A contributing factor to this trend is that the only compulsory history course in Ontario’s high school curriculum is Grade 10 Canadian history. Furthermore, Canada is not the only country that has witnessed this trend in people losing historical interest. A March 2016 issue of Perspectives on History reported that the number of Americans earning a bachelor’s degree in history dropped sharply in 2014 from 2013 and it is likely to continue to fall.[7] But why?

Students and parents often make decisions about degree programs based on the earning potential of their field of study and scrutinize various disciplines by their career relevance. Demand for information about this practice is demonstrated by The Economist regularly running articles featuring which degree programs produce the best future earnings. Intense popular emphasis on education and careers related to Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM] influence many people’s expectations about potential fields of study.

So how can we make history relevant to today’s complex world, interesting to twenty-first century students, and a key factor in developing a global consciousness? The answer is to incorporate global history into the classroom. Still, we must be careful as sometimes global or world education can result in a purporting of stereotypes. If the scale has been tipped so much toward the exotic dimensions of, say, studying traditional Japanese culture by making origami, students gain little or no understanding of the broad range of life-styles in historical or modern Japan. This unidimensional pedagogy risks creating and/or reinforcing destructive stereotypic thinking in the youngsters. It is not global education if the focus of study has not emphasized the extent to which the people of Japan interact/interacted with others around the globe, politically economically, and socially.

Students must recognize that their own view of the world is not universally shared. The development of perspective consciousness can be approached in many ways. For instance, a teacher could place a large globe resting on a pedestal that dominates the center of the classroom. The students can then gather around in varied positions. Each is then asked to “draw the world” as he or she sees it, from his or her own particular perspective, and then compare them. Students could complete the necessary research to write a story about “a day in the life of” place x. In comparing stories, students will find their own lives differ depending on one’s location/perspective. Using today’s technology, there are even more advanced ways to go about this.

When certifying myself to teach high school history many years ago, I created a lesson plan about the causes of the First World War that was designed to give students varying perspectives of the same set of events. Groups of students choose from a list of events from the First World War and create a newspaper depicting the event. Students not only have to describe the event in their newspaper, but they are also expected to frame it from the perspective of either the Germans, Russians, French, British, Americans, Japanese, or Canadians – depending on which country they are assigned. I pre-screened

school 4
Virginia and her students in Kenya. 

some foreign student-focused websites depicting the various First World War events from the countries whose standpoints would be developed. Plugging the websites into Google Chrome allows students to translate the whole page into any language of their choice. Students can then put themselves in the shoes of various people around the globe in the years 1914-1918. There is even room for a class debate between countries regarding the same event.[8]

An operational mission for teachers might be to increase the number of solutions that students can propose for a given problem and the quality of the solutions, as measured by criteria of global cognition.[9] That would include being sensitive to the potential consequences of different policies and particularly to the differences between short-term and long-term consequences for various groups and individuals. It is important to help students make connections between historical events and more contemporary phenomenon. For example, in a globally oriented ‘ancient civilizations’ class, students can speculate on why there were only three great pyramids in Egypt. Rather than focusing on the names and dates of different dynasties as is common, the teacher focuses on two concepts – over-expansion and over-spending. These concepts can then be used to connect historical processes in ancient Egypt with events learned in the course such as the First World War. For instance, if a student writes, “The Great War weakened the United Kingdom’s authority over its Dominions,” opportunities exist for teachers to capitalize on these comments. Teachers can draw parallels between ancient Egypt’s over-spending and Britain’s over-expansion. This way, the teacher and students piece together a conceptual framework that facilitates thinking about other historical events/periods.

In emphasizing interdisciplinary concepts and making knowledge useful, global educators heighten student engagement and information retention. Emphasizing interdisciplinary concepts also helps students apply what they have learned from one context to another and makes learning more interesting and memorable.[10] Global educators teach interdisciplinary concepts most effectively when they draw upon both their experience and students’ experiences and organize their instruction around intermediary concepts, not the memorization of national facts.[11]

In our ever-changing and globalized world, we must move away from the previously adhered to nationalistic history and replace it with a more globally-minded one. Canada’s student population is increasingly diverse and there is a risk of some feel alienated and detached from traditionally focused Canadian history.[12] Due to the accelerating growth of global interdependence evident in volatile economic, political, cultural, technological, and ecological linkages that increasingly characterize the international order, it is likely that global education/history will continue to gain importance. Thus, teachers should be finding ways to augment their lessons into a global history framework.

Virginia Grimaldi is a practicing teacher and a PhD student in History at York University. She has taught in four continents and now is a substitute teacher for two Toronto Schools. As a social/cultural historian-in-the-making, her research attempts to answer questions concerning gender issues, the power of melodrama and media, sexuality, discourse, and human agency in nineteenth century Britain. She is the recipient of numerous academic awards, including the 2015 Albert Tucker Award in Graduate British History. She is the current Canadian Historical Association Graduate Student rep for York University and holds a Teaching Assistantship for the Humanities Department course “The Worlds of Childhood.” Email her for the WW1 lesson plan:


[1]  Article reviewed by student: Nick Mortimer et al., “Zealandia: Earth’s Hidden Continent,” Geological Society of America’s Journal Vol. 27 No. 3 (March/April 2017): 27-35.

[2]  Ontario Ministry of Education, The Ontario Curriculum Grades 11 and 12: Canadian and World Studies (2015): 15. Retrieved from:

[3]  Ontario Ministry of Education, The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8: Social Studies (Grades 1-6), History and Geography Grades 7 and 8 (2013): 9. Retrieved from: sshg18curr2013.pdf.

[4]  Kenneth A. Tye, ed., Global Education: From Thought to Action (Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1990), 125-141; Christine Bennett, Comprehensive Multicultural Education: Theory and Practice (Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon, 2014).

[5]  Margaret Calder and Roger Smith, A Better World For All: Development Education for the Classroom (Australian International Development Assistance Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 1991), 17.

[6]  The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, “Trends in Higher Education Volume 1 – Enrolment” (Ottawa: 2011).

[7]  Julia Brookins, “New Data Show Large Drop in History Bachelor’s Degrees,” Perspectives on History (AHA), March 2016.

[8]  Feel free to contact me for the full lesson plan.

[9]  Robert G Hanvey, An Attainable Global Perspective (New York: The American Forum for Global Education, 2004): 45.

[10] Merry M. Merryfield, “Pedagogy for Global Perspectives in Education: Studies of Teachers’ Thinking and Practice,” Theory & Research in Social Eduacation 26:3, 367-368

[11] Ibid

[12] There are numerous problems with second language instruction in Ontario which have been expounded upon in detail by other scholars. The main point I will highlight are that students do not begin compulsory instruction in French until Grade 4 and can cease instruction in a second language after Grade 9. This is a weak breadth requirement for those living in a “bilingual” country.

Cover Image: Teacher with tree disciples, Relief found near Trier, 180-185CE. Wikimedia Commons. 

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