For almost a century now the expression “think globally, act locally” has been popular in the West. Any person working in the education sector will likely have heard this phrase often. For many, it means going beyond their local context, away from the details of their daily lives, to thinking on a larger scale and being guided by universal values. Clearly, having such vision is beneficial in many ways. But we should also understand that by improperly perceiving this concept we may inflict harm on ourselves. When solving any problem we should realize that the contemporary world implies a myriad of unused possibilities rather than a scarcity of resources. This vision contradicts widespread reasoning: “How can we achieve Western levels of education quality when we lack the possibilities they have?” or “We do not have the same amount of financial and human resources or experience that they have.” Many maintain that our standards are very low and can only be raised if resources (for financing the education sphere, for example) are significantly increased.
It is true that certain resources are inadequately limited in Georgia. For example, public spending on education is much lower than on economic development. According to UN data, Georgia is ranked 123rd out of 132 countries based on the size of its public spending on education as a percentage of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The problem is not our position in this ranking. By this rating, Lesotho and Vanuatu spend more on education as a percentage of their GDPs than do, for instance, Finland or Japan yet the former lag far behind the latter in terms of the results of their education systems. The real problem is that, as international experience shows, given the limited amount Georgia spends on education no country could achieve any significant improvements.
Increasing public spending on education would, of course, be a solution to improve the situation. However, it is no less important to spot the rich possibilities that our country has in greater abundance than would appear at first glance. Even within our existing infrastructure, innovations of qualitatively new dimensions could be introduced with lower spending. Unfortunately, we hardly perceive such possibilities.
To illustrate this point I will recount my personal experience. When it comes to the introduction of online courses, many universities, including those outside Georgia, start their decision-making process not by discussing possibilities, but rather by compiling a long list of limitations. Decision makers often reject the idea of online education because of pedagogical difficulties or a lack of adequate infrastructure. But let’s see how well-founded this approach is.
The other day, master’s students at Ilia State University made presentations via the Internet. From New York I have been teaching these students in Tbilisi for more than four months via the use of free internet programs. One group of students chose a very interesting venue for making their presentation – a parked car. Given the limited possibilities available to them, they considered the car the best option for ensuring a quiet environment and internet access. They parked the car outside the university at such distance that their laptop could connect to the wireless network. During the presentation they showed me their work in electronic format, answered my questions and received the advice they needed. Members from another group of students each connected from different locations, one student making his online presentation whilst at work in his office. The process worked well and this example highlights several novelties.
First, education today differs significantly from that even of the recent past in both format and technique. If earlier, a person had to be in the physical space of an educational institution in order to receive education, today that physical space has an alternative in the form of the virtual space. Technologies have changed pedagogical approaches too. Interaction between students and teachers is becoming increasingly intensive (albeit potentially more remote).
Second, when the participants in the process realize that they are responsible for their own personal education they start seeking such possibilities that are almost unimaginable for decision makers. The chances of finding such possibilities are enhanced by the communication technologies that are becoming an increasingly integral part of daily life. For example, the number of academic publications freely available online for Georgian university students and schoolchildren is incomparably greater than the number of hard copy books physically available and financially affordable.
Third, existing technologies allow the utilization of human resources that might otherwise be inaccessible. Today, Georgian or foreign specialists working abroad can be actively engaged in the education of Georgian students. It is also possible for a professor or a schoolteacher in Georgia to supervise the education of larger groups of students at different geographic locations.
Thinking globally requires caution. Lack of local thinking may pose a threat as well. It is a problem when decision makers, some education specialists, scientists, teachers or parents consider overseas educational products or processes of doubtful quality to be more acceptable than high quality approaches developed locally. The tendency of blindly borrowing from the outside or excessively applying overseas measures can be manifested in many ways. I will list only three.
First, such an approach either rests on or strengthens the belief that educational products or approaches based on Georgia’s context or created by the intellectual resources of Georgia are somehow less valuable than those created in any Western country. One can often hear from people involved in education policies that the approach proposed by them is in line with “international standards”. Many popular private schools in Georgia try to prove their superiority by being involved in international education networks. “American,” “European,” “international” or other similar adjectives in the names of educational institutions has already become a norm in Georgia.
Such naïve perceptions both undermine the motivation of local businesses and the government to finance the development of relevant, quality educational products in Georgia and increase the intensity of borrowing various eclectic elements from international systems. My students have learnt from their textbooks that a car assembled from even the best parts randomly picked from a range different top-class cars, will by no means be a top quality car itself.
Second, international standards in education do not really exist. Instead, there exist various evaluation instruments that are not a result of any international agreement. If applied blindly, these instruments can condition the establishment of inadequate standards unsuited towards a particular country’s education system. For example, the evaluations that compare countries’ education performances in reading and mathematics may prompt politicians willing to improve these particular ratings to pump the majority of existing resources into these specific areas. This, however, may harm other areas serving such aims as holistic, esthetic or physical education.
Third, approximation with international education systems does not necessarily mean dependence on them. Georgia has unique needs and challenges. Consequently, we need to choose the way of development most suited to us. For example, although we can learn much from the European education system, our engagement with this system does not mean that Georgia must wait for Europe before introducing innovative methods in education. We can do that independently as well as working with them.
The correct approach lies in having rational courage; the incorrect approach lies in fear of experimentation and innovation. Thinking globally means thinking less about how to catch up with imaginary international standards and more about how to become successful by setting high requirements for ourselves. Acting locally, in turn, means realizing both that no one is more aware of our problems than us and that the possibilities at our disposal are greater than they seem at first blush. Let’s think and act both globally and locally.