Research to Practice: Cultivating International-Mindedness in the Middle Grades

As I drove my 10-year-old daughter Halden to school one recent morning, we caught the end of a news report on the radio about the war in Ukraine. “Some Russian people are against the war,” Halden stated confidently. “It’s just that they don’t get to hear about what’s really happening in Ukraine.” As we talked, she demonstrated understanding of events in Ukraine and Russia and expressed empathy for the families torn apart by the war.

Halden was exhibiting certain dimensions of international-mindedness. Nixon (n.d.) defined international mindedness as “the ability to interpret and analyze issues from different perspectives through the lens of intercultural understanding and a respect for others” (para. 2). Young adolescents like Halden often show an interest in significant societal issues (Brown & Knowles, 2014) and are able to consider them from different perspectives (Bishop & Harrison, 2021). At a time when world issues are the news of the day—such as the war in Ukraine, the COVID pandemic, and global supply chain interruptions—cultivating international-mindedness is critically important.

International Baccalaureate and International-Mindedness

International-mindedness is a core component of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (MYP), a program that offers a holistic curriculum in a global context and aligns well with This We Believe principles (Dever, 2020). The MYP “aims to develop active learners and internationally minded young people who can empathize with others and pursue lives of purpose and meaning” (International Baccalaureate Organization [IBO], 2022, para. 2). IBO espouses an expansive definition of international-mindedness that includes three dimensions: (1) multilingualism, (2) intercultural understanding, and (3) global engagement (Sing & Qi, 2013). While IBO has emphasized intercultural understanding through its curriculum for more than half a century, the emphases on intercultural communication through multilingualism and active global engagement emerged near the turn of the 21st century.

MYP Students’ Perspectives on International-Mindedness

In a recent study published in Research in Middle Level Education Online, Elena Jurasaite-O’Keefe from St. John’s University sought to understand how students in the MYP “define and perceive the development of international-mindedness as part of their cultural identity and what significant factors contribute to the development of international-mindedness” (Jurasaite-O’Keefe, 2022, p. 1). The study focused on two questions: (1) How do young adolescents in the MYP define international-mindedness and perceive their level of international-mindedness as part of their identity? and (2) What factors do MYP students perceive to support the development of international-mindedness as part of their cultural identity? (Jurasaite-O’Keefe, 2022, p. 2).

The author assessed students’ perceived levels of international-mindedness through a survey in which respondents rated themselves on a scale from 1 (low) to 10 (high). Eighty-six percent of respondents rated their level of international-mindedness between 7 and 10 and most rated themselves at 8. The survey also elicited information about how the students defined international-mindedness, which included “being open-minded, respectful, curious, knowledgeable, and understanding of other cultures, and [identifying] themselves as a part of the worldwide community” (Jurasaite-O’Keefe, 2022, p. 7).

An important aspect of the study for middle grades educators was the focus on three sets of factors that students perceived to support the cultivation of international mindedness: travel, school, and family. The author noted, “Travel was the most frequently mentioned experience strongly associated with the development of international-mindedness” (p. 7), as many students had experiences moving to and from different countries and traveling to visit friends and family. The most frequently mentioned school-related factors were “diverse student/educator body, curriculum/extracurricular activities, and learning other languages” (p. 7). Family factors included the ethnic/cultural background of families, a family’s history of moving abroad, and advice and modeling provided by parents and extended family.

Cultivating International-Mindedness in Middle Level Schools

Jurasaite-O’Keefe’s study underscores the important role middle level schools can have in cultivating international-mindedness. Her recommendations for strengthening international-mindedness in International Baccalaureate schools can provide guidance for educators any middle level school seeking to cultivate more internationally minded students.

  • “Establish and extend programs to enhance international travel for students and educators” (Jurasaite-O’Keefe, 2022, p. 11). International travel is a powerful way to broaden students’ horizons and enhance cross-cultural understanding. While organizing such experiences may seem daunting, many resources are available to help schools in this effort. For example, schools can seek the services of the many education travel providers that have exhibited at recent AMLE conferences. Schools should also be aware of opportunities to host students from abroad. For example, Kang and Kim (2017) described the experiences of students in Grades 6–8 who traveled from Korea to the United States to study, highlighting the need for schools to make them feel connected and supported.
  • “Language classes—and multilingualism itself —are … effective means for developing international-mindedness in a school environment” (Jurasaite-O’Keefe, 2022, p. 8). Middle grades classrooms around the world are becoming increasingly multilingual as a result of human migration, and successful middle level schools embrace and build upon the home languages students bring to school (Bishop & Harrison, 2021). Middle level schools should encourage language learning for all students, and AMLE.org offers several resources to help schools explore ways to develop and strengthen language learning and instruction (see Moser & Miller, n.d.; Sandrock, 2014; Thiefels, n.d.).
  • “Develop a digital network to connect … students and classrooms around the globe” (Jurasaite-O’Keefe, 2022, p. 11). Digital tools allow teachers to connect their classrooms and resources around the globe in real time. Teachers can create virtual travel experiences, connect with digital pen pals, and invite guest speakers from abroad. Articles by Jones (2015) in AMLE Magazine and Beal and Bates (2010) in Middle School Journal offer great ideas for connecting middle grades students to the world digitally.
  • “Create[e] integrated curricula” (Jurasaite-O’Keefe, 2022, p. 12) and “redoubl[e] efforts to incorporate international-mindedness into the classroom so … understanding, awareness, and acceptance of others continues to grow” (p.11). The idea of centering the curriculum on the interests and concerns of people and not strictly on subject matter knowledge has deep roots in middle level education (see AMLE, 2019; Beane, 1997; Virtue, 2013). Articles by King (n.d.) and Patel and Toledo (n.d.) at AMLE.org offer classroom-tested examples of curricula infusing global perspectives and 21st century skills in math, in the humanities, and across the curriculum.

You can read the full study and find more resources about international-mindedness here.


David C. Virtue is the Taft B. Botner Professor of Middle Grades Education at Western Carolina University and the editor of Research in Middle Level Education Online.


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