Scales of Global Learning: Prisms, Knots, and a Cup of Coffee

Being able and willing to recognize oneself as part of a complex and interconnected world is an essential component of global learning. If students are to engage in global challenges, educators must employ pedagogies that prioritize outcomes where students learn to seamlessly view themselves as related to other people, locations, and issues around the world. How do educators create learning environments that not only allow students to learn about the world, but, more importantly, prompt them to see the multifaceted and intersecting undercurrents that give meaning to the world and to their lives within it?

Imagine global pedagogies as a metaphoric prism. Consider how a prism splits light into constituent colors or allows you to see an image projected at various angles. A pedagogical prism provides multiple faces through which to dissect the complexity of the subject matter. In a prism formed through global learning pedagogies, these faces include the diverse questions, assumptions, idiosyncrasies, and disciplinary and professional paradigms that students bring with them to learning environments, as well as angles of interpretation they may newly acquire in the classroom: theories, methodologies, and ways of analyzing subjects economically, culturally, nationally, politically, historically, globally, and so forth. Because the faces are personal as well as academic, pedagogical prisms allow students to look out while looking in; they create learning spaces where students can view the world through multiple vantage points assembled through their studies and experiences, thus answering academic questions while also exploring themselves. Pedagogical prisms allow students to see global complexity, whether they are viewing a cup of coffee as a hub of transnational interconnections or seeing their own identities as transcending borders.

To practice these vital skills of global analysis, students need to be able to move fluidly between different vantage points, including disciplinary models, distinctive cultural contexts, and transnational perspectives. They must navigate the prisms' angles of projection by shifting back and forth across various scales of meaning, balancing relativistic and universalistic approaches, and challenging conceptual and physical boundaries. They must come to recognize relationships and connections that stretch far beyond the local.

Highlighting the importance of such connections, Tim Ingold (2015) describes the world in terms of processes of knotting and series of shifting knots. Global learning involves critically examining these knots and uncovering the underlying processes that give them meaning. Students can learn to use analytic prisms to follow the lines and threads, tracking connections that stretch far beyond any individual knot. But the pedagogical process of exploring and untying the knots of our world cannot remain solely cognitive. Globally engaged students must also look through global prisms at themselves and at the human condition (Van Balkom 2010). They must not only know about the world, but also have a sense of human engagement with it. By encouraging students to view the knots of the world through their prisms, educators can instill responsibilities built on students' transnational senses of self.

Three Key Competencies

Institutions of higher education and global educators are responsible for designing learning environments where students can practice and translate, in a variety of contexts, the understanding that emerges as they look through global prisms and untie knots. To understand and solve the challenges facing humanity, whether they initially appear to be local or are clearly transnational in nature, students need to incorporate multiple angles of interpretation and develop responsibilities that extend far beyond the immediate worlds in which we often imagine our lives as anchored.

Global learning has many components, but three integrated competencies are fundamental to it. First, students must be able to dissect knots, or complex situations, that gain meaning through multiple perspectives and processes. Second, to adequately explore these knots, students need the ability to shift between various scales of understanding and practice (or see through prisms). And third, students need to be able to leap from an analytic understanding of our interconnected world, and of the knots and knotting that define it, to a sense of commitment and responsibility to others. Together, these three competencies provide a robust foundation for global learning.

In order to thoroughly and critically explore the knots where human lives intersect, students need to step out of their unquestioned assumptions, recognizing that they have positions and biases that are guiding their interpretations. Such self-reflection demands basic cultural literacy, which allows students to untie the political, historical, economic, religious, and social trajectories that connect and give meaning to phenomena and practices. To examine and unpack complex narratives, students need critical thinking skills—skills that allow them to analyze complicated social, political, or environmental situations. This key analytic skill involves dissecting the knots, but also recognizing how the students themselves are a global knot and how their lives are interstitial points that need exploration. Students must thus reflect upon their own knotted lives and histories as well as be able to translate this cultural literacy anywhere, whether in a small college town in the United States or a favela in Brazil. Ultimately, students must see relationships and processes (knots and knotting) rather than static things or products. They must dig below surfaces of our everyday objects of inquiry to make visible the relationships that give things meaning. They need to look around and see a world full of knots; they must recognize themselves as one of those knots.

The ability to shift between scales of understanding is particularly critical to students' ability to untie knots effectively. By looking holistically through a prism of plural perspectives, students can effectively circumvent one of the many binaries that might prevent a sense of global responsibility: the tired dichotomy of relativism/universalism. Questioning this dichotomy is particularly critical, even though there are many other binaries that challenge global engagement (including local/global, self/other, and learning/teaching). Scholars and philosophers have been questioning relativism for thousands of years, but the thought of doing so still makes some international educators uncomfortable, since few deny that cultural practices and ideas should be understood relatively within specific contexts. Even so, extreme relativistic thinking can be an impasse to global learning. When students think too specifically and geographically about cultures, identities, communities, or nations, without recognizing them as knots that integrate far-flung phenomena and power, they miss an opportunity to think globally. Students end up seeing only isolated pockets of difference and they lose the chance to see the connections that are embedded in the knots that surround them. While relativism must be part of global learning, it should be contextualized within a broader understanding of the complex human conditions that lie beneath different cultural practices.

This ability to shift back and forth across and between scales of understanding, particularly between globalized scales and more localized geographies, is critical to developing a sense of global responsibility in students. As students rethink their own geographies, redefining themselves (as not so singular) or challenging their ideas about culture (as not so bounded and static), they rethink the boundaries that define traditional ways of seeing the world. They begin to see how complicated, globally connected, and relational their own identities and lives truly are. Doreen Massey (2004) reminds us how our identities are aligned with our senses of responsibility. As students come to understand the global aspects of their identities, they become positioned to make the difficult leap to a global sense of responsibility. They become willing and able to dislodge their definition of responsibility from their localized geography and move it to a borderless space where they can learn to care about the world.

Acting on the Knots

To create learning environments that help students develop the competencies associated with global learning—enabling them to untangle complex knots, navigate different scales, and realize their commitments—educators should envision their classrooms as knots and their students as perpetually engaged in processes of knotting and unknotting. Faculty can help students discern their commitments, understand the ramifications of those responsibilities in both local and global contexts, and determine effective ways of making an impact. Pedagogies that are effective in this regard include interdisciplinary co-teaching, collaborative work, service learning, problem-based learning, and other practices that encourage active learning. Pedagogies that bring the analytic focus back home are most effective in spurring social action and critical understanding.

A powerful pedagogical practice that reveals global connections, crosses multiple scales of understanding, encourages critical self-reflection, and cultivates responsibility involves taking a common object and transforming it into a global knot. As students examine the object critically, they come to see the complex histories, colonial vestiges, international inequalities, economies, politics, and cultures that connect through it. Nearly any object—an automobile, an iPhone, a bowl of sugar, a McDonalds hamburger, a dozen roses, a pair of jeans—can provide a basis for this exercise.

Coffee is a superb everyday item to explore. Many students start their day with a cup of coffee, but few of these students—and few of the over 100 million coffee drinkers in the United States (Statistic Brain Research Institute 2015)—see through that cup of joe to the multibillion dollar global economy behind it. A small number see through their mugs to the young children picking ripe coffee beans on foggy mountainsides in Guatemala, or to the middleperson who sells these beans or the processed coffee to the exporter. Most do not recognize the multitude of brokers, importers, and distributors who get their favorite coffee to their corner coffee shop. Coffee drinkers do not see how the entire commodity chain is disjointed by and embedded within unequal power relations, drastically shifting values and meanings, and international policies. They do not see a transnational knot that connects them to Ethiopia, Costa Rica, or Sumatra.

A global educator can help students dissect this knot. In the case of coffee, an educator could help students consider fair trade as one potential form of action that responds to the disjunctions in the commodity chain and aims to level the playing field by setting fairer prices and re-establishing ethical connections to communities and the environment. An educator can also prompt students to explore the scrutiny that has been applied to fair trade, perhaps exploring if profits actually reach the farmers in Guatemala or considering if consumers are misled by fair trade labels. Once an educator has helped untie the knot of coffee, students may begin to understand the need for fairer practices and experience a pedagogical awakening toward action.

Indeed, a global educator can encourage students to take action in response to their new knowledge. For example, educators can divide students into groups to develop social action projects that educate as well as engage others beyond the classroom. In an International Studies class examining human rights and coffee at Indiana University, for instance, students created a petition calling for more fair trade offerings in dining halls, designed a map of local vendors that sell fair trade coffee, produced a radio advertisement for the campus radio station prompting listeners to learn what is in their morning cup of coffee, and distributed brochures and free fair trade coffee on campus. Students participating in such exercises might decide that they can afford to spend more money on their coffee in order to purchase fair trade the next time they are in a grocery store, or they could begin to ask their barista which of the day's coffees are fair trade (or what percentage of the coffee is fair trade). They may seek internships with fair trade organizations, study abroad in coffee-producing regions, or design nonprofit organizations that aim at balancing the inequalities in the coffee commodity chain. Whatever project students decide to pursue or action they choose to take, they will look through their prism to see coffee as a knot, and they will learn to act on this knowledge. They will become connected to the world through their morning cup of joe.

Processing the Image

Global learning pedagogies encourage students and educators to chip away at established categories and epistemologies. Metaphorically, they require students to look at an image and get below its surface. It is not surprising, then, that visual approaches are extremely effective pedagogical prisms for breaking down the boundaries that often lie in the way of global understanding.

While there are numerous explanations for the efficacy of visual methods, a critical reason is because learners who produce images become part of the knotting process. Consider this phenomenon in the context of students learning about human rights, when they are asked to use art as an impetus for social change. Faculty can ask students to select and research a specific human rights issue and then design a visual art piece as a springboard for action and education. (Some students may hesitate at the thought of creating art, but what they can do and what they will learn is often impressive.)

Most critical to this assignment's potential for enhancing global learning is the process it inspires. In conducting research, considering what symbols will best educate and engage an audience, and actually making art, students learn that creating artwork is more about the process than the product. The assignment thus not only teaches students about a human rights issue but reveals how artwork is like a global knot—how while things, like art, may appear stable or cohesive, they are in fact full of cultural and political complexities that are providing them with meaning. The art assignment helps students learn about the social, political, and historical assemblages that comprise human rights, global knots, and students themselves.

Ultimately, visual methods reveal that knowledge is as much about the process of knotting and unknotting as it is about the knot itself (Ingold 2015, 47). Visual methods are thus extremely effective at instilling skills of global and cultural literacy. They encourage learners to step off of their academic verandas and become producers of global knowledge. Social action art projects thus directly challenge yet another worn-out binary, that between learning and teaching—a dichotomy that must crumble for classrooms to become spaces where students actively shift their perspectives and produce global knowledge.

Inspiring Global Action

Educational institutions that want to prepare students for the global challenges of the twenty-first century need to encourage pedagogical creativity. They need to prompt students to dissect complicated global knots, whether by creating artwork or by videoconferencing with a class in Nicaragua to exchange different points of view about US foreign policy or fair trade coffee. Assignments can require students to open their refrigerators and trace the global connections through the food inside, or to work with peers to design interdisciplinary solutions to transnational challenges. No matter what pedagogy is most appropriate for a particular learning environment, global educators should aim to foster global understanding by helping their students see the entire world—through a plurality of perspectives—as a place to which they are firmly connected. By doing so, students will begin to see themselves as complicated knots whose responsibilities span many contexts, far and near. They will learn how to shift between viewpoints informed by cultural idiosyncracies and those rooted in transnational trends. In short, students will go global. And once they do, they will never stop seeing knots through their global prisms—or, ideally, caring about the world and their impact on it.


Ingold, Tim. 2015. The Life of Lines. London: Routledge.

Massey, Doreen. 2004. "Geographies of Responsibility." Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 86 (1): 5–18.

Statistic Brain Research Institute. 2015. "Coffee Drinking Statistics."

Van Balkom, W. Duffie. 2010. "Educational Transformation with a New Global Urgency." Perspectives on Education: Voices of Eminent Canadians 3 (2): 147–55.

Hilary E. Kahn is the director of the Center for the Study of Global Change and assistant dean for strategic collaborations in the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University.

Select any filter and click on Apply to see results