Scale as an Organizing Principle for Your Global Learning Syllabus
by Dr. Stephanie Doscher
Apr 18, 2020

From this post:

Before we can talk about scale as an organizing principle for your global learning syllabus, I think we need to answer another question first: What do we mean by “global” when we are talking about the process of global learning?

For some, the “global” in global learning implies otherness—learning about how other people do other things in other places. Global can also imply the transnational—learning about problems, topics, and dynamics that transcend national borders.

For me, “global” concerns the whole. Global learning is a process of coming to understand the entirety of a complex phenomenon, a phenomenon that transcends the borders that usually separate people from each other and the world around them.

“Global” also implies the entirety of our planet. This is where scale comes in as a potential organizing principle for global learning.

The complex phenomena that are the subject of our global learning can be observed at different scales of measurement. Some global phenomena are best understood at an atomic scale. Others are more appropriately studied at local or regional levels rather than at the transnational scale.

The best way to help you understand what I mean by scale is to help you see what I am talking about. One of my earliest encounters with scale and global learning occurred at the age of 11 or 12, when I was shown Charles and Ray Eames’ short documentary film, “Powers of Ten.”

“Powers of Ten” influenced my global awareness in several ways. It helped me grasp the concept of scale—that idea that it’s possible to view the same object at different scales of measurement. A thing can be viewed from without or within or in very deep or very broad ways. The film showed me that there are some things we can only see if we view them at a very big scale, and other things can only be perceived if we view them at a very small scale.

Most importantly, the film made me see that there are connections between things happening at different scales. I view these connections as the sticky stuff that creates wholeness and defines what is truly global. When we look at the parts of complex phenomena individually and at different scales, it’s hard to see them as anything but entirely separate. In fact, scale is one of the characteristics that separates disciplines from each other. Microbiologists and chemists are concerned with phenomena that happen at a microscopic scale, while political scientists and economists operate in the realm of the transnational. By using scale as an organizing principle for global learning, teachers can help their students see connections between disciplines and happenings that previously appeared entirely unrelated. And these connections may lead us to more wholistic understandings of complex phenomena and more effective ways of solving complex problems.

An example: the COVID-19 pandemic. Political scientists and economists need to understand how the virus spreads at a microscopic level in order to shape effective local, national, and transnational policies. Microbiologists and chemists need to understand how people and goods travel across geographic borders in order to discern how this unique virus transmits from host to host.

How might a teacher of political science or microbiology use scale to organize a global learning approach to studying COVID-19 transmission? One way would be to use the jigsaw technique.

Divide the class into small groups.
Charge each group with researching virus transmission at a different scale, e.g. microscopic, home, community, state, region, national, international.
After each group has had a chance to build up their scale-specific expertise, regroup students. The new groups should be composed of one member from each of the scale-specific expert groups.
Have students teach each other what they know about transmission at different scales.
The final step: Challenge students to connect what they know. The purpose of connecting will be different for different disciplines, courses, and intended learning outcomes. For example, political science students might connect in order to develop effective national or transnational policies. Microbiology students might apply connections to developing models for clinical trials.
There are many ways that you can use scale to organize your syllabus and to help students connect and combine what previously appeared to be disconnected and uncombinable. I would love to hear how you use scale in your course or discipline. Reach out to me. Feel free to share this post with colleagues you think might find it useful.