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The Global Citizen Diploma and The Rest of the Story: Discovering the Value of a Narrative Credential for Students, Schools and Universities

by Damien Pitter, Global Coordinator, Global Citizen Diploma, and the local GCD Coordinator at Yokohama International School

Introduction by Jane Larsson, Executive Director, Council of International Schools

One of the recurring themes of my conversations with school leaders often centres on a genuine desire to figure out a way to portray the unique experiences of international school students within their university applications. At the same time, our university admission members are dealing with an ever-increasing number of student applications, while the number of places for these students often remains the same. Measures designed to predict academic success ease the filtering process for many institutions while frustrating school leaders who believe these same filters are preventing universities from the chance to learn more about the unique qualities of their students.  

Last year, we learned of the creation of a Global Citizenship Diploma, a narrative credential designed by a small group of CIS school leaders to help their students portray their international experiences and how they view themselves as a result. We invited these school leaders to present on the purpose of the new credential to their peers at our recent Symposia on Intercultural Learning, and earlier to our University Admissions members so we could gain further perspectives on this initiative.

Our university admission members were interested to learn more. Officials who attended the session asked, “What information will be provided to universities that we do not currently get from another source?” “Does the GC Diploma documentation provide new information about a student?”

Let’s hear directly from Damien Pitter from Yokohama International School to tell us more.

The Global Citizen Diploma
First pilot established at Yokohama International School in 2013
GCD Consortium established in 2014, now includes American School of Bombay, Hong Kong Academy, NIST International School and Zurich International School

We recognize that significant learning happens in our classrooms, but also that important learning takes place outside of the classroom and in students’ lives beyond school. The Global Citizen Diploma (GCD) is designed to validate all of the experiences we learn from by allowing students to reflect across their high-school lives and describe their own education.

As a credential, the GCD validates learning experiences and provides an official report of what students have learned, placing the values of global citizenship at its core. It expresses and makes us accountable to our missions and what we stand for as schools. As a mirror, the GCD provides students with the opportunity to reflect on all of their learning and make meaning out of their education, developing greater self-awareness and confidence. As a showcase, the GCD allows students to curate their most profound learning experiences in a public, digital portfolio that tells the bigger story of their learning.

Beginnings: Right Answer, Wrong Question

The Global Citizen Diploma began with the acknowledgement that it was increasingly difficult for our graduates to stand out in an ever expanding pool of international school graduates. We wanted to showcase their international-mindedness, multilingualism, and commitment to service, as well as the individual aptitudes that make each student more than just a number.

To be credible with universities, academics had to be central, and represent a high standard within the curriculum. Yet even as the pilot group of students earned the Global Citizen Diploma with a score of 32 and earned distinction with 38, we sensed that our dependence on those scores made the other values communicated by the Diploma seem less important.

The problem is this: if the records we keep are a diploma (indicating a minimum standard) and an overall transcripted score (indicating a level of achievement), the only way to ‘stand out’ is to get a higher score in a more challenging diploma. As long as we accepted this traditional paradigm, all we could do was raise the bar by creating a diploma that was effectively doing the same thing as other international program diplomas.

We didn’t want to do that. For example, we offer the IB Diploma because we believe in its curriculum framework and rigour. However, we also believe that the IB Diploma provides as much challenge as we can conscionably ask of teenagers, so while our impulse to describe education holistically and narratively was the right answer, ‘standing out’ was the wrong question.

A Paradigm Shift: The Right Question

Rather than ‘standing out’ on a universal scale in a competition to be ‘best,’ we wanted others to see what each student has to offer that is of the greatest value, in order to facilitate the ‘best fit’ between our graduates and their future universities or employment.

With the idea of the GCD as a descriptive diploma that makes students visible as they are, its evolution really began. Eliminating IB scores from the academic criteria made non-IB students eligible. It allowed students who work with learning challenges and on modified programs to earn a diploma that could fully describe their achievements. It allowed us to think about qualitative ways of describing academic growth and achievement.

Instead of thinking about what would stand out to universities, we were able to think about what we most want to accomplish as international educators and approach each criteria with the aim of describing the kinds of people we want our graduates to be.

It became clear that the question the GCD answers is not ‘how can we help our students to stand out,’ but ‘how can we help our students to be seen?” The greatest value of the Global Citizen Diploma is not in getting students to stand out by doing more, but by providing a way for others to see and value more of what students already do.

The University Piece

The first and most often asked question about the Global Citizen Diploma is, how will it help students get into universities? There is no simple answer.

Universities may ask for a variety of materials including essays and letters of recommendation, in addition to transcripts or projected score reports. The GCD provides a new piece of information that isn’t already part of the well-established process. Understanding how the GCD can best be used in the workflow of application review will take some time.

However, in the five years since we drafted the GCD, we have seen evidence that the climate of university admissions is shifting towards a similar paradigm. Last year, Inside Higher Ed reported in, “Beyond the Transcript,” that the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers is exploring ways of documenting and reporting competencies, “including what is gleaned outside of the traditional academic classroom” (Fain), stating the concern that “the current approach to transcripts ‘only tells a fraction of the story’” (Fain). With the value of such a credential being seen on leaving university, we hope that its value will also be seen in the admissions process.

In Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions, the Making Caring Common Project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education recommends valuing the following in college admissions: meaningful, sustained community service; authentic, meaningful experiences with diversity; and ethical engagement with others across race, culture and class. These values lie at the core of the GCD.

The Turning the Tide report is supported by the Board of Directors for the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, who are introducing a new application process. Part of this new application is an online locker that allows students to collect materials useful to the application process, starting in grade 9. The idea of students grooming themselves for university as early as grade 9 has raised concerns, but the GCD portfolio encourages authentic reflection on current learning, rather than anticipating the university admissions process. Regardless, it is encouraging that some universities are seeing the potential that a four-year learning portfolio might offer in terms of insight into a student’s experience, thinking and attitudes.

Informal feedback from admissions representatives has been positive about the information provided by the GCD. A number of universities that do not accept written recommendations told us that they would like to know if applicants had earned the GCD and expressed interest in looking at students’ GCD showcases. Some have suggested that the qualities represented in the GCD are the qualities they hope to see in their applicants and one suggested that the GCD framework is equivalent to what their students complete over a four-year degree. Other admissions representatives have liked that participation in the diploma is optional, thus self-selecting the most self-directed and authentically engaged learners in our schools.

To get more formal feedback, we invited Daniel Grayson to bring his years of experience in university admissions at Tuft’s University to an analysis of how the GCD might be understood and used in the American application process. Based primarily on Mr. Grayson’s feedback, we plan to release a revision of the diploma that will clarify some elements of structure and language for easier use in admissions.

Anecdotally, graduates who have applied to UK universities have been asked about their GCD portfolios in interviews. One Australian university is exploring the possibility of offering the GCD as a credential for their Foundation Year program. Quest University in Canada has appreciated the values represented in the GCD sufficiently to offer a scholarship of $10,000 per year for four years to GCD graduates who meet their other admissions criteria.

How universities use the GCD in admissions is an ongoing conversation, but the thing we know is that universities will never be able to see our students through the stories we do not tell about them.

Learning From Students: Diploma Development and the Value of Reflection

The students have been central to the evolution of the Global Citizen Diploma. The process of earning the diploma is a conversation between the students and the GCD reviewers. When students do not meet the criteria, reviewers send feedback suggesting further avenues for reflection. Often, this reflection takes place in person, and the conversations become an exploration of both the student’s experience and the meaning of the criteria. Such exchanges have been central to the articulation and revision of each element of the GCD.

Ultimately, it is the students who have taught us the greatest value of earning the GCD. In exit interviews, we asked GCD graduates if, assuming it had no impact on their university applications, they would choose to earn the GCD again. All of them have said they would. They told us that the greatest value of the GCD was the process of reflection. They were able to synthesize and make sense of their whole education, coming to greater self-awareness and self-confidence, and having a sense of pride in, and gratitude for their learning.

As conscientious educators in a small international school, we pride ourselves on developing authentic relationships with students and knowing them well. But when we started to review their GCD reflections, we began to learn about interests and abilities and attitudes in our students that we hadn’t been aware of. While we had always hoped to make our students more visible to universities, we were somewhat surprised to discover how much more visible they had also become to us.

Professional Conversations in a Global Community

Developing the Global Citizen Diploma has created many opportunities for rich professional conversations about what cultivating global citizenship and intercultural learning mean in the context of international schools.

The Council of International Schools has been supportive of the GCD’s purpose and value, inviting us to make presentations at the CIS Institute in Bangkok and to participate in the CIS Symposia on Intercultural Learning in London and Hong Kong. The symposia in London and Hong Kong helped to frame the GCD in the broader context of intercultural learning. The perspectives gained there will continue to shape the GCD as we move forward. Dr. Dina Mehmedbegovic’s research on the cognitive benefits of multilingualism and Paul Magnuson’s ideas about Language Awareness will help us to refine the criteria for the Communications element of the GCD. We were excited to learn about UNESCO’s Topics and Learning Objectives for Global Citizenship Education, and to consider how the GCD might contribute to the conversation about how global citizenship is measured and certified. The foundations of the design and content of the GCD were reinforced by other ideas raised at the symposia: the importance of each student’s cultural context in international education; the power of autobiography in intercultural learning; definitions of multiculturalism, interculturalism and transculturalism; an in depth consideration of service learning; and exposure to tools like the Intercultural Development Inventory.

Similarly, the annual GCD Consortium meetings have provided opportunities for thoughtful consideration, as leaders from each of the member schools work together to define, revise, challenge and improve the GCD model.

As a result of our conversations about intercultural learning and global citizenship, some of the teachers and administrators working on the GCD began to wonder whether the diploma would have described them when they were students, and as a benchmark of global citizenship, if it described them as adults. Inspired by our students, a number of adults at YIS have begun a pilot project to earn the Global Citizen Diploma as adults.


It is the intention of the GCD Consortium to grow slowly, with a focus on identifying like-minded schools who are actively interested in our collaboration. Each school that joins the consortium teaches us something new about global citizenship and about the GCD.

Based on the contributions of the consortium schools, our consultation with Daniel Grayson and learning from CIS and other conferences, we are developing the next iteration of the Global Citizen Diploma, which we expect to publish for the 2016-2017 school year. The ambitions of the diploma have not changed, but we have found ways to articulate those ambitions in a more intuitive and user-friendly way.

As backward planning suggests, having the GCD in place as a measure of the achievement of our school missions is allowing us to reflect on our practice and be more intentional about cultivating the values of the GCD. At YIS, we will examine how we use reflection in the classroom, and how we might redefine it in order to create a more authentic process and increase student engagement with the thinking and attitudes that the GCD describes.

As the consortium strengthens, we also hope to leverage our collaboration to create learning experiences for our GCD students that bridge the physical and cultural distances between our schools and students.

School is about more than acquiring knowledge and developing skills; learning is about more than school. Education is the process by which animals become people and people become citizens; the product of education is not just intelligence, but character. Our credentials need to reflect that, and we believe that the Global Citizen Diploma offers both a standard to aspire to, and a means of recognizing achievement, whatever the path our students take to get there.

  1. Castle, Chris and Lydia Ruprecht and Theophania Chavatzia. Global Citizenship: Topics and Learning Objectives. UNESCO 2015. Web. Mar 9 2016.
  2. Coalition of Access, Affordability and Success. Coalition of Access, Affordability and Success. Web. 9 Mar 2016.
  3. Fain, Paul. “Beyond the Transcript” Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed. 13 Jul 2015. Web. 9 Mar 2016.
  4. Weissbourd, Richard, et al. Turning the Tide: Inspiring Caring for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions. Making Caring Happen Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education. 20 Jan 2016. Web. 9 Mar 2016.
About the Author

Damien Pitter is the Global Coordinator of the Global Citizen Diploma, and the local GCD Coordinator at Yokohama International School, where he has taught, coached, counseled and coordinated for five years. Japan is the fifth country where he has worked as an international educator. He hopes to earn the Global Citizen Diploma in 2017.

Posted by CIS on Tuesday April, 12, 2016

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