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Model United Nations: ‘a world-focused pedagogy’


UN Chronicle, Sept-Nov 2004 v41 i3 p57(2)


Model United Nations: ‘a world-focused pedagogy’. (EducationWatch) Lucia Rodriguez.


Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2004 United Nations Publications


In classrooms across the globe, young people’s eyes must be open to the world and its people. Without appreciating diverse cultures locally and globally, knowing more than one language or understanding multilateral institutions and their work, young people cannot develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to function as citizens of a global community. As national events more often become international concerns, students are inheriting a very different world from what was the case only a decade ago.


Yet, in the United States diverse pressures often obstruct global learning in classrooms. Time constraints, due in part to the rigors of teaching content for standardized tests, prevent educators from covering new or dynamic subject matter. In turn, these subjects come to be viewed as strictly “extra-curricular” or worthy only of time after school. Financial constraints also mean that the educational resources available to a classroom on, say, the humanitarian crisis in Sudan or the impact of deforestation on indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin are outdated.


Meanwhile, creativity constraints by which educators find it difficult to teach outside of prescribed methods often result in regimented learning. In many cases, students are encouraged to simply recall facts and figures instead of thinking independently and interpreting information. In turn, international education becomes focused not on global dynamics but on narrow aspects of a nation and its people. If American students learn only to dance Flamenco or cook tapas, would they have acquired the insight needed to understand Spain’s role in global politics? Teaching about the world and its challenges must go beyond giving simple, superficial and isolated bits of information.


Today, educators and students are already engaging in such an innovative content-based, world-focused pedagogy. Through a programme known as Model United Nations, students step into the shoes of ambassadors from UN Member States, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, to debate current issues on the world Organization’s vast agenda.


The students in Model U.N., better known as “delegates”, prepare draft resolutions, plot strategy, negotiate with supporters and adversaries, resolve conflicts and navigate the UN rules of procedure-all in the interest of mobilizing cooperation to combat global problems. Students learn the arts of negotiating, consensus-building and public speaking, and are empowered to compare their rights to those of citizens from other nations. While learning about the world, they are also learning about civics, democracy, citizenship and government, which can result in a lifelong practical understanding of an individual’s place in a country and the global society.


Model U.N. begins with research both on the United Nations and an individual nation. Then after weeks or sometimes months of study, students represent their assigned nation in simulations of UN bodies, discussing problems drawn from news headlines and the UN agenda. These simulations take place during classroom hours in after-school clubs and increasingly in Model U.N. conferences around the world. Each year, schools and other programmes organize over 400 conferences in over 36 countries, with approximately 400,000 students participating.


Almost sixty years ago, during the inception of the United Nations itself, a select group of schools paved the way for organizing Model U.N. activities. With monetary resources and curricular flexibility, these institutions could incorporate the Model U.N. dynamic approach to learning into daily classroom exercises. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the Model U.N. influence grew, reaching almost every continent on the globe. Yet still, the programme’s reach was limited. If it was implemented in public schools, it was often as a component of “talented and gifted” advanced placement or international baccalaureate programmes. Though support for Model U.N. grew, students in many schools remained insulated from the experience. In the United States, the challenge remains one of exposing more students and teachers to the United Nations. Young people in most urban areas live in financially strapped districts, and when global learning is thought of as an “extra-curricular” component to education, it is easy to be dropped when money is tight.


The United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA), a not-for-profit, non-partisan organization working to support the United Nations and encourage active civic participation in global issues, has been for decades a fervent promoter of Model United Nations. By organizing conferences, publishing resources and running international education programmes, the Association gives students and teachers the tools to get the most out of their Model U.N. or global learning experience. But for many years, even UNA-USA materials were not necessarily found in urban public schools–the institutions that most needed innovative ways of teaching about the world.


Then in 2000, UNA-USA began the Global Classrooms programme. Given the constraints of time, money and resources in most public schools, the programme provides concrete methods of bringing international education into classroom experience. Today, students in the United States public school systems of Boston, Chicago, the Districts of Columbia, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City and Tampa are able to participate in Model U.N. free of charge. They receive the UNA-USA innovative curriculum units (on peacekeeping, sustainable development and human rights), along with indepth support and training. They also get an invitation to participate in a culminating Model U.N. conference, where hundreds or even thousands of Global Classrooms students simulate the deliberations of United Nations bodies.


In May 2004, over 2,300 middle school and high school students participated in the UNA-USA Model U.N. Conference held at the Jacob Javits Center and at UN Headquarters in New York City. After two days of negotiation and compromise, they met in the UN General Assembly Hall for closing ceremonies, and the excitement was palpable.


For Priscilla Gonzalez, a 17-year-old student from University Neighborhood High School in New York City, the event boosted her confidence not only in the United Nations but in herself as well. “Model U.N. has been a great new experience for me. At one point, I felt that because I was young, my voice and my thoughts wouldn’t be heard. But because of Model U.N., I now know that I can learn about all these important global issues that are going on.”


Model U.N. can benefit students from all walks of life in a variety of academic settings. And while schools may run the programme for only a few months a year, it often instils in participants a lifelong passion for global knowledge. Sharon Shambourger, a teacher at New York City’s Life Sciences Secondary School, reflected on her experience: “At the Model U.N. conference, my students learned how to listen, reflect on the discussions, and then were brave enough to speak. We now plan on adopting a minefield in the fall [through the UNA-USA Adopt-A-Minefield programme] and have subscribed to the UNA-USA Student Alliance newsletter. We don’t want to be just once-a-year participants in world events.”


It is important to recognize that students today have far more to learn than the traditional three “Rs” of education: reading, writing and arithmetic. Through Model U.N., they are learning the nuances of global decision-making and developing essential skills, as well as an interest in the world body that will continue throughout their lives. If we are to overcome challenges, such as the humanitarian crisis in Sudan, rainforest depletion in South America, and terrorist attacks in Madrid and elsewhere, we must give our students the opportunity to learn about global action on these issues today. And, in so doing, we will have more reason to believe that they can develop their own resolutions in the future.


For further information and to learn more about getting involved, visit or




UNA-USA, the nation’s largest grass-roots foreign policy organization and the leading centre of policy research on the United Nations and global issues, offers Americans the opportunity to connect with issues confronted by the world Organization, from global health and human rights to democracy, equitable development and international justice. UNA-USA also educates about UN work and encourages public support for strong United States leadership in the United Nations. It is a member of the World Federation of United Nations Associations.


Lucia Rodriguez is Vice-President of Education and Model U.N. for UNA-USA and is responsible for coordinating the Association’s many international initiatives.


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