A Bold Idea For International Schools

I recently completed a long visit to a well-known, well-respected international school as a finalist for an open position (that I did not get), and at one point, someone asked me what I thought a truly bold idea for schools to pursue might be. There are so many options; a few might be BYOD or 1 to 1 computing technology, social-emotional learning, mindfulness, the Mastery Transcript, public-private partnerships, expeditionary learning, service learning, trans- or interdisciplinary or integrated curriculum, PBL, inquiry, PLCs, diversity work, personalized learning, differentiation, and so on.

Embedded within that list are some bold, sure, yet absolutely essential components of effective education that schools, and the teachers and students within them, should be experiencing every day. Some sound bold, but come with no discernible practice or primarily sound and look good in admissions materials. To be sure, I don’t believe my fellow educators engage in various bold ideas for cynical purposes, but perhaps motivated reasoning or a search for solutions to ill-defined problems lead us there from time to time.

To wit, I responded: “I think our schools should engage deeply with teaching and learning. Just really do the work.” This was what I meant, but was a bad answer. Flubbed, for sure. Allow me to expand.

A truly bold idea for international schools in 2019 is to engage deeply with teaching and learning by rigorously and collectively (within a school) examining and clarifying learning outcomes across their school, by level, by discipline, or by however they organize themselves. Next, teachers themselves must engage in deep inquiry into the learning evidence of their students through dedicated PLCs that look regularly at student workĀ while the learning is still happening. Finally, together and with coaches – administrator, peer, or dedicated instructional coaches – teachers must examine their practice and its effect on learning with an eye to becoming masters of contemporary brain-based learning techniques. That’s bold.

Why it is bold for international schools is a longer answer.

First, while it is hard to generalize about international schools, ~9600 in number globally and expanding at over 7% per year, year on year – my focus here is on the older, more established international schools that rode the wave of post-WWII, arguably post-colonial economic globalization. These schools are under increasing competitive pressure from new schools seeking to fill expanding demand for Western-style education. According to this piece from ISC, “well over 80% of all students now attending international schools are the children of local aspirational parents seeking out for them a reliable pathway to some of the best undergraduate degrees in the world.” As corporate contracts change and fewer expat families fill seats, traditional international schools are becoming more diverse, culturally and linguistically (if not socio-economically), and as more local families are welcomed into these schools, the traditional international school celebrations of multiculturalism around food, flags, festivals, and famous people aren’t meeting the needs of their communities.

Engaging with different cultural expectations of schooling stresses the often warm, easy culture of international schools. All of the value additions of our schools – clubs, sports, trips, service, and so on – that made school beautiful for third-culture kids and made teaching a joy continue to be in demand, but at once harmonize with and create tension with global trends among social elites to secure elite university placements. Kids need to bulk up their resumes with clubs, leadership, and sports, but need high scores in the most rigorous math, science, and language classes. It’s not at all clear to me that international schools that once served mostly expats ecstatic to have free, top-notch education for their kids with all the bells and whistles can quickly pivot to become elite independent schools scattered across the globe for a modest percentage of expat families and 40% or more of aspirational local families whose basic expectations for school may look nothing alike. What seems to happen more often than not is a layering on of ever more offerings, at school and online, to an ever more diverse student body in a well intentioned desire to serve the community. “All things to all people” is not a sustainable model, and it doesn’t honor a truly rich diversity of learners.

So why go deep with curriculum, teaching, and learning? Because no matter the financial pressures and cross-cultural complexities of international schools in 2018, becoming centers of teaching and learning excellence just can’t be bad for business. Also, culturally responsive teaching means teaching brain to brain, using contemporary neuroscience and the psychology of learning to open space for all learners. This is a key point, and can’t really be overstated. Culturally responsive teaching in this sense assumes a foundation of strong, mindful adult-child relationships, but doesn’t seek to silo them into advisories or other narrow structures. CRT acknowledges that real social emotional learning happens while learning, through learning. That alone is probably a bold enough idea for most international schools!

But wait, there’s more! By engaging teachers in rich professional learning communities, international schools have the opportunity to purposefully build community to support teachers through the transition to new countries and to enhance their overall well-being. Deprivatizing teacher practices is not easy, but is powerful. My sense is also that robust PLCs can help provide autonomy within a community structure focused on a school’s mission, as well.

An international school with a clear framework of learning outcomes, standards-based or bespoke, has the potential to clearly know itself and its mission, which makes communicating that identity and mission much easier to a diverse parent community and to potential families. Additionally, engaging with brain-based practices and other basic principles of culturally responsive teaching might allow traditional international schools to drag their model out of the 20th century and into a much more progressive space.

That’s a bold idea that sounds obvious. That’s the school I aspire to work within!