Cambridge day 2: What is an international school?

Today was the official start of the seminar. The day began with the first session with Jonathan Cox, the study group leader for Issues in International Education. Based on the information in the program's brochure I had a sense of what to expect but it's often difficult to truly anticipate in a program like this as it's not a typical conference. My study group has 8 people and the entire programme has 24 in total.

The morning session was largely focused on teasing out the idea of an international school. My group comprises of teachers from Pakistan and the United States of America (Los Angeles, Atlanta, Denver, Baltimore and New York). There is a variation of privileged schools and one teacher from a “turn-around” school with students who are Mexican immigrants and refugees from conflict areas. The group leader has experience teaching in an international school in Singapore. The mixture of the group created an interesting discussion throughout the morning as most teachers were able to share their experiences as well as answer the question What is an international school?

This question led to a discussion about multiculturalism in schools. Most teachers felt that their schools were not reflective of an international school which resulted in a discussion of the definition[1] offered. Most teachers felt that their schools were local schools with a global outlook. This means that most schools are concerned about competing at a global level in order to offer students the best education. This also means that students are often from middle class families who are well travelled (however being well-travelled does not mean one is “an international” or “global” but simply a tourist).

There seemed to be a consensus amongst the teachers that most of the students needed to be challenged about seeing themselves as part of a wider world beyond the school. This meant exposing the students to a curriculum that enables ideas that lend themselves to discussion about other contexts and political changes that are pertinent. The discussion was also concerned with the role of the parents: what role do parents play in creating a school with a global outlook? 

Throughout the discussion I had my school in mind: is it an international school? I decided that it isn’t because the historical context and the current South African context drive certain concerns that result in a school grounded in tradition but concerned about the future of the school within a global context while keeping up with international trends in education. Therefore a local school with a global outlook.  There seems to be a different understanding of internationalisation in schools depending on the context of the school. For example: in Singapore, international schools cater to the expat community and a few local students (mostly because of the language barrier); in Baltimore (a privileged school) internationalisation is mostly aided with relationships developed with schools in other countries; in South Africa internationalisation (largely in a private school) means exchange programmes for the students as well as maintaining academic standards which enable students the opportunity to study further in order to perform with “the best” students across the world.

The session also looked at case studies related to international education. The discussion was focused on making internationalisation practical in schools. The central theme that emerged was about making a distinction between “global education” versus “diversity integration”. The two issues are often seen as overlapping. The former suggests an education that is mindful of global trends in education and challenges students to be mindful of the world beyond their immediate context. The latter suggests that schools need programmes that question the daily life of the school and how differences are dealt with. These differences include sexuality, race, class, language, nationality etc. as well as the relationship the school has with the immediate local community.

Underlying the discussion was the role of the teacher and the end game of all schools: what kind of student should emerge from the school? The role of the teacher was mainly focussed on the curriculum. What kind of content is taught in schools in order to create an engaging environment that will make students “global citizens”? What skills and knowledge do these teachers need to have? The student that was envisaged was one who is a creative thinker who can live and compete in a globalising world.

Tomorrow's discussion will consider the skills needed by a 21st Century learner: which basically looks at a trend thinking about; in light of what the future will look like for current students (very different) what kind of skills should be taught in schools now in order to ensure that students are prepared for a changing world. This is not a new conversation. Thinkers across the world are suggesting that careers, the workplace and even universities are going to look very different in the future and the preparation for that should be happening now.

[1] The working definition (which was constantly challenged) is that an international school does not subscribe to the country’s national curriculum. It usually caters to an expat community and identifies as an international school because of the diversity in nationality in the student body.


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