International dimension vital for development of national education institutions: Weeratunga

Saturday, 15 November 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

International schools present certain implications for planners and administrators to evaluate the attractiveness of our own national education institutions and their shortcomings to meet the global demands today, said Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunga, delivering the keynote address at the Second International Conference for Heads of Schools, organised by the International Schools of Sri Lanka, on 7 November in Kandy. “Particularly because, in most developed countries, Government-run schools are now required to add an international dimension to their curriculum,” he further said. Addressing the conference, he said some parents choose international schools over the national education system because they are unable to find a place at a national school of their choice. Secretary Weeratunga said that the main attraction international schools hold for Sri Lankan parents to select them over the national education system for their children is their foreign curricula such as Cambridge, Edexcel and in some cases the International Baccalaureate system. “Some schools offer parts of Sri Lankan national curriculum, while many offer a choice of local languages. One motivator to enrol children in international schools is most often the prospect of an English medium education. English has come to be widely accepted and valued as the world’s dominant language and many parents cannot be faulted for seeking international schools which are more capable of imparting an English medium education than the national education system,” Weeratunga added. “Associated with this is the notion that an English medium education will provide a competitive edge and make the path easier for their children to pursue higher education overseas,” He added. Following is the keynote address by Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunga, at the Second International Conference for Heads of Schools on 7 November:

  First, let me thank Dr. Harsha Alles for inviting me to be with you this evening to be the keynote speaker. At the outset, I wish to pay my tribute to my teacher, my mentor and of course a giant in the field of education, be it in the state school system or in the domain of international schools in our country. And that’s none other than the late Ralph Alles, founder Principal of D.S. Senanayake Vidyalaya and Gateway International School, both excellent education institutions. I am certainly very happy to be amongst this galaxy of stars in the education sector whose contribution to the realm of education has been enormous.  

Genesis of international schools

In my address, I will first try to give a brief worldview on the genesis of international schools because I think it has had an interesting evolution. I will then speak about the reasons for its expansion in recent times. And finally, I would like to discuss a little at length, in a general context, of what we can anticipate our future education systems to look like, and what both international schools and State or Government schools can do to manage these changes. The origins of the first international schools were associated with the regular migratory process of people with their children from one country to another. Mostly, these were diplomats, employees of multilateral organisations and transnational conglomerates, military personnel serving overseas and expatriates who did not want to leave their children behind in boarding schools in their native countries. At the same time, in their host countries or their new ‘homes’, they desired their children to learn and grow up in a culture or education system similar to that of their native countries. The schools that originated to cater to these demands are what one would term as the “traditional types of international schools”. While it is difficult to pinpoint when exactly the first international school started, researchers argue for two potential candidates. Could it be the Meseru English Medium Preparatory School which was founded in Lesotho in 1890 for children of missionaries, officials and traders of the then British Administration – and by the way, this school is still in existence today – or is it the International College at Spring Grove in London, which existed between 1866 and 1899? There is some debate there. In any case, there is something of interest about the latter. Among the persons who mooted the idea of the International College at Spring Grove was also the great novelist Charles Dickens. Dickens and others believed that a number of international schools in Europe can cater to pupils from different countries in such a way that “the pupils, in passing from one language and nation to another, would find no notable change in the course of study to retard the progress of their education”. He notes that while the school will have boys from different countries and different creeds, individual nationality would not be lost. More aligned with today’s international schools is the International School of Geneva that was set up in 1924 with three teachers and eight children of the expatriate community who started serving in the International Labour Office and the League of Nations. In the same year, the Yokohama International School was established with one teacher and six children from Yokohama’s expatriate community.  

“Third Culture Kids”

These international schools continued to evolve and grow, even exponentially, especially after the 1950s and the impacts of globalisation. People started to increasingly criss-cross country boundaries. As the number and reach of multilateral organisations, international NGOs, and transnational companies grew, people of different nationalities and expertise were required to work in different locations around the world. Their employment abroad was often incentivised with contracts providing separate allowances to educate their children accompanying them abroad, which also gave rise to a new phenomenon – the TCKs. TCKs – some of you may know what the term means – are “Third Culture Kids” or children who have accompanied their parents in their global travels and have grown up for a significant period moving between cultures. I believe some explanation is needed here for those who are not familiar with this term. This is a term coined in 1950s. When children who come from their native homes (or first) culture move to a host (or second) culture, they form a culture, or lifestyle, different from either the first or second cultures. This is the third culture. Anyway, with a significant proportion of a globally-mobile population, the incidence of the Third Culture Kids is growing exponentially, and so is the demand for an appropriate system of education for them.  

Ideology-driven international schools

While most international schools are market-driven, there are also some ideology-driven international schools founded on the notion of inculcating “international mindedness” of young people, foster world peace, global environmental awareness, social responsibility etc. These two categories, i.e. the market-driven schools and the ideology-driven schools, are however two extremes of a spectrum, along which all other different international schools can be placed, according to their own philosophy and administrative and governance structure. It is difficult to precisely define an international school as many have grown as individual institutions, except in the case of particular groupings of international schools with shared philosophies and administrative structures. What is common to all these schools though, is that they typically cater to expatriate children, in an environment where no other alternative education service is available, functions outside the national schools system, and are fee-levying. Although traditional international schools catered exclusively to the needs of the expatriate community, they also became increasingly attractive to host country nationals primarily because of the perception of education as an international commodity and the growing dominance of English as the main international language. Hence, today there are many countries in the world that have international schools which offer English medium education curriculum to a significant number of host-country nationals. You will see quite often that these children are from affluent families with parents wanting to see their children progressing to higher studies in American or European universities.  

Recent demand for international schools

I would now like to briefly touch on the factors that may be responsible for the recent demand for international schools. As I mentioned earlier, there is a global trend for international schools to grow exponentially due to various reasons. The demand by the expatriate community is not the sole reason, as we can see in Sri Lanka. They offer other attractions as well. It may be also due to the fact that international schools have succeeded to a considerable degree to change the earlier perception of education merely as a nationally-delivered, nationally-focused commodity. Many of Sri Lanka’s international schools provide an international education with due consideration also given to local cultural and traditional sensitivities, making them appealing for host country parents. In the local context, I believe that while there is quite a number of TCKs enrolled in our international schools, there is also a higher number of “Returnees” (by whom I mean those children who return to their home country after some years in international schools abroad), and perhaps a greater number of “Host country nationals” who have not lived or studied in a foreign country prior to attending an international school in their own country. I don’t think anyone had compiled a composite report so far, of the number of international schools in the country and the numbers of children from the expatriate community, returnees, and host country nationals. But it is a safe bet to assume that host country nationals dominate the student profile in these schools. But this is a trend that is common now in many countries, especially countries which do not speak English as their main language. What is the attraction that international schools hold for Sri Lankan parents to select them over the national education system for their children? Most of our international schools offer foreign curricula such as Cambridge, Edexcel and in some cases the International Baccalaureate system. Some schools offer parts of Sri Lankan national curriculum, while many offer a choice of local languages. One motivator to enrol children in international schools is most often the prospect of an English medium education. The English language has come to be widely accepted and valued as the world’s dominant language and many parents cannot be faulted for seeking international schools which are more capable of imparting an English medium education than the national education system. Associated with this is the notion that an English medium education will provide a competitive edge and make the path easier for their children to pursue higher education overseas. A second motivation would be the international dimension of the programs offered. Many parents are mindful that the future adults will need to learn to cope beyond their national boundaries if they are to succeed in an increasingly globalised and competitive environment. Traits such as easy adaptation to multi-cultural, multi-national settings, outward looking perspectives, awareness of global matters etc are being valued as good candidate material for high paying jobs. Hence the early training for an “international mindedness” is a good step in that direction. These are not features usually found in our national education system. But there is another very important factor why some parents choose international schools over the national education system. Ironically, it is because they are unable to find a placement in a national school of their choice. As you know, today, there is a stringent procedure and a fierce competition to gain access to what are called “popular government schools” or for that matter popular private and assisted schools. For many parents from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds who fail to clinch a top notch government, private or assisted school, the international schools present the next best alternative. I know several families who have opted for this course of action, and this may indeed be a reason for the high number of “host country nationals” entering our international schools today. This may be very well for the international schools, but it presents certain implications for us as planners and administrators to evaluate the attractiveness of our own national education institutions and their shortcomings to meet the global demands today. Particularly because, in most developed countries, government-run schools are now required to add an international dimension to their curriculum.  

The education system of tomorrow

During the third part of my address, I would like to dwell on the changes that we may anticipate in our education system in the future, applicable in the context of both the international and national education systems, and how we may successfully manage them. So what are the trends that are changing the face of the education system of tomorrow? Where is our education heading to? Needless to say, much of the trends will be due to technology impacts, and a very obvious expectation is that many of our children and our schools will be considerably technology-oriented in the future. Today’s children have become a generation of “digital natives”, armed with tablets and smartphones which never seem to detach themselves from their handlers. Only a few days ago, I came across a news article that five-year olds in European schools are being taught computer programming in their schools to prepare them for future labour markets! In British schools, coding is now part of the new national curriculum for kids aged five and above. According to this report, the British government wants to ensure “that all pupils can understand and apply the fundamental principles and concepts of computer science”. Coding in the UK is also seen as a tool to make pupils think more creatively. Five to seven-year-olds will be taught what algorithms are and how they are implemented as programs on digital devices. They will also be taught how to create and debug simple programs and they will learn to use logical reasoning to predict the behaviour of a program. European Union has already backed the introduction of coding in schools to enable children in the EU to work successfully in the digital era. So as you can imagine, at the rate of expansion of ICTs, even in less advanced countries, one can expect more classroom work to be organised around computers, internet-based research, video presentations, eBooks and apps, online learning, open-source learning and so on. The impact of many of these trends on education and learning is monumental. The cloud is driving a significant increase in the blending of informal and formal learning. Students are taking control of their learning, at their own pace. The open-source movement has made information readily accessible to students free of charge. Websites such as Khan Academy that offers a wide range of learning resources via YouTube video tutorials at no cost are immensely popular among the student community. So is Wikipedia, one of the earliest open-source sites, despite many doubts cast on the credibility of its contents, it remains one of the most visited sites. Incidentally, I am made to understand that even prestigious institutions such as Harvard and Georgetown are now creating coursework for students out of editing Wikipedia entries. In fact there are attempts underway to establish Wikipedia as a more trusted source. Later in my address, I want to deal with the content that appear in the Wikipedia. Even in Sri Lanka, we have open source Learning Content Management Systems such as “e-Thaksalawa” launched by the Ministry of Education. So there are many new avenues open for the student to acquire new knowledge, learn problem-solving, go through the curriculum at their own pace, and have more control over their own education.  

Student-teacher relations

The information empowerment of students through technology brings a new dimension to the student-teacher relations. On the one hand, no matter how sophisticated the technology will be, I believe they could never replace great teaching! While acknowledging the potency of technology to influence learning, a student will never quite do without the human interaction of an onsite teacher as a role model to inspire and build trust. In educational terminology, the word Androgogy is used to label the teaching of adults. Even adults need a teacher for effective learning. Virtual learning and cyber models can only go so far. So in my thinking, the image of the teacher physically present in the classroom during learning, interacting with the student is not going to simply go away (at least not in the near future anyway!). As one British school teacher who is a very staunch supporter of ICTs in the classroom said: “It wasn’t the device that made the learner smarter. It was the teacher and student that improved attainment. The technology just serviced the journey. Therefore, it could be said that technology and bad teachers have no impact and little scale, whereas technology and great teachers have the ability to help the learner achieve their full potential”. On the other hand, one may note that technology is there not just to stay, but it will always be one step ahead of what a teacher can potentially offer a student to fulfil his learning needs. Not all teachers are ready to embrace using ICTs in the classroom. However much one may hesitate to admit it, there is a feeling of a subtle battle between the teacher and the technology to win the student over. Both of these are equally powerful forces, and it is the complimentarity between the two that will have a beneficial outcome for the student. Therefore, it will be necessary for the teacher to change his typical role and become more of a guide or a facilitator to the students. Is it a good thing? I think so. Technology has become so pervasive that it is no longer in the power of the teacher to confine the space and the limits of the student to venture out there, explore and make discoveries on his own. In fact, it must be encouraged. And of course in the process, the teachers themselves have to take the challenge head-on to improve their ICT savviness and exploit ICTs to hone their own knowledge and teaching skills, to adapt to a technology environment to properly guide their students. Teachers can plan ahead as to what type of technology can aid the learning of students in a particular class and it will best be used in the classroom. Technology has other impacts on the future direction of education. Schools will have to be more competitive and offer more choices. They will also need to be more accountable as technology will enable a readily accessible flow of information to make judgments on the school’s performance.  

Fostering student creativity

Having touched on the changing face of our education, driven more often by modern technology than anything else, what can we do to inspire our children to be active learners, with an enthusiasm and passion for discovery and knowledge? I briefly spoke earlier on the need for teachers to embrace using ICTs in the classroom to aid the student’s progress. There are other ways too, such as fostering student creativity. James Kaufman, Professor of Educational Psychology who is well known for his research on creativity, together with Ronald A. Beghetto speak of five insights that can help educators nurture student creativity in ways that enhance academic learning. The first is the one I find most interesting: “Creativity Takes More Than Originality” How would you identify one of your students as “being creative”? Is it if he or she displays “thinking out of the box” patterns or “when he or she is being imaginative or original”? Not quite yes. Because according to scholars, creativity involves the combination of originality and task appropriateness. The originality part, one can understand, but it is the task appropriateness that does not get across directly. Prof. Kaufman states that teachers who understand that creativity combines both originality and task appropriateness are in a better position to integrate student creativity into the everyday curriculum in ways that complement, rather than compete with, academic learning.    

Critical thinking

I want to add another dimension to learning. In a book I am reading, ‘The Organized Mind” authored by Daniel J. Levitin, a New York Times best-selling author, who is the James McGill Professor of Psychology & Behavioural Neuroscience at McGill University in Canada, there is one entire chapter, titled, ‘What to teach our children, the Future of the Organized Mind’ dedicated to education of our children, which I find quite enlightening. Levitin discusses the role of Wikipedia – and also the problem it poses – ‘lack of respect for expertise.’ He quotes one Wikipedia commentator, “why would an expert bother contributing his valuable time to a project that can be ruined by any random idiot on the Net?’ He argues that we have a collective mission in training the next generation of citizens. ‘This has to be what we teach our children: how to evaluate the hordes of information that are out there, to discern what is true and what is not, to identify biases and half-truths, and to know how to be critical, independent thinkers.” In short, according to Levitin, the primary mission of teachers must shift from the dissemination of raw information, to training a cluster of mental skills that revolve around critical thinking. Talking about critical thinking, I am reminded of what Educational reformer and former University of Chicago President Robert M. Hutchins observed: “When we listen to the radio, look at television and read the newspapers we wonder whether universal education has been the great boon that its supporters have always claimed it would be.” Perhaps, we would be better off if we took the advice of Mark Twain, who said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” According to John C. Maxwell, “The problem with most educational institutions is that they try to teach people what to think, not how to think. Contrary to what Francis Bacon said, knowledge alone is not power. Knowledge has value only in the hands of someone who has the ability to think well. People must learn how to think well to achieve their dreams and to reach their potential.”  

Credibility of information

One of the things that experts spend a great deal of their time doing is figuring out which sources of information are credible and which are not, and figuring out what they know versus what they don’t know. These two skills are perhaps the most important things we can teach our children in this post-Wikipedia, post-Google world. Some of these are today taught in law schools and graduate schools. Interestingly, in previous generations, they were taught in the secondary schools, from Grade 6 -12. For example, during a court case, a judge, jury and the lawyers for both sides must decide what to admit into the court, and this is based on considerations such as the source of the information, its credibility, whether or not a witness possesses the necessary expertise to make certain judgements, and the plausibility of an argument. These are identified by some cognitive neuroscientists as foundational concepts and habits of mind. These are mental habits and reflexes that should be taught to all children and reinforced throughout their secondary school and university education.  

What else must we teach?

What else? Levitin argues that we must teach and guide our children to be conscientious, and agreeable, to be tolerant of others, to help those less fortunate than they. In a wide ranging discourse that can craft a very scientific methodology to guide our children in these traumatic times, where an information overload causes stress from a very young age in our children, this book presents a cogent argument that as soon as a child is old enough to understand sorting and organising, it will enhance his cognitive skills and his capacity for learning if we teach him or her to organise his or her own world. Being organised and conscientious are predictive of a number of positive outcomes even decades later, such as longevity, overall health, and job performance. Another important skill to teach, as per Levitin, is to think about numbers logically and critically, and enable querying and verification. The goal of these skills is not to see if the number you have encountered is exactly correct, but only to see if it is approximately correct – that is, close enough to be plausible. Just to understand the order of magnitude.  

Lifelong learners

Finally, I want to emphasise the critical importance we should attach to teaching our children to become lifelong learners, curious and inquisitive. They must be given the freedom to make mistakes, to explore new thoughts and ideas outside of the ordinary – divergent thinking will be increasingly necessary to solve some of the biggest problems the world confronts today. Concluding my address tonight, I want to leave a message which I borrowed from Daniel J Levitin: “We must teach the next generation of citizens of the world, the capability to think clearly, completely, critically and creatively.” That should be the mission for all of us gathered here tonight. My best wishes are with you in this Herculean task.