Are International Schools Hotbeds for Top Educator Talent?

International educators are amazing. Okay, so that is a sweeping generalization. I’m sure that we can find enough non-examples to challenge my claim. Nonetheless, I’ve been reflecting on my February trip to Hong Kong and Vietnam, where I had the pleasure of interacting with teachers at Hong Kong International School, Concordia International School in Hanoi (as well as couple other international schools in Hanoi), along with an impressive collection of international school educators from Asia and beyond who gathered in Hong Kong for the 21st Century Learning Conference. It left me considering the idea of international schools as hotbeds for top educator talent.

I’ve spoken at and attended many conferences over the years (well over a hundred), but I’ve never been to an event where educators collectively and individually demonstrated so much engagement, curiosity, and love for their work. It was the antithesis of events like [I originally referenced a specific event here, but decided it was in better taste to leave it out] which, I hate to say, have this subtle but evident intellectual stench of a dying education system. Instead, this conference of international educators was vibrant, inspiring, intellectually stimulating, and had the sweet aroma of hope for the future of education. I wasn’t with them long enough to better understand the impact of their practice, but I can say with confidence that, as a group, they conveyed a level of passion for the profession that was inspiring and heartening.

While I’m sure that some of these schools are grappling with plenty of serious issues, it was refreshing to attend an education event where people were not lamenting the latest external mandate and its implications on their school (although I’m sure that they must have at least some parallel challenges). They were not obsessing about external policy and self-preservation. Instead, they were talking about teaching and learning. As a group, these teachers cared about curiosity and a love of learning. As best as I could tell, they were largely interested in creating world-class learning communities and experiences for young people.

Again, I realize that my limited time in these contexts leaves some of these ideas as conjecture, but I’ve been to enough education conferences to trust my subjective experience to some degree, at least enough to know that the attendees at the 21st Century Learning Conference helped to create a wonderful and positive ethos, one that I would love to see at more education events, conferences, and communities. In fact, the ethos at this event was comparable to the climate at many of the innovative and student-centered learning organizations that I’ve highlighted on this blog over the years.

While it varied from school to school, there was certainly a consistent challenge among many of these international schools. Parents, for example, tend to have high standards for their children academically, wanting them to attend the best higher education institutions in the world. As such, you can find plenty of families interested in the traditional GPA, test scores and whatever else gives their student an advantage in the competitive admission process to these top Universities. At the same time, and I realize this is easier said than done (not to mention a bit presumptuous coming from an outsider), these are parents who are invested in their children’s education. If you can introduce them to the broader range of possibilities in education and the benefits for their children’s future, then you have a potent combination that can launch such a school into the stratosphere when it comes to student engagement and learning.

At minimum, reflecting on this trip and some of the distinctives of these teachers and their communities, I am certain of one thing. If I were starting a new school or I was leading a high-impact and innovative school in the United States, and I wanted to find top education talent, I guarantee you that I would be scanning the teaching rosters in top international schools around the world. I’m convinced that they have a special concentration of teachers with a sense of adventure, a commitment to excellence (in themselves and others), and an openness to trying something new and impactful in the education space.

With regard to the last paragraph, I should be more direct. I know the audience for my blog pretty well. I realize that one segment of my readership consists of many founders and leaders of innovative education organizations and schools. As such, I’m really writing this for you. If you are looking to find top educator talent for your school, check out the international schools.

Beyond Schools as Educational Rube Golberg Machines: Getting Informed About the Possibilities

The best advice that I ever received when it comes to education reform was, “Get informed about the possibilities.” If I do not know what is possible and I do not take time to consider or imagine new possibilities, then there are typically three results:

  1. The Rut – I keep repeating the same practices even when they stop being effective or proper for a given population of students.
  2. Educational Rube Golberg Machine -I adjust my thoughts and practices incrementally, based upon each circumstance and observation, but adjusting practices as needed. There is much benefit to this incremental improvement approach, but there is a danger of turning the learning environment into an intricately complex educational Rube Golberg machine.
  3. Leaf in the Trend Wind – I simply follow the currents of the latest educational trends, regardless of their merit or value for my specific context. For some this is a wonderfully pleasant experience.  For others it is terrifying.  Either way, it is largely unhelpful when it comes to educational improvement.

None of these are likely to result in significant and positive education reform. Other approaches are necessary for that.  I would like to highlight one such approach, learning lessons from comparative education.  Comparative education is a field of study that examines educational policy and practice across different education systems.  This is often done by looking at systems in different parts of the world, but the concept can be applied to studying different systems within a given country or society as well.

Whether you are in higher education, early childhood, public, private, faith-based, non-sectarian, homeschooling, unschooling or some other type of learning context; consider what possibilities might arise by visiting, studying and learning from different systems and approaches. The goal is not necessarily an educational shopping trip, seeking to bring home our favorite items and immediately implementing them.  However, I suggest the following potential benefits.

  1. Possibility Expansion – There will likely be new ideas, approaches, models, and perspectives that shed light on our own work in a given educational context.
  2. Tweaks & Adjustments – We will learn distinct nuanced approaches to current practices in our own learning context.
  3. Heightened Awareness – When we return to our own learning context, we will notice attributes that we took for granted or that remained hidden from us. What was previously a bit blurry might become clearer.
  4. Increased Intentionality and Skill in Strategic Change – We find ourselves growing in our ability to make intentional and systematic decisions in our own context.
  5. Expanded Network – This may also provide a new network of people with whom to brainstorm and collaborate, providing fresh ideas and perspective for our own work.
  6. Clarity of Vision, Values & Convictions – It will help to clarify our own educational philosophy and values. In some instances, these experiences will strengthen our convictions.  In other cases, we might be challenged to adjust our own philosophy. On occasion, a person finds a new philosophy that has deep resonance with their own convictions.
  7. Creativity & Imagination – Some find the inspiration to imagine and contribute to new designs and entirely new types of learning organizations.
  8. The Big Picture – While some might remain convinced that there is one right way to “do education,” most will develop a broader appreciation for different approaches, appreciating the idea that different learners, circumstances and contexts call for different education environments.

This comparative approach does not guarantee that we do the right thing in our own context and community, but it does help us open up to the broader spectrum of possibilities. How does one get started?  I suggest seven starting points.

  1. Search the Web – Get curious and do some searches like “What is education like in China?” or “List of Alternative Schools” or “most innovative schools.”  You will quickly discover an amazingly diverse collection of models.  Visit their web sites and learn from the documents and videos that they offer. Many of us focus our online searches to topics of current interest, connecting with like-minded people.  The goal with this search is to move beyond that, learning from largely or entirely different perspectives. Our goal is not to find people with whom we completely agree, but to learn from diverse experiences.
  2. Contact People of Interest – When you visit a web site, look for contact information and send a message.  Explain your interest in learning more about what they do and see if it is possible to communicate via email, Skype, a Google Hangout, phone.  When you communicate, your main job is to be as curious as possible. Focus upon listening and learning, and avoid sharing your own thoughts and opinions unless they invite you to do so.
  3. Visit Places – When you connect with a person and want to learn more, ask about the possibility of visiting. That is how I usually end up visiting and learning from all sorts of interesting models, and I am continually surprised that I can find a myriad of people and organizations within a few hundred miles of where of I live, less than a one-day drive. I should note that some of the more well-known “outside-the-box” schools gain so much attention that they limit the number of visitors, the times of year for visitors, or they might even charge for coming and learning about their school or program.
  4. Find and Attend Conferences – You can certainly explore comparative or international education conferences, but there are hundreds of niche conferences that focus upon certain perspectives.  In addition, if you have the time and resources, attending an education conference in another country is a great way to learn about different educational environments. The important part is to find conferences that you would not typically attend, ones that represent a group of people or an approach to education that is distinct from what is familiar (or even comfortable) to you.
  5. Read Books – The options are endless, but here are a few to get you started: Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, A World Class Education: Learning from International Models of Excellence and Innovation, The Coolest School in America, Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything, Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in Our Schools.
  6. Look at Education Beyond Schools – This includes home school co-ops, the unschooling movement, camps, summer education events, workshops, community education programs, online formal and informal learning communities. Also look for emerging models like North Star Academy that are not schools in the formal sense, but they are learning communities.
  7. Look Beyond Education – This is where we look at how learning takes place “in the wild”, within work, community, home and elsewhere.  Visit, read about and interview people in start-up companies, research and development centers, medical facilities, technology companies, entertainment and design companies, and social entrepreneurship enterprises.  Look, listen, and learn about how learning takes place in these environments as well as what knowledge and skills people have…what it takes to thrive in these contexts.  There are ample education lessons to glean from such conversations and visits.

I can say from firsthand experience that this sort of exploration promises many insights, lessons, and new relationships.  It is what occupied much of the last seven years of my research, and I can state with confidence that it has been one of most rewarding experiences of my life and work in the field of education.


Cultivating 5 Perspectives on Educational Change & Innovation

5 Perspectives on Educational Innovation

We are in an era of educational experimentation, and it is hard to argue against the fact that the digital revolution fuels much of this experimentation.  Many aspects of traditional schooling are being questioned, some abandoned in search of new possibilities for student-centered, customized, high-impact learning experiences with the hope of equipping students for the unique challenges and opportunities of the contemporary world.  Some, like myself, get excited about this experimentation.  Others are skeptical, exhausted by the seemingly constant influx of new educational trends.  Just when you get comfortable with one, another arrives to replace it.

Wherever one is in this spectrum of emotional or intellectual responses, I am confident that the educational systems of today will not return to the dominant models and metaphors of the recent past.  There have always been educational experimentations, but they have been in the minority for the past seventy years.  Today, educational experimentation is becoming mainstream.

Regardless of where each of us stand on the topic of today’s educational experiments, I suggest that there are six perspectives that have much insight to offer us, insights that will help us to avoid the warnings of William Inge when he wrote, “He who marries the spirit of the age will find himself a widower in the next.”  These are not perspectives intended to slow educational innovation, but ones that have great promise to help us shape the innovations that we choose to embrace.  They may even help us decide which ones to embrace, or inspire us to come up with innovations of our own.

The Historical Perspective

Looking at the history of education allows us to gain new insight into changes and innovations of the past.  Things that we consider central attributes of schooling might turn out to be relatively new when we look at the broader historical perspective.  Grade-based classes, bells, letter grades…these are relatively new.  People still learned before letter grades and traditional schools existed.  They are not the essence of an education.  Similarly, looking at the history of education, we find that today’s innovations are sometimes similar to models and methods of the past.  We also discover that certain aspects of contemporary education do not seem to have an historical equal.  In addition, looking at the history of educational change and innovation, we can learn about why things changed.  We may discover that the changes that we now embrace did not occur to improve student learning.  They may well be innovations of necessity or efforts to increase scale or efficiency.

When I talk about the historical perspective, I am not referring to some broad introduction to the history of education.  For this to have value, it requires historical thinking, asking specific questions and exploring what history can teach us about them.  What is the history of letter grades and report cards? What is the history of distance education (including forms that existed before the Internet)? What about the history of childhood?  Has childhood always existed or is our contemporary notion more of a social construct?  What about the history of grade-based learning, where students study alongside people of their own age?  How old is that? What about the history of the book?  How did that change education?  What other educational models existed in the past?  Asking historical questions give us a depth of insight from which we can experiment or resist certain experiments today, but only if we do this deeply and honestly.  This is not about finding historical ammunition to win our personal educational battles.  For this perspective to help us, it requires us to strive for insight, even if the insights challenge our positions or educational preferences.

The Global Perspective

While some have opportunity to experience different educational systems around the world, many do not.  And yet, reading about, networking with, and visiting educational systems around the world provides us with rich insights into diverse educational models, metaphors, and methods.  Striving to understand these different perspectives offers us a renewed appreciation for some of our own educational traditions as well as those from other parts of the world. We can ask what “education” and “learning” looks like in different parts of the world. Looking beyond school buildings, we can gain new insights into the role of family, community, geography, and culture in education.

The Ethnographic Perspective

Ethnography is a research method that we sometimes use to study cultures, communities and people groups.  It involves cultural artifacts, interviews, and lots of observation…even participant observation.  Ethnographic research is experiential, collecting data with one’s own senses, but also testing one’s perceptions when possible.  Whatever the case, the ethnographic approach to studying education requires that we get out and do some interviewing and observing, asking ourselves and others questions that will allow us to have a deeper understanding of different types of learning communities.  This is the approach that I use to study innovative schools, and I can personally attest to the joy of learning that is possible through these experiences.  It is a great way to get informed about the diverse models of education at work today.  Charter schools are a great place to start, given that many of them have clear and distinct differences (e.g. project-based learning or game-based learning) from other schools.  Of course, not all of us have the time and resources to visit these schools in person, but the digital world gives almost all of us remote access to these people and places. Simply browsing YouTube videos and schools web sites give us a taste of this “ethnographic” learning experience.

The Autobiographical Perspective

Each of us has a learning history (it started with our conception), and exploring that will help us to better understand our own beliefs, biases, values, and perspectives.  Exploring educational change and innovation in view of these learning histories allows us to gain new perspective on some of our moral, emotional and intellectual reactions to the changes around us. This is does not mean that we always need to change our beliefs or values.  It may well be that this perspective grounds us and gives us a sense of where we will and will not budge.  Nonetheless, the examined life of learning has much to offer.

The Scientific Perspective

Biological, psychological, and sociological research today is exciting.  Consider the educational possibilities that emerge from the recent developments in brain research, positive psychology, organizational psychology, and the sociology of education.  These findings give us an opportunity to examine and re-examine schools and education with new understanding.

To what extent do our current systems, structures and methods align with what we know about how people learn?  This perspective invites us to ask new questions.  How can we design schools and learning organizations that respect and/or maximize the design features of our brains and bodies?  How can we cultivate positive strength-based learning communities? How can we use current research in psychology and sociology to create safe schools?  Of course, it is important to remember that research findings are tentative, and premature efforts to apply scientific findings to educational design are dangerous and misplaced.  At the same time, ignoring the blessings of such research is equally mistaken.  That is where comparing and contrasting scientific findings has great promise for shaping educational innovation.  This is no easy task, and the scientific perspective is inadequate on its own.

The Philosophical Perspective

Questions about ethics, truth, and the nature of reality may seem esoteric, but they matter when it comes to education (and pretty much all of life).  There are philosophies that inform the many methods and models at work in education, and ignoring them does not reduce their influence. Ignoring them does risk minimizing both our influence and our understanding of why things are happening the way that they are.

The philosophical lens helps us to develop an understanding of things like homeschooling, religious education, Montessori schools, Waldorf schools, direct instruction, differentiated instruction, the concept of the community public school, the classical education movement, the open learning movement, distance education, and much more. There are philosophies at work in each of these, and simply analyzing educational movements by the sum of their observable parts would leave us with a flawed and incomplete understanding.  Like it or not, we can’t avoid exploring the philosophical side of things.  However, like the historical perspective, it is easy to abuse this, philosophizing to prove our pre-existing positions or educational ideologies.  Instead, consider the benefits of using this perspective in the genuine pursuit of truth.

I’m sure that there are many more perspectives that could benefit our experimentation and discourse about education today, but these are a good start, and I contend that many are critical to pursuing educational innovation of substance and long-term significance. In an age of for-profit education, edtech startups, constant innovation and unprecedented educational experimentation; the field of education desperately needs people who are more than technicians.  We need thinkers and designers who embrace the importance of these five perspectives.

Note: For those of you who come from a faith tradition (I, for example, am deeply proud of the Lutheran distinctives that inform my educational thought), for the sake of this initial proposal, I put that in the category of philosophical perspectives, although I appreciate the argument that a “theological perspective” would be an appropriate and worthwhile addition to the list.