A pioneer educator

As the IB celebrates its 50th anniversary, we speak to Chancellor Stephen Spahn, who shares the same milestone, about how an innovative mindset is key to a school’s success.

The average tenure for head of school is four years, but Stephen Spahn, Chancellor of Dwight School, in the US has long surpassed this. He recently celebrated 50 years at Dwight School, which makes him the longest serving head of an independent school in the US, and he has achieved a great deal over the years.

Dwight School in Manhattan was the first school in the Americas to offer the IB continuum, and it has since built campuses all around the world (London, Seoul, Shanghai and Dubai, which is opening next fall) all of which offer IB programmes.

It also operates the Dwight Global Online School, which offers real-time digital IB classes, as well as residential experiences. It is aimed at eliminating economical and geographical barriers to accessing an IB education.

Here, in his 50th year as Chancellor at Dwight School, Spahn talks about his education philosophy and hopes for the future, and why he believes the IB gives a framework and purpose for innovative thinking.

 

Please tell us about your education career.

Stephen Spahn (SS): I grew up in a family of educators – my father was a headmaster and my mother ran a girls’ camp. I studied at the University of Madrid and Dartmouth College, where I won a 1926 service scholarship to the United Nations and worked on different projects, including locust eradication in Africa.

This led me to develop a philosophy, which I call ‘spark of genius’.  So much can be achieved if we ignite an individual’s passion to do something to change the world. This has become my mantra and Dwight is dedicated to igniting the spark of genius in every child.

I’ve been at Dwight for 54 years, and I’ve been Chancellor for 50 years, which parallels the development of the IB. I oversee all five Dwight schools around the world and work with individual heads on the executive leadership team.

My father was my mentor and guide, and he was the reason I moved up in my career so quickly. In 1967, I was assisting the former Dwight headmaster, and he said to me in June that year: “you’re taking over”. The rest is history.

 

What has kept you at Dwight School for so long?

SS: When you know the history of an institution you are able to mine the best of the past with the present and create a better future. For me, that’s very rare in education as the average tenure for a head of school is four years. But Dwight is able to do things that other schools are limited in as we have the nearly 150 years experience and knowledge, and are therefore accomplished enough to know where we want to go.

 

What do you consider your greatest achievements to date?

SS: Being a pioneer for the IB. We were the first school in the Americas to offer the IB continuum. We were also the 48th and 49th schools in the world to offer the IB. We took the ‘spark of genius’ philosophy and applied it to all our schools.

We have also been able to create a campus in the cloud – the Dwight Global Online School, which gives students a chance to participate in the IB, digitally in real time.

Probably the most important achievement is our Innovation 2.0 initiative, which asks: “What is the teacher of the future going to look like?” We use ‘Spark Tank’, our incubator designed to nurture innovation, as a testing ground to answer this question.

We’re still on the frontier, looking at what approaches can enhance education within an IB framework, and we are working to discover how to create interdisciplinary studies so that we don’t silo education. 

 

What would you say has been the biggest change in education in the past 50 years and why?

SS: There’s a great quote that says that the teacher has moved from the ‘sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide on the side’. Project-based learning and the inquiry methodology have opened up new windows. The great evolution has been in tapping into peer-to-peer instruction under a framework that allows for increased knowledge to be acquired and discussed. Students have become forward thinking instead of backward leaning, and educators have moved from working as individuals to a collaborative team, and from a rigid schedule and programme to an adaptive one.

The IB’s first Director General, Alec Peterson’s vision of schools without borders has become a reality due to globalization. We have a mobile population that can go anywhere.

 

What are the biggest challenges that education faces today and how can schools overcome them?

SS: There are several major challenges. The first is to overcome the silos of the disciplines; we now need more interdisclipinary work as technology is being applied.

The second area is how to make online learning effective to enhance education. That’s going to bring with it new assessments to measure critical thinking. But in doing this, we need to make sure we don’t destroy students’ curiosity. When we look at our own students, we know that 85 per cent of the jobs that they will be taking don’t exist today. There is an urgency to meet the challenge.

‘Cost’ is the most important challenge. We’re trying to address how to reduce the cost of education so that it can become more affordable for all. We’re doing that through blended learning – combining online, classroom and real-life experiences – in our Dwight Global Online School.

 

Why is international education so important in today’s world?

SS: It is important because of the issues of war and peace, global prosperity, sustainability and tolerance. We see that social networks are being abused and therefore it is absolutely critical to have international education that trains students to be able to discern fact from fiction. Students also have to know how to collaborate in teams across cultures and continents.

We also see the questioning of democratic values and the rise of authoritarianism. So we need to show how to tolerate different points of view, which is part of the IB philosophy. People are looking for political solutions and the answer is to have an education that allows for an open mind.

 

How do you think education will change over the next 10 years?

SS: It is going to be about multiple pathways so students pursue combinations of online with more classical classrooms set-ups. They may spend part of the day in school, part of the day in an internship and part of the day learning online.

You will need to have a culture of innovation. A new kind of curriculum will emerge, which combines the best of what we have with CIE (creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship) in all subjects so that students can know what pathways they want to follow.

At Dwight, students are already following their passions. For example, in grade 5 we utilize Google’s inspired Genius Hour – a movement that allows students to explore their own interests and encourages creativity in the classroom. Grade 7 students write business plans and grade 9 test novel ideas. As part of the Spark Tank, students develop their ideas from concept to market launch with guidance from a panel of experts and entrepreneurs.

If I look at education over the next 10 years, we are going to have a new culture of innovation.

 

What legacy do you hope to leave behind?

SS: My students, graduates and teachers are my greatest legacy. In the end, I will be proud to have enhanced students’ learning so that they have the great joy of expanding their minds and following their hearts and imaginations.