International education: it’s time to think again

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Teachers, and the IB, are going beyond flags and festivals, so how can educators create truly global teaching with a little uncommon thinking?

It was Mahatma Gandhi who provided Aashna Zaveri’s lightbulb moment on international-mindedness. The Grade 11 student at BD Somani International School in Mumbai, India, had been charged with considering what an international education should look like, prompted by the question: “How do we achieve international-mindedness in a school with students from only one ethnic origin?”At a Theory of Knowledge (TOK) forum on a sleepy Sunday morning, Aashna took to the podium and told her classmates and teachers how the father of modern India embodied the ideal her school was striving for: “Gandhi preached ideas that were inspired by Russian and European authors. He passed these ideas on to the educated and uneducated, giving the ideas wings to travel across oceans to new countries. His idea of non-violence didn’t only apply to the situation faced by Indians at the time, but also to one faced by African Americans in the USA – it was an international idea, seeking to be applied globally.”

What Aashna – and the peers who followed her and drew on examples as diverse as Adolf Hitler, Martin Luther King Jr and the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore – were grappling with is arguably the most urgent and philosophically contentious topic schools face: what international education should mean in a world evolving rapidly and unevenly.

International education is an idea that grew, naturally enough, in international schools, where increasingly stateless students needed a mindset and skillset that would equip them to work anywhere, alongside anyone. The old, didactic, Westernized educational structures were too rigid. A new curriculum – often, but not always, an IB programme – and a new type of school were required. Kurt Hahn, the founding father of the United World Colleges and an architect of the nascent IB, saw it producing “young people, strong in their belief in the common cause of the free world”. In the words of the IB mission, they will “help to create a better and more peaceful world”.

But Hahn could not have fully foreseen the perfect storm of global crises the world faces in 2012. Former IB Director-General George Walker, in The Changing Face of International Education, points to sustainability, inequality and complexity as urgent challenges.

Chandran Nair – economist, founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow and author of Consumptionomics – sees the rise of technology, consumption of CO2, over-population and unequal economic growth as burning issues. Education, he says, should strive to “create politically stable economies in which prosperity thrives through better distribution of resources... we have to take a blank sheet of paper and apply everything we know to a curriculum that tackles the problems of society.”

In the face of such pressures, an international education that seeks only to help us better emphasise or avoid conflict with people from different backgrounds cannot go far enough. No wonder Don Gardner, BD Somani’s Principal, talks about the need to supplant the old model of the ‘five Fs’ – festivals, food, fashion, flags and famous people – with a more immersive international education that permeates the entire school experience.

The IB demographic has changed rapidly, too, to the extent that Walker says fewer than one in eight IB World Schools are formally designated ‘international’ and more than half are state-funded public schools. Ironically, but understandably, ‘international’ means something very different to a class in rural Alabama than it does to their counterparts in the heart of Tokyo.

“It’s irrelevant where you come from – if you have access to a good education, you can participate globally,” says Siva Kumari, COO of the IB’s Schools Division. The challenge, she adds, is to “create students who are well-rounded, good thinkers who can persist and adapt to change wherever they may end up contributing intellectually”. This task is exercising the IB, its schools and external stakeholders. It takes in the way schools are organised, specifics of the curriculum, community activities and pedagogical philosophy. It must sidestep what Nair calls the “intellectual trap” of imposing a Western model of education (and Western aspirations) onto the fastest-growing populations of India and China. But can the task ever truly be said to have been completed?

Bigger and better

“We’re trying to infuse content that encourages students to think globally,” says Robert Harrison, Curriculum Manager Continuum Development who helps to coordinate global engagement across IB programmes. As What is an IB Education? – a new resource that explains the IB’s philosophy of education and attempts to place international-mindedness in a wider context – puts it: “Education for international-mindedness relies on the development of learning environments that value the world as the broadest context for learning”. In the coming months, this will be made reality through a range of materials and initiatives that will affect every school, and every student.

One of the most visible, and significant, changes is the introduction of the World Studies Extended Essay in the IB Diploma Programme. This new, inter-disciplinary option draws on at least two subjects and allows students to apply their learning to overarching global issues, while encouraging local knowledge and personal philosophy to be articulated too. At the International Academy in Detroit, USA – a public school that piloted the new course from 2010 – students explored everything from Iraqi women’s experiences with immigration to the differences in the response to tsunamis in India and Thailand.

“It’s given students the opportunity to focus on an issue of global importance and feed it into their interdisciplinary studies,” says IB Coordinator Eric Strum. “Eight students did the pilot, but it’s proved so popular we may have over 100 next year.” The option has now gone mainstream, and Strum sees it as a vital tool to expand horizons: “By focusing on local questions, students can then broaden it out to international relevance. For example, Detroit is crumbling from within, so one student explored the concept of urban architecture, which has larger implications around the world.”

Across all programmes, inter-disciplinary opportunities to explore international issues are being actively promoted. Global connections are being increasingly facilitated through Areas of Interaction in the MYP, trans-disciplinary themes in the PYP and Diploma Programme curriculum guides. A number of Global Contexts are now being introduced to help teachers turn major challenges (from Conflict to Rights) into classroom practice across all three programmes, with easily accessible teacher briefs on each Context providing inspiration and practical examples. This complements Global Engage, the IB-wide overview of international challenges, and the way that schools respond to them.

These initiatives aim to stimulate specific action, but the bigger, whole-school picture is just as important. As Judith Fabian, the IB’s Academic Director, puts it: “International-mindedness isn’t a separate course or lesson. It’s everything. It’s how you teach maths, English, economics. Students will tell you the IB teaches you to think differently. IB graduates always say that when they studied IB history, it was the first time they had to write in the third person – to write about America, for example, as ‘they’. Suddenly they found themselves studying world history.”

Regent’s International School in Pattaya,Thailand, is just one school that has been re-examining its place in the world. “We are a bubble – any international school is,” says Assistant Principal Paul Crouch. “We are privileged and well-resourced. We want our students to realise they are in this bubble, to embrace different nationalities, not just think of themselves as westernised. In the classroom, all disciplines are encouraged to integrate internationalism into planning.”

The school has introduced a Global Citizenship programme for every age group, with awards handed out at every key stage. In nursery classes, this might take in respect for other’s feelings or the confidence to explore different cultures. For Diploma Programme students, it includes involvement with Amnesty International projects and setting up sustainable community initiatives.

“We work very hard to integrate internationalism into all the subjects that we teach,” says Lori Fritz, MYP Coordinator at Southbank International School in London. “When I did a science module on light and vision, we looked at the shortage of glasses around the world, and collected and sent lots of old pairs to countries in need.

“When we plan our units, we are careful to have a balance of different issues and countries – we are not Eurocentric. Even though we study what happened in World War I, for example, we also have a unit about the history of Africa so students get a more rounded view.”

Chris Charleson, Head of Sotogrande International School in Spain and Chair of the IB Heads Council, says formal citizenship programmes are useful but strong leadership is the decisive factor: “I worked in a school in Argentina where 90 per cent of staff and students were Argentinian, but it was one of the most internationally minded schools I’ve been in. It’s not about your nationality or your experience. It’s about incorporating and embodying Learner Profile principles. It’s about ensuring there is a structure that allows students to be aware of what’s happening across the globe, and experience it first hand.

“Kurt Hahn said that putting a Jew and a German together on a school trip would do more for world peace than any international summit, and to some extent that’s true. But you have to go beyond that and examine what is happening in the world around us. What impact does the financial situation in Europe have on Asia? What does nuclear meltdown in Japan mean in the US? The IB is a very good starting point, and it gives you the basis for a global perspective, but you have to be prepared to take it a bit further.”

Charleson says CAS and other community activities are the place where internationally minded theory becomes reality – and students must take the lead. Sotogrande set up a school in rural Uganda in consultation with the local community, and also runs a micro credit scheme enabling Ugandan students to earn money for their education by recharging mobile phones. “We talk about the school in Uganda being part of our community,” says Charleson. “They just happen to be in a different location to us.”

“International schools have a head start as there is an existing network out there. But there’s no reason other schools can’t take the same approach,” says Iain Sachdev, IB Diploma Programme Coordinator at the International School of Milan and a key figure in the Global Issues Network (, a worldwide community of internationally minded schools from different backgrounds. “It can be hard for a school in the UK to find a school in China to work with, but they can do it.”

Harrison sees schools approaching community activities in a more immersive way, rethinking the traditional donor/receiver model. “There’s this idea that schools have to go off somewhere,” he says. “But lots of good projects don’t involve that. Every global challenge has a local manifestation. You don’t have to go to Cambodia to deal with poverty. You can deal with it in your own community. But you need to understand that local poverty is linked to poverty in Cambodia.”

Joined-up thinking

There are undoubtedly challenges ahead – and many ideological issues to be resolved before a cohesive model for international education emerges. These include the role of national identity in the classroom – a topic that creates intellectual tension even between like-minded educators – and what Nair describes as a disconnect between subjects: “We can’t teach people that conditions for some people in India are terrible, and have a ‘do good’ class, then go back to economics class and everything is alright again.”

For Charleson, “global education” may be a more suitable term than international education. That reflects the changes in the world around us, and the increasing sense that schools cannot exist independently of local, national and worldwide contexts. Still, he points out that despite pedagogic upheaval, the most important changes are the subtle shifts schools are able to make in the way their students see the world.

“In the past, international-mindedness was just something that happened in international schools,” says Charleson. “Today, we live in a more internationally conscious society. Alec Peterson [the first IB Director-General] said education needs to define our place in the global society. That seems more appropriate today than ever.”

For more on Global Contexts, including the teacher briefs, please visit the OCC ( For more on Global Engage, visit