In a wide-ranging conversation, we spoke with Dr Helen Drennen about what motivates her, her experience in education, and her vision of the IB and education’s role in the future.
What drives and motivates you most in your work?
If I reflect on my career in education, which began in the late 1970s, I see that I’m driven by the needs of others, and am motivated to create opportunities for them to address those needs. That begins with students, and then escalates to teachers, parents—everybody in the community involved in education—and now, for me, goes right up to the “systems” level of education.
I’ve always been struck by unfairness and injustice, and I’ve always been motivated by education’s role in creating opportunities to overcome them.
My first-hand experience of the IB and its impact on me (ed: as the IB’s first Academic Director and Regional Director of Asia-Pacific.) was an important confluence of different cultures and educational approaches. My experience of the IB strongly influenced my steps in indigenous education in Australia. After my time with the IB, I returned to Australia with a heightened awareness of culture and language, and its essential importance in shaping a child’s identity. I saw the strong First Nation or First People culture of the first Australians, which was an oral tradition. But Western education is overwhelmingly based on written culture. I was struck deeply by the unfairness and injustice, because it wasn’t a gap in the indigenous students that needed to be filled —I have never had a deficit model in my head that these children lacked something—I always knew, and again this is the impact of the IB, that they had riches of cultural knowledge and talents that weren’t being appreciated or recognized. It was actually an opportunity for non-indigenous students to learn about systems of knowledge and ways of knowing different from their own. That certainly shaped my principalship at Wesley College, and my approach to educational leadership. This was truly about international mindedness and the IB’s philosophy of openness to other cultures.
What is unique about the IB and what do you think are its greatest and most inspiring strengths?
I believe that the IB is the only system of education across the world that has been developed by the profession itself—it was created by teachers. In the IB, teachers have always been the innovators and not just the deliverers. Teacher identity has been very strong within the IB from the beginning, and teachers have always been trusted in the process. The IB has united teachers around the world and connected classrooms from very different cultural traditions, and there’s a wonderful sense of collegiality in this system. The role of teachers is unique in the IB, and that is also one of its greatest strengths, and this will be especially significant in the reimagining of education which is going to emerge from COVID-19.
The second unique aspect about the IB is its independence. The IB has always been totally independent of any national system and is free of political interference in its philosophy and educational approach.
Then there’s the high quality and reputation of the four IB programmes with their universal philosophy and values and standards of excellence. The curriculum model has breadth and depth and covers all the domains of knowledge, throughout the continuum. Other systems of education often specialize far too early. In the Diploma core, students study a course in epistemology, the Theory of Knowledge, and they also engage in community service as a compulsory component for obtaining their Diploma.
Stepping back further, the valuing of culture and knowledge is unique and inspiring in the IB. The IB also puts a strong focus on the learning environment. The connections between health and wellbeing and learning are important aspects of the IB’s approach, and one which the COVID-19 experience has reinforced.
Speaking of COVID-19, what challenges and opportunities do you see in the wake of the pandemic?
Obviously there’s much uncertainty now. The pandemic has exposed latent issues and challenges, seen for example in the insecurities which parents, students and teachers have experienced during the examination sessions. We have to acknowledge this, come to terms with it, and confront it logically in order to maintain our global appeal and attractiveness ahead of other systems.
We need to articulate how well the IB understands the post COVID-19 world if we are to successfully make the improvements and refinements needed to be fit for purpose in a new world.
We need to help teachers and parents through this time of continuing uncertainty. Whilst reinforcing the elements of an IB education which are timeless and important, we need to continuously appraise what we’re doing, and to be open to new ideas to reimagine education just as our IB pioneers did.
We need more than simply the willingness to change - we need the wherewithal to effect change. In most organizations, the 80-20 rule applies - they can be terrific at delivering what they do, as opposed to changing. Education is, by its nature, fairly conservative because we have the ethical responsibility of educating the next generation. But there’s a demand now across the world to reimagine education—and the IB can offer the quality leadership needed to lead through change.
How would you define educational leadership, and what are its tasks in the coming years?
Leaders need to strike a balance between excellence in delivery and real initiative and drive for change. This will arise from a strong vision, and imagination, balanced by an understanding of practical realities. It’s not one or the other, it’s both. Taking people with you is critical, and that starts right at the top, at the governance level. We need a collective decision-making culture that permeates right through the organization. We need leadership for change as well as leadership for excellent delivery.
But particularly important in a time of uncertainty when much is in a state of flux is the most significant quality of all – integrity. The viability of a leader is dependent on that person’s integrity, as the sincerity and genuineness of the organization are judged by the ethics of its leadership.
Justifiably, the IB has a reputation for strong leadership, and the integrity of its people, its philosophy and its practices are its greatest strengths.
VIDEO: Dr Helen Drennen explaining the most significant model of leadership.
Which areas will you focus on as Chair of the IB Board?
The role of the Chair of the Board is to create a strong culture of collective decision-making and strong governance practice at Board level.
My immediate priority is to ensure that there is a smooth transition from the current Director General, Dr Siva Kumari, to her successor who will assume the role at the end of March 2021. We are immensely grateful to Siva for her admirable work as the IB’s first female Director General and her leadership to ensure a smooth and stable transition period.
As we move forward, strong governance must provide the most opportunity and support for the leadership of the organization to succeed. For me as Chair of the Board, this means supporting the organization to build a legacy. Not only will we focus on creating positive change and supporting IB leadership and the organization in the near term, but we will also be working to ensure that the IB delivers much needed positive social impact across the world for future generations.
Any final thoughts?
Yes, a thought about leadership that struck me as we were talking. You go through life and one thing follows another. But I’ve found a really important part of my educational leadership has been being able to draw on and connect experiences that, at the time, seemed to have no connections to something else. It’s about the capacity to connect experiences, it’s not just about people, it’s about phenomena that occur. You can come up with something new because of the connections you’ve drawn between them. And this is something I’ll be aiming to do as Chair of the Board—to connect ideas and people, to help to create something new, inspiring, impactful and lasting.