My big question for us as a is how brave should we be in how we educate our students? Is tweaking the status quo enough or "as a leading IB World School" should we be looking to invent a new paradigm?I love the way that administrators of top schools such as NIST are openly asking such questions of their communities - how input from all is valued. In the same way this school has sought out opinions about what characteristics students, parents, teachers and administrators are looking for in teachers - this brings together the diversity of opinions in the school community as an aid to the recruitment process that is kicking off around now. The school is actively questioning what sort of education is needed for the future and what sort of teachers are best at delivering this.
Earlier on this week I was talking to a parent who has a son in the same grade as my daughter. These grade 11 students are busy thinking about their futures, universities they would like to apply to and so on, yet a lot of the news we are getting about tertiary education in the UK (a popular choice for students at our school) is extremely negative - the standards, the funding and so on. There is enormous pressure on these teenagers not only to do well academically, but also to be well-rounded as this looks good on university applications. Therefore as well as working hard at the extremely rigorous IB Diploma Programme, these students are taking on additional activities such as sports teams, arts performances and other extra-curricular clubs. It's extremely stressful being a 17 year old these days!
Our children have always been in international schools. However, at one time when considering whether or not this was the right choice, I visited a school close to where we lived in Holland to get an alternative view. In Holland you have a great choice of schools that are government funded - there are regular state schools as well as Montessori and Vrijescholen ("free schools") which are known in other countries as Waldorf or Steiner schools. I visited our local Vrijeschool in Haarlem to see whether this would be a good option.
Having taught in IB schools for a number of years at this point, I was really interested to see the similarities between this school and the system I was already in. For example in the Vrijescholen learning is interdisciplinary and integrates practical, artistic and conceptual elements. The schools aim to develop creative and critical thinking and as each of the schools is autonomous, teachers are given the freedom to develop curriculum collaboratively with their colleagues.
In the Vrijescholen learning during early childhood is experimental and practical. In elementary years students are encouraged to be artistic and imaginative and in addition learn 2 foreign languages. In secondary the emphasis is on abstract thought and conceptual judgements and the aim is to help students develop competence, responsibility and purpose, to foster an understanding of ethical principles and to build a sense of social responsibility. The teaching methodology throughout encourages collaborative learning.
As well as these similarities, however, there were some important differences. The philosophy of the Vrijescholen is that of anthroposophy, which I had never heard of before. A homeroom teacher in a primary Vrijeschool is expected to teach the same group of students for several years, which usually does not happen in international schools. The schools were also self-governing as the philosophy of education is to encourage free individuals and the schools also have to embody these principles - most of the schools therefore do not have a principal but are governed by a college of teachers who operate on consensus. One of the highlights of these schools, apparently, is the atmosphere of collegiality that exists there.
Outside observers of the students who attend these schools have shown them to be unusually oriented towards improving social conditions and having more positive visions of the future. Reports from various countries have also shown high academic standards - for example the UK Primary Review of 2008 showed the Steiner/Waldorf schools achieved higher academic results than English state schools and other studies in the USA and Germany have shown those students obtained above average SAT scores (despite the fact that these schools had never use standardised tests), and that these students passed university entrance exams at double or triple the rate of students coming from the state education system.
I have to say that I am pleased with the choices we made to put our children into international education, but I'm really interested to know about some of the alternatives out there who have rethought and redesigned traditional schools. I feel there is a lot we can learn from some of these approaches to education.
Photo Credit: Sidewalk Art by Kindergartners by Wyoming_Jackrabbit