International schools have been around for a long time, all the way back from the 19th century, so it is a system that is built for longevity. India has the dubious distinction of being the place where an unusually large number of international schools is born. To understand this, let us examine why this is so and what makes an international school really international.
At the risk of being damned as a pedant, I must record that every school requires four basic areas to be targeted. First and foremost, it is the students that make it a school, in the finest sense of the word. Secondly, a school is a place where learning happens and not a place where students go to learn. So by an extension of this logic, students can learn anywhere. Unfortunately, however, most school developers see a school as a building, and not just any old building either. It has to be a gracious McMansion! Now most importantly, a school is made or unmade by the curriculum it teaches. Not the exams it takes, or the curriculum it chooses, but the curriculum it TEACHES. And lastly, a school must have systems and resources in place that support it as a place of learning.
Does internationalism force these four requirements to be of a particularly high level? To be absolutely honest, not at all! Students who are going to leave this country at the end of their education are just as well served by an Indian curriculum, as long as it is well taught. Is it often that an Indian curriculum is taught in a way that allows the students to apply a new idea or concept? If truth be told, not very often. Almost all teachers teach to the high-stakes tests that every student in schools in India faces in Standard 10 and Standard 12. Most high stakes Indian exams are content oriented and an enormous quantity of content is packed into the syllabus (which is a really useful Indian word in English!). They do not test the application of concepts but the memory of rules. More often than not, even some exceptional schools that teach to an Indian curriculum slightly under-serve students where the application of concepts is concerned.
Let us look at the McMansion syndrome. One of the best schools I have seen in this world (and no, I have not seen them all so this statement is at best an extrapolation of fact!) was one that was run under a tree in Kabwe in Zambia. The teacher had about 20 students and she was an English woman of indeterminate age but of enormous energy. The whole class shared the books they had at hand and the pencils. There was a working hum and a palpably high level of excitement in “class” and to this day, I have no idea why it was so perfect. I also cannot say whether the whole system continued into the future without collapsing in on itself, but somehow I don’t believe collapsing was part of its short or long-term plan. It is abundantly clear to me that a McMansion does not a school make. Some things are nice to have, like computers in class, cross-ventilation, windows that look out onto a tree. And electricity helps!
Now the thorny question of a curriculum! How is that different from a syllabus? Someone said an education was what was left behind after you forgot everything that your school had taught you. This is why it is important to find a curriculum that dictates that students should be taught things that will make them the leaders of the future, that orients their moral compass, that makes them think creatively, that teaches them to be balanced. No curriculum does this better than the IB and it does it simply by specifying the IB Student Profile. And the Student Profile has descriptors such as “open-minded” and “risk-takers” and “principled” and “thinkers”. How could you go wrong if you taught students to be these things?
Resourcing a school is heart-breakingly expensive but extremely rewarding in the end. Setting in place the systems that will help students transfer across national borders and the International Date Line needs some thought and a lot of planning. Building a community programme, or a sports programme or a drama and dance intervention are all-important but time-consuming. Choosing a curriculum takes patience, skill, and a thorough knowledge of your student cohort and their future plans. Reporting systems should be brought into line so students who transfer countries can carry with them reports that will truly reflect what they are capable of doing. “Must try harder” does not make much sense in China, I am sure.
And above all of this, I would urge all of us to change our perspective from that of the builder of a school to that of the young person sitting on the other side of the school-desk divide. What is in it for him or her? It is clear that international schools give expatriate families the option to stay within the same sort of curriculum and social structure. A whole retinue of relocation gurus exists in most countries, and their services are available to find the perfect school and a seamless curriculum for their child, regardless of which country they move to. Does this make for stability? Yes! Does it set you up for a real education? Probably not!
Students make better grades if they stay in one place for some length of time. If they are constantly moving, they are learning real things that will impact their careers and life choices 20 years hence, but right now, right this minute, these students probably come away at a disadvantage, if you see it as that. What makes up for it? I think learning Kalari-payetu in India, the economics of a masaai kraal in Kenya, the culture and history of shoguns in Japan and the art of Faberge in Moscow is so much more organic of an education. A world-travelling student will be educated beyond our dreams. If only international schools could get rid of their desire to replicate and take a risk with their students to let them learn what they can from the ground beneath their feet, it will make for a much more pragmatic, well-rounded education for the citizens of the future. Armed with these skills, I can see them slip into the future to run a world of jobs and systems and technologies that I know nothing about. And I am not alone in my ignorance. These jobs and systems and technologies have probably not even been invented today!
If our students are armed with these skills and abilities, and with wind beneath their wings, they will be the generation most coded to succeed in this world!
May the Force be with them!
The author has been a teacher of physics and math and has taught at Mallya Aditi International School and Stonehill International School, both in Bangalore. She has recently retired from regular school teaching and has entered the arena of schools that serve students of a lower socio-economic profile. She works with a group that designs study centres to support government schools. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.