I came into the international educator space with a breadth of careers planning experience, preparing students for the “world of work” or, for those of you familiar with UK Ofsted / DfE in 2013, “life in modern Britain”. I guess the theory is applicable “We need to be ‘doing’ less and ‘signposting’ more.”in the international setting, but what is the difference in terms of context here?
Before I share a few of my thoughts, I must acknowledge the fact that all international school environments are different. Indeed, even between schools which are part of the same group / company, the outlook, perspective and strategy can be quite varied. I will share my reflections, based on my experience of a multicultural premium school, in one of Asia’s Tier 1 cities, Shanghai.
Over the years (in excess of 10!), we have talked consistently about needing to better prepare the youth of today for the world of work that looks forward to greeting them a few years hence. We then talked about the fact that we are currently preparing students for jobs that do not even yet exist (the ‘Shift Happens’ series of YouTube videos are worth watching!).
So, as that all seemed to contradict itself nicely enough, we were faced with enterprise education, financial capability, work-related learning, and PLTS (personal learning and thinking skills), as well as their assorted namesakes. Please don’t get me wrong here. I championed a lot of these initiatives in schools that I worked in, and do firmly believe in them.
However, I felt then that the missing link (in the UK) was that we were never totally sure whether we were supporting all students with the “right” skills development. Nor, indeed, did we seem to know what the businesses seeking to hire our capable, tenacious young people actually wanted (in simple, practical terms!). The UK government did some work around trying to encourage school-business connections. However, with changes of ministers - and therefore priorities - things came and went.
The international environment that I have been working in for the last two years draws upon students whose parents work in senior roles for major multinationals (in the main). These young people have access to opportunities that only some in the UK state sector do. Therefore, by taking advantage of their connections, they are accessing internships, work placements, university summer school places, and networking opportunities much wider than the multitude of options that they already enjoying in-school (debating, model United Nations, sport, arts and culture, Duke of Edinburgh, careers and Univision fair / visits, as well as just being around such a diverse mix of different people every day).
This global-minded, international perspective - learning to (and how to) appreciate, understand, tolerate and engage with so many different people, by being immersed in the environment - is, in my view, a huge bonus in itself. I know that it has done a huge amount for me and my perspectives over the last 24 months!
What’s more, taking into account the fact that many operational processes nowadays can be programmed into machines to complete, as well as the technological innovations of AI that are starting to become more “mainstream”, the earlier point that I raised about the “right” skills comes to the fore.
Jack Ma, of Alibaba fame, addressed the World Economic Forum in January 2018, and discussed how we are today teaching our children what has already become outdated! He talked about the fact that Computer Science skills, as well as interpersonal skills, are likely to be those which are most prized for the current generation of young learners in schools. His message was that, if we teach our students today to do what computers can already do, how are we helping them for the future?
I do not for a minute wish to suggest that traditional subjects, content learning and established methods of assessments should be thrown out of the window. However, this does give pause for thought. We live in a 24/7 connected society, with the Snapchat generation thinking that Facebook is outdated because it isn’t instant enough! Where not maintaining a “765 day streak” can cause arguments! We are still in a world where relationships are important, but in such a different way to when I was that age!
This perspective was supported at the end of March 2018 by NEU general secretary Dr Mary Bousted, writing in her journal on TES, when she referenced the changes that Singapore are trying to make to their educational system, despite it being ranked at the top of the PISA ratings for so many years.
Where? When? How?
So, where do we ‘find’ what we need to help these students develop? Well, I guess one approach is that as educators, we ‘do’ less and ‘signpost’ more. The IB approach is one that promotes inquiry-based learning. The Cambridge International A-Level learner profile does not strike me as dissimilar in its philosophy.
The ‘average’ international student has the ability to access so many opportunities, that it is with the mapping back of their experiences to competency frameworks (Learner Profiles, if you will), and actively reflecting on these, that we see as quite a significant challenge for them. For many students, it is not the lack of preparedness for the ‘world’ in an academic sense, but the practicalities of how to make it happen.
The CAS (creativity, activity, service) strand of the IB diploma programme core supports this reflection; cataloguing experiences gives students the opportunity to develop broad perspectives outside of the taught classroom. However, the effectiveness of what students derive from it depends very much on the way in which CAS is prioritised and delivered as part of the IBDP itself. Reflection, as we know, is quite a challenging skill with which to engage in a meaningful effect, and it is the experience and process of reflecting that often enables us to think more clearly going forward. This then gives one the ability to be more self-aware, and engage better with people / their environment
The final point I feel I should make, based on recent dialogue with my students (both Y11 and Y13), is the idea of a “reality check”.“If we teach students to do what computers can already do, how are we helping them?” Many, as they head towards the end of their school time, discussing “next steps” with their friends who graduated the year before, are starting to realise that they have “had it good” for a number of years! Getting home after an evening out (at an expensive restaurant in town), will require thought, as the driver will not be on-call when one is at university.
When discussing operating a bank account, and budgeting an allowance to last a whole month, Olivia commented: “I had no idea that salmon was so expensive, I mean, when my mum said 130RMB (US $20) for a steak, I thought that was quite cheap, no?!”
A linked, but fairly key, factor of note here is that Shanghai / China in general is a safe place. Using your latest iPhone X in public whilst walking down the street, on the table whilst having a meal, and even taking a taxi alone as a young person, are all pretty safe activities. This is obviously not the same everywhere in the world.
Following this conversation, Y11 started to understand how I make best use of my credit cards and bank accounts. They were actively asking for more “real-life stuff” in school, especially as they all head off to universities ranging from South Korea to the west coast of the United States, and many other places across the world!
Do I have a solution? No, of course not!! It is an area that we have been wrangling with for many years gone, and many years to come. However, it’s clear to me that the following are three key priorities for international students entering “the real world”:
1. Maintaining their global mindedness.
2. Highly-developed interpersonal skills.
3. A touch of reality!
Speaking as someone who has spent years developing various different types of structured pastoral curricula, there’s a potential gap in the jigsaw here. It’s important to drive synergies, and continue to support the work that parents do with their children. At an interview I attended in February, this is a pitch that I made, which formed a key element of the presentation I delivered.
I am not for a minute suggesting that this article is a panacea, or indeed anything revolutionary in terms of educational thinking. However, I believe it has potential to be an interesting area for discussion and debate. To this end, I would very much welcome perspectives from colleagues in other environments, as I suspect there may be differences from other areas of the world.
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