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01 November 2017


Dr. Stephen Spurr, Group Education Director of Inspired, considers the knowledge and skills required by 21st century teachers and students...

The best educators have always tried to envision the world in which their students of today become the responsible citizens of tomorrow and then to equip them for it with the knowledge, skills and character to achieve fulfilment and success. That has been difficult at the best of times, and right now the task seems to be getting harder and more complex. But if anyone has a chance of providing a useful route-map, it will be international educators; and the need for it has never been greater or more urgent.

With that imperative in mind and with a network of 30 premium schools on four continents, educating 20 000 students from pre-kindergarten to university admission, Inspired believes that, in an increasingly globalised world, it is only education that incorporates international best practice that can now fully prepare the next generation.

Children are at the centre of all we do, so first – and as always – we must look at the world picture through the eyes of the young:

– At the political level, they are subjected to an increasingly polarised debate between protectionism and globalisation, they note the growing inequalities between rich and poor, which history teaches them have led to revolution in the past. They feel the tectonic plates of the recent modern world order shifting in unexpected ways, and the real and present threat of terrorism stalks the streets of every major city – as the tragic conclusion to the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester has brought home to them.

– At the socio-economic level they are bombarded with apocalyptic prophecies. They are told that the world of work is changing so fast that career planning is worthless; that, since knowledge is being so rapidly revolutionised, it is a waste of time committing to memory past or present learning; that computers and robots will replace even the traditional professions, so no more aspiring to become doctors, lawyers, accountants or even teachers; and that by 2040, with the advent of super-intelligent computers, homo sapiens as a species will be surpassed, just as were horses with the advent of the industrial age.

So the pressing challenges are there, but also the exciting opportunities (the two recent books by Yuval Noah Harari are recommended reading for both students and teachers) – and the best international schools are uniquely placed not merely to prepare for the future but also to influence it.

More than ever we must emphasise the right values – of active, engaged, and empathetic international-mindedness. We must encourage intercultural understanding, explain the benefits of diversity and teach global perspectives.

In doing so, our schools should be rooted in their own communities and then linked to others around the world. The personal and public fulfilment derived by students from practising these values through contributing on a daily basis to a purposeful, united and international school community cannot be underestimated. For it is becoming increasingly the case, in a fragmented world or where communities seem increasingly virtual, that schools alone can teach enduring community values. Involvement in and celebration of an international school community will then lead to the realisation that local, regional, national and global co-operation is worth striving for; and they can reject the sterile view that national and global are binary opposites in conflict with each other.

As for educating for a rapidly changing world economy, when faced with the prophecies above, we need to present both students and their parents with a both reassuring and dynamic strategy. Each child needs his/her precious reservoir of self-confidence to be filled and kept topped up, firstly to guard them against the mental stress which derives from bleak visions of the future and relentless pressure, and then also to provide them with the optimism to believe they can make a positive impact to create a brighter future. Generation Z, with their idealism, capacity and will to make the world a better place, to reduce to Zero illness, poverty and war, determined to tackle the global issue of climate change, needs us to believe in them, trust their choices and to support their efforts.

To do that we can no longer teach as we have always done, safe within our subject silos, consolidating the status quo or – even worse – simply reinforcing the past by awarding the top exam results to those who can best memorise and regurgitate what we have already told them, without criticising it or expressing their opinions.

Instead, with our understanding of young people, our extensive databases of admissions criteria to the top universities worldwide, our good understanding of the new ways of working employers look for and of the unfolding opportunities in the world of work, international schools like those in the Inspired Group are uniquely well-prepared to equip their students with the right global thinking and study skills for future success.

These are what are commonly known as 21st century skills and may be summarised as follows:

Skills of creativity, critical analysis, problem solving and decision-making Ways of working, including communication and collaboration Thinking across subjects, making innovative connections between them Ability to apply knowledge to new situations and to find solutions While readers will doubtless broadly agree with this list, there is less of a consensus for how to impart them. There are many, for example, who believe they can and should be taught directly, bypassing the need for students to learn or memorise anything, since Google knows it all anyway.

At Inspired, on the other hand, we believe that, even if the answer is only an internet click away, in order to develop the skills of critical analysis, creative thinking and problem-solving, students still need to know something. It is of course a truism that knowledge is changing quickly, but that is mainly the case with the latest, cutting edge, tip of the knowledge iceberg. The rest of that iceberg is composed of the still relevant building blocks of foundational knowledge, which students need to be fascinated by, ask questions of, understand, synthesise, connect with, remember and apply.

That is the best way for students to develop the new skills necessary for global thinking. And if they have authoritative (but not authoritarian!) teachers, who are able to keep abreast of their subjects and up to date with effective teaching methods because their schools invest in them, they will also be inspired. They will learn too the precious lesson that, in becoming passionate about and excelling in one area of academic interest, they are capable of achieving the same success in others too (and not only in academic areas, since our schools also put great emphasis on the other two pillars of an integrated holistic education that makes us fully human – the performing arts and sports) – thus building their confidence, self-belief and optimism.

This is one key element of Inspired’s form of blended learning – combining the best of the old with the best of the new – where teachers both transmit knowledge and train their students in the skills to apply, rather than simply repeat. Not that memorisation or rote-learning is always wrong – after all we must exercise the long-term memory muscles, learning the techniques both of storing information and bringing it quickly and agilely to the working memory in the form of applicable knowledge. That is a useful skill for life; it also greatly reduces stress in exams. I am writing these words as the summer examination season is generating again upsetting stories of children suffering from mental health issues. Mindfulness courses and meditation have their place, but the training of the memory and the resilient self-confidence and reduction in anxiety produced is what makes a lasting difference.

In terms of curriculum I shall make one observation only. In order to equip our students to contribute to the technological age, we have rightly in recent years emphasised the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. But for the future we must insist on STEAM. The A (for Art) is shorthand for creative subjects, the Performing Arts and the Humanities in general. We must not return to C.P Snow’s separate ‘two cultures’, both should be embedded throughout the core curriculum and intertwined in baccalaureate style (whatever school leaving qualification each school selects) for the creation of a balanced, civilised and democratic society. As Steve Jobs once put it ‘technology is not enough… it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields us the results that makes our hearts sing’.

So another key element of blended learning is the careful alignment of the most effective educational technology with the best of traditional teaching methods. Here we are not talking about the use of PowerPoint, which too often merely replicates its predecessor – the blackboard or whiteboard full of notes for the student to copy down – for that is stultifying. Nor are we talking about teachers as facilitators, while students sift distractedly through information on line until they think they have found something relevant, since that, as OECD studies have shown, serves to lower rather than raise learning outcomes.

What is required instead is a well-thought out digital policy for teaching and learning: where every classroom is serviced with 100% reliable WiFi access and capacity for every student and teacher in the school to be on-line as required; where every teacher is fully confident in using an effective range of digital resources to enhance their teaching; and where all students understand not only what they see on their screens but also what lies behind – that is, how the computer works – in order to use it better still.

Finally – is homo sapiens as a species nearing its useful life? I side with the research of Professor Ken Goldberg, both an artist and professor of robotics, automation and social media at the University of California, Berkeley, who predicts ‘multiplicity’ rather than ‘singularity’, that teachers (or any other profession, let alone the human race) will not be wholly replaced by robots. Teachers will still be crucial. As Howard Gardner writes, whatever the advances of the technological age, they will still be the best apps. But we will need to embrace not resist the world of artificial intelligence and – even more importantly – ensure our teachers have the skills and confidence to help to shape, develop and deploy it effectively, to empower their teaching further.

Education is all about people, and students learn best through conversations with teachers they respect and who respect them. That rapport and empathy is something that computers will always struggle to emulate, however well they are programmed to analyse and employ the biochemistry behind emotional response. While the future will doubtless belong to those able to navigate an increasingly automated world, those who will be best prepared will have been taught how to blend technological fluency with both the 21st century skills mentioned earlier and the distinctively human characteristics of empathy and emotional intelligence.

About Inspired...

A definitive statement of excellence in private education, Inspired is a co-educational, non-denominational, independent school group designed to inspire students to achieve their maximum potential in a nurturing, progressive academic environment from ages 1 to 18.

Inspired offers a fresh and contemporary approach to education by re-evaluating traditional teaching methods and curricula, and creating a more dynamic, relevant and powerful model reflecting current attitudes. We nurture the unique individuality, talent and self-assurance of each student, equipping them to take on the world with the skills and confidence to ensure success.

Inspired sets a new standard in private education with a dedication to excellence permeating every aspect of the school. Integrating innovative, challenging and enriching academic, performing arts and sports programmes, Inspired’s students leave with outstanding academic results, a love of learning, confidence and a firm value system that arms them to embrace the challenges life throws at them in their future endeavours.

Lateral thinking, comprehension and innovative application of skills and concepts form the three pillars of the Inspired approach to education.

Great care is taken when selecting new Inspired staff. We appreciate how vital our teachers are in shaping enquiring minds and developing young talent. Specialist knowledge, excellent qualifications, outstanding reputations and empathetic rapport with students are just some of the qualities we expect from our teachers. We live in a dynamic society and flexibility is applied to the academic programme in order to accommodate the demands and challenges of an ever-changing world.

Inspired offers an extensive range of subjects beyond the mandatory school curriculum including computing and robotics, and also integrates the creative and performing arts and a wide variety of sports in an innovative way into the curriculum to promote both individual self-confidence and teamwork. At Inspired we strive towards academic excellence in every grade, with the ultimate focus on achieving outstanding examination results and entrance to the top universities world-wide and fulfilling careers. While doing so we actively foster service to others and responsible stewardship of the environment, both global and local.

This article first appeared in the 2017/18 edition of John Catt's Guide to International Schools.

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