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Facing and Learning From Our International School Contradictions

August 15, 2018


I learned about International Schools in the early 1980’s. A Principal whom worked with in the States mentioned he had just returned from two years of teaching in Jedda. He explained International Schools to me and I thought, “Are you kidding?” I tucked the information away in my ‘mental pocket’.

About ten years later, I was working with a successful juggling, magic and music ‘Medicine Show’. I had created this show with a partner and it became quite successful. Nonetheless, I was feeling ‘stale’ in my work and in fact, in my life and felt the need to be challenged and indeed, ‘confused’. I decided to travel… to India. I remembered that Principal and thought that it would a good idea to get short-term work at an International School to help pay for a trip or to simply get a tax write-off. I sent letters to every International School in India. I was invited to come to Kodaikanal International School in Tamil Nadu.

International School

It was, by then, the mid to late ’80’s, a time before the Indian economy had opened to global trade. My arrival at the airport startled me, filled with both confusion and a complex smell of multiple ingredients. My bus trip from the airport left me far from my eventual destination of Colaba, the old Victorian section near the original Taj. It was around 2am. I walked towards my destination. The streets were filled with sleeping people. I walked filled with the alert caution I cultivated from growing up in New York City. In spite of anticipating potential ‘trouble’ I couldn’t ignore the fact that the vibe was actually quite tranquil and not in the least confrontational. My shoulders relaxed, my gait slowed and I realized I had just received the first lesson of my journey, never judge what you see, from what you’ve seen.

That has been one of the many gifts I’ve received from 35 years of visits to International Schools in over 65 countries. There have been others…stories of the world’s endless diversity, opportunities to work with intelligent and dedicated people, the chance to see how an education blessed with abundant resources, time, space and adventures effects students and their teachers. While working, I have always tried to carve out time to travel… a few days here and there, a dip into Lake Malawi, Christmas time in Ethiopia’s Lalibela, hiking the Steppes of Mongolia driving the mountain roads around the ‘Grand Canyon’ of Oman and simply being a flaneur in the streets of Paris, Rome, Sofia, Gothenburg, Lima, etc.

I’ve been lucky with what I’ve been able to see and learn. I purposely placed myself in circumstances previously unexplored by me and where I had to trust my instincts and the world I was temporarily immersed in. The results has been one gift after another; the experience and appreciation of the essential goodness and abundance of the planet; its physical beauty and its diverse inhabitants.

However, I can’t deny that part of working with the International School community is also a discomfort that comes from an awareness that the world that supports International Schools is often one supported by economic inequality and resource and human exploitation. Working in International Schools helps all of us understand that we, the privileged, walk ‘roads’ around the world occupied by a very small percentage of the Earth’s inhabitants. It can feel like a contradiction when we teach about the importance of supporting our planet’s social and ecological diversity while realizing that the system that supports our profession often consciously or inadvertently contributes to the very things we are trying to erase; inequality and unsustainable use of resources.

How do we resolve this? We probably never fully do. I probably haven’t, but being part of International School Community has convinced me that the education we share must now move towards one that is not oblivious to these contradictions. Nor, in my opinion, should we assuage our discomfort through charity or a sense of ‘noblesse oblige’; an attitude that leads to ‘top down’ benevolence. The true nature of our engagement with the world must begin with the idea that ‘We are all in it together’ Only when we understand that our fates and the fates of those who are much less economically privileged than us and who so often provide the food and services that privileges us, are the same.

In this ‘next era’ of International School education, we know that colonialism is not the system that should define our engagement with the world. We understand that ‘charity’ no longer is enough or even smart. Our engagement with the worlds of our ‘host’ countries, must be based on respecting the intelligence and often unacknowledged ways these countries have traditionally negotiated complex problems of social and ecological diversity and limited resources. In the International School Community, we must now see ourselves as partners with our host countries and not as overlords; partners in the struggle for a sustainable and more egalitarian world.

I have learned first hand that this understanding is not the one that has been dominant. One year, I was brought to a school in India to work with non-violence issues. Next to the school was a settlement of poor folk living in crowded and incredibly trying circumstances. I wondered how they get along with each other in these trying situations, so I suggested going into this community and finding out how they dealt with conflict. Previously, the only contact the school had with this community was a charity based, where the children of the community were invited in to do art, receive food and to play with the children in the International School. The leadership of the school nixed the kind of exploration I proposed.

A shift in this perspective to one of mutual learning will point us to creating a shared practice with those who are our neighbors and colleagues; a shift that will allow us to learn from those who have lived in our ‘adopted’ countries much longer than we have. Their practices, often part of our host countries historical agricultural techniques, their water use policies, waste disposal and construction methods, are things we can learn from. Living within limits are often part of many people’s cultural heritage, philosophy and behavior. To learn from and participate with others in taking care of all of our environment and population leads to an investigation of how the industrialized world sometimes promotes practices with the opposite effect. Understanding and learning about locally based wisdom can be a big step in moving our relationship with our host countries to one of equality and sharing and an understanding that inequality, exploitation and the imposed destruction of the ‘locally grown’ aren’t smart for anybody. The result of not taking advantage of learning about local wisdom can result in everyone being vulnerable to its effect.

This kind of education, one that understands that everyone teaches and everyone learns, can help to resolve the discomfort we feel living and working in worlds seemingly isolated from the problems of the multitude of people who live outside our gates. International Schools can be part of a vanguard movement in International Education that learns as well as it teaches, shares as well as takes and helps the planet moves forward to an acknowledgment of the fragility of our Earth and how our ‘boat’ is ultimately shared by all…a good way to educate for the future, I think.

This article was submitted to us by guest author, Marc Levitt. Marc Levitt is a filmmaker (Stories in Stone, Woven in Time and the ‘in process, Triple Decker, A New England Love Story), author (Putting Everyday Life on the Page, Changing Curriculum Through Stories, A Holistic Approach to Culture Change), storyteller, radio host (www.ActionSpeaksRadio.com) and has been working in the International School Community as a Key Note speaker, workshop leader and storyteller for over 35 years. He is currently the ‘Scholar in Resident’ in a working class community’s school system in Rhode Island, USA. Marc can be reached at www.MarcLevitt.org or MarcJoelLevitt@gmail.com

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Highlighted Articles

Highlighted article: The IPC: a curriculum growing in popularity amongst many international schools (Part 1)

October 18, 2011


The IPC is a very popular curriculum used by many international schools (in 68 countries around the world) because it is very learning-focused, allows great flexibility for teachers to personalise it to the needs of their children and their school, and also brings international-mindedness into much of the children’s learning. The following is a good explanation of the IPC which helps teachers, school leaders and parents alike to understand it.

Learning with the International Primary Curriculum

It has always been important for children to receive a great education. In the challenging global, interdependent world of the 21st century it is more important than ever before.


Oshwal Academy Mombasa, Kenya explore their local beach as part of the IPC Habitats unit

But it’s also more difficult than ever. In the same way that far fewer children play football because there are so many other competing things for them to do, so it’s far harder to help young children learn in school when other parts of their lives can seem so much more attractive, and when so many children are in homes – professional and non-professional – where time for parents to be attentive to their children is at a premium.

This is the paradox we inhabit. The need is great and, at the same time, the opposing forces are more powerful than they’ve ever been.

Getting a primary curriculum right is more difficult today than it’s ever been because it has to meet multiple goals. Of all those goals, the most essential ones are:

– Rigorous learning: Paying attention to essential and transformational knowledge, to the development of key skills, and to the slow, steady progress towards deep understanding across a broad range of subjects.

– High levels of children’s engagement: Making sure that this rigorous learning can win the battle against superficially more exciting out-of-school activities so that a) children enjoy it and stick to it and b) come to like learning enough to want to continue throughout their lives. And incorporating easy, accessible opportunities for parents to get involved in order to encourage and support their kids.

– International, global and intercultural awareness: So many of our problems at local and global level are caused by different groups not knowing or respecting each other. So many of the key problems we face today will only be solved through local and global cooperation. So many of the opportunities open to our current generation of children will be in countries and cultures different from the one in which they are growing up.

– The development of personal dispositions: Creating opportunities for children to develop qualities that will help them on their journey through life as individuals, citizens and partners. Qualities such as adaptability, morality, respect, resilience, enquiry, cooperation, communication and thoughtfulness.

– Supporting teachers: Providing teachers with everything they might need to make the curriculum work to its very best for every single child.

– Supporting schools: Providing all that a school requires to be confident in delivering good practice

A curriculum that thoroughly meets each one of these priority areas is not an easy trick to pull off. But feedback from schools, parents, teachers, children, inspectors and authorities tells us that one curriculum – the International Primary Curriculum – is well on the way.

If that’s the case, how does the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) ensure rigorous learning? What does a high level of engagement mean in IPC practice? What about the development of personal dispositions?  And what is it about the IPC that has gained the commitment of over 1,300 schools in over 63 countries around the world in just ten years?

Engaging Children

Well, for a start, we all know that children learn best when they want to learn. That’s why the IPC has over 80 different thematic units of learning; all child-friendly, modern-day topics appealing to all ages of primary children. Themes such as Time Detectives, Airports, I’m Alive, Inventions and Machines and Global Swapshop. Teachers use the theme as the hook, the learning platform and the ‘wrapping paper’ in order to excite and engage children.


Students at BIS Ljubljana in Slovenia investigate what’s going on within their soil colletions as part of the IPC Habitats unit.

The theme enables young children to remain motivated through the learning of science, geography, history and so on. It also allows them to make purposeful links and connections throughout their learning and to see how their subject learning is related to the world they live in.

Within each theme, the IPC suggests many ideas for collaborative learning, for active learning, for learning outside the classroom, for role play, and for children learning from each other. “All these approaches are crucial factors affecting engagement,” says Director of the IPC, Steven Mark. “Teamwork with a purpose, where every person plays a vital but different role, enables children to become deeply engaged in their learning, especially when that learning is relevant to their interests and needs. At the same time, there’s a huge flow of knowledge and many skills are practised and developed.” For example, in the IPC Rainforest unit children, through role play, debate the impact of slash and burn from all perspectives; from those of the indigenous forest dwellers to the prospectors. “This is something that we have continually prioritised and developed within the IPC,” continues Steven. “Child-friendly themes involving issues relevant for today’s children and creating opportunities for them to make their own choices in the progress of their learning. As a result, the learning becomes inspiring and fulfilling for them.”

The IPC’s engaging approach also encourages parental involvement as children, inspired by their learning, talk freely to parents and family members about what they’ve done at school and often choose to continue their learning at home. Parental involvement is also promoted through learning-focused letters, extended learning ideas, and end of unit ‘Exit Point’ events.

Rigorous Learning

Each IPC unit incorporates most of the core subjects including science, history, geography, ICT, Art and PE and provides many opportunities to incorporate literacy and numeracy. Subjects are only included into each theme if there is a direct link between the required learning and the ideas behind the theme. Each subject then has a number of learning tasks to help teachers to help their children meet a range of learning goals set out in the curriculum.

Take, for example, the IPC Chocolate unit. In history, children explore the discovery of chocolate, the period it was discovered, the motivation for discovery and the changing attitude to chocolate through the ages. In geography they look at the countries that grow cacao and how particular localities have been affected by its production and by slash and burn. They look at the links between countries that grow cacao and countries that produce chocolate. In art children look at how chocolate is sold and how packaging is designed. In science, children use the Chocolate unit to look at the energy values in foodstuff and to explore the effects of heating and cooling.

The IPC learning goals are deliberately explicit; designed to make sure that teachers distinguish clearly between children’s learning of knowledge, skills and understanding.

IPC Director, Steven Mark points out that knowledge, skills and understanding may all be examples of learning but that each is learned differently, assessed differently and, therefore, IPC believes, should be taught differently. “There is absolutely no point in talking about rigorous learning if we don’t make explicitly clear the nature and implications of the learning we want children to achieve,” says Steven. So each IPC unit has a detailed teaching framework incorporating very explicit skills. “As skills take time to develop, children need to have the chance to continually revisit and practise these key skills,” he explains. “To develop these skills, individuals need context and purpose. Which is why the IPC suggests real life, practical learning experiences to help them. All our units encourage children to work individually and together towards learning goals. It’s important that children can see that they are still learning skills found in history and geography but set in the context of the big picture theme.”

For more information about the IPC contact the IPC at +44-207-7531-9696 or visit www.internationalprimarycurriculum.com

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