All posts by Conrad Hughes

Conrad Hughes, (MA, PhD, EdD) the Campus and Secondary Principal at the International School of Geneva, La Grande Boissière. He has been School Principal, Director of Education, International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme Coordinator and teacher in schools in Switzerland, France, India and the Netherlands. Conrad, who is also a Senior Fellow at UNESCO's International Bureau of Education, a member of the advisory board for the University of the People and research assistant at the University of Geneva's department of psychology and education, teaches philosophy.

An education for human rights: working from the ground up 

Tracing back the origins of some sort of declaration of human rights is not that simple. Some situate it at least 2600 years ago in the Akkadian Cyrus Cylinder, declaring racial equality, others the Edicts of Ashoka in the 2500 BCE Maurya Empire, which sets out a deontological code. The late 1700s French  Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen, outlining principles of unalienable natural rights and sovereignty paved the way for other Enlightenment statements such as the soaring American Declaration of Independence and, later, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The latter is a powerful set of normative statements that should be a reference in every school and organisation. 

Behind the actual writing of these remarkable historic statements are people, and it is commonly known that the driving force behind the Declaration of Human Rights was the chair of the Human Rights Commission at the time, the visionary and deeply ethical  Eleanor Rooseveld, a truly wonderful and inspiring woman. It was her unflagging passion and dedication to the project that marked those around her and in a way it’s not surprising, writing something as significant as a declaration of human rights for all of humanity is enough to make someone give their everything! That is a key for reflection.

The problem with these normative statements is that once  they have been drawn up, they remain at the lofty level of the deontological code, a type of 10 commandments that look down on us from a higher place. One might gaze at the words and statements in awe and even be asked to abide by them, but since they were written by someone else, the fundamental pedagogical act of integrating and owning information by shaping it oneself which creates great productive energy, cannot be harnessed. The statements are somehow inert, pre-baked, off the shelf.

And history has shown us that there is a difference between saying something and doing it. The Cyrus Cylinder declares forward-looking tolerance but Cyrus was no angel, and the French Rights of Man, like so many other Enlightenment ethical treatises, applies to some and not others, most especially those who bore the yoke of European slavery and expansion across much of the planet at the time. Where were their rights?

Perhaps committing to a series of statements as a community is a way of consolidating not only what we think is important, but of galvanising us to live actively by those statements: precisely because they are our own.

This is why at our school, we decided to embark on a collaborative project whereby staff and students would brainstorm the types of behaviours that we wish to see in ourselves and others, to then vote for the statements that emerged and to use these statements as our guidelines. It does not mean that these supersede other moral imperatives, but it does mean that these statements were created by the community creatively and collaboratively, and that there’s some ownership involved.

The statements themselves are quite concrete and simple, and perhaps in that tangible simplicity there is a power that one loses in abstract, general and universalist claims: it’s a call to action and an invitation to live out human rights (and, of course, responsibilities!) every day!

In fact, one of the precepts of The United Nations Office of Human Rights, who are working with the International School of Geneva on a Global Citizenship Education course, is to bring human rights down to earth, into the corridors of the school, into each classroom, the playground and workspace. It is in these spaces where simple decisions lay out the type of respect we truly show for one another.

If you haven’t already done so, I would recommend a bottom-up approach to some normative moral statements by your community and for your community, much the way  teachers would agree on norms with students at the beginning of a school year.  It engages the community and shows us what’s important to us here and now, in this precious moment we share together alive on planet earth.  

The problem of not reading

Critical thinking is widely considered to be a core educational goal and is rightly appreciated for its central educational importance. There are different ways of viewing criticality, from a narrow reckoning of it as logical, syllogistic thinking to a more inclusive appreciation of academic and intellectual honesty, deep listening and reflection rather than immediate hard-nosed scepticism. The American academic and father of philosophy for children, Matthew Lippman, spoke of “caring thinking” as one of the dispositional attributes of the critical thinker as he had noticed that a narrow definition based on argumentation could actually promote fairly unpleasant ways of being and interacting with others and it was necessary to place criticality within a broader perspective of humane and kind behaviour.

It is not without irony that in a world where scientific inquiry has never been more advanced, access to information and knowledge more democratised and literacy rates more widespread, there seems to be a dearth, and an increasing one at that, of critical thinking. With the recent surge of artificial intelligence, the need to actively and deliberately teach students to navigate information with discernment has become especially important.

However, it is only partly ironic: the more readily available information is and the easier it is to generate information online without checks and balances (such as publishing houses, review and vetting systems or similar checks and balances that filter what is produced on a mass scale), the easier it is to publish a whole range of personal opinions from speculation and conjecture to unsubstantiated theory to tenuous if not spurious claims to downright garbage, nonsense and, as we approach the far end of the spectrum, misinformation and lies. More recently we have seen false information generated by artificial intelligence  affect the stock exchange. 

There are obvious and blatant examples of postulates, policies and widely held opinions that are erroneous, sometimes dangerously so. These vary from history textbooks denying the existence of countries because of national propaganda, works of literature being censored or rewritten to make them more palatable and internet-spawned  mumbo-jumbo on conspiracy theories, aliens, secret “systems” and so on.

The question, quite clearly, is how to promote and nurture critical thinking. As a Theory of Knowledge teacher, this year I will take some time with my students to unpack the essential vocabulary of knowledge: words like certainty, evidence, truth, explanation, interpretation,  objectivity, perspective, culture, power, responsibility and values. In the lower years, my colleagues will be having Philosophy for Children discussions with students so as to habituate them to make points in a  careful, responsible and measured fashion.    

However, I find that a more subtle, pernicious and pervasive attack on critical thinking is very simply a lack of reading. I don’t mean by this an inability to read, but a lack of effort to do so: not reading reports but having an opinion on them, referring to unread studies, piggy-backing on second, third or fourth hand condensations of original material that seems to have been digested by few if any people at all. 

Recently UNESCO published its annual Global Education Monitoring Report . It is a hefty 418 page document that explains, quite rightly, how complex the dilemma of technology in education is. In discussing the effect of devices on concentration, the report points out that

 Student use of devices beyond a moderate threshold may have a negative impact on academic performance. The use of smartphones and computers disrupts classroom and home learning activity. A meta-analysis of research on the relationship between student mobile phone use and educational outcomes covering students from pre-primary to higher education in 14 countries found a small negative effect, which was larger at the university level. (p.81)

The report then goes on to explain, with some nuance, that

Banning technology from schools can be legitimate if technology integration does not improve learning or if it worsens student well-being. Yet, working with technology in schools, and the accompanying risks, may require something more than banning. First, policies should be clear on what is and is not permitted in schools. Students cannot be punished if there is no clarity or transparency on their required behaviour. Decisions in these areas need conversations supported by sound evidence and involve all those with a stake in students’ learning. Second, there should be clarity on the role these new technologies play in learning and on their responsible use by and within schools. Third, students need to learn the risks and opportunities that come with technology, develop critical skills, and understand to live with and without technology. Shielding students from new and innovative technology can put them at a disadvantage. It is important to look at these issues with an eye on the future and be ready to adjust and adapt as the world changes. (p. 157)

Importantly, the report describes how smartphones were a lifeline to the curriculum and learning during Covid, even if evidence of the benefits is “mixed” (p. 33). 

However, only days after the report was issued, well established newspapers claimed that “Unesco calls for global ban on smartphones in schools”. As is so often the case with information in the “knowledge economy”, this headline went viral, many people, including educators, re-posted it and a whole range of other media outlets parroted the headline. A few days after that, friends and colleagues were sharing this headline with me.

The problem is that this is not what the report says. Classroom use of smartphones is problematised, and we might go so far as to say that banning is suggested, but to say that it is a call to ban smartphones is ridiculous, it’s an example of faulty understanding driven by a lack of reading in the first place. 

Now, whether smartphones should be banned or not in schools is another question, and merits its own discussion. I happen to agree with UNESCO (to actually quote the report accurately!), that “working with technology in schools, and the accompanying risks, may require something more than banning” (p. 157). This is just an example of how misunderstandings are circulated and amplified by social media. The problem is, to debunk such a statement, one would have to read the 418 page report, and who exactly is going to do that?

Unfortunately, and ironically (and this time it is deeply ironic), the world of educational theory is particularly rife with misinterpretation of theory, from brain gym to learning styles, neurotrash to the Mozart effect, multiple intelligences, techniques that “work” because of effect size analysis on meta-analyses to the infamous and widely misunderstood 10 000 hour rule. These soundbites are based on misguided, popularised and unsubstantiated shorthand that unfortunately, unless teachers read the research first hand (and recognise the tentative nature of much educational research in the first place), can find itself in the classroom with students as the undeserving Guinea pigs.

Next time you read a newspaper headline, or a tweet, a post, a statement, especially one that goes “viral”, ask yourself what the source is and who has read the research. The truth might not be as exciting to read as a dazzling affirmative or damning soundbite, but it needs to be respected.

Furthermore, let’s commit to reading the original of what we cite, ensure that our students read set texts  from cover to cover, insist that board and committee papers are read and not settle for lazy thinking based on skimming through headlines: it’s a slippery slope.

Education and Affirmative Action

The recent US Supreme Court decision disallowing admissions using race-based affirmative action has spawned a fairly consistent message of despair from college presidents and deans who have been trying to diversify their student bodies.

In general, when a nation’s top intellectuals stand against legislation, you have to ask yourself what the social implications of the legislation are.

After decades of studies that have shown how important diversity is in the organisational workplace and how biased tertiary education systems have been in admitting a similar profile of socially advantaged group, which propagates a cycle of privilege (legacy students for example), it is overwhelmingly understood that diversity will not happen spontaneously by itself, it needs to be engineered.

An interesting experiment in the early 1970s by Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling showed that human beings naturally seek to identify with people similar to themselves, unconsciously creating patterns of segregation. If that tendency is disrupted intentionally, a more diverse environment is created, which tends to yield more productivity and creativity. However, the natural tendency towards segregation has to be disrupted.

Initial efforts at affirmative action go back to the 1960s Civil Rights movement. They were part of a normative vision for a more equitable world, immortalised in Martin Luther King’s soaring “I Have a Dream” speech. At the deepest level, diversity is needed for a more peaceful world. How sad to see that vision blocked by the shadow of regression, taking us backwards.

Educators have to keep fighting for diversity, not through superficial or politicised rhetoric but actions: broadening assessment, diversifying staffing and  decolonising the curriculum, otherwise we won’t be heading to 2024 but to 1954.


My daughter once told me about a teacher who gave her back an assignment with a grade that she was not happy with. The teacher could see the dissatisfaction in her eyes and went to the trouble to keep her back after class. The teacher looked my daughter in the eyes and told her that she believed in her and that she knew that she could attain the top grade, even if it was not the case for this assignment. When my daughter completed the subject examinations and received her diploma, lo and behold, she had attained the top grade.  When I asked her about her performance, she told me the story of the teacher who believed in her, and that this had been a core motivational factor. 

Philosophical discussions about the value of the “top grade”, the sometimes undesirable effects of our grading system aside, what was powerful about that exchange was a very simple message: I believe in you, you can do it. What a message like that does, when it is sincere and comes from the heart, is it gives confidence, and confidence can move mountains. 

What is the purpose of an education? We all know that the core idea of the transmission of knowledge and skills is central. However, if the big picture is to prepare young people for life, to form them and train them to be ready to thrive in the world and to contribute to public goods, then it is clear that there is much more than knowledge and technical skill development at stake. Fundamentally, they need to go out into the world being able to do something. This is not a mechanical exercise, it is a social, psychological and emotional one too.  

It has become increasingly clear over the past years, and increasingly broadcast and integrated into curriculum design, that interpersonal and intrapersonal qualities need to be nurtured in a good education as much as, if not more than, knowledge and technical skill. Decision-making, self-knowledge, teamwork, conflict resolution, followship and negotiation skills are all vitaly important competences that should be developed in school and university and in the workplace too (education continues for adults in the way in which they are coached and developed by their supervisors: learning is a lifelong enterprise).  

It would be difficult to find anyone who would disagree that confidence in oneself is central. When you believe in yourself and can ideate the successful outcome or goal that lies before you in space and time, see it in your mind’s eye, when you know that you can do something remarkable, it lifts you to extraordinary heights and pushes you to dare to do things that you would not otherwise consider.

Of course, there has to be some substance behind confidence: it has to be grounded in some truth. Praise has to be sincere, not fatuous. If a student’s work is substandard or if a colleague does something mediocre or poor, we have to have the courage to give helpful, tactful but corrective feedback, not praise. Congratulating someone for a job badly done or saying that you believe in them when you don’t doesn’t work: the insincerity makes it hollow. Remaining in a state of unconscious incompetence comes about when feedback is not honest.

However, every person does have something special in them: we all have some gift, or even several gifts that the skilled eye can see, the wise mentor can observe, and it is in moments like these, when we see a gift that we should give encouragement. The person holding the gift feels the alignment of what is seen and what is, there is a feeling of truth that is created and that becomes a powerful reinforcement, flowing into the energy of confidence, that intricate mental and emotional network that lights up every muscle and neuron in your being.  

So think about your students and colleagues, about what they do really well and tell them. Make the moment special, do it occasionally and enjoy that beautiful moment of giving real, genuine praise. Above all, let them know that you believe in them, that they can go far with that gift: it gives confidence, and confidence can move mountains.

Curriculum relevance

One of the major challenges facing society today is the irrelevance of the educational model that is being used in classrooms across the world. At a recent conference on curriculum relevance, hosted by the International School of Geneva, Yao Ydo, the Director of UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education, spoke of an encounter he had with a minister of education (of a country I shall not name!) where he complained about the history textbooks that children were using with information dating back to the 1950s. The village where the children lived was described in the textbook with references to the colonial prefecture at the time alongside black and white photographs. How are children expected to find any interest in learning from something so outdated? To add insult to injury, this is an environment where the home language is not taught (as is the case in many of the world’s countries) and the language of instruction is a second if not third language for both the instructor and the student.

Some school programmes are more abreast of the realities of the 21st Century, teaching students about inclusion, social justice, environmental sustainability and how to use technology in reactive and ethical ways to accelerate learning and make it more accessible. However, even in these models, the core assessments that students do tend to be far removed from the exigencies of the real world: hand-written assignments, two hour examinations consisting, essentially, of knowledge regurgitation, little in the way of teaching and explicitly assessing competences.

UNESCO’s work on curriculum relevance has brought a number of themes to the fore: the hybridisation of learning, the need for educational systems to integrate learning about peace, inclusion and sustainability; a nuanced and informed application of what neurobiology tells about the psychology and emotions of learning and how this can be used to improve the classroom climate as well as strategies for genuine long term memory strengthening.

In fact, curriculum relevance runs much deeper than the content of what we teach, and it certainly means much more than using technology in the classroom. From teacher training, to assessment, from curriculum design to collaborative planning, the whole ecosystem of educational practice needs to be thought through in such a way that students experiencing the curriculum are being equipped to face the complexities and intricacies of today’s globalised world.

Three steps

These are three steps I have taken with my colleagues over the last years and I would recommend them to anyone working in schools or universities:

  1. Decolonising the curriculum

This means looking at the cultural affiliations, references and assumptions that lie scattered across the curriculum, often unconsciously. We can no longer be teaching from the perspective of one continent alone in an era of multiple identities, continual immigration and more sophisticated understandings of the multiplicity of the human condition. If educators do not look at the unconscious bias and cultural assumptions of what they are teaching, these forces will remain invisible to them and send out an antiquated message that is also harmful for the agency and identity building of those who do not fit into such narratives. Read more here 

  1. Widening assessment

Relying on narrow, high stakes assessments that test academic skills is not enough to account for the diverse ways in which someone can be gifted. Assessments should span several competences including interpersonal ones, those related to the environment and the way we use tools and resources such as new technologies. Our work at the coalition to honour all learning is a place to start if you are seeking to broaden assessment.

  1. Moving the needle on sustainable development

I was happy to sign, on behalf of our school, the Doughnut Economic Action Lab’s open letter for a course in regenerative economics, so as to teach students economic systems and processes that will respond to the number one threat facing us today: climate change. Schools must weave into the curriculum learnings and the nurturing of competences such as environmental custodianship that will empower us to act in a unified fashion for the sake of the planet. Committing to sustainable development in educational institutions means thinking intentionally about energy consumption in the physical design of buildings, the content and form of the curriculum and the behaviours of people in schools and universities.

There are clearly many more steps to take, and these will set us on a journey, so one should not expect to see immediate results for it is not easy to change any curriculum structure. As Woodrow Wilson said “It is easier to change the location of a cemetery, than to change the school curriculum.” However, curriculum relevance is an overarching trope that calls us to action: every step counts. Which will you be taking today?

The beauty of a good speech

The other day I was lucky enough to attend the graduation ceremony at La Chataigneraie, one of the three campuses of the International School of Geneva. It was a special graduation: 50 years of the IB at the campus with a guest star appearance of the first IB Diploma coordinator, Anthony Peiris, who spoke touchingly about how different things were in 1973.

However, the undisputed highlight of the graduation came right at the end with an extraordinary speech by a graduate called (appropriately) Hector, who took to the stage and swept up the audience with him as his speech drew increasingly comical and intricate parallels between Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. Hector had carefully mapped out each component of the IB to an Ancient Greek punishment, hero, chimaera or monster. The rhythmic quality of the delivery bewitched the audience and by the end of it, we were hanging on every word until the elegiac conclusion could create no other conclusion than a standing ovation and several seconds of applause, foot stomping and cheering: it was one of those speeches where halfway through something tells you “this is a great speech”.

Speech making was a fundamental part of a classical Western education, so much so that the school of the Sophists, against which Socrates rebelled, made up of giants of rhetoric such as Gorgias, Protagoras and Demosthenes, was the core social institution of Athens. The Ancient Greek trivium, which was considered the essence of learning, consisted of grammar, logic and rhetoric. Rhetoric continued to be taught as a major part of the curriculum until it died out in the Middle Ages. 

Speech makers have different methods: the great Roman orator Cicero is said to have memorised long passages by imagining that he was walking through his villa, attributing each room to a theme by way of a mnemonic; Winston Churchill, whose speeches remain some of the greatest in the English language, composed many of them in his bathtub while consuming a bottle (or more!) of whiskey and they say that Martin Luther King wrote his magnetic, soaring and eternally evocative “I Have A Dream” speech through several different iterations, starting at the age of 15, gradually working up to the famous version he gave in Washington in 1963. Some of the better known speeches of more recent times come from teenagers or very young adults such as Greta Thurnberg and Amanda Gorman. 

There is no recipe for a great speech but similar figures of speech tend to be used (anaphora, anadiplosis, epanalepsis, chiasmus) and, as Aristotle said, a great speech should contain three features: logos (logic), pathos (emotions) and ethos (values). As we all know, stories are more interesting to listen to than laundry lists and it’s best when the speaker is engaged with the audience and not reading off a script (or a phone!) The most formulaic approach is the TedTalk, always 18 minutes and following a very similar pattern of emotional hooks, data, big questions, humour and so on.

You don’t need to be reading this to know just how important speech making is in many walks of professional life, from job interviews to formal presentations, political gatherings to official statements. Even for non-professional moments such as weddings, funerals and birthdays, knowing how to make a speech helps. This is not to say that everybody should be able to make a good speech, but I do think that it is helpful to give students some keys.

Interestingly, most curriculum frameworks around the world do not have explicit and intentional courses in public speaking. Students will do presentations in classes and sit oral examinations, but there are relatively few examples where public speaking is a core subject, as it was in Ancient Greece. This is unfortunate given just how important speech making is. Approaches to remedy this can go from teaching public speaking as a unit in language classes (where students can study and deliver great speeches) to designing assessment criteria for presentations that focus as much on the technical and emotional power of rhetoric as the content (something I do with my philosophy students, assessing them on the innovation and communication as much as content). Ensuring that students are given ample opportunity to give speeches in assemblies is important, as is coaching them in how to use a microphone, how to communicate with the audience, being aware of body language and presence, tone, rhythm and style.

As we continue to work together across systems to make sure our curricula are relevant, may we draw upon the power of speech making to give our students strategies and lessons to empower them to be confident and agile in their public communication.

The power of sports: two lessons

A few years ago my son’s basketball team won the Swiss national championship. There was much celebration, social media posts, pride and joy. How much does victory teach us though?

The next season was a different affair: the team got to the semi-finals and the match was a palpitating affair, hanging on a knife edge with one point in it. It came right down to the wire as the expression goes, literally the last fraction of a second as the final buzzer went off, my son, who is a point guard (so his job is to take the 3-point shots) received the ball. His team was two points behind, and as he released the three pointer and the ball soared through the air, time seemed to stand still. I remember watching the mighty parabola carve out space as the ball spun high up and then hurtled towards the hoop, only to bounce off both sides of the rim and then down to the ground. The shot was missed, the match was lost.

Lesson 1: camaraderie

My son was in tears and so were his team mates, but they quickly huddled around and owned the defeat together. Later, as we made our way back from the match, they laughed about it and commiserated with one another. That was the first lesson: camaraderie. I’m not sure which academic subjects or formal assessment protocols teach this, but team sports does, and the deep lesson of solidarity, support, followership and leadership, empathy and friendship that is brought about is extremely powerful and much needed in a world where we must come together to face the planet’s problems.

Lesson 2: learning from the past 

After mourning the loss – and it did take some time, my son picked himself up and drew conclusions from the loss. He had to work on his shot more and so he went outside to the village basketball hoop and practised every day over the holidays. This ability to pick yourself up, to show resilience in the face of challenge, to learn from an event and turn whatever disappointment there may have been into a lesson, is another powerful lesson that  sports can teach you. That comes down to coaching, the moral messages that sports coaches give their students, the emphasis on the long game, on looking past temporary failures to the ultimate objective  – ideating an objective till it becomes a reality.

Coaches: the unsung heroes of education

Both of my children are top performing athletes. It is less the physical prowess that is important in what they have developed than the competences. So much of this comes down to the wonderful sports coaching they received at school, something for which I am forever grateful. To this day, years later, they still speak about their coaches.  Sports teaches you important values: self discipline, self knowledge, collaboration, stress management. But this does not happen by itself, it is communicated by coaches who show a dogged commitment and investment that is heroic. The idea that physical education is seen as less important than traditional academic subjects is not only wrong, it is ridiculous in a world where it’s increasingly clear how important all the intrapersonal and interpersonal skills that sports give you are for human flourishing. 

With reforms to transcripts , like the Ecolint Learner Passport and the work done by the Coalition to Honour all Learning, we must continue to broaden assessment and to recognise athletic disciplines for their extraordinary life-worthiness. And next time you walk past the physical education department or your school or university’s sports coaches, thank them for the profound gift they give to their students.

Sustainability and Education

Planet earth has been in existence for 4.5 billion years. In the last seven to five million years of that period, human beings appeared and evolved to their homo sapiens form – essentially the way we look today- in the last 300 000 years. However, it has really only been in the last 60 years that human behaviour has started to influence the state of the planet, the so-called “Anthropocene equation” (Gaffney & Steffen, 2017).

This is really because the proliferation of economic growth and activity of carbon-emitting industries have expanded exponentially in the post WW2 period. Energy is the industry that pollutes the most, up to a staggering 35% of carbon emission, related to the burning of fossil fuels and relying on massive networks of transportation.  

It takes an extraordinary amount of bad faith and looking the other way to suggest that the carbon footprint left behind human activity is not damaging the planet and creating new inequities whereby those living off the land and in regions affected by natural disasters are not suffering terribly because of it.

Many forecasts suggest that if we continue this way, within the next 30 years we will be living on a planet that is extremely hostile to human life. There is simply no alternative but to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050, as difficult as that might seem. One of the reasons why it is so difficult to conceptualise this is because the consequences are growing exponentially, and human beings think in arithmetic, not geometric growth patterns: we cannot see what is around the corner if it defies the imagination.

Caring approaches to the ecosystem, which typically belonged to ancestral knowledge systems, were displaced, often violently, with waves of imperialism and mercantilist ideology from the late Renaissance to the present. The myths of continued economic development, a never-ending supply of resources and an approach to the environment as something to be dominated and subdued rather than respected and loved, have taken us very far down a path of destruction and an entire world of thought processes, assumptions and behaviours are deeply ingrained in it.

What should our approach be in the world of education? I would put to all involved in teaching, curriculum design and school or university leadership that sustainability has to be at the top if not among one of the top priorities on our strategies going forward. In schools and universities, this can happen at three levels:

  1. The curriculum. Teaching regenerative systems, environmental custodianship, ecology, principles of sustainability, shared economies and carbon-neutral pathways.
  2. The operation of the institution. A mobility plan to reduce car use, more no meat days in the cafeteria, use of renewable energies in building design and the habituation of more environmentally sustainable behaviours (curbing the needless use of paper for example, thinking twice before sending emails, slowing down photocopying).
  3. Individual goals. Each person in the institution committing to a sustainable development goal.

At the International School of Geneva, we are placing sustainability high up on the agenda for a curriculum that is relevant and transformative. We will be supporting a sustainability lead to drive institution-wide projects and an international sustainability observatory. I hope that you will join us as we face the single most important goal facing the planet together. 

Happiness and Education

Today is the International Day of Happiness, a celebration that was first ritualised by the United Nations 10 years ago. This evokes philosophical questions about what it means to be happy and to what extent education can create happiness.

Different philosophers have had different approaches to what happiness is. For ancient philosophers such as Confucius and Aristotle, happiness is achieved by striving for virtue. Virtue for Confucius meant a subduing of the self; for Aristotle it meant moral piety. In seeking temperance and modesty, a higher life, or “eudaimonia” as Aristotle called it, will be gained and it is here, paradoxically, in the selflessness of humility, that happiness resides.

The great Stoic philosophers (Epictetus, Lucretius, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius), not unlike Buddhist philosophers, viewed happiness as something that would come about through an acceptance of life. Rather than resist, one should accept. Through acts of meditation and reflection, one gains happiness by loving what is rather than hoping for what might be. It is true that it is unlikely that one will be happy if life is an ongoing battle against everything around you, but without resistance, how do we stop ourselves from falling into quietism and apathy? 

Indeed, for the great feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, happiness is an act of resistance through which one has to uproot herself from reality, take some philosophical distance and, through this act of criticality, seek a pathway that is personal, genuine and authentic. Happiness, therefore, comes about through this existential, even political act of self-defining decision making and critical consciousness. Ultimately, we have the agency to bring upon ourselves a life that may or may not be a happy one, depending on the sincerity of the choice and the willingness to face the consequences and the responsibility of the choice. A problem with this is that not everybody has the same degree of choice, some have more than others on a structurally unequal playing field.

Ubuntu, the much acclaimed Southern African philosophy, seeks wellbeing through the coextensive appreciation of others: I am because we are; no one person can exist in isolation, we find our emancipation in each other’s interdependence and collective dignity. In this ontological framework, happiness comes about through other people and a feeling of connection. 

Nietzsche, on the other hand, believed that the path to happiness was through the active principle: in a deeply individualistic manner, one needs to strive for the active principle, which is to live your life like a work of art, with passion and conviction, so much so that you would be prepared to live it again and again. In this way you rise above the many in an exhilarating act of self overcoming.  

Some might say that trying to attain happiness in and of itself is a futile endeavour, that it is precisely by not thinking about what happiness is or how one might be happy and, instead, by being fully engaged and focussed in something that happiness might come about. Furthermore, it is not really possible to be in a permanent state of happiness: it is rather a mood that comes and goes. In life, there are bound to be moments of sadness, anger, regret, but also joy and hope. 

Happiness in Schools

The World Health Organisation estimates that globally, 5% of adults suffer from depression. Mental health issues have become a serious issue in schools; we have to explore the best way to address this educationally. 

There is no one answer to the question as the abovementioned philosophical viewpoints demonstrate. Two things I believe strongly as a school leader, a parent and a teacher, are that 

  1. Young people need to be recognised in their school environment for the potential they have. If we are able to see in each student that special gift and relay that to them, not in a throw-away, insincere manner, but truthfully and intentionally, it reinforces a belief in themselves, which becomes a force within that builds confidence and resilience. Deficit narratives are damaging to self esteem. The Victorian belief that through negative messaging we can put people on the right course is a clumsy and dangerous one. Better to see the good within each student and let that grow.
  2. The more engaged students are in the full repertoire of school life (sports, arts, service learning, cultural events, field days, opportunities), the more likely, in that focus and flow, to enjoy themselves individually and collectively. Happiness is not something that necessarily comes about through targeted interventions, it grows out of a culture. Encouraging students to be fully involved in school life allows them to be children, to explore different aspects of their being and keeps them focussed.

Unfortunately, a lot of unhappiness is created by other people (Jean Paul Sartre said famously, in his play “No Exit”, that “hell is other people”), and it is difficult for an institution to tell people how to behave with each other. Even a tightly enforced code of conduct cannot prevent the silent acts of exclusion that are hurtful and happen below the radar.  What schools can influence is the culture. If there is a vibrant, active collective culture in which we recognise talent in people, we will surely be on one of the paths that lead to moments of happiness.

Translating theory into practice in schools

There are a number of imperatives in education that it would be difficult to argue against: any good school should be looking into them. Central ones would have to include:

  • Assessment (the art of pedagogic feedback, scaffolding and strategies for effective learning)
  • Student wellbeing (resilience, mindfulness, character education, health)
  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (at the levels of the student, staff and parent experience, syllabus choices, school culture)
  • Sustainability (in the way the school operates and the extent to which regenerative modes of life are taught and ritualised)
  • Education for peace (learning to live together, conflict resolution, communication norms, listening skills, the code of conduct, restorative practices)  
  • Competence-based learning (how to develop lifelong learning, self agency, types of interaction, working with systems and technology, ways of empowering and stimulating original and expansive thinking)

The difficulty is less in articulating what these themes are (despite the invariable taxonomical complications that come with presenting them in a coherent and powerful manner) and much more, of course, in implementing them. This is for three core reasons:

  1. Prioritisation. How do we fit these themes into a heavily packed subject-dominated curriculum with multiple exigencies at the levels of academic performance, externally mandated credit systems, compulsory units of study and only so many hours in the day? What gives to make way for what must be? Where to find the time?
  2. Making it stick. How do schools avoid initiative overload where a “flavour of the month” approach to strategic imperatives comes and goes with different leaders, bandwagons, curricula reforms and change management efforts? 
  3. Culture. How do school leaders create conditions where everybody – or at least most people – are ready to engage with a strategy, to adopt it and run with it? More precisely, what can be done to ensure that adoption is sincere, deep and effective?

There is no shortage of literature on this: change management theories, speakers and books with formulas, stories of success that might be transferred across contexts and sectors abound. Analogies are rife: school leadership is compared to managing football or basketball teams, conducting an orchestra, running a startup company, planting trees (I’ve even heard it compared to planting vegetables!), and so on.

If there was a silver bullet we would know about it and all use it, and it is true that some management theories seem to work across different sectors, but I would argue that schools are unique in that they deal with three variables that other sectors simply do not have to contend with:

  1. Children going through different phases of development
  2. Parents, who entrust the school with their children but are also educational partners in the journey, not mere “clients”
  3. A curriculum that is taught but the effects of which can only be measured very approximately (this is not a world of “productivity” but of learning, full of stops and starts, uncontrolled variables and individual influences)

In my experience, having tried different approaches to the operationalisation of strategy, from “snowballing” (steady incremental change) to “big bang” approaches (a bold vision with steps to follow), I’ve found that some things shift the culture and create a real influence on student learning, others do not. 

If there are two principles only by which we should abide in order to translate theory into practice, I would say they are whole system alignment and integration rather than addition.

Whole system alignment

Using the congruence model approach (which recognises interdependencies as interlocking parts), the reform should run from an unambiguous costed strategy with an implementation roadmap through training of everybody involved, to targets and expectations and at the levels of student learning (the curriculum and school events), communications, feedback loops, systems reform and partnerships. When, for example, we set about to design our Universal Learning Programme curriculum framework at the International School of Geneva’s La Grande Boissière campus, a three year plan was published along with a teacher training programme, student project schedule and intended outcomes, while our official partner, UNESCO-IBE helped set targets through annual reviews of progress made. Through constant feedback loops, the framework was improved and continues to evolve. Communicating what the programme was, was an essential exercise as it reinforced the cogency of the reform, allowing people to understand it better. Student, teacher and parent voices were listened to in a strategy group that followed the progress made at these interdependent levels. Much of this is ongoing as the work needs constant refinement and checking in. As I write this, teachers are releasing short films on how they teach the programme and these are sent to their colleagues and our parents.

Integration rather than addition  

As long as we conceptualise themes as substitutive or additive, meaning that something has to be taken away for them to work, or that we have to add them to a catalogue of existing features, any reform is bound to struggle. If you are asking “where do I find the time?”, it means that the approach is not integrative. Rather than consider an extra module, course or unit to add, the whole approach needs to be rethought: it requires an ontological shift. In other words, rather than trying to look at questions of DEIJ or critical thinking in stand-alone courses, the whole curriculum should be decolonized and made more critical; rather than concentrating on some sort of advisory course as the only possible avenue to drive student wellbeing, the tenets of wellbeing should run through staff and student interactions, messaging, teaching style and discussions focussed on learning within and across subjects. For example, when at the International School of Geneva we developed our Learner Passport, the idea was to start with the student experience and to describe what was already there, not to add anything.  As such, the passport integrates the arts, physical education, social impact work, interpersonal skills and academics, into a whole description of the profile of the graduate. It is making visible that which is rather than creating what is not yet. This makes the reform powerful and sustainable. The passport is not about more work, it requires, instead, a shift in thinking: the way that universities view student learning, the way that students conceptualise their own education and the manner in which teachers recognise student talents. 

Education is a complex network of curriculum, instruction, families, human growth and systems and processes.  A major challenge facing school systems is operationalising strategy. There is no silver bullet but perhaps these two principles are useful to keep in mind: whole system alignment and integration.  At the end of the day, however, the real challenge is for the community to embrace reform, to own it. That requires more than strategy, it requires time, dedication, concessions and that mysterious X factor which, I believe, is specific to each school’s culture.