All posts by Trae Holland

Trae Holland is the Director of Academia Cotopaxi’s The ONE Institute, has been a leader in both the non-profit and business sectors, and has 19 years experience teaching both in the U.S. and in international schools, with a specialization in learning differentiation. You can reach his website at www.traeholland.com.

International Schools as Community Hubs

There is an old cautionary Chinese fable about a rather witless soldier who while crossing a river in a small boat, loses his sword over the side.  He scrambles to grab it, but acting too late…he watches in horror as it sinks out of reach to the bottom of the river. In the hopes of retrieving it later when safely on the other bank, he marks the side of the boat with a dagger to remind him of the precise spot where his prized weapon went overboard. One can only imagine the confused sadness of the solder once reaching land, who cannot fathom why despite his best care in making his mark, it no longer serves the poor fellow in guiding him back to his sword.

There is a growing awareness among leaders of international schools that in the face of accelerating change both within and outside our institutions, we must evolve quickly, and with a more open mind to new and more innovative ways of organizing and sustaining ourselves.  Yet many schools could be forgiven if they at times might be operating under the same misconception as our water borne soldier, assuming the long standing routines and operating norms that reign within our walls still serve us effectively in gauging the shifting reality around us.

The explosion in the number and diverse types of international schools in recent years has not altered the underlying reality that such institutions still generally rely on certain tried and true approaches to planning, managing and financing their organizations.  These may include long standing tuition based fee for service models, curriculum and programming concentrated almost exclusively around student performance within the classroom alone, and finally, at least in a majority of cases, interactions with the local community that remain limited to a variation of traditional student service and charitable endeavors. However, the question is not whether a continued reliance on tuition fees and classroom centered programming will remain core elements of our operating realities, but rather that they will no longer stand alone as the sole methods of financing and justifying our schools’ continued reasons for being. In essence, if we are to truly innovate and reinvent our schools, our obligations can no longer be confined to what can be academically achieved within a classroom context alone, nor may we look only to our students and their families for the resources needed to build and sustain the future sustainability we seek.

In the same way that John Dewey so long ago laid the foundations for our contemporary understanding of the entire child, it is now time to begin viewing our schools in a similarly holistic and multidimensional manner.  If for instance, we embrace the whole child, why would we not extend that same broader understanding to schools in both how they operate, and as importantly, whom they serve.  Whether it be in finding new structural and financial models, or through the creation of more ambitious and far reaching programs that before may have been seen as out of our purview, schools must now reimagine what our new boundaries of action and impact will be.

Take for instance our experience here in Quito at Academia Cotopaxi, and our work in transforming our existing on campus language center into a broad based community outreach, partnership building and student led service vehicle for change.  The newly launched ONE Institute serves our mission, expands opportunities for student learning, rejects disciplinary silos, increases revenue, builds external partnerships and breaks down boundaries between our school and our larger community.  Here we have established a ground breaking lending library that will address both the challenges of economic inequality and illiteracy in our community, while also providing authentic student leadership experience.  We now offer SAT and TOEFL test preparation services and have been certified as a TOEFL testing center.  The ONE Institute designed an entirely new corporate and business English program for companies in Quito, and we now plan to expand English training for AC parents, as well as our summer camp programming to include intensive IB academic English courses across the full spectrum of disciplines, a program available to students of both AC and other surrounding schools.

Whether like our experience at Academia Cotopaxi, a school chooses to repurpose and redirect the energies of a satellite organization already on campus, or through a new program or initiative created with a broader mission and focus in mind, schools as community hubs will need to grow into places where sustainable external partnerships are created and new opportunities for learning and revenue are realized.  The role of the school now expands and concentrates the community’s combined energies, which makes for more authentic connections and stronger families. The benefits for the school also include a more energetic curricular program, tangible hands on learning and actionable experience community problem-solving. For our institutions as a whole, rather than detached “cities on the hill,” with walls that at times separate as well as protect, international schools now become vital centers of community activity, awareness and enrichment.

The challenge before us now is to truly reimagine our schools as more than academic institutions in the time honored sense.  We must enlarge the reach and imperatives of our missions beyond the students in our classrooms, but to families; and not just to families that pay tuition, but to our communities as a whole.  In this way, we can open vast new worlds of discovery and authentic learning for our students, reach beyond our walls and into the homes and neighborhoods of our local communities, and in so doing, unlock exciting new revenue opportunities and means for sustaining our institutions.

If on the other hand, we remain committed to our most traditional and long standing assumptions about what the role of our schools should encompass, we could find ourselves marking the gunwales of our boats, only to find that our ultimate goal of better organizational health and relevance remains stubbornly out of reach.

Students Leading Us to a Future that Still Values Expertise

Let’s play a game, akin to the old Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the others.” Try to guess which one of the following teachers’ workshops would have occurred 15 years ago, versus the others you may have seen on a conference schedule as recent as 2017: Assessments for the Whole Student, Saying Goodbye to the “Sage on the Stage”, Students Leading their Learning, and finally, Unit Planning for the Engaging Teacher. I realize that it’s not much of a challenging game in that the question virtually answers itself. Any educational professional with even a nominal ear to the ground listening for clues to the future of international education as of late will have internalized something very transformative by now about the role of both student and the teacher in the classroom. Namely, we are hearing that all things innovative, forward leaning and authentic in the classroom now embrace the student, his interests and aspirations, and most importantly, her self-directed learning process as the gravitational center of our pedagogical universe.

In the face of increasing global connectivity, escalating social change and the promise of a future brimming with jobs that haven’t even been invented yet, educational leaders must now grapple with and redefine what it means to truly prepare our students for the radically changing world that awaits them. Thankfully, our profession has in recent years begun leaving behind industrial age conventions on uniformity, orthodoxy and teacher-centric doctrines of “what to know to test well” for greener fields seeded in experiential learning, student led inquiry and a more urgent focus on “how to creatively think.” This seismic event impacts virtually everything we talk about when envisioning our schools, from curricula, assessment and teacher training, down to budgeting, the role of technology and even facility planning and construction. Though unclear, and even daunting, we are all excited as educators for what is coming.

Yet in this dizzying, thrilling new egalitarian landscape of the future, where students are not merely part of the conversation in crafting their academic experience, but are now expected to be fully endowed “leaders of their own learning,” we now need to ask what role schools must play in averting what Tom Nicols has ominously called “The Death of Expertise.” How do we create learning environments that celebrate and cultivate student agency and responsibility for their own learning while still inculcating them with that essential respect, and even awe, for the beauty of legitimate scholarship and hard won virtuosity in a given discipline which they have not yet achieved? We as educators are vexed by the paradox of modern technology and the boundless largess of the internet, for with its vast bounty has also risen a parallel challenge where too frequently, it seems everyone’s opinion now has equal weight, regardless of merit or evidentiary grounding. In its worse incarnation, a form of narcissistic intellectual populism has been increasingly driving too much of public opinion on everything from climate change and health to welfare policies and societal responses to income or gender inequality. And we must face the fact that our students are in no way immune to such specious forms of ill-conceived hubris, based all too frequently on no more than a speed reading of Wikipedia.

Many contemporary social theorists are noting that this new age of unlimited information access and its resulting “consumer centered information society,” rather than producing an educated public, has instead birthed whole swaths of ill-informed and all too easily outraged partisans who give proof to perhaps Mark Twain’s most acerbic observation: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Our challenge now as educators tracks closely to how we successfully prepare students for a future where creativity, individuality, emotional intelligence and self-determination will be critical difference makers, while also continuing to instill in them respect for the trials, sacrifices and devotion that are ultimately required in the attainment of genuine knowledge. I like to think we can find a remedy for this conundrum in an even stronger reliance on teaching our students the rigors of critical thinking, hard-nosed source analysis and evidentiary based conclusions. Thus even as we effect this most exciting of transformations that empowers, licenses and validates the student as the primary engine driving the learning process, our task now might demand we hold even more fast to some very fundamental principles that have already been with us a very long time.