I am convinced that the single most important factor to ensure student learning for life is learner empowerment.
For centuries, schools have been organised to ensure “order” and compliance through a variety of intentional and unintentional means. Whether it be a rigid block or bell schedule, grades, siloed courses and isolated classrooms, hours of homework or the lack of “real world” learning, students often leave school without truly experiencing real world learning. This is not a new observation. Take for example the great educational thinker, John Dewey, writing in 1899 in The School and Society:
From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning in school. That is the isolation of the school–its isolation from life. (The School and Society, 1899)
Even though Dewey’s astute observations about school date back more than 100 years, they remain truer than ever.
At the International School of Prague, our focus is on student empowerment. Students having more than a voice in their learning, but having a seat at the table. It is an ambitious standard to which we aspire, but without the aspiration of empowering students, schools will not fundamentally change and will continue to perpetuate an “isolation from life.”
One of the existential threats that the world faces is human created climate change. This is the reality that we and our students face today and it is the potential dead end that we bequeath to our children. As a parent, I fear for my children. Every day we viscerally and graphically experience the horrors of climate change and yet we have not risen to the task of turning it around. Indeed we have not begun to scratch the surface and time appears to be running out. What opportunities do our students have to problem solve and engage with such existential global issues in our schools?
At the beginning of this school year, we pointed to the example of Greta Thunberg and asked faculty and students to consider the qualities of an empowered learner. Recently, Greta was chosen as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, with the subtitle, “The Power of Youth.”
While it might make us feel good to see this young role model as Person of the Year, the reality is that the world needs scores of empowered young people who actively learn important skills in school, beyond just the foundational literacies that schools always teach.
A recent paper published by the World Economic Forum identified “Eight characteristics for learning in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” These are the competencies that we ultimately want for every ISP learner:
- Global citizenship skills: Building awareness about the wider world, sustainability and playing an active role in the global community.
- Innovation and creativity skills: Fostering skills required for innovation, including complex problem-solving, analytical thinking, creativity and systems analysis.
- Technology skills: Developing digital skills, including programming, digital responsibility and the use of technology.
- Interpersonal skills: Developing interpersonal emotional intelligence, including empathy, cooperation, negotiation, leadership and social awareness.
- Personalized and self-paced learning: Moving from a system where learning is standardized, to one based on the diverse individual needs of each learner, and flexible enough to enable each learner to progress at their own pace.
- Accessible and inclusive learning: Moving from a system where learning is confined to those with access to school buildings to one in which everyone has access to learning and is therefore inclusive.
- Problem-based and collaborative learning: Moving from process-based to project- and problem-based content delivery, requiring peer collaboration and more closely mirroring the future of work.
- Lifelong and student-driven learning: Moving from a system where learning and skilling decrease over one’s lifespan to one where everyone continuously improves on existing skills and acquires new ones based on their individual needs.
The above concepts are well encapsulated in the ISP Mission, (Inspire, Engage, Empower), created by our community 12 years ago. The third pillar of our mission states:
Empower Learners to,
- Think critically and creatively;
- Work cooperatively and independently;
- Listen and communicate effectively;
- Act with compassion, integrity, respect and intercultural understanding.
Now more than ever the world needs empowered learners who have had significant and powerful opportunities to work through the challenges of tackling real life situations while in school so that they are ready to lead and contribute to our changing world. Quoting John Dewey again:
“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” (Experience and education 1938)
And as Greta Thunberg says in the following video: “This is not a Drill!“