In his 13-year tenure as Director of the International School of Prague, Dr. Arnie Bieber has transformed one of Europe’s oldest international schools into one of the most innovative learning organisations in the world. When Dr. Bieber and his wife Marianne depart from Prague this summer, they will leave behind a school with a unique learning culture, where everyone is seen as a learner, guided by a clear learner-centered mission, and empowered to make a difference in the world. As a former chair of the ECIS and CEESA Boards, and after 20 successful years as a school director in Prague and Bucharest, Dr. Bieber not only leaves a thriving school but a significant leadership footprint in Europe’s educational landscape.
Arnie, we will try the impossible and condense 13 years of innovation at ISP into four questions. When you arrived at ISP, how long did it take before you could make an impact?
When I arrived in Prague 13 years ago I was tasked with creating a new mission. For me as a director, it meant I could work very closely with all constituencies and create something new. It’s the mission that has guided us ever since. It was a great springboard for all our work during my tenure. Our mission is about inspiring, engaging and empowering learners and it is the foundation of what we are about as a school. The mission is the standard by which we measure ourselves, for example our curriculum, our learning principles and our learner profile. It’s about the way we want kids to learn, the way we want to interact as a community, the values that we have all stem from the mission. Over ten years ago, we revamped the curriculum from a content to skills-based curriculum, it’s about the competencies for 21st-century learners and how we capture this in different disciplines.
You helped ISP become a mission-driven school with an excellent reputation. Many schools have missions; how did you bring yours to life?
It’s true, most schools have a mission, often nice words put up on a wall. At ISP, we were very intentional and strategic about ours, so every word has a meaning. We talk about engaging students in an authentic, global education. Authentic means that learning is relevant and connected to the real world. I have to confess; I am obsessed with it. I am talking about the mission all the time. It’s not indoctrination, it is about our practice, and about what we do every day. For example, we tell learning stories all the time. They exemplify our values and our beliefs about learning. It’s a continuous communication loop in real time. It’s on the website, on our social media channels, it’s visible on our walls and around our learning spaces. When I go into classrooms and ask students, “what are you learning?” they can articulate their learning and show their engagement, explain to me what is happening, and it means they are engaged. It’s not so much looking at the teacher, it is about looking at the students, at what and how they learn. We created learning principles directly connected to the mission and the learner profile. So the mission is constantly reinforced in practice, and the learning stories are a constant reflection back to what we believe. We have to be very clear about the WHY – and the mission is the why – and then we can create new HOW’s.
Under your guidance, ISP created the ‘Learning Innovation Hub’ from and established unique learning events like the ‘Edge in Education’. You even brought Jane Goodall to start the school’s Roots & Shoots program and flew in a real NASA astronaut to share his experience from the International Space Station. Looking back at the many highlights, what are the achievements you are particularly proud of?
We are a progressive school, and see ourselves as leaders in international education. But we need to constantly challenge our assumptions if we want to progress. We always use the term learner – everyone in our community is a learner. The mission applies to everyone in the school, including parents. We started the ‘Edge in Education’ series about 8 years ago, and I am very proud of it. It is a forum where parents and experts talk about where we are going as a school, what are the trends in education and what is ISP adopting and developing, prototyping and trying out. Parents have to be part of the change, otherwise there won’t be any progress. I am really proud of where the school is now. I think one of the characteristics of good leadership is that it is not just working when the leader remains, but also when the leader moves on. I believe strongly that the school has a strong foundation in its beliefs, its mission and its WHY, so that the school will continue along this path and continue to grow. Dr. Chip Kimball is the incoming director at ISP and he strongly believes in the direction of the school. He will be working on the new HOWs and will find new ways for the school to move forward and continue to move closer to our mission.
What is next for you Arnie?
I am very excited about the future because I have been very intentionally not looking ahead too much to nail down exactly what I will be doing. I will continue the educational journey and am committed to making a difference in transforming education and making it relevant for today’s learners. Schools are generally very conservative institutions and while the world is changing in front of our eyes, schools still try to hang on to the past. We don’t want hospitals, for example, functioning today like they did 50 years ago. Schools and universities too often look to the past. The question is where is the breakthrough. We need a new paradigm. Either schools will die a slow death or rise like a phoenix and are reborn. I want to help figure out how schools can become new kinds of learning environments for kids and ensure strong leadership for the future.
Thank you, Arnie. We look forward to having you on the Pioneering Schools’ advisory board for many more years!