Head's Blog

Education as a weapon

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Nelson Mandela

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the UWC Heads retreat, the first face-to-face gathering of UWC schools and college heads since February 2020, when a smaller group managed to meet at UWC East Africa during the UWC governance meetings there (a trip I cancelled the day before I was scheduled to depart due to the arrival of COVID in the region).
We were hosted by the Rektor at UWC Robert Bosch College, Laurence Nodder. I laughed when, during our tour of the campus, I saw Nelson Mandela’s bust covered with a FFP2 respirator at their lobby:
You probably know that Mandela is a former Honorary President of the UWC movement and recognise the quote, with which the UWC mission statement aligns beautifully: “to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.”

One of the main topics of the retreat was - unsurprisingly when you gather school heads in one place! - education. The UWC Heads group has been working on a review of the UWC educational model focusing particularly on the final two pre-university years that we all share - the IB Diploma Programme (DP). At the same time, the IB has been conducting a review of the DP which is now entering the next stage, opening up opportunities for co-creation and collaboration between the IB and IB World Schools.

A clear pattern is emerging: Some things need to change. In some cases, urgently so.

One of the seminal projects that sounded the alarm about a paradigmatic change being needed was Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project. If you are not familiar with it (and are worried about the impact that the university admissions processes are having on young people today), I definitely recommend you to read:

  • Their 2016 report, Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions, which started by stating “It’s time to say, “Enough!” and covers three areas:
    • “Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good.
    • Assessing students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture and class.
    • Redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.” (MCC)
  • Their 2019 Turning the Tide II: How Parents and High Schools Can Cultivate Ethical Character and Reduce Distress in The College Admissions Process, which addresses how may schools “tend to focus too rigidly on highly selective colleges, don’t adequately nurture students’ interests and curiosity, and do little to challenge parents engaging in ethically troubling behavior.” (MCC).

This is undeniably a pattern worldwide, and it is worth exploring how it is affecting the much smaller group of UWC schools and colleges. The UWC heads shared a concern that the focus on values and mission that defined UWC is at risk as often our students suffer from the pressure (whether self-imposed, coming from their families, their peers and even the schools) of measuring their UWC experience in terms of university admissions outcomes. The focus is not on learning, but on achievement or, more precisely, academic achievement. Or, in other words, “As long as I get that 7, everything else is secondary.”

It may surprise you, but in my time at UWC I have had many conversations with students who argue that they only want to concentrate on academics and complain about being expected to be engaged in CAS (a core component of the IB programme) or residential life activities (“Why am I expected to attend a weekly meeting of the residential community I belong to?!”)

How a student with such an approach joins a mission-based school is worth a separate conversation (actually, there are several ongoing conversations about this taking place). It is not uncommon to find students (and families) whose agendas do not always line up with the spouse values of the institution; for example agnostic families who send their children to schools affiliated to religious beliefs not because they share the belief, but rather because of the perceived value of the education offered… in spite of the beliefs. This is not a judgment, but a fact that is sometimes missed when analysing education. At the end of the day, we all want to offer our children the best possible education experience. Why we do so… has many answers, from preparing them for their future (whether focusing on grades as enablers and/or on knowledge, competences and skills) as citizens and workers to developing their character, and all kinds of combinations thereof.

A recent publication that picks up this theme and addresses it at a higher level is UNESCO’s  Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education. Recently released, the couple of chapters I have read already are hitting all the relevant nails in the head. I have starred it in my to-do list as a document to read over the upcoming break. If the whole document is as good as what I have read so far, it is certainly worth recommending it to anyone interested in education and the future of our societies.

Back to UWC RBC: We were lucky enough to be able to attend their College Assembly and some activities during their Focus on Sustainability Day. It was fantastic to be able to visit a school, something that b.C. (before COVID) I used to do regularly as a volunteer for the Council of International Schools. This was also my first “business trip” abroad since the pandemic started, I had already forgotten what forms I had to fill in for one!