Imagine the atmosphere of a school where there is a palpable sense of creative thinking, where one can see the arts, choirs, music and film production, and at the same time a clear focus on scientific experimentation. Imagine life as a student being able to experiment, design and then print out your blueprint on a 3D printer or a laser cutter as part of the school curriculum. Imagine that a student can take part in an international robotics competition hosted at his school by day and being on stage singing blues in a Cabaret performance involving students, staff, parents and friends of the school by night.
I was not touring a school in Finland or Singapore, the two countries currently recognized as having the world’s the best educational systems. These were, rather, my immediate impressions after visiting the International School of Prague, which overlooks the Prague Šárka valley nature reserve.
Interviewing Dr. Arnie Bieber, ISP Director, turned from a traditional question and answer format into a lively discussion.
As Arnie truly lives and breathes the ISP mission “Inspiring Learners for Life”, I could sense his passion for an inspiring, engaging and empowering education organically engrained into every activity, including proud presentation of the school to visitors, talking about current and potential partnerships as well as embedding school activities within the local community. The last element is very important for ISP, as both private and international schools are often judged as being too distant and dislocated from the local environment.
Arnie, today’s world is changing rapidly. In fact, uncertainty is perhaps the only certain element. How do you prepare students for the future to succeed in professions and disciplines that might not even exist today?
We truly regard ourselves as a future-focused school, and we aim to be preparing future citizens of the world. If you look at our mission, which you can see all around the school, you will notice three key elements: Inspire, Engage and Empower. Our core purpose is to “Inspire learners to lead healthy, fulfilling and purposeful lives” and we know that we are successful when our graduates live their lives in this manner.
The element of our mission linked to facing an uncertain future is addressed in the second part of the mission, “preparing students to adapt and contribute responsibly to our changing world”. However, the ability to change and to adapt is not enough without a moral compass. The world may have very many smart people but do they have integrity and act ethically? No learning institution should stress one while neglecting the other. The ISP experience revolves around “engaging our diverse community in authentic global education within a nurturing student-centred environment”. Diversity is very important. Our student body, comprised of 60 different nationalities, brings a multitude of different religions and cultures to our campus. To interact and learn with such diversity is very powerful because it allows for an appreciation of our differences. Future successful leaders need to understand and respect differences, such as those based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, belief or culture.
What would your argument be for the adults who went to traditional schools in the Czech Republic who cannot imagine a serious and enjoyable education at the same time?
The distinction between something being relevant and something being rigorous or challenging is a false one. We believe that the best path to learning which is not superficial and meaningful is often through relevance. We can all remember our high school algebra, trigonometry and advanced calculus, but did what we learn have relevance to our lives? How much do we even actually remember? It is not that these subjects are not important, but they should be taught so that students understand how it is personally relevant to them. Otherwise, you only play the game of school. The rules go like this – you memorize all you can, you pass a test and then you go on and often forget most of what you had to memorize. Such an approach does not support learning of relevant skills for the future.
So let us be more specific, what are the competencies that future citizens should have?
They are addressed in our mission as well. They include the ability to: Think Critically and Creatively, Work Cooperatively and Independently and Listen and Communicate Effectively. Notice the element of effective listening, not only speaking, as is often stressed. When it comes to our central values, notice the verb to act. At ISP, the expectation is that we act with compassion, integrity, respect and intercultural understanding in school and throughout our lives. To sum up all that we have discussed so far, we care deeply about the foundational literacies such as reading, writing, arithmetic etc. However if this is primarily what a student has attained, we have failed as a school in this day and age. Students need so much more to succeed, problem solving skills, critical thinking skills and well as collaborating well with others. Furthermore, as a school, staying current with how the world is changing is more important than ever. If you look at successful companies, they are changing all the time, they expect innovation but in the school environment, such an approach is not always considered important.
We discussed skills. However, the newest approach to adult learning is focused more on talents. So should we develop what we are not good at to become mediocre, or rather concentrate on what goes easy for us to become excellent?
I do not think the debate should be either talent or skills. Being an effective listener is not necessarily a talent. If you are not an effective listener, should you be one? And how can you become one? Perhaps you do not work well with other people. Well, you can work alone but you cannot be very successful unless you learn to work with others. But the answer to your question lies in personalized learning. Education should not be one size fits all. We are all unique human beings with unique talents. The best schools help students to follow both their talents and their passions. Sometimes your passions do not necessarily need to be your talents. The idea is for each learner to discover who they are and for to help them to discover that and develop further. That is why we talk about being purposeful, since you cannot be fulfilled in your life without being purposeful, and you cannot be purposeful unless you are self-aware of your abilities.
Following on the importance of science, there is currently a heated debate in the Czech Republic without giving priority to mathematics and technical subjects to the detriment of humanities, arts not being even mentioned a relevant part of the curriculum. What is your view?
Well, there has been a distinction made between ‘STEM’ and ‘STEAM’ subjects (‘STEAM’ stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) while ‘STEM’ is missing the arts. We are more inline with the ‘STEAM’ approach. As a school we of course offer the traditional sciences such as physics, chemistry, biology and environmental science as well as design thinking, and extensive technology such as programing, computer science and robotics. In fact we have just hosted an international robotics competition where students from around the world have competed in designing, creating, programming and running their own robots. These are the 21st century skills and I would argue that the arts play as an important role as the “hard sciences.” Whether or not you become an artist, the arts, visual arts, drama or music will afford you many skills and understandings that will serve you well in life. Acting, improvising, making music etc – these skills do not take away from the sciences, they enhance them. We want our students to be whole human beings, not partial human beings and so the education is based on an holistic approach.
How do the two major opposing trends – globalization and localization – translate into education?
There is a famous quote by Comenius, which is cherished and displayed at the entrance to ISP, which says: “We are all citizens of the world. To dislike a man because he was born in another country, because he speaks a different language or because he takes a different view on this subject or that, is a great folly. Let us have but one end in view, welfare of humanity.”
So we celebrate our diversity and take advantage of the fact that we are in the heart of Europe in the Czech Republic and in Prague, surrounded by a rich and vibrant culture. It is very important to be part of that culture. We study both the Velvet Revolution and the Holocaust, we take advantage of the beautiful surrounding countryside as an amazing resource for all subject areas. Children study and meet artists and experts in the city and much more. “The curator project” for the middle school is run in co-operation with the Lobkowicz family and students learn, discover and present their research of artefacts from the Lobkowicz Museum’s rich collections. As you can see, the local and global elements are intertwined. We are very much of the opinion that “local is global and global is local.” As for the Czech educational community, we are always looking for partnering opportunities with Czech educators and Czech schools. Given our strong technological background for example, we annually host a conference for Czech educators addressing the issue of how to best to utilise technology in teaching. Furthermore ISP students have many opportunities to interact with students from local schools as well as their peers from sister schools from around the world.
What are your final words for Czech and Slovak Leaders readers?
I would say that leaders should always value and yes, embrace diversity. The tapestry of cultures and backgrounds we have at ISP is undoubtedly a key strength of our school. I firmly believe that the case for diversity is also the case for business. Diversity allows for fresh and varied perspectives in any organization, and is certainly a crucial ingredient to preparing children for their futures in a diverse and globalized world.
Interview was written for Czech & Slovak Leaders magazine and with their courtesy published on our blog.