How international minded are you?

By Jayne Lund

It’s the beginning of another school year. There are new teachers, new students, and their families, lots of excitement and some trepidation about living overseas or entering an international school, maybe for the first time. There have been days of preparation for teachers and school staff to be ready for the new school year. Part of that preparation is reflection on the relationships they will develop and the impact of the learning experiences they will share with their students.

Whether students are attending national or international schools the curricula they encounter will address, among many other things, global issues, global citizenship or international mindedness, to some extent or another. Some of this will be in the classroom but also in much broader surroundings involving local, regional, national, and international approaches through service learning, exchanges, and academic or social media interactions.

International mindedness is purported as a positive trait to be developed in students through knowledge and understanding of self and others that may lead to mutually beneficial action, service learning, group or individual projects based on local, national or global issues. 21st-century world issues have not diminished the need for students to understand what the International Baccalaureate describes as “our common humanity” in fact it seems it is increasingly important for schools to intentionally guide students to engage with global issues and participate in seeking solutions while considering and appreciating the existence of different perspectives.

So, the question is, “How international minded are you?” Dominique Turpin (2013) in an article for business leaders asked five questions to help them reflect their own starting place on this matter:

1. Do you have cultural curiosity?
2. Are you self-aware?
3. Are you non-judgmental?
4. Are you emotionally sensitive?
5. Can you tolerate ambiguity and complexity?

These are not the closed questions they seem and are worth pondering at any time whether based overseas or in your home country. I would argue that Question 5 should really be “Can you accept and function when there is ambiguity and complexity?”

At the new teacher orientation in August at the Canadian International School of Thailand these questions were put to the staff for self-reflection about how they approach their personal circumstances but also as a preparation for the many discussions and situations that will take place in the course of a school year with colleagues, parents, and students. The questions highlight the roles of knowledge, understanding, and empathy to develop international mindedness, but maintain the focus on the individual.

The International Baccalaureate sought to recognize the potential of young adults to develop global understanding, be knowledgeable, speak at least two languages and contribute to a peaceful world through its diploma programme in the 1960’s and now there are many educational initiatives across the world. In general, the emphasis in international school mission statements has shifted towards “21st Century Skills” or “Future forward approaches” but this does not exclude international mindedness, it is simply implicit now in the same way it is implicit in the expectations of business, commerce, and industry.

Broad concept-based curricula prioritize skills and provide sufficient flexibility to support the development of self while expanding knowledge of “other” and the ability to communicate and appreciate significant aspects of other cultures and communities. Authentic learning experiences and service learning in the classroom, local visits, field trips and school exchanges allow students to improve their interpersonal skills and intercultural appreciation. A few schools are taking this further with international collaborations with other schools, for example, The Canadian International School of Thailand in collaboration with the Lester B. Pearson School Board in Montreal provides a three-month residency for its high school students, attending a local IB World school and staying in the international student boarding facility.

Let’s now further explore the earlier questions with a focus on the concepts and the students:

1. Curiosity is a natural inclination in children that is harnessed by best practices in all areas of learning. Students are exposed to increasing diversity turning cultural curiosity into intercultural communication and understanding.
2. The development of self-awareness is supported at all stages of education through experiences and discussions on how they think, feel and act.
3. Children are significantly influenced by adults and peer groups. The need to ‘fit’ and their perception of ‘fairness’ grow over time with strong role models and opportunities to develop relationships, opinions and take action. This is by far the most difficult concept to achieve but that should not stop us aspiring to develop students that can consider diverse perspectives.
4. Emotionally sensitivity is linked with self-awareness and the development of a sense of ‘the other with the focus on empathy rather than sympathy.
5. Rather than tolerating ambiguity and complexity, I suggested earlier that we should work towards acceptance and the ability to function with ambiguity and complexity. This is the mature stage of personal development and thinking based on the ability to critically analyze and synthesize previous experiences, priorities, assumptions, and perspectives in a non-judgmental way.

Essentially whether it is international mindedness or intercultural understanding – what matters is open-mindedness that is modeled by others and invites students to discuss, debate, experience, reflect and grow.

(Jayne Lund is the Founding Principal of the Canadian International School of Thailand with over 25 years of international school experience in Europe, Africa, and Asia. She is an experienced IB consultant and WASC accreditation and IB verification team leader.)