Schools are increasingly fluent – not to say profuse – in the language of learning: in telling you that their school delivers what is best for your child. But between slick sounding Communications Managers, intimidating Directors of Admissions, and a whole host of other senior administrators with an eye for PR – and a tongue for the latest educational buzzwords – how do parents work out which educational model is really the right fit for their children?

 Let’s begin where we left-off in my previous article, with technology.

 As discussed previously, the word technology derives from the Greek tekhnologia meaning ‘systematic treatment’, or ‘technique’: a different way of doing something. That’s essentially all these things that increasingly surround us and our schools – iPads, Kindles, smartphones, delivery-robots, immersive VR technology – are doing: they are giving us different ways of doing things. Ideally, they are helping us to do things better.

But apart from such literal tech, schools are also more broadly concerned with ‘systematic treatments’, or ‘techniques’ of doing teaching and learning better. Every week another educational expert unveils another learning innovation. To use the language of the sector: it is a proliferation of pedagogies! And in this increasingly competitive and uncertain world, the stakes are high for us as educators and parents: we must get the choices of teaching and learning environment right for our children.

But the stakes are also high for everyone else’s children, so competition is fierce, and – moreover – there may be sharks swimming in these developmental waters. With Forbes estimating the exponentially expanding international schools market alone to hit $89 Billion by 2026, there is a lot of money to be made in this rapidly growing global market. So, with the pedagogies, the self-branding proliferates: The Innovative School, The Inclusive School, Student-Centered Learning, Personalized Learning, Traditional Curriculum with Modern Methods… and every other variation of grand claims to have the best, most effective model for learning. But which is right for your child? Moreover: which is legit? Which shiny new model lives-up to its luster?

When I first joined the teaching profession fifteen years ago my mother, a veteran London school teacher of 30 years, was one of a large number of teachers of her generation being offered early retirement. There was an ugly phrase being tossed around staff-rooms to describe these seasoned professionals: dead wood. The idea being that these veterans of the classroom, who had seen each new wave of educational initiatives (the drive for greater inclusion and enhanced interactive learning under the left wing Labour government; for further challenge, choice and more deeply personalized learning under the Conservatives…) come and go with successive waves of careerist middle-managers driving the front-bench policies of the day. My mother and her generation of expert teachers had seen wave-upon-wave of initiatives come-and-go, with leaders building their careers on the backs of these latest education tekhnologia. They had seen enough not to be dazzled by the luster of the new. They had experienced enough and had enough security in their roles to express an informed critique based on years of deep professional experience. These were, apparently, the ‘dead wood’, to be hacked away from the tree in order for new branches to emerge from its bark.

A colleague of mine at NIST International School, now Head of School at a large International School in Vietnam, had a much nicer, but moreover – I would suggest – more accurate term for these non-partisan veterans like my mum: the backbenchers. A term borrowed from the British Houses of Parliament, a backbencher describes someone whose value to the democratic process is precisely derived from their being at some distance from the ‘front bench’ – from the politicized arms race to implement the new technologies, to catch the headlines with the latest initiatives. These backbench politicians – like Winston Churchill before the war where he led the allies, like Jeremy Corbyn before the last election, to name but a few – know that their role first and foremost is in serving their constituents interests. In teaching, this often means those teachers who have chosen to stay in the classroom, those who have not chosen to pursue the more political, initiative-driven career path of educational leadership, but remain first-and-foremost where education matters most: in the classroom, working with their constituents – our children.

Needless to say, I do not wish to make the case here that the ‘frontbench educators’ – the pedagogical leaders, the administration – are all desperately cynical careerists pushing the latest pedagogies for a market share of that $89 billion global market… not least, I am one!  But in a world where new pedagogies – theories of learning – are appearing almost as rapidly as the tekhnologia we explored last month, we must be careful that our schools are not becoming driven purely by these initiatives.

What does this mean, in practical terms, for parents when choosing a school?

It means that you should speak to the people who really know the school, who really know the students.

To be sure, a great starting point is to find a school whose educational philosophy closely aligns to your own, and the character of your child. If you child is a gentle, playful soul who enjoys exploring and learning at their own pace, you may not choose a traditionally academically rigorous prep school model, for example. If your child is someone who enjoys structure, routine and traditional academic challenge, you may not choose a play-based learning model, for example. But this should just be a starting point. You need to know the real content and character of the school. And a glossy brochure, an interactive website, positive sounding Mission, Vision and Values statements with pictures and videos of happy, diverse student bodies are all very well. A school tour with lesson observations – even better.

But best of all, get to know the school itself, ask to meet a range of staff members, and parents of current students. Try to meet the students and teachers themselves – and not just those cherry-picked by the school leadership for the purpose. And when you speak to staff, sniff-out the ‘back-benchers’, if you can. If there aren’t any amongst the staff – ask why not. If the school is unreceptive to you meeting older faculty – or doesn’t have any – you can rightly ask: what are they trying to hide? And why have the older teachers left – or never arrived?

Ultimately, we want to find places where our children can live and learn with freedom and flexibility to find friends and role models amongst their peers, amongst the vibrant, energetic new wave of educators – but also amongst the older and perhaps wiser educators that we should consider ourselves privileged to share our learning spaces with. One of the ubiquitous buzzwords in contemporary educational philosophy and Mission, Vision and Values statements of which I am a big fan is inclusion. I believe that, in the best schools, this extends to students, staff, parents and beyond; and to old and young alike. Learning ecosystems thrive from new growth, from fresh saplings springing-up in fertile educational ground. But the older oaks and redwoods, those with deeper roots in the soil: these are where we can find stability, where the secrets of the forest reside, and even where more delicate organisms can sometimes flourish and grow, finding relief from the glaring light of modernity.  

If that last sentiment veered too far into the indirect and poetic, let me conclude more directly. Throughout the various contested theories of what 21st Century Learning should look like, there is one pervasive theme: that we must equip students with the skills to be self-directed learners in an uncertain future. We must prepare them for the real world; education must equip them for life. And dynamic adaptation to an uncertain world must involve at least as much back-bench skepticism as it does front-bench zeal. If education is a preparation for life, then we should value the wisdom of the old alongside the novelty of the new.

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