Formal and informal education

This article written by Jane Larsson – Executive Director, Council of International Schools – originally appeared in Global Trader on 29th Mar 2011 is republished with kind permission.

What if schools could provide students with international learning opportunities as accessible as the network that is driving reform in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and beyond?

Ready or not, in our world today, all education is international.  As we consider the rapid pace of change that is spreading across the Middle East and North Africa, governmental structures are succumbing to the nimble, inter-connectedness of youth around the world.  Tuned-in and frustrated by institutional frameworks and long standing autocracies that just don’t work as effectively as they expect them to, unemployed – but well educated – youth in Tunisia found each other online and initiated a wave of change.

Access to information about our world is at our fingertips – and yet many schools are failing to adapt their programs to match the range and depth of information that students are finding outside of formal education. Somehow, those of us who are leading formal education must figure out ways to evolve our programs that will keep pace with the organic knowledge available to students online.  As educators, we have a responsibility to help them filter that knowledge and make sense of it, so they can make their way towards useful, productive and satisfying lives.

This past week, I attended Naace – the association for UK educational technology teachers.  I stared at the keynote presenter’s first slide. ”STOP TURNING OFF THE WEB!”, Ewan McIntosh exhorted to the ICT educators in the room.  McIntosh’s lament is that many schools around the world continue to block access to social media sites like Facebook and Youtube, yet these are the places our kids stay tuned into all day long  – outside of school.

It’s our responsibility to spend time helping them to better understand what they are seeing and reading.  I am reminded of a moment when my niece urgently presented herself in front of me, saying, “… but Auntie Jane, how can I know?!”

A pure and simple question, that begs the answer, “You CAN know.”  So, what are educational leaders doing to help children, who urgently WANT to know, and CAN know, how to interpret, discuss and ultimately derive meaning and direction from the limitless source of information that is now available to them?

Luckily, there are schools that get it.  Schools that want to ensure their students gain exposure to, and understanding of, people who grow up making decisions differently than they do.  When their students come to class, they find ways to help them make some sense of the realities of life for a boy or girl of the same age across the world, who is living a life quite different than their own. We need to create ways to engage children about the world beyond their own backyards – whether they leave them or not.

This kind of commitment is not unique to schools serving “expatriate” communities.  Significant discussion is underway in schools of all types around the world about the pursuit of international education, 21st century learning or whatever else you want to call it.  One thing is clear – expatriate schools no longer have a corner on international education. Some of the most innovative international education programs are taking place in public schools that realize the importance of exploring life beyond their local communities.

Here’s a question to consider – when we talk about creating global schools or providing an international education, do we mean “globalising education” or do we mean “internationalising education”?  It’s actually the internationalisation of education – the exposure to, and interaction with, people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and therefore different perspective and thought, that are the critical elements to be provided in education today – no matter how it occurs.

Perhaps the most profound evidence about the impact of intercultural/international experience was voiced by a teacher who had just spent two years in a country and education system different from her own.

“This experience made me see that I could go further than I thought, that two people can look at the same thing and see something totally different, that the “world” in which I live is not the only option I have, that nothing can be started without ambition or completed without effort.”

What are the essential elements of a relevant education in today’s world?