Dulwich College International’s recently formed Education Team have embarked on a journey to gather data from research, students and educators to help frame a progressive new strategy for their ten schools and colleges. In this article, Craig Davis (Director of the Education Team) takes us on a tour of the thinking and educational discussions that are taking place. We hope we are asking the right questions in this debate and would actively welcome feedback in this discussion from anyone with an interest in the best models for 21st Century schools.
One of the many advantages in working for a family of schools is the assembling of an expert Education Team designed to support each institution by leveraging best practice across the group. Part of this process requires establishing an educational strategy that strikes the right balance in guaranteeing a consistency of provision for a collective on the one hand whilst encouraging the unique expression of each institution on the other. In creating our new strategy with a team of highly talented former principals, active post graduate researchers and seconded teachers, we have been able to dive into educational research to capture the most compelling evidence for our schools. During this journey we have discovered that perhaps an insular, fixed strategy vulnerable to the trappings of group think could unwittingly contribute to these challenges. Even the term strategy itself, borrowed from a strictly military context, highlights the dangers of using the wrong tool to address the complexities of human education. Instead, the main reason in writing this piece is to invite wider discussion from interested parties as we all endeavour to create relevant schools for our young people. Subsequently, I make no apology for the meandering and discursive nature of the article as it represents the 'visible thinking' of the Dulwich College International Education Team.
Our bold mission to establish the “best schools in the world” where "students come first" in all that we do, has now created a challenging accountability to actually execute this vision. In determining what best actually means our mission statement itself requires us to ask students first before pivoting to experts, educators or research. This launched an ambitious campus review at each of our schools engaging thousands of students in group discussions built around our Learning Principles. Any outdated notions of superficial student voice have immediately been dispelled by the sheer quality of responses from our students who find no difficulty in defining what is their best learning and providing us with examples of best teaching and the overall best student experience for them, whether in Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Zhuhai, Yangon or Singapore. This information has been gathered sensitively and objectively during the course of conversations with over 4,000 students over the past eight months.
During this same period we have been engaged in a series of debates with our colleagues concerning the purpose of education in the 21st century, a process that has challenged some of the assumptions that often accumulate in schools based on perceived traditions and practices. Like many British based institutions situated in international contexts with increasingly diverse student, parent and staff populations, we have been re-examining what actually being British means. Is Britishness my own experience as a newly qualified teacher working in state schools in Brixton, South London dealing with a huge diversity of ethnicities, languages, cultures, behaviours and learning needs typical in British metropolitan centres? Alternatively, is it the caricatured static image of middle England often mistakenly associated with Dulwich College itself with its clock towers, blazers, cricket green, village cottages and 400 year old corridors dripping in history? Interestingly, Brixton sits directly alongside its Dulwich neighbour in South London reminding us that diversity has always been part of Britishness and can be found equally in the student demographics of both a London and Beijing school. Like the shifting terms international, intercultural or global, these necessarily slippery categorisations are dangerous in the hands of those who try to use them to make inaccurate, definitive claims about static and homogenous identity.
This is why I prefer the phrase ‘British based learning’ which might capture some of the educational approaches we have built on at Dulwich College International: an expectation that every teacher has a role in pastoral guidance, an attention to wellbeing, the prioritising of individual learning needs, a structured attention to holistic character development, opportunities for vertical student leadership, personalised progress markers linked to value added metrics, an active and engaging pedagogy, educational enrichment that is not stifled by overly prescriptive curricula, a strong outdoor/service learning and a broad and balanced liberal arts provision. There is also a strong acceptance of evidence based research tempered by a healthily scepticism of educational fads or jargon. This of course is not an exclusively British domain at all and highlights the futility in trying to pin down national characteristics alongside educational approaches. This is perhaps why Dulwich College International has identified the “pioneering spirit” of founder Edward Alleyn‘s entrepreneurial character as a core attribute of our family of schools. Being able to change, adapt and creatively see future opportunities is paradoxically the mark of deep seated tradition. So perhaps a ‘tradition of innovation’ represents a useful oxymoron; one that requires Dulwich College International educators to use their resources and expertise to drive positive change.
Returning to our students, many of those elements listed above are what they themselves identified. In addition, they have pointed us towards the need for active, applied and engaging learning not just in those areas predisposed to more kinaesthetic pedagogy such as in drama, PE, art, design technology or dance, but in all subject areas. The challenge for 21st Century schools is the increasing need to ensure that learning generally has clear real world application, interdisciplinary transferability and opportunities for student driven enquiry and engagement. Deep, challenging learning can and should be fun, and I would question the false dichotomy that often emerges when pitting student led enquiry against direct instruction. The art of expert teaching knows when to scaffold, when to intervene with explicit instruction, when to provoke, when to let go and when to empower students in order to promote voice, choice and ownership. It is reminiscent of the old description of teaching phases moving from the ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘the guide on the side’ to ‘the meddler in the middle.’ We have to be all three of course, at different times, and with the right strategies even direct instruction and exam based summative assessment preparation can also be active, engaging and student led.
The Head, the Heart and the Hand – A New Curriculum?
The burgeoning acronym that we know as STEM, upon its arrival immediately began bursting at the seams. STEM soon became STEAM as educators worldwide rightly demanded the inclusion of artistic-creative elements to school programmes designed to maximise the innovative, application of knowledge in real world settings. So alongside coding and robotics we found schools promoting applied drama activities such as improv or theatresports as part of a drive to foster creative, entrepreneurial skills. STEAM then became the rather drunken sounding SHTEAM to incorporate the Humanities at which point most of us threw up our hands in exasperation. What this recent history betrays is a flawed educational model that separates hands on, dynamic and active learning adventures in robotics, coding, business simulations or improv from the rest of the curriculum. Surely this kind of learning and curriculum, that is often outsourced for after school co-curricular programmes, should start becoming the norm rather than the exception? Similarly dynamic STEM maker spaces or innovation labs that then cast a shadow over the comparatively mundane and drab regular classroom spaces should become the norm for school design? Perhaps all of our learning spaces, like our core curriculum, assessment practices and teacher pedagogy should be built on active, engaging and applied learning opportunities that enable students to do as well as to think. In much the same way that progressive approaches to inclusion, student diversity and a wide array of learning needs demands that teachers employ a broad repertoire of teaching strategies to tap into and unlock the disengaged student, similarly the consideration of active and applied learning in all areas of the curriculum should simply be the mark of good teaching.
Culture Beats Strategy Every Time
Our schools need to foster strong learning cultures for all stakeholders; places where everyone takes an active interest in educational research, comparative best practices, the latest cognitive neuro science and interesting innovation. Without this we find polarised reactive institutions that ping pong from one initiative to another. Without this culture of deeper reflection, consideration of initiatives such as more applied active learning become tasks to complete as schools lurch from one educational fad to another. We also then suffer from ‘strategy fatigue’ where new ideas get bolted on every year without reflective practices that consider what not to do and what to remove. We also lose cognitive nuance or negative capability as Keats famously invoked over 200 years ago, an often overlooked capacity of school leadership that can create fundamental flaws in school development. Taking the example above, without negative capability a school will often “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and evangelically move wholeheartedly to active and applied learning cultures that devalue and totally eclipse the equally important need for focused study, silent reading, quiet thinking and individual concentration. Pedagogical leadership and general cognitive flexibility that encourages either/and thinking, rather than emotive dichotomies, is essential if we want to create the best educational models for our students. This of course is also predicated on the promotion of vulnerable leadership that openly admits mistakes and in a self-deprecating way models a fluid and diverse image of leadership accessible to many more people than just those traditionally good at organising spreadsheets.
Character, Wellbeing and Transcendence
Moving from the head and hand, we also have to acknowledge the heart. Like many other schools worldwide, at Dulwich College International we have been wrestling with the alarming statistics revealing an exponential surge in markers of social emotional damage, harm and fragility in young people. As the Positive Schools group and Dr Helen Street have told us, this has happened alongside the development of wellbeing programmes, training and awareness. Clearly what many schools are doing with wellbeing, whilst well intentioned, is simply not working. This has also been reflected by student comments across many of our own campuses during our school review. As Dr Street and many others have identified, you cannot operationalise or task wellbeing because it is about whole school cultures. A sense of completely belonging to your school, your peers, your teachers and your community is essential and provides the 'protective factors’ for resilience later in life. Importantly, this is not belonging to a particular clique within school or a particular teacher, but the whole community. Equally compelling is the awareness that wellbeing is addressed primarily by engaging pedagogy and active, fun learning built on very positive teacher-student relationships. The challenge being thrown down by this research, especially in schools with the traditions that Dulwich College International draws from, is peeling back the extrinsic with a culture of equity that drives on developing intrinsic motivation. This of course will not happen overnight, and will require considerable parent engagement and education, but if “students come first” we all have a responsibility to act rather than wait for an extreme crisis in our schools to negatively drive us to address this issue in a substantive rather than a superficial manner.
An equally powerful approach to help ameliorate this growing societal crisis has been our strategic discussion about outdoor learning. Engaging with the external environment now has an even more pivotal role to play in our schools given the limited exposure our students have with the outdoors, especially in global metropolitan centres. Add to this increased screen time and the lack of daily aerobic exercise, diminishing quality and quantity of sleep and we have the perfect storm underlying the alarming OECD data published earlier this year. Dulwich College International's emerging strategy seeks to maximise the opportunities for outdoor learning on a regular basis in schools whilst simultaneously driving forward on a radical reframing of an outdoor learning residential curriculum. Reflecting as a team on our own experiences as both students, teachers and school leaders we all seem to settle on those stand out moments working with students on expeditions, camps and service learning opportunities that provide the best environment for potential life changing learning. More often than not these challenging, fresh but enriching environments tease out hitherto unknown qualities, skills and dispositions that otherwise might lay dormant in young people. We have also reflected on the relationship between duration and effect in these environments which is why we believe that extended residential periods away from home built into the core curriculum could really enable Dulwich Schools to realise the impact for all students and not just the small number who may choose to take up a ‘world challenge’ style trip in Year 12 or 13. A regularly scheduled extended residential programme would enable our students to experience the positive transcendent impact of the outdoors that wellbeing research also points to as an emerging deficit in young people who have never climbed a mountain, experienced a stunning sunset, slept by a river or been woken up by the dawn chorus in a forest. Of course, the fundamental human need to develop compassion, empathy and purpose beyond the self is also inextricably linked to the quality of service learning integrated into daily school life. We have to provide our students with both the desire and the scaffolded means to help achieve the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a commitment crucial to help combat media narratives of despair and disengagement. Enabling our students to act locally and make a difference on a regular basis during their own ‘normal’ routines will crucially build their capacity to empathise. Student agency, outdoor learning, wellbeing, meaningful and integrated service learning addressing critical social justice and sustainability needs, are impossible to separate. Engagement in the classroom, engagement in the school, engagement in the community and engagement with wider societal issues are clearly all linked to developing a wider purpose and a positive connectivity to life.
Personalised, Broad and Balanced? How do you achieve all three?
If I glance back at the touch points on this tour through our thinking at Dulwich College International, we are driving forward on pedagogical leadership, applied learning, authentic wellbeing cultures, outdoor learning, cognitive flexibility, service learning, adult learning cultures, sustainability, the art of teaching, school identity and pioneering innovation. Like many of our schools, if we view these strategic areas as initiatives to add to already overstretched and busy agendas, then we are doomed. Instead these are evidence based approaches that need to be discussed and considered in individual school contexts. This includes an open dialogue with all stakeholders about what needs to be removed from schools to make way for new approaches in order to avoid the bolt-on action planning infecting so many of our institutions. This is a reminder of the input we received as a team from Dr Gerard Calnin from the University of Melbourne’s Education Department just before we embarked on school review. In a nutshell external school evaluation has a negative impact on school improvement, a narrowing of curriculum, a limiting effect on teaching practices and an unhelpful skewering of targets away from what is really needed. Instead if external partnerships work hand in hand with schools, co-construct outcomes and focus on the most contextually specific outcomes, then they can be very useful. This is why our dialogue with schools needs to always meet communities half way and be very mindful of the practicalities of context and capacity.
This is why we believe you can drive forward on both the personalised agenda and the broad based curriculum if you build on the philosophical notion of ‘personal best’. One way of achieving this is building a stable of world class university and careers counsellors who can help identify individual student talent from an early age and work with those students to build ‘portfolios of passion.’ If we help students to identify strengths and build confidence in their personal success criteria, then we can truly claim to add value based on everyone’s different starting points. This can be framed academically by celebrating achievement rather than attainment and ultimately through expert cultivation of each student’s best fit university and career outcomes. Parents “don’t know what they don’t know” and apparently unshiftable positions around the need to deliver on top attainment outcomes are just proxies for successful university matriculation. Equally if some parents think that successful university matriculation can only be framed in terms of Oxbridge, Ivy League , Russell Group outcomes then this is simply another proxy for success and happiness. Ultimately parents want their children to live authentically happy and purposeful lives. If they think this is more likely to occur because of the perceived reputational currency of Stanford, Oxford, Durham or McGill, then we need to help dispel the misconception that those institutions can deliver on that promise for all of our students. Again the wisdom of John Keats’ concept of Negative Capability is needed again to avoid binary or dichotomous thinking. Our excellent university application support will enable students to gain places at a wide range of higher education institutions that through in depth counselling generates the ‘best fit’ for them. Importantly, this means that those students steered towards Oxbridge or Ivy League universities will thrive in those environments as will all of our students wherever they choose to study. Full engagement at any post secondary institution is what Harvard research is clearly telling indicates success, fulfilment, purpose and happiness in later life. University counselling of students, parents and teachers on this theme should constitute the work of the best schools in the world.
In many respects our schools can be deemed successful if each student experiences accelerated wisdom. In other words, if we can help nurture the intrinsic and tap into true talent and passion, we can save parents a lot of time, money and heartache when their kids are maturing into young adulthood. This might mean having tough conversations and parent engagements when students are 13 or 14 in our schools, but if we truly want to create good, purposeful people who “make a positive difference” then we have a duty to deliver. If I had the opportunities provided by such an educational experience in my teens it would have accelerated my own personal journey and prioritisations in later life.
These ambitions for our schools are bold and challenging however we are committed to it. We are also not capable of doing this by ourselves and welcome the opportunity to engage in a productive discussion on some of these themes through any available educational social networks.
Author: Craig Davis (firstname.lastname@example.org)