International schools are more than just melting pots

International education – especially when it’s bilingual – represents a wonderful opportunity to unearth, share and develop cultural connections as well as differences

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"Quiet" and "calm" may not be words that immediately spring to mind right now when you think of Hong Kong, but an experience in an international school in the city recently reminded me of the power of creating space to reflect on learning and teaching in a cross-cultural, dual-language context.

The main reason for my recent visit to Hong Kong was to support the soon-to-be co-principals of Dalton School in my capacity as a foundation board director, with education as my key responsibility. As you might expect, the week contained strategic and committee meetings aplenty, as well as individual meetings, but I also had the privilege of watching a visiting learning coach at work. Dr José Medina – an enthusiastic advocate for bilingual and dual-language education, and co-author of Guiding Principles for Dual Language Education – fizzed with energy as he explored with the teaching team how to honour and encourage “translanguaging” in the classroom as part of a child’s linguistic and cultural development.

When he spoke for the first time with a group, Dr Medina laid bare his own complex cultural and linguistic background, and this opened a door for teachers to reflect on – and value – their own personal melange of cultures and influences. If nothing else, it reminded us that none of us is as monocultural as sometimes we imagine – in itself, an important step in the direction of opening our minds to how we can value cultural diversity in others, and how as educators we can enable our students to do the same. 

One of the elements that most stood out for me in the coaching process I observed was the power of a ‘fishbowl’ lesson planning session, which was conducted on one day in English, and on the next day in Chinese, with around 10 teachers as participants. On each occasion, one teacher (selected in advance) brought along a lesson plan for a class session that afternoon and sat alongside Dr Medina at the head of a horseshoe of tables, at which were seated their fellow teachers. The teacher then explained the proposed lesson and was challenged by Dr Medina on how to introduce or reinforce elements that would lead to stronger development of dual language capability while her colleagues watched, listened and reflected.

The other teachers’ turn to speak came much later, both in the planning session and also after the lesson observation (where there were almost as many adults as children in the classroom; all credit to the pupils – and teacher – for carrying this off with panache!). What struck me particularly was the effect of the enforced silence on the part of the teachers, who spent, at a guess, in total around 3 hours of the day just listening, focusing, reflecting and thinking. This space had a very evident impact on the teachers themselves: not only did it allow them to slow down and think about the micro-elements of the lesson they were observing – and, of course, by extension, their own lessons – but it enabled them to ask "what if?" As the day progressed, this reflective space grew almost visibly into something more robust and more creative: "What if we thought more boldly about culture and language?"

Accompanying this greater boldness of thought was a growing sense of joint accountability; as teachers flexed their own cognitive muscles, they began to recognise their responsibility to hold not only themselves but each other to account for nurturing the development of children’s intercultural, social and global competence. It is indeed an enormous responsibility: helping children understand how to develop and understand their own language(s) and culture(s), as well as absorb the language and culture of others. With the possible exception of teaching the difference between right and wrong, not much else reaches the same mark on in any measure of education.

International schools are often melting pots of cultures, with visible and audible reminders around every corner of the rich variety of cultures and identities of the students and teachers, and a joy of working in the international space is access to this crucible, with its potential to forge deep and interesting understanding and appreciation of others. When we create space – enforced space and silence – to think and reflect in schools, however, any and every school can recognise the complexity of who we are, and start to consider how to unearth, share and develop cultural connections as well as differences.

And that was last week’s lesson from Hong Kong.

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Helen Wright

Dr Helen Wright is a former UK and Australian head who now supports and coaches international school leaders and schools across the world. She is the author of 'The Globally Competent School: a manual'.

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