Transformation is the order of the day no matter what sector you’re looking at nowadays. This is no different for education and possibly even more important as schools aim to prepare students for the uncertain future of work.
What are some crucial skills for students and how can schools prep them?
As Dr Margaret Alvarez, head of school at ISS International School, Singapore, tells The Educator, it’s the critical interpersonal skills that will help them ready for “the real world”, and not just the hard, technical competencies.
“I’ve been in education a long time and when I started it was all about the results,” Alvarez said.
“Globalisation has absolutely changed education and that’s why I think [teaching students to thrive in] inclusive environments are critical because our students are not going to enter the world that we entered [years ago].”
She added that when students graduate into the working world, they will be competing not just with people from their own country but also with individuals from around the world.
“They’ve got to know how to navigate this skilfully and be happy and fulfilled,” she said. “When they go into the working world, they’re not going to be working with their little groups – they’ll be working globally.”
Inclusive environment for inclusive individuals
How can schools help mould students into understanding, upright individuals then? Alvarez suggests setting up classrooms to be a “safe space” that supports diversity and inclusion.
“In terms of any student in the classroom, diversity acts like a microcosm of the real world. Nobody is excluded,” she said. “I believe that in highly selective schools, that’s a very false environment – that’s not what the world is like.
She explained that when students are in a microcosm of what the world is like, they are learning to navigate our world from a very early age. They learn to accept and work with people who are different in belief systems, cultures, nationalities, as well as the ways they learn etcetera.
“There is a whole compassion and understanding of what it’s like in a globalised world and this builds life skills and entry into the workforce eventually,” she said.
“I don’t call [those skills] soft skills because I think nowadays knowing how to navigate our global world is a hard skill – it is not a soft skill anymore.”
She believes such skills are highly critical because “the people who are successful in this world aren’t the ones who are necessarily the top academics; they are the people who can build relationships and navigate the world skilfully”.
“And that’s one of the things we offer at ISS to students in addition to the strong differentiated academic support,” she said.
How ISS supports inclusive education
Alvarez then shared how ISS provides a conducive learning environment for its students who come from a multitude of backgrounds.
Expectations and academic plans for each classroom at ISS is highly differentiated. While there is an overall lesson plan, teachers deliver with student-centred plans based on their observation and knowledge of the strengths or weaknesses of each student.
“This means that there is a lot more planning required from our teachers, but the results have proven to be successful and the acceleration in students’ learning is obvious,” she said.
“Students who are weaker are made to feel worthwhile, whilst the talented or gifted students are stretched and given opportunities to do more.
“Over and above this, this environment also teaches and nurtures our students to be accepting of diversity. No one is better than the other.”
With such a “heavy” task set up for teachers, how does ISS get it right then? That’s where Alvarez comes in and ensures her team hires the right people for the job.
“The teachers that I hire need to have very special competencies or skillsets because if you’re dealing with such a wide range of systems, you need to have teachers who are highly skilled in intercultural competencies,” she said.
ISS thus pulls out all the stops on the recruitment process, doing “a lot of questioning” to gauge their culture fit with the school, standardising the practice for all hires, as well as a thorough reference-checking process.
And once they onboard, ISS rolls out professional development and training programs that aim to strengthen they faculty’s intercultural teaching and competencies.
In addition to external sessions, ISS has a dedicated research team internally who develops programs with “a big focus on celebrating diversity”.
Advice for leaders
As schools aim to prepare students over a decade before they actually go into the “real world”, we asked Alvarez her top tip for school leaders.
“Very often we can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like for our kids when they enter the working world,” she said.
“As heads of schools, we have to make sure that our school is a learning school. We have to remain flexible and ensure the school remains flexible and nimble to those changing needs. We must never try to force a school to be the way it was even when we were in teacher training or a young teacher.
“We shouldn’t have our head in the sand as to what our students would need 17 years from now [when they graduate].”