By Chris Nash – International School Principal, Beijing.
BA (cantab), PGCE, MA ( Education Management), NPQH
One of the barriers to sustained high achievement and quality of learning which I have worked at as a school leader in an international context is cultural relevance.
What do we mean by Cultural Relevance?
Throughout my leadership career I worked in secondary schools in culturally diverse schools in London. In such schools a toxic combination of racism and the utter failure of mainstream society to give status or recognition to the cultures of my students was a significant barrier to well-being and academic achievement. I saw that the opposite was also true. Whenever these schools found strategies to empower students and their communities by recognising and celebrating culture and identity, students felt better about themselves and often turned this into improved examination results.
Working in an international context should have given us all empathy with the situation of our students. I’m sure we must have all sat around tables where our colleagues are enjoying a conversation in their home language, quite likely about a cultural topic which you have no good knowledge of. And then someone turns to you and politely invites you to say your piece. Surely we’ve all felt the anxiety and embarrassment of situations like this. I know I have. Stephen Krashen, the eminent researcher of second language acquisition, identified cultural and linguistic anxiety as the single greatest barrier to learning a new language.
What can we do as school leaders?
Start with considerable humility by trying to learn as much about the cultural milieu of your school as possible. This has to be a long-term project because there is no single face to any culture. Differences of age, gender, class and geography will lead to nuances in cultural understandings and expectations. For example, living and working in China, it has really helped me to know something about regional differences in culture and language, between for example the north-eastern Dongbei region (where many of my teachers are from) and the westerly Shanxi province (where many of my students have their hometown). You have to find the right people to listen to and invest the time in appreciating the knowledge they have. A strategy which really worked for me was to suggest to my teachers that we have a ‘Book Club’ and meet every week to discuss a work of Chinese fiction. Another source of useful information came from my leading an ‘English Corner’ to help my teachers to improve their English. Of course, it’s impossible to run something like this without it turning into a productive area for language and culture exchange. “What makes you laugh?’ is a great topic to break the ice. I will never forget the bemused faces of my Chinese colleagues watching Basil Fawlty beat the bonnet of his broken car as we watched the famous episode of ‘Fawlty Towers’.
Through an intense process of listening and our own research, we can develop the confidence to begin to lead on cultural issues and to speak with some authority. Even now though I never assume anything. If you do this sincerely you develop a sense for the sorts of topics or issues that could prove culturally sensitive. So, I have a few trusted colleagues who I consult with before leading on a project with a cultural dimension.
What about the students?
I have found it enormously rewarding to signal to them that I am constantly curious about Chinese culture, that I see myself as a learner and that I appreciate them having the patience and intelligence to be my teacher. A strategy which really supported this relationship was accompanying students on study tours to some of the cultural centres of China. In restaurants in Lanzhou in the far west of China my students delighted in teaching me local noodle culture. In the museums of Xi’an, students shared poems and histories with me about the Silk Road.
Be Intentional with your actions
It isn’t enough to signal interest in the cultures of your students and community – it is essential to show that you are giving and not just taking. As a school leader I find that I can do this directly through extra-curricular programmes. Appropriate cultural content can be introduced into so many different enrichment activities. Every summer the school has a Project Based Learning activity which needs a theme – which we choose to focus on connections between local cultures and international cultures. The last of these then involved the students in researching the expeditions of Admiral Zheng He, a 15th century Chinese Muslim who led voyages from China as far west as the Red Sea. Debates and Public speaking competitions can offer equally rich opportunities for cultural relevance.
Integrate cultural connections into your curriculum.
In a school in the East End of London, with a 90% Bengali, Muslim intake, I worked with my staff to ensure the presence of knowledge and learning from the student’s cultural heritage in every area of the curriculum – for example studying the contributions of the ninth century Persian mathematician, Muhammad ibn Mūsā al’Khwārizmī. However, our capacity to do this in an international context can be heavily dependent on local regulations on curriculum content, which must be respected. The outstanding success in our school’s curriculum in this area are the IGCSE and A Level Global Perspectives courses available from Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE). These courses have Topic Areas instead of prescribed syllabus content, which means that teachers and students are able to negotiate and decide on issues of cultural relevance to the context of the school. It is anticipated that students following these courses will be active in disseminating ideas from the course both to other students in the school and the wider community.
It would be wonderful to hear your stories in this critical area of leading your successful international school.
Chris Nash is Principal Consultant and content contributor to Leading Your International School.
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