Expanding Perspectives at TABS/NAIS Global Symposium

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Global Symposium TABS-NAIS“Cheddar, Swiss, American – I never knew Americans ate so many dairy products – so many kinds of cheese! I didn’t know what was what!” laughs an East Asian student talking about her first year at boarding school in the United States. The video of this student and several others was presented at one of the Pre-Symposium Sessions at the TABS/NAIS Global Symposium earlier this month in Long Beach, California.

Having recently joined the TABS team, I was delighted to attend, and delighted again and again as I saw a combustion of sharing and exchange ignite before me. Coming from the private sector, I am accustomed to the guarding of trade secrets or the measured release of information, and found the unreserved openness and clear priority to reveal solutions, no matter who’s using them, to be truly inspiring. It filled me with hope – and solace really – for the current and future generations of young people who are served by these educators. While the US presidential election is going bonkers, the educators I saw were working together to promote productive inquiry, generate paths to empathy, and expand creativity and invention by including different perspectives. Attendees were from schools that often compete for the same students, but the dedication of these educators to provide the best for students — together — was the ethos of the symposium.

Currently many boarding schools have up to 20% international enrollment with the majority of students coming from China and South Korea. At the same time, acceleration of diversity within the United States is galloping forward. Featured Speaker Dana Mortenson of World Savvy cited statistics that project the US population will be 47% white by 2050, down from 88% in 1970, and that school age children are already at this percentage. In addition to economic, political and climate factors that are bringing our world together, the classroom is becoming the new melting pot. Mortenson, sponsored as Featured Speaker by Shanghai OvEdu Consulting, kicked off the Symposium with questions like – what should the future of learning look like? The Global Symposium is designed to find working solutions to just that, and to address innumerable intricate nuances and unpredictable challenges that spill out as if from an over-stuffed suitcase.

Mortenson emphasized being guided by Effective Principles rather than Best Practices, suggesting that the latter doesn’t look at context. Today’s global issues and inter cultural exchange on the school level are both complex and interdependent, influenced by multiple conditions. She named Empathy, Ingenuity and Resilience as guiding principles, and gave examples of World Savvy projects that emphasize “choice and voice” — solution-focused projects that incorporate the intersection between personal, local and global issues, and that give personal agency to the students. An example of such a project was learning math through a student project focused on how much garbage their school generates. Ratios, rates, data collection and number crunching, were learned alongside research, communications, art, and within the local and global context. Similar interdisciplinary projects and even special diplomas focused on global curricula were presented – such programs included learning multiple languages; history, concepts and science through close examination of a particular culture; and studying abroad. Mortenson promoted “learning about – and with – the world.”

And so too was the direction of the Global Symposium. Internationalization of our schools was largely framed as a process of understanding each other, and ourselves. In the specialized realm of host families– who provide international students a typical domestic experience during North American holidays or homes for North American students studying abroad — administrators are focused on finding families, who are genuinely ready, willing and able to be part of this kind of discovery and exchange. Issues range from matching the expectation of the student with that of the family to what kind of training to provide host parents. How do you address cultural differences no one is aware of yet?

A lot of sharing both by presenters and attendees centered on the kind of growth and wisdom you can only learn by being there – through experience. It seems that experience is expanding logarithmically in response to the rapidly changing environment. In one session about understanding today’s Chinese student, about 70% of the room had visited China; whereas — the presenter noted — only 2-3 people had been when she presented just 5 years ago. On the student side, although there is massive cultural consumption and knowledge of American culture in particular, international students still face surprises no one could predict. One presenter described the orientation process as a continuum that looks like a “U curve” — honeymoon phase > culture shock > insulation > identity formation > immersion > home. One student featured on video commented that he was overwhelmed by “the frequency of his cluelessness”.  An admissions officer commented that he asks international students about American basketball, of which many have good familiarity, but the players they reference were playing 20 years ago and are no longer in the league (I would probably answer the same!) Our presenter shared a cartoon of an elder Chinese man in more traditional dress telling several young students, “In America, the streets are paved with gold and everything is stuffed with bacon and cheese”.

Boarding schools face the challenge of generating and maintaining dialogue with international students to make orientation an ongoing, engaging process ; to normalize the process of discovery; and to go further by understanding the international students’ perspective, experience or beliefs of the issue at hand.  There was much discussion in the sessions about how inclusion is a two-way street — a mutual exchange and learning. How do we intentionally create a reciprocity of learning on the social level? a connected campus? What works — round table discussions? Cultural presentations? Student mentors? Structured or unstructured events?

Schools have a broad variety of experience and resources when it comes to internationalization, and attendees were not hesitant to admit ignorances or finite resources — no holdback asking questions. While one school administrator talked about having almost a week of orientation for international students and underrepresented minorities, another explained that her school spends only 2 hours during new student orientation to address international concerns. Discussion ensued. What practices work best in the full week that might be adopted in baby steps as the second school expands their program? What practices caused problems and should not be the first thing to add to their program? How much do you get into at Orientation – issues of plagiarism or how to define lying, which may be a deep rabbit hole in terms of cultural mores?

In keeping with the themes of interaction and discovery, sessions were very participatory. At least half of what I am writing I heard from attendees, not just from presenters. First thing Tuesday morning, we were challenged to get into small groups and talk with each other following secret instructions we received on a piece of paper. I was to position myself 6 inches closer to my partner than I normally would and use frequent hand gestures and eye contact.  Another attendee in our group wouldn’t look me in the eye, while another barely spoke and the last asked me very personal questions in an extremely loud voice. Differences noted.

Session topics also included work in the behavior sciences. Andrew Watson of Translate the Brain introduced studies primarily from Claude Steele, that demonstrated the preconditions that cause “Stereotype Threat” – which in my layperson terms is underperformance caused by the presence of perceived stereotyping of the person in question. In this case, underperformance does not originate from the person, it originates from factors in the environment. (I was almost falling out of my chair, as this work explained my entire experience as a woman in the Harvard philosophy department.) Watson offered a number of practical solutions by focusing on one of the four preconditions from which Stereotype Threat is shown to arise: by breaking the pattern of the “Salience” of perceived stereotyping, schools could assist – or counteract the hindrance of – students to perform at their best. Normalizing academic and social struggle, paired with encouragement that the student will learn and improve – thus emphasizing a “growth mindset” –  were two ways schools could create a fertile playing field. Others were avoiding “solos” in a group and making sure the physical space does not reinforce stereotypes – like having a Star Trek poster in the computer lab. In terms of assessment, offering multiple starting points in tests so that students can self-direct and start where they are most confident, as well as framing tests or exercises as helpful challenges, rather than as measures of skill, were shown to elicit or allow for higher performance. And again, inclusion was the name of the game – “we have high standards and I know you can meet them.”

Parents! Parents were a topic too.  I wish I could be in all the sessions at once. The symposium is comprehensive, also including risk management of study and travel programs, ELL support, measuring soft skills and using test data in a multi-cultural environment, international service learning, internationalizing curricula, international development and admissions, and more. Sponsors provided wonderful meals and a great opening night mixer – most were companies that create a bridge across the cultural divide to help schools connect with families and students, communicate effectively across cultures and navigate government procedures.  A diversity of exhibitors presented ready-to-go solutions for schools for a variety of specialized issues.  I am excited for next year as more topics are likely to arise and great advance to occur over the next 12 months.

With all due acknowledgement and respect for the very difficult things happening in the world right now, it looks to me like it’s a very rich and exciting, a great time, to be a young person – and an educator – at our independent schools and boarding schools. At TABS/NAIS Global Symposium, I saw ingenuity, intelligence, experience, creativity, openness, exchange, and underlying it all, community.

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