International education is going through a lot of changes, and determining how best to create curricula to meet the needs of a rapidly changing student demographic is a present concern. Stobie (2016) higlighted that one of the concerns facing curriculum designers is balancing the application of local and international best practices in curriculum design (pg. 53). The student demographic in international schools is shifting from the past preponderance of mobile, 'Third Culture Kids' to the current majority of local national student enrollment (Bunnel, 2015, pg. 37).
In the past, when international schools tended to be operated by parent collectives made of members of an internationally mobile upper class, the need for common curricula within and in the broader system of international schools was required to counter the costs of running separate classes to prepare students for the different national tests required by their home nations (Bunnel, 2015, pgl 332). 'Classic' international schools, created specifically to promote peace through intercultural communication, also required common curricula to operationalize their visions by allowing students from diverse countries studying the same curriculum in the same classroom (pg. 332).
The switch towards increasing numbers of 'for profit' schools serving local nationals with pragmatic goals that often include post-secondary study abroad in Western nations has made system-wide unified curricula less important, and brought attention to the need to balance local and international approaches. Students hoping to study in Canada, the UK, or America in the future might favor learning from the national curriculum of the nation in which they hope to study in the future. These schools favor the teaching of 21st century skills and English language and often include classes to promote local values as well (Stobie, 2016, pg. 55, 57). Some nations are creating 'international' curricula of their own or seeking out more affordable alternatives to the International Baccalaureate in a push to create workers able to engage in global trade and to increase their rankings on tests like PISA (Stobie, 2016, pg. 57). This has led to the creation of many different international curricula options than were available in the past (Bunnell, 2015, pg. 328).
Despite the time, effort, and money being put into development of international curricula or the adaptation of foreign national curricula to local national contexts, Skelton (2016) makes an argument that, ultimately, international school students don't really need to learn anything different than any other student (pg. 80). He argues that regardless of the latitude and longitude of the school, learning ultimately takes place in the brain, and that the adjective 'international' should be viewed as dispositional rather than locational (pg. 76). He argues that students learn from their repeated experiences, and that the 'hidden curriculum' is likely just as important, if not more important that the curriculum as written when it comes to developing in students the ability to "interact enjoyably with an other" (pg. 74-76).
In the end, no one curriculum will meet the needs of every student. Keeping student learning as the focus, rather than performance, and recognizing student interests when developing curricula stands the best chance of making learning relevant and meaningful (Skelton, 2016, pg. 73; Stobie, 2016, pg. 54). Much as Stobie (2016) describes the 'Confucian' classroom culture's student silence as having the potential to hide great internal activity and depth of thought despite appearing to western observers and being just a bunch of quiet kids listening to a lectures, we would do well to look past initial appearances when trying to determine the validity of any given approach, and consider the needs of the individual students in question. As Heng (2015) points out, the need to be oneself and honor one's own culture while still learning and growing from the experience of others' cultures is a personal journey of growth that defies standardization.
Skelton (2016) shares a quote from Gardner: "The whole course of human development can be viewed as a decline in egocentrism" and notes that the process of growing in self-confidence and -awareness is a process that doesn't end when you graduate high school, but one that goes on throughout one's entire life (pg. 81). It seems then that the goal of international education, to help students develop the capability to enjoy interacting with those of other cultures and beliefs, is just a slightly more specifically defined goal than that of all of human growth and development. Perhaps creating curricula to meet the needs of international students is not as much of a challenge as we think.
Bunnell, T. (2015). International schools and international curricula: A changing relationship. In: Hayden, M., Levy, J., & Thompson, J. J., (eds.) The Sage Handbook of Research in International Education (2nd ed.). London, U. K.: Sage. 325-336.
Skelton, M. (2016). What should students learn in international schools? In Hayden, M., & Thompson, J. J. (eds.) International schools: Current issues and future prospects. Symposium Books, Oxford. 71-83.
Stobie, T. (2016). The curriculum battleground. In Hayden, M., & Thompson, J. J. (eds.) International schools: Current issues and future prospects. Oxford: Symposium Books. 53-70.
TEDx Talks/TEDxUWCAdriatic. Heng, S. D. (2015, Jul 14). What an international education inspires. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgHzVwgvk3M
Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 18 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.