SJL : What aspect of your new role as Director of the American International School of Guangzhou are you most looking forward to?
I am most looking forward to working with the AISG community to build a shared vision for our future. It is a unique time in the school’s history: we are in our 38th year of operation as we look to strengthen our position as the leading international school in Guangzhou. There is a lot going on this year at AISG! I officially joined the AISG community this past July following an 18-month long transition, we are full-steam ahead on our Master Facilities Plan which will see iconic learning spaces designed to support dynamic, collaborative and inspiring pedagogy. Guangzhou itself and the wider Greater Bay Area is experiencing an incredible amount of growth and is, in my opinion, one of the most dynamic places in all of China. It is an exciting time to be living in this part of the world and I cannot think of a more vibrant environment to be leading this community in.
SJL : How many students do you have now and what does learning look like for them?
Currently, we have 1060 students. One of the essential elements of a future-ready school is learning spaces redesigned to facilitate the development of ‘future-ready’ skills and attitudes in our students and faculty. As part of our Mission and Visioning process (completed in SY2016-17) the school looked at the way in which education is changing to produce future-ready students and the corresponding way in which learning spaces are changing to facilitate that learning. This process afforded us incredible insight into how very different the world will look in 10, 20, or 30 years, and the importance of developing students with the skills and dispositions to be able to meet that unknown future head on.
Many of us experienced a very traditional style of educational experience; boxed classrooms with four walls, closed doors, a teacher presenting to students (and students simply receiving the information!) with limited opportunities for interaction or collaboration across classes and amongst teachers. The future of education is very different to what we experienced as children.
Our Master Facilities Plan will see spaces rebuilt and redesigned to meet the needs of students to allow more personalized learning for students, greater opportunities for co-teaching, implementing less traditional classroom design with flexible furniture and creative use of the classroom spaces.
The students we currently teach are going to be adults in environments that demand collaboration, inquiry and a myriad of 21st century skills. Part of our mission is to make sure our students are future-ready. They are going to be going into those spaces to be collaborative and work globally and creatively. We want to create the environment that will foster those skills now, so they are prepared for the future.
When our Master Facilities Plan is completed, AISG will be anything but a traditional learning environment. We are building safe, warm, nurturing and inspiring spaces. These are not just spaces for teaching, but spaces for relationship-building and international understanding between cultures. We have students from over 50 different countries. We really see ourselves as an international community. There isn’t any single dominant perspective and we know that we can learn something from one another. We understand that we have so much in common. We really leverage that from our spaces and the way we approach people.
SJL : You have educated students in multiple locations in both the East and the West. Do you believe there is a universal philosophy that ought to be applied to teaching worldwide?
I love this question. The answer is a resounding yes! There is more in common between educational philosophies than there are differences. Unfortunately, I don’t think we are focusing on a shared understanding. The common ground is that we all want what is best for our students. We want them to be equipped for a future we don’t know about. We want them to be successful. We may define success differently, but we all want the same thing. We just all have different philosophies on the best way to get there.
I think that part of that shared philosophy is that for anyone to learn, they must feel that they are in a safe environment. They must feel they are cared for and that can take risks, that they are encouraged to reflect and learn. We must celebrate their successes but encourage growth from times when this is not the case. It takes the right environment for that to happen. For me, when we put the student at the centre, we have so much in common. I think we all seek to do that, because that’s ultimately what education is about. And that’s very exciting. Whether you are talking about outcomes or standards or tests, it doesn’t matter. The most important thing in education is the child.
SJL : In what ways do you believe the education system needs to adapt to accommodate the rapid technological growth of the 21st century?
It must adapt. It has to adapt. The traditional educational system is almost two hundred years old. It was effective then, but it will no longer work in the new economy, in the new environment. We must adapt and we must change. This means that we need to be looking at different outcomes. The old concept of education was transactional. It followed the idea that ‘I have information. I am going to share it with you and then you must show me you know it.’ This transactional approach is no longer efficient. Now, it’s not a question of whether you know the information but a question of what you can do with it.
Although knowledge is still important, what is important about the knowledge is how it can be applied. It is about your skills and your dispositions. Education has broadened to be much more holistic in its approach. Otherwise, what we have is highly intelligent, highly educated individuals who cannot apply what they’ve learned. These individuals don’t necessarily have the skills, the character or the attitude to work across cultures and across situations. The future is going to rely on collaboration, not individuals doing things. An individual can make a big change, but sustainable change is going to take all of us working together.
Collaboration, critical thinking, creative thinking, risk-taking, knowing how to research, learning how to learn and knowing how to discern quality information over poor quality information are all highly valuable skills for our students. What we need is students who are willing to be innovative with new approaches to existing problems and come up with new solutions. This is really what the future requires and so the education system must provide the opportunities to learn those skills. The mind is not fixed. We believe in a growth mindset. You are not just your IQ anymore. We know you can grow, we know you can develop, and we know you can aspire and become something much, much greater. Education must embrace that opportunity and ask the question: how we can provide these experiences within our school setting?
We recently held an Open House event for prospective families. Over three hundred families attended. We are so excited to hear that so many families want to be part of the environment we are providing for our children. Our goal is not just to produce smart students. We want each student to connect their head and their heart to their hands. What you learn must impact how you feel. It must result in an action. For example, our kindergarten students recently did some creative art. It was beautiful, messy, wonderful art. Afterwards, we had an art show for the parents. We asked the parents if they wanted to purchase the art to take home. These young students wanted to raise money for charity. They wanted to use their art to take action. These are five-year olds. They were very successful raised a lot of money, a fabulous amount. Education needs to give children opportunities to impact the world in meaningful and inspiring ways by applying what they’ve learned.
SJL : How will you apply these ideas to your new role in the innovative city of Guangzhou?
Guangzhou is an incredibly rich environment for providing the kinds of collaboration and experiences we wish to create. School used to be viewed as simply a “building” and it still is that but ultimately, education is about the experiences that are not bound by a building. We have a very rich environment and great opportunities to work with innovation, incubation, and technology start-ups. We aim to do things collaboratively as a school to work with students and do things for a purpose. Yes, they’ll have good test scores, they’ll have a good GPA, and achieve all the academic outcomes. But really, it doesn’t matter. There are 5000 students like that. When AISG students apply for university, they will be able to say: “I worked with this company, with this start-up. I have had unique, real-world experiences that set me apart from other students. Through these opportunities I have made a positive impact.” We see this all the time. Not just with our alumni but even within our current students.
For example, one of our clubs is a student-driven drone club who work with local start-ups. They use the drones for agriculture and for research. The students are building the drones and flying them with these people. They are working with these entrepreneurs. They are getting to learn what that’s like. It is fabulous. That’s what education is now. It is no longer bound by time and location. Education needs to learn to let go of its structures so there is time for these rich experiences to happen. These experiences are transformational. When a student discovers a passion, they will work night and day on that passion. Learning needs to connect and harness what their passion is and show what is possible. That is the aspiration of education. At AISG, we believe that learning is connected with others. You are not by yourself with your learning.
We offer 26 different services clubs in the school that are very active working with other societies in Guangzhou. Our unique location and new building gives us the opportunity to look at our strategic vision for the future. There are lots of opportunities for change in the Greater Bay Area. How can we give back to our host city? How can we give back to Guangzhou and to China? We are really looking for new strategic partnerships to help us in that effort.
Some examples include AISG supporting the Greater Bay speech contest and we recently hosted the final of the English debate. We had the local student drone racing club work with our drone club. They were presenters at a technology conference for 500 educators in Guangzhou. The students presented, demonstrated, taught, and worked together collaboratively. We also had a dance group and their teacher came over to our campus and we hosted a dance festival for international dance groups in Asia. We are looking for more of these opportunities. We want to be involved and contribute. We want to make that kind of an impact. I’m really interested in reaching out to the business community and local media. We are looking for partnerships that will have a distinctive impact.
SJL : To loosely quote your own words, “the more the community comes together… the more effective a school is.” Why do you feel the community is such a crucial part of a school’s success?
For a school to be successful, everyone needs to be working together and align with its mission, vision, and purpose. Education is not done in isolation. The old style was something like ‘I take my child to the gate, 16-18 years later they come out as an educated child’. As for us, we invite and encourage our parents to be involved. We view parents as our partners in the education of their child. We work to educate parents as much as the children. We need to work together as a community for education to happen.
Take our kindergarten students auctioning their art, for example. It’s not about parents just giving money for something, it’s about them knowing that this is an outcome of their child’s learning process. They want to support this because they know that by their child giving to a charity, the child gets something back. They develop an attitude of helping others, demonstrating compassion and being a global citizen. We want to work at aligning ourselves in celebrating these shared values together.
When a lot of people are aligned with the purpose, vision, and intent of the school, the impact is amplified. It becomes so much more powerful through this alignment. What we are really seeing right now is these things coming together as a synergy of possibilities. We are very bold in wanting to be seen as a leader in dynamic, collaborative, and connected learning. We want to be a leader in South China, not just in Guangzhou. And so, there’s more we can do. It’s not about us. It’s about putting ourselves in a position so we can amplify that impact. I think with the partnerships of others, we will have that opportunity.
I am just so excited to be here leading the school at this place, in this unique time in AISG’s rich history.
SJL : If you had the opportunity to share one message with every child in the world on their first day of school, what would that message be?
I want every student and every child to know that they have infinite worth, value and possibility within them. There are others who are passionate about wanting them to realise their possibilities and thrive. I think every child needs to have a champion and that’s what good educators are. They are champions of the children. I don’t care what the system is. I think every child deserves that.
I believe that being in education is the world’s greatest vocation. We have the chance to shape and impact the future in a really positive way. The young people we are working with will be the leaders of tomorrow. What a humble and exciting opportunity we have before us!
Along the way, we get to be invited into conversations about education policy in China, about what is inquiry-based education versus stand-and-deliver education. We get to talk about the importance of social emotional learning. We talk about language and the questions of how we learn to acquire language in general. We do an excellent job at this in English and other languages. Without giving too much away, we will have an announcement at the end of Spring about us becoming a regional centre in this part of Asia for this type of education.
We have these aspirations so that the impact is shared. We have a fabulous team and a wonderful community. They are committed and passionate about doing just that. When people hear the words American International School of Guangzhou, I want them to think of dynamic, compassionate and connected learning. I want the AISG name to be synonymous with future-ready education. That, in my opinion, is the Ram Nation way.