The challenges for students wanting to enter university nowadays are considerable; not least that for every high achieving student coming from an international school in the world, there will be another student, as equally high achieving from another school elsewhere. Their academic potential and talents may be practically identical, so how are they are able to differentiate themselves when applying to university or seeking employment?
This is why inter-cultural understanding seems to me, more vital than ever. We should be teaching our children to live alongside and fully immersed in other cultures. Swiss boarding schools are unique in this as their student communities are made up of dozens of students from around the world, a fact which dates back to late 19th Century developments in finishing schools, rail access and increased tourism. Switzerland is a country with a tradition of welcoming others. A recent survey says that more than 50% of Swiss residents have at least one parent born abroad. Multi-culturalism is therefore very much anchored in the Swiss way of life.
Our children need to learn how to communicate with others, how to celebrate cultural differences and in doing so, see how similar people in fact are. This happens so seamlessly in Swiss boarding schools to the point that differences and any inherent judgements are blurred. Schools with more modest means might feel they lack the means or the know-how to implement this. Yet, for such schools or those with less of a multi-cultural student body it is nevertheless possible to celebrate internationalism. A simple google search throws up boundless possibilities, many of which are quick and easy to implement with very little cost. With an enthusiastic teacher leading a project, anything is possible. Within their curriculum, schools can include global perspectives, taking viewpoints beyond the nation’s borders. They can develop partnerships with schools abroad, promoting written or travel exchanges between the students. Webcams and skype enable students in one part of the world to work collaboratively with students at the other side of the world on a joint project. Such activities are hugely enriching, promoting not just a different approach to subject matter but also promoting teamwork as the students learn to discuss, debate, disagree and find common ground, as well as learning how students from another culture think. These are the kind of experiences which later in life provide a valuable framework as to how to work together to find solutions. They are business lessons for life.
In house school activities such as the popular Model United Nations offer opportunities for collaborative study and an exchange of ideas amongst students from all over the world. In a simulation of the United Nations, students undertake research to be able to successfully defend their assigned country’s viewpoint in conferences which take place across the world, bringing together thousands of young people. What a wonderful opportunity it is for students to not only travel to these conferences but to be in close contact with such a diverse body of young people, all with different life experiences, all with opinions and ideas and all seeking to find some common ground. Their enthusiasm is infectious and the skills they learn – public speaking, debate, agreeing to disagree – are hugely important for later life.
Many schools offer other leadership opportunities in the form of student leaders, participation in conferences, TEDx, leaders of sports teams and so much more. These are incredibly enriching, enabling students to truly shine and above all, to develop their communication skills. As educators, it is simply no longer viable to focus solely on the academic learning. The world is a small and fast moving place thanks to technological advances. Who know which jobs today’s high school students will be doing in twenty or thirty years’ time. There are many uncertainties out there. However, one thing will ring true; learning will be about more than academics. It will actively promote communication and inter-cultural understanding. Only by providing opportunities for our students to reach out to others, to discover worlds and ideas beyond their own, to think creatively, can we hope to equip them with the skills needed to make a truly positive contribution to our society.
Brillantmont International School, Lausanne, Switzerland