Toby Newton is Head of School at ICHK. This was his greeting to the ICHK community in the Winter newsletter.
The year started with the news that we have been included in Cambridge University’s list of the 100 most innovative schools worldwide. Lists of this kind always give rise to questions about the secrets of one’s success, the nature of their effects, their reach and sustainability, as well as debates about other contenders for inclusion, and ways in which, despite the endorsement, one can continue to improve.
I am delighted to participate in such conversations. So long as those involved in education – teachers, parents, students, researchers, politicians – are openly and honestly searching for better ways to help young people learn and attain their ambitions and aspirations, we can only get stronger as a society, not just here in Hong Kong but around the world.
And it’s an open secret that, collectively, schools do need to get better at what they do. There are several strands of evidence for this and I will discuss three briefly here.
Firstly, and most pressingly, the horrific and frankly scandalous rates of teenage depression and self-harm across the globe. This is not purely a school problem – wider culture has a huge part to play and the role of the media, and the technologies that associate with it, should not be overlooked or ignored. In propagating an environment of constant display and performance, with the anxiety to which this gives rise, they do teenagers few favours. Nonetheless, schools do, most certainly have a role to play and it is, I suggest, a more bold and intelligent one than we currently allow.
Schools must perceive themselves as providers of relief from the pressures of teenage culture and as an alternative source of orientation and guidance. To do that, they need to have a compelling, coherent and comprehensive story to tell young people about who they are and who and what they might realistically and sustainably become. The story needs to be authentic, sincere and embedded not just in the content of the curriculum but in the everyday workings of schools as communities: in the relationships between all the various constituencies who have a stake in the life of the school – parents, children, teachers and support staff.
Students should be provided with a perspective on life that offers resilience and hope, and given examples of supportive, healthy routines and habits that resonate and reward. That, at ICHK, is the role of 5+1 and Human Technologies.
Secondly, the evidence is to be found in the testament of universities and first time employers who are reported frequently as complaining that even students who come to them with top grades and basketfuls of qualifications are, nonetheless, not ready for the challenges that face them at the next stage of their lives. These students need too much direction, we are told; they cannot sustain their attention over long projects; they are incapable of productive teamwork; they cannot innovate or demonstrate initiative. They can follow instructions and memorise formulae and equations, but they cannot create and they cannot self-start. They are prepared only for a world that ceased to exist fifteen years ago.
Which brings us onto the third strand of evidence. Our world is very visibly and palpably changing at an extraordinary and accelerating rate. The effects of automation, digitalisation and algorithms, processed through increasingly powerful computers, are having a profound influence on the way we live our lives and on the sort of opportunities that exist for both employment and leisure. As schools, we fail to recognise and respond to this at our absolute peril and to the severe and lasting detriment of the students with whom we work. As discussed above, to continue to educate young people according to the conventional model that inhered five years ago, let alone fifteen or twenty, is to educate them for obsolescence. Yet the vast majority of schools remain committed entirely to this model.
Taken together this is a recipe for disaster, which is why Cambridge’s recognition means so much to us, both as a celebration of where we are at and as an encouragement for where we would like to go next. We are proud to be one of a small but rapidly expanding number of schools who can offer a rare combination of qualities: we are both thoughtful and agile enough to respond to the evidence that is all around us.
The combination is significant. There are big schools that would love to innovate, but cannot. They are trapped in the economies of scale that require them to remain big, when bigness is a liability. And there are agile schools that innovate widely, but not thoughtfully. They skip from fad to fad, with no substance to their ambitions. They get nowhere fast. Again and again.
At ICHK, we are confident that our innovations are different. They are progressive, sustainable, mutually beneficial and genuine solutions to some of the critical problems that face education in the 21st century. 5+1 and Human Technologies are now firmly established, though still constantly evolving and maturing, initiatives.
However, this year it is Deep Learning that has proven itself to be another substantial and successful addition to our programme. I would like to highlight the ways in which, through its cross-disciplinary and immersive focus, it joins up our students’ understanding of and engagement with knowledge, and allows them to develop the skills of synthesis, creativity and self-governance not commonly found in the conventional curriculum. Deep Learning is the antidote to the fractured experience that many students suffer from at school, when skills and competencies hard-earned in one ‘area’ of the curriculum prove not to be transferable to others. Deep Learning is efficient and effective, and, feedback tells us, hugely popular.
So it is, step by step, we continue to journey, with your support, towards a more intelligent and fit for purpose model of secondary schooling. Students, parents and staff all play a part in making the journey possible. I am wholly sure that we all benefit as a result.