Dr. Conrad Hughes, Campus & Secondary Principal at International School of Geneva

Conrad Hughes (PhD, EdD) is Campus and Secondary Principal at the International School of Geneva, La Grande Boissière, the oldest international school in the world where he also teaches philosophy. He holds two doctorates. Dr. Hughes led two major projects with UNESCO-IBE to rethink the guiding principles for learning in the 21st Century and preventing violent extremism through education. He has published three books on different aspects of 21st Century learning. Understanding Education and Prejudice (2017) looks at how schools and universities can reduce prejudicial thinking in students and instructors; in Educating for the 21st Century (2019), he investigates how educational systems can address societal challenges such as sustainability, the rise of AI, post-truth politics, mindfulness and future-proof knowledge. His latest book, Education and Elitism (2021), discusses how access to high quality education can be widened.

Dr. Hughes has implemented these ideas on the ground in his school and through open-access online lessons, touching the lives of thousands of people. Dr. Hughes is a member of the advisory board for the University of the People, senior fellow of UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education and research assistant at the University of Geneva’s department of psychology and education. He is a regular contributor to the World Economic Forum’s Agenda blog and speaks in conferences across the globe.

In a recent chat with K12 Digest, Dr. Hughes discusses the current trends in education, attributes that make International School of Geneva unique, his prolific career, future plans, and a lot more. Following are the excerpts from the interview.

What are the current trends that are shaping education in the post-COVID era?

Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Social Justice is an important and deep shift in awareness that is causing educators and leaders to think differently about questions of identity, culture, power and representation. Student and teacher wellbeing is also in focus as there is an increased understanding of the mental toll that Covid took on us and the importance of emotions in learning. Competence-based frameworks are taking over from the idea of “21st Century skills” and alternative transcripts that describe the whole person and not just narrow academic performance are becoming an increasingly important force in educational reform. Essentially, we are looking at making education more human, more personal.

Please tell us about the behind the scenes preparation that the International School of Geneva did before opening of the 2022-2023 school year.

Any school year takes much preparation behind the scenes. This varies from systems and processes management to quality professional development for teachers, the onboarding of new faculty and welcoming new students and parents. School leaders need to create back to school atmospheres that are at once psychologically safe but also exciting and inspirational. It’s an important time to do spirit-lifting messaging and not to start the year with boring, uniquely technical points. Too much happens as we prepare for school to detail in a few sentences, so I will rather focus on the essentials, which can be expressed in the following two powerful questions:

  1. Is the roadmap ahead clear for everybody?
  2. Are we feeling inspired and welcome?

What sets the International School of Geneva apart from other educational institutions?

We are the world’s first international school, founded in 1924. It was here that the Model United Nations system and International Baccalaureate were invented and it is here that the Universal Learning Programme  and Learner Passport  are being developed, two ground-breaking initiatives in curriculum. I love the spirit of innovation that makes this wonderful institution a trail-blazer in international education. Furthermore, we have an extraordinary 140 student nationalities across our schools, making us the most diverse school in the world, at least in terms of nationalities.

As the Campus & Secondary Principal, how do you ensure that a holistic learning environment is offered to each and every student of the International School of Geneva?

We run a number of projects that ensure the whole child is engaged, these stimulate the development of character (who am I?), passion (what is my mission?) and mastery (how can I go further?). Students are involved in a number of social impact projects too (how can we work together?). These sit alongside more traditional academic assessments and ensure that every star can shine, that every person can spread their wings and take flight. The projects, part of our Universal Learning Programme, ensure that students bring elements of themselves to the curriculum: their choices, their strengths, even the challenges they are facing. We want school to be a place where you can develop your inner core and become a stronger human being and a stronger scholar.

Please brief us about your background: education and career.

I was born in South Africa during the years of Apartheid, a political system that was based on iniquity and injustice. I hated my primary schooling as the rapport teachers had with students was based on humiliation and mistrust. I then moved to an international school in Eswatini (then called Swaziland). This changed my life and opened my eyes to students from different backgrounds. It also put me into contact with wonderful teachers who would inspire and coach. Deep down inside, it was here that I decided I would go into education. From there I graduated, I completed a number of degrees, including two doctorates, and the rest is history! This is my seventh year as Head of School in Switzerland (where I have held other leadership position) but I have experience teaching in France, India and the Netherlands too. I continue to teach and I believe, strongly, that every school principal should teach. I consider myself a lifelong learner and I’m always looking for the next course to do. As the great Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu tells us: “when the student is ready, the teacher appears”. If you are curious, there is no limit to what you can learn.

In your current role, what type of challenges do you face? How do you tackle them?

The main challenge is yourself: leaders can become arrogant if they are not careful, and they can stop listening carefully to what is happening on the ground. I keep telling myself, be humble, listen, don’t judge too quickly, have the courage to do what is right, stay moral and balanced and fair in the decisions you take. Every day brings new challenges and if you put a learning frame on them, each challenge is actually a blessing because it makes you stronger. I’m a big believer in teaming. I have an extraordinary leadership team at my side, and I feel that each person in that team is stronger than I am in some area. We collaborate and work closely together, ensuring that no challenge is faced in isolation but we are always using our collective strength to find the best solution.

Tell us about how the teachers in your school work together and collaborate. What role do you play in this collaboration?

One example is staff meetings. Instead of having everybody cooped up in a room at the end of the day with an administrator in front of them droning on about something, we work in small teams during collaborative planning time that is timetabled during the day. This year, teachers will be taking the lead in chairing many of these discussions. We are looking at themes together such as intercultural understanding, the power of 1:1 rapport in pedagogy, global citizenship education and wellbeing, not forgetting the chestnuts of assessment and student feedback as a central clarion call for teacher excellence. These themes are looked at over several weeks, involving discussions, upskilling through courses that teachers take, trying out strategies in the classroom and feeding back to the group. My main role is to design the architecture of these meetings in such a way that they are not wasting people’s time. Teachers are busy and they give a huge amount to their trade, so we need to be mindful of that and not to be afraid to cancel a meeting if it looks like there is not much point to it.

You are a Senior Fellow at UNESCO-IBE. Tell us about your work there.

It’s a great privilege for me to be associated with UNESCO. I work on curriculum design, more specifically operationalizing UNESCO’s vision on competence-based learning and the relevance of education in systems that are lived on the ground. With UNESCO I’ve published Guiding Principles for Learning in the 21st Century and a special edition of the research journal Prospects on preventing violent extremism through education.

If you were to characterize a great school leader in three words, which words would you choose?




Enlighten us about your future plans.

The great German philosopher Martin Heidegger (problematic on a number of counts of course) spoke of the need to immerse yourself in the present flux of things, the imminence and beauty of living in the present, and not to spend too much time fretting about tomorrow. I have plans of course, and I spend much of my time planning, but I always try to bring myself back to the wonder of the present, to appreciate the moment.  That’s at a personal level.

Professionally, the major project my team and I are looking at is the Learner Passport. Over 300 students will be carrying this alternative transcript out into the world and a collation of over 50 schools and universities are working together to enhance the growth of alternative transcripts across the globe. This is our contribution to a more inclusive and diverse future. Anyone who is interested should contact me (I can be found easily on social media) to join our coalition.

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