Dr. Conrad Hughes, Campus and Secondary Principal, Geneva's International School

Conrad Hughes (PhD, EdD) is the Campus and Secondary Principal at Geneva’s International School, La Grande Boissière, the world’s oldest international school, where he also teaches philosophy. He possesses two doctorates. Dr. Hughes directed two major projects with UNESCO-IBE to rethink the guiding principles for 21st-century learning and to prevent violent extremism through education. He has written three books on various aspects of 21st-century learning. Understanding Education and Prejudice (2017) examines how schools and universities can reduce prejudice in students and instructors; Educating for the Twenty-First Century (2019) looks at how educational systems can address societal challenges such as sustainability, the rise of AI, post-truth politics, mindfulness, and future-proof knowledge. His most recent book, Education and Elitism (2021), discusses how to increase access to high-quality education.

Dr. Hughes has incorporated these ideas in his school and through open-access online lessons, positively influencing the lives of thousands of people. Dr. Hughes is an advisory board member of the University of the People, a senior fellow of UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education, and a research assistant at the University of Geneva’s department of psychology and education. He contributes regularly to the World Economic Forum’s Agenda blog and speaks at conferences around the world.

In a recent interview with K 12 Digest, Dr. Hughes discussed his views on technology and education, international education, traditional and modern pedagogies and negligence of students towards school. Here are excerpts from the interview.

Having recorded experience in the education sector, how would you describe the amalgamation of technology and education? Is there a difference between traditional and modern pedagogies in school education?

Technology has been the driver of educational reform throughout the evolution of schooling. From the development of prehistoric writing instruments to the printing press, from the advent of web-based communication to the proliferation of powerful computing devices, we have seen classrooms morph from itinerant or makeshift gatherings to students sitting at desks to hybrid, online cloud-based information sharing.

However, such changes are actually quite superficial, for the core idea of education, which is to extend your long- term memory and form your thinking, has remained fairly constant. A good education today is much like a good education yesterday: it takes students further in their understanding of the world and the skills needed to flourish in the world.  The major shift, I would say, has been from a knowledge transmission model to a competence-development model. This is linked to technology in that the automatization of information distribution has made it less important to know everything and more important to emphasise interpersonal competences, environmental custodianship, creativity, communication and problem solving. A word of caution though: knowledge is still central. No one will get very far in a state of ignorance.

What do you mean by the term “international” in the context of an international school? Do you believe international schools are becoming controversial systems that are undermining their brand?

I like that question! I think that “international” in a globalised society does not mean what it did in the 1960s, that’s for sure. It’s also important to remember that any school can call itself an international school, so it’s difficult to talk about a coherent concept of international schooling although one might try to define international schooling based on the various and divergent expressions of it throughout the world. Ultimately, any good educational institution should live by its values, and if critical thinking is an important value in education, as I think it should be, then it’s a good thing for schools, including international schools, to be self-critical, to look further than where they are to where they might be, to examine their purpose and impact. The biggest threat to an educational brand (and by the way, I can’t stand talking about schools as “brands”, that type of language borrowed from marketing misses the spiritual and social purpose of schooling as a public good, since schools are not “products”) is to become complacent and inward-looking to the point where they stagnate into mediocrity.

What critical steps should be taken to ensure that international education is relevant and comprehensive?

If you put student learning first, resolutely, you will always be relevant and comprehensive. However, to put students first, you have to take care of the people curating their learning experiences so that they can be their best selves for the students: their teachers, administrators, the technical services, cleaners, cafeteria staff, coaches, counsellors. Everyone counts. Some managers think that staff should be instrumentalised in the service of students. This creates an inhumane environment where people burn out and no one is happy. International schools, like all schools, should model the type of society we want to see in all aspects of life, centred on happiness and human flourishing. An important part of educating students is modelling the type of behaviours we would like to see in them. This is why respect, diversity, equity and open-mindedness should prevail throughout the school ecosystem, at all levels. The person who is accountable for that is the school leader: (s)he/they have to be morally trustworthy.

In your opinion, why are students neglecting schools?

If students are not always excited about going to school and are disengaged, it could be for a whole host of reasons: unkind peer groups, uninspiring lessons, simply having a bad day. Young people are asked to sit through hours of lessons, they are not always learning content that is immediately relevant to their social circles. In many parts of the world, the language of instruction is not the child’s first language, and this creates a supplementary barrier. Levels of disengagement vary by world region as UNESCO studies have shown. Where unemployment is high, school often seems less relevant to students, especially if it is predicated on dated, abstract, content-heavy and seemingly irrelevant syllabi. However, I believe that irrespective of the region, course of study or type of school, the most important thing for teachers and heads of school to do is to ensure  -to the best of their ability – that every student has a chance to succeed in some way, to feel proud of who they are. I also think that social events like assemblies, school plays, cultural celebrations and Sports Days should be designed with care so that they are exciting, memorable, even moving. The culture of the school should be vibrant and colourful, inclusive and, of course, safe. Schools and universities can be the last places where students are given a space to dream, to learn, to socialise outside of transactional work-bound parameters; they are sacred institutions for humanity and that is how educators should view them. We are not here just doing a 9-5 job, we are serving humanity and the future.

What are some positive psychology and life coaching techniques that a school can use to help students develop self-esteem and self-efficacy?

The leadership team and, if possible, all teachers, should have some training in life coaching.  This gives us the tools we need to listen carefully, to decentre ourselves and ask powerful questions so that students can find the resources within them to take reflection to the level of action. Simple questions such as “what is it you want?”, “Why is this important to you?” allow students an opportunity to think about their trajectory. This can be followed by more structured questions that allow students to ideate what fulfilment looks like (“If you got what you want, what would that look like?” “What do you see yourself doing in order to get what you want?”, “What’s the last thing you would be doing just before?”). This type of conversation is premised on positive psychology and the immense power of the mind to visualise the future and then take your whole being into that future. We really need to use coaching techniques much more in education to give young people confidence in themselves, resilience and strategies to fulfil their dreams. Of course, these conversations are pedagogic, they are not full-blown coaching sessions, they are there to open up possibilities and widen thinking.

Whenever you start a class, you should do a climate scan, read the room to see how everybody is doing, check in with the students to ascertain their emotional state. If you see that a student is worried, approach them, talk to them. Schools should have systems and processes in place that ensure that every student has one trusted adult in the building who knows them and there should be a series of 1:1 check-ins between staff and students based on the principles of coaching. We have to believe in our students, see their potential, we have to lift them up and make them believe in themselves. When teachers are coarsely judgemental, sarcastic and dismissive, they do more damage than they know. If you do this with your students, change now and from tomorrow, be kinder, softer, more open, be generous and look for gifts, not mistakes, celebrate successes, don’t point out failures. Years of studies in industrial psychology have shown us that what motivates us is positive, not negative psychology.

How can schools widen evaluations to understand the full range of experiences and gifts that students possess?

The movement to design alternative transcripts is growing by the day. More and more schools and universities are joining the coalition to honour all learning to explore different ways of celebrating learning wherever it has happened and moving assessment from the present model (narrow, high stakes) to where it needs to be to celebrate the full gamut of human potential (inclusive, diversified, personalised). Joining the coalition is a first step schools can take. Our group has over 70 member organisations working on alternative transcripts, creative ways of celebrating whole person flourishing and university recognition.

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