Real World Motivation

Rachael Thrash, The International School of Helsinki
Ellen Heyting, The International School of Helsinki and Monash University

Real World Motivation: Harnessing Authentic Audience to Transform Assessment for All Students.

Today’s K-12 educators are diligently moving away from the traditional lecture and note taking methods of teaching towards constructivist views. In daily lessons, we strive to put the learner at the centre of educational experiences. Yet, when it comes to assessment, we are dragging our feet. If we accept the value in these constructivist pedagogies, then surely we must acknowledge that it is time to challenge our traditional notions of assessment as well?

The hallmark of traditional school work is the essay. Its ultimate audience, the teacher, assesses the level understanding a student demonstrates. This approach puts students and teaches in a transactional relationship. And, not surprisingly, students who feel prepared to perform in this way may find this process satisfying. Their efforts yield positive recognition from the authority.

But what about the other learners? How does this model strike them? And even for those ready to show their learning in this format, how does it encourage personalization, risk taking, and empowerment? By limiting the students’ audience to their teachers, we establish a primarily hierarchical relationship between teachers and students. Worse, we miss the opportunity to encourage all of our students to find their voices.

The Inspiration of an Authentic Audience 

In contrast to a student who has just completed an essay, picture Ayla, a 10th grader who faces attention and language based learning challenges. Recently, Ayla acted as a docent at a local restaurant where student shared their work in a resistance art installation, “Question The Narrative: Young Artists Challenge Norms That Promote Injustice.” Ayla’s piece exposed Nestle’s abuse of child laborers, including a call to action for consumers. Watching a visitor view her work, she exclaimed, “I have goosebumps! I can’t believe someone actually cares!”

Yolanda, a highly precocious student also grappled with the challenge of creating a meaningful resistance piece for the installation. She pursued ideas and ultimately decided to expose society’s unhealthy version of success. She symbolically repurposed a photo of Justin Beiber on the cover of Forbes, questioning societal values and role models. Her work was both personal and impactful. She explored her own concerns about success and shared them with an audience. The restaurant staff marveled at the customer discussions her piece sparked.

Assessment Constructed to Support Students Connecting with an Audience 

These students and their diverse classmates responded to a complex unit digging into hegemonies and resistance. They worked to expose unjust power structures to an audience beyond the teacher assessing them. Alongside this performance challenge, students developed their abilities by analyzing resistance texts and researching hegemonic structures. Assessment on this work became an important feedback mechanism. Created with intention and student growth in mind, it broke down the process of creating a meaningful resistance piece into manageable steps; students practiced disciplinary skills until they developed confidence.

Traditional Assessment vs. Authentic Assessment 

Problems with assessment arise when the work is an exercise with a foregone conclusion. The same students always succeed while the students who don’t know the answer or feel unsure of their abilities lose motivation. If a student’s goal is only to show that they can identify symbolism in a resistance text, knowing that the teacher has a particular definition of symbolism, where is their sense of agency? How can they feel empowered?

It is easy to find the shortcomings of traditional essay-based assessments: Tests are based on ‘unseen’ questions, whereas in authentic assessments, as much as possible is known about the task ahead of time, and students have had a chance to practice, get feedback and prepare. Authentic assessments are iterative by nature, involving students and teachers working together to co-construct new understandings of the world. Traditional assessments simply take a ‘snapshot’ of a students’ performance at one point in time. While traditional assessments ask students to reproduce a correct answer, authentic assessments are open-ended and allow for student agency and voice.

Traditional methods of assessing offer the illusion of learning in our students. But ask students to take what they’ve learned and transfer it to a new situations and they may lack the deeper understanding or flexibility. Gardner (1993) argues that authentic assessment tasks must ask students to solve a real world problem or create a product with someone else’s needs in mind, and has value beyond the classroom walls.

Value of Supporting Authentic Learning Through Audience 

When we talk about real world experiences, we are showing young thinkers that their opinions matter. They have value outside their achieved grade. Students seek teacher feedback when they know they will share work with a larger audience. The teacher’s role moves from success arbiter to coach. Mistakes become opportunities for improvement rather than reasons to justify a lower grade. Students trust the teacher to help them find their voice.

Consider this range of opportunities for students to share their work: 

  • Class magazine
  • Interviews with community members
  • Teaching the parent community
  • Raising awareness for a local organization
  • Helping other students
  • Displaying work in a public space

 Does the Extra Effort Yield Results? 

We don’t claim to have all the answers to these complex questions. But we have seen the transformation they can bring about in our students. Our 10th graders are visibly enthusiastic to identify concepts they developed in the resistance unit as they read Harlem Renaissance Poetry.  Even better, they willingly share their voice in a poetry slam. They have taken ownership of their learning experiences and find value in the process.

Yes, authentic assessments are not perfect, they are risky and messy, but we’re getting better at them. The more educators and schools that move towards this type of pedagogy and assessment, the more we will all learn how to deal with the ambiguities and execute them better. One could argue using authentic assessments is in fact an authentic assessment of our own teaching. If we are willing to take risks in the real world, we model the perseverance and creativity we hope to inspire in our students.

Suggested Breakout Box 

Wiggins’ (1998) characteristics that makes assessment authentic:

The assessment is realistic; it mirrors how this knowledge or skill would be used in the real world.
The assessment requires judgment and innovation; the task is open-ended and has more than one right answer.
The assessment incorporates skills that are required in the discipline being studied.
The assessment is done in contexts as close to the real world as possible
The assessment involves a range of skills and deals with a complex problem that requires some degree of informed judgement or choice from the student.
The assessment is iterative and allows for feedback, practice, and redos

 Works Cited 

Gardner, H. (1993). Frames of Mind (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Rachael is a teacher and social justice advocate who has worked in schools in Poland, the United States, and Finland. She is passionate about inclusive education and its capacity to empower every student to make positive change.


Ellen is a teacher and educational researcher who has worked in schools in Melbourne, Beijing, Singapore and Helsinki and who believes education can be a force to unite people, nations and cultures for an equitable and sustainable future.


Gardner, H. (1993). Frames of Mind (2nd ed.). New York:Basic Books.
Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Sue Aspinall, Executive Leadership Team | Head of Junior School, The British School in The Netherlands

Leading organisational change from within 

Please first download this accompanying PDF

As a growing multi-campus international school, the British School in the Netherlands (BSN) prides itself on being a dynamic centre of excellence for both students and staff. In this article, I will be sharing the ways we are intentionally building alignment around our whole school improvement priorities across the five campuses whilst also enabling staff teams to follow their own lines of enquiries, so that new ideas for improving teaching practice emerge. I will be suggesting that the carefully balanced leadership of both of these intentional and emergent approaches is necessary to enable the BSN to sustain success over the long term. 

The intentionally constructed strategy  

It is important in any school to have clear priorities for improvement which are informed by a range of evidence, including students’ progress and attainment data. Across the three BSN Junior Schools, these priorities are agreed and clearly articulated annually along with the intended impact by the end of the academic year 

The intentionally constructed strategy for implementing the change to teaching practice is cyclical and ongoing. In each academic year there is a key priority raise student progress and attainment in logic and reasoning through a mastery approach to mathematical learning 


The key priority for improvement is the focus of the weekly one hour staff professional development sessions and all other on-campus professional learning opportunities. Hence time is spent intentionally, providing teaching staff with the pedagogical knowledge and teaching skills required to make the changes. These opportunities are mapped out across the academic year, which provides opportunities for teachers to trial and evaluate the impact of the changes they are making to their practice over time. Where necessary, lead teachers are available to plan, model and team teach in order to support the acquisition of new areas of learning. In this way, there is a collective endeavour to make a difference. Every staff member is involved in professional learning and the impact is evaluated on an ongoing basis. The foci is re-calibrated and the implementation strategy re-designed as progress is responded to throughout the year.  

We have found that this approach makes a significant impact to the quality of teaching practice, and ultimately, the equity in the quality of learning for all BSN Junior School students. There is clarity to everyone’s role and professional dialogue can be focussed around a common topic. With the three BSN Junior Schools working together for the same outcome, the opportunities for sharing learning and extending professional dialogues are tripled. 

Evidencing impact of teaching on student outcomes 

This academic year, the maths leads across the Junior Schools have been leading the strategy. The overall intended impact at the end of this academic year is to enable: 

All students to be able to explain their mathematical understanding using the correct consistent mathematical language in full sentences. 


Progress being made towards this is evaluated in many ways; such as through progress and attainment feedback sessions from year group leaders, book looks and student conferencing.  


Half termly evaluations of student progress data and teacher assessment indicate that most student are on track to meet their age related expectations. Importantly, there is consistent evidence that students are accessing manipulatives to explain their learning, demonstrating logical thinking and reasoning and building a fluency in their use of mathematical language. 


Emergence within the collaborative enquiry model 

The BSN values the importance of building professional collaboration and enabling teams to create their own improvement work within their specific field of expertise. A model that enables new avenues of professional enquiry to take place is being trialled at one of the Junior Schools by each year group team, each subject specific team and the inclusion teams. Based on examples cited by Weston, D and Clay, B. (2018), this model enables the teaching staff to identify a very specific question regarding their teaching practice and its impact on student outcomes. The staff agree upon the most useful evidence that will be collected and build a programme for this to be collated.  


The resulting collaborative discussion, built around the evidence collected, provides the opportunity to unpick very specific ‘tweaks’ that can be made to teaching practice and classroom management to make a difference to student outcomes. These ‘tweaks’ are built into the practice of teams incrementally throughout the year as the model is repeated. This cyclical process is slowly building team ownership and localised attention to school improvement. 

Evidencing impact of teaching on student outcomes 

During the collaborative discussion, emerging themes and questions are unpicked and future actions are agreed.  

Feedback from staff has been positive. They have welcomed the team ownership of the process, the range of evidence that is used to inform the collaborative discussion, and the immersive presence of the Senior Leader, who leads the enquiry alongside the year leader. 

“This approach is far better than a one-off lesson observation. Each class teacher in the year group is focussing on the same enquiry and we are continually talking about our findings. There is much more professional discussion with a purpose”  

“I like having Lucy and Miffy involved throughout the duration of the week rather than a one-off lesson observation. I think they get a better understanding of what learning is like for our students in the Year Group and their feedback is very objective and wide ranging.” 

Finding the balance and leading the process  

In the best cases, teams have been able to integrate the collaborative enquiry approach and the strategic improvement priority. The respective teams have then dived deeper into their understanding of the impact of their practice eg. the impact of the bar modelling strategy on Y5 students’ ability to explain their mathematical reasoning clearly. Equally, the emerging learning from the collaborative enquiry has often been able to inform the impact of the whole school improvement work, and where appropriate, has enabled these ideas to be adopted by different year groups.  

The success of all of this work is dependent on its leadership, staff engagement and commitment. Leadership of the school improvement approaches requires an understanding of their intentionality, so that collaborative enquiries stay within their parameters and inform the improvement priorities of the whole school. A shared accountability for outcomes and a sustained commitment to find a balance between the approaches is becoming established 

Team empowerment and leadership capacity building 

The BSN provides opportunities for team leaders to enhance their leadership skills, knowledge and attributes by enrolling on programmes such as the international Professional Qualifications in Middle Leadership (iNPQML) and international Professional Qualifications in Senior Leadership (iNPQSL) delivered through the BSN International Leadership Academy (ILA). These programmes enable team leaders to learn about research and theoretical models that inform their leadership in practice. They also learn practical techniques to help them facilitate team meetings, design collective enquiries, critical analyse evidence and hold honest conversations. Their roles as leaders of intentional strategy and/or collaborative enquiries are all supported by the requirement to embed their learning from the face-to-face modules into their leadership projects. By integrating their requirements for the iNPQ assessment with their contribution to the school improvement priorities, the BSN is building informed collective leadership capacity within the organisation, and more broadly, within the international education community 

Next steps for the BSN 

Creating this balanced approach requires class teachers to be continually observing the impact of their teaching on student learning. It is an incremental approach to school improvement that is responsive and adaptive; it requires flexibility, open-mindedness and a commitment to continuous learning and development. This is the ultimate challenge for us as school leaders: are we comfortable with leading this level of uncertainty within our school improvement work? Are we flexible and adaptable enough to intentionally construct a strategy and then to re-calibrate and re-design it, as new learning emerges from the collaborative enquiries?  

I believe we need to be if we are going to build leadership capacity across our international schools, and equip staff with the pedagogical knowledge and teaching skills to meet the needs of our students. We need to be comfortable with the uncertainty of what will emerge when teams are empowered to take their own lines of enquiries to improve their teaching practice. As Woods and Roberts (2018) summarise, “leading this way is not only challenging but also a creative, inspiring and feasible way of advancing learning in its best and fullest way”.  


Datnow, A., and Park, V. (2019) Professional Collaboration with Purpose. New York: Routledge 

Hargreaves, A., and O’Connor, M. (2018) Collaborative Professionalism. London: Sage  

Seel, R. (2006) Emergence in Organisations”, 

Weston, D., and Clay, B. (2018) Unleashing Great Teaching. Oxon: Routledge 

Woods, P., and Roberts, A. (2018) Collaborative School Leadership. London: Sage  


Over the last twenty years, Sue Aspinall has been leading schools through significant change, intent on raising the quality of learning and teaching available to their students. Having been both a Head of an inner London state school and three British international schools based in different countries, Sue knows how it is to live a global life and transition between cultures and across countries. She has the ability to build diverse teams and motivate staff around
common goals. She empowers staff to lead from within and coaches them to reach their highest aspirations. An experienced facilitator, Sue provides an impactful learning experience for leaders who want to make a difference.

Intention to Impact Leadership

Kim Cullen, M.A., M.S., B.A. Upper School Director, The American School of Madrid.

A manifesto for new and aspiring leaders.

Benjamin Franklin is credited with the saying “Well done is better than well said”.  At the American School of Madrid, one of our school-wide goals this year has been to determine what concrete steps each of us can take to transform words into action.  There is a considerable difference between intention and impact. Most of the time, our intentions are honorable. We are a community of caring, generous people:  we mean well.  It takes more than meaning well, however, and we sometimes shield ourselves behind intention when things didn’t go completely as we had hoped. “I didn’t mean it that way” or “It was just a joke” is something I often hear students and teachers say. 


In leadership, we must recognize that intention is a powerful motivator, and we need to help our community members think more specifically about impact.  This means we need to walk the walk and talk the talk.  We must ask ourselves What is the impact my words will have?  What is the impact I want to have? Related to this are questions like  What do I want to be known for, remembered for? What legacy do I want to leave?   As a school administrator, my daily challenge is to move from the what to the how.   It is in the how that I will define the impact I have on others.  


As I reflect on the leadership lessons I have learned over my twenty-three years in education, below are some of my personal highlights – a manifesto, if you will, on how to transform my own best intentions to real impact.  For new and aspiring leaders, developing one’s own manifesto for intention to impact leadership can be a powerful way to define the role one wants to play in the lives and growth of the communities one serves.  

Be committed to growth. 

Every experience in life is an opportunity to learn and grow.  One actually CAN teach old dogs new tricks.  Just because someone might refuse to change doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t.  Commit to learning new things, seeking out new challenges, and helping others do the same.  Learn to learn. 

Fear is healthy.   

Fear means we care, we want to do well.  But we fear fear, and we stay in our comfort zones, thus limiting our opportunities for growth.  Rather than perceiving fear as a force of evil, learn to embrace fear as a driving force for doing your best.  Don’t be afraid to say yes.  

Be authentic.  And be vulnerable. 

There is no magic leadership formula – be true to yourself.  Identify your strengths and don’t be afraid to leverage them.  Also, be honest about your shortcomings and commit to working on them.  Knowing yourself and allowing for both authenticity and vulnerability are fundamental so successful leadership.   

Be compassionate.  

Everyone has a story – a lifetime of experiences, beliefs, and history that defines who they are.    Don’t be quick to draw conclusions about others, and remember that understanding people’s context is critical in building strong, trusting relationships.  It is important to note that compassion is different from empathy.  Empathy is the intellectual awareness and appreciation of someone’s circumstances.  Compassion takes it a step further and involves a desire to make a difference.  In short, compassion is caring. 

Everything is a gift, even if you worked hard for it.  

If your baseline is that everything in life is a gift, even if you worked hard for it, you will be less inclined to hold onto that sense of entitlement that sometimes creeps in despite our best intentions.  Gratitude means you will be less likely to get upset when things don’t go the way you planned or expected.  Gratitude gives you the ability to give situations only the attention they deserve.  It also gives you the ability to move on when it’s time.   

Balance your approach. 

Know the difference between reacting and responding and which one is most appropriate under what circumstances.  Reaction is quick, usually involves emotion, is often uninformed and sometimes misguided.  Response takes time and requires thoughtfulness, getting to the bottom of something, considering all the options and all sides.  Find your balance between instinct, insight, and improvisation. 

Act in accordance with YOU. 

Live into your values with confidence and integrity.  Identify your beliefs and wear them on your sleeve.  Don’t sacrifice your values.  Boundaries are important; learn how to set them.  Know when to say no.  Integrity leads to reliability and trust. 

Lean on others.   

No one succeeds alone, no one knows everything, no one can do everything. Lean on others.  Seek out allies.   Find a thought partner.  Listen more than you speak.  Offer help along the way.  Be someone’s mentor.    

Celebrate others. 

Recognize the contributions of others as much as you can.  Everyone needs and deserves validation.  No one can work at their best when they feel unsupported, underutilized, unappreciated or underpaid.  Celebration is fundamental to emotional and professional well-being and, ultimately, growth.  


Kim is a thoughtful and committed educator with twenty three years of experience in international education. As a American citizen born in Brazil and raised in Texas and Spain, Kim is an adult TCK (*third culture kid) who understands the unique benefits and opportunities that come from having cross-cultural experiences during the developmental years. Kim cares deeply about young people and how they learn and she has devoted her entire professional career to fostering supportive, impactful and relevant learning for both students and educators. Having served school communities in a variety of capacities, Kim’s professional profile is comprehensive with experiences in visioning, strategic planning, relationships, team-building and compassionate leadership.

Along her journey in education — from behind the scenes in fundraising and community relations, through teaching and counseling, and almost a decade in leadership laying the groundwork for systemic change – Kim has to come to firmly believe that if educators are thoughtful, open-minded and willing, they have the ability to create powerful educational experiences that will transform the future for our children, our society, and our planet. Kim is the founder of i2i Education Consulting, helping forward-thinking education leaders create meaningful learning for students ( She also publishes insights and learnings on life on her personal blog, ebb and flow,

Is your school different?

Marcia De Wolf, Director, Quisite Consulting

Your school is a wonderful institution that provides an excellent education to its students and is a place where students, teachers and parents feel at home. You know it and everyone in your school community knows it too. 

If yours is a typical international school, then many of your families move to their next posting after about 3 years, except for the locals and long-term expats who have settled in your country. The teaching staff is a mix of young, ambitious teachers who leave after two or three years to explore the next country, and longer term staff members who feel they have found a working environment they wish to remain in. Sounds about right? 

So why do families come to your school? Why did they choose it over other schools in the area? What do they enjoy most about it? Why do teachers apply to work at your school? Do you know? 

If I ask you why new families should come to your school, would you be able to tell me? Would you feel comfortable with your answer and confident that this is something new families or staff are looking for? What do you offer that “the school across town” does not? What makes your school unique? 

You will probably tell me that they should pick your school since it is obvious that you are the best school in the region! Is it obvious though, to people not yet in your community? And how are you the best, exactly? And if you are indeed the best, how can you prove that?  

In the ever-changing landscape of international schools, few schools have the luxury of waiting lists. If anything, there is more competition than ever and beating other schools in attracting new families is essential to reach your enrolment numbers.  

When you are ‘on the inside’, you often assume your school’s unique features are obvious to those looking at your school for the first time. The experience for those ‘on the outside’, however, can be quite different than you imagine 

Prospective parents want to find a school that resonates with them, that they feel will be a good fit for their children as they move to this new country, where they will need to find new friends and learn a new language. They will likely skip past your school, even if it shows up first in the results on Google, if you have the same standard language as any other school. To get a family’s attention and have a chance to be contacted for a visit, you must find a way to connect with these parents to make them notice your school and consider it for their children. You need to provide a solution to their concerns as they start the relocation process.  

Look at it from the family’s perspective:  

Let’s say a family has just been informed they will be moving to your country on their first expat posting. Very exciting but daunting at the same time, moving to a country they have never been to and where they speak a different language. They have two children (9 and 14 years old), who do not speak much English and need basic learning support. Where do they start? They make a list: learn about the country and city, find a house, a school, a moving company, get transcripts from the current school, and so on. 

They will do a Google search to see what international schools come up for that city. They find some options and continue to the various websites, perhaps checking the schools’ social media channels. What do they find? Very similar information on the websites, happy faces on the social media channels, mostly of classroom or extra-curricular activities. To them, the schools all seem alike and offer a very similar experience.  

I picked a random big city in Europe and checked the websites of three quality international schools. Here is what their sites want me to know: 

School 1: we offer an American education, international community, and exceptional results 

School 2: “we prepare our students to engage with and succeed in a complex world 

School 3: “we are the oldest international school in x, have a rich history of inclusion and diversity, and offer a warm welcome to children.  

These are by no means differentiators. In fact, most international schools in the world claim to: 

  • offer a great education and excellent results. 
  • provide a learning environment in which students thrive. 
  • have a diverse and welcoming international community. 

If these are the reasons your school uses to attract new families and expect prospective families to come rushing through the door, you may wish to reconsider as it does not differentiate you from any other international school on the globe 

Do you feel your website, for a first-time visitor who knows nothing about your school, effectively tells your story? Does it convey the features that make your school so special? The many elements that you and everyone already at the school know, but a prospective parent doing a search does not?  

Prospective parents do not care if you have a flashy website, with fancy features. They want to see that you are a good fit for their children and get the sense that you understand their needs.  

I suggest you take an objective look at your school’s website, but from the perspective of an expat family that does not know your school, your country or international schools. Review your website, especially the home page, and consider whether this is the information you should see if you are a prospective family.  

For most expats, school is home away from home, the support network that needs to take the place of family and friends. It must fill a big chunk of a new family’s life, so the choice is of huge importance to any family starting the relocation process. Look at it from their perspective, what do you want them to feel and what do you absolutely want them to know when they visit your website for the first time?  

Have you already considered and identified differentiating factors for your school? Great! See if they pass the test: are they true, can you prove them, are they relevant and are they well communicated?  

Have you not yet considered what makes your school special or feel you may not be communicating it effectively? No problem, you now have an excellent opportunity to increase the number of new student inquiries by looking at differentiating your school now 

Please send me an e-mail at if you are interested in further discussing this topic and receiving some guidance on the process to follow 

In the meantime, keep up the great work and don’t underestimate all the seemingly small things your school does that can make it special and very appealing to new families! 


Marcia has been involved in branding and marketing activities for 26 years, both in North America and Europe. She started her career at CNN Headquarters in the Public Relations department for five years, before working in strategic communications at two leading PR agencies, Ketchum and GCI, guiding clients such as IBM, Nokia, Dell, and Sony.
She started her own consultancy in 2018 to focus on providing strategic services in marketing and branding. Her clients include the Justine Henin Tennis Academy, Bugatti, FIFA and UEFA. She also runs events for the Belgian national men’s soccer team, ranked number 1 in the world and manages a group of Belgian female sports legends, such as Tia Hellebaut, Kim Gevaert, Ann Wauters and other Olympic and world medalists. A frequent speaker and workshop leader at ECIS conferences, Marcia has successfully advised many schools in the area of effective marketing and branding over the past 15 years.

At-risk affluence & school culture

Dr. Tara R. Campbell, Senior Manager, Jostens

“Extracurricular activities aren’t fun anymore; it’s just something that we do to get into college.” That statement was shared with my husband and colleague by a high-achieving high school student. Hearing this articulation repeated multiple times from multiple students in multiple countries elicited a journey into understanding how the pressure placed on adolescents affects the culture and climate in schools. Perhaps the most surprising realization from these investigations is that affluent students are now considered ‘at-risk’, a term no longer reserved only for students living in abject poverty. 


First, it’s important to understand that ‘at-risk’ does not mean an inability to achieve academic success, but instead signifies a student is less equipped to be successful which can result from a myriad of factors. In a recent report, The Robert Wood Foundation positioned adolescent wellness as not the absence of problems, but as having voice, thriving, and being socially aware and self-accepting. The report went on to name the top environmental conditions harming adolescent wellness – included in the list alongside poverty, trauma, and discrimination was an excessive pressure to succeed mostly tied to affluence (Geisz & Nakashian, 2018). 


Once we drop the preconceived notion that an abundance of material wealth brings forth wellbeing, it is easy to see how affluent students can be ill-equipped to thrive socially and emotionally. Affluence can bring about isolation, stress, and skewed competitiveness (Osherson, 2017).  Affluent students in environments placing importance on academic excellence experience a lack of connectivity that results in higher rates of mental health and emotional problems (Wallace, 2019).   


The intense expectation to perform and to be the best creates a pressurized environment where students are driven to out-compete their classmates, leading to a school culture ripe with peer envy, anxiety, and depression. The social isolation and self-comparison epidemic bolstered by the prevalence of social media only confounds the problem. Add in other issues present in international and privately-funded schools for affluent children — such as parents who either blatantly or subtly use their wealth to influence school policy, disciplinary reactions, or teacher autonomy; the frequency of student mobility making it difficult for students to forge and maintain lasting and supportive relationships; and the lack of organically grown resilience and self-reliance resulting from exposure to ‘problems’ that cannot be fixed by familial wealth and influence – one can see how school culture could easily become toxic. 


School culture is the shared behaviors, beliefs, and norms within a school or organization. Because school culture shapes the relationships between and among all school stakeholder groups and can affect learning and student wellbeing, school culture is not something that should be dismissed (Johnson et al, 2015; La Salle et al, 2014 


When thinking about school culture, it is important to first assess the current climate on campus. What do your school norms express as valued on your school’s campus? Is that fostering a sense of wellbeing in your students? Numerous studies on school climate have revealed a positive correlation between healthy and supportive school cultures to student motivation, feelings of connectedness, and student self-esteem (Hopson et al, 2014; Hoge et al, 1990). 


In order to foster a supportive and connected school culture, systems should be created that allow for dialogue among students, among faculty, and between students and faculty. Each of these stakeholder groups need to feel as if they have an avenue to express their emotions, concerns, life events, and be able to share coping strategies and dialogue about what affects them.  To help maintain a sense of balance and buffer against stress in high pressure environments, social down time should be built into school operations and schedules (Wallace, 2019).  


To equalize the pressure placed on academic excellence, schools should create formalized systems for recognition and reward for non-academic values such as citizenship, grit, compassion, leadership, advocacy, etc. Additionally, things such as how people are welcomed onto campus, how new faculty and students are embraced into the school community, and how support personnel are treated and respected by school stakeholders, all contribute to the overall sense of connectivity and wellbeing on campus, thereby setting an undertone to the school’s culture. 


Creating and sustaining a positive school culture can seem daunting, but assistance is available. The Educator Services division of Jostens has dedicated the past 36 years to creating resources proven to improve school culture through their Renaissance program. Jostens offers its schools access to over 168 episodes of character education and social emotional video series, titled The Harbor™. Through the Jostens Renaissance Leadership Curriculum, Jostens offers schools more than two years’ worth of classroom leadership curriculum that ties leadership principles to overall school culture and school stakeholder connectivity. Through Jostens’ scientifically validated Pulse survey, schools can capture stakeholder perceptions of student recognition. To assist schools with the professional learning offerings for faculties, The Green Room Professional Learning Series by Jostens provides school administration with professional development content that leads to more connected school cultures. Finally, through Jostens’ Idea Exchange, schools can access a database of best practices for building strong campus cultures, all submitted by other schools from multiple countries. Jostens makes these and other school culture resources available to its partner schools. Schools can contact their Jostens sales representative for access to these complimentary culture building resources. 


Geisz, MB & Nakashian M. (2018). Adolescent Wellness: Current Perspectives and Future Opportunities in Research, Policy, and Practice – A Learning Report. The Robert Wood Foundation. 


Hoge, D. R., Smit, E.K., & Hanson, S.L. (1190). School experiences predicting changes in self-esteem of sixth and seventh-grade students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 117-127. 


Hopson, L.M., Schiller, K.S., & Lawson, H.A. (2014). Exploring linkages between school climate, behavioral norms, social supports, and academic success. Social Work Research, 38(4), 197-209. 


Johnson, S.L., Pas, E., & Bradshaw, C. P. (2015). Understanding the association between school climate and future orientation. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. DOI 10.107/s10964-015-0321-1. 


La Salle, T. P.L., Meyers, J., Varjas, K., & Roach, A. (2015). A cultural-ecological model of school climate. International Journal of School & Educational Psychology, 3(3), 157-166. 


Osherson, Sam (2017). The Influence of Affluence. Independent School, Fall 2017. National Association of Independent Schools. 


Wallace, J B (2019). Students in high-achieving schools are now named an ‘at-risk’ group, study says. The Washington Post, September 26, 2019. 




Dr. Tara R. Campbell is a veteran educator. She started her career as a high school teacher and has since served the field of education as a professional learning and development coordinator, a curriculum designer, an At-Risk Prevention Specialist, and a Career and Technical Education program manager for the Tennessee Department of Education in the United States. Dr. Campbell currently serves as Senior Manager of the Educator Services division of Jostens where she and her team create school culture and climate resources. She is the co-author of the book “Make It Reign: A Collection of Proven Ideas to Fund Renaissance in Your School.” 


Learning Ecosystems

Sandy Mackenzie, Director, Copenhagen International School.

The concept of a learning ecosystem has never been so relevant as it is today in March 2020. In countries across our inter-connected world, the delicate nature of a healthy ecosystem has been brought into stark focus through the spread of a global pandemic. International schools are resilient beings that have withstood many tests of disease, natural disaster and man-made catastrophes. Never before has such a single, tiny entity had such far-reaching implications – as well as creating a threat to health worldwide, making us question our modus operandi in all aspects of society. 


In our globally mobile profession, we all have friends and former colleagues working in China. Therefore, we had all heard about corona virus, that schools had to close their doors and provide remote and online learning in February. Somehow, in Europe we became apocryphal King Canutes and believed that it would not happen here and so were in varying states of readiness when it was time to write a risk assessment matrix and a remote learning plan. 


Across Europe, in late February and early March strategic thinkers and planners made calm arrangements for procedures in the event of a case of the virus entering our communities. The speed of the spread of this threat quickly overtook the pace of the careful, thoughtful leaders. Countries swiftly brought in restrictions and closed schools to halt the impact, and brought new terms to our lexicon such as “flattening the curve” and “social distancing”. Social media became the super-spreader of information and mis-information, from which Donne’s “no man is an island” is even more relevant than it was 400 years ago. 


International schools often describe themselves as a bubble within an environment, floating in the ecosystem they inhabit. COVID-19 pierced that bubble and illuminated the symbiotic relationship between a school and its surroundings and its neighbours. Moreover, the success of the school to respond to the challenge of remote learning and campus closure is largely dependant on four main factors: 


  • Human adaptability and preparedness for change 
  • Consistency of availability of tools required for remote learning 
  • Clarity of expectation in the local and national environment
  • Leadership and communication 


Presence of all four conditions is required for a sustainable, successful remote learning solution during this uncertain time. Without able, caring, dedicated, versatile teachers any effort to alter the nature of learning so radically virtually overnight would fail. Software solutions and technological tools are fantastic aids to distance learning; for them to be employed equitably and usefully, all students need access to them. We know that stressed and anxious people rarely make good students – those governing the local community and the nation need to provide clear guidelines for operating within restrictions. Otherwise, toilet paper runs out and sane, upstanding members of society become headless chickens caught between two stools!  

As well as clear societal guidelines, a calm and reasonable set of expectations for all community members in the face of a dynamic, shifting environment is needed. School leaders set the tone for the response to this novel situation – optimism and confidence are key. In our school, Arthur Ashe’s famous words “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can” provided a guide star for approaching the challenge of shifting learning to a blend of online and offline activity delivered through sychronous and asychronous methods. While we may not have had a glossy (digital) brochure describing our remote learning provision with virtual bells and whistles attached, we were fortunate to have the four bullet points above. 


The subtitle to the ECIS Leadership Conference due to take place in Madrid 2020 was “leading school communities that thrive”. In this new normal of remote learning, how do school leaders ensure that their community continues to not only survive but to also thrive? At these moments of uncertainty, leaders display empathy and provide reassurance; they communicate thoughtfully and appreciatively. Moreover, they look for opportunities for new learning, not merely a pale imitation of on-campus learning. It is quickly apparent that teaching volleyball or developing skills in using 3D printers and laser cutters are not possible in a home learning environment. Well supported, adaptable teachers make proverbial lemonade from those lemons – PE teachers creating podcasts for a modern sex education programme, Design students taking photos and measuring the height of their tower made of household packaging that needs to support a carrot on top, video challenges that involve the entire family and encourage social interaction, home cooking and human connection. 


Colleagues from China with experience of many weeks of remote learning tell us that students, and their teachers, focus less on the content of learning as time passes; instead they crave the social interaction, collaboration and human connection that school provides in their daily lives. That is evident in week three of our enforced remote learning experiment. Reflecting on the different things we can do, on the things we can do differently and the aspects that we can live without is making educators question what is important. How many conferences have you attended where the keynote speaker expounds a powerful message that it is about time we changed school education, that in the 21st century our content-based, teacher as fount of all knowledge paradigm needs a significant shift? In the age of the answer being immediately available on a screen, is it not time that we asked different questions? Many of us leave those conferences with great ideas in our mental briefcase, brimming with confidence and good intentions to bring in a new initiative only to find that days later, we are back in a familiar groove. 


The retrospective inertia that exists in all schools (also known as the “this is how we have always done it” syndrome) can slow or stifle change. Could it be that the necessary catalyst for disrupting the status quo is this global pandemic of COVID-19 and the international response to lock down countries, restricting movement and enforcing working and learning from home?  


Across the world, in every type of international school, educators are asking what are the important skills for students to gain. Teachers are utilising creativity and employing ingenuity to design experiences that engage students, both in real time and in asynchronous, offline tasks. They are engaging in a different manner with their environment; they are adapting the ecosystem to ensure that communities remain strong. As they do so, even larger questions come into focus that may require a re-examination of the axioms of school education. If the International Baccalaureate and other bodies can cancel all exams, and universities are able to make good decisions about admission, in 2020, are written, timed examinations still fit for purpose? If we truly value collaboration, research skills and project-based learning, do we need to redefine the concept of academic honesty? What is the true purpose of the teacher, and what skills and attributes are necessary to be an inspirational educator in the 21st century? 


As we hear about some of the horrific immediate effects of COVID-19 ravaging countries, our thoughts are with families and communities losing loved ones. The next phase of concern will be the resultant economic changes for organisations and societies. For many of us, the medium term impact may be deep with educators examining the core of how we define school as part of a global, interconnected learning ecoystem. 



Sandy Mackenzie is Director of Copenhagen International School and has over 20 years of experience supporting the education of young people in many parts of the world, including China, Denmark, Scotland, and the United States. Sandy has taught Mathematics, co-authored a textbook and held senior leadership positions in four schools. Empowering and supporting teams to provide an outstanding education to young people that  positively contributes to their academic, personal, social-emotional, and intercultural well-being, learning and growth is his true passion.