Geneva - epicentre of progressive education says Ecolint Director

"The IB is a strong manifestation of the work that can be born in Geneva and influence the world," David Hawley, Director of Ecolint.

The International Baccalaureate (IB), now offered in 5'284 schools across more than 158 countries, was first created in Geneva 52 years ago at the International School of Geneva (Ecolint). The world’s oldest and largest international school, a Swiss registered non-profit, was founded in 1924 by officials from the League of Nations, the International Labour Organization, and local educators to promote ideals of peace and international understanding. Ecolint Director David Hawley, also former chief academic officer of the global International Baccalaureate oranization that administers the modern-day IB, explains Geneva’s role as a longtime centre of progressive education and how Covid-19 has challenged the school to adapt its methods for incoming classes.

Does the IB still reflects Geneva’s role as international center for education?

The IB is a strong manifestation of the work that can be born in Geneva and influence the world, not only in 158 countries but at the local level in relations to children, teachers and families from all of those countries. The United Nations, the World Trade Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross all represent these elements. But the IB is a contribution to the world: education influences students for the rest of their lives.

The IB Association is based in Grand-Saconnex. Is the initial innovative spirit of the IB still developing here?

Ecolint played a major role in defining international education of the 20th century. We are challenging ourselves to think about how can we now define interdependent and interconnected education in the 21st century. With UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education (IBE), we are working on implementation of innovative education with the Universal Learning programme (ULP), the next IB in some ways. Five years ago, they launched a global multi-million dollars research project with 198 ministers of education around the world. They came up with seven macro-competencies for children to develop, to be in the best possible position to live in and contribute to this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

What are these seven competencies?

They are powerful and deceptively simple, but really change the experience of being a child and student. They include: learning how to learn or long-life learning; Student Agency i.e. a child actively authentically engaged through his own force in the world; Interaction with others; Interaction in and with the world; Interaction with complex tools and resources; Multi-literacy i.e. be literate in the world; Trans-disciplinarity.

Aren’t these all an extension of the core values developed by the League of Nations, “Education for Peace”?

All of those principles are contribute to a larger purpose, which we call the “common good” or “public good”. It’s larger than peace. It’s a new expression of the work started with the IB.

“Common good” is a notion that has been very much discussed in the search for a vaccine available to everybody. Was Covid-19 a test period for the ULP?

It’s is always difficult to be optimistic about something that is so harmful, but it has been a kind of test for humanity. Fortunately, because it happened in March, we had already built a relationship with our students. If it were to happen in September, we would not have been nearly as successful, because of the importance of building human relationships with people.

What were the lessons learned from this quarantine?

First, relationships are even more important today. The human part of learning and teaching, we need to understand more deeply and better. We are privileged when we are together in person. And we should really think about what could be done better online and what requires being together. Secondly, exams still rely on timed examinations, which is not what your life is like as an adult. It’s not a particularly good proxi for measuring the ability of somebody to contribute to the “common good”. Students are not ready at the same time to take an exam. Why do we have to continue to use these foolish structures when we, as humans, are ready to demonstrate our understanding at all sorts of times?

What solutions are you looking at to correct these biases?

Computers, programing and very personalized learning. We are also looking at developing a Universal Learning Passport with all of our qualifications: what we know and what we are able to do. School and diplomas are not sufficient anymore. That just starts the conversation with the great companies for which so many young students want to work. They actually want to know what you are able to do. Your passport will give examples (creating an NGO, writing poetry, developping an app…). It is a more human way of thinking of who we are.

On July 6 students will receive their IB results. How did they cope in this very particular year?

Everything we spoke about came together in the way this IB group concluded its time at Ecolint. Specifically, students did not take a single exam, but instead the IB asked for a portfolio of their work: extended essays, knowledge presentations, laboratory work. This is one of the gifts of Covid-19. To be critical of the IB, one thing they should have done is give us the exam anyway as a tool for learning. Students spent two years preparing for it. Rather than cancel it, we could have looked at the questions and discussed them.