In two recent letters in this section, international schools came under fire for their approaches to teaching STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and maths), as well as the qualifications of their teachers.
This included the claim that schools should hire more non-Western teachers with expertise in maths and the sciences, that rote learning is more effective in the teaching of these subjects, and that engineers would be better equipped to teach English.
It’s first important to note that international schools in Thailand represent an incredibly diverse range of philosophies, curricula, approaches and students. Over 170 licensed schools now exist around the country, and what may be true of one could be radically different in another. However, several of the claims in both pieces are simply inconsistent with all available evidence we have of what works best in schools.
What do universities and employers say about the skills students need?
For multiple consecutive years, a pointed message has come through loud and clear from the annual surveys of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, National Association of Colleges and Employers, and UK Commission for Employment and Skills: high school and university graduates do not lack technical expertise in STEM-related areas, but rather the soft skills that are crucial to success in any industry.
That skill deficiency includes leadership, collaboration, communication and similar areas. These findings have been remarkably consistent for over a decade, and in one such report, 93 per cent of employers agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major”.
The importance of well-rounded students and graduates who possess more than technical knowledge and skills is backed by businesses and scientists who suggest that a lack of creativity among new hires is inhibiting their future prospects. In a survey of scientists published in Psychology Today in 2011, the authors indicated that “the data our scientists and engineers provided to us demonstrate that the more arts and crafts a person masters, the greater their probability of becoming an inventor or innovator”. This has been backed by studies examining links between the fine arts and performance in other subject areas, which consistently demonstrate a positive correlation between them.
What does effective teaching and learning look like?
Contrary to the belief that schools do not hire non-Western teachers, at NIST and several other Thai international schools, educators with specialised training in science and maths are teaching those subjects at the secondary level regardless of nationality. (Our teachers are drawn from over 25 countries in total, ranging from Argentina and Zimbabwe to the Philippines and Japan.) The question then becomes one of which approaches work best.
The Kumon philosophy, and others like it, rely on rote learning and repetition, both of which are highly useful in producing a consistent knowledge base within a limited framework. However, universities and professional organisations have already indicated that the challenge they face is not a lack of technical knowledge and skills, but rather creative, independent thinkers who can come up with new solutions and ideas. Rote learning fares poorly in preparing students for this type of environment, hence the importance of inquiry-based approaches and conceptual understandings that can be applied in differing contexts.
While this may not produce immediate results (precisely because standardised measures used in most schools track the results of rote learning), the long-term benefits are clear. The best schools that adopt these more open approaches typically post results well above the global and regional averages in science and maths by the time students reach the secondary level, precisely because they have built a stronger foundation in creative problem solving.
Who should our teachers be?
International schools seek qualified teachers for the same reason hospitals seek qualified doctors and car repair shops seek qualified mechanics: professionals get the best results in their respective fields. One of the most common misconceptions about teaching is that anyone can do it, particularly if they have expertise in a particular subject. While there may be naturally gifted teachers, just as there are naturally gifted athletes and scientists, the reality – backed by decades of research – is that teachers who are trained in pedagogy and continually undergo professional development are best positioned to help students succeed.
While subject specialists are used at the secondary level in many schools, at the elementary level it is expertise in age-appropriate teaching methodologies that is crucial, rather than exhaustive knowledge of all academic fields. The claim that the “smartest” graduates are those in engineering completely disregards the contributions of millions of successful people in their respective fields, as well as the clear links between STEM disciplines and the arts. Assuming that engineers will be better teachers, particularly of language, is a tenuous argument at best, and again disregards what we know through research into effective teaching and learning.
Studying a particular field does not make one more or less intelligent. On the contrary, what we now know about learning and the brain is that intelligence is fluid; a “growth mindset” and being open to new knowledge and skills, particularly through failure, most often predicate future success in any profession. It is precisely that mindset that the best schools seek to cultivate in their teachers and their students.
The bottom line
In our most recent class of graduates at NIST, we have students who will study mechatronics and mechanical engineering at the University of Melbourne and University College London, and others who will study philosophy at University of Oxford and opera at Hochschule fur Musik Hanns Eisler. Some will pursue careers in graphic design and theatre, while others aim to become doctors and entrepreneurs. We anticipate that they will perform equally as well as our previous graduating class, who earned a record 36.3 average on the IB exam, putting them on par with the best in the world – yes, including in the STEM disciplines.
What matters more to us, however, is that each and every one of these students is entering university with the belief that they can and will succeed through a growth mindset, that they are multitalented learners who can effectively work independently and in diverse groups, and that they understand the privileges they have and will use them to enrich the lives of others.
If you want your child to receive a good education that will help them flourish, choose a school that invests in their teachers, that encourages children to pursue their interests and passions, and views education as a process rather than an end in itself. Whether it’s through an international school, a bilingual school or homeschooling, giving your child the opportunity to learn from a qualified teacher who can instil these values will go much further than forcing them learn through outdated approaches that we now know simply do not work.
Jared Kuruzovich is director of Communications at NIST International School.