A key feature of school accreditation, and moreover an essential dimension of international education, is for a school to recognize and celebrate its “host country.” The Council of International Schools recognizes that the use of the culture and environment of the host country should provide students with an authentic learning experience. In the light of this I feel compelled to share something of my experience working in a prominent international school in Malawi where I held an administrative post as a pastoral leader and taught History, Geography, Business Studies and Life Skills.
I was surprised that upon my arrival in Malawi that the curriculum diet was essentially Euro-centric. In fact Anglo-centric might be more accurate. The school I worked did a good job in delivering the (British) curriculum and I worked alongside many outstanding colleagues but the appropriateness of the curriculum was questionable given the schools setting in Sub Saharan Africa. This model of curriculum had far more relevance in the past when international schools predominantly served the requirements of expatriates and diplomats who were eager to have their children educated in a system compatible with their country of origin. An international school has a duty to organize its teaching programs in a manner that all cultural inclusive of all students in comparison to overseas school that profess to be “British” or “American” (for example) in their identity. Of course these schools will also recognize the importance of their “host countries” but their raison d’etre is to promote the values and cultural norms of the UK/USA through their programs in a different way to “international schools.” The difference may appear subtle but there is a significant distinction between an “international school” and an “overseas school.”
To emphasize the problem of not recognizing the “Host Country” I shall return to my recollections of my time in Malawi. At the time I arrived at the school the History program was almost exclusively euro-centric and the only references to Pan-African history were considered from the European perspective. This was largely the case as the school blindly followed a British educational model with scant regard for the location of the school. As a result my colleagues and I researched and wrote a revised Key Stage 3 History program that included a focus on African history. We began our program at the “dawn of creation” and focused on the “cradle of humanity”. Not only did this address the fact that human history emerges in Africa but also ensured that the minds of the children became attuned to this fact. Evolution is a tremendous topic to study when challenging issues relating to racial prejudice and discrimination. The fact that humanity shares a common origin is a wonderful equalizer and vehicle to promote equality. The course we developed was exciting for the students as it had a real relevance for all of them.
The school is an international school and its intake is approximately 50% Malawian but it’s always worth stressing that the vast majority of the rest of the students were medium to long term residence in the country and had a real interest in its development and history. As the course developed we included topics on the Ancient Egyptians (one of the easiest topics to resource), the Romans in North Africa, the Bantu migration, the Islamic Empire of North Africa, Mansa Musa and the Great Empire of Mali and Great Zimbabwe. Tremendous emphasis was placed upon the fact that during the Dark and Middle Ages parts of Africa were far more developed culturally and economically than much of Europe and North America.
When teaching African history it is of paramount importance that teachers never start in the 15th Century as if nothing of significance had ever happened on the continent before the arrival of the Europeans. Furthermore, wherever one is teaching it is imperative that the story of Africa is not just a one-sided narrative. Given the fact that many stories of the past were passed down from generation to generation by an oral tradition of course African history is much harder to categorize than the history of Europe but increasingly Africans are telling their own stories and thus resources for authentic African history are increasingly available. Given the role archeology has played in generating the stories of the past we also set up assignments that allowed our young historians to take on the role of archeologists and piece together the history of their continent.
From my background as a teacher in the UK I am aware that the history and legacy of slavery is increasingly well taught in British schools and that children are taught to see it as a shameful aspect of British history. However, this time of European intervention into Africa is often where African history is deemed to start (with the exception of the Egyptians!).
When it comes to the teaching of the Scramble for Africa I am concerned that the focal point is too often on how this form of imperialism was a major cause of the outbreak of World War One and that the stories of Africa are never told. How many British scholars would be aware that the genocide carried out by King Leopold of Belgium in the Congo was one of the worst in human history for example? Are students ever shown maps of Africa and asked why they think some of the borders are straight lines or why borders between countries often follow a river? (Think about it – a river is normally at the centre of a community flowing through a village or town and would never be a natural border!) Perhaps if students knew how the great and good of Europe carved up the African continent in 1884/85 in Berlin they would understand how the growth of nationhood in Africa is so different to that in Europe or most of the rest of the world. The fact that many Africans fought and died alongside the allies in two world wars may get a passing mention in a European classroom but otherwise the next time African history might be studied is during the era of independence. The overwhelming message that students in Europe are taught when studying this period is the fallacy that African states sought self-governance before they were ready, whether peacefully or through the barrel of a gun, and that all subsequence poverty, corruption and war was caused by the fact that Africa was not ready for freedom and for democracy. If students have been taught pre-Independence African history effectively they may be able to understand the factors that have contributed to the fact that few African states have thrived economically since independence. Once a people have had their identity stolen, their beliefs ridiculed, their resources stolen and their whole way of life reconstituted by an occupying force then it is no wonder that transition to modernity doesn’t happen overnight.
I also taught Geography whilst in Malawi. I only had one class – the bottom set (don’t get me started on setting children for Humanities subjects in Key Stage 3!) who were all Malawians. As a “non-specialist” I was given a textbook and some general guidance on what to teach. My one resource was a set of tatty old textbooks from a bygone era in the UK. I recall having to teach the children about rivers from this textbook. The textbook focused upon the River Tyne and its influence on the City of Newcastle. Not one of the students in my class had been to Europe but they were expected to learn about the River Tyne! I thus went away and researched into the Mudi River that flowed through the centre of Blantyre and designed a module around its influence on the city that the students lived in! Given that we could smell the pollution from the river across the city and that the Rotary Club Of Blantyre was carrying out a high profile campaign to clean up the river this made a great deal of sense. Similarly I was expected to teach a module on migration. Again the established focal point was migration to the UK and again I rewrote the unit of study to consider issues of local relevance. As most of the students had relatives living in a village and that their parents had migrated to live an urban lifestyle it wasn’t difficult to make the topic relevant to the lives of my students. It was also relevant to Malawian students to draw comparisons with neighbouring Zambia, where urbanization is much more pronounced, than to Europe or North America. Of course a global perspective is essential, and especially in an international school, but in order to understand how subjects studied in a classroom are connected to the real world it is imperative to give the content relevance to the experiences of young people.
I recognize that my observations are largely anecdotal but given the recent proliferation of international schools across the world, and projections of significant growth in this sector, and the comparative lack of research carried out into the nature and purpose of international schools, such anecdotes are important in stimulating debate. The IB Diploma may address some of the issues I raise in its promotion of international mindedness and critical thinking, but questions still arise about the choice of content that international schools select in order to meet learning objectives. A notable trend in international education is for parents to send their children to an international school rather than to a school following a domestic national curriculum. Often parents choose international schools, rather than a national school, because international Universities recognize their IB/AP/A Level programs. Thus, like the school I worked at in Malawi, in many cases the largest cohort (and often the majority) of students are citizens, or long term residents, of the host country and as such deserve a curriculum that is relevant and appropriate for their context.