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Curiosity and exploration: looking ahead with both imagination and nostalgia

By Nick Alchin, Head of College

I was speaking with a Grade 12 student recently, who had been with us for many years. He enjoyed his time with us, but wished that he’d had a chance to do the UWCSEA Grade 9 and 10 programme, as his sister was doing. We spoke for a while, and at the end he said that he expected his sister would one day say the same thing to me—that there would be some new innovation that in some distant future she would wish she had been part of. I told him that I very much hoped that was the case, that I would let him know if his sister did indeed make the same point, and I would tell her that her elder brother felt exactly the same way. We laughed together, but he had a great point: it’s true there is always room for improvement, not least because the world around us is changing, and as a College we will always retain our hunger to continually adapt to better meet the needs of students and broader society.

I believe we will indeed continue to work toward the UWC Mission, to innovate and develop our programmes and practices. Sometimes this can involve incremental changes which adds up to a lot over the years; progress in Concept-based Teaching and Learning, moving to support greater inclusion, developing technology—these and many other things are all slow burns that we’ve pursued over many years. Others have been more discontinuous; becoming a K–12 school; using our own curriculum instead of the Primary Years Programme; moving away from IGCSEs. These happen at a point in time, and such changes are more rare, but equally profound.

Both modes of change are important, and both are captured in our new Strategy under the Curiosity and Exploration commitment. It captures an essential part of our identity–our relentless determination to adapt and be better. The critical question is, of course, is better in what ways? How? When? At the expense of what else? and I have seen two attitudes to this change.

One attitude is to point to the rapidly changing world as a reason for stability and tradition in our education. The other is to see it as a source for creativity and exploration. Both attitudes are right. Educator Neil Postman captured it well when he wrote two books; Teaching as a Preserving Activity and Teaching as a Conserving Activity.

We can think of this as approaching the future with two attitudes; one of nostalgia and one of imagination. The nostalgia attitude is one we feel when we remember our own childhoods, and perhaps feel angst about the possibility of radically different things ahead for our children. There’s love and care and desire for continuity here. But an attitude of nostalgia risks the implication of few expectations, aside from the hope of preserving the status quo or reverting to less technological times; it may overlook the progress we have made in the intervening years since our youth. The imagination option arises when we see possibility and promise, and yearn for things to be better for our children than they were for us. It stresses optimism and more meaningful opportunities than we experienced, or perhaps than we can even imagine. Again, there’s love and care behind this approach; but an attitude of imagination risks overlooking the cost of perpetual progress, and may overlook how much value there is in what we already have.

This is not just a debate playing out in education. Life today differs a great deal from life 50 years ago in so many ways that it’s hard not to think there will be further rapid change ahead. At the same time it’s also hard not to question the very foundations on which this change has been built. We can no longer confidently rely on technologies as an unqualified good; nor unquestioningly assume confidence in the processes and leaders of our public institutions; nor take for granted infinite natural resources, a stable climate, or social change that benefits all.

The choice, therefore, cannot be between fearlessly marching into the future or backing into it with the same tools and ideas we have today. The task of shaping the future is open only to those who are ready to adopt imaginative attitudes, while deeply understanding our history and the directions in which we are already moving.

We must not, therefore, jettison either imagination or nostalgia, for they both have things to teach us.

This notion of looking in two directions at once struck me forcibly when I came across the New Map of Life from the Stanford Longevity Centre. Today’s conceptions of old-age, and the reality of life for many elderly folk, rightly give us reason to look back (nostalgically) at multi-generational living and lament a loss. Drawing on this, and with a profound understanding of demographic realities, the report (imaginatively) outlines a compelling vision for the future whereby rather than dwelling so anxiously on the costs incurred by an ‘ageing’ society, we should reframe the conversation around measuring and reaping the remarkable dividends of a society that is, in fact, age-diverse. It is this type of approach that we seek in education—not one that dismisses the past, that seeks to wipe the slate clean and start again in technological utopia, but one that honours and builds from where we are, even though we cannot be sure of the exact destination. As Antoine St Expury said as for the future, [our] task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.

Finding the golden mean between nostalgia and imagination in education will determine the way we expand the values and capabilities of today’s children, to create what is to come. Civil rights activist and Baptist minister Ralph Abernathy stresses our responsibilities when he writes,

I don’t know what the future may hold, but I know who holds the future.

The surest guarantors of our future are individuals and the ideas they have in their heads, including their values—intellectual, moral, and social. So that leads us to the first of our strategic commitments: Exceptional People and Teams. We must continue to attract outstanding people. 

We want to attract the most outstanding people to join us. So we will foreground our Mission as we want values-driven people; we will remove systemic barriers to increase the diversity of our candidate pool; we will work on our recruitment practices; we will seek to diversify our staff body to reflect that our of community; we will show flexibility and compassion for those in need; we will be inclusive in consultation (recognising that this requires vulnerability and risk, and the presumption of positive intent) and transparent in decision-making.

We want to develop and grow all our people so that they all leave saying (as some currently do) “I learnt more in my years here than I did in the rest of my career”; we will retain professional learning as an expectation and a right, not a privilege or reward for individuals; we will review and recognise development through each contract; we will run annual tiered leadership courses open to all, not just leaders; we will support postgraduate study.

We will continue to focus on our culture, foregrounding our values. We will seek to reinforce the spirit of active listening to understand (pausing, paraphrasing and asking mediative questions); we will rely on our Community Agreements to reinforce the culture we want; we will depersonalise differences by pointing to data; most of all, we will be kind and open and vulnerable.

Within Exceptional People and Teams and Curiosity and Exploration lies the daily experience of our students and our community, which are further defined through two more strategic commitments.

Immersive Learning focuses on ensuring that our students have rich experiences at school, within and beyond the classroom. Our definition of immersive learning is when students are deeply engaged in the challenge and joy of deep and holistic learning; when the school experience speaks not just to the intellect but also to values, character and aspirations. Immersive learning leads to lifelong impact, and to the sense of obligation to apply learning for the greater good. 

Sense of Belonging allows that schools are defined by the relationships that exist within them. UWCSEA is committed to being a community where all individuals have a sense of belonging, and where different identities and ways of being are respected and valued. We recognise belonging for all as an outcome of our individual and collective behaviours, and that just as our current community finds belonging, so too must our past community (alumni), and future community (potential families and staff members).

Organisational theorist Henry Mintzberg once described strategy as being akin to the blinkers on race horses—something necessary to stop us from getting distracted. For us, the UWCSEA Strategy is our Mission come to life, for today and for the near future. It helps us to take the best of the past and create a new future. Our Mission and Strategy together provide the blinkered focus on both our deeper long-term purpose and on the students in front of us today.

It would be wonderful to be able to set out a full roadmap of the upcoming decade, one that clearly indicates the precise steps and processes we can follow. In truth such maps are impossible; but because we know our destination, we will create the path by walking it. In the coming decade the UWCSEA Strategy will ensure our gaze is looking forward and backwards simultaneously, and that we carry the best of our past with us, as we journey to the future.

References

Gardner, J. (1993). On Leadership. The Free Press. | n.a. (2021). New Map of Life. Stanford Centre for Longevity. | Toulmin, S. (1990). Cosmopolis. University of Chicago Press.