By Jeff Farrington
One of the biggest questions any school can ask itself is ‘what is our purpose’? Some schools will say they exist to ensure students get into university and focus on grades and exams, others look a little further along the timeline and view their role as preparing students for university and career. The International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) in Malaysia believes the answer is much broader and longer-term, as Jeff Farrington, ISKL’s High School Principal, explains.
It is so limiting to view school as a funnel to a particular university degree or career. Yes, of course, learning at our school focuses on preparation for beyond school options – university, college, service, internships and the workplace; however, equally importantly, it encompasses equipping students to be successful, fulfilled and happy in their lives. This means providing them with voice and choice in their education and plenty of opportunities to learn about the possibilities out there. Our counselling approach centres around the idea of best fit for each individual student and guiding them in finding the programme that will provide the personal growth and education best suited to their goals and aspirations beyond school.
Growth and exploration
We have the joy of working with our high school students via a four-year programme and helping them navigate the complexities of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood and supporting them in making decisions and preparing for life after school. We encourage students to see their school years as a time of growth and exploration; a time to learn about themselves and what makes them tick as well as prepare for their future. We support them in learning about their passions, developing competencies and discovering interests – this is a fundamental part of our mission and vision and integral to enabling students to prepare for life itself. Helping students do this and supporting them in finding the pathway that is right for them is one of the most important and rewarding parts of our job.
Our high school curriculum plays an important role in this: it’s been intentionally created to offer optimum flexibility and designed to recognise that every student learns differently. We view school through the lens of best fit rather than a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach. Through our academic pathways, we provide students with as much voice and choice in their learning as possible, starting in grades 9 and 10 (UK years 10 and 11) with the option to enrol in the traditional classroom setting or opt for ISKL’s bespoke PRAXIS 2030 programme.
Introduced last year, PRAXIS reimagines the learning experience and we’ve been delighted by the response of our students to the programme, which leverages problem-based learning. It situates our science, English, social studies and art/design curriculum around a series of high-level, real-world problems that demand an interdisciplinary approach.
A choice of programmes and opportunities
As students progress through high school, they have the option of either taking the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme or ISKL’s Pursuits Program in grades 11 and 12 (UK years 12 and 13). The Pursuits Program offers students the opportunity to combine individual IB, Advanced Placement and High School Diploma courses to create their own programme of study and take a deep dive into an area of distinction of interest to them. It’s ideal for students who want to gain recognition for a targeted area of study and those who want to sample a career-related field of study and apply their learning outside the classroom. Alternatively, we offer the IB Diploma on a non-selective basis and as the longest-running IB World School in Malaysia, we are extremely proud of our 30-year 97% pass rate!
The pathways available in high school not only enable students to personalise their learning, they also offer the flexibility students need when applying to universities and colleges globally. With a student population of over 1,500 representing 65 nationalities, we are seeing more and more students wanting to keep their options open when it comes to further education with many applying to study in two or three countries. Providing different academic options throughout high school really helps students to make the most of the opportunities on offer.
We are great believers in the importance of hands-on experience and encourage our students to take on leadership positions in co-curricular activities such as service learning, clubs, sport, performance, art and music. Students are responsible for running many of the clubs and events, participating in executive positions, chairing meetings and being accountable for outcomes. Whether it’s trying out for a sports team, learning how to tango for our latest musical or joining a new club, our message to students is ‘try it!’.
Opening minds, exploring possibilities
We do our best to expose our students to the possibilities that life has to offer in every way we can. For example, our GET REAL video series creates a setting for small groups of students to meet with alumni working or studying around the world to ask questions. Our panel-style Future-Ready Alumni Black Box Conversations have been fantastic in giving students a real-world view of what’s possible beyond school. Themed around specific careers, Black Box Conversations provide students with the opportunity to learn from our alumni and, as you can see in these links, touch on a range of careers including medical sciences and the arts. The next conversations in the series focus on law and the legal profession.
It’s illuminating for students to learn from the real-life experiences of our alumni, hear them talk about their university years, and discuss what it takes to find success in their professions. In our Medical Sciences Black Box students heard from a researcher, a doctor and an undergraduate studying genetics. Our Arts Black Box brought together an artist, a film composer, a filmmaker and an opera singer with decades of experience in the creative industries.
The underlying message to students is to keep an open mind and explore the possibilities. It’s invaluable for students to listen and ask questions to someone in an industry in which they have interest. They are able to see how it ties back to what they are learning. For example, a recurring theme in the Arts Black Box was the importance of resilience and of artists being entrepreneurial in the way they approach their careers. We may tell students that learning to play an instrument and performing develops skills in critical thinking, calculated risk-taking, decision-making and collaboration (to name a few), but having a successful real-life artist, singer and filmmaker model these skills and explain their importance takes it to a whole new level and is so much more impactful!
Creating and maintaining a future-ready environment:
- Re-examine the purpose of schools with this ‘future ready’ mindset: “The fact that there is not a single, normal pathway for any type of human development – biological, mental, moral or professional – forms the basis of the third principle of individuality, the pathways principle. This principle makes two important affirmations. First, in all aspects of our lives and for any given goal, there are many, equally valid ways to reach the same outcome; and second, the particular pathway that is optimal for you depends on your own individuality.” Todd Rose, The End of Average (2016).
- Reflect on your school’s alignment of philosophy (mission, vision) with procedures and practice.
- Start small. Provide opportunities in your programme for alternative options for students. Leverage the ones that already exist in your school.
- Reach out. Identify and partner with ‘industry’ connections in the community.
- Listen to students! Student voice and choice are important, self-directedness is even more so.
- Make the schedule work for you. Provide time for personalisation and autonomy.
Jeff Farrington is the High School Principal at The International School of Kuala Lumpur.
Subscribe to ISL Magazine for more!