Written by Dr. Alex McGregor, Deputy Head of School
If you ever fall into conversation with a UWC teacher they’ll probably tell you that advocating for student choice is the single most important thing a school can do. Student choice may be an essential ingredient in meeting our mission but that doesn’t mean it’s a simple or easy concept to embed. For example, there’s an obvious tension between promoting choice and keeping students safe. And between the two options, safety has to be a non-negotiable. After all, I suspect few parents would support me if I wrote to them expressing a visionary new educational philosophy: “I gave your child the choice between trying to ride the wild bear and not trying to ride the wild bear… Jimmy chose to ride the wild bear. If it helps, we think the bear feels very sorry.”
Franklin Roosevelt once argued that democracy cannot thrive unless those who express their choice do so wisely. The takeaway is clear: schools must strive to give students not choice but informed choice. So how do we find the balance between promoting informed student choice and the sometimes inflexible demands of a rigorous academic programme such as the International Baccalaureate (IB). After all, IB assessments and exams strongly influence post high school options. In addition, preparation for these assessments and exams can sometimes feel all consuming for students. It is also a form of gravity that weighs heavily on teachers too. There have been many times in my own career when I’ve witnessed a teacher forlornly emerge from class, shoulders hunched, and a rueful look in their eye. “What’s wrong?” you ask and they regretfully answer, “the students wanted to explore this wonderful new, self generated idea in class today… But there just wasn’t time.”
Thinking long term, UWC ISAK Japan is in a unique position to work with the IB to help shape new ideas. This is especially true given how many of our teachers are IB examiners and sit on curriculum review boards. We may also hope to write innovative new programmes: ones that enable us to promote informed student choice as part of our mission. A course on Social Entrepreneurialism springs to mind, in which students create and manage change making enterprises. An experimental theatre programme may well be another idea. These are exciting conversations but they are for the future. That being said, we’ll not help develop transformational leaders here at UWC ISAK Japan if we concentrate only on Blue Skies thinking without offering tangible solutions in real time.
So today I would like to tell you about one space where we have successfully found a solution to this tension. Specifically I’m thinking about the Extended Essay (EE). A four thousand word dissertation developed over a period of 9 months, the EE subject, topic and question are all student devised. In many regards the EE is a wonderful opportunity to craft a university style essay and to master research, writing and editing skills. Primarily though, we encourage students to seize it with both hands as a passion project. When devising their EE we ask students to think about how their proposal helps us to better advance the UWC mission. We also ask the students how their Extended Essay helps them better explore themselves and/or their culture. In short, our ambition is that the EE be a chance for students to choose the thing most important to them in the world and to become an expert in it.
This week, as you read this blog in fact, our Grade 12s will submit the first draft of their EEs. Over the next few days they will work with their supervisors to explore their essay’s potential. We are in the business of teaching grit and resilience but naturally the EE process has not been easy for any of our G12s. Students have endured strict deadlines, tough feedback, writer’s block, failed experiments and intellectual rabbit holes. However, when we talk with your child about their EEs there is palpable excitement in their voices. They chose their project based on what mattered to them. They are now learning that what they care about can help change the world. This is empowerment in action. And quite honestly the results, even in first draft form, are inspirational.
Let me list just a few of the EE topics the Class of 2018 has devised: child labour in Sierra Leone, sexual assault in India, the implications of overusing antibiotics, Disney princesses and gender roles, mental health in Shakespeare, the sustainability of political regimes and the relationship between anaerobic capacity and male basketball players at UWC ISAK Japan. These topics represent a wonderful intersection of imagination, innovation, criticism and passion.
Following the final submission of the EEs in October we’ll look to celebrate the students’ achievement in two ways. On the 3rd of November we’ll host a fun Dress As Your EE Day event and share the photos with you. We also plan to create a digital book featuring all the EEs in full, which can be shared with our entire community.
Promoting student choice is sometimes challenging but always transformative. Here at UWC ISAK Japan we are committed to helping each student blaze their own trail to success.