Being I.M.

Are schools only paying lip-service to international mindedness?

Often discussed, sometimes defined – but what does being internationally-minded really mean? Nalini Cook discusses the issue with Chris Allen and Anson Wong.


It is a common assumption that international mindedness is a by-product of good international education. However, when researching international mindedness within international schools for our recent report, evidence suggested that this is not the case.

How international schools have changed

The international schools market has evolved considerably over the past forty years, from one fulfilling the needs of Western expatriates, to one welcoming local and third-culture children as well as expats originating from all countries. Growth in the market is largely due to the promise of an international education and the opportunities it offers. The aim of the report was to explore the impact of this growth and the shift in the student profile on the role and development of international mindedness and cultural intelligence within international schools.

Two perspectives

Chris Allen, Director of Learning and Technology and Theory of Knowledge Coordinator at the Al Sahwa School in Oman, and international school alumna, Anson Wong joined me and others to discuss this on a LinkedIn Live session recently.

Chris and Anson approached the presence of international mindedness within international schools from two very different perspectives. In addition to currently teaching an international curriculum, Chris has also recently researched the contextualization of international mindedness in an international school setting for his Master’s in educational and international development at UCL. Anson, on the other hand, is studying psychology and cognitive science at the University of California in Berkeley having attended four different international schools in East Asia throughout her primary and secondary years.

What does it mean to you?

I asked Anson what international mindedness meant to her. “It’s an attitude towards understanding the interconnectedness between individuals and groups around the world, it is also the acknowledgement that we are not the same and that we may or may not have differences but, despite all that, we respect each other’s position and are willing to work towards maintaining peace and minimizing conflict,” she said, explaining that she believes this is crucial, “because the world is getting more interconnected, and developing or having this mindset is a powerful tool to battling many injustices in the world.”

Chris boiled the meaning of international mindedness down to, “learning to be a neighbour, and neighbours that stand in the face of global challenges.” He cited his school as a good example of experiencing a significant shift in student demographic in recent years: “My school is an Omani school in Muscat that’s been around for about 25 years,” he said. “Increasingly international teachers and international curriculum has been introduced over the last five years and so there’s been this shift as a school needing an international focus for the globalisation that’s impacting and changing this country and the GCC,” he explained.

Chris’s own research highlighted a range of opinions on the meaning of international mindedness which reflected the results from the new ISC Research report. “It’s such a fuzzy concept, people have different definitions,” he said. “Teachers all said ‘yes, it’s important’, but then all of them gave me very different answers to its meaning,” he added.

Developing international mindedness

It was interesting to hear Chris and Anson’s opinions on how international schools can approach the development of international mindedness.

Anson suggested that international schools need to be helping students contextualise it in daily life rather than only delivering it through an academic lens. She shared personal examples to explain this: “Reflecting on my experience, I would say that international mindedness was only developed or discussed on the surface level so, up until graduating from high school, I understood international mindedness to the extent of being open-minded about different values and beliefs, but that was it, nothing more about developing the skills I might need, or the knowledge about things, such as the history of racism and how it exists in the current society,” she said. “The schools that I’ve attended, they’ve done a lot of things to show that they are international, you know, hang all the flags of the countries represented in the hallways, or have events such as ‘international day’ to share different cultures. So much is done to point out that we are really international, but if we look deeper, like inside the classrooms, there’s not much facilitation going on in terms of making sure that we actually appreciate and learn the nuances between all our different cultures and backgrounds.”

Lacking rigour and depth?

Although Anson felt that the international mindedness that she did develop – that of being open-minded – helped her connect with different people of different cultures when she moved on to higher education, she felt that wasn’t sufficient: “There was a lack of acknowledgement and discussion about culture and diversity in my international schools and this is the opposite, really, of embodying international mindedness,” she explained. “International mindedness wasn’t explicitly talked about, or spoken as a value that had to be learned or mastered by the time we graduate. I think there needs to be more active discussions in the classroom about things like racism, climate change, poverty, with the intent of broadening students’ knowledge of the world and developing their skills to tackle the problems.”

The importance of context

Chris suggested that context helps a school community to view international mindedness through a lens that people recognise: “The contextualisation as a school is a really important way of bringing international mindedness to the forefront, and having a school-wide definition for what it means,” he said. “I think the key thing is, first of all, for schools to actually define as a school community, what they mean by international mindedness.”

Call to deliver

During our discussion, Anson challenged international schools to deliver on their promises to students: “Towards the end of my secondary school years, international mindedness became a buzzword, as a marketing tool to get more parents to enrol students or climb the ranks of some sort of top school list,” she said. “I think there’s an assumption that, just by purely going to an international school, because of the environment, its structure and educational system, you’d naturally develop this mindset of international mindedness. I think that’s really dangerous, because that’s not how you develop attitudes or mindsets.”

The research

The new ISC Research Student Profile report suggests that there is no current solution designed to effectively measure and track the development of international mindedness in children. The report includes results of research conducted with international school students, teachers and alumni in which 100% of respondents said that international mindedness had not knowingly been measured in their classrooms.

You can listen to the full LinkedIn Live discussion, which is now published as part of the ISC Research Heads Up series, here. The Student Profile report is free and can be downloaded here.


Nalini Cook is Head of EMEA Research at ISC Research which is the recognised source of data and intelligence on the world’s international schools market and supports schools, suppliers, partners and investors with research and practice to inform school improvement, development and acquisition.  



FEATURE IMAGE: by geralt on Pixabay

Support image:   by Popkornkino on Pixabay