Atlantic Action
Principal Peter T Howe Article

A lesson in listening, a test of tolerance

01 Mar

In today’s post-truth world, learning to listen and respect the opinions of others, regardless of how they may differ from our own is invaluable in providing a grounded view of global matters.

So thought the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) with the announcement of their new Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test for 2018.

The new exam will see 15-year-old students in 28 countries assessed in respect for other cultures, challenging extremism and identifying fake news. But students in England will not be taking part.

Likewise, the United States, Germany, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, and Ireland, have all declined this new assessment. When you consider the esteem Pisa results in maths, reading, and science, are held by most national governments, their choice to opt-out may seem odd.  

The OECD's education director, Andreas Schleicher, has said that the success of an education system must be measured on more than exam results, and I couldn’t agree more. As a rule, I disagree with standardised testing. But this feels different.  It’s vital that we have a clear picture of how young people see the world around them and those with whom they share it.

In a time where social media and globalisation can polarise beliefs, it’s vital that as educators we encourage students to take the initiative to look beyond the cultural boundaries and online echo chambers that can divide us. But is this something that students should be scored against? Or is there another way?  As the principal of a college that helped to develop the International Baccalaureate (IB) and became the founding institution of the United World Colleges education movement, I know there is.

At UWC Atlantic College it is easy to see the differences between our students. Each year around 360 young adults, representing over 90 nationalities live and study at our campus on the South Wales coast. Like many others in multicultural areas across the UK, our campus becomes a tapestry of cultures, beliefs, and mindsets. For many who join us, this is their first opportunity to witness a world outside their own. It’s an experience that can be as daunting as it is exciting.

Simply recognizing these differences is not enough, in fact that’s the problem, because then they are merely experiencing ‘the other’. If we are to truly serve our students we must seek to help them to develop intercultural understanding, an attitude of openness to, and curiosity about, the world and its cultures. This requires the development of a sensitivity to the complexity, diversity and motives of human actions and interaction.

The IB seeks to encourage students to become active, compassionate individuals who understand that other people, with their difference, can also be right. In addition to traditional academic subjects, students also study subjects designed to prepare them for the modern world they will inherit, like modern global politics, social and cultural anthropology, environmental systems and societies.

But teaching the ability to listen and respect the beliefs of others doesn’t only happen in the classroom.

At UWC Atlantic College, students split their time equally between their academic IB studies, and a myriad of co-curricular programmes and focus periods designed to allow them to work together, broaden their understanding of the world and its cultures, and realise the duty of service they owe to others and the world around them. Most recently, all classes were suspended for two days for a student initiated, student organized, and student run ROOTS (Rightfully Owning Our True Stories) Conference, spearheaded by our African and Afro-Caribbean students, who wished to share their lived experiences and truths that were unknown by the majority of their international community. 

Student-led initiatives like this are the essence of what our college’s founder, Kurt Hahn (recently portrayed in the Netflix series The Crown), sought to do when UWC Atlantic College was created during the heart of the Cold War. Hahn, himself a refugee, had a vision to bring together teenagers from differing backgrounds, even conflicting nations, so that they may develop a shared understanding and the skills to enable them to enact positive change in the world. And to become lifelong friends in doing so.

This approach to creating a curriculum and educational experience that fosters understanding has had many successes, alumni from UWC Atlantic College and the 17 UWC Colleges around the world have gone on to become true changemakers, including, Julie Payette, a former Canadian astronaut who recently took the post of Governor General of Canada, Ian Khama the President of Botswana, and former war correspondent, Aernout van Lynden.     

The new Pisa test sets out to consider issues such as racism, cultural identity, and prejudice, underpinned by the idea that young people should understand other cultures, show respect for 'human dignity' and be able to objectively analyse information. Its designers have stated that it will show countries which pay “lip service” to concepts of tolerance and inclusion but those countries who opt not to undertake such assessment should not be automatically labelled as such. The English Department for Education has stated that the choice not to take part was taken to avoid placing addition workloads on schools. Let’s hope that was the motivation.

Regardless of whether you agree with the concept of formally assessing cultural tolerance or not, your opinion is valid, but I’d hope we all can agree that the world would be a more peaceful and progressive place if this competency was developed in our schools. For as former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson said in his Nobel Peace Prize address in 1957: 'How can there be peace without people understanding each other; and how can this be if they don't know each other?'.  It should come as no surprise that the second UWC in the world, inspired by the model of UWC Atlantic College in Wales, is his official memorial - the Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific.

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