Facing the Threats to Intercultural Understanding

(Excerpted from an address to the Plenary, International Baccalaureate Conference, Toronto, Canada, July 16, 2016)

JB speaking at Toronto IB Conference

Good morning et bonjour.  I am John Bader, Chief External Academic Relations Officer for the IB, based in our Washington office.  Je m’appelle Jean Badere, et je suis le chef responsable pour les relations exterior.  I am delighted to welcome you to this morning’s plenary session, and to a day of extraordinary programming, networking, learning and fun at our conference.

Just as important, I want to welcome you to Canada.  I like to think that one explanation for Canada’s hospitality and leadership is that it is a bilingual country.  C’est un pays bilingue.  Bilingualism lays at the heart of the IB experience, and it is no coincidence that Canada’s two languages were the two original, official languages of the IB.  C’est pour ca que je vais parler en francais pour quelque minutes.

On ne peut pas trop parler de l’importance de l’expérience bilingue pour apprécier l’impact du bachot international.  Quand les étudiants apprennent deux langues, et peut-être d’autres, ils comprennent qu’il y a des attitudes différentes, que l’idée des cultures différentes existent de façon spécifique et vraie.  Les difficultés d’apprendre d’autres langues étrangères, sont comme les difficultés d’apprécier d’autres peuples, d’autres points de vue. 

Alors, c’est logique que la contribution la plus importante des Français au programme diplôme est la théorie de la connaissance, le TOK.  La puissance de ce cours est la possibilité de comprendre que ma perception du monde n’est pas la vôtre.  De cette façon, on peut vivre ensemble et en paix.  Après le massacre de Nice, il n’y a pas de moment plus important pour réaliser l’importance de la tolérance et du respect.

Indeed, we are gathering at a time of danger and threat to the commitment to intercultural understanding and respect.  Shootings in Paris, Minnesota and Dallas, bombings in Brussels, calls for stopping Muslims at the US border or deporting Islamic believers—we are seeing obvious patterns of xenophobia, racism, prejudice and suspicion that threaten to overwhelm our vision of a world made better through international education.

When a madman drives a truck to kill those celebrating an anniversary of liberty, we are overwhelmed by fear, by anger.  We begin to think that a world knitted together by respect is a dream that is becoming ever more distant.

But I would remind us that world history has always been a dialogue between the forces of chaos and fear, and the vision of a world governed by laws, inspired by faith, and connected by respect.  At a moment like this, we may gain resolve from remembering that the IB was founded by visionaries who saw education as the best answer to war and conflict.

But we can gain even greater inspiration by looking around this room and around our community.  There, we would see thousands of teachers working every day with grit, imagination and insight to nurture a new generation of peacemakers.  We would see children taught in many tongues to learn other languages and appreciate contrarian viewpoints.  We would see our alumni, from those who just graduated to the prime minister of this great nation, making a difference in their communities every day.  We would see dedication, by heads of schools, IB coordinators and staff, working as one to realize a vision of a global educational experience that fights the darkness.

And we would see how the world, more and more, is seeing the difference the IB is making to that fight, to how our amazing students take with them qualities that make every place they go a better place.

As educators, you appreciate there is much more to the world than we know.  In this case, we do not know the full impact of an IB education on the thousands of communities affected by our schools around the world.  We cannot see all the amazing things that our alumni do, though we have a pretty good idea.  Our research gives us convincing evidence that the impact is strong and positive.

But I think, at a moment of global darkness in the aftermath of the Nice massacre, it’s best to make this a matter of faith.  Let us have faith that we are doing the right thing by educating our children to be hopeful and respectful.  Let us have faith that such an education makes an immeasurable difference.  And let us have faith that the hard work we do will continue to hold back the waves of intolerance that assault us.

Thank you et merci beaucoup.

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Why Compete for National Scholarships?

With each new academic year comes another chance for students to compete for national scholarships like the Rhodes, Marshall and Fulbright. These scholarships offer extraordinary opportunities for travel, for learning, for prestige.

Yet winning seems like a crazy dream. There are only 32 Rhodes and 40 Marshall scholars each year. The Fulbright is much larger–with over 700 grants in the US Student program alone–but the competition for them is fierce, too. What good could come from competing, even if you’re likely to lose? Here are a few thoughts:

1) You might win. If basketball players began the season certain they would lose every game or sure they would never advance in a tournament, they would never step on a court. And yet they know that there can be only one champion. What makes them compete? The knowledge that they could win. And you could, too.

2) You need to be well prepared. Let’s stick with the basketball analogy. Players don’t just wish they can win. They work hard to prepare for winning by practicing, training, pushing their bodies. Someone dreaming of a Rhodes can put in the same level of work and dedication to building a stunning record of achievement worthy of the award.

3) You need a good coach. Players lack the vision and experience to know how to compete, how to be strategic, and how to best use their energy. Scholarship applicants need the same help from faculty, staff, and mentors to know how to build skills, focus research proposals, and prepare winning essays.

4) Start small, end big. No team goes to the NCAA tournament without winning in regional or conference tournaments. You can’t expect an invitation to a Marshall competition without gaining confidence and resources from smaller successes, such as winning a travel grant for research.

5) Consider the wider payoff. Many professors just don’t get the student-athlete. They don’t see the value in the game, the thrill of competition and the confidence that comes of leaving it all on the court. Failed Fulbright and Rhodes applicants know the value of those games. They gather skill from crafting an application, focus by thinking clearly about their future, and desire to remain in the hunt for life’s rewards.

We know the fall will end with a handful of scholarship winners, and a lot of disappointed students, parents, faculty and institutions. But if you approach these competitions with skill, determination and support, you can win. And if you don’t, you will still be a winner.

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Filed under Academic Exploration, Athletics, International Exchange, Scholarships, Student-Faculty Relations, Study Abroad

Forgiveness from Failure

I have been enjoying Paul Tough’s important book on learning, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.”  There is so much to chew on in this provocative book, but one of the most interesting and difficult chapters, I think, is “How to Think.”

Here, Tough uses the case study of a Chess teacher named Elizabeth Spiegel.  Spiegel is a great coach to middle schoolers learning the game and competing at a high level.  Tough tells the story of Sebastian Garcia and how he lost a game during a tournament.  Spiegel dissects what went wrong, and she criticizes Sebastian for rushing a critical move that inevitably led to his defeat.

Tough writes, “Spiegel tries to lead her students down a narrow and difficult path: to have them take responsibility for their mistakes and learn from them without obsessing over them or beating themselves up for them.” (p. 115)  He quotes Spiegel: “I try to teach my students that losing is something you do, not something you are.” (p. 116)

She goes on to explain that she uses what Tough calls “calibrated meanness” to push her students, showing them that she takes them seriously enough to demand they improve.  Tough summarizes: “Students were being challenged to look deeply at their mistakes, examine why they had made them, and think hard about what they might have done differently.” (p. 121)

While Tough argues that Spiegel is teaching her students grit, curiosity, self-control and optimism (p. 122), I would say she is teaching them how to forgive themselves.  Making mistakes, academic and otherwise, is a profound reality of human existence.  It may also be the toughest part of being human.  So teaching our children, and by extension ourselves, how to get passed our mistakes may be the greatest gift we can bestow.

What I think Spiegel is doing is pushing her students to deeply understand their mistakes, digging until they see a failed moment of recollection or judgment, the fork in the road that ended with a mistake.  By owning this process of criticism, her students can learn that the mechanics of decision-making can be studied.  That study isolates the immediate cause, keeping another human strength and failing—the ability to generalize—at bay.

It is when we generalize about mistakes—“I’m not good at Math!” “I am an idiot!”—that we destroy ourselves.  But if we keep them isolated and clearly understood, we may have found a path to forgiveness.

I remain stymied by the challenges of forgiveness.  I think it’s a key to so much happiness, and yet it is elusive.  But this story of Spiegel and Sebastian offers some hope.  Dig deep, think hard, demand more, resist generalization and forgiveness may be waiting.


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Friendly Competition: Using Stress to Succeed

I have just read a New York Times article, “Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart,” that has profoundly changed the way I think about stress.  It is a must read.

The article summarizes recent research, including that of Rochester’s Jeremy Jamieson, investigating the effects of stress on academic performance.  Researchers argue that people can fall into two broad categories, “Warriors” and “Worriers.”  (About half of all people fall in just one, the rest of us have a mix.)  Warriors have brains that flush stress-inducing dopamine, so they revel in the challenges of threatening environments—like taking a test.

Worriers process dopamine more slowly, so they can get overwhelmed quickly by stress.  These people have superior executive functions—reasoning, problem-solving, planning—but they are vulnerable to the “engine” being flooded with too much “gas,” or stress.  So they don’t perform well, even though they’re “smart.”

Jamieson conducted research on Harvard undergraduates, giving half of them a card saying that “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better…(so) you shouldn’t feel concerned… (just) remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”  This had an amazing positive effective, immediately boosting mock GRE scores by 50 points.  Just by being reassured that stress can be a positive.

Think about this for just a second.  Jamieson and his colleagues are telling us that stress is a natural, physiological reaction to a challenging situation.  Stress makes us more alert, and when it is embraced (and this is critical), it can make our brains fire on all cylinders.  Think: “How do I kill the bear that is threatening my cave?”  He is saying that “managing stress,” a modern mantra, should not be an effort to suppress or dismiss stress but to use it to attack, to compete, to succeed.

The Times article, which you should read carefully and repeatedly, goes on to look at ways that we can train students to embrace stress.  This is mostly done through what might be called “Friendly Competition,” where students learn to compete intellectually in a non-threatening but still challenging situation.  Like a chess match, a math contest, or a trivia game.

I can imagine how teachers could use games and gaming more regularly, perhaps in groups.  This could promote a fun, team-oriented approach to solving problems, but with the stakes of winning or losing.

Perhaps more importantly, research like this can make us all more aware of whether we are Worriers or Warriors—or a little of both.  And with that in mind, we can begin to see stress less as a burden and more of an invitation to take on a challenge.

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International Student Success

This week in Washington, an extraordinary group of embassy officials and university representatives gathered at the University of California Center to discuss many issues around international education.  The Washington International Education Conference, sponsored by the Washington International Education Council (headed by Bill Fish), gathers each year to exchange ideas and to expose university officials to the diplomatic community.

I will be writing several blogs about this experience and the issues raised there.  Here, I’d like to touch on some ideas I shared in my own address to the conference.  (Bader Address to WIEC January 2013).  I shared with participants my observation that universities tend to focus on non-academic issues when supporting their international students.  These include securing a visa, getting to campus, and becoming culturally acclimated.  While these services are critical, they do not directly support academic success.  Indeed, internationals face a series of challenges:

They are focused on outcomes, not process.  Many traditional education systems, such as those in China and India, require students to excel at standardized tests.  So international students tend to be focused on final exams, rather than class participation and interim assignments.  This misunderstanding can lead to failure.

They are very dependent on their families.  This is understandable, so far from home, but their families can misunderstand the American college environment.  They may insist a student major in Biology, for example, to prepare for medical school, when other avenues are open.  If their student has little interest in Biology, that can cause problems.

They don’t understand a liberal education.  Internationals often focus on accomplishment and credentialing–which is understandable.  But they fail to realize or even appreciate the many learning opportunities of a liberal, exploratory education.

They think careers and majors are the same thing.  Majors are a teaching tool in American colleges, not a road to expertise.  They poorly predict professional choices.  And yet internationals insist that some majors are more worthwhile, even when lesser known programs (say, History) might be a better fit and result in more success.

They rely on memory.  Many internationals believe that absorbing and the regurgitating information is their primary intellectual goal.  Yet American professors are expecting higher levels of thinking, where problems are solved and connections are made–even in the sciences.

They are vulnerable to failure.  We are so impressed by our international visitors that we often overlook their human frailties.  Determined as they are, they are no immune to personal difficulties and failings.  We must treat them as the sons and daughters of our neighbors, caring for them as we would our own children.

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Filed under Academic Exploration, Academic Success, Cause of Academic Failure, Choosing a Major, International Exchange

A Second Look at International Students in the US

“Internationalization” has become the buzzword on campuses across America.  Universities and colleges in the US have become major destinations for a world thirsting for quality higher education.  American professors want to upgrade their curricula to reflect a commitment to global understanding.  US colleges seem to launch a new campus or program somewhere in the world every day.

I traveled to India and to Qatar in January, with my colleagues from Marks Education, offering workshops at high schools on the US college admission process.  We met hundreds of students eager to study in America.  It is an exciting time for international education, and a great time to be an adventurous student.

But this excitement should not conceal many complexities.  For example, the most recent “Open Doors” study by the Institute of International Education shows that in 2010/11, the number of international students in the US had grown 32% since 2000/01 to nearly 800,000.  32% is enough to grab headlines, but domestic enrollments have grown, too.  Internationals were 3.6% of enrollments in 2000/01, and 3.5% in 2010/11.  Where is the growth?

Another surprise can be found in figures for undergraduate education.  American colleges may offer the best undergraduate experience in the world, featuring a unique commitment to the liberal arts.  The US has hundreds of independent, small colleges—a tradition found nowhere else.  Yet the percentage of internationals that are undergraduates actually has declined from 46% to 40% from 2000/01 to 2010/11.

Finally, it is well known that China has become the number one “supplier” of students to the US, with a 23.5% increase just in the last year.  But the most stunning figure in the Open Doors report is the growth of students from Saudi Arabia during the same year.  The number of Saudi students jumped 43.6%!  Saudi Arabia is now the number six “supplier,” ahead of Japan.  So interest in the Arab world may be the most important trend ahead.

We live in an exciting era of international exchange, reflecting the realization that we share deep and lasting traditions of higher education that cross boundaries.  But we should hesitate before we over-generalize.  Our excitement should not dim our ability to see the landscape clearly.

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Dean’s List Podcast #12: Coping with Failure in College

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Filed under Academic Advising, Academic Exploration, Academic Success, Cause of Academic Failure, GPA

Dean’s List Podcast #11: Why Students Struggle in College

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