Written by Neil MacRae, Personal Best Learning (neil@pblearning.co.uk)

All parents want the best for their children – in their health, family experiences, friends and of course in their education. Many parents today – especially those who have experienced higher education abroad – now have high expectations when choosing a school for their child. They recognise that the world of education is changing, and they know that the education they experienced simply will not meet the needs of the 21st century child.

The result is the worldwide recognition that a more international approach to learning is needed to meet these new demands – and nowhere is this more apparent than in Southeast Asia where a growing middle class want an education for their children that they did not have. In 2012 there were an estimated 190 million people in Southeast Asia who could be defined as middle class – people with a disposable income of $16-$100 a day. But, according to a Nielsen consumer survey for ASEAN, that number will more than double by 2020 to 400 million people.

Popularity of International Curricula

So what does this new approach to education look like? There are three key elements, all essential components of popular curricula like those offered by Fieldwork Education and the International Baccalaureate Foundation (the PYP and the MYP). The first is providing an international perspective within the curriculum. It is perhaps best summarised by Fieldwork’s view – that developing a sense of international mindedness is a personal quality and learning disposition that is central to the lives of students today. This reflects a world in which it is more important than ever to develop an understanding of the independence and interdependence of peoples, countries and cultures. The Fieldwork belief is that this can start very young: there are strong international elements even within their curriculum for the youngest learners, the International Early Years Curriculum (IEYC), designed for children aged 3-6. They have even mapped the International Primary Curriculum  (IPC) against the 2015 United Nations Global Sustainable Development Goals, developed by countries working together to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.

The second is integrating a series of personal goals into the learning process. At the very heart of the IPC is a clarity about what children should learn. Of course, there are learning goals, or standards, for all of the subjects of the primary curriculum but there are also goals for children’s personal development – for example, enquiry, respect and morality. Why? Simply because 21st century learning is as much about how we learn as what we learn. After all, the internet and social media have made information and how we share it so ubiquitous than it is now more important than ever to choose and discriminate what we know. And that focus on learning together is why three more personal goals are essential too – cooperation, communication and respect. These innovative new curriculums have an altogether more rounded approach to education – and they all start with understanding that students of whatever age need to be aware of why they are learning what they are learning.

Popularity of International Curricula

Linked to this is the essential requirement that all children need to really understand how they can move forward in their learning. As John Hattie – one of the most influential educators working today – has said, ‘It’s about showing students upfront what success looks like.’ Hattie describes it like the popular video game Angry Birds – it is so addictive because we are shown exactly what we need to do to move forward to the next step. You may remember what it was like to not understand what the finished product you had to deliver should look like – whether an essay in history, an experiment in science or that math problem that was just baffling. So Fieldwork curricula provide success criteria for students in language that they can understand – and for every subject.

Put these three elements together and it is no wonder that parents, teachers and children all enjoy this approach to learning. We are all aware of the pressures that can be placed on young learners in a competitive academic environment, where examination success appears to signify everything. Whether it is the gaokao in China or the suneung in South Korea, parents are becoming increasingly concerned that this level of pressure is not what education should be about. It starts young too: each year, Korean parents will spend over $18 billion on private tuition for their children – or, to put it another way, more than the GNP of either Laos or Cambodia. But Asian governments are responding to this problem and educational reform is coming. However, rather like that mythical oil tanker that is still turning around somewhere, it can take a long time.

In the meantime, Asian parents are wise to think of alternatives for their youngsters and – thankfully – these new curricula provide the answer. After all, as American educator and psychologist William Glasser once said, ‘Education is the process in which we discover that learning adds value to our lives.’ Education is much more than just knowledge – it is about understanding our place in the world and what we can do to make it a better place. And that’s the job of the next generation – our children.