Interviews Dr David Hawley

Meet the Headteachers – Dr David Hawley – International School of Geneva (Ecolint)

What inspired you to become an educator?

I’ve done a variety of things. I’ve always had a lot of curiosity and interests to fuel: science, cycling, nature, literature. Fundamentally, it has been the pursuit to feed my interest in others that has really been my motivation to be in education.

A seminal moment for me came when I was cycling across Canada a couple of years after finishing secondary school. It took a whole summer and it was so beautiful; it was an exposure that I wanted others to have. By the end of the trip I was thinking, “What am I going to do with my life professionally?” and I wanted to find ways to have young people have these kinds of experiences.

As a result, I started leading bicycle trips in Canada and Europe for high school students, as well as becoming involved in a cross-country ski programme. When I took a step back, I realised I was – in essence – a teacher.

Around the same time, a recruiter appeared on my campus to recruit teachers for the American School of Guatemala. I interviewed and got the job, despite being very young at the time. I had a wonderful experience there, so when I returned to Boston I continued teaching. Unfortunately, I had a terrible experience in a public school, where economic pressures meant that it was a very unwelcoming environment for a young, enthusiastic teacher.

I decided to go back overseas, so I travelled to Caracas, Venezuela, where I taught sciences at the Colegio Nacional de Caracas, and had another really great experience. After a couple of years, I got involved in the administrative aspects of the school, and I found that I wanted to make a career of it. I didn’t have the background in education, so I applied to university. I was at Harvard just at the time when people were seeing the potential of technology in education. I ended up applying for the PhD programme.

With this blossoming of technology, in the early days of Silicon Valley, I was recruited to work at a computer company, which was a really important experience for me. I realised what corporate life was like. To some degree, it was very positive; particularly the extraordinary investment they made in professional development. Here, I was involved in the very first use of technology to train engineers using computers, using interactive video discs.

What were you like in school?

I don’t feel that I was particularly challenged in school; I didn’t find it very engaging.

However, like for many people, there was one particular teacher who took a real interest in me and challenged me. It was sparked by my overconfidence that she couldn’t fail me because I already had enough marks to pass her course. She conspired with my parents and the principal to ensure I failed to make a point. I was outraged, but she was one of the first teachers who actually stood up to me and said, “You need to wake up and start applying yourself.”

What was the change in you?

Upon reflection, I realised I wanted to be part of a team that doesn’t let young people go to sleep and disengage. In some ways, I’ve taken that on as a life challenge. I would love for people to retain that natural curiosity that they have when they’re a small child until their last breath. That’s what I think the role of school should be – yes, it can be challenging at times, but I want students to be engaged.

The notion (used in the IB) of “student agency” is important. I think one of the things that happens, or certainly happened to me, is that I didn’t feel that I had a sense of agency. I spent last summer with a researcher named Hattie, and he said, “Across the world, so many students by the time they’re 8 years old realise that they go to school to watch teachers work.” That is the opposite of what should be happening; teachers should go to school to watch students work and to design experiences that launch them into a flipped classroom.

What would you say is student agency?

This is a really important point.

At Ecolint, where we have some big ambitions to create a better and more peaceful world, I want to make sure that from start to finish, each student has the opportunity to do that. So that when they’re here, they’re making a difference through the roles that they have in the school and in the classroom. By the time they leave Ecolint, every child will have developed a portfolio of examples of how they have made a difference here and now, in their lives and the lives of others.

To me, that is really exciting. I really want to see young people making a difference in the present, in big and small ways. Let’s stop saying that we’re reading Shakespeare to get into university; let’s say we’re reading Shakespeare to understand the human condition and human nature today so that you can be a better person tonight at dinner with your family.
So the question is, how do we execute it?

What makes the International School of Geneva so special?

One of the things that attracted me to this school was its history and environment. Geneva has an incredible reputation of being the place that pioneered, incubated and solved global problems, just as Ecolint has the history of creating the international school movement and the IB Diploma. This is a highly globalized city, home to the UN, the International Labour Organisation, and the original League of Nations, which have all been closely linked to the development of Ecolint. Geneva reflects a kind of vision for humanity and a mantra for me as I work and live my life, that we can do a lot better – and it starts with schooling.

One of the attractions is the role of Ecolint today. It still has this great international diversity. What do we do with this gift of diversity that we’ve had since the inception of the school? I think that the job of developing the possibilities of an international mindset is unfinished. In a world full of challenges, with the refugee crisis as an example, the term is not so much international anymore; it’s more about us understanding our interconnectedness and interdependence on one another. Being in an environment like this can, as in the past, nurture the culture for solutions to emerge to problems that we ourselves are a part of creating.

We have an opportunity now to throw ourselves at some of these really challenging international problems and come up with models and exemplars that might work around the world. Reading about the history of Ecolint – which was at the centre of trying to create a different future post-WWII – there was a time where refugees were among the students. We have refugees in Geneva today, and I would love to diversify the student population from the point of view of education, not charity. In this case, either socio-economically or by having students who represent some of the challenges that we face today. I certainly have a vision that we can build a population of students that helps enrich the educational experience.

There’s an opportunity to be really intentional about building a diverse community of learners and teachers at this school. Going back to technology, how interesting would it be to have the teacher in francophone Africa who is remotely teaching students at Ecolint? I really want to continue this creative spirit that has always been a part of Ecolint.

It’s still very early in your tenure, but from where you sit today, what are the changes that you might envision bringing to Ecolint?

The question is: what do we need to do to build resilient, healthy young people who are ready to face all of the challenges in our future? I see an opportunity to support the current focus on building character, key habits and competencies by inviting experts into the school in those areas. We’re already working with some of the leading educators, thinkers and bilingual educators, and I want to see that continue.

Given the experience and the quality of the faculty here, we’re in a unique position to do some experimentation in key areas and there’s quite a bit of flexibility and options within the IB curriculum. We have an opportunity for pockets of innovation with experiential learning and use of technology and I’d love to empower the staff and students who want to contribute to this experimentation.

I would also like to develop areas like mindfulness education, positive education, pro-social education, looking at big questions surrounding human nature. Young people absorb their personal qualities from their environment, so I would love to be part of creating the right community for human thriving. It’s a tough thing to do in a world where there is an aggressive play on people’s attention through technology. I want to increase the engagement with other human beings in meaningful ways as I think there is the potential to be a looming absence there.

What excites you about your new job?

The excitement as head of a school is the extraordinary complexity of the role. I can be talking about poetry in the morning and internet policy in the afternoon. The extraordinary complexity and diversity of the role is very enriching.

It’s also looking at the wider questions of human development. Much like an architect trying to design a building to last for years into the future, it’s looking at the cognitive, emotional coat rack that you need to build in the minds and hearts of young people today. There will soon be jobs that no longer exist, and jobs that we can’t even imagine now. Even ones we think would be completely immune to technology, artificial intelligence can dance around what human cognition is able to handle. So, what’s the space we need to occupy in the future?

What keeps you up at night?

I think what keeps me up at night are the questions “Do we have the right model, as educators and as Ecolint? What is the experience that we need to ensure young people have in order to develop?” The more we know about teaching, learning and human development, the more labour-intensive our work is. I don’t think there’s an easy technological solution to education; technological tools are important but I’m also keeping an eye on schools which are developing more physical teaching practices.

The leading technology and focus on personalised learning translates into a cost per child which is extraordinarily high. It’s a difficult formula. You want to maximise individual attention, you want to hold the line on class sizes yet minimise tuition fees, and you want to find the very best professional package for teachers. So, another thing is how to provide a terrific educational experience, while being reasonably priced. That I think is another big challenge.

What do you think are going to be the biggest challenges in the next ten years, more generally?

I think the biggest challenge will be balancing the inevitable change in traditional subjects and preparing students to study at university with changes at the university level itself. It’s difficult to predict who will make the changes first: universities or the K-12 schools? Of course, it’s going to be a collaborative effort.
I’m already seeing these changes at some of the most progressive universities out there, like Minerva in San Francisco. So, when I consider Ecolint, I think about the wider concepts and ideas that we want to make sure young people have a deep understanding of in order to be completely equipped for the future.

There’s a wonderful philosophy at the Stanford University Design School, that they want to bring young people to the university where they choose missions, not majors. Increasingly, this is the direction that all of us are going; looking at what the problem is that we want to work on and then the tools that can be applied to that problem.

Another challenge will be physical wellbeing. It’s one of the interesting things we’ve been working on with the OACD and their 2030 educational model. It’s going to be important that we create a truly holistically educated person. Heart, body, and mind, if you will.

How are you going to make the most of your time here? Tell us about your personal life aspirations.

For me, I just love the outdoors: it’s the playground of all playgrounds. I will miss the ocean, but Lac Léman is a good size and I might do some sailing. Luckily, I love so many of the sports that are available here – I’m a long-distance cyclist, a runner, a swimmer, a hiker and a skier. I’ve already been in the mountains two weekends now, and I love that part of Switzerland.

I’m going to make really great use of the outdoors, but I’m also living next to the Musée Voltaire. Although it’s been closed since I’ve been here, I have this image of myself doing some of my reading and work where Voltaire and Rousseau hung out. I love the history; being from North America with only 150 years of history based on capitalism, when you come to Geneva it’s quite exciting to be in a place with deep human history.

I have a lot to look forward to, it’s going to be exciting!

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