The Universal Learning Programme

The International School of Geneva’s La Grande Boissière is both the oldest and the largest of the three campuses of the International School of Geneva. Since its inception, important innovations in education have been designed here to empower students to navigate the world but also contribute to it and make it a more peaceful place.

It was here that the Model United Nations and International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) were invented. The Model United Nations’ aim was to familiarise students with the highest standards of diplomacy so as to understand how negotiation can improve society whereas the IBDP started with an international history course invented and developed by La Grande Boissière teachers to broaden the minds and cultural references of students. Lord Mountbatten, who presented the first IB diplomas to students in our Greek theatre in 1971, said of that moment that it was his contribution to the prevention of World War Three.

Today La Grande Boissière remains wedded to its original mission: to broaden students’ horizons and for them to impact the world positively. However, we are no longer in the 1960s. Therefore, educational systems need to prepare young people for a far more complex world. 

Societal Challenges

The three fundamental challenges that face humanity are:

  1. The Anthropocene era: human economic and consumerist activity, most especially in industrialised nations, is modifying and ultimately destroying the planet. Education needs to respond to this.
  2. Industry 4.0: high-performing algorithms, the exploitation of behavioural surplus by tech companies and the outsourcing of human labour by artificial intelligence is challenging what it means to be human and the skills that will be needed in the market place. Educational programmes should be taking this into account.
  3. Human relations: although in many ways the world is more peaceful than it has been in its history, the gap between rich and poor is widening, extremist ideology is on the rise in many countries and conflicts break out regularly across the globe. Therefore, an educational response needs to bring people together for humanity’s and the planet’s future.

Challenges in Schools

Most schools face a number of challenges that present educational structures do not accommodate well enough. The three essential challenges are:

  1. Not motivating students. We know enough about the way that the human brain functions, the role of emotions in learning and the importance of a growth mindset to understand that if students are not motivated to learn, little progress will be made. And yet, so many students do not feel inspired or challenged in their lessons and many classroom environments are dull places full of behaviour regulation, regimes of silence and teaching to the middle. Schools need to create dynamic energy for learning to be stimulating.
  2. Low standards. A number of educational reforms in the 60s and 70s, mostly influenced by the Romantic idea that too much knowledge retention and rote learning is a bad thing, has led to classroom practices where there is not enough corrective feedback on learning, not enough practice and insufficient testing for deep understanding. Pedagogies filled with jargon are a source of frustration for many parents and students. However, they don’t actually help students build up their general knowledge, literacy and numeracy. 
  3. Not reporting what matters. In many schools, a curious situation exists where everyone agrees that a number of core skills and behaviours are required for success in life and employment, areas such as teamwork, good listening skills, creativity and leadership, but none of these skills are actually assessed formally by schools. Furthermore, for centuries schools have only reported on how well students perform in areas that schools deem important as opposed to reflecting students’ strengths, whether these strengths are in or outside the remit of the school programme.

Designing the Universal Learning Programme

La Grande Boissière has been supporting powerful learning since 1924. The Universal Learning Programme design was an opportunity to distil and synthesise the magic in our educational approach. Part of the Universal Learning Programme architecture, therefore, has been to articulate, clearly, what is important and effective in a quality 21st Century education based on our experience as an international school educating students of over 100 nationalities for close to 100 years. 

At the same time, the school decided to enhance its vision by drawing on cutting-edge, research-informed best practice in education. To do this, we partnered officially with UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education whose work with think tanks, educational ministries, research hubs and universities present a compelling evidence-based vision.

Students, teachers and parents are part of a strategic group that is involved in measuring the success and impact of the programme and UNESCO audits progress officially as another measure of quality control.

Importantly, much of the scope and sequence of the design has been done by the community, involving all stakeholders: every year, students and teachers vote on broad philosophical questions that are used in the classroom and the whole faculty collaborates on the creation of programme guides.

So what exactly is the Universal Learning Programme?

Deep Understanding

It all starts with deep understanding. The design of our programme means that a considerable amount of time and effort is dedicated to ensuring that students understand what they are learning. Using the findings of cognitive psychology, which tell us that humans store and retrieve information better when it is grouped in units of meaning (“schemata”), our approach is to lead students towards broad definitional statements of what they have learned (which we call “universal understandings”).

Universal Learning Programme students will come away from a class not just saying that they are studying “trigonometry” or “colonisation”, but will be able to say “trigonometric functions relate angles to sides of a right triangle” or “the effects of colonisation determine the balance of economic power in the world”. Guiding students to their own universal understandings takes subtle pedagogical strategy and the use of our universal understanding pyramids, which are teaching tools developed by researchers to model the architecture of learning.

By viewing learning through universal understandings, students can make sense of what they know and apply it.


Deep understanding is foundational but the Universal Learning Programme goes well beyond this: we assess students not only on their academic knowledge but on the development of their competences. A competence is a unity of knowledge, skill and attitude. Furthermore, it is what determines the quality and impact of our human activity. By assessing competences through projects, feedback loops and reporting structures, we ensure that students become aware of what competences are. This assessment also shows why they are important in life.

We have grouped competences into four broad domains, each with a guiding question:

Character (who am I?)

Human quantum mind power often lies untapped in the recesses of the unconscious. Through coaching, positive psychology, setting values-based challenges and reflecting on outcomes, we bring out our true potential by developing character, associated with grit, intellectual honesty, accountability and humane moral values.

Passion (What is my purpose?)

Emotions govern our learning. We design emotional hooks, emphasise caring relations and strive, at all times, to make learning relevant. Then, finally, by paying homage to the beauty of content, we develop passion for learning. This brings out traits such as self-respect, curiosity, motivation, energy and vision.

Mastery (How can I go further?)

Higher order thinking and transfer emerge from strong domain knowledge. Combatting ignorance and prejudice requires multiliteracy and deep understanding of human history. Skills grow out of knowledge. Ongoing, spaced and deliberate practice allows us to then harness those skills. Mastery is core to our programme. Mastery enhances disciplinary and transdisciplinary fluency, learning how to learn, literateness, cultural awareness and depth of intellect.

Collaboration (How can we work together?)

What we learn must be put to a greater good that will reverse our anthropocene, selfish behaviour. This means much more emphasis on community service, learning to live together and, collectively, respecting resources and, ultimately, ourselves. Collaboration entails effective team work, balancing rights with privileges, responsible consumption,  followship, leadership,  listening skills, negotiation and interpersonal sensitivity.

These are essential in life and need to be recognised formally and institutionally. The Universal Learning Programme identifies such lifeworthy, futureproof competences and makes them come to life in the classroom by assessing them formally. 

Social Impact

The far-reaching purpose of our educational experience is to create good at an individual, collective and public level: students should leave school with more than grades but with the ability to make a positive impact on people around them, the environment and society at large. The Universal Learning Programme offers students the opportunity to do this while they are at school, embedded in the formal curriculum. Students engage in specific Universal Learning Programme projects that have a meaningful social impact. Here are some examples.

The Character Project:

13-year-old students are mentored in philosophical discussions that allow them to reflect on ethical issues around good character. They set themselves challenges throughout the year to push their endurance and grit. They then reflect on the whole in powerful personal testimonies that they film. The project develops students’ tenacity, solution seeking, anti-fragility but also their moral compass, empathy and reflection on humanity. Therefore, students set themselves three personal challenges:

  • A physical challenge that develops mental toughness, self-esteem, and self-efficacy.
  • A cognitive challenge, based on the discussion and analysis of current affairs, that develops personality, identity and self-discovery.
  • An emotional challenge, based on community service action which develops humility, empathy and open-mindedness.

The Passion Project:

14-year-old students take a personal passion (whether it is in school or out of school). Then, in a student team, they put it into a social impact project related to a sustainable development goal. This helps students learn about project design, entrepreneurship and connecting school with what they love. Examples of passion projects include the following:

  • Creating multi-lingual vocabulary resources for students.
  • Raising awareness of pollution through art.
  • Transforming plastic waste into a 3D-printer filament.
  • Creating a clothing exchange at school.

The Mastery Programme:

15-year-old students follow an extended mathematics course and create their own transdisciplinary mathematics and social science project where they learn about statistical modelling and apply this knowledge to indices related to wealth, happiness, mobility and demographics. This allows students to make meaningful connections between an academic domain and its relationship with society. Examples of mastery projects include the following:

  • The relationship between GDP and happiness.
  • The reliability of statistics on climate change.
  • The relationship between education and employment.

Service Learning:

Our philosophy about service learning is that you do not just learn to serve. You serve to learn too by enriching yourself through contact with other people. Some examples of powerful service learning projects include the following:

  • A student Eco-committee dedicated to sustainability on our campus.
  • Raising awareness on women in leadership positions through the creation of a mini-summit.
  • Students designing, 3D printing and laser-cutting props for a fashion show.
  • Students curating an art exhibition for professional artists.

Universal Questions:

Every year, students and teachers design four powerful transdisciplinary questions that are posted around the school. The aim is to then answer those questions in the classroom. Students present to each other in science classes on scientific innovations in history as they answer one of the Universal Questions. As a result, they grapple with the important constructs of scientific argument and lobbying a scientific idea. This process allows students to reflect on the social impact of science. Examples of Universal Questions that the school has designed and answered include:

  • What makes something beautiful?
  • What makes something meaningful?

Next Steps

The Universal Learning programme is in year two of its implementation. Our dream is to see schools across the world adopt this approach. We are currently in the process of partnering with schools in Kenya, India and Australia to empower students globally.

Author Bio

Conrad Hughes (MA, PhD, EdD) is Campus and Secondary Principal at the International School of Geneva, La Grande Boissière, where he teaches philosophy. He is a UNESCO International Bureau of Education Senior Fellow, and research associate with the University of Geneva’s Education and Psychology Department. Also, he is a member of the education board for the University of the People. Conrad’s most recent book is Understanding Prejudice and Education: The Challenge for Future Generations (Routledge). He has also recently written Educating for the 21st Century: Seven Global Challenges (Brill).

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