Launching THINK Global School: An Interview with Founder Joann McPike

THINK Global Schoolis a “traveling” school that takes students to four different countries every year, twelve countries total. In this week’s post, IEN talks with Joann McPikewho founded THINK Global in 2010.  We met McPike during the US-China Education Forum, organized by the Columbia-Teachers College Chinese Students’ Association. In a previous post, Launching a new school in China, we talked with Wen Chen about newly opened Moonshot Academy, and a future post from the Forum will feature Christopher Bezsylko Head of the Imagination Lab School.

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Where did the idea for Think Global school originate?

Joann McPike:When my son, Alexander, was young, we traveled a lot. We took schoolwork with him, and we did it while we were travelling.  By the time he was thirteen, we had been to seventy-two countries. When we were in these countries, the questions that he was asking, the answers he was getting, and, consequently, what he was learning became so much more relevant.

At one point, we were in Vietnam, and our guide said “I’m going to show you some American propaganda.”  In my head, I was thinking “Americans don’t have propaganda,” but he took us into a room, and it was full of American propaganda from the Vietnam war. It hit me right then that we so often learn history from just one perspective. If you go to school in America you talk and think like an American; if you go to school in France, you talk and think like you’re French; in China, you talk and think like you are Chinese. I didn’t want that for Alexander, I wanted him to have a global perspective. I wanted him to be able to look at different countries, and say, “Okay, why is this society where it is now?”

We get so stuck in the world today looking at whathappened, but we don’t spend enough time looking at whythings happen. Why is the world the way it is? Why is a society where it is? Why is a country where it is? Why is a person where he/she is? Why are they angry? Why are they bullying you?

I wanted to start asking those “why” questions. So, when it was time for Alexander to go to high school, I said to him maybe we could just get a big boat and travel around the world and take a tutor.  But he said “That would be really boring. It would be more fun if there were a bunch of kids.” I said, “Okay, I’m going to get a bunch of kids and teach, and we can travel the world.”   But my husband said “You are insane. Nobody is going to want to go to a school like that.”  But I just felt like that was the way for Alexander to get an education, so we did it.

That first year, we found fifteen kids with very brave parents. Our curriculum was minimal to start off with and our first head of school came and left — just walked out one day.  But we did that first year in such a beautiful way. It was really philosophy heavy. The math was a great. The science was a little bit haywire, but every country we went to, it was the food, the sports, the history. We read books from local authors and it was so rich and full, and I thought that’s the way I wanted it to be. Then, during the second year, the board at the time thought we needed to have students take the International Baccalaureatebecause that would give us some credibility, academic rigor, and respect. So, we did the IB for a couple of years. At some point, though, the students pulled me aside, and they sat me down and said this isn’t working. Many of them had been part of that first year where they just travelled, and learned, and experienced, and lived, and they grew as human beings.

So how did you respond?

JM:I said “Yeah, I know.” We were on a lawn in India and they had me in the middle of a circle. They said “We are an IB school that offers travelling. We’re not a traveling school that’s offering the IB.” and I said “I agree with you.” They were so stressed out about exams, and they were so stressed out about the number, you know “What am I going to get?”  It just made me so sad. The teachers were stressed out as well. So I went back to the board and I said, “Look, this isn’t working. This is not the school that I envisioned. This doesn’t feel right. So either we close it or we change it.” That’s when we looked for a new head and found our current head, Jamie Steckart.  The students were the ones that interviewed him, and they were the ones that said, “Okay, by far he’s the one we need.”

So, the key step was to work with the students to identify a new principal, and then for the principal to hire new teachers?

JM: No, at that point, we didn’t hire new teachers. When Jamie came in, he sat down with the students and said, “Look, the IB isn’t working. We want to get rid of it, and I know exactly what we’re going to do.” Jamie had been teaching project-based learning for twenty-five years before it was a thing. He was an Outward Boundinstructor, and he used to use project-based learning and saw the turnaround and the engagement it brought.

It did take a lot of trust, because even though I wanted something different, I didn’t know how to make that happen. I knew it had to happen, but just didn’t know how. So I had to have that trust in Jamie and in the process. When he said “Okay, this is what we’ve got to do. We need extra money in the budget because we’ve got to send these teachers around the world for the next year to develop curriculum and set up the projects for the next incoming class,” I went, “Okay, whatever you need. Let’s just do it.”  Through a lot of work, Jamie and a team of educators self-designed the Changemaker Curriculum, which we have in place today and has completely transformed our school, bringing it much closer to the highs we experienced during that first year.

When you describe the school, what are some of the key features you talk about?

JM:It’s a nomadic boarding schoolwith a curriculum based on  project-based learningand a heavy emphasis on social emotional learning.  I always say that our kids live their learning, and the learning is relevant. I tell them when they arrive: “You can go into any class and ask your teacher ‘Why am I learning this?’ and the teachers have to be able to tell you why. If the teachers can’t tell you why you’re learning that, why it’s relevant to your life, then come and talk to me.” That’s so different from my education. I did two years of algebra and calculus in high school. I have never used algebra and calculus. Someone once said to me, “Well, you need to have algebra and calculus so that you have linear thinking.” But my thinking is completely lateral. What kids are going to need in the future is lateral thinking. They need to be able to look at a problem from many different angles. Come at it sideways and not look at it the standard way.  That’s what we do with the kids as they travel around the world.

You might expect pivoting away from the IB would make our curriculum less challenging, but the opposite is true. The difference now is that our students are held to their own lofty standards rather than just that of an academic status quo. Instead of spending hours in a classroom being talked at by a teacher, our students are creating projects relevant to the communities they visit and answering driving questions that tackle real problems in the world.

How can we deliver potable water to rural communities in India? How should Japan’s government approach the nuclear debate? In each of the four countries they visit on a yearly basis, students integrate into the local community, gaining firsthand perspectives from locals and experts. Our students come from all over the world and apply their own unique take to everything they do. It’s incredible to see the different ways they approach each project’s driving question.

One of the key things I’d like to stress about education today is that we should be encouraging individuality in students instead of the standard one-size-fits-all approach, as no two students learn in the exact same way. This is where our focus on social-emotional learning and our curriculum truly shines. Our kids are gaining mastery in the subjects they truly care about and the 21st-century life skills that will truly help them as they leave high school and enter the next stages of their life.

We just graduated our first class of non-IB students in Greece, and the majority of them are now headed off to university or a gap year with a clear picture in their mind of what they want to pursue, and that’s because they’ve had hands-on experience doing it over the last two years. Their educational experiences at THINK Global School have been invaluable in getting them to that point.

 

As a school, what are you working on now? What’s one of the challenges that you face?

JM:With the school one of the challenges is getting full-pay students. Right now, it is a scholarship-based system. Most of the students have scholarships because I always said that it’s not just a school for rich kids, it’s a school for the right kids. There are a lot of amazing kids out there that would never be able to afford to go to a school like this but who are really going to do something good to change the world. They are the ones I want to go to this school. But we’re not a normal standard school, so another one of the challenges we have is to show that what we’re doing is safe. We’re not putting your children at some future risk that they’re not going to be able to get a job or they’re not going to be able to get into university. So our challenge is to prove to parents that it is academically safe to be so diverse.

What are some of the things that you’ve learned that you think might be helpful to those who are trying to create new schools, even ones that are quite different from yours?

JM:Be brave. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Just keep going. Dare to be different. Connect with other people who are doing similar things. Reach out. The people that I’ve met who are doing innovative things in education, we all want to know one another. There is support in numbers. It’s not a competition. I’m not competing with anyone. I want to help you build your school to be the best school that can be and you will help me do the same thing. I think in education, especially with these top boarding schools and universities, it’s all such a competition. It’s not a competition. If we truly want to save the human species, education is the key. We have to get everybody a decent education and help them develop a true belief of who they are, of their potential, and of what they’re capable.

 

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