What should schools aspire towards?

This is the first article in a series of five that reflects on the journey ALA’s Two-Year Diploma Program over the last strategic planning period, ALA 2023.

In 2018, ALA was coming to the close of one 5-year strategy and preparing to draft the next. We are a leadership learning organization. As such, it made sense that one pillar of that strategy would address the evolution of our key learning program: the school. What direction did we need to take in the evolution of the program?

This strategic planning process coincided with ALA’s Decennial celebrations. 10 years into the journey, there are many ways in which the ALA model might have faltered, but hadn’t. We might have struggled to recruit a diverse cohort of students each year, representing a breadth and depth of pan-African talent. We might have struggled to progress these diverse cohorts through the two-year program in ways that were equitable and productive. We might have struggled to support those students to transition to (and through!) the next stage in their journey. We might, then, have struggled to keep those students connected to the continent and the mission.

While there was room for improvement in all these stages of the program (great room in some) the key indicators were all very promising:

  • ALA students in the first 10 classes came from 48 different African countries and represented the widest range of previous socio-economic opportunity. Each class had more than 30 nationalities represented (on average), 40% of students came from non-Anglophone backgrounds and we maintained gender parity. In 2016, we expanded the cohort size from 90 to 125, broadening access to the program by almost 40%. Perhaps most excitingly, these students were selected through a holistic review process that sought to identify leadership potential. Students were evaluated based on their context and trajectory was valued over attainment. While many students were top academic achievers, others had demonstrated their potential in other domains.
  • Progression and completion rates were strong, with only a handful of students disenrolling (1 or 2 in each class) during the two-year ALA journey.
  • Within two years of graduation 98% of ALA graduates were enrolled full time at university. ALA graduates had enrolled at more than 300 leading universities across the globe and earned more than $150 million in scholarship and financial aid support (that number is more than $200 million today!).
  • Alumni were proceeding through university at rates that beat the average at the most selective institutions and most were employment well before graduation. They were being snapped up by top employers across Africa and around the world. They were also founding ventures of their own, whether full-time or part-time.
  • In the earliest classes, more than two thirds of alumni were working full time on the continent within 3 years of completing university (even though more than 80% had left the continent for their university studies).

With this picture of our leading indicators, what should our next evolution prioritize?

Many schools are measured by their performance on high stakes exit assessments. As such, test scores are a common keystone for school improvement plans. So perhaps a great school is a school with great test results? We can wonder, though, whether the school and classroom design optimized for test performance is the same design that best serves the long-term learning aims we most care about.

Similarly, some colleagues pointed out how much technology had progressed over ALA’s first 10 years and how important skills like coding would be to our graduates’ futures. Perhaps a great school is one that adapts its curriculum to the demands of the marketplace? But if that is the case, won’t any specific content innovation eventually be overtaken by events?

Guided by Peter Senge’s work on learning organizations, we arrived at an aspiration for the next iteration of ALA. An aspiration that was not anchored in one specific metric or skillset but rather arranged around the behavior of the system. Yes, exam results matter, we must measure ourselves against validated standards of rigor. Yes, market-readiness matters, our graduates must be empowered to lead their own future and impact the world they enter. But a great school must go beyond either of these things.

A great school, we think, is a school that gets better at getting better. A school built for continuous improvement. Improvement, though, must be measured against something: what aims, what outcomes, what learning¸ matters?

In 2018, ALA identified 7 traits to describe an ALA graduate: an Africanist, an Autodidact, a Communicator, a Collaborator, a Critical Thinker, an Entrepreneurial leader and Ethical thinker[1]. At first, these traits did not go much further than that. We felt they were a valuable description of the learning we were aiming at, but we did not have a concrete plan for how to bring them to life. The process of drafting our strategy provided just that opportunity.

If these 7 traits describe the learning that we most care about, and that learning is in fact curriculum agnostic[2], how can we make these aims more concrete? We started by expanding our understanding of what these traits mean by defining each of them with a set of standards: descriptors that break our understanding of the trait into more legible, accessible descriptors of understanding and behavior. So, an autodidact became more specifically someone who “successfully directs and manages their own learning to surmount challenges and achieve goals.” We then went a step further to try and describe some of the components of that learning, so a communicator is someone who “communicates effectively for purpose and audience” which requires them (among other things) to be able to “recognize and understand audience, thoughtfully selecting method, medium and language.”

As you might imagine, this process was fraught with debate, deliberation and deep disagreement. Not only was this work challenging, it also raised questions about our fundamental beliefs about teaching and learning. Critical Thinking in particular was the subject of many extended discussions: can critical thinking be taught at all? are there such things of transferable skills accessible across the curriculum or are skills inextricably bound with the discipline they exist in[3]. Emails flew back and forth in a rich exchange of ideas, resources and arguments.[4]

With a first draft of these traits and standards hammered out, the next effort was to “domesticate” them within our curriculum. After all, if we made no effort to extend this thinking into the classroom, how could we expect this to have an impact on learning. So these standards were then converted into course criteria, and those criteria were brought into plans and assessments. This domestication was (and remains!) uneven. Some courses, plans and assessments were more readily aligned. Some teachers were more enthusiastic than others. If we are honest, we are still a long way from achieving the full coherence that this work might guide.

At the same time, for some of us at least, this work has also settled a long-standing agitation. Since inception, ALA has operated a “dual” curriculum. All students take two-year sequences in three core subjects: African Studies, Entrepreneurial Leadership and Writing & Rhetoric. All students also take two, three or four electives that are aligned Cambridge A-Level examinations. Ever since 2008, this bifurcated curriculum has been the target of teacher and student dissatisfaction (“We don’t have enough time to complete A-level content !”; “We feel like we are attending two separate schools!”). In 2019, as we completed our accreditation process using the NEASC ACE protocol for international schools, this dual curriculum experience was one of the most salient student (and teacher) concerns.

A focus on the traits and standards as the ultimate learning aims of the school reveals the question of the dual curriculum as something of a red herring. If we are teaching for transferable skills and behaviors, we should be able to do this through a variety of curriculum content. If there are practices that leverage and advance communication, critical thinking or autodidactic practice, they should manifest in the chemistry classroom as well as the writing classroom.

This brings us back to an earlier question: can these skills be accessed directly? Can you teach critical thinking as a standalone aim, or is it always entangled in something else? While one always wants to permit nuance in these questions, the most useful response here seems to be: no. The sort of thinking we seem to value when we talk about critical thinking is built on deeper conceptual understanding. Disciplinary knowledge is the substrate in which higher order thinking is cultured and cultivated. The same text analyzed critically by a historian or by a literary critic would present different arguments; what the arguments have in common is that they acknowledge (although they may not always obey!) the rules, values or weights of the discipline. The same can probably be said about what it means to communicate effectively, to think creatively and perhaps even to collaborate. If this is true, we are left with two options: either critical thinking is too big, and cannot be taught by any teacher in any curriculum, or critical thinking is pervasive and it must be taught by every teacher in every classroom. We aspire to the latter reality.

In working through these questions our aspirations, our beliefs, our mission have all become clearer. We are still, however, a very great distance away from translating those aspirations into reality. We know that the student experience across classrooms and subjects remains highly variable. We know that teacher buy-in, capacity and efficacy is variable too. Most importantly, we are beginning to ask the question: if these are the aims we value, how should our school design follow?

[1] While we still think these are the right traits, and love where they have taken us, we wish they rolled off the tongue more easily!

[2] Although, importantly, not knowledge-agnostic – more on that later!

[3] The answer we landed on is in our definition of a Critical Thinker as “someone who constructs knowledge within a domain.” Make of that what you will!

[4] This 2019 article from Daniel Willingham featured prominently: http://www.danielwillingham.com/uploads/5/0/0/7/5007325/willingham_2019_nsw_critical_thinking2.pdf


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