David Hawley, Ecolint Director General, talks to En Bref

Dr Hawley, tell us about yourself, and about the route which took you to Ecolint.

Prior to Ecolint, for about three years, I was the Chief Academic Officer for the IB, responsible for overseeing all IB programs, based in Den Haag (NL). I came to that role after having run two international schools – one in Canada (United World College) which is a scholarship-only school, the principle being that everyone was there on the same financial basis, and with the mission of creating a more peaceful world. The other in the US (International School of Atlanta), where students pursued one of three dual-language tracks: 50% English and 50% French, German or Spanish. Prior to that, I was Head at the Frankfurt International School (D) for 5 years. And previously, a teacher in three different Latin American countries – Guatemala, Costa Rica and Venezuela.

I studied in the US. My family is Canadian, and although I grew up largely in the US, I am a Canadian citizen.

I have two children, who graduated with IBs. One now works in a start-up in New York called Edenworks. They are growing produce and fish in an aquaponics ecosystem in an urban environment. My daughter is a musician – she’s Sophie in the electronic dance duo SOFI TUKKER. Their first song was nominated for a Grammy and her first album was Grammy nominated too. I find it fascinating to watch two young Millennials making their own way in the world, and to see the post-IB life experience.

My last role, in the Netherlands, was quite academic – a privileged insight into how curriculum is developed. I was researching, reading, travelling but I missed the pulse of life and human interactions a school.  I didn’t want to go back to a regular position as Head of school, as I had already done that, and was interested in a different challenge – that is what attracted me to the Ecolint role. For me, all of the things that I’ve learned about leading schools, about human development, curriculum, leadership, management, I thought I could bring to this challenge, working with the eight academic leaders, and the Governing Board to lead the Foundation. And, might I say that the level of challenge has not disappointed – the complexity and the potential, and the overall joyful engagement that I see in the students, are something to behold.

You have been in your role as Director General for almost two years now; what have been the biggest surprises and challenges that you have faced so far?

One of the things that I did in my first year at Ecolint, was to shadow a pupil in each of our schools. The experience gave me an intimate insight into some of the challenges that students face – problems with the schedule, too many transitions and teachers in their lives, etc – but at the same time I could also see that the students really love to be here. They were extremely generous and engaged with the teachers in almost every interaction that they had – even if it was a challenging one, or in a classroom that could have been dramatically improved.

My perception was seconded by a social and cultural anthropologist who came to work with us on strategy – she also concluded that the students are extraordinarily happy.

The ‘surprise’ element was that there seems to be a mismatch between the relative joy of the children and what I see among the adults in the schools – there seems to be a far greater sense of joyfulness among the students. I hope I am wrong and maybe it is just that when problems surface, they are brought to my attention.

So, I think the puzzle is around the ongoing wellbeing of the staff, and making sure that this wonderful atmosphere that you see among the students is a full contagion amongst everyone in the school. This will require change in how we engage with each other, and the challenge will be to ensure that the change is done properly, being very careful about not disrupting all that is very good about the schools, as we prepare for the new world.

You have a lot of ideas about how to enhance the Ecolint student experience and outcomes. Can you tell us about some of the key initiatives that you hope to introduce?

We are focusing on four initiatives that are tightly connected to the student and to learning.

Initiative 1 –  What is worth knowing and being able to do today?

Currently, in Ecolint, there is a hunger to do well academically as measured by recognized qualifications. Therefore the answer to this question is heavily influenced by the IGCSE, IB and Maturité requirements. But what young people need to thrive and flourish in this world is only partly those things that are measured by the 3 programs – there is a tension here because students need to develop competencies and strengths that these programs are not placing a great value on today. For example, all the students do an extended essay in the case of Matu and IB. In my opinion, this is one of the best ways of students to provide evidence of his or her passion to pursue a question of interest, engage in deep learning and research and produce something of value. I think we need more of that in our learning. Yet the number of IB points awarded for the extended essay is tiny and details about the essay, for example, the title, do not appear on the IB diploma or on the transcripts we prepare for universities.

I think that we need to help students to represent their full selves beyond a number, capturing who they are, what they know and what they are able to do.  For this, we’re working with UNESCO and have identified seven competencies – Learning how to learn; Student agency; Interacting with complex tools and resources; Interacting with others; Interacting in and with the world; Multi-literateness; Trans-disciplinarity. Students would collect examples of what they’ve done in each of these areas,  to better represent who they are and what they can do, building a portfolio which says ‘This is who I am – so much more than the points I have earned in a handful of courses.”

The other 3 initiatives are linked.

Initiative 2 – Relationships:

In answer to the question ‘Is there an adult at Ecolint who you feel knows you well?’ more than 75% of students say Yes. However, when asked ‘To what extent do you feel that your tutor knows you well?’ barely 50% of the students answer in the affirmative.

The tutor is the adult at the school who should understand the whole student – their strengths, where they want to go, how they’re doing. There is a lot of research to show that the quality of learning is strongly related to the quality of relationship that a student has with an adult in the school, so we need to build a culture where relationships are seen as one of the highest priorities for a teacher at Ecolint.

Also with the increasing availability of multiple ways of learning, it is very possible that you could learn much of what is in a typical syllabus on-line, and still do well in exams. If that’s the case, why come to school? Our ability to learn with and from others, collaborate, communicate, build social and emotional relationships, these are things that makes us human – developing ourselves in this was is what will make or break the future of humanity, so we can’t leave it to chance, we have to be intentional about it.

To that end, this year we started the ‘One on One Challenge’ – it’s very simple; every tutor meets with his or her tutee and has a simple, but thorough check-in and check-up conversation. Also each teacher has the same experience with the Principal or with the Assistant Principal. So far the feedback from the ‘One on One Challenge’ is positive, and we will be reviewing how it is going at our Pedagogical day in June.

Initiative 3 – Use of Time:

We need time to build relationships and to learn.  Right now we are over-scheduling the students, or scheduling them poorly. Young people, with growing, neuroplastic minds, need a different flow to the day than the one they have now at Ecolint. We will have scheduling experts at Ecolint for three weeks to study this and work on solutions with us. I predict that we will develop a model which will be less packed and disrupted, more creatively using time for learning, for building relationships and reducing stress. However, we seem to have great difficulty letting go and accepting change in this area so it might take a few years to implement the new approach.

Initiative 4 – Use of Space:

We also need space in which to have one-to-one conversations and to be collaborative and because right now, the appropriate spaces don’t exist. As you know there are plans for development of this campus which will allow further ‘breathing space’, but there are also simpler things that can be done to resolve the problem – for example, we can introduce furnishings, like pods for 2 to 6 people, which offer impromptu spaces for quiet conversation.

We need all of these initiatives to work together as a ‘family’.

You have said that you now realise that change is difficult to effect at Ecolint, possibly due, in part to its size – the second largest international school in the world. What problems have you run into, and how can resistance to positive change be overcome?

I think the biggest change is that we have to agree that we are here first and foremost for students, and their wellbeing and learning.

I think that the teachers and students need to see themselves as part of a human-sized community. The research shows that about 150 people is the ‘break-point’ size, which happens to coincide nicely with our year group sizes. I believe that each year needs to have a core of teachers who work together to plan and co-create with the students the learning experiences for that year level. Today, if you take, for example, year 7, you might have up to fifty different teachers who teach one or more classes in year 7. This introduces lots of incoherence and in the end, stress for everyone.

The big shift in creating a more student-centered schedule will likely be about teachers re-orientating themselves around the overall student experience in a given year level. This would mean, for example, a math teacher would be collaborating more with the science teacher of that same year. The same would be the case in other subjects so that there can be more interdisciplinary approaches.

At a recent presentation to La Chât parents, you talked about the surprising teacher profile at the school – the fact that two nationalities, UK and France, are disproportionately represented; that the majority of teachers are over 40; and that there is little movement or change of staff. What issues does this profile raise, and what can be done to address them?

I have to go back to first principles and our Charter, where there is a deliberate commitment to diversity in all its human dimensions – ie we want to see as diverse a population amongst our adults as amongst our students. Clearly we currently have a disconnect, which is linguistic, national and cultural. Inadvertently, a non-diverse teaching body can develop cultural blind spots, where they don’t know what they don’t know, and this is not serving our students or our educational programmes.

Regarding age, not only are the majority of teachers in the last 15 years of their career, the majority of those who we’ve been hiring have been in the last 15 years of their career.  We’re starting by drawing attention to statistics like this – flagging up the fact that the 200 teachers that we hired in the past five years have been making this imbalance even worse. We owe it to the children to have a more diverse teaching population.

The practical problem in effecting a change in this area is getting work visas for Switzerland – it’s almost impossible for the majority of countries in the world.  There are countries, however, with whom Switzerland has built a special cooperative relationship, where they’re allowing young, recently-trained teachers to come to Switzerland on an 18 month visa. We have great teachers here, and what an enriching thing it would be to bring in a promising young teacher on a short-term basis to learn from them. I think it’s also perfectly appropriate to have some movement amongst our teaching staff, including moving from one campus to another or doing exchanges with other leading schools around the world. We are going to explore ways to accomplish these things.

How can we integrate Matu students and IB students? Could reinforcing the languages be a solution to bridge the two sections?

All students, and indeed all staff members, should reach at least a communicative level of proficiency in French and English after one or two years at Ecolint and the majority of students should be aiming for a bilingual IB and bilingual Maturité. We are examining ways to have more courses include a mix of both IB and Maturité students in those areas where there is close curriculum overlap.

You talked a lot about transformation of Ecolint. How can parents become involved?

Firstly, I would like to emphasise that parents’ role in school should be first and foremost about supporting their own children and being familiar with all the many ways they can be involved on the campus where their child is enrolled.

At a Foundation level, I am experimenting with different ways of engaging with parents. The topics that I typically discuss with parents are longer term and about strategic direction. We have started to hold webinars, so that people don’t have to travel to one of the campuses. We’ve recently conducted parent surveys and I will be sharing the results from the survey in an upcoming webinar. These types of initiatives will continue.

I am very open to suggestions and ideas from parents on this. Parents can send them to my email address, director.general@ecolint.ch.


Interviewed by:  Alex Ginsburg and Olive Fenton

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.