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Founder’s Story

Joann McPike

Joann McPike

Where did the idea for a global school come from?

When my son Alexander was little, he traveled with us everywhere (over 74 countries by the time he was 14 years old). He learned things that you don’t learn in a classroom. We saw a difference in what he knew and what he thought compared to his friends. There was just a depth to his knowledge and his questions because he’d been exposed to so much more.

His friends were lovely kids, smart kids, but he was much more comfortable than they were talking with adults, with different sorts of people, about different sorts of subjects. It was hard for us to find a high school that could continue giving him that kind of education.

You weren’t finding that at the more conventional international schools?

We looked at schools in America, Canada, Australia, and Europe. The problem with any high school is that you are taught a certain way of thinking, a certain history, a certain way of seeing the world. It’s all very localized, very nationalized. There was nothing that would show our son different ways of seeing the world.

What we’re doing at THINK Global School has never been done before. Yes, there are other schools with an English language curriculum and an international student body. Yes, there are traveling classes, and school trips, and year abroad programs, but to actually take these children and their teachers to 12 different countries when they’re in high school is a very different vision.

Has THINK Global been able to deliver on that vision?

Well of course I’m the founder, so perhaps I’m biased! I’m also a mother who has sent my child away to this school, and I do see a real difference in him, and in the others. Even after just one year. It’s so hard to explain in words the effect traveling has on young people. They become so much more independent and creative. They’re able to stand up for themselves and think for themselves. It’s just a wonderful thing to see. They respond to it like ducks to water.

You see them learning Mandarin and ordering snacks at the night markets. You see them learning art criticism and actually going to the galleries where those paintings are and putting their noses up to them. They can stand in front of Ingmar Bergman’s gravestone and watch The Seventh Seal on their iPads. They can talk to the tour guides in Spanish at Galapagos and ask them questions they came up with when they were reading Darwin that morning. They’re not afraid to offer their opinions, to be heard.

Are there any specific moments that stand out?

There are so many stories, and I’ve only seen a fraction of what the teachers and the traveling staff have seen. Our headquarters personnel only visit on-site from time to time, so a lot of it we gather from Skype and from Twitter and so on.

In Sweden we had a Holocaust survivor come in and speak to the children. They’re never going to look at the Second World War the same way again. Those two hours they spent with him will remain with them for the rest of their lives. It made such an impression. We took them to a mosque in Sydney, had the local Imam talk to them about Islam one afternoon. They came out of that mosque going “Wow, that’s what Islam is all about.”

It’s so easy to expose children to experiences like this. You don’t even have to travel to do that, you can do it in your own community, but the traveling intensifies it and multiplies it. Just being out there makes the students realize it’s a big wide world. They shouldn’t just get caught up in their own little box.

Why high school students? Developmentally, wouldn’t they be better equipped for this type of study at university?

I think it’s perhaps the opposite. Kids are naturally empathetic at this age. They care. They care about the world; they care about their friends, about their families. They have such a capacity for love. They’re honest. Their eyes and ears are wide open. It’s like they don’t have agendas yet. It’s this brief window in their lives when they have so much clarity about things. I don’t think people listen to teenagers enough. They have some of the most brilliant creative ideas. I identify with them because I’m a “why not?” person. Why not? Why can’t it be done another way? Teenagers are like that, it’s just their nature.

When they go through high school with the peer pressure and the hormones and all of that, if they’re stuck in one place, it’s easy for them to turn inwards. They just get wrapped up in their own world. By the time they get to university, when things become more important, they’re focused too much on the “me.” They start to get a narrow view of what success means. They lose a bit of that empathy with others. Maybe that’s just the normal progression to adulthood, but I don’t think so. I think teenagers, more so than adults, are equipped to see similarities rather than differences. It’s very potent when you combine the global travel with the global composition of the class.

Maybe you can elaborate on that. Where do the students at THINK Global come from?

For the 2011-12 year we have Sweden, the Bahamas, the United States, Germany, Bhutan, Canada, New Zealand, Thailand, Afghanistan, Palestine, Australia, Singapore, China, South Korea, the Netherlands, and Aruba. You know Alexander said something very interesting to me. About halfway through the last school year, he said, “I thought the idea of the school was to get all these different kids from different cultures so they could learn from each other.” And I said yes, more or less. “But mom,” he said, “We’re all the same!” As adults we know that deep down, but we still look at somebody in another country or another part of the world and you think you’ve got nothing in common. I think that was something really surprising to all of the students, just finding out that their basic emotions and their basic needs were so alike. These kids are traveling around the world and that type of view has just become a part of their software. “We’re all the same!” Well of course there is one exception…

And what is that? [Interviewer’s note: Joann is now laughing.]

Well the boys are like the boys, and the girls are like the girls. They separate themselves hormonally, not culturally. I say now “hormones know no culture”. It doesn’t matter what country you come from.

How do you maintain a strong academic curriculum when the students are spending all of their time on the go?

Maybe that’s a false distinction. Certainly there is a settling in period at the beginning of each term. In terms of their daily activities, we do have them in the classroom a lot, and everything they’re doing in terms of exploring the city and the country they’re in is built right into the curriculum. We call it “weXplore.” It’s not just sightseeing. We bring in local speakers, they have cooking lessons, music lessons or whatever else we can do to expose the children to the local culture. The 11th and 12th grade curriculum is going to be International Baccalaureate starting in 2012, so we’re going to weave those weXplore experiences into the IB academics.

That seems very demanding of the students’ energy.

We teach them good study habits. They need to be dedicated to studying as well as to traveling. We want them to understand why they’re reading this book or doing this set of equations, to realize the importance of being lifelong learners, and to see themselves as pioneers. They have such a feeling of ownership for their experience. It’s wonderful to see.

However, we do have to be careful not to overschedule them. They got to the end of the term in Sweden last year and they were exhausted. The students wrote out a petition asking for more study time. I was impressed. Things have changed since I was in school! They’re a very democratic bunch. They’re very open with their ideas. They’ll write up a petition and present it, and they expect to be heard and expect to be listened to. If you don’t listen, they want to know why. They want logical, sensible explanations, and they take their studies very seriously.

Would you say TGS is a model for the school of the future?

It’s a model for the school of the present! As adults we all interact so much more nowadays in our working lives and our personal lives with people from other parts of the world. So much depends on our mutual understanding. And if you want to understand people you have to understand their history. You have to look at their art, their culture, their literature, their music. How their religious views and their scientific and mathematical systems developed. You have to compare where they came from, where they’ve been and what they’ve done. That’s the kind of education my son was getting from our travels, and that’s the kind of education we’re providing for all the students at THINK Global School.

How do you choose the locations to visit each term?

Number one, we look for somewhere safe. That’s the most important. We’ve also tried to emphasize the three truly global languages, English, Spanish and Mandarin. Obviously there are a lot of gears that have to turn for us to make arrangements with the cities and the host schools, but within the realm of what’s possible we try to choose the most vibrant, diverse, and important cities in the world.

What is a TGS teacher like?

Really smart. Really dedicated. I think if you have an amazing teacher, they’ll be able to help you get through anything. So much of the educational equation is all about the teachers, their enthusiasm for their subjects, and the way they connect with the students. What the kids are doing in this school is a really exciting experiment, and the same goes for the teachers. They’re risk takers, and they’re people who see the connections in things.

What is a TGS student like?

They have to be academically strong. They have to be self-starters. They have to want to work. They have to be globally curious and independent already, before they start; they have to be cosmopolitan in their frame of mind, but they don’t have to be jet setters. Somebody said to me last year, you probably wouldn’t be able to do this with a kid from Minnesota or something. That’s wrong. Give us a kid from anywhere. They all have the same experience, and they all benefit from it. They learn that there’s more out there than what they’d thought before.

It’s not a school for everybody. If you have a laser focus on one activity, like playing violin, or playing soccer, or doing scientific lab work 10 hours a day, this isn’t the school for you. This is a school for explorers.

What is a TGS parent like?

I have so much respect and admiration for the parents who sent their children to the first year of THINK Global School. Here was this new school, this new way of approaching education, and they sent their 14 year-old children out into the world. There’s a reason why our group of students is so amazing, and it’s because they have a group of parents who are so open-minded.

Some parents might say, “I just can’t let them go. I would miss them too much”, but you’re giving your child an experience. What you get back after you send them away is something so extraordinary. Every single parent so far has said to us, “Wow, my kid has changed for the better”. You also need to have a lot of trust in your child. Teenagers are teenagers. They are going to make bad decisions. We watch them as closely as we can, and we catch them when they fall. We have the teachers, the head of school, the assistant head, and the residential life director and residential advisors in their living areas, but they get into their little scrapes. It’s part of their development. I am certain that the experience they’re getting at TGS really does accelerate their maturation, so it’s making them more secure and safer rather than less so.

What does the future hold for THINK Global?

It would be wonderful if every teenager could travel around the world for a year or two. Of course we can’t do that. Our aims are modest. Four years of high school, 45 kids traveling around the world. We want to be able to take the very best students that apply, regardless of their financial circumstance. Ten years from now, if we have only 45 kids, I’ll be happy. If we have three of these schools with kids traveling around the world, that would be amazing. Bigger isn’t always better. The five pillars the school has been built upon are Tolerance, Humility, Immersion, Compassion, and Knowledge. If we are graduating students with those qualities and sending them out into the world, we’ve done our job right.

I have expectations for the students. They’ve been given this opportunity. They know that and they step up to the task. It’s their school. They’re the ones defining what it is and what it can be, and they’re so proud of that. They want to make it work. A number of them said to me, “when we finish at THINK Global School, can we come back and work for you?” They can see for themselves the effect it has on them, and on their friends at the school. They see it as a small step toward changing the world. They will make a difference, I know that for sure. They will be leaders.