As we embark on a new academic year in Argentina, it may be worthwhile to reflect on the quality of the education our children are receiving, and specifically to answer the following question: what do our kids need from their secondary education if they are considering higher education abroad? Is the institution in a position to provide your child with the necessary skills and support for such a transition? In other words, how international is your school?
The choices made in a school’s curriculum, of course, is one of the first signs of a community’s desire to internationalise and reach out beyond local requirements in order to improve and diversify their programme. While Argentina is a country with a prescriptive national curriculum, which in itself is quite extensive and demanding, many schools have made choices over the years to modify, add and combine programmes that are of further international character.
For example, affiliation with the International Baccalaureate (IB) organisation adds a very special kind of quality to subject matter, as well as offering a tremendous increase in choices, opening up access to material otherwise never touched upon by the local curriculum. Likewise, the world-renowned International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) from Cambridge, designed for 14-16 year olds, has an international flavour and adds prestige to secondary school studies.
These international programs also provide external examinations that serve as universal certification of skills and a level of performance that are recognised practically everywhere in the world, across the globe. Similarly, if students are aiming to study in the future in the United States, schools would be wise to offer at least minimal information and preparation for the SAT examinations. TOEFL preparation would also be helpful in all cases where university education will be taught in English.
A conscious, institutional decision about quality second language programmes – modern options such as English, French, German or Italian, Dutch, even Chinese – also plays a role in the internationalisation of education. Students who aim to continue higher education abroad will, of course, benefit from speaking a strong second or even a third language. English is by far the highest language in demand, but many students nowadays also plan to undertake future university studies in France, Germany and The Netherlands or Italy – some even opt for choices as far away as China or Singapore – and those local languages become a real asset for them.
Teacher qualifications and backgrounds are of utmost importance too. If schools choose to utilise exclusively local teachers who do not speak a second language, have never travelled outside Argentina and are not familiar with the current themes occupying the minds of international educators and students, then while the culture of a school may be of extraordinary academic level, it is not yet global at all. Your students will not find in their teachers a mentor, at least one not of the type they need to open themselves up to a globalised education system.
Several methodological issues must be addressed too so that students are well prepared to make a transition to top universities in the industrialised world. It is crucial that our secondary institutions focus strongly on reading comprehension and writing skills, as this is the stuff education is made of, after all. These skills must be a priority not only in the native language, Spanish, but also in any other language the students are engaged in. Furthermore, the curriculum should be thought out so that students increasingly gain independence and are in control of their learning. In other words, rather than teaching to the test or memorising facts, students need to lead, inquiring about their learning processes and assume responsibility for it. Teaching students how to learn – called meta learning – is in many ways more important than learning itself. This, of course, requires that teachers be trained accordingly as the system moves toward 21st-century approaches. The incorporation of technology and digital information-based methods is another aspect of importance, as universities across the world today are almost totally immersed in such processes. Our students must be not only smart consumers of these technologies but, as it turns out, they also need to be skilled at programming themselves.
To become international also means to play by the rules expected by universities across the world. One of those rules includes a holistic evaluation of applicants that takes into account not only academic performance but also engagement and contributions outside the classroom. For that purpose, secondary schools must have – at the least – a minimal infrastructure of extracurricular opportunities for students to join in with. These might include sports, arts, service, culture and civic engagement opportunities. The modern international school, it is clear, must engage students outside the classroom too.
As choices become more available and students are given the freedom to design certain aspects of their programmes, it makes sense for schools to have at hand competent advisory teams and protocols. In many international educational systems – especially in Europe, UK, Canada and Australia – there are very clear, at times quite strict, prerequisites for admission that include what courses the students must have taken to be admitted to a particular career path. Academic advising, therefore, is an essential need in the process of internationalisation. Advising in general should also include a strong vocational and careers guidance programme as well as teams for emotional support to ease the long preparation for a difficult transition away from home. Secondary education today has in many ways become quite stressful and schools must bear those responsibilities too.
From the administrative point of view, internationally friendly schools should allocate resources to develop partnerships with international university recruiters, be open and inviting to their campus visits and allow contact with interested students – sometimes even at the expense of class time. Designated educators ought to be made responsible for that process while also establishing permanent written resource libraries in the form of catalogues and/or digital materials. Students need to have clear guidance about programmes in diverse countries of interest, admissions requirements, application protocols and contacts to follow up. When international recruiters visit town, students should be encouraged to attend university fairs and obtain information directly. Schools may also offer to organise such fairs or individual visits on their own campus and invite parents as well. A school's administrative staff should also develop a clear protocol to ensure that students are able to obtain and submit documents to a diverse range of universities, in the fashion required by each individual institution. At times this may demand that schools step out of the box and prepare very individualised transcripts, letters of reference, test results – normally all in English – as well as brief presentations of their school profile – statistics and academic/social characteristics which universities are interested in at the time of evaluation.
Finally, internationally orientated schools need to be open-minded, tolerant to diversity, adaptable to changes and flexible. All these traits must also be transmitted to each and all of their students, and especially their parents. Some model in Buenos Aires include Lincoln in La Lucila, San Andrés in Olivos and St. George’s.
Argentina can no longer afford educational isolation, nor falling and lagging behind institutions in our closest neighbouring countries. Our schooling and education system must open itself up to an increasingly globalist education system, one which recognises neither political nor economic frontiers.