The Geography of Thought – an important text for any reading list on (international) education

I was at a symposium a couple of months ago and during one of the sessions, The Geography of Thought was referenced. The presenter was quite emphatic about it being a key text for anyone involved in international education and, having finished reading it recently, I would have to say I completely agree. This particular post is a bit of a book review, to be sure, but also a recommendation for anyone who works in education. It is not a book that can be claimed alone by international schools: national schools also have a great deal to learn from what Nisbett has to say about how people think and perceive the world around them. The West’s perspective is described as Aristotelian and the East’s is described as Confucian, a reference to the philosophers who have had the most impact on those broad geographical regions of the world.

The value of The Geography of Thought is in the fact that it makes very clear how completely diametric the worldviews of the East and West are. Nisbett’s starting point is explained on the very first page where he states:

A few years back, a brilliant student from China began to work with me on questions of social psychology and reasoning. One day early in our acquaintance, he said, “You know, the difference between you and me is that I think the world is a circle, and you think its a line”. Unfazed by what must have been a startled expression on my face, he expounded on that theme. “The Chinese believe in constant change, but with things always moving back to some prior state. They pay attention to a wider range of events; they search for relationships between things; and they think you can’t understand the part without understanding the whole. Westerners live in a simpler, more deterministic world; they focus on salient objects or people instead of the larger picture; and they think they can control events because they know the rules that govern the behavior of objects”

(Nisbett 2004: xiii)

The differences between the two perspectives is central to Nisbett’s discussion. In Chapter 1, the philosophy, science and societies of Ancient Greece and China are covered, providing a historical foundation for Nisbett’s argument. The following chapter focuses on the implications of these foundations to Western and Eastern world perspectives. Chapter 3 contends with the notion of “the self” and how West and East construct the individual and community. Starting with six generalisations that are considered to be the Western conceptualisation of “the self”, Nisbett explores how the Eastern view differs. The notion of one’s social existence and what that means for how people literally see the world is covered in the following chapter. How the idea of cause and effect, language and logic have impacted Western and Eastern perspectives and interpretations form the basis of chapters 5, 6 and 7 respectively. Chapter 8 answers the “so what?” question: how and why do the number of differences between Westerners and Easterners found in almost every study undertaken by Nisbett actually matter?

Ultimately, Nisbett’s own perspective on the matter, presented in the Epilogue, is “situational”. Describing Nisbett’s perspective as “situational” is to say that Nisbett attempts to present a middle ground.

…We all function in some respects more like Easterners some of the time and more like Westerners some of the time. A shift in characteristic social practices could therefore be expected to produce a shift in typical patterns of perception and thought.

(Nisbett 2004: 229)

Aspiring to a more “situational” perspective gives Nisbett a starting point to conclude with his hopes for both the socio-intellectual frameworks that he has spent the better part of 230 pages describing. Nisbett hopes that the best of both cultures will prevail as each moves towards the other and, in the process, have a transformative relationship. Western and Eastern social and cognitive aspects can contribute to a blended mode of thinking that will have a positive impact on the world at large.

This is why this text is so important to education, national or international. As the world becomes increasingly interlinked, it is crucial that teachers can show students how to navigate the newer, ‘smaller’ environment and to do so responsibly, ethically and positively. This text is an excellent starting point for teachers to build up their capacity to grow intercultural competencies within their students and to have an impact on the world beyond their school’s front gates.


R Nisbett 2004 The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why. Free Press: New York, London, Toronto, Sydney,

Getting to a definition of international education

It has been the intent for some of the early posts for this blog to tackle a couple of different key terms associated with being an international school. International, intercultural and interlingual are the three that form an agenda for discussion. In this post, I want to start looking at “international” by presenting, briefly, some different perspectives on what international education entails.

Hayden 2006: 5 states:

Clearly then, there is no simple definition of international education to which all would subscribe. Perhaps it is most appropriate therefore to consider international education as an inclusive umbrella term which incorporates a number of other more specific interpretations, or as a Venn diagram in which different concepts overlap to varying degrees. A helpful summary in that sense is the following, taken from the editorial preface to the 1985 special issue on international education of the Harvard Educational Review: ‘International, global, cross-cultural and comparative education are different terms used to describe education which attempts – in greater or lesser degree – to come to grips with the increasing interdependence that we face and to consider its relationship to learning’.

Hayden 2006: 7 continues several pages later, summarising that:

…it is argued that international education as a concept is inclusive, with many interpretations within different contexts. Within schools, international education has a number of facets including, though not exclusively, the formal curriculum. International education may be experienced in national schools, where suitable opportunities are built in to facilitate this experience for students, and may also be experienced (though not necessarily) within international schools.

Murphy 1991: 1 is different from that of Hayden because of the emphasis on identifying international education as “the other” in so far as educational systems are concerned:

International schools serve the children of those international organisations and multinational companies whose parents are called upon to work in many different countries and to change their assignment at frequent intervals; the schools also educate the children of the diplomatic corps, and offer educational opportunities to children of host country nationals who want their children to learn English or who prefer the greater flexibility which an international school offers over the national system.

Murphy and Hayden’s points of view appear side by side in Hayden and Thompson 2008: 15-16, whereby:

The origins of international schools lie in the perceived need in some contexts for a form of schooling not available through national systems. Many such schools had their origins in the expatriate communities of, for instance, employees of multinational organizations whose wish to be accompanied by their children in their globally-mobile careers, and the perceived lack of suitability of local schools (often because of language or university preparation incompatibilities), led to the establishment of schools designed for the relatively transient student not catered for locally. At the same time as the number of schools has increased to cater for such pragmatic needs, concerns about the need to foster in young people “international-mindedness’, including a desire for world peace and the breaking down of barriers arising from prejudice and ignorance, has led to an ‘ideological’ impetus behind the development of some forms of international school. Growing concerns in the latter part of the twentieth century about the need for global environmental awareness and social responsibility have similarly influenced the development of the form of education offered in such schools.

Hill 2006: 8-9 offers a perspective that is has a slightly more socio-anthropological underpinning than those of Murphy, Hayden and Thompson:

International schools have a very culturally diverse student body, ideally with no one nationality significantly dominating the others. They are almost invariably private, independent institutions and they teach an international education programme. Many were created as a service to internationally mobile parents and the majority teach in English. This pure type is exemplified by the United World Colleges (UWC) (which were not, however, created as a service to mobile parents) and institutions such as the New International School of Thailand, the International School of Tanganyika (Tanzania), Bonn International School and Copenhagen International School that offer international education programmes throughout (IBO, 2005). Two of the earliest international schools, the International School of Geneva and the United Nations International School (UNIS) in New York, both emphasize international education programmes but alongside national programmes. While there are more than 100 nationalities in each, Swiss, US and UK citizens, in almost exactly equal numbers, represent just under half of the total 2005 student population of 3410 in the Geneva school (International School of Geneva, 2005: 42, 44) and US citizens represent half of the total student numbers of 1460 at UNIS (pers. comm. from director of admissions). This is not to imply that the dominant nationality groups detract from the international mindedness of the institutions, but to indicate that they comply less with the expectation of a fairly even spread of nationalities; moreover, people of the same nationality can have different cultural origins. Some schools using the label ‘international’ cater predominantly for students from a particular nation and receive some corresponding government subsidies; they may offer one or more national education programmes. A number of schools include the word ‘international’ in their title because it sounds prestigious, or because it legitimately reflects the international mindedness of the educational programme while the student body may be quite culturally homogeneous[5].

In writing for The International Educator, Nagrath 2011 presents 8 criteria for international education and schools:

  1. Transferability of students’ education across international schools
  2. A moving population (higher than in national public schools)
  3. Multinational and multilingual student body
  4. An international curriculum (i.e. IB – DP, MYP, PYP)
  5. International accreditation (e.g. CIS, IBO, North Eastern ASC, Western Ass. of Schools and colleges, etc.)
  6. A transient and multinational teacher population
  7. Non-selective student enrollment
  8. Usually English or bi-lingual as the language of instruction

Each of these definitions or standpoints offer something concrete as to what international education is about. To what degree is that actually possible to do? A question to tackle in the next post.


Hayden, M. (2006), Introduction to International Education: International Schools and their Communities (London, Thousand Oaks, New Dehli: SAGE Publications).

Hayden, M. and Thompson, J. (2008), International schools: growth and influence (Paris: UNESCO).

Hill, I. (2006), ‘Student types, school types and their combined influence on the development of intercultural understanding’, Journal of Research in International Education, 5 (1), 5-53.

Murphy, E. (ed.), (1991), ESL: A Handbook for Teachers and Administrators in International Schools (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters).

Nagrath, C. ‘What makes a school international?’, The International Educator <, accessed 5.3.2015.