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,

Intercultural or international / / reaching out and reflecting in

International mindedness or intercultural mindedness?

Is it easier to practice or “do” one than the other?

Can one assess international mindedness more easily than intercultural mindedness, or indeed at all?

International or intercultural: both terms sit at the centre of international schooling. They are used synonymously but is there one that is more appropriate? In a recent research report conducted by the University of Bath, commissioned by the International Baccalaureate Organisation, on international mindedness, it became very clear that the term “international mindedness” was contested. Over the sample group of schools that were examined by the University of Bath research team, the term “international mindedness” was defined in a broad set of ways. It was framed as a way of acting, a way of thinking, a mind-set and a way of living, to name a few examples. A common thread that emerged in what the sample schools revealed was that the conceptualisation of “international mindedness” was intensely relational; a concept forged in relationships.

I do think that the interconnectedness, interdependencies, and leading people to think less in terms of international mindedness, and global mind-set, and more in terms of being able to relate to and understand other human beings, and their perspectives, and their point of views. [Principal, Colarado (DP)]‘So, for two people to be internationally minded, they both kind of need to interact.’ [MYP Y9 final years student focus group, Danube (MYP)]

(Hacking, Blackmore, Bullock, Bunnell, Donnelly, Martin 2016: 40)

Parents also centred their definitions on the notion of international mindedness as an ultimately relational concept.

Being aware that one’s own culture provides just one perspective on the world and that other people think differently. No one world view is the correct one… being excited by the differences. [Parent, Mekong (DP)]

(Hacking, Blackmore, Bullock, Bunnell, Donnelly, Martin 2016:40)

“International mindedness” was determined to be something ultimately based on “reaching out” and “reflecting in”. In the report, “reaching out” was often described in terms of listening to others, understanding others, valuing other perspectives, respecting others, not judging others, accepting others and being open-minded and open to other perspectives. “Reflecting in” referred to both staff and students knowing themselves and their cultures. This meant knowing one’s own culture and mother-tongue, having a sense of one’s own values, interests and opinions, as well as an awareness of one’s own abilities and weaknesses, and an acceptance of one’s past and background.

I suspect this is where the idea that “international mindedness” might be replaced by “intercultural mindedness” (or words to that effect) comes from. The term “international” has connotations of the “nation-state”, of being related to the idea of polities engaging with one another. Extending this to the notion of “mindedness”, which could be also understood to mean “disposition” or “inclination”, and then positioning it as a significant anchor point for international schooling makes for too narrower a claim for the purpose of education in this day and age. Is it redundant to perceive (one of) the purpose(s) of international education as the promotion of international mindedness, which ultimately is referring to the interaction of nations (as opposed to the people of those nations), at a point in world history that might be identified as transnational?

The view being put forward here is that perhaps international education is now intercultural learning by another name. In a world that might be currently characterised as transnational, when one calls for greater international mindedness perhaps what is being referenced is the interaction of people. In other words, international education is about understanding how the world interacts with itself not just on the level of the nation-state but, more critically, on the level of the people who make up the different constituent cultures of that nation-state, and potentially others at the same time.


Elisabeth Barratt Hacking, Chloe Blackmore, Kate Bullock, Tristan Bunnell, Michael Donnelly, Sue Martin (2016) The International Mindedness Journey: School Practices for Developing and Assessing International Mindedness Across the IB Continuum Department of Education, University of Bath.

On International Mother Language Day

Today is International Mother Language Day. Established by UNESCO in 1999, and formally recognised by the UN General Assembly in 2008, International Mother Tongue Language Day functions to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. For UNESCO, such awareness positively contributes to global citizenship, enabling our learners to play an active role in both local and global arenas to address global challenges and, ultimately, contribute proactively in creating a more just, peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, secure and sustainable world.

If nothing less, today should be a reminder about the importance of mother tongue or mother languages. It might be a trite thing to say but for our learners, regardless as to whether they are in an international school or a national school, language is important. It is the means by which our learners express themselves. A learner in Grade 1 has the same experience with language as a learner in Grade 10; language structures their thoughts and identities.

Facilitating a learning environment that supports, or incorporates, a learner’s mother tongue is complicated. It can be ‘messy’ but there are benefits:

  • There is an emphasis on the quality of teaching and learning with a focus on understanding and creativity. The teacher has to ensure that what is going on in the classroom will promote understanding (of whatever content or concepts are being taught).
  • There is a reinforcement of the cognitive aspect of learning because facilitating a learning environment that supports a learner’s mother tongue ensures the direct application of learning outcomes to the learner’s life through the mother tongue. There is an authentic understanding that takes place about whatever it is that is being taught.
  • An enhanced dialogue and interaction between learner and teacher is allowed to take place. Promoting a “mother tongue friendly” environment from the very first day of classes allows genuine communication from the beginning. The learner sees the teacher as taking an interest in their cultural heritage and the teacher has a better capacity for reaching the student.
  • It facilitates participation and action in society and gives access to new knowledge and cultural expressions, thus ensuring a harmonious interaction between the global and the local.

Image result for mandela language quote

Mandela’s quote on language and the difference between understanding and meaning is an appropriate endpoint to this (very) brief exposition on mother tongue and International Mother Language Day. Celebrating the diversity in language heritages in one’s classroom or school may contribute to creating an environment whereby learning takes place, opportunities for communication and interaction exist, and global-mindedness is fostered. These are good things. I want to posit that ensuring that the diversity in languages in one’s classroom or school is meshed into pedagogical practice might well take things further. Rather than just going through the motions of learning and interacting in different contexts, hearing what one is to learn in one’s own language (even if it is just key concepts) could encourage a sense of ownership of the learning process. As we seek greater degrees of global citizenship and international-mindedness, having individual learners take on the ownership of the processes that seeks to promote these concepts cannot be a bad thing.


If you are interested, you can find out more about this year’s International Mother Tongue Language Day here.


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.

Dangerous worldviews

“Die gefährlichste Weltanschauung ist die Weltanschauung derer, die die Welt nie angeschaut haben”.

I have set myself the task, over the upcoming weeks, of airing my take on internationalism and education. In my previous post, I said that there are three aspects to be considered: international, intercultural and interlingual. It was of interest to me, then, when this quote from Alexander von Humboldt (14 September 1769 – 6 May 1859) popped up in my Facebook feed. While it is not entirely clear as to whether he actually uttered or wrote these words, they express a sentiment that resonates with why internationalism and education should be paired together. In this sense, this post might be considered to be a preamble to the posts on international, intercultural and interlingual that will follow over the next couple of weeks. Or, at the very least, the start of a preamble to some sort of final paper on the subject.

Tangentially, von Humboldt was a Prussian, geographer, naturalist, explorer and influential proponent of Romantic philosophy and science. He was incredibly well-travelled, having been appointed to positions over the course of his career that would require his presence in different places across the globe, or driven to different places in the world on account of his research. If this utterance was really his (and I would like for the sake of argument and convenience to say that it was), then he certainly had the academic background, respect and credibility to make it.

While von Humboldt’s words give ‘internationalism’ a degree of historicity and veracity, despite the fact that it is unlikely he would have used the term ‘internationalism’ to describe the perspective he was conveying, I see in von Humboldt’s words something more. It is the fact that they can be seen as a call to action to teachers to bring the world into the classroom. By bringing the world into the classroom, teachers can help students create and maintain an identity that is informed by the world and not an identity that is in tension with it, an identity that embraces the world and does not live in fear of it. In light of events in recent days, weeks and months, the place of teachers in this world is never more important.

International, Intercultural, Interlingual – mapping out the Dreiländereck that is international education

I work in an educational world that is defined by the intersection of three different spaces: the international, the intercultural and the interlingual. It makes for an interesting environment. Living in an area of land that is often called the Dreiländereck (where Germany, Switzerland and France meet), the use of three terms to define this educational world seems entirely appropriate. In the same way that my school is made up of students of different countries, cultures and languages, so too is the geography of the Dreiländereck.

The application of the international, the intercultural and the interlingual into a teaching and learning environment can be challenging for those within it. The interactions between one’s sense of self and the national identities of those one teaches can prompt useful, in-depth discussions about teaching and learning. The same interactions can also contribute to points of friction or tension. Cultures collide in the staff room about what constitutes pedagogical ‘best practice’.

For me, this post is a starting point for a discussion about internationalism and education. Over the coming weeks I want to look at the ideas of international, intercultural and interlingual, all of which appear to be central to understanding what internationalism as it applies to education is about. So, with that in mind, and to bring this post to a close, here are some short, tentative definitions that might be used as a springboard for what is to come:

  • International – the basis for a comprehensive approach to education that intentionally prepares students to be active and engaged participants in an interconnected world.
  • Intercultural – an approach to education that seeks to develop student intercultural competence, which is the ability to act and relate appropriately and effectively in a variety of cultural contexts.
  • Interlingual – an inclusive teaching and learning approach that supports all languages and cultures present within the school by fostering an environment whereby all students are open and responsive to respecting and learning about other languages.