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.