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Developing ethical people: initial findings of the UWC Impact Study

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Developing ethical people: initial findings of the UWC Impact Study

A long time ago, a young, dark haired English teacher found himself at a large Education Fair in a famous capital city. His job was to promote the School at which he had just started working. He proudly took from his bag a large photograph of his school’s most famous alumnus—a well-known contemporary businessman—and was about to put it on his display board when he happened to look at the school exhibiting next to him. On seeing the first three images go up on his neighbour’s board—Jawaharlal Nehru, Winston Churchill, Lord Byron—the young teacher sheepishly put the contemporary businessman back in the bag. Truth was, the neighbouring school seemed for all the world to have made a more significant impact on the lot of humanity. And so the young teacher decided instead to promote his school by standing enigmatically in front of a blank, blue display board which he fervently hoped would be seen by potential parents as a beguiling, Zen-like invitation into a realm of infinite possibility. He failed. The parents ignored him and queued up in front of the school where the famous people had gone.

His hair a little less dark than it used to be, the same teacher became rather excited on hearing a tale that would enable him and his new colleagues to delve deep into the realm of impact. This story went well beyond the pictures of the great and good that adorn school walls. The UWCSEA Board of Governors had been reflecting profoundly on a mission statement that was admirable but seemingly ethereal: it spoke not to educational experience but impact. Do we really unite peoples, nations and cultures through the force of education, and will they strive to make the future more peaceful and sustainable? Could one really tell if we were doing any more in this field than other schools with very different mission statements? So, since the prime objective of the governing body is to ensure the school fulfils the mission, and since the mission is all about impact, the question had finally become “what is the impact of the UWC mission on students and on society?”

Measuring UWC’s impact

A plan was hatched. Four principles would guide our thinking: we would not measure input or output, but rather would focus on impact; our study would be a longitudinal study, and setting the parameters of that study would be a study in itself; yes, there would be a drive towards quantitative data, but we needed an in-depth qualitative study in the first instance; and we also needed help.

The help soon came in the form of Research Schools International led by researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Dr Bruno della Chiesa and Dr Christina Hinton, along with Sylvia Malo based in the International Office and Vanessa Christoph in Germany, were mightily interested in what we wanted to do and happy to involve other UWCs, namely: UWC Red Cross Nordic, UWC Waterford Kahmlaba and UWC-USA. The buzz became louder both in Harvard and Singapore, and then a donor (who wishes to remain anonymous) most generously offered to fund an exploratory year. This was a thrilling and liberating turn of events. We were set to go.

Exploratory year

Along with the dry but essential components of any major research undertaking, interviews were also conducted with alumni and students by researchers and the scholar-in-residence, Dr della Chiesa, during his visits to the College. These interviews, along with attendant surveys proved especially insightful in an exploratory year and gave us clear indicators of where we might look in the future for impact. We are grateful to everyone who took part in these sessions: they were invaluable not least because they were far from the identikit sessions one might have expected from a College with so strong a mission.

Honing the research questions proved fascinating, challenging and a lot of fun as senior colleagues engaged with the researchers in rich conversations. Eventually we came up with the following:

What ethical values do current and former members of the UWC community think are important and developed as part of a UWC education?

Do current and former members of the UWC community think that they have developed, or are developing, these ethical values?

How has the school informed the development of these ethical values?

What examples can current and former members of the UWC community give of how these concepts are manifested in their lives today?

Given the short lead in time and exploratory nature of the project, I think we can say that this was a mass participation event. 2,365 students and alumni from the four UWCs were involved, with 677 of the alumni and over 1,000 of the students coming from UWCSEA.

In addition to face-to-face interviews, a set of somewhat sinister sounding ‘thought experiments’ were conducted with students and alumni. Some of you may be familiar with the Veil of Ignorance experiments—to which Kant, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Jefferson have all contributed—whereby one determines the morality of an issue by jettisoning one’s abilities, tastes and position within the social order. If you’d like to try a thought experiment for yourself (though this one is not a veil of ignorance scenario), here’s one we used on students and alumni:

A man has robbed a bank, but instead of keeping the money for himself, he donates it to a poor orphanage that can now afford to feed, clothe, and care for its children. You know who committed the robbery. If you go to the authorities with the information, there’s a good chance the money will be returned to the bank, leaving a lot of kids in need. What do you do?

The answers were of course interesting, but more interesting for us was hearing alumni and students connecting with and reflecting on their UWC experience as they went about wrestling with the problem.

Initial findings

The first fruits appeared last month when a draft report was circulated. The Initial Findings for UWCSEA are most encouraging. Intercultural/global awareness of students at UWCSEA is very high, and crucial notions of ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect for all’ are pervasive. Students believe UWCSEA has helped them to develop ethical values, while UWCSEA values and respondent values are aligned.

Qualities alumni and students report developing most during their time at UWC included compassion, empathy, being open-minded, respect, social responsibility and how to care for others. Interestingly, when discussing ethical decision-making, alumni in particular associated ‘understanding context’ most strongly with being able to make ethical decisions. This supports the evidence that our students and alumni are extremely aware of alternative perspectives to their own—surely an important part of the ‘peace and sustainable’ future that we are aspiring to. One of the alumni put it best: “I think that just going to school and constantly interacting with people of different races, classes and identities, I learned more about social justice, equality and tolerance than many of the workshops and lectures I’ve had in college. really opened up my eyes to the diversity of the human (not to mention UWCSEA) experience.”

Flying high from the masthead of UWCSEA is Social Justice. This concept incorporates such complex notions as equal rights and opportunity, as well as a strong sense of responsibility to society. A Grade 9 student might have a slightly different understanding of this concept to a seasoned alum, but Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Paine would recognise and, doubtless, rejoice at the kind of thinking taking place in the community. How wonderful if the current Grade 9s still feel this way when, working in major corporations, banks, NGOs and their own companies, they might make manifest their current beliefs. (And early signs suggest cynicism infects UWC alumni rather less than world-weary readers might think).

A significant majority of alumni believe that their ethical values are manifest in their daily lives, and that they are contributing to a better world either through their career, their everyday actions and interactions, or volunteer work. “Because of my UWCSEA experience, I work for a non-profit organisation which helps shape globally competent students and teachers … I work with diverse schools … almost as if I’m trying to bring ‘UWC’ to those schools!” Another remarked, “I like to think the little things I do every single day contribute to a better world … Just the other day my mum praised me for volunteering at an organisation in Singapore … ‘It’s normal,’ I replied. The only reason I think it’s normal is because UWCSEA made it normal … I firmly believe that the world would be a better place with more of us.”

There are so many more inspiring examples of how the UWC experience has stayed with our students and alumni and how they are having a positive impact on the world as a result. The complexity of the relationship between their experience at school and their behaviour in the real world is not to be underestimated, but we are beginning. Now we await the full report. Once that is received there will be further discussion at College and UWC international level. The hope is we will build a longitudinal study that will incorporate an ongoing partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Nehru, Churchill and Byron surely earned their place in the story. But in terms of UWC alumni, let’s also ask about the homemaker in Idaho, the volunteer in Jakarta, the girl in Grade 9. In what quiet and wonderful ways might they be developing their thinking and changing this world for the better? And in what way is UWC a part of that tale? And finally, how might UWC improve its practice in the light of this new information so that we all live happily ever after?

That, as my mother used to say, is a story for tomorrow night.

Chris Edwards 
Head of College
UWC South East Asia

14 Jun 2016
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