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Peterson’s Altruistic Gene Running Through the IB Arteries

Forty six years after Alec (Alexander Duncan Campbell) Peterson laid the first innovative bricks in our foundation, the IB has come very far. We spoke to his granddaughter, Amelia Peterson to see what she thinks her grandfather would have made of the developments.


Amelia Peterson 3

Amelia Peterson with a photo of her grandfather, Alec.

Your grandfather passed away in 1988, so I presume you never met him?

Yes, he died just less than a year before I was born. He had four grandchildren, but I’m the youngest and so the only one he didn’t know about. Fortunately, Alec wrote some memoirs to leave for them, so I got to know him too through his writing.

According to family who knew him, what kind of person was he?

I think he was a very influential presence for all his children, and the extent to which he put himself into his work certainly rubbed off. I think he was always very wrapped up in his work, but from his letters and memoirs I know he was also a very thoughtful and caring person; he certainly had a considerable emotional life. He was known to write poetry occasionally!

Your granddad was a visionary. Is that something you have in common with him? How shared are your visions?

I definitely wouldn’t call myself a visionary! But I suppose I incline towards thinking about alternatives – other ways things could be. I studied English Literature as an undergraduate and that gets you into the habit of thinking about other possibilities, other perspectives. And then sometimes from those perspectives things start to look wrong and you want to change them. I guess I share with him a feeling that there is a lot of room for improvement in education.

Do you think your grandfather could’ve foreseen the current developments in education? What do you reckon would’ve surprised, – or perhaps impressed – him the most?

I think he would be very encouraged by how things are developing in many countries – the idea that everyone can benefit from more challenging, higher-order learning, while bringing different disciplines together, and also taking personal development as part of education seriously. I think there is a big divide in education at the moment between those who see it as a holistic process, and the opposite trend to tie it to narrow economic outcomes. My grandfather was spurred on to work for the IB and change education systems because of the narrow curriculums which tend to focus only on exam output in a small handful of subjects – this has only gotten worse (discounting the growing numbers of IB schools, of course!) and I think this would concern him.

Similarly to your grandfather, innovation in education has been a thread through your career. Is that a coincidence? Can you tell us a bit about it?

Well I don’t know if I could say I have a career yet, but certainly it’s pretty intentional. I had always thought about teaching – I was very lucky to have some fantastic teachers and I wanted to be like them I think. But while I was at university I started reading more about philosophy of education, and educational psychology, and I decided I didn’t want to work in the English school system as it currently is. Everything I was reading seemed to point in a different direction to where mainstream schooling was going in England, so I applied for Master’s programmes so that I could learn about it properly. I was about to interview for a job as an English teacher when I heard I had got into Harvard for the program in Human Development and Psychology. After that, I wanted to work on projects and with people who see that what we know about how children and young people develop points to a different kind of educational experience from the one most schools currently offer – despite the best efforts of teachers, the structures in and around school are misaligned. I was very, very lucky to find Innovation Unit*, who had a big focus on thinking about how students become engaged and motivated, and everything else has flowed from there.

You have co-written several publications, what motivated you to write “Schools with Soul” and “Redesigning Education: Shaping Learning Systems Around the Globe”?

Both of those emerged from projects I was working on – the Global Education Leaders’ Program with Innovation Unit, and an inquiry into Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education in the U.K. with the Royal Society of Arts. We produced written output to try to share what we had learned. There is so much happening in education at the moment, it can be hard to spread ideas and have really informed debate. In both cases, we’re still trying to think of more ways to communicate the ideas, but in the meantime more real work is going on, so they might both need a second volume soon.

What have been your key findings regarding the development of broader human qualities of pupils? Isn’t that what “Schools with Soul” investigated?

We were looking at how development is provided for in schools in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s very interesting comparing the different school systems – in many ways, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are doing much more to emphasize development – preparing their students to be citizens and thinkers and creators. Many English schools are doing fantastic things, but they say they find it hard to prioritize personal and social development when all they are ‘rated’ on is students’ exam results. Exams capture something important, of course, but so many other aspects of the school experience are valuable (I always think I learnt most from Art, Drama and Sport – the ‘extra-curriculars’…). It’s a real concern if, for the late teen years when you’re really trying to figure out who you are and what you want to do, students are missing out on those kind of experiences.

Building a better measure of Educational success is one of your drives. How do you measure what matters?

This is a really big question, and I think another relevant question is why we’re so focused on measurement, particularly in England? It comes down to a mistrust of teachers, and the demand for external controls and accountability, when perhaps what would serve us better is creating the conditions for stronger internal and mutual accountability. Yes, it would be helpful to have better ways of recognising when broader pupil development is happening, for many reasons, but some things cannot be measured (though I know some researchers would disagree with me!), and we have to be able to create the space in education for those broader learning experiences to happen.

In your work with the Innovation Unit you are collaborating with thought leaders in the education industry on regular basis. Is there anyone in particular that has inspired you the most?

One of the best things about working with the Global Education Leaders’ Program is being able to meet and talk with people who have been thinking for many years about change in education. Some of the ones I find most interesting are Charles Fadel at the Center for Curriculum Redesign, Peter Hill on assessment, and Yong Zhao, who is the ideal provocateur for anyone thinking about educating in this century. Riel Miller, the head of Foresight at UNESCO, probably pushes furthest in envisioning how education and society will change – he’s probably someone I would call a visionary! And at Innovation Unit itself, I really admire Valerie Hannon. One of her papers, ‘Only Connect’, was a big reason I applied to work there, she is doing great work putting a focus on ‘engagement in learning’.

Diverse expert groups of practitioners, policymakers and academics are involved in the Innovation Unit research. How would you see the IB philosophy fitting in? 

The IB is a really inspirational on the educational landscape: it demonstrates that it is possible to design programmes that make it much more likely students will have a fulfilling and challenging education experience, and supersede politics to make them available around the world. The introduction of the IB Career-related certificate is a really exciting development – that is certainly most aligned with a lot of the work Innovation Unit is doing in education: trying to bring education closer to real-world experience, and create the time and space for students to develop a passion that could also provide for them in life.  What I think the IB builds on really well is the idea that students learn best when they have a strong sense of the value behind what they are learning. The passion that IB teachers bring to the classroom is evident in the care with which the curricula are created, and the wider opportunities the programmes – the DP and IBCC in particular – as a whole provide. Students hopefully know they are taking part in something designed and facilitated by people who care more about how they turn out as a person than what final mark they get on the test, and that’s a motivator to do well in the ways that really matter.

* Innovation Unit is a not-for-profit social enterprise that looks into solving social challenges through innovation

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