Education for the 21st Century: How Prem is using the world as a classroom

The choices are endless and the school is happy for students and staff to set up their own activities. “If you live in this world you must make connections,” explained Cooper

By | Fri 1 Dec 2017

One of Thailand’s most beautiful school campuses is a portrait in serenity – teachers cycling down shaded paths wending their way lazily through school buildings, play grounds, sports halls and flower gardens. The odd butterfly flutters between lotuses blooming in fountained ponds and tropical trees swaying in the early winter breeze, the occasional sounds of laughter spilling out of classrooms.

Until 3pm, that is, when the bell rings in the end of the school day and all halls break loose as students, teachers and parents pour out of buildings in a mass of bodies, large and small, running, skipping, shouting and moving in each and every direction across campus. Soon the commotion once again simmers to order with golfers practicing their swings at the driving range, budding chefs baking cakes in the kitchens, archers drawing their bows in the fields, canvases being primed at the Art House, plays being rehearsed in the theatre, trombones being blown in the music room, tennis games being won on the courts, as the entire 100 acre campus becomes the backdrop to a flurry of activities for not just students and teachers but also their parents.

“The world is changing and as educators we must not only change with it, but anticipate the change,” said Alun Cooper, Head of School at Prem Tinsulanonda International School (Prem). “Big companies such as Google are recruiting young people straight out of school as universities aren’t giving them what the companies really want. Indeed, there is solid and growing evidence now that major companies aren’t recruiting based on first, or even second, degrees. They want creators, innovators, thinkers.”

Believing strongly in developing the whole child, Prem is constantly searching for new learning opportunities to assist students in discovering additional understandings, skills and interests to ignite their passion for learning. Outside the school’s rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum, Prem offers an incredible 80 extra-curricular activities labeled Exploria, which range from languages, sports and the arts, to community outreach activities. Exploria is led by teachers and administrative staff, all of whom are asked to initiate or participate in multiple activities. Students can spend the hours after school joining a board gaming club, getting political and becoming mock delegates at the Model United Nations, putting together a hip-hop show or stretching out with some yoga. The choices are endless and the school is happy for students and staff to set up their own activities.

“If you live in this world you must make connections,” explained Cooper, “It’s what builds understanding which helps form and reform who you are. Our students opt-into activities such as community service activities which means that when they go out to a local temple and help bathe dogs, or when they are brainstorming ideas to raise funds for Operation Smile Thailand which provides operations for children with cleft palates, they are doing it with heart. They go out there with an openness, knowing that it is their choice to learn, to engage and to be part of the wider community, of the world. This connectivity and experience in leaving the shelter of home or school to engage with the world at large is invaluable to the development of a child.”

Extra-curricular activities are so important to Prem and their students that co-curricular programmes are often not enough for students who are seriously pursuing a sport or activity. To that end, Prem has access to standalone Traidhos Academies for cooking and cricket which are staffed by professionals in their fields, able to help budding chefs and cricketers aspire to levels of professionalism. These academies are so active that there are often special events held such as Young Master Chef, Thailand, or cricket tournaments on both local and international levels such as this year’s International Cricket Council (ICC) Asia Qualifier men’s tournament. There are also Prem Centres for golf, music, dance, art and drama for students who wish to pursue their passions to another level.

These centres are beyond what any school traditionally offers, with some even opening up to the general public to participate in. The art centre, for instance, often brings in acclaimed international artists for Artist in Residency programmes, creating an opportunity for students to work side by side with the best in their fields. Earlier this year the residency hosted Game of Thrones’s swords master Miltos Yerolemou who, for the second time now, held a theatre workshop at Prem, throwing in a swords master class to the excited public. More recently acclaimed Italian photographer Enrico Migotto worked with students to develop his inspiring project ‘Draw Your Future’, a photographic narrative that aimed to empower the voice of young people, by giving them a platform to express their hopes and dreams for the future, resulting in some very powerful images.

“If our students want to learn something we are going to do our best to make sure that happens,” explained Cooper. “These are the sort of things that can help transform people and help them become who they are, so we give a great amount of importance to them. We have been surprised to see how much students appreciate these opportunities. We currently have such an active music centre where nearly 70 of our 480 students are learning musical instruments or joining bands and ensembles taught by music professionals, each one a specialist licensed in their respective field. If a student wants to play just enough golf or tennis to be able to have a social game with a potential client one day, then great. But if they want to get serious, we have professional instructors who can take them as far as they want to go. We currently have two brothers who are playing the open circuit in the United States because they are too good for their age group; there is no limit to what our students can achieve should they set their mind to it. As to golf, it has become our most popular sport with over 100 students learning at the Golf Centre. Prem students have also qualified and earned their spot in International Junior Golf tournaments in Hainan, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore.”

Cooper explained that when the school first offered IB Career-related programmes, there was little interest by parents, as it was seen as vocational training and not of interest to universities. But with the world changing at such a rapid pace and traditional education failing to meet the needs of future employers, parents as well as students have come to see that by allowing students to follow individulised pathways, they amass more tools so that one day they will stride with confidence into the future.

“Some of our students are so advanced in their studies, whether it is art and design, that they are already working at university levels and gaining university credits,” said Cooper with pride. “Sometimes you see senior students working on a piece of art at night or editing a film at the weekends and it is a wonderful thing to see because you know that no one is making them do anything they don’t want to do. This is all about them pursuing something they are interested in.”

Cooper is a great believer in a well-rounded education and the fact that learning shouldn’t be reserved only for the classroom. He believes that the demands of the 21st century means that children must learn to be adaptable, creative, passionate and connected to the world at large. “Real world learning can happen anywhere and as our school offers more options for our students we become less exclusive and more about creating a community from which our students can spread their wings.”

This vibrant campus set in the foothills of Chiang Mai’s Mae Rim is home to one of Thailand’s leading international schools and one which is setting itself apart from many others due to its understanding of the changing world we live in.

As the sun sets over the foothills of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, the chatter of children slowly fade as they head home, to be replaced by the sounds of a tropical forest. But here and there a light remains as students continue to explore the opportunities their parents were never given; soaking in knowledge and experience that will propel them through life. “It is in the pursuit of their passions that they come across moments which will define who they will become,” smiled Cooper.