“The idea that if you go to the right school and choose the right course at the right university then you are guaranteed to be set for life is over,” said Alun Cooper, Head of School at Prem Tinsulanonda International School (Prem). “We may not all be aware of this, but trust me the teenagers today are very aware that their future is not as mapped out as their parents’ generation was and this is causing a great amount of tension and stress. This is why our aim is not just to provide our students with excellence in academia, but also to focus on how learning takes place, recognising that learning becomes truly effective when it is practical, hands on, collaborative and contains a swathe of inter, extra and co-curricula activities. Young people need to be equipped with many tools and that is one of the reasons we have our 9th grade students go on expeditions. When they realise that sans phone and technology, they can achieve what initially appears insurmountable, it builds confidence, which is invaluable.”
“I have students in school now who will be ready to start their careers in five years,” explained Cooper, “but will they have one? They have done all the right things, they have invested the right amount of energy and determination to overcome difficulties and challenges, they are good people, they are good students with good grades, but all they are guaranteed after graduation is debt. Artificial intelligence (AI) will be taking over from many jobs and this is a reality kids are staring at. AI is real for them, it is happening all around them; they have been to the robot cafes in Japan, they watch BBC’s Click, and they are all concerned about these issues. So as educators, what we can do is to provide them with the best set of tools so that they can enter an uncertain future armed with grit, resilience, determination, the ability to collaborate cross-culturally and the self-confidence and self-esteem to find and pursue any and all opportunities.”
Prem has spent the past three years tackling this and many other modern challenges and issues facing the emerging generation. While traditional pathways may be atrophying, it is also important that students understand that this isn’t necessarily a bleak prospect, that there is still an abundance of possibilities out there, that they are just not as clearly defined as they were in the past. If students are taught to have a sense of worth and confidence in their own abilities then this opaqueness can become a shimmering promise of a world filled with unforeseen and unchartered possibilities rather than a murky and fearful uncertainty.
“We aim to build natural survivors,” continued Cooper. “There is a disconnect between generations which we are also working very hard to bridge. Often parents want their children to go to Harvard Law to become a lawyer, but Oxbridge or Ivy League universities are not for everyone, perhaps Stanford may be better for a student with an entrepreneurial bent. Today there are little known but excellent and exciting universities which are offering really innovative courses, but they don’t offer the same brand recognition that some parents want as they may have an ingrained idea of a career path.”
“Our students are also the first generation of social media users, and with that comes a whole slew of new challenges,” continued Cooper. “In the old days when a girl would be bullied she could go home and spend a quiet or comforting time with her family and lick her wounds. Social media has distorted the home school reality and whereas before an incident would be over at the end of the day, now the bullying continues after you leave school and suddenly the issue is bigger and more widespread and follows a girl into her sanctuary, her bedroom. She continues to hurt. There is no privacy, no release, no opportunity to rearm yourself…unless you have tremendous self-esteem, of course. The courage needed to turn off the phone is huge. It is a psychological and neurological addiction which needs constant stimulation and affirmation. So our challenge is how to equip our students with the tools to have that gumption to turn off that phone when needed. You compound that with the fact that many parents, and even some teachers, are similarly addicted to social media, and sometimes the family unit is no longer enough to support kids who are facing these complex and monumental issues . When the family unit becomes a cyber-entity, rather than an organic one, then kids can become rudderless.”
Towards that goal, Prem is making great strides. Apart from its co-curricular activities, of which there are over 70, ranging from sports to theatre, art to community service, Prem also encourages student participation at all levels of the school.
“Recently we were hiring a new Deputy Principal for our Senior School and we brought in students to be part of the interview process,” said Cooper. “When we had a debriefing with two candidates afterward, we were extremely pleased and proud to hear that the best interviews for them were the ones conducted by the students. This is the kind of opportunity which contributes to the sense of ‘can do’.”
Prem is also aware of mental issues which face many students such as cutting, bullying, eating disorders or addiction to gaming, and to that end have two full time counsellors on campus who are constantly talking to groups of students about various matters as well as being available for individual counselling for not just students, but teachers and parents as well.
“We believe that if you have an open dialogue at home and at school, if you have an environment where there is communication and respect, then you are less likely to be involved in risk behaviour,” explained Cooper. “I don’t believe that these problems are greater now than in the past. It is just that we are more willing to tackle them and better equipped to help. In the past students with such ‘issues’ would be kept in the back row, out of sight. Today if we see that someone is struggling, we bring them forward and we talk and we try to find a solution together. If you receive gratification from your family and friends, and this should extend to your school and boarding school, then you aren’t as impacted by social media and you don’t need to be satisfied by it.”
Prem holds numerous student-led assemblies, many discussing issues ranging from eating disorders to cyber bullying. It offers pastoral care for all students in the school; from the very youngest to the oldest. It also has a firewall around campus so that students can have their phones for research or communication during school hours, but not for social media. Regular workshops are held for parents and students on various topics such as the perniciousness of screen time or unrealistic beauty standards. Inspirational guests are invited to the school on a regular basis to give a talk, such as the recent talk by a British Paralympian, who delivered a simple but powerful message about overcoming adversity. As of the end of 2017, Prem has also officially joined the Round Square organisation, a group of innovative schools in 50 countries which network, collaborate, communicate and inspire one another with activities and a joint belief that education must encompass the following ideals: democracy, environmentalism, internationalism, adventure, leadership and service.
Prem doesn’t see the modern world and the uncertain future as a threat, but simply as something which must be tackled head on. To that end it is reaching out to a network of similarly progressive schools around the world which share similar values, and together they will find solutions, help hone skills and tools and prepare their students to not just face the future, but hopefully shape it for us all.