ISHCMC: 25 Years as an International School Pioneer in Saigon

By: Stuart Miller

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. “People are not that willing to use that Einstein quote against education”, states Adrian Watts, Head of School at ISHCMC (International School Ho Chi Minh City). “But it is insane”, Watts continues, “to keep doing the same tests and expecting a different result at the end of it - a great deal of people are starting to get frustrated with this, including employers and universities around the world.”

There is a clear determination from Watts and ISHCMC not to exacerbate the well-documented negative impact of traditional educational norms that are long outdated in this modern, constantly evolving era. To celebrate 25 years as a pioneer of international education in Saigon and Vietnam, #iAMHCMC sat down with Watts to find out where the school’s success lies and the exciting developments happening now and in the future.

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#iAMHCMC: What do you think ISHCMC’s greatest achievements have been in its first 25 years?

AW: To begin with, being the first international school in Ho Chi Minh City was a very brave move, because there were no other examples to learn from in Saigon or the whole country. So there were significant challenges, such as establishing this new educational system with the local authorities and integrating Vietnamese students into the school. At that time, this wasn’t generally seen as an acceptable thing to happen, so as well as the bravery needed to set up the school, it also shows the forward-thinking nature of local Vietnamese during that period to allow it to happen.

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By 1998, ISHCMC had brought in international accreditation and was the first school in Saigon to have students pursuing the IB (International Baccalaureate) route, from primary years onwards. Again, this was leading the way by bringing in accreditors from outside Vietnam to establish ISHCMC as a recognised international school. These were landmark moments to open up the whole market for international schools in Saigon and Vietnam, and shows that ISHCMC has always been a pioneer that takes education into the future.

#iAMHCMC: What have been the biggest changes for ISHCMC until now and moving forward into the next 25 years?

AW: Firstly, the school didn’t have fantastic facilities in the early days, especially compared to now, and this is still evolving for us. For a number of years, either side of moving from District 3 to District 2, there were many incremental additions to the facilities that ISHCMC offered; however, the real revolution has started more recently. The two major examples of that revolution have been the continuing refurbishment of our primary campus and, in January 2018, we opened a brand new, innovatively designed campus for our secondary programs.

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The effects of this revolution can really be seen in our innovative learning environments, where the real transformation has taken place in terms of the relationship between the students and their coaches and mentors. The situation has changed from the teacher simply transmitting knowledge to the students, to educators becoming facilitators who allow knowledge to be discovered and accumulated by the students themselves.

So, we have developed an inquiry-based pedagogy driven not so much by pure content, but more so by the concepts and contexts around that content. By learning in this way, we have found that students have become much more independent, as they are encouraged to find their passions, to research, and to actually learn the skills of learning, rather than just using memorisation. As a result, ISHCMC students can talk confidently about how they have learned, not just what they have learned, which in turn helps them learn much more effectively.

#iAMHCMC: In this era of high-tech, could you speak to how ISHCMC has adopted technology to benefit its students?

AW: We now have technology everywhere across both campuses. From grades 3 and upwards, ISHCMC students are linked with a one-to-one digital program and, below that, they still have almost constant access to technology in an environment where everything is wireless. Furthermore, we are not just referring to digital systems. We are implementing technology in the areas of food, design, the arts, and sustainability - and it’s all available from a young age.

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For example, we have started gardens, designed and managed by the students, where they learn about different plant and food types and even grow ingredients to be used by our kitchens. In ISHCMC’s design labs, we have 3D printers and other cutting edge equipment, so that students can create their own inventions and display models to show how they would work. Another technological initiative has been experimenting with plastic shredders, with the goal to eventually collect plastic for recycling and convert it to feed into the 3D printers, thereby re-using plastic to create new products. Again, this is all student-led and provides them with fantastic skills for the future.

To briefly touch on a different side of technology, we are very aware of the potential risks to students, especially around online information and communication. We work very hard at ISHCMC to encourage our students to think about the ethics and morals surrounding digital citizenship, as well as issues like privacy and the threat of big data to our personal freedoms. This is definitely a real challenge, but we are helping to overcome that through student empowerment and individualised learning programs, which encourage students to be independent, creative individuals.

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#iAMHCMC: What is the greatest challenge that ISHCMC faces today and in the future?

AW: In my mind, it is about breaking the shackles of a 150-year old educational system, one that relies on over-testing and rote learning, and that is still in place all over the world. It was created for post-industrial society that ended over 100 years ago, but the same methods have continued since and are increasingly letting students down who belong to a totally different era.

So, our challenge is disrupting traditional education and transforming it to meet the requirements of a modern citizen of the world - this is especially interesting with our students consisting of over 50 different nationalities. The other part of that challenge is to communicate the need for that transformation to parents, for whom it can sometimes be a surprise to discover our non-traditional methods. However, when they see our model in practice with their own children, they become very supportive.

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When I’m walking around the school with parents, I ask them to let me know if they see anything that’s familiar from their own memories of education - if they do, we need to transform even further! In fact, our students love our innovative methods from the very start, because it empowers them to choose their own personalised learning pathways, from age 2 to 18, that are best suited to their passions and abilities. That is what we are ultimately about at ISHCMC - to energise, engage, and empower - and this will continue to be our focus for the next 25 years.

Image source: ISHCMC

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