The why, what and how of improving learning: lessons from international schools

Gregory Biggs, divisional director at Fieldwork Education, explains what schools should focus on in the design of an international curriculum

With the rapid increase of independent schools embarking on international expansions, what lessons can we learn from their innovations to improve learning?

A challenge many institutions face when expanding overseas is the complexity of building an international offering that doesn’t simply replicate a national curriculum but goes above and beyond to consider the context for learners and their learning.

Schools expanding with international campuses need to meet necessary requirements to operate with local licences while delicately blending image, reputation, recruitment of teaching and non-teaching staff and marketing. There is often great turbulence experienced by new school openings, with new learners joining shortly after new staff, who themselves are still establishing operational procedures and adapting to local norms.

When considering why a school may choose to construct its curriculum offer in the way it does, it is important to reflect on the flexibility that some international schools can be presented, while often maintaining alignment to a ‘home’ national curriculum.

What sets many international schools apart is their ability to focus on improving learning for learners through an international curriculum, rather than solely ensuring designated national curriculum requirements have been delivered. They may learn across themes and bring subjects into alignment to connect learning together, aiming to increase positive experiences and make learning even more enjoyable.

What sets many international schools apart is their ability to focus on improving learning for learners through an international curriculum, rather than solely ensuring designated national curriculum requirements have been delivered

Further, when considering the learner and improving learning, standout international schools go beyond the implementation of an international curriculum. They establish themselves as a learning organisation, constantly reflecting on their own performance, strengths and opportunities for improvement.

Just as they engage their learners in a reflection process for their own learning, proven to strengthen cognitive development, international schools thrive when they reflect on their own practice and look for improvements through research findings, be it delivered in wider academic literature or action research in the school.

Within Fieldwork Education, we have been fortunate to partner with over 1,000 schools in over 90 countries for over 20 years, all with the specific focus on improving learning.

The recent re-release of the reviewed International Primary Curriculum (IPC) and International Middle Years Curriculum (IMYC) was conducted with over 70 contributors from leading international schools around the world, who influenced the research and design and provided a further macro reflection process, building upon their schools’ reflective practices and the same for their learners within.

The findings presented seven clear foundations for reimagining the international curriculum. The seven foundations articulate why the design of an international curriculum should focus on the learner and improving learning, covering:

  • Learner-focused personal, international and subject learning goals
  • A progressive pedagogy
  • A process to facilitate learning for all
  • Globally competent learners
  • Knowledge, skills and understanding are taught, learnt and assessed differently
  • Connected learning
  • Assessment for improving learning


The collaboration with international schools, coupled with the underpinning academic research, enabled an international curriculum to be designed for international schools, by international schools, dedicated to learners and how to improve their learning.

This then enables the ‘what’ to be implemented in the school, be it physically or virtually. Through the extensive range of thematic units of learning across the ages of 5–14 years old (again, led in their design by international schools), schools working with the international curriculum have been able to navigate the turbulence of new campus openings by working through defined tasks and activities.

These have been meticulously designed to enable learning goal coverage across personal, international and subject learning goals, planned to be delivered through progressive pedagogies and structured in a consistent process to facilitate learning, with each thematic unit of learning providing assessment for improving learning opportunities.

By connecting learning across subject areas and considering learning goals for knowledge, skills and understanding, successful international schools are comfortably able to deliver national curriculum requirements, while embedding their own progressive ideologies and establishing global competence among their learners.

Operating in jurisdictions around the world, many international schools do not have an inspectorate system and instead opt for a developmental approach to school improvement based on a self-review.

Through the allocation of mentors from the International Curriculum Association and using developmental standards and criteria, successful international schools are in an ongoing state of self-review, with teachers and leaders engaged in reflective questions and the collection of evidence to demonstrate high quality implementation. This developmental approach to self-review is how successful international schools best deliver their international curriculum, designed for improving learning.

The question of “What lessons can we learn from international schools to improve learning?” provides a simple answer. One benefit of being an independent school is the ability to identify like-minded institutions, who when brought together can design such a curriculum focused on improving learning.

Much like how the IPC celebrates subjects within a theme, it is independence and interdependence which makes learning stronger. A second benefit of being an independent school is the stability that can be provided to the design of such a curriculum.

As with international schools, establishing learning goals for the learner and for the improvement of their learning is an approach sure to stand the test of time.

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