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Inspiring Change

21 September 2018

By Pelham Lindfield Roberts, Principal of UWC Changshu China

UWC Heads were asked to volunteer an "opinion piece" around what it means, from a Heads perspective, to "Inspire Change!" I jumped into the ring having just arrived in China at UWC Changshu where on UWC Day, the 21st September we will open the Yushan Academy. The Yushan Academy seeks to connect our students with the past through the Centre for Chinese Language and Culture and seeks to inspire change for the future through the Centre for Design and Innovation. 

As we know education is often described as an anachronism caused by the inertia of school architecture, the commodification of education and the desire for prestigious college entrance. Whilst acknowledging the enduring values which guide a UWC education there are many voices across the UWC movement calling for change, seeking to equip the next generation with the aptitude and skills needed to understand complexity and collaborate across differences, to build peace and safeguard our environment. 

In a UWC we make this possible by deliberately building diversity into our communities where the transformation happens naturally; perspectives which students would otherwise not encounter, come as experience, not in a textbook. Peter Senge says “Extraordinary change requires building extraordinary relationships, and at some level this requires gathering together diverse people representing diverse views so they can speak and listen to one another in new ways”. A UWC student encounters alternative perspectives in sharing a room, encountering tears, laughs, chats about global warming or ultimate-frisbee, their pet dog, the last rhino or why the river has no water. 

The world our students will inherit will be more challenging and more complex; temperatures are rising, the polar icecap is melting, disparities in wealth are increasing, populations are growing, resources are diminishing and the walls which will protect our grandchildren are rising, by necessity, higher and more isolating. Our students need imagination to solve the complexities of their age, they need to be challenged to see their world from a different perspective, to be adaptable and able to change.  This will not happen if we keep education within the walls of our classrooms. 

Recently I spoke at a college meeting about experiential education. I asked students to close their eyes and connect their finger-tips to imagine a world sensed only through those nerve endings. I turned the lights off, lit a candle and talked about mindfulness. I spoke about the profound learning which is gained through challenge, adventure, collegiality and service; learning which tackles prejudice, which builds trust in oneself and trust in others, others who may be the enemy until their humanity is discovered. I quoted an anonymous source stating “there is more to be learned on one day of discomfort, and anxiety than in a lifetime of apparent happiness, security, riches and power”.  Sir Ken Robinson, who was the UK special advisor on education says “Human resources are like natural resources; they're often buried deep. You have to go looking for them, they're not just lying around on the surface. You have to create the circumstances where they show themselves.

In a UWC we seek to uncover our students’ resources, their talents, their passion, their potential and we question, like Ken Robinson, the idea “that education starts in primary school and goes on a track and if students do everything correctly, they will end up set for the rest of their life in a college with a name”.  We must not allow ourselves to be obsessed with the “linear narrative” or as William Dershowitz states, training “excellent sheep”. We must challenge our students to challenge themselves. “Life is not linear; it's organic and we create our lives as we explore our talents in relation to the circumstances we find.” (Ken Robinson)

Those in university admissions looking for interesting, interested, intellectually curious, creative, passionate and compassionate individuals come to UWC’s because our students have learnt to depart from the proscribed track to discover who they are and what they are capable of. Young people today live in a comfort zone of expectation, however in life they can expect to find those comforts will at some point disappear. We want our students to be ready. In a UWC we challenge them to be able to do things differently; We ask them to “step off the linear track onto the rough road of personal challenge. Not to do what is comfortable but to do what is different.” We place them in a room with three other people. We stop them eating meat. We ask them to walk when they want to rest and to run when they want to walk. We ask them to sleep when they want to play, to play when they want to study, to study when they want to sleep, to swim when they can’t and to scuba dive when they can. 

Our students must not be allowed to ride the UWC wave created by their predecessors. They must create their own UWC wave and, with support of friends they never thought they would have, learn to “inspire change”.