Article by Matthew Zheng (UWCAC 2016-2018)
In searching for a revolution, the United World Colleges promised an expansive vision of an educational future; a vision that offered a taste of an education that treated us like adults, guiding us into becoming equipped stakeholders in increasingly uncertain times.
While doing so, UWC built a lifetime partnership with the International Baccalaureate. These two organizations; one based on curriculum, and the other based on experience, seemed to complement each other well. And for a time, they did – the IB and UWC strove for a uniquely international education while also supplementing a core curriculum.
Unfortunately, it may be that some students at UWCs around the world are feeling that the promise was an illusion. Instead of finding an education based on Kurt Hahn’s forward thinking principles, many have instead felt that UWC is just another academically-obsessed, high-stress environment. Rather than discovering themselves or what the world has to offer, many students feel locked into a world of obsession – obsession with university admissions, grades, and resume building.
Of course, many individuals flourish under this system; in the context of some fields of study, this may even be an absolute necessity for future success. But for many students, being cornered into having to pick 3 Higher Levels accompanied by IB exams may actually serve as a disincentive for hard work. Those seeking the lifetime experience of UWC are faced with a Catch-22; in choosing one, they lose the ability to opt out of the other.
On the occasions where there is academic literature about the IB, it presents positive conclusions. In 2006, a researcher at the University of South Florida analysed the stress caused by the IB onto students, and its impacts on their life satisfaction. With some exceptions, the IB enhanced academic responsibility and produced students capable of externalizing stress in healthier and safer ways when compared to general education students. While this study holds statistically sound, it is important to note that the IB in the context of the UWC movement is vastly different – here, we lack the support of our typical family structures (which the study notes is vital for success in the IB), and experience a whole slew of unique problems with language, learning conventions, and newfound cultural norms.
The IB portrays itself as an almost postmodern interpretation of education, it seems that it now suffers from issues that plague other popular secondary education systems worldwide. It is true that the IB employs a critical thinking curriculum lacking in many other systems, but still maintains conventional emphasis on test taking skills and achieving high grades. In many places, it is commonplace to exclude students from experiencing the different facets of the IB based on their predicted or progress IB scores.
Here at Atlantic College, we are faced with a continued issue of mental health. Without officially published or recorded statistics, it is nigh-impossible to speak about these problems objectively. Yet, it is still indisputable that the wellbeing at AC is at a relative low. Students (2nd years in particular) are facing such intense levels of stress without an appropriate outlet that they are resorting to self-destructive or self-harming behaviour. With the loss of mental health/sick days, absences have become an all too expensive premium for many. Taking a rest from our oft-intense environment, then, has become a luxury that should be a right. Beyond the walls of our castle, UWCs must create a new effort to evaluate the mental health of its students, while also reorienting themselves away from the dangerous paradigm of treating students as the enemy.
Undoubtedly, issues of mental health and wellbeing extend far beyond just curriculum and the IB. It is an issue of how some UWCs and their organizing staff may be approaching their students and their needs for a remarkably unique environment to preserve their mental health. In spite of this, it seems undeniable that UWC must diversify itself – while eliminating the IB from the rota is likely too rash, it is essential that UWCs leave behind the educational thinking of the past, and push itself yet again into the Hahn-esque thinking of the future. Why shouldn’t students be able to focus on their artistic or authorial careers, or pursue volunteerism as their primary experience at their colleges? Why does “diversity in education” necessarily imply the aggressive workload the IB can levy on its students? How do IA’s and EE’s prepare students on a universal level for the challenges of the diverse paths they may choose?
The movement retains its magic; waking up in a dorm with people from 3 countries, going to class with people from every continent, and getting the chance to travel the world is an experience that disrupts all known conventions. Because there is still a chance – we, UWCs around the world, must call for a global refurbishment; for the evaluation of the International Baccalaureate, and for the protection of the promises made by our movement.