International Education: A Brief History

The first World War had just ended not long ago, and the world was reeling from its impact. The “lost generation”, as they were called, headed back home from their soldering duties, beaten from the atrocities of the war. And then, not fifteen years later, a new war arose, with a new enemy. It was the second onslaught of the evils of war in a generation, and educational theorists were considering how one might stop this from happening again.

One theorist by the name of Kurt Hahn believed that international education was the answer to that problem. He said, “I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion.” ( He believed that if children experienced living with people from different backgrounds, and grew up going to school with them, they would be less likely to start wars with each other. He founded the Atlantic College, the first college to be organized and represented by many nationalities on its leadership with the goal of promoting international cooperation. He also started several other organizations that followed his vision of creating global peace through education. But when we use the term “international education”, this is not necessarily what comes to mind. It becomes important, then, to examine historical definitions of the term, and to define it for today’s international school system.

It was not until the 1960s that theorists began trying to define the “international school”. Then, the main work on the subject was published by Leach, who stated that there were up to seven different kinds of international schools. (Hayden and Johnson). They ranged from schools organized by governments to educate their expatriates or military descendants living abroad’ to mission schools that followed a philosophy similar to Kurt Hahn, and were planted in other nations for the purpose of mingling cultures to develop mutual understanding; to “true” international schools, which followed a set of five criteria, which included the following:

  1. The school could not be run by one particular country, nor have one particular ethnical background be more predominant than any other in its staff or students. It must truly be multicultural from the ground up.
  2. The school must be International School Association (ISA) eligible and follow the International Baccalaureate (IB) program in its curriculum.
  3. The school must not prefer any one view or culture over another.
  4. The school must have the purpose of developing an international mindset.
  5. The school must not be run by the state. (Hayden and Johnson).

This is often considered to be the “classic” definition of an international school, but in today’s international school culture, it seems inadequate. It clearly excluded the government schools for expats, which teach largely the philosophies of the host country. It also excluded state-run schools, even if they are culturally diverse and follow the IB standards. But still those schools often call themselves “international” as well. (Hill).

(For those interested, I have made an infographic explaining a few of these models, which can be accessed here.)

This may explain why we have seen a growth in the number of international schools in the last 50 years. The definition of “international” has expanded. As Ian Hill points out in his article, IB is no longer the only international curriculum, and ISA is no longer the only agency that evaluates international schools. The increase in globalization has affected education in this way – schools are now seeking a more global mindset for their students. Thus, with the expanding definition comes an expanding array of schools that fall into the title of “international”.

So what criteria should we require for a school to be labelled “international”? I put forth the following definition, and for the rest of this blog, I will break it down further.

“A school whose culture, curriculum, and mission seek to help children experience, cooperate with, and value the views and lifestyles of other people.”

The school, by necessity, must have a diverse culture. If students are to learn to cooperate with people of other backgrounds, the best way for that to occur is to have them working with people of other backgrounds. It is imperative that a child learns that his views are not the only views in the world, and that it’s OK to disagree with people respectfully. They must also learn how to work through those disagreements to produce the desired product. If a school has a homogeneous culture – that is, a culture that is exclusively from one background – this will be more difficult to accomplish when it comes to understanding international perspectives.

Unlike in the “classic” definition identified by Leach, this does not mean that a school must exist in an international location, or that a school must be a private organization run by people from many backgrounds. I look at my own school as an example of one that can potentially reach a more “international” mindset, if it was put into our mission and we strove to make it so, based on its cultural background. We are a state-side charter in California that does not follow IB. By any standard, we are not international. However, we have an extremely diverse background because we live in one of the most diverse cities in one of the most diverse states. I have at least ten different cultures represented in my classroom, many of whom still follow the practices of their ancestors. This last year, I had a student whose grandparents immigrated with the Hmong in one of the waves out of Thailand. I had another student whose family was culturally Cambodian, and another whose family had recently immigrated from Africa. I had still others who were Hispanic, or Filipino; one whose family valued their Hawaiian heritage, and another whose family had lived in Japan for a short while. In other schools in our area, it’s even more diverse. I know a teacher whose classroom has represented as many as 10 different languages in a class of 25 students, most of them identified as English Language Learners. Just because my school is government operated and state-side does not mean that it *couldn’t* foster an idea of international cooperation in its students. For those in ethnically diverse areas, we don’t have to seek out the world – the world comes to us.

But my school is not an international school, nor do we claim to be. We seek to provide an American education for our students that will prepare them for success in college and in life. Part of that is fostering cooperation and understanding, but it’s not the primary goal. Many of our students come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, so for us it’s enough to work on giving them a brighter future. But it is this lack of a mission for international mindedness that eliminates us from the definition of an international school.

A school should have that mission in place to be considered international for a couple reasons,  but I will expound on only one primary reason. If they don’t, a school will probably largely teach the perspective of one nation, and not include other viewpoints in their explanation, simply because of cultural bias. A mission that steers away from that particular bias will at least attempt to include perspectives of history from other cultures. The history of the Crusades, for example, would look different if one examined it from the perspective of those in the Middle East that were invaded by the Crusaders. It is similar with any world conflict – there are always two sides to a story, and a school seeking to promote international cooperation should include a dialogue about each side of the story, allowing their students to form their own perspectives.

Since most of this has to do with what students are taught in the classroom, the mission is, by nature, driven by a school’s curriculum. The curriculum must represent the views of other nations. It can follow state standards, as often (at least in the United States) the standards allow the freedom to examine the topic from multiple perspectives. But it must include other perspectives, which would promote an ability to examine and appreciate other viewpoints, from the textbook to the cultures in the classroom.

The definition, then, ends up including more schools. By expanding it to mean any school that seeks in its culture and mindset to promote experiences that lead to cooperation and valuing international perspectives, we include a vast array of schools that all strive towards that goal. Whether they are state schools or not should not ultimately matter if they give their students the same international experience. For even if the school is run by one organization, it can still have an international staff, an international student population, and an international focus.

Kurt Hahn’s vision lives on because schools still focus on international cooperation through education. But today, his definition of “international education” has expanded. More schools are included than before, and more schools are taking on the title and mission of providing an “international” education for their students. But one might conclude that Hahn probably would not have been perturbed by the changes. For these schools, for the most part, are at least agreeing with the basic premise of his theory – that students who live and work together with other cultures will be more at peace and at home wherever they go. International education has changed over the years, but this goal will likely remain the same.


The Legacy of Kurt Hahn.

Hahn, Kurt.  Education and Peace. The Iverness Courier. 1934.

Hayden, Mary C. Johnson, Jeff J.  International Schools and International Education: A Relationship Revisited. Oxford Review of Education. September 1995.

Hill, Ian. What Is an International School? Part 1 and 2. ISJ. 1995.