You mean it, you don't mean it

When my brother was three years old, my mother heard him chanting to himself as he swung back and forth on a backyard swingset. Curious as to what he was singing, she quietly opened the kitchen window and leaned close to the screen so she could hear. It was this, “You mean it, you don’t mean it. You mean it, you don’t mean it. You mean it…” Needless to say, my mother decided she needed to be more consistent in her messaging.


Now that The Harbour School has many applicants and few available spaces, I am sometimes approached by people who think we would like it to become “more like other schools.” They believe that we should now become more selective, choosing only the best and the brightest, and that somehow this will raise our stature in the international school community.


They do not realise that they are describing our worst nightmare, something that looms as a potential worst outcome of the years that many of us have put into creating something new, innovative, and so far extremely successful. Investors who approach us because they would like to replicate our model in other countries are not doing so because we are like other schools. They are doing this because we are better.


We treasure diversity, not because we have to but because we really do. Yes, we

have some students who are extremely good at academic skills. Twenty percent

of our students are at least two years advanced in one or more academic subject.

(And, by the way, those are kids who may or may not be good at “studentship,”

which is a different skill entirely.) In fact, our reputation is growing as the only

school that appropriately addresses the needs of kids who are gifted

through our customised programming.


But another twenty percent of our students have difficulty in one academic area,

and those students are equally valued. They may be terrible at math but

extremely creative, or very good at music, or excel in kindness.


Fifty percent of our children are “typical” children in that they have no extreme academic

strengths and weaknesses, nonetheless have individual passions, interests,

personalities and strengths, and they also are valued as they begin to sculpt their

lives, imagining themselves and finding their stride as they mature into confident

and interested young people. They are judged by their own criteria, each against

his or her own internal compass. While they still must master the materials

necessary to succeed in our society, we hope that they will do that in a manner

that is interesting to them and that they can relate to real problems that they

have identified or to causes that they have been empowered to believe in.




At The Harbour School, we are proving that all children do better when they

work together in heterogeneous groups. Sometimes this is a lot of fun. It was

great when a top administrator from another school asked, “Those are your

gifted kids, right?” He was watching our video of students who won the Roots

and Shoots Award for their invention of an Optical Ocean Plastic Sensor. We got

to explain that the team was self-selected, composed of kids with an extreme

variety of skills and personalities, one or two highly gifted, others with Dyslexia

or Dysgraphia and a couple with social difficulties.


Earlier this year, when our tiny school of under 200 students represented Hong Kong in

the world competition in Iowa for the Odyssey of the Mind, what was even more

remarkable was that our team was composed of anyone who wanted to join

rather than cherry-picked according to some pre-conceived criteria. We won,

against many huge schools in Hong Kong, not despite our diversity but because of



The need for different types of people will only become greater. Anyone who

googles “21 st century skills” will not find references to an ability to pass

achievement tests in the search results. Instead, what are listed are such skills as

teamwork, creativity, critical thinking, flexibility, problem-solving, presentation

skills, global awareness and responsibility, or initiative. Schools that limit

themselves to students who do well on achievement tests are losing their

advantage in key areas that have been identified by employers as being of

ultimate value over the next fifty years. Teaching students to work well with

(and appreciate) all types of people is vital in the years to come. This is as true

for kids who may be ahead of their peers as it is for kids who struggle in some



This is one reason that The Harbour School has been a finalist for two years in

the global “21 st Century School” competition and that one of our teachers was

chosen by the American Humane Society as Teacher of the Year globally. It is

why the TED talk about our programs was playing earlier this year on Cathay Pacific

flights. People are excited about what we are doing because they recognize that

what was done a hundred years ago is no longer relevant or useful. Our tiny

school has already been recognized worldwide as being a leader in progressive

education. Why would we be interested in changing our model just because we

have more applicants?


So, yes, we really mean it. We do not aspire to be like schools that accept only

high academic achievers and then, years later, produce high academic achievers.

We are much more interested in accepting a diversity of children and, years

later, being surprised by inventors, artists, sailors, photographers, designers,

actors, entrepreneurs, social activists and scientists… and also some high

academic achievers! Our strength and our difference lies in the diversity of our

student population and we will continue to accept, value, nurture and “unlock

the best” in children whatever their natural talents and bents.



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