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.