Fernando Reimers on International Education: Global Comparative Education Analysis and Study to Advance Development, Collaboration, and Effective Teaching and Learning

Photo courtesy of Abigail Egan for the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Photo courtesy of Abigail Egan for the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Fernando Reimers is on the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), where he fulfills a variety of professorial and academic roles in the field of international education. He directs Harvard’s International Education Policy Program and its Global Education Innovation Initiatives, and also leads the annual Think Tank on Global Education, all training and institutional collaboration programs aimed at teaching, learning, and sharing strategies for improving education around the world. He is an expert in the field and spends much time traveling the world learning from and with different systems of schooling, with the goal of improving access and structuring schooling to empower students to grow into contributing members to their communities and the world.

Alison W. Steinbach interviewed Fernando Reimers about his career path, as well as about the evolution and specifics of “international education.” They discussed important achievements made in the field, the key tasks ahead, and the significant gains possible from studying education at a multinational, collaborative, and student-focused level.

Perhaps you could begin by describing your career path. How did you end up at the Harvard Graduate School of Education?

I ended up at HGSE as result of a series of unexpected circumstances. I was born in Venezuela to immigrant parents who had a firm belief that education was the path to progress. Neither of my parents had gone to college and I did not plan on going to college until junior year of high school. That year, the government of Venezuela launched an ambitious initiative: the ‘Ministry for the development of human intelligence.’ Reading about the initiatives to help people develop their talent as well as two books written by the Minister Luis Alberto Machado, sparked my interest in pursuing a career in education. One of those books, The Revolution of Intelligence, argued that people’s talent develops as a result of opportunity. The other, The Right to be Intelligent, argued that it is an obligation of a democratic state to create the conditions for people to develop their talent. I decided upon reading those book that I would focus my energies on trying to create conditions so people could develop their talents.

I went to college at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and was hired immediately upon graduation as a faculty member in the Department of Experimental Psychology. As an undergraduate in college, I came to Harvard Summer School to learn English. At Harvard, I met Professor B.F. Skinner in the Department of Psychology, whose work I had been following from Venezuela, and Professor Terry Tivnan at the Graduate School of Education, who suggested I consider coming to Harvard for graduate study. I also fell in love with Harvard’s Widener Library. That visit raised for me the possibility of coming to Harvard for graduate study. As a faculty member in Venezuela, I was studying how to foster the creativity of children in preschools, and this work led to an interest in scaling up innovative programs, which brought me to pursue doctoral studies in educational planning and social policy at HGSE.

As a graduate student, I was invited to work for the Harvard Institute of International Development (HIID), an interdisciplinary University center that provides advice to foreign governments to promote development. I worked on a large research project regarding basic education in the developing world. I worked for HIID for eight years upon graduation, conducting research on school effectiveness in Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, and several countries in Latin America. I then worked as an education specialist for the World Bank, and later returned to Harvard to join the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

My career path was far from fully planned in both college and even graduate school, although the goal I have tried to advance – to help create conditions to allow people to develop their talents – is the goal that crystallized for me when I decided to go to college.

What do you most like about Harvard? What do you like the least?

Most of all, I enjoy the students and my faculty and staff colleagues. I like that Harvard is a very ethical community, driven by noble purposes, and by long and deep historical roots. It is humbling and healthy to know we are a small part of an institution whose impact spans the centuries, past and future. In terms of what I like least, I’d say the occasional slow pace of change.

Your primary academic focus is on international education. What specifically does the study of “international education” involve, and how did you first become interested in the field?

International education involves two related domains: 1) the comparative study of education, and 2) the study of education for the purpose of promoting development and advancing education in the developing world, which is where 90 percent of young people live. My original interests lay in working to advance the development of education in Venezuela (the second domain of the term ‘international education’). The course my life and education broadened that interest to children in other countries as well, and working in a variety of  nations shaped my interest in comparative education, helping me discover the power of comparative analysis to inform policy and reform.

You are the Director of both Harvard’s International Education Policy Program and the Global Education Innovation Initiatives. What are the missions and purposes of these programs?

One of the first projects I undertook upon joining the faculty at HGSE was to design a new program in international education that would prepare individuals interested in advancing systemic education reform around the world, with the purpose of educating all children well. Today, over 700 graduates of this International Education Policy Program lead programs around the world to expand educational opportunity and ensure that the education children receive is relevant. I learn much from staying in touch with former students, whom I often visit during my travels and many of whom come back to visit.

The Global Education Innovation Initiative is a more recent creation. It is a collaboration of institutions in eight countries around the world with the shared goal of discerning how best to prepare students with the competencies they will need to become architects of their own lives and contributing members of their communities. We conduct applied comparative education research to help us figure out how to best support public schools in offering an education relevant to the demands students will face in their lives. We support and participate in research and policy dialogue with leading institutions with the goal of transforming education so it empowers students. We develop programs that can help scale up the impact of our research findings. Our recent book, Teaching and Learning for the Twenty First Century, analyzes in what ways public education helps students develop needed competencies in our times. Another recent book, Fifteen Letters on Education in Singapore, presents the lessons learned by a group of Massachusetts educators who discussed with colleagues in Singapore how best to support powerful teaching and learning.

You’ve written about the “global competency” that students will need to learn in order to navigate life in the 21st century. What do you mean by this?

The development of telecommunications and computer technology over the last three decades has transformed the ways in which we produce goods and services and participate in society, with the result that the interactions among people of different cultural and national backgrounds have intensified. This process is called globalization. Global competency and cosmopolitanism are ways of knowing and are dispositions and skills to understand this process, make sense of oneself in an increasingly interdependent world, and choose to engage with the world in ways which advance sustainability and peace. An advanced form of global competency, for instance, would help a person understand that there are global challenges we face, that addressing them will require collaboration with individuals across national borders, and would include the inclination and the capacity to engage in solving them. I call this stage global citizenship.

My colleagues and I have recently published a book called Empowering Global Citizens, which explains why it is critical to educate students to be global citizens. The book offers a complete K-12 interdisciplinary curriculum, designed to help students develop such cosmopolitanism and commitment to improve the world.

You also lead an annual Think Tank on Global Education at Harvard. What are the objectives of these sessions?

The Think Tank on Global Education is a platform that convenes education leaders committed to advancing global citizenship, so that we can learn from one another, move the field forward, reach more colleagues and students, and ultimately allow more students to have the opportunity to become empowered global citizens.

What would you say are some of the most important current issues in international education?

Over the last seventy years, since education was included as a right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, humanity has experienced a “silent revolution.” This revolution took us from being a species of which most members had not been schooled to a society where most of our young spend a significant period of their lives in school. This is a remarkable achievement. We now provide almost all children with an opportunity to intentionally learn what previous generation thinks should be conserved, and what  we think will help them improve the world.

The most important current issues build on the achievements of this silent revolution. The first is to finish the job of providing access to the children who should be in school but are not– about 60 million children– most of them girls, and most of them poor, living in zones affected by conflict, or otherwise socially marginalized. The second is to ensure that the huge investment of time and resources which children, their families, and societies make in providing them an education is used in such a way that it actually empowers students to become self-authoring individuals and caring members of their communities with the capacity to associate with others to improve the world. This means we need to make sure education is relevant, and that teachers and schools are effective.

Following from these two imperatives is the challenge of teacher preparation. Whether schools succeed in empowering students is largely contingent on how expert their teachers are. Deciphering how to build a 21st century teaching profession is a crucial issue in global education.

What can be gained by studying education from an international perspective? How can the study of international education be useful for teachers and schooling in the United States?

We learn from comparisons, and the world is a much richer laboratory of educational practice than any school district or even the entire United States. It is not feasible to understand how education makes a difference to a person or to society by studying only jurisdictions where all people go to school, and it is difficult to figure out how to build a system that supports high quality teaching looking only at a place where the dimensions of such a system are invariant.

The comparative study of education began with the creation of the first public education systems after the French Revolution, and intensified in the 20th century with the formalization of the field of comparative education. The creation of public education in the United States benefited from the observations made by John Quincy Adams regarding the education system of Silesia, a region in Central Europe in what is now Poland, in his Letters on Silesia, and from Horace Mann’s analysis of the education systems of Germany and France. Much of the silent revolution that has expanded access to school to most children since 1947 was supported by comparative studies and by the transfer of educational ideas across the world.

We have much to gain in the United States from studying systems in nations where education is a significant priority. For example, Singapore is a small nation that has achieved remarkable coherence in various policies to support teachers in teaching to high expectations. High performing schools in China form alliances with other schools that provide teachers with opportunities to learn from networks of peers in ways that are not customary in the United States. As we look for ways to build a 21st century teaching profession in the United States, we can learn from comparative experience in other countries, such as Finland or Singapore, where incentives and selection mechanisms attract very talented candidates to the profession, where initial preparation balances theory and practice with demanding apprenticeships in schools, and where career trajectories and professional development support the continuous learning of teachers and principals. More generally, we could learn much from others and with others, in figuring out how to align the curriculum with the biggest challenges we face, for instance the challenge of promoting religious tolerance, promoting social inclusion, helping people understand the beauty and promise that lies in our diversity, and promoting sustainable interactions with the environment. There are significant educational innovations to address these challenges in many countries around the world, and we certainly could use a little help in the United States in educating our students to become more accepting, open-minded, understanding, and caring.

Do you have any personal examples of how studying international education has influenced you in your work as a teacher or researcher?

My notions of the scale of the ambitions that can drive educational change and of the speed at which it is possible to achieve educational innovation have been greatly influenced by work with colleagues in institutions around the world. The speed of educational transformation in China, for example, is remarkable given the scale of the country, as is the velocity at which new higher education programs have developed in Brazil or Mexico. The way in which Singapore built a remarkable education system from scratch in just five decades is a source of many lessons about the power of clear policies and effective leadership to produce results. The clear articulation of educational aspirations with bold social and economic development goals which I have seen for K-12 education in Singapore, or for higher education programs in Mexico, have informed my thinking and expectations about what is possible. My learning from abroad also informs the various roles I play, whether as a faculty member at Harvard, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, where I chair the Strategic Planning Committee that works with all public universities in the State, or as a member of the various boards of educational organizations on which I serve.

What are you currently engaged in, and what broader lessons have you learned?

I lead Harvard’s Global Education Innovation Initiative. At the moment, we are working on a study of programs that help teachers develop the capacity to transform their practice so their students develop a broad range of cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal skills to be empowered contributors who can improve the world.

You gave the faculty graduation address at the Harvard Graduate School of Education last May. In your speech you said that in order to learn to transform the world, we had to do this work in the world. In what ways are you engaged in the practice of education? What are some of the most exciting activities you are currently engaged in?

The theme of the Harvard Graduate School of Education campaign is ‘Learn to Change the World’. This alludes to how we advance knowledge and how we teach, based on that knowledge, to prepare our students to improve the field of education.

There are various ways to assess knowledge and the teaching that is based on it. One of those ways is to ask, ‘is it true?’ We normally answer this question by reference to how this knowledge has been generated. If the methods used are accepted by the scientific community and if they yield intersubjective agreement, we say that something is true. Another way to assess knowledge and the teaching it informs is to ask ‘is it important?’ This question needs further qualification: ‘important to whom?’ In a professional field such as education, this question must include those who practice the profession: teachers, school leaders, administrators, and policy makers. They need to realize that the knowledge and education we offer is relevant to the problems they are trying to solve. In this sense, our legitimacy is contingent on our demonstrated capacity to transform the enterprise we study. The only way I know how to make ourselves accountable to this aspiration is to engage in the world, to continuously be in conversation with those who are working day in and day out to improve education, and to learn from them and with them. It is only when we try to produce some change in the world that we can test our ideas about what was necessary and sufficient to produce that change. I am very interested in learning how to help education leaders change their minds and collaborate in ways that enable collective action to change the systems that sustain educational opportunity.

The visit of the delegation of educators I led to Singapore last fall is an example of that kind of engagement. We are now sharing our learnings with a wide variety of education stakeholders in Massachusetts. Similar dialogues are part of what we do in the Global Education Innovation Initiative with colleagues in the United States and around the world. I was in China this summer collaborating with our colleagues there in a think tank that brought together education researchers and policy makers from China and the United States so we could learn from one another and develop further collaborations. Another current global experiment of this sort is an alliance I am leading, including ministers of education and other leaders of education organizations, to produce a white paper on what should happen globally to significantly improve the teaching profession.

You said at the beginning of the interview you did not plan to end up at Harvard. Do you have any regrets?

The year I first came to Harvard, as a summer school student, John Lennon composed a song about his experiences with his son Sean which include the lyrics:

Before you cross the street take my hand.
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

I have come to appreciate the wisdom in that quote, or the wisdom in Woody Allen’s expression ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.’ I am grateful for the path my life has taken, even if it is not the path I had imagined. I get to work with wonderful students and colleagues on issues that align with my values and with my deepest sense of who I think I am and what my purpose is. I am just as excited about the road ahead, because there is so much work to be done to continue to advance this silent revolution to empower all people so that they can, together, improve the world.

About Author

Fernando Reimers

Fernando Reimers is on the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), where he fulfills a variety of professorial and academic roles in the field of international education. He directs Harvard’s International Education Policy Program and its Global Education Innovation Initiatives, and also leads the annual Think Tank on Global Education, all training and institutional collaboration programs aimed at teaching, learning, and sharing strategies for improving education around the world. He is an expert in the field and spends much time traveling the world learning from and with different systems of schooling, with the goal of improving access and structuring schooling to empower students to grow into contributing members to their communities and the world.