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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

The Big Five: Advancement Questions Every School Leader Should Be Asking Right Now

I stumbled upon an article recently that was entitled The 20 big questions in science. Within minutes I found myself clicking through to dozens of similarly titled essays, from metaphysics to morality, all hinting at the fact that some questions are “bigger” than others.

Big questions, by definition, are hard - maybe even impossible - to answer. As the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote, big questions are good questions because they tie us up in “dialectical knots” that we are forced to untie. They stretch our thinking and push us to the limits of what we know to find the “adjacent possible”, that new perspective, or new way of understanding the world around us.

If the crisis of the last few months has taught us anything, it has taught us that most of our time as school leaders will continue to be spent dealing with small questions, just as life itself is more about the day-to-day than grandiose existential pondering.

But big questions guide us. They give us perspective. They bring meaning to the chaos of detail. They lead us to the meta-narrative of what is really going on.

So, to that end, here are the Advancement Big Five I have found myself returning to in the lead up to a new school year.

A photograph of trees in a wooded area with question marks painted on the trunks
Big questions are there to help when we can no longer see the wood for the trees.

1. What is the product that we are now selling? Once upon a time, we sold our schools, in part at least, on the unique selling proposition of awe-inspiring campus resources that set us apart from other schools. But we now find ourselves in an ambiguous relationship with these physical spaces. They have stood empty for months and, even if we now return to campus, it will hardly be the same as before. So what is the product that we are actually selling? Where does the value proposition of an international education now lie?

2. How have the priorities of prospective families changed? We all know what is important to families when choosing a school. Some of us have historical data to demonstrate that, in the end, most families only have four to five questions that guide their decision-making. And yet, this may now be changing. Parental priorities are adapting to a new reality and we are being assessed on our ability to manage a crisis, implement ever-changing health & safety regulations, and our organisational agility both in terms of programming and pricing. In short, what parents want is not what they wanted in 2019.

3. Do our websites and our lexicon of learning reflect the new reality? Most of our websites are broadly the same and that’s because we’ve all got used to copying one another. We all use the same type of photography. We all structure our site with the same navigation bar. We even use the same educational cliches now and again. But how will web design be altered by the COVID-19 crisis? How do we move from having a COVID response button tucked away in the corner of our homepage, to promoting a school that is rooted in offering a range of on-site and online learning experiences? This kind of redesign is not just about making things look different. It demands a whole new lexicon for school.

4. How far will brand loyalty take us? We don’t often think about brand loyalty as school leaders, any more than we think of our parents and students as customers. But maybe it is worth thinking about how much loyalty we’ve built up in the bank. Brand loyalty is essentially the good will that companies draw down on when they make mistakes or go through hard times. Apple makes a bad iPhone or a Hyatt hotel forgets to clean your room, but we still buy Apple’s latest phone and choose to stay in a Hyatt hotel, because we are loyal to the brand. We accept that brands sometimes make mistakes, but we trust that in the end they will get it right again. So my question is this: how much brand loyalty do we have in the bank right now with our parents, the companies that support our schools, and our Boards?

5. Is this the end of international education as we know it? I don’t think that it is the end of international education. But I do think that we need to consider the possibility - and plan for the reality - that this is the end of international education as we’ve come to know it. Eighty years ago, the concept of international education hardly existed. It was linked to globalization across the world - a way of supporting globally mobile families. But, today, companies are realising that people don’t even need to leave their homes to get the job done. Schools are convincing parents that some of what we call learning can take place anywhere and anytime. Similarly, parents are increasingly choosing lo-cost, no frills solutions that are more about the destination than the journey or the experience. On the eve of a new school year, as many of us look to advance in ways that are both relevant and sustainable, maybe some of these big, even impossible, questions will challenge us all to look beyond what is happening now to what might happen next.


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