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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

The Hospitality Dilemma for Schools

If you are talking about Experience Strategy, it isn’t long before you come across the word “hospitality”, by which we typically mean a “general feeling of welcome” or “the activity or business of providing services to guests in hotels, restaurants, bars, etc.” It is important to understand, however, that both these applications of the word tend to overlook how important and, sometimes, controversial the concept has been to human society for centuries.


To unpack this, we first need to understand that the word hospitality itself derives from the Latin word hospitālitās, which referred to the relationship between guest and host. Its root is from hospes, the word for host, guest, stranger, or visitor. The question behind the word, in other words, is How do we open up our home to strangers?


The 20th century Algerian-French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, famously answered this question by making a distinction between unconditional and conditional hospitality. Unconditional hospitality, he says, is the universal obligation to open our homes to strangers and unexpected visitors. Conditional hospitality, on the other hand, refers to the laws, barriers, and duties that need to be fulfilled in order to be welcomed. For Derrida at least, the relationship between these two elements is finally what determines the experience of hospitality that we offer to those around us.


Such philosophical nuances may seem a long way out from the shores of our current reality, but there is no doubt in my mind that this is playing itself out right now all across the world, as societies wrestle with the responsibility and challenges of welcoming strangers and unexpected guests.


A photograph of a road with the words no one is illegal written on a wall

And it’s also being played out in our schools.


The experience of school, today, is to a large extent determined by the same question. International schools around the world, in particular, are exploring both what “home” means in terms of curriculum, pedagogical approaches, student profiles, and core values; at the same time as looking to find ways to be open and welcoming to those who may see the world differently, learn differently, or have opposing views on what school should be for.


There is no easy answer here, but I often reflect back on a term I once came across as a young graduate student in Theology: open confessionalism. It’s the idea that we need to be sure of what we believe, but at the same time convinced by the possibility that the experience and presence of others (i.e. strangers) will make us better and, ultimately, lead us closer to the truth.


So, in this respect, perhaps it is worth reflecting for a moment on these three sets of questions:


  1. When a stranger walks into your school, what is their experience of this new “home”? Have you ever considered what is going to feel familiar and, conversely, what is likely to be unsettling or alien to their point of view?

  2. What steps are you taking to transition a family from “feeling welcomed into your home” to “feeling at home”? Do you have a way of measuring how many students and their families get to a point of feeling like school is a place where they truly belong?

  3. What are the systems and processes in place that ensure that our “home” is, at one and the same time, clear about what it believes and open to change and adapt because of those who enter our front door?


My sense is that if we can answer these questions, we will be one step closer to understanding both what our story is and also how others, even strangers, can truly find their place in the story of our school.



Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash.


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