Why and how you could define high-quality learning to guide your school’s pedagogical approach
Why and how you could define high-quality learning to guide your school’s pedagogical approach
Why and how you could define high-quality learning to guide your school’s pedagogical approach
Leo Thompson CIS School Support & Evaluation Officer


By Leo Thompson



I will begin this blog post with a bold claim that has taken me twenty years to understand, and I’m still working on it!

High-quality learning and teaching (HQLT) is both context and culture dependent and cannot be defined and measured in absolute, universal terms.

That’s quite a claim, which I will now need to justify because it has significant implications for all school communities, and the work of CIS.

In fact, depending upon how you define it, one could make a case that HQLT could, and even should, look quite different in every school or university globally. How different it looks will depend upon how much these specific school contexts and host cultures involved contrast. Of course, it follows that if these school contexts and host cultures are similar, HQLT will look similar too.



Biology also plays a part. For cognitive development reasons, learning and teaching may also look quite different according to the ages you teach within each institution. CIS Accreditation Standards require schools to create a space to define HQLT according to their own context and culture(s) and challenges them to fully implement it. Why is it important not to take a ‘one size fits’ all approach?

Simply put, HQLT is the priority of any school or university, other than safety and well-being (see Maslow). This is not news to the majority of us who work in international education, though it comes with a discrete set of challenges, “big hairy issues” as a former colleague used to call them.

Placed in no particular order, here are five central questions that frame some of the challenges associated with HQLT that aspirational schools are puzzling over:

  • How do we find agreement on what HQLT should look like?
  • What are our key learning priorities?
  • How do we create consistent student learning experiences?
  • How do we build the continuity of student learning?
  • How do we adjust student learning for different needs, cultures and contexts?

With so many interwoven provocations, each a puzzle to solve in its own right, how is it possible to get high-quality learning and interdependent teaching right, wherever we are? I will borrow wisdom from CIS colleagues, international educators in member schools, and prominent thinkers in education, to open up a wider discussion and suggest some practical ways forward.

Despite the studies, and even meta-studies, that provide hints and tips on ‘what works’ in education, high-quality learning and teaching still remains an enigma for good reason. It is a dynamic conception built on shifting sands related to: differing cultural and parent expectations, new societal and cultural trends, new technologies, established and new education research, and indeed new regulations and constraints, such as Covid-19, which galvanise thinking and rethinking on what works best to stimulate and enrich young minds. Let’s imagine HQLT as a non-linear, context dependent, multi-dimensional, polymorphic model that changes over time!

Given up yet?!

Though it is clearly a complex task, we still need to find a practical way forward. It might be useful to schools to begin by looking at HQLT using five organising questions similar to ones used by curriculum developers that I learned about on a course at the Principals Training Centre (PTC) a few years back. These ‘meta questions’ will help expose the broad scope of HQLT and what bases an effective definition should cover. Here are four of the five questions, with one saved for later in this post:

  1. Who are the learners? The school’s unique mix of students and their ages, cultural makeup, languages, context and aspirations.
  2. Why does the school exist? The school’s central purpose and remit.
  3. What are its essential programme goals? The school and selected curriculum’s key learning goals, aims and objectives.
  4. How should we learn? The most effective teaching approaches and learning strategies used with the school’s unique cohort.

The four interlinked questions are clearly ones for the experts (aka experienced, qualified international educators) and demonstrates why politicians and local ministries of education should not be turning the levers of international education, but should be making a space for it, informed by a ‘wise and inclusive counsel’ of experts.

Because the nature of HQLT is so dependent on context and culture—and what works really well in one school may not work well in another—CIS has declined to prescribe a single stock definition of it in the vein of ‘here it is, use this!’. CIS does, however, go to lengths in its standards to portray some important, ‘core’ aspects of what it is not and what it is in its accreditation standards leaving ‘flex’ or space for schools to do the rest according to their own contexts.

In some ways this ‘core’ and ‘flex’ thinking, which I have borrowed from Julia Middleton, is similar to Michael Fullan’s useful notion of the ‘tight’ and the ‘loose’ where some aspects are required and others are left open. CIS and its many member schools and universities believe that there are some core, non-negotiable, albeit ‘tight’, areas in regard to values and key concepts tied to learning. Learning that is not bullying, not dishonest, not disrespectful, not unhealthy, not unfair. On the flipside, learning embraces voice and diverse perspectives, it engages, it suitably challenges, it caters for differences, it utilises a range of resources, it empowers, it facilitates: see the CIS Code of Ethics (and members can see Domain standards A2, C1, D1 in the International Accreditation Protocol (revised 2019)).

As many will know, CIS challenges educators in its member schools to formulate a HQLT definition that captures the school’s context, values, principles, and core beliefs about learning and teaching—loosely grouped as its ‘purpose and direction’—and then to align them in practice. It is an ambitious undertaking, but the educational stakes are obviously so high for students that it must be worth it. Based on conversations with several CIS colleagues involved in the development of our standards, evaluator training, and school support, I propose the following process steps, noting that more steps could be added, and the sequence rejigged. It is not intended as a prescription, rather a springboard for further discussion and reflection:



Proposed step

Suggested involvement



Survey your constituents on their perceptions of ‘who the school serves’, student needs and aspirations. Get data!

Whole community

What patterns, as well as discrepancies, can you find?


Explore and extract the key ideas, values and concepts embedded in the school’s guiding statements and selected curriculum framework. Get more data!

Leadership team and faculty

What are the resonating ideas, concepts and values?


Organise these ideas (data), concepts and values into four buckets relating to the i) who ii) why iii) the what iv) the how

Leadership team/designated committee

How can these be linked and aligned?


Connect this with educational research/literature on the neurology of learning and how students learn best. Use this research to filter and select the most critical ideas for your school’s special context.

Leadership team/designated committee

What key research findings support the school’s most prominent values and learning principles?


Draft a HQLT definition deciding what elements it should cover relating to the who, what, why, and how.


Leadership team/designated committee

Is it coherent?


Do a final ecology (potential issues) check with the draft HQLT definition, local regulations and cultural norms and share with colleagues and school community representatives for feedback. Tweak as necessary!

Leadership team/designated committee

Is the definition a good fit for the community?


These first two steps, built around meaningful questions, will stimulate a swirling mass of ideas, principles, values and concepts that need to be organised and filtered. They can interlink and fit together in different ways so a school will need to be decisive about what is most important to include, and accept that what is left out will still be important to somebody! As with the formation of mission statements, some words will have strong attachments for some individuals whilst others will have little or no connection—different strokes for different folks! There will inevitably be wordsmithing and some words or phrases may need to be substituted or simplified so that they are acceptable in light of cultural norms and clear to members not fluent in the language(s) of instruction. Accessibility and buy-in is essential.

And what about the length of the HQLT definition? CIS colleagues suggest think sculpture rather than monolith. An artist chisels and removes what does not need to be there to carve out something beautiful. Go for focused quality, rather than overwhelming quantity. Try and keep it on one page. You can always hyperlink supportive research and reference other key documents and policies. Bullet points and lists can be useful ways to be concise and emphasise your key values, concepts and principles. Unlike this post, it does not need to be lengthy!

To offer a little more diversity to this post, consider the perspectives of global educators involved in a recent CIS online evaluator training session. Each module begins with a few prompts and asks provocative questions aimed to challenge educators to strip back the layers of international education and get to its essence. With their permission, here are snippets taken from a discussion on high-quality education:

“[…] the first thing that springs to mind is that it cannot be a static concept.” (Anna Marsden, United World College East Africa)

“Whilst a school may be able to determine what defines quality for themselves (and this is a worthy endeavour), there should also be examination against external measures of quality.” (Michael Arcidiacono, IGB International School)

“I think that being able to roll out a curriculum that is both globally focused and inclusive is one of the key defining characteristics of a high-quality international education.” (Nicole Ifi, United Nations International School)

“High-quality education must include the development of fundamental skills and ways of working—collaboration, communication, critical thinking, idea-sharing, problem-solving—not just to equip the individuals, but to enable them to engage successfully with other individuals from other cultures as citizens within the global community.” (Karl Wilkinson, Orbital Education)

“The school is a happy and safe place for all, with an outstanding reputation for psychological well-being and diversity.” (George Walsh, Institut International de Lancy)

“It will be a school that focuses on the learner, and emphasises the importance of well-being.” (Yvonne Secker, International School of Lausanne)

“High-quality means that education is based on best practices and research-based pedagogy.” (E Shannon Koga, Gateway International School)

“Our shared vision and values underpin all that we do.”  (Nyree Buckley, The British School, Rio de Janeiro)

“I believe that the key characteristic in a school delivering a ‘high-quality education’ is whether the school is giving the students what they need.” (Lee Rosky, The International School of Brussels)

“While we have understood over the years that we must have focus on the physical and cognitive development of each child, we need to ensure that we also create a quality learning environment that is safe, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity.”  (Garland Green, International School of Brussels)

“The extent to which teaching and learning carefully consider issues from more than one perspective.” (Lola García-Suárez, Marymount International School London)

“A high-quality international education has to be defined by the school in terms of what learning will actually look like.” (Rajvinder Bolla, International School of Paris)

Though perspectives are diverse, some resonating themes emerged that echo the four drivers of CIS International Accreditation. These include operating around core values, orienting around individual needs, using a holistic lens, considering well-being a bedrock, and embracing different perspectives and appreciating diversity at the heart of global citizenship.

If your school takes the time to value and scrutinise the perspectives of its community—like the ones shared previously—rich and diverse ideas will surface. Once you have it in place, the definition should become a tool for you to align practice with. If done well, it will bring the following benefits to your community of educators, parents and most importantly students:

  • Guide the style of learning and approaches taken and help build a consistency of practice.
  • Offer a checks and balance system to prevent unwanted educational scenarios or incidents.
  • Provide an opportunity to bring your community together around deep, meaningful ideas.
  • Create a footprint of identity unique to the school.
  • Foreground the school’s values and beliefs, and demystifies what learning looks like for prospective parents and students.
  • Offer a stance to defend what you do and how you do it!

To summarise the main suggestions shared in this post about how to create a HQLT definition: gather and use data to establish your core, non-negotiable values and principles of what HQLT looks like in your school and local context; involve your community and, to a degree, give them some ownership; allow some ‘flex’ and loose ‘breathing space’ for educators to use and try different approaches according to their different subjects, external assessment criteria, and age and stages they teach, but ensure their practice still fits with the HQLT definition’s core values.

Once you are done with defining HQLT in your learning institution, it’s time to celebrate the achievement, publicise it, and implement it. Lock it into practice, embed it in your job descriptions, marketing, hiring and induction practices, curriculum planning, assessment, professional development and reflective evaluation systems, etc. These actions will help preserve the values and beliefs that are most important to your school.

Following its implementation, you may wish to introduce a final fifth accountability question relating to ‘impact’: How do we know ‘whether’ students are experiencing high-quality learning? Here you will need to look at your school’s assessment data, perception data, and other indicators that evidence whether students are experiencing effective, deep and meaningful learning.

Ultimately, the best measure of a HQLT definition will be, as Rajvinder Bolla states, that it accurately describes what learning will look like in your school and what a visitor would see if they walked into your classroom, or even joined an online lesson—a nod to where we are at right now!

Why share this post now you may ask? It may seem that the recent pandemic turmoil and the ‘black lives matter’ and anti-racism/diversity, equity, inclusion debate that have recently absorbed us, frustrated us and enraged us, are distractions from the HQLT learning debate. However, one could easily argue that they have provided a new tool, or two useful lenses to examine aspects of HQLT that are implicitly linked to well-being and global citizenship. With the flick of a switch, and almost overnight, taking ‘mostly on campus learning’ to ‘mostly online, distance learning’ and forcing us to re-examine the very essence of high-quality learning and teaching. The HQLT debate is even more relevant right now than it was several months ago!

If you’re teaching at a CIS member school and interested in becoming a CIS volunteer evaluator, find out more about online training opportunities. If you don’t have time for that but want to find out more about our standards, ask to see a copy from your school’s accreditation coordinator.

Leo Thompson, School Support and Evaluation Officer, CIS




Why and how you could define high-quality learning to guide your school’s pedagogical approach
  • International accreditation
Why and how you could define high-quality learning to guide your school’s pedagogical approach