Exclusive Interview With Principal Ryan Silverthorne Canadian Curriculum Meets Thai Culture: British Columbia International School Bangkok (BCISB)
Principal Ryan Silverthorne
The British Columbia International School Bangkok, or BCISB, is the only school in Thailand currently offering the prestigious curriculum from Canada’s province of British Columbia. Founded in 2007, BCISB is a modern institution offering education for students in Kindergarten through Grade 12 with a focus on life-long learning, inquiry-based learning, and critical thinking. In this special interview, BCISB’s Principal, Canadian Mr. Ryan Silverthorne, discusses the school’s philosophies and approaches to learning, the impact of COVID-19 on education, and teaching abroad.
What makes BCISB a unique educational institution?
We’re different because we're locally owned, but a Canadian certified school. In Canada the education systems are all provincial, which is different than in Thailand. British Columbia is leader amongst all the other provinces in Canada in terms of the education system, and is also a leader internationally. If you look at different types of rankings, Canada and British Columbia rank among the top in the world. The reason for that is our very progressive curriculum—the methodology behind the B.C. curriculum is very inquiry and research based. Our instruction is rooted in the idea that we are teaching the students to be lifelong learners and critical thinkers; we understand that now more than ever, jobs from year to year are changing. When it comes to students in the younger grades, we really don't know what the job market is going to look like when they graduate as technology advances and trends change. However, what we do know is that we can teach them sound, fundamental learning skills, so they can be prepared for anything they want to do in life. We really try to work with the students’ interests to teach the concepts that are going to help them be successful. The B.C. curriculum affords us that; it has a lot of diversity built into it and allows us to offer student-centred learning, not a one-size-fits-all model.
What does the inquiry-based approach look like?
We are teaching with the goal of greater understanding, the bigger ideas and concepts, and we teach both content and competencies, recognizing the difference. When we talk about inquiry-based learning, we still have learning standards of course in B.C. that we target, but there's a lot more autonomy within the classroom to tailor the education to the individual students. This means that the ways that we teach concepts are adaptable to the learner; we allow the students’ interests to drive and motivate them while still teaching all the standards.
We strongly believe in this approach, and most other Western education systems are also striving to be as inquiry-based as possible. I think our curriculum in particular is the most progressive of the Western curriculums, in the sense that it must be tailored to the individual students and situations.
What does the curriculum offer, in a Thai context?
Bangkok is a Mecca for international education, whereas in a lot of countries, international schools are, for the most part, made up of a majority of expat students. We do have lots of expat students in our school, but we also have a very large local Thai population, because there are no local restrictions in terms of whether or not Thai students can go to international schools. With that mix, there’s so much to draw on. When we're discussing world events, there are issues here in Thailand that are far more relatable to our students than events back in Canada. The way that we might teach something in a rural area of B.C. is going to be different than how we might teach something here, although we are teaching the same overarching concepts and it leads to the same understanding. How you get to that understanding is going to be different, based on the context you’re in. Context is really important so that the students can learn about the information that is most relevant to them-- for example, one of our Grade 12 courses is Genocide Studies. We examine the concept of genocide, and what's most relatable to our students in this context is the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. We’re able to take kids on field trips to relevant historical sites there; this subject matter is more relatable to them because it affects people that they know. A greater understanding of the ills of humanity and the signs of authoritarianism that lead to genocide are part of B.C. curriculum, but whether you look at the perspective of Nazi Germany or the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, it accomplishes the same purpose.
What would you say to a parent that is considering enrolling their child at BCISB?
First and foremost, we are an inclusive community. We have a student-centred approach to learning, our graduation rates are very strong, and we send students all over the world. BCISB is 100% committed to the B.C. curriculum, but it's important to realize that our students, when they graduate from high school, can go anywhere they want in the world—whether that's university in the UK, Canada, Australia, or elsewhere. A lot of our kids do go to Canadian universities, and some of our students will choose to stay to go to Thai universities, but it's important to note that there's a lot of flexibility. Our school offers many, many options, and we are very proud of the atmosphere we have here at BCISB. The students here are happy, and have many opportunities to be successful.
How has COVID-19 affected instruction?
Well, it has certainly affected every school, no matter where you are. While there isn't a substitute for in-person class instruction I do feel our school has been a leader in our online education delivery. Things are more challenging of course, and that increases the workload on different people. It has been a challenge for the teachers for sure and has required a lot of them putting together online activities they wouldn't normally use in the classroom, but they’ve definitely risen to the occasion. It has also been a difficult time for parents, especially with young students at home trying to do online learning—this is something that we are very sensitive to. It’s been a challenge, but as a community I’m proud of how we have all responded.
What does online learning look like for the students?
The online learning looks different depending on the grade level, as we’re a kindergarten to Grade 12 school. We use a delivery platform like Google Classroom for the higher grades, because the older kids have a little more independence in logging on by themselves and completing asynchronous learning. For the younger grades, we endeavour to make it as activity based as possible, as well as ensure each student gets the attention they require. We are fortunate in that our elementary teachers go above and beyond for the students. They would much rather be teaching in person but recognize the need to do everything in their power to enrich the student experience regardless of the limitations of COVID.
What led you to your current position at BCISB?
When I graduated as a teacher, the job market in B.C. was not as open as it is today. So, I decided to go overseas, with the intention of working for a couple of years and then coming back. I went to the Middle East, and I found that I really enjoyed it. There I was fortunate enough to work under a truly outstanding Principal who mentored me and from whom I learned this position was something I wanted and could make a positive impact doing. From there I set my sights on administration and worked my way up. I moved to South Korea where I became a Vice Principal and then Principal. I eventually moved to Thailand and I’m proud to say this is my fifth year at BCISB. It's been a really enjoyable time for me, being able to come here and see all the changes, and it's a lovely community for sure.
What does it take to work internationally as an educator?
Often I'll talk to my friends back in B.C. that are principals, and some of them are thinking about going international with their career. The big thing to expect is that it is very different from Canada, and you need to be ready for that. Our mandate is to uphold all the standards of British Columbia and we can't bend on that from an education standpoint, but then we also have to fit in locally to the culture. We have those two dynamics that we are always playing with, and so it requires someone who is ready to be adaptable, surprised, and able to stand back and take a second look. Even though differences stand out a lot, the majority of things are not all that different, and all of our parents and staff at the school want the same thing: the kids to do well.
Do you have any last thoughts to share?
I think one of the things we're most proud of at BCISB is that we put a lot of emphasis on retention of teachers and our community of professionals. We’re a school that really values our own culture and that means we think long term. There's a continuation of building upon the foundations, so the idea is that when I leave, my contributions are going to be built on by somebody else, and that's what makes our school unique. We are able to retain the contributions that people make over the years with the growth mindset in our institution; we're not just year-to-year. It’s been very important to me at BCISB that I put the time in, and that I help the school build and grow, and this has really allowed us to pull through with COVID, and also makes me very confident about the future of the school.
Author: Samantha Rae Harriss