Becoming only the fourth head of school in the last 34 years, Ed Ladd recently took up his position at The American School in Japan (ASIJ), Tokyo’s largest and oldest international school. With a 25-year career in education overseas, Ladd joins ASIJ from Doha, Qatar, where he was named International Superintendent of the Year by the Association for the Advancement of International Education.
What made you interested in the headship at The American School in Japan?
ASIJ’s mission statement of, “developing compassionate, inquisitive learners prepared for global responsibility,” and the challenge and inspiration that it encapsulates really resonated with my own beliefs as an educator. Our aim is to prepare students for life and an unknown future, and I think that our mission and values capture that intent. We have to learn by asking questions, by exploring, by becoming compassionate and responsible. It means that we have to take care of our environment and we are going to take care of each other. I think my generation was a very selfish generation, a “me”generation which is very ironic because we came out of the 60s which was not supposed to be that way at all. But somehow we got detoured somewhere down the line. But I think this generation has a chance to solve lingering problems in the world and to solve them for the first time. But they only have that chance if we give them the right tools and those are 21st century learning tools. The first of which is that they have to care. That’s what the mission is about. If we don’t teach kids to care, nothing else makes a difference. But if we do teach them to care, and then give them a creative problem-solving mindset, then there is real potential for their ability to tackle problems that are lingering out there.
What does 21st century learning look like at The American School in Japan?
It’s hard to define 21st century learning without talking about technology, and the robotics program at ASIJ is a prime example of that. If you look at what students involved in robotics are doing, they work together collaboratively, address problems that do not have a definitive answer, they have to be creative in inventing solutions, and they have to test those solutions against other solutions. That process captures a lot of what 21st century learning is about. Part of the challenge is that while it flows naturally in a study of robotics, how do we get it to flow naturally in an English or math or social studies class? How do we connect math and science to the world outside in a way that’s authentic and in a way that’s based on problems that need to be solved? It’s about taking the core syllabi and then connecting that context to the real world through an application process that forces us to think and be solution oriented in our work.
How does ASIJ utilize technology to enhance learning?
ASIJ has always been a leader in terms of embracing technology, but technology itself is not the answer. It’s simply a tool and we have to make sure that it’s not about the equipment we are using, but about how it will enable us to learn differently. Technology not only gives us access to more information than we could ever use, but it allows us to connect to a variety of experts and sources that we wouldn’t be able to access otherwise. It gives us tools that let us create representations for our solutions and data. In our middle school this year we are taking a one-to-one approach, with wireless netbooks for each student and we’ll continue to look at ways to integrate technology to enhance all aspects of learning at ASIJ across the grades and the curriculum.
Why does ASIJ offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school rather than the International Baccalaureate (IB)?
I’ve worked in both AP and IB schools and both programs are excellent, but they are different. The biggest advantage of AP is that it is not a set menu, it’s à la carte, so a student can select a variety of subjects to fit their talents, skills, dreams and passions. Honestly, that’s limited with the IB program which has a set menu of six courses with three high and three standard courses. As we are an American school, it was natural that historically AP was one of the first things put in to stretch our students academically. It used to be that you needed AP to go to an American university, and IB to go to a European university, but that’s no longer the case. AP is well recognized in Europe, as well as in Australia and Asia, and ASIJ graduates have no trouble getting accepted by universities such as Cambridge, Durham, Toronto, McGill, Imperial College, Melbourne, Waseda and Sophia. In that regard, the biggest argument for IB instead of AP has gone away.
What do you think are ASIJ’s strengths?
We have a very talented and stable faculty, who average nine years at ASIJ, which creates continuity and facilitates the development of curriculum. We have a vibrant, dedicated faculty, over half of whom hold advanced degrees, and I’ve been impressed by their desire to constantly challenge themselves through their professional development activities. Another strength is the connectedness of ASIJ to parents and alumni. The school community is not only their core during their days here, but also remains a touchstone for them after they leave. Certainly, we also have a fabulous facility.
What do you think makes ASIJ unique?
ASIJ has a strong tradition of connectedness and a sense of community that reflects its long history and extends all over the world, well beyond the walls of this campus. The school also has a tradition of excellence and is continuously pushing itself to be better and better. A tradition of success can sometimes become a burden because it means that expectations get higher and higher. You can look at it as a burden, or you can look at it as a gift. At ASIJ the teachers, the administrators, the parents, and the students see it as a gift. They continually challenge themselves to improve and to never be content with the standard of excellence at this school. It seems to me that this focus on excellence also suits the culture of Japan very well, where doing one’s best is a part of who one is.
You talk about preparing students for life, what role does a co-curricular program play in that?
I think learning takes place in everything we do in a school and we need to recognize that. The kid who plays soccer or the trumpet in band, performs in our musical or builds a school in Cambodia is involved in learning, and we need to be respectful of that and to understand how it complements and enriches what goes on in the classroom. You can’t prepare kids for life unless you are both teaching and modeling certain values. A school like ASIJ is very diverse with families from more than 40 countries, so values and collaboration become very important. Co-curriculars help to develop interpersonal skills, and they teach commitment, perseverance, and a work ethic—essentially the value of sticking to something, not walking away when something gets too hard. Students at ASIJ are fortunate to have over 100 co-curriculars on offer and I’ve been impressed to see the commitment that they, and the faculty, make to these activities.
As far as teaching kids a habit for life, there’s no better habit than community service, which develops a sense of passion and giving to others. If I could give a kid any kind of gift as they walked out that door at graduation it would be the gift of wanting to continue to make a difference in the world for others. That is the gift that ASIJ is striving to give to each of its graduates, and it is one that will last a lifetime.