“Students today cannot be passive learners,” says Dr Frazer Cairns, Director at the International School of Lausanne (ISL) in Switzerland. “We face daunting environmental, political, economic and social problems, and young people need to be empowered to play an active role in acquiring the skills they need to address them.”

In this way, students at the school are positioned as problem seekers and solvers. “We want young people to examine issues from different angles, question the validity of current arguments, and search for evidence,” says Dr Cairns.

By developing the students’ agency, curiosity and confidence, the school aims to instil a belief that even the most difficult and complex challenges can be overcome. To achieve this, units of study are built around substantial, transferable ideas that provide a broader focus for subjects.



In class, students learn to question the assumptions that underlie the subjects they are studying. The units of work are designed to allow students to develop new knowledge, but also fundamentally to cultivate their organisation, communication and critical-thinking

skills. One place where these skills are showcased is in the Year 11 Personal Project, a self-directed piece of study based on a topic of the pupil’s choice. The range of interests that form the backdrop for the work is enormous: from putting on a photography exhibition to creating a computer game or advocating for socially marginalised groups.


The school emphasises the importance of allowing pupils to see the relevance of what they are studying. In Year 9, for example, students take part in the LED Safari Project, a scheme that aims to help provide cheap, functional and grid-independent lighting to households in developing countries. The students design and build prototype lights and create language-free plans that anyone can follow. “The eventual goal is that the lights and plans are taken on the service trips to Cambodia and Tanzania,” says Dr Cairns. “They then share them with the people they will be working with.”

This service learning is also woven into the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, which ISL students undertake during their final two years. In addition to the LEDsafari project trips, other service projects include working with local communities at the local soup kitchen and running activities for refugees.



Each student has a personal laptop or device, which enables teachers to use technology creatively in class and prepares pupils for an exam system that is heading towards online assessment. Academic ambition is encouraged, but with around 98 per cent of IB diploma graduates continuing on to higher education, emphasis is placed on students enjoying an all-round experience during their time at school. “Though intellectual curiosity is greatly valued at ISL,” says Dr Cairns, “a commitment to using one’s knowledge and skills to bring about change is seen as equally important.”

Music recitals, dance shows, sports competitions and trips to interesting destinations – including Morocco, Romania and Milan – are among the many activities open to students. They run their own newspaper, The High, and students are given the opportunity from an early age to take on leadership roles through, for example, the Student Council.

One of a group of older students asked to describe ISL said that it is: “varied, challenging, demanding.” Another said: “Teachers are much more caring than at other schools – they follow you academically, they are very professional and they go out of their way to help you.” These students are clearly proud of the school, which takes mutual pride in them.