International School of Amsterdam: Pioneer of International Education
International School of Amsterdam
International School of Amsterdam

Tracing back to the roots of international education, one might find globalisation at the foundational cornerstone of this development.

The unique story of the International School of Amsterdam shows us how a visionary idea can be brought to life. Established in the year 1964, the school has its foundation dating back even before the establishment of the International Baccalaureate (IB).

In our quest to curate ‘The Most Renowned International Schools of the Netherlands in 2022’, we had the privilege to dive deep into the International School of Amsterdam. We also got to know Dr Bernadette Carmody, ISA Director, who has come from educational leadership environments in China (Shanghai and Guangzhou) Bahrain, Dubai, Venezuela, Norway, Sri Lanka and Australia. Dr Bernadette Carmody has worked to preserve the school’s heritage while implementing innovative practices to maintain the school as a trailblazer in future-focused education.

The Foundation of the International School of Amsterdam

The Dutch capital, Amsterdam, is a very different place today than it was in the early 1960s. The Netherlands started to become a major attraction for the international community.

Catering to that need, the International School of Amsterdam was founded in collaboration with the city administration and the local business leaders to be the catalyst for internationalisation. Soon after, ISA became the hub of international education for the residents of the city of Amsterdam and neighbouring cities.

During the inaugural years of the International School of Amsterdam, it was clear to the city governance and the forerunners of the educational sector that the school was established with a focus on educating the international community. Making this their mission, over the last 58 years, ISA, along with the city of Amsterdam, has emerged as a global leader in international life, learning and understanding.

The establishment of ISA opened up doors for international families to make their homes in a wonderful city, and in turn, the city of Amsterdam has itself proven the ideal home for a school dedicated to embracing diversity and international perspectives.

To Educate for International Understanding

Today, more than 1300 students representing over 60 different countries from all over the globe are part of the ISA community.

ISA’s mission is: “To Educate for International Understanding.” As an independent, non-profit foundation, all efforts are focused on creating a vibrant, global community of lifelong learners. The international understanding was the reason for its foundation, and it is the reason the community still comes together every day.

Developing Minds

ISA challenges and supports students on their individual journeys to self-discovery. Inspiring and developing young minds is what teaching at ISA is about. There is power in curiosity, and they encourage students to ask questions – because good questioning leads to great learning.

Developing Character

ISA students develop an appreciation for individuals, cultures, and societies around the globe. They lead and participate in community service projects that develop character and the drive to make principled choices. At ISA, students are taught to push their boundaries and discover how rewarding that journey can be.

Developing Communities

In the ISA community, cultures bridge through friendship, support, and curiosity. ISA’s commitment to reaching out to others is deeply embedded in the culture. When showing empathy, students reflect on their own views and appreciate the perspectives of others.

Creating a Community of Lifelong Learners

After four years of independently curating its curriculum, ISA adopted The International Baccalaureate — an international education foundation dedicated to creating a better and more peaceful world, — putting into practice its vision of holistic intercultural understanding and canalised an international curriculum that will inspire students to become lifelong learners.

Interestingly, the International School of Amsterdam was the first school in the world to offer a complete IB continuum. “We offer the IB curriculum all the way from Pre-School to Grade 12. It is a progressive curriculum that places student agency and inquiry at the heart of all learning experiences. The IB’s philosophy and holistic approach to education have been at the very core of all learning at ISA for over 40 years.”, says Dr Bernadette Carmody, ISA Director

Building an International Community

The International School of Amsterdam is unique in many ways. Where most institutes or schools focus heavily on the academic part, the International School of Amsterdam focuses on building its entire school culture on a vision where core elements of holistic development are instilled.

  • Embedding a Culture of Thinking

For almost 20 years, ISA has collaborated closely with the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero and its Visible Thinking Network. Through this, the school aims to develop a culture of thinking which cultivate students’ thinking skills and learning dispositions in ways that lead to greater self-awareness, genuine open-mindedness, and deeper content learning.

  • Academic Excellence

Although a narrow focus on academia alone is not ISA’s driving vision, their grade 11 and 12 students have achieved excellent results in their IB Diploma courses each year. Over the past years, ISA IB Diploma students have consistently passed their examinations and ISA’s average grade is 5.6, higher than the world average of 5.0.

  • Athletics Excellence

ISA is a member of the Northwest European Council of International School (NECIS). Consisting of 11 international schools from the north-western European region, the schools aim to build true sportsmanship and athleticism through active participation.

  • Extra-curricular Engagement

Offering a rich programme of extra-curricular activities, the school aims to offer its students a diverse learning experience to amplify their important social development. Activities range from fine arts, sports, music academy and language academy.

  • Character Development

Through innovation, and with an open-minded approach, ISA challenges the community to learn for life and learn with purpose. Students are inspired to be resilient, respectful global citizens and encouraged to find their individual paths to personal success.

  • Facilities

One-campus, purposefully built to facilitate learning. Located in the city of Amstelveen, ISA’s green and spacious campus includes many state-of-the-art facilities:

  • Early Childhood-devoted Facilities
  • 144m2 Theatre
  • 3 Gymnasia
  • 3 Libraries
  • Playgrounds and Outdoor Learning Spaces
  • Subject Area Collaborative Learning Spaces
  • Professional Development Centre

Cultivating the Seed of Globalisation 

Understanding the importance of internationalism and how education helps the world change it, ISA offers a complete IB curriculum for all its students. Talking about the uniqueness of the programmes, Dr Bernadette Carmody highlights, “At ISA our mission is ‘to educate for international understanding’, and our programmes allow students to appreciate their own cultures and history, as well as the traditions and values of others.” “Our curriculum does not ask for the memorisation of facts, but instead delivers a set of conceptually based inquiry driven units that empower our students to be responsible, engaged members of their local, national and global communities,” she further added.

Early Years Programme

The early years at ISA consist of imbibing the values in young minds to become truly international. Consisting of Nursery, Pre-School, Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten, the pedagogical approach used at the school is research-driven and based on thoughtful creation. In these years, the school aims to holistically develop the children with personalised learning. The core areas that the schools aim to develop in children are:

  • Learning Playfully
  • Relationships
  • Environment
  • Student Agency
  • Learning Dispositions

Primary Years Programme: Development of Understanding through Inquiry (Pre-school – Grade 5)

The Primary Years Programme at the International School of Amsterdam is based on the simple concept of ‘Development of Understanding Through Inquiry’. Embracing the constructivist approach to education, students are encouraged to construct knowledge through the experience they gain from multiple perspectives.

ISA students studying in the PYP programme rarely experience the traditional ideation of formal education, one-size-fits-all. The IB PYP at ISA is based on six transdisciplinary themes. Unlike the traditional hierarchy of education, these transdisciplinary themes or subjects include, but are not limited to the conventional subjects like science, maths, and languages.

Allowing students to explore and identify their unique learning style, at each grade, they get to learn more holistically and get an idea of the real world with respect to their age.

The six recurring themes of the IB PYP at the International School of Amsterdam are:

  • Who are we? (Identity)
  • Where we are in place and time. (Location)
  • How we express ourselves. (Expression)
  • How does the world work? (Introduction to the international system)
  • How we organise ourselves. (Presentation)
  • Sharing the planet. (Responsibility)

‘What I love about ISA is that everyone is always loving and caring and willing to help you when you need it. I also love that the learning strategies the teachers teach make it easier for everyone to understand and are very efficient and helpful.’ – Sophia, Grade 5 ISA Student

Middle Years Programme: Learning for Understanding (Grade 6 – Grade 10)

For any educational institute, the middle years dedicated to the development of students are extremely tricky. While most students struggle to find a connection between their learnings and the world, preparing them for the future becomes a tricky and daunting task for educators.

The Middle Years Programme at the International School of Amsterdam is a curated, well-balanced system that allows the students to learn from the world around them and make sense of everything that they are learning.

MYP at ISA is intertwined with the IB curriculum, which aims to teach the students ‘How to Learn’ rather than just focusing on academic and bookish knowledge. Taking the students outside the traditional concept of learning in isolation, the programme aims to scrutinise and search for an understanding of the real world, giving them many opportunities to grow and strive for global understanding.

Like the themes that were instilled for the Primary Years Programme, a similar learning arc has been drawn for these Middle Year Programme students at ISA under the name of ‘Disciplines’. These disciplines give the budding minds of the future a streamlined understanding of culture, history, and academic learning. Moreover, the disciplines also change as the students move ahead with their academic years.

The subject disciplines set by ISA are:

  • Language acquisition
  • Language and Literature
  • Individuals and societies
  • Sciences
  • Mathematics
  • Arts
  • Physical and health education
  • Design

“In class we learn to find our own voice. This means that our teachers encourage us to share our thoughts and viewpoints on different matters. This allowed me to hear other students’ opinions and helped me form my own ideas on the subject. My advice [to new students] would be to not be afraid to ask for help. The MYP system can be a bit confusing regarding the different criteria for grading in each test or even the different types of tests. It is especially difficult in the beginning, but it does get much easier quite fast, and you shouldn’t be ashamed or afraid to ask your peers or teachers about the MYP system.”- Emma, Grade 8 ISA Student

Diploma Programme: Making of Global Citizens (Grade 11 & Grade 12)

After formal primary education, the students are pretty aware of everything that is present around them. Though the education does not stop after the completion of the Middle Years Programme, it is just the stepping stone to more rigorous and specialised education.

The Diploma Programme was the first programme developed by the International Baccalaureate and has been offered at the International School of Amsterdam since 1980.

Like every other programme offered at ISA, this DP is also well balanced and collectively aims to broaden the understanding of ‘International Understanding’ while also preparing students for university.

The DP has been found to be an excellent foundation for preparing students to deal with real-world problems like workload, growing independence, and time management challenges. The success of this programme has been successfully reflected in research demonstrated by IB Diploma graduates who have shown consistent persistence in completing the third-level courses.

The DP is a qualification that is recognised and respected by institutions worldwide. Studies conducted by the IB have found acceptance rates to universities in the US and UK to be significantly higher amongst DP students than non-DP students. IB Diploma Programme (DP) students have a 57% greater likelihood of attending one of the top twenty UK universities than students who study traditional A Levels and had a higher acceptance rate to all twenty of the most popular American universities amongst survey respondents.

‘The Diploma Programme at ISA was an invaluable experience which taught me how to manage my time and to succeed in activities beyond my comfort zone. I’m really grateful for the ISA DP teachers who made the learning fun and interactive and who gave me the opportunity to develop as a learner and as an individual. Thank you, ISA!’ – Zosia, ISA Alumna

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