In one of his presentations, international school leader turned educational consultant Matthew Savage turns to a quotation from Tim Burton’s reimagining of Alice in Wonderland:
“From the moment I fell down that rabbit hole I’ve been told where I must go and who I must be. I’ve been shrunk, stretched, scratched, and stuffed into a teapot. I’ve been accused of being Alice and of not being Alice but this is my dream. I’ll decide where it goes from here.”
This, he says, is a “very powerful metaphor” for what society inflicts on children. Adults are forever shrinking, stretching and stuffing children into “manifold teapots”, he says, but they can only really thrive if we give them agency and autonomy over their own lives.
“We standardise kids, we control kids, we label kids.”
He says: “I think these are two forces at play in the system today: the pressure to perform and the pressure to be normal.
“As an adult world, we’ve inherited a broken paradigm: we standardise kids, we control kids, we label kids, we limit them, we discriminate against them, we project on to them, we place unrealistic expectations on them, we do not protect them enough.”
Savage’s solution to this scourge, as the dozens of international schools he advises already know, is striving for something he calls, and has even trademarked “The Mona Lisa Effect” (#themonalisaeffect®). While he didn’t coin the original term — which describes the sensation one has of the Mona Lisa’s eyes following you around the room — he was the first to apply it to schools.
Savage believes that children can only thrive in school if three key things are in place: students feel they are “seen”, they are “known” and, as a consequence, they “belong”.
He explains: “A lot of the structures of education, be it curriculum or culture or climate, need to move from accommodation to adaptation. Adapting to and protecting all identities and all characteristics, that’s the first part of The Mona Lisa Effect, but the system in which we operate began as a production line and it’s remained a production line ever since.”
“A lot of the structures of education need to move from accommodation to adaptation.”
He says: “We need to understand each child’s values and identities, we need to understand their passions and their pains, and we need to understand their pasts and their futures.”
But this “soft” relationships-based knowledge, he says, must be supported by hard data which gives evidence of the child’s “aptitudes and abilities, attainment and progress, attitudes and behaviours.” Only through a combination of these can a child then be properly “known”.
The tricky bit, he says is getting “behind the masks” that children wear, something which can be particularly pronounced among “third culture” children in international schools.
He says: “They are playing a perverse form of snakes and ladders – I call it ‘find a friend’. They climb to the top of the ladder and they feel a part of their community and then, when they move schools again, they’re back down the snake to the beginning. They essentially spend the first few days and weeks in a new country or school working out ‘who do I have to be to be successful and liked and popular and happy here?’ Then they put on those clothes.”
Children suffering from poor mental wellbeing will wear a mask to cover that, he says, and likewise if they’re learning in a language other than their own. “The same happens if you don’t want to disappoint your teachers, your parents, your peers: you wear a mask so that you always seem to perform.”
“Third culture children in international schools are playing a perverse form of snakes and ladders.”
Historically, he says, many teachers would label kids. “But what they were doing is labelling the masks and not trying to get to the heart of who the child actually is,” he says.
Everything Savage says would make sense to most educators, but it is difficult to believe that international schools haven’t been able to address this problem before now. Lots of schools, he says, still get it wrong, even when they have the resources.
“You look at the Guiding Statements from most international schools and they all say they value wellbeing, the whole child, personalising learning, they all talk about being inclusive. But come September their whole marketing machine says ‘look at the kids who got 45 in their diploma, look at the kids who went to Oxbridge or to Ivy League or Russell Group universities’”
Too often, he says “schools don’t live and breathe those Guiding Statements”. “We need to hold schools to account so that they are doing what they say they are doing.”
So, since Savage launched his consultancy in 2013, while still an international school leader, his advice has become highly prized. A few months ago, a year after leaving school leadership to become a full-time consultant, he relocated to the windswept climes of the Isle of Skye in Scotland.
The landscapes keep him grounded, he is awed by the grandeur of nature every day, and his only daily stress is the sometimes precarious state of his internet connection. But what makes him so qualified to promote this child-centred approach?
“I see both of my children as glowing beacons of how extraordinary the human spirit can be.”
“Much of what I’ve learned I’ve learned through my own kids,” he says. He explains they are both of mixed heritage, third culture and neurodiverse. Now grown-up, both of them are transgender, which has not been an easy journey in today’s world, and both battle high anxiety. However, one is now just embarking on a teaching career while the other is an artist.
“What I see in them is such a success story, I see both of them as so resilient and glowing beacons of how extraordinary the human spirit can be,” he says.
Savage also has an impossibly broad experience in education, culminating in the principalship of an award-winning international school in the Middle East.
“I’ve worked in and led schools across the world – state-maintained, proprietary and not-for-profit, rural, suburban and inner city, with children and young people from 3 to 18. The breadth of my experience is something that feeds my work now, but I’ve not seen everything, and I still have so much left to learn…”
With this experience in mind, how does he think schools can change so they move away from a rigid focus on performativity and normativity and towards truly personalised learning driven by a pursuit of the Mona Lisa Effect? Much, says Savage, is a question of priorities.
He says: “It depends on the school’s leadership, it depends on them recognising that this should be the number one priority.
“Attainment and progress often seem to be the grail, but they will happen if we get the other stuff right first.”
“There is an old business adage, ‘any business that has more than one priority has none’. Where this falls down is not through a lack of money, and not through things leaders can’t control, but through the school having just too many priorities. You need to invest all your time and energy in ensuring that every kid is known and seen and belongs.”
This is all well and good, but what about schools forced by parental expectation and accountability measures to pursue high academic performance?
He says: “Attainment and progress often seem to be the grail, but I believe they should be the adjunct, they will happen if we get the other stuff right. But if we pursue them as our primary goal then it’s built on very shifting sands.”
So much for the students, but what about school leaders and teachers – surely they deserve to be as recognised and nurtured as their students?
He says: “As educators, it can sometimes feel like we should have a magic wand and solve every problem. Our time and energy are always in such high demand and it’s so easy to neglect our physical and mental health and wellbeing, but we do that to everyone’s detriment.”