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Leading Change in International Schools: Embracing Authenticity and the IB Learner Profile

By John Bray
Leading Change in International Schools: Embracing Authenticity and the IB Learner Profile

Change is ever-present in schools, and leading change has become an essential role of leaders in international schools. Attaining “buy-in” is an important step, or series of steps, towards leading successful change and, therefore, developing successful organizations. The International Baccalaureate (IB) promotes values and practices that instigate change in schools. Leaders of IB programs need to identify challenges to this process and successfully lead their teams through them.

Andrea Belk Olsen’s article, Getting Employee Buy-In for Organizational Change, from the Harvard Business Review is an example of where research into successful change in business can support and promote understanding of leading change in education. Authenticity, the act of leading by example, is instrumental in creating change. As the article outlines, authentic leaders "embody behaviours that support the change" (Belke Olsen).

Reading Belk Olsen's article reminded me of research by Alexander Gardner-McTaggart. He interviewed six Heads of European international schools concerning their use of the IB's Learner Profile as a leadership tool. The IB Learner Profile is central to the IB philosophy and pedagogy. Outlining a set of characteristics that we hope to instill in our students, such as being knowledgeable, reflective, and principled.

McTaggart found that while most of the six Heads of School/Directors he interviewed would say the Learner Profile "resonates with their personal values," only one used it consistently as a source or guide in leading their school. McTaggart's work struck me at the time and does again now. McTaggart uncovered a significant variance in the use of the Learner Profile by Senior Leaders. This is important because, as he states, "This runs counter to research findings on the importance of...reinforcement at leadership level" (Gardner-McTaggart, 2019. p776).

Belke Olsen describes this reinforcement of values by leaders as "providing behavioral illustrations of what the change represents." So how can that be done? Challenge the concept of cliché. Tokenist terminology or actions will only contribute to any sense of clichéd use of the Learner Profile as a flavoring to “what we already do.” Make using the Learner Profile a priority, the scaffolding, not simply an added extra. Students, Faculty and Parents will quickly see through any "perfunctory platitudes" (Belke Olsen).

Making the Learner Profile a part of the furniture. Buy-in means everyone. Students, faculty, parents, staff, and maintenance crews. Many schools successfully incorporate Approaches to Learning and the Learner Profile into their reporting process. Using the learner profile characteristics, or your school's adapted version, across the organization embeds it into institutional practice.

Think for a moment before you read on. What do you already do? What are the possibilities in your school context? What could be incorporated into policy documents, contracts, and staff reward schemes? How could the Learner Profile be adapted for the school board, your school sports teams, or used to structure your peer mentoring program and classroom observations?

Develop and celebrate wins. Schools can point to significant daily occurrences of Learner Profile characteristics. Celebrate them. Note them. Being congratulated by a leader in the school, individually and as a group, increases the status of the learner profile. Start with some simple ideas. Lead regular service opportunities yourself. Get involved. Coach a team, learn a new language or take part in the school musical. Whatever you feel confident to start with, that's great. Just remember that going outside your comfort zone is also an excellent model to show students.

Schools have successfully incorporated Approaches to Learning and the Learner Profile into their reporting to parents and faculty meetings. Longer-term change like this is most successful when led through consultation with students and your faculty and leadership teams. By doing so, you will, entirely coincidentally of course, model open-minded communication within the community.

When you think about it, the ideas are easy, connections plentiful. A school leader might feel they can do this without the Learner Profile being the central language. This is true. In fact, where schools have multiple curricula, such as the French Bac or A-levels alongside the IB, diverse cultural and pedagogical backgrounds might make this essential. Schools have successfully developed interpretations for their context. However, the same premise survives; shared values should be integral to all aspects of school life, not simply those involving students or as a poster in all the classrooms.

As a school leader, you are leading a group of students that you wish to exhibit and develop these very characteristics. Moreover, student buy-in is integral to a positive culture and their flourishing as learners. You are also leading a group of faculty who you want to be guides and mentors, providing opportunities and challenges which forge students as thinkers, risk-takers, and open-minded global citizens.  Leaders can harness the IB learner profile and the broader philosophy and values to develop “buy-in” and promote a proactive, collaborative culture. Let's focus on what research and experience tell us and model these characteristics. Let's lead.



Gardner-McTaggart, Alexander. 2019. “Leadership of International Schools and the International Baccalaureate Learner Profile.” Educational Management Administration & Leadership 47 (5): 766–84.

Olson, Andrea Belk. 2023. “Getting Employee Buy-In for Organizational Change.” Harvard Business Review, 6 February 2023.


John Bray facilitates and designs learning at School of Humanity and is the Director of Learning at iArticulatementors.


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