On today’s podcast, host Lori Boll speaks with Kevin Bartlett. Kevin is the founding director of the Common Ground Collaborative (CGC), one of SENIA’s partner organizations. CGC is a learning ecosystem used by schools in 20 countries. Kevin  has led schools in Tanzania, Austria, Namibia and Belgium. He was a trainer for the PTC, co-author of the ACE accreditation protocol for NEASC, initiator of the IB PYP and co-founder of The Next Frontier Inclusion. He was AAIE International Superintendent of the Year (2014) and was inducted into the AAIE Hall of Fame. Kevin and  Lori speak about his passion for inclusion, barriers to it, and how schools can embed it in a practical manner and create systems that include.


Kevin Bartlett led schools in Tanzania, Austria, Namibia and Belgium. He was a trainer for the PTC, co-author of the ACE accreditation protocol for NEASC, initiator of the IB PYP and co-founder of The Next Frontier Inclusion. Kevin is the Founding Director of the Common Ground Collaborative, a learning ecosystem used by schools in 20 countries. He was AAIE International Superintendent of the Year (2014) and was inducted into the AAIE Hall of Fame. Kevin remains a practitioner, regularly teaching students, teachers and leaders. He believes in keeping his feet on the (common) ground!


Transcribed by Kanako Suwa

[ Introduction music plays ]

Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hour of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour. 

Lori: Hey everyone. Well, it’s been a while SENIA has been offline and at our conference that we just had in Vietnam, which was really awesome and fun and brought everyone together for a common goal. So it was pretty powerful. And if you haven’t been able to join us for a conference, I really hope you can soon. Please join us. 

So today on the podcast, I get to speak with Kevin Bartlett. Kevin’s the founding director of the Common Ground Collaborative, and it’s one of SENIA’s partner organizations. CGC is a learning ecosystem used by schools in 20 countries. Kevin has led schools in Tanzania, Austria, Namibia, and Belgium. He was a trainer for the PTC, co -author of the ACE Accreditation Protocol for NIASC, initiator of the IB PYP and co -founder of the Next Frontier Inclusion. He was AAIE International Superintendent of the Year in 2014 and was inducted into the AAIE Hall of Fame. Was that enough acronyms for you? So today Kevin and I speak about his passion for inclusion, barriers to it, and how schools can embed it in a practical manner. We also learn about the work of CGC and I’m sure you’ll learn a great deal from Kevin as I do each and every time I speak with him. So now, on to the show. Well, hello Kevin and welcome to the podcast. 

Kevin: Hi Lori. Good to be here. Nice to see you.

Lori: Nice to see you too. So you are a former school head and have had experience all over the world as I shared in our intro. Why have you spent so much of your career supporting inclusive practice? 

Kevin: It’s funny because for no particularly complicated reason, Lori, just almost a gut level belief that if we work in international education, in any education, but maybe explicitly international because that’s why I spent most of my career, although now I’m working in other fields.I think international schools were set up to serve an internationally mobile group of families to make it possible to work in different regions of the world. And when I say families, I mean the whole family. So when I teach leadership, I teach a lot of leadership courses and we teach Drucker’s definitions of leadership and management. Leadership is doing the right thing. Leaders do the right thing. Managers do things right. 

So it always felt to me at a non -cognitive, intuitive gut level that the right thing to do was to serve all members of a family and that everybody learns differently. And if we were an international body of educators, why would we expect the national system to educate certain children in that family?  Why would we think another school down the road was smarter than we were and therefore more able to support those kids? Why would we tear a family apart? Why would we make it impossible for a family with neurodiverse learners? And any parent will tell you every one of my kids is entirely different. Why should they not be able to have an international career? So to me, it was just a fundamental, or it wasn’t any big deal. It was a fundamental right of every family to have their kids educated by us. 

And it was our job to get good at that stuff and just make it happen. It’s more, to me, somewhat odd that everybody doesn’t think that way. Not that I’m that opinionated to think everyone should agree with me, but… as a matter of principle, I just think we educate every kid. And some kids do challenges more than others. Let’s not be naive about it. But along with Bill and Ocean Powell, with whom I co -founded Next For Interior Inclusion, along with Christian Pelletier, we always just felt that every child was there to be educated and it was our job to do it. 

And in fact, being in inclusive school makes us a more intelligent school. They wrote a lot about organizational intelligence. It makes us a better school. And I think in two ways, professionally better, smarter at what we do, but also morally better. I mean, along with Kristin, we built a fully inclusive school at the International of Brussels with the mission driving it, everyone included, everyone challenged, everyone successful. And we had a very demanding and very, very bright and accomplished board of 20 people from various walks of life, but selected. It was, it wasn’t a democratic elected, but we selected people for the board. So they were demanding and they honestly, they loved the fact that we were an inclusive school. They felt that it brought tremendous value to the whole community. And we convinced them we’re using data that it wasn’t having any negative impact on achievement or anything else. 

So, but honestly, honestly, Lori, it’s, it’s, it’s, to me, it’s a kind of no big deal answer. I just felt intuitively, emotionally. That’s just our job, isn’t it? So why don’t we just do our job? And if it’s hard, it’ll make us think harder. And that’s good for us, isn’t it? So, so it was very much the idea that, to me, making International of Brussels inclusive was about five minutes of leadership, we have to do the right thing. And 13 years, 364 days, 23 hours, whatever of management, which is doing things right, which is, okay, if the natural thing to do is to embrace these children, welcome them into our community and be deliberately diverse, not kind of accidentally, whoa, those slipped through the net, but no, deliberately diverse. Let’s build a diverse community because that represents the diverse community outside these school walls. But not much leadership other than just to make the decision to do the right thing. And loads of management trying to do it right. But to me, it was just a very personal intuitive feeling that surely this is what we’re here for. So not very sophisticated, just very simple. 

Lori: I know, but it’s from the heart. And it makes me wonder, you know, this is the way that we’ve always thought as well. And I wonder why other school heads or other

schools in general don’t have this same feeling, or do they, and they’re just struggling with the management piece of it? How do we do it? So why do you think schools seem to have difficulty embedding inclusive practices in this in this world in this systematic, sustainable way? 

Kevin: You know, I think it’s the key question in a way, Lori, but I think it’s a bigger question than just inclusion, although inclusion is huge. Because I’m working to transform school systems in general. And it’s interesting. It’s not that the schools for me school systems are broken. I’m very taken with I read recently at someone’s point of view that said we say schools are broken, but they’re not. They’re in fact, very, very efficient at doing the wrong thing. Drucker said, there is nothing worse than doing efficiently that which should not be done at all. So I think for schools in general, whatever we say, and one of the big challenges, and it relates to your question, is the knowing -doing gap. Whatever we say and whatever we know, that doesn’t mean we’re doing it. 

I think schools often mistake talking about something from having done something.  You know, the post -meeting conversation. Oh, what did we do about? Oh, I don’t remember. Yeah, we talked about it. Yeah, we talked about it, didn’t we? But didn’t know we didn’t actually do anything. So I think as educators, we have a duty to intentionally take what we talk about and actually do it. And I don’t think we do that very often, Lori. I don’t want to sound critical of my… 

my fellow school heads, I’m not leading a school now embedded in schools, but a friend of mine said, you know, it’s hard to work on school in school. I think schools are so complex and it’s hard to work on them when you’re in them. 

So I just think people get overwhelmed with running the system as it is now too overwhelmed to step back and say, instead of tweaking the current system, I think we need a new one. So, so what does a new one look like? I mean, that’s the work I do with the common ground collaborative is creating a different and alternative view of school systems while still recognizing the culture and context of the schools we work with. So I think for me, common ground was going back to the drawing board and starting again with we worked with five questions, what is learning? What’s worth learning? How does everyone access learning? How do we build a learning culture in every classroom? And how do kids provide evidence of learning? So we call that define, design, diversify, deliver, demonstrate. And I think if you step outside of in school and look at it from the outside and say, what if we started again? Then you begin to see the kinds of changes that would happen to make an entirely new system. But I think with all empathy for school leaders, I think they’re so overwhelmed with managing the current system, that it’s hard to step outside and begin the transformation to a new system. 

I’m a big admirer of Meg Wheatley’s work, Margaret Wheatley’s work. She talks about walk out, walk on. She talks about first and second loop, the two loops theory. You have a dominant system that perpetuates for a long time until it’s way beyond being fit for purpose. And I think it applies to education and other forms of industry, if you like. But so many people have a vested interest in it. And it’s so embedded that even though many people have this nagging feeling that it’s no longer fit for purpose, it perpetuates. And as it grows and in age, it becomes more control and compliance related. And more locked into compliance type methodologies. So right now we have a compliance system where kids are rated according to the lowest common denominator, that which we can test and get easy numbers from, because that way we can shove them into college in the right colleges. 

If that’s the predominant model, then kids who think and learn differently just screw it up. They just make it more difficult, damn it, and my life was difficult enough already. If you rethink the whole model and say, as Jay and I are doing with our balanced assessment system collaboration, but no, the purpose of assessment is not to sort learners, it’s to improve learning. And once you come up with a new, this may sound very abstract, but in fact, for us, it’s very practical. Once you rethink the purpose of what we’re doing, the purpose of assessment, because not to get into too many rabbit holes, but one of the hardest things, I think, for schools that become inclusive is wrestling with things like grading. But, you know, I can’t give this kid a B because this kid’s achievement level is way below the rest of the kids. But look at the progress she made. Well, if it was on progress, she’d get an A plus, but it’s not on progress. So for me, in order to make the shifts, it really means stepping outside the system and rethinking it from the beginning. Look kind of like we did. Define, design, diversify, deliver, demonstrate. We also work, and this is gonna sound like too many models, in a kind of Venn diagram of culture, curriculum, and community. 

So I think when we make the changes, we have to recognize what changes school culture first, and we’re building community around that. And then within that, we have curricular designs like ours. And if you have a curricular design that’s framed around open -ended questioning, for example, and kids finding their place in that journey. And if you see like Malagoutse, every child has a story of possibilities. If that’s your mindset, honestly, most of the issues to do with inclusion go away. But when you’re trying to make these kids fit into a system that is really designed to slap numbers on kids and shuffle them off into the social factory, yeah, they’re just a nuisance. So it’s hard. It’s hard to have jarring systems. That’s why I think we have to rebuild the culture from the get -go. 

And honestly, I can share examples of schools. I’ve just been online with one of them last night. One school I worked very closely in Ecuador called MINE, and the call was interrupted by a phone call to Carolina, one of the two leaders I was talking to. And it was, she had a kind of shocked response to whatever this phone call was. And I said, what happened? 

And she said, well, there’s just been a survey of the private schools in Quito, and MINE has been voted number one by parents. I said, well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it? And then Valet, the other half of the team said, well, we’ve got about 200 families on the waiting list and I’m turning away five families a day. Oh no. This is a school that’s fully inclusive and they’re turning people away. 

So I know this is a very long rambling response, Lori, but what I’m saying is those schools that have transformed their whole system around inclusion and clarity and defining learning and teaching kids how to learn, maybe counter -intuitively we’re finding that they are inundated with families who want to go there. So if anybody thinks, but a non -traditional school, we’ll lose kids, we’ll lose, no, it’s the opposite. I think we misunderstand what parents want. But I guess that the quick summary from that long answer is, I think people don’t change because honestly, we’re so locked into the bubble that we’re in and we keep trying to tweak it and improve it and we keep trying to fit these kids into that system. Whereas I actually think we need to be bolder than that and say, why don’t we rethink the system? Brilliant thinker, Edward Deming, who created Total Quality Management, he said, a bad system will beat good people every time. And I think our schools are packed with good people, absolutely packed with good people. I don’t know, I can hardly think of an educator in my whole career who wasn’t doing it for the right reasons and didn’t love kids and didn’t want the best for them. But we just believe there’s one system and we live within it there isn’t as Margaret Wheatley would say there’s a second loop of the people who’ve walked out and walked on and they find each other. It’s like CGC and SENIA beginning to collaborate, the more we build connected alternative systems of people who believe in a different way of doing things, the more we’ll actually create a second loop. And I do believe this because I’m an optimist. I hope to be a pragmatic optimist a few years from now if you and extra material inclusion and CGC and Jay McTighe and Julie Stern and others Build closer networks together. We’ll have a system that is substantive enough for other people to say oh, you know There’s another way of doing it and some really good people are doing that. Why don’t we take a look at that? So I just think you have to have front -runners who then find each other and we begin to describe new systems and show that they work like mine school until enough people say, you know, I’d rather be in that system. 

So I think there’s a slow process of providing the alternative. People don’t leave a bad relationship generally until they find another relationship. I think we have to be another relationship. That’s why I like being in relationship our two organizations, because once people see it can be done, because we need to know what good looks like to do it. I think the more we work together and show models and keep showing people that we do work together, we will gradually see people thinking, well, I’ve always believed that and these kids do deserve it. And look, these people show how we can do it. So I just think to make a shift, it just takes a lot of front runners to work together until we are substantive enough for people to say, there’s another way of doing this and these people can help us. So, that was a very long answer to a short one. 

Lori: No, it’s perfect. And I just appreciate the look at the system in general and just how we need to change. I am going to go back a little to more of the micro level where recently I’ve had multiple families contact me because their child didn’t fit in the international school where they were attending and they have now been asked to leave. And so they’re left floundering, you know, they’re just stuck. We’re in this country, we have no school for our child. And as a head who had an inclusive school,  You know, I’m guessing once you got to that point, you didn’t have that issue so much where you had to exit a student. My question to you is, what do you tell other heads of schools if they ask you about this, about not being able to support a student that’s in their school doors already? 

Kevin: Hmm, I’m going to have to watch my tongue. First of all, the kids are in all our schools already. 

Lori: Exactly.

Kevin: Because if you take a young kid, unless you have some miracle way of scanning every kid’s future, you don’t know if you take a three -year -old, how they’re going to evolve. You don’t know. So you have the kids in your school. Again, well, I’ll try and give some practical answers, but an emotional gut level answer is, as far as I was concerned, when we took a kid, they were our kid. We never exited a kid. I exited two kids in 14 years. One was a nonverbal, unpredictably violent young boy. It was a very, very sad case. He had extreme issues and we couldn’t control him physically. We couldn’t control him physically and he would hurt other children. And in the end, the good of all the children, of course, that’s important. And there was one young lady who was just clinically so sick that she was convulsing frequently and we just felt her life might be at risk if she wasn’t in a more specialized medical situation. But other kids, we didn’t exit. We didn’t. I mean, the idea that, oh, well, we can take him up to middle school. That to me was just not on because we were one school. That’s another thing that schools are often not is really one culture, one curriculum, one. It’s ironic because everyone will say we’re a great school and we’re all one. And then they’ll say, and in our elementary division, I’m always interested in the language we use. So we’re one school with divisions. Okay. I’m trying to call them progressions, but I don’t think it’ll catch on. So for me, it was you take a child and they’re yours. I guess what I’m saying, Lori, is a lot of this is about mission and philosophy and culture and belief systems. 

Because there’s no practical reason to exclude a kid unless they’re a danger to another child or a danger to themselves, then sometimes we might say, well, we’re not a medical facility, that’s for sure. However, one thing we did was we did manage numbers. Our definition of a successful inclusive school was a school that successfully educates the full range of neurodiversity or a managed number of students with a wide range of learning profiles. So we always try to keep the numbers right. So it wasn’t that we took every child, so we had like 15 kids out of 20 in an elementary classroom who really needed a lot of individual support. And then we simply built systems around it. We built them in the elementary school, and then we progressed them through until we had a high school class. 

We used a tiered system. I’m not sure what the current thinking is about tiered systems. I’m sure it’s flawed. George Box, the physicist said, all models are wrong, but some are useful. And it was a useful model for us. So we had mild support, we had moderate support, we had intensive support. And there’s always language debates around what we label things, because you don’t want to label the kids. We used to say labels are for jam jars. So we had a managed number. We had a mission. The mission was everyone included, everyone challenged, everyone successful. That was written in my first month in the school and I broke all the rules and it was not written with the whole community with a wonderful, inclusive process. It was myself and one of the board members who I remember worked for Procter & Gamble and we just said, we needed a simple way to capture our belief system and it became everyone included, everyone challenged, everyone successful. 

And from that moment on, it was, well, how do we do that? What does it mean to have everyone successful? Success won’t be the same for everybody. 

And then with great leadership from Kristen, we built the systems. We did it slowly. It took us about 10 years to go from kind of full inclusion in early childhood to full inclusion in the high school. We came up with practical solutions for things like occupational therapy, speech language therapy. We didn’t have the staff for that. We got smart. We offered a room in our school to the best English speaking language therapist in Brussels.  So she had her practice on campus. So she was, and the deal was, it’s not so good for kids who didn’t go to our school, but they, our kids would get, would be first on her list. And parents paid separately for those very specialized individual therapies. We developed financial systems. We wouldn’t take a child from a family where the rest of the kids were going to another high fee paying school, five kilometers down the road. And there were two very, very good schools close to us. Very good. 

So if a parent said, well, I’ve got my kids in, I won’t name the school, but they won’t take Mary, but can you so can she come to you? 

And we would say no, because there’s a financial implication for the work. And your other children will pay for will bring in the income. I was very straightforward with them. You either as a family buy into our inclusive community or you don’t. Well, we’re not going to be the bandaid for one of your kids because another school won’t take responsibility for your whole family. So we have some very practical policies, Lori, like no, we take the whole family. Now, if it was a financial aid issue, we dealt with that differently because we were very interested in socioeconomic diversity, not just neurodiversity. 

We’re also, as an aside, very interested in gender diversity and all of those issues around identity and the school was pioneering in that respect as well. So we had a belief system captured by a mission that everybody bought into, including these very business -minded board members. And then year by year, we moved the program through the school. We had a tiered system because we made it work, even though, like I say, all models are wrong. We had clear financial policies that, nope, we won’t take one of your children. And then we used a lot of data to show the success of the program, because sometimes you’d get people saying, well, I bet you’re dragging the standards down.  So we said, here are the data.  We have this many children with an IEP taking IB diploma or IB certificates.  If you take the numbers out of these particular individuals, if you take their grades away, if you take their results away, you’ll notice it makes no difference to the average performance at ISB. Here’s another set of data. 97 % of the kids taking a certificate with a diagnosis are passing. So we had to prove that our system worked not just for those kids, but for everybody, that they weren’t dragging the reputation down, they weren’t dragging the scores down. and a lot of hard work and good systems in place and a full belief system. People, when you have that mission splashed over your letterhead, a pretty obvious statement depends as to what kind of school you’re coming to. 

We brought in the Special Olympics, we celebrated it enormously. When the kids went to Special Olympics, every student came out and they paraded through the school to loud applause. We had the band playing and we just took our mission and made it real just through hard work, practical systems, financial smartness, use of data. I honestly believe that people felt that however their kid learned, everybody benefited from being in an inclusive school. I guess the final point would be, that’s what life’s like and if schools are to prepare kids for life, why would you create an artificial environment where every kid is scoring 38 points or something on the IB. One final point about that is there was a debate we had a whole retreat years in with board members who were questioning I guess questioning whether or not their kid would be getting three more points on the IB diploma if it wasn’t an inclusive school and I would just tackle it head on and say well you tell me the average exam score you want you tell me and I promise you I’ll deliver it I can give you whatever average score you want on one condition you will write to the parents to say your child would get a full IB diploma, but would reduce our average. So she can’t take the full IB diploma. And as soon as you say things like that, board members go, okay. And I say, what’s more important? Our school’s averages or that every child gets the best opportunity. And they were honestly, they were very good people. They were highly intelligent. As soon as you put up a few in your face statistics and say, what’s most important to you? ISB’s published IB averages or that every single child is as successful as possible. It’s a no brainer. But I think that one of the jobs of leaders is to keep putting those cold hard questions in people’s faces. What would you rather have? I believe in people, most people are decent. We want to do the best for these kids. We get stuck in the idea that we can’t. 

So you get this, our school can take children who are going to benefit from it, there’s a kind of stop response and you say, no, I want to have more kids in the net. So let’s change the answer. I can only say that there’s not just rhetoric, we did it. You’re doing it in schools all over the world. It’s perfectly possible. It’s a matter of the will. Giving good examples and then helping people. Your organization helps people on the path to inclusion. We always try to do the same. So, again, I must work on, I’m making a note to myself, be more concise. But I think it’s a matter of the will and then it’s being smart and strategic, taking your time, building the systems and then keep celebrating it, they are better schools to me they are better they are for sure and i i think the important thing as well is school leaders come and go and so it’s once you adopt this system this new system is that the next school leader believes wholeheartedly in it as well to keep it a sustainable system it’s the same with any culture you build yeah you recruit to it interestingly and i this i i hadn’t planned this conversation to be an international of brussels but my wife and i have both worked there we’re just reading a major celebration of that school i think at a un event for for promoting inclusion we haven’t been there for 20 years i guess no less than that she’s looking at me we haven’t been there for a long time but it’s still known as a very inclusive school with there being two or three leaders since i left… the board has stuck with it. That’s important. The governing body needs to be consistent. The mission hasn’t changed. For any accreditation reviewers of the mission, it’s never changed. It’s still everyone included, everyone challenged, everyone successful. And in fact, it’s a good point, you may, because turnover of leadership can damage cultures. But if it’s strong enough, and you recruit to it, it just keeps going. And I’m sure that if it was ever perceived to be a failure, well, questions would have been asked. So you put systems in place, you hire to those systems, they keep going. 

Lori: Well, let’s keep it going. Well, Kevin, I think that’s all we have time for today. Thank you so much for giving us your time and for sharing about CGC and your ideas on inclusion.

Kevin: Thank you for the opportunity. I just think it’s important work that we do. And the philosophy is a simple one. We’re all, we all come to life with a certain set of human capacities and our job is to nurture those in every kid. And we have to be smart enough to do it because we’re in the learning profession. So if we can’t learn how to do things well, there’s not much hope for our profession. So, so it’s not, it’s complicated to do sometimes, but it’s not complicated to believe in.

Lori: Not at all.

Kevin: Okay, thanks for the opportunity to chat, Lori. Good seeing you.

[outro music plays]

Thank you for joining us for today’s show. For more information, including how to subscribe and show notes, please head to our website. That’s seniainternational.org/podcasts. Until next time, cheers. 

[ Outro music plays ]

Thank you for joining us for today’s show. For more information including how to subscribe and shownotes, please head to our website. That’s SENIAinternational.org/podcasts. Until next time… cheers!