How they’re paving the way to the future.
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
A large part of who I am today can be credited to my international school education growing up, surrounded by other third-culture peers from around the globe, in a setting that emphasised independent learning. Regardless of the ever-changing landscape of education, what we’re taught in our formative years has the potential to give us the tools needed to tackle whatever the world throws at us. These values and life skills are what I remember most clearly when I look back on those halcyon years, more than equations and verb conjugations.
I mused on all of this and more as I was warmly welcomed into the lush gardens and futuristic architecture of VERSO International School by Ryan Persaud, their new Head of School, who waxed eloquent on this very concept of preparing students for the future. “VERSO’s – and my – educational philosophy is all about the humanistic side of education, and the values that we’re teaching young people as they go out into the world,” he tells me, with no small amount of zeal and eloquence. “It’s not just about fundamental academics – maths, literacy, and science – but what we’re doing to build better humans and global citizens, and to give them authentic experiences in the real world to prepare them for what’s to come.”
As Ryan introduces me to his equally charming family – his wife Sarah and twin daughters Maya and Liberty, all of whom are clearly excited to be part of the school, he tells me a little about his family background and cultural heritage that have moulded his unique approach to education. “I grew up in Canada, but my parents are immigrants, having emigrated from Guyana,” he explains. “If I trace my roots further back, we’re from India, and my ancestors were brought to Guyana as indentured slaves to work the sugarcane fields. When I think of my ancestors, and even where my parents came from – my dad was from rural Guyana, in a village with no electricity – and I think about where we are now, it’s incredible. Sometimes I have to stop, and reflect, and pinch myself,” he says with a fond smile at his family.
“When I look at where my parents came from, one of the values I took from them was the idea of sacrifice; that quintessential immigrant story of wanting better for yourselves and your children, of being brave and moving somewhere completely new. My dad’s first job in Toronto was shovelling snow. He grew up in a climate much like Thailand, and he’d never seen snow before, so you can imagine the shock!” he says with a laugh. “Both he and my mum taught me traits such as sacrifice, hard work, demonstrating kindness, and being diligent, and those are traits that Sarah and I are hoping to pass on to our twins. We’re a social justice family, and we believe in giving back: we’ve always been involved with different charitable organisations and we look at the world through that lens. Even at 13, Maya and Liberty are abreast of so many issues; they’re miles ahead of where I was at that age, in part because of the experiences that we’ve been able to give them. And that’s something I bring to my educational philosophy, the concept of teaching children the right values before they go out into the world.”
Having gone to Wilfrid Laurier University for his undergraduate degree to study business, Ryan talks me through how he ended up in education after having missed that human element in his previous career. After teaching ESL in South Korea, he got both his Bachelor’s and Master’s in education in the University of Toronto and is currently working on a Doctorate in Education from the University of Western Ontario (UWO). He has taught in Canada, Brazil, again in South Korea, and now in Bangkok, which he praises for how eclectic and diverse it is. He spoke to Masala further about what brought him to VERSO International School, and their mission of moulding the citizens of the future to be compassionate, adaptable, global leaders.
You and your family were in Brazil before this, and Thailand is arguably a big change. What attracted you to the Kingdom, and to VERSO International School in particular?
We had come to a family agreement that it was time to move on from Brazil; we were looking for another adventure. Someone in our network pointed out this job to our family, and we looked up VERSO International School and saw that it was a design-thinking, project-based learning school and that immediately attracted us.
As I went through each step of the interview process, I knew that this was a great fit for my family and me. Moreover, when I came to do a campus visit as a finalist in the interview process, I fell in love with the layout of the school. You have to see it – the beautiful design, the flexible open spaces; it’s so unique in that sense.
One of the great things about VERSO is that they allow students to explore different topics they’re interested in, so whether you’re in Lower Loop (elementary school), Middle Loop (middle school), or Upper Loop (high school), you have time to explore your passions, guided by teachers. By going through this process, kids learn to be critical thinkers, collaborative, and enquirers, which are huge assets when they go out into the real world.
This year is an exciting one for you and the school, as you’re celebrating VERSO International School’s first graduating class. How do you prepare your soon-to-be graduates for their future pathways?
What makes it so special is that we have a small class which means that we can really work with these kids on an individualised level, and get them to where they want to go. It’s not just about getting them to a brand-name school. When you look at, for example, Ivy League schools, they only have a seven percent acceptance rate. What about the other 93 percent of applicants? For us, the approach is more about understanding our graduates, their passions, and what they want to do, and finding them the right pathways, with the help of our college counsellor.
For example, all of our graduates are applying to post-secondary institutions. This includes colleges and universities in Canada, the USA, Europe, and Australia. But one of them is also considering working for an NGO. This student is currently doing amazing things with their outreach work and is considering being an activist for a year. It’s exciting for us to have someone take an alternative path that’s right for them. It’s all about fit; finding where they can find that drive and that passion when they leave secondary school.
One of the ways to prepare students for life after secondary school is equipping them with tools to tackle the current digital landscape. How is technology at the forefront of the transformation that the school hopes to achieve?
Like many schools, we’ve got Makerspaces, Design Labs, access to Ed-Tech, Robotics, and AI, and we talk about Blockchain and other exciting technological innovations. But what we’re most excited about is having conversations with our students about change and flexibility rather than specific tools, which are going to change. ChatGPT has been a game-changer, with such a variety of uses, but we have to prepare them for what the next technological disruptor will be, not just what’s currently available.
The mindset of our teachers – we call them learning designers – revolves around teaching our students future-ready skills and allowing them to be ready for change. That’s how we ensure that we remain at the forefront of progress and innovation.
Part of being future-ready is preparing students to be global leaders and innovators. Can you tell us a little about that?
Our vision is to build a global community of citizen designers. The design thinking aspect revolves around teaching them to solve problems, prototype, iterate, and have empathy. But to teach them to be global citizens and leaders, we have to allow them to experience the real world, so we’ve integrated, for example, our ‘Beyond the Walls’ trips. Aside from experiential education trips where our students can go out in nature and learn from that, we’ve had around 25 ‘Beyond the Walls’ trips in the last year alone, during which students can learn beyond the classroom depending on what they’re interested in. If they’re interested in art, they might go to art galleries, or work with local artists. If they are interested in engineering, we will connect them with a design firm, or teach them CAD. We also bring a lot of guest speakers into the school as well, to give the students opportunities to learn from real-world experts in their field.
In a city with so many educational options, what distinctive elements do you believe sets VERSO apart?
We live and breathe progressive education, and are serious about preparing our kids for the real world. The World Economic Forum talks about future-ready skills: critical thinking, being able to collaborate, being creative, understanding future technology, and being resilient and flexible. We truly embrace all of those skills here and prepare our kids from a very early age for the future.
We also have Learning Labs which provides interdisciplinary education, blending two or three subjects, sometimes even more; and flexible spaces that allow us to move furniture around to design learning spaces that are adaptive to our kids. We don’t just group by one single grade level, we group two grades together, and we team teach. Every class has at least two teachers and a learning assistant, and sometimes even more. Education is truly an immersive, interactive, and collaborative experience at VERSO.
While Bangkok is indeed a very competitive educational space, I think it’s rare that a school does everything we do to truly prepare students for their pathways ahead. I like to think of us as a unicorn; a unique, successful, and innovative institution.
In your extensive experience as an educator, and also taking into account your Indian heritage and the cultural values you had growing up, what are the educational elements that the Indian community prioritises, and how do you believe VERSO will meet those needs for the Thai-Indian community here?
Of course, it’s always difficult to answer for an entire community. I’ll go back to some of the things I talked about earlier, such as hard work and sacrifice, and giving students as many opportunities as possible to forge their own pathways and excel in what they’re passionate about. Our learning designers and the rest of the team here come from all corners of the globe, and I’m very proud of that, and I’m sure the Thai- Indian community here will value the diversity that they bring. I think about how my daughters are global citizens and can easily interact with other global citizens, and I think those are some of the values that we all care about and that we have to offer here. On top of that, we are very flexible in what we do, we teach resilience to our kids, and hone in on critical thinking for our students as well. My parents valued rigour in education. Rigour comes from learning deeply and being challenged and pushed past your comfort zone. We can motivate students to engage in rigorous thinking when we guide them to be flexible, resilient and adaptable in the face of challenges.
What is your vision for the future of VERSO?
One of the big ones for us is building the brand. We opened during the pandemic which obviously had some challenges, but we’ve certainly come through that. However, right now, some people know the school and some don’t, and it’s important to demonstrate not only to Thailand, but to the world, how innovative and progressive we are. I truly believe that we are living our vision; to make our students future ready!
I want to stay true to the roots of design thinking and project- based learning, while delivering our core curriculum. I want to offer authentic, real-world opportunities to our students and cater to their evolving needs as they transition beyond secondary school, starting with our graduating class and future graduating classes.
Finally, I’d love the opportunity to welcome the families of Masala to our beautiful campus, provide a tour of our wonderful facilities, and have the chance to meet some of the readers face to face!