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WIDA goes global: Leader in multilingual learning spreads its can-do attitude abroad

August 20, 2019
by Lynn Armitage, Wisconsin Center for Education Research communications

Just one phone call from China helped connect the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) to schools around the world.

In 2008, the Shanghai American School contacted Timothy Boals, executive director of the WIDA Consortium at WCER, about using WIDA’s acclaimed research-based standards and assessments to help English-language learners (ELL). “A teacher there had used our language development tools in the States and recommended them,” Boals recalls the conversation that unofficially launched the WIDA International School Consortium.

Today, WIDA’s international program has pioneered the improvement of teaching and learning for multilingualism around the world. It has grown into a worldwide ELL network of more than 400 accredited pre K-12 international schools where English is the language of instruction, in more than 100 countries.

WIDA leadership
(Left-to-right) Jon Nordmeyer, WIDA international programs
director, Mariana Castro, WCER deputy director, and Tim
Boals, WIDA executive director, pose for a photo.
These international schools not only benefit from WIDA’s research-grounded assessments and instructional resources, but also its year-round professional learning opportunities, technical support and global network of language educators who share innovative research on teaching and learning practices.

“What makes WIDA so impactful is that we transform the conversation from what multilingual students can’t do — to what they CAN do. And we empower teachers to build on the strengths of all their learners,” says Jon Nordmeyer, WIDA international programs director who travels over 100 days a year delivering professional learning and support to international schools through onsite visits, seminars and conferences. “We support and connect educators, whether they’re in New Jersey or New Delhi.”

WIDA has a proven track record, both here and abroad. According to Nordmeyer, more than 80 percent of schools in the WIDA International School Consortium renews its annual membership — and the majority of new international member schools say they heard about WIDA from another international school.

The International School Nido de Aguilas in Santiago, Chile, is one of those enthusiastic partners. They needed help in refining their assessment tools to evaluate English language proficiency: “WIDA stood out to us because we could use their tools to design instruction, set language objectives for our learners and provide a platform for conversations with parents and colleagues,” says one teacher.

A small school in South Korea was overwhelmed by a wave of new English learners. Middle school teachers were inexperienced in teaching ESL, so the school made a considerable investment in WIDA training for staff. Now they send ELL teachers to WIDA institutes and workshops every year. “Having such widespread and in-depth understanding of WIDA programs among faculty has benefited the school tremendously,” says a school administrator.

Reciprocity is Key

Nordmeyer is quick to point out that the relationship with international schools has been reciprocal. “We are learning a lot from these innovative international spaces, too, that is helping to strengthen WIDA as a whole.”

Unlike U.S. schools, international schools are not guided by federal or state regulations, so they have more freedom to be creative in the classroom. “While many international schools use Common Core or Next Generation Science Standards, they have to create their own policies and programs, and look to WIDA for help,” says Nordmeyer.

WIDA Singapore
Educators from WIDA member schools in China, Korea,
Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, and Singapore gather at a
two-day WIDA Symposium hosted by United World
College, Singapore.
For instance, a school in China challenged middle school students to build a smartphone. These students, whose native languages were Mandarin, Italian, and Spanish, had to work collaboratively to source phone components. For the final exam, they conducted a video conference call with their parents on the homemade device.

Boals was impressed. “There is some very creative curriculum being implemented in these international schools. It gives us an interesting context in which to contrast our work with U.S.-based schools and try out or share new ideas.” Boals says he’d like to bring these ideas back to the U.S. to strengthen our country’s language-learning curriculum. “I mean, why couldn’t we do that here?”

Anchored in research

Mariana Castro, WCER’s deputy director and interim director for the Department of Research, Policy and Evaluation at WIDA, wears many hats as a member of the WIDA International School Consortium team.

She works closely with teachers in the consortium to answer questions related to WIDA’s standards and assessments, offers technical assistance, serves as a principal investigator on research-related projects, speaks at a number of conferences and symposiums throughout the year, and helps Nordmeyer with the professional development of international teachers.

Castro, who grew up in Mexico and speaks four languages, is passionate about multilingualism: “Sometimes teachers see English learners through a deficit lens rather than thinking about everything positive they bring into a classroom.”

She says educators are more successful when they recognize the strengths of language learners, what they “can do,” to leverage learning in the classroom, such as demonstrating their cognitive flexibility, problem-solving skills, and ability to tackle projects from multiple angles.

Over the years, Castro has contributed a wealth of research to help develop WIDA resources, most recently for a study in the international consortium. Castro, Nordmeyer, and WIDA colleagues Jen Wilfrid and Madina Djuraeva collaborated to investigate distributed leadership systems in international schools.

“Leadership really makes a difference in what a school’s goals are,” says Castro, whose research focuses specifically on how schools build systems that support effective teaching and learning for multilingual learners. “There isn’t a lot of research out there about multilingual learners in international schools, so we hope to publish this study soon.”

Long-term vision for the international consortium

For WIDA’s executive director, it’s a simple numbers game. “There are over 10,000 English-medium international schools. In 10 years, that number is expected to double. WIDA serves 450 of those schools right now, so imagine the potential,” says Boals, looking ahead.

WIDA Institute Dubai
Teachers at an international school in Dubai in the
United Arab Emirates complete a hands-on exercise
during a WIDA workshop.
Nordmeyer is working hard to leverage the global WIDA community to help schools learn from each other—shifting from a sharing network to an improvement network. “There is great potential in educators working collaboratively around the world to improve teaching and learning.” He says independent schools can feel isolated; so it’s exciting to connect, for example, an international school in São Paulo to schools in Moscow and Singapore because they are asking similar questions.

It is this goal to facilitate more global interaction between multilingual educators that is driving a new collaboration between the WIDA International School Consortium and Professional Learning and Community Education (PLACE) at UW‒Madison’s School of Education. Richard Halverson, associate dean of innovation, outreach and partnerships, is leading the charge with PLACE to develop virtual, online versions of WIDA’s international professional learning.

“We will be helping WIDA International extend its reach through virtual conferences and workshops to serve the WIDA audience more broadly,” says Halverson.

But it is the connection to scholarship that really matters to teachers, says Nordmeyer. “When I meet educators in other countries, they are thrilled to connect to scholars at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.” The world traveler drives it home, “The real value comes from connecting our global network to the university and the research that we do here.”

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