Competing With Competence and Quality – An Interview with the Principal of the German International School Toronto

Mark Benkelmann, GIST Enlarge image (© German Consulate Toronto) Mark Benkelmann is a pioneer at heart. When he moved to Toronto from Ulm, Germany, in the late summer of 2014 to take on the position as the new principal of the German International School in Toronto (GIST), he had already established a career as an educator in several German schools. Benkelmann is the kind of person who welcomes and seeks change in his personal life as well as a teacher and is trying to come up with different ways of how to provide good schooling. This mindset will serve him well within the next six years as the principal of GIST when it is up to him to give the directions of where the school will turn; a task full of opportunities and possibilities as well as challenges. We sat down with Mark Benkelmann to talk about schooling in Germany and Canada and the challenge of positioning a German school in a competitive educational market.

Where do you see the major advantages of GIST in Toronto’s school system?

Mark Benkelmann: Our main feature is that the students are well looked after. We are delivering excellent education from kindergarten to grade 10. Although the German education system is often criticized within Germany, we do not have to keep a low profile. We are the only school in Toronto with a bilingual German-English curriculum, which is truly a novelty within the city. And although in Canada we are especially competing with French, the German language and Germany as a destination are something the market here is very open for. The good reputation of the German economy worldwide and its need for qualified German speaking but not necessarily German employees helps carry the image further as well as the fact that you can study in Germany without any student fee. All of this makes Germany a very attractive destination.

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On which country did you base the GIST's curriculum, Canada or Germany?

MB: We are teaching our own school curriculum not specifically a German one. But as a German school in Canada (and all other countries of the northern hemisphere) we are following the curriculum of the state of Thuringia. So the basics for our curriculum here are the ones of Thuringia enriched by Canadian content like “Social Studies”. Another example for Canadian content is the selection of English-Canadian literature that is read and taught in Canadian classrooms. It’s worth noting that German education follows a competence-oriented approach, which means that we are not exclusively teaching facts, we are teaching skills. The Canadian schooling system, however, is more content-oriented. And if we are able to elaborate on this mix within the next couple of years, the GIST will be truly unique.

How German do you have to remain, how Canadian and international do you have to become?

MB: One important aspect is that we can’t and won’t loose our being German out of sight. And the balance between that and to consider and accommodate the wishes and needs of Canadian families is a tightrope walk that will keep us busy for the next couple of years. It is wrong to judge education only from a contextual point. Education also means being competent and being able to use your brain, hands and heart and to acquire things and be able to think more abstractly.

Art Work 'Book in a Bag' at GIST Enlarge image (© German Consulate Toronto)

Which role does competitiveness play to succeed in an “educational market” like Toronto?

MB: Within such a competitive market like Toronto marketing is key. We are following a very direct marketing strategy and are, for example, approaching kindergarten facilities and daycares directly through newsletters, we are having open houses and invite people, we are very active on social media. We also have to let the quality of the school speak for itself and therefore provide “marketing to the own parents”. If you leave your own parents unsatisfied with their school even the best marketing will backfire. So we are paying very much attention to working conceptually and to individualise learning. Another feature that makes GIST unique is the international character of kindergarten and primary school where we are the only school in that segment that teaches German. We are currently working on the extension of kindergarten hours for the near future, which I believe is crucial. In the Canadian system, kindergarten is already very much oriented towards performance and achievement, whereas in Germany kindergarten is based on the idea of free-play. Another thing to keep in mind is that German schools abroad are non-profit and are therefore always in the lower price segment.

How important is the German language to compete internationally, and how do you prepare your students for that?

MB: I think that people associate certain attributes with being German and Germany, some of them are flattering, some are clichés, others are totally overhauled. But people associate reliability, self-reliance and accuracy with German education, and I believe that this is very appealing to people. Another aspect that speaks to parents is the association of Germany with innovation and high engineering quality. For the GIST this means that instead of offering Science as a combination of subjects, we are teaching all natural sciences individually; beginning in middle school with biology in grade 5, chemistry and physics in grade 7. And these are features that are appealing to parents. Especially with Germany leading in the field of natural sciences, this will be a major segment that we are targeting in the near future to make the GIST an attractive alternative to Canadian private schools.

This interview has been translated from German.

LINKS: Website of the German International School Toronto German: A Great Option for a Brighter Future - The Benefits of German in Canadian Schools, Video produced by the Goethe-Institut Toronto

Picture Gallery Mark Benkelmann