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Founder of TIS makes creativity cornerstone of school’s curriculum

Patrick Newell's round the world adventure led him to Asia and the frontlines of learning

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Patrick Newell, 47, founder of Tokyo International School, calls himself a “learning activist,” a zealot on the frontlines of learning. For the past 20 years, everything in his life and work has branched out from creativity: his work at the school, his efforts with TEDxTokyo and his latest venture with Impact Japan.

Newell even takes creativity to the streets, relying on the skateboard as his main mode of transportation in the city. Impishly calling himself “the chairman of the board,” he skateboards nearly everyday, exploring the alleyways of Tokyo, where he’s lived for the past two decades, or rolling through a new city, often armed with a Go Pro camera to record and share his discoveries. “I take what I do seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously,” he says.

Two decades ago, Newell left a comfortable life in Malibu, California, when he suddenly realized that his existence “just wasn’t real and enlightening enough for me.”

His imagination fired by the possibility of an “around the world” airline ticket, he bought a specially designated multiple-stop ticket for his first steps outside the United States.

“When I was 18 years old, I already had my real estate license, so in university, I was running my own brokerage office. I was very focused on money and real estate and getting rich. And it worked until I was about 25, when I suddenly experienced a quarter-life crisis. I decided I didn’t want to be in that Beverly Hills world anymore.”

Taking advantage of the ticket’s frequent stops, he traveled in 1991 to the Caribbean, Europe and then India before heading to Thailand. He quickly realized: “I really wanted to stay at least five years in Asia, to live in Asia specifically to learn more about Eastern philosophy and to find more of an Eastern balance within myself.

“I felt, that out of the all the countries in Asia, Japan would have the best balance. Japan had the infrastructure, it had an extremely deep culture and history that was really quite different from other Asian countries I arrived at 21 years ago, and Japan was definitely the answer in Asia, the country that had it all.” He moved to Tokyo without definite plans but with a will to stay.

He was interviewing for his first job in Japan when he was offered part-time work tutoring an international school student in the evenings. He quickly became interested in education.

“I always liked kids and always enjoyed the energy of children. Children inspired me even when I was a kid myself.”

He adds: “I kind of fell into it, but I feel fortunate I came to education that way, because I didn’t have any of the preconceptions or training, so I just really looked at education from the viewpoint of what do children need to succeed. And I remembered what school was like for me personally, what was valuable, and then I really took those ideas and tried to create a school around my imaginings.”

Newell met Ikuko Tsuboya, who shared his growing interest in education and would later become his wife. The two started an English language tutoring service for students at international schools in 1993. By that time, the couple needed to think about schooling for their own two daughters. Education had become more than an occupation.

“As I got more and more into education, it became such a passion I couldn’t get enough of it. I was continually studying, going to other schools, researching and developing a model for education, really what would become the Tokyo International School model,” he said.

After Newell earned his postgraduate degree in international education from Oxford Brookes University, the couple established Tokyo International School in 1997 — initially with 12 students and one classroom.

“I was painter, maintenance, substitute bus driver, headmaster, sometimes even substitute teacher; I did everything, but I was never a main classroom teacher, as I was not qualified to do so at that time. I was only 32 years old, and most of the international schools in Tokyo had been around for over 50 years. I could thus look at things from a fresh perspective.” TIS now has over 300 students from 51 countries.

After establishing TIS, he explored wider working experiences in education, joining curriculum accreditation teams for schools around the world or educational think tanks. Something was still missing, and he branched out further by becoming a consultant for Apple, thus working with technology in education. He was also hired by the Blue School in New York, researching the best way to nurture creativity.

“If you look at the world today, the one constant is change, fast moving change. And how do you prepare kids for that one constant? By having students constantly create things, so that when something new comes along, you take your previous knowledge and you project that forward to understand and create something new,” he says. “Education has gone through a fundamental shift from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side.’ I tried to really look at a typical school day, at how much time students spend creating things or making things versus passively receiving things.”

In his research on education, Newell discovered the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a coalition started in 2002 to bring together American business and education leaders to emphasize the importance of modern-day skills for all students. He adopted their core skills — creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration — for his own school in Tokyo. Newell then created his own organization to connect the skills specifically to education on a wider scale.

“21Foundation was created to raise awareness of what is needed to succeed in the 21st century,” he says. “It was really only in America that it started, but I think it could be a global change in education, so I’m trying to take it further.”

Newell and the foundation recently produced the short film “21:21,” going inside schools in nine different countries to showcase children actively creating in the classroom.

He eventually felt the need to reach out to a wider community than the classroom. When he discovered TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design), a group of conferences held by a nonprofit group dedicated to spreading “ideas worth spreading,” he decided to bring the same model to Japan. He co-organized TEDxTokyo in 2009 with 20 main speakers from around the world, following the model of sharing a “talk” in less than 18 minutes.

“I realized that one way for Japan to really ignite itself and to spark creative intelligence and bring on the creative confidence could be through TED, and then I could also link that idea through to education,” he explained. “Take the most insane ideas from around the world, share them in Japan, while also taking Japan’s ideas and sharing them out to the world. Finally, I organized TEDxYouth to get kids engaged in doing it as well.”

Relentlessly active and full of restless, infectious energy, Newell credits his mother with the drive. As the oldest of three children growing up in California and raised by a single mother, he says he often had to rely on himself if he wanted to make things happen. His mother — a nurse, psychologist and professor — “was always doing something to make a difference in people’s lives. I think that really inspired me to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Impact Japan is his most recent effort to build a platform within Japan to unite people and build up more “creative confidence” nationwide. As education director and one of its cofounders, he hopes the group will become a “lighthouse for innovators and entrepreneurs.”

In practical terms, Impact Japan offers scholarships, mentoring and “incubation spaces” to foster an “entrepreneurial culture and mindset.”

Newell believes that “everyone has that ability to create, we have to just tap into that and give them the opportunity. There’s also something magical that happens when people are creating and they feel really good about themselves. It’s exciting, like they are able to express themselves in whatever medium they are using. And it may take a couple steps of letting go or expressing themselves in a way they wouldn’t have been able to verbalize.”