Unfamiliar Places

October 21, 2013

Jack Schwille leads College of Education’s international exploration over three decades


by Nicole Geary

John (Jack) Schwille has always been fascinated by unfamiliar places.

“As a kid in a very small, rural and not at all cosmopolitan community, I had an unlikely passion for learning about other countries,” he wrote. And now, he says, that desire “has proved insatiable.”

In the 50 years since starting as a doctoral student, Schwille’s obsession with understanding the world has taken him to 45 countries, earned him a place among the most well-known scholars in comparative education and—luckily for the College of Education—it landed him at Michigan State University early in his career.

He came to MSU in 1977 to join the pioneering team of researchers in the Institute for Research on Teaching. Seven years later, as a faculty member already known for introducing new ways of thinking, he was picked to be assistant dean in charge of the College of Education’s Office of International Studies.

At the time, it was a new position saddled with an ambitious list of expectations for elevating how the college engages in global work. But it was the type of job Schwille was passionate about—and prepared to do.

Since then, he has been generously leading the College of Education’s multifaceted approach to promoting international engagement among students, faculty, teachers and K-12 students.

Ask other university leaders about the college’s international achievements of the last three decades and, every step of the way, the answer is “ahead of the game.” Ask some of the hundreds of international students who have come through Schwille’s office and the answers become stories about packed community gatherings, about finding their academic footing and about becoming influential educational leaders on almost every continent.

This spring, Schwille received Special Recognition for Promoting International Understanding from the university’s central office of International Studies and Programs (ISP). He retired in May 2013—yet again venturing into unfamiliar territory—and turned his responsibilities over to Reitumetse Mabokela, a professor of higher education with extensive experience in international research and development.

“The College of Education has been a trailblazer in the international arena under the masterful leadership of Professor Schwille,” Mabokela said in a message to the college community. “We are strategically poised to train world-class graduates who can engage diverse students, domestically and internationally.”

Strength by infusion

Some people have argued that if MSU had graduate programs granting degrees in international and comparative education, they could be the nation’s—or even the world’s—best. However, Schwille says it’s actually the absence of such programs that has made the College of Education unusually strong in international studies.

Without pressure to recruit faculty and students into a particular program, he argues, virtually every job and degree program across the college can be considered open to international or internationally-minded candidates. The model Schwille adopted, an “infusion approach,” has led to a substantial increase in the number of international faculty and students. The goal has been to integrate global perspectives across all aspects of the College of Education’s mission: research, teaching and service.

“International work was not at all new when I started, but the approach was very new,” Schwille said. “No other university I know of has carried it to the extremes that we have.”

In his humble way, Schwille made a point to attract and encourage international scholars (such as Lynn Paine, Mun Tsang, Chris Wheeler and Maria Teresa Tatto) whose research could grow the college’s reputation and, more importantly, create new opportunities for student learning.

Whether it was a massive cross-national research project, a scholarship program, a study abroad experience or any other initiative that he believed would expand social and educational understanding, Schwille went for it wholeheartedly—and encouraged his colleagues to do the same. International work, he says, requires a “combination of vision and just crass opportunism.”

And so a long series of experiments and breakthroughs commenced.

Global research leadership

International research in education has been a top priority for Schwille. In the 1980s with colleagues at Harvard University and MSU, Schwille led the MSU BRIDGES team to research the quality of primary education in developing countries. It focused on Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burundi and Pakistan, and was funded by USAID.

With alumnus Martial Dembélé (PhD ’95), Schwille led a small team of consultants working with national leaders to introduce teacher-led professional learning in the West African nation of Guinea against the grain of a highly centralized education system. Funded initially by the World Bank, the model was developed with extraordinary success over a period of 10 years.

Doctoral graduate Martial Dembélé (center) and Jack Schwille pose while on a project trip to the African nation of Guinea, where they developed a model for teacher-led professional learning. Originally from Burkina Faso, Dembélé is now a tenured faculty member at the University of Montreal.

Doctoral graduate Martial Dembélé (center) and Jack Schwille pose while on a project trip to the African nation of Guinea, where they developed a model for teacher-led professional learning. Originally from Burkina Faso, Dembélé is now a tenured faculty member at the University of Montreal.

He traversed the globe conducting comparative achievement studies for the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), and he laid the groundwork for peers to follow their own international research ambitions. One of the most notable is William Schmidt’s role in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the famous finding that, compared to high-achieving nations, math instruction in the United States is “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Also in mathematics, Schwille recently co-led the world’s first international assessment of student learning in higher education based on national samples. The 17-nation Teacher Education and Development Study in Mathematics (TEDS-M), showed vast differences in what teacher education students know about mathematics and how they are prepared throughout the world. As Schwille says, the study has helped prove that teacher education matters.

IEA studies like TEDS-M figure among the most influential educational research of the last half century. Starting in 1972 with a research fellowship at IEA Headquarters at the University of Stockholm, Schwille went on, over 40 years, to work on international leadership teams for four major IEA multicountry studies, mostly in civic education and mathematics. In 2010 he was elected an honorary member of IEA, an honor bestowed on only 22 researchers since the organization was founded in the 1960s.

Internationalization at home

His projects based closer to campus were similarly bold.

With founder Sally McClintock (a College of Education alumna, now deceased), Schwille helped launch a long-standing program in 1995 that helps K-12 teachers add international perspectives to their thinking and practice through monthly interactions with international students at MSU. LATTICE, Linking All Types of Teachers to International Cross-cultural Education, still continues its work of K-12 internationalization.

“It was a concept that put the College of Education on the map nationally, and in the lives of a lot of international students,” said David Horner, former director of the MSU Office for International Students and Scholars (OISS).

An emphasis on integrating international elements into the K-12 curriculum and into teacher preparation began to permeate the college culture, leading to the development of new undergraduate course sections and powerful study abroad experiences for students. The Cross-Cultural Teaching Abroad programs were considered particularly unique for giving teacher candidates opportunities to actually teach in South African or Australian classrooms.

By 2006, MSU had received two major awards for the College of Education’s international initiatives: the Goldman Sachs Higher Education Prize for Excellence in International Education and the AACTE Best Practice Award in Global and International Education.

For Schwille, those honors proved that the infusion approach was working. But, ever ambitious, he also knew the college was just getting started. Since then, among other things, his colleagues were able to establish:

  • The Confucius Institute, which provides resources for K-12 students and other Americans to learn Chinese language and culture.
  • The Global Educators Cohort Program, which prepares students to teach abroad or in multicultural classrooms, starting with specialized experiences during freshman and sophomore years.
  • The Fellowship for Global Understanding, which provides college-sponsored international study trips available to doctoral students throughout the college.

A global family

Throughout his career, Schwille always made international students a priority. Finding strong prospects during his travels, he not only encouraged them to come to MSU but also helped them obtain assistantships and set up networks of support.

“That really has been his profound contribution to the college, his nurturing of international students, to integrate them into our college and be successful academically,” said Cassandra Book, professor and associate dean emeritus.

He always had time for them, and then some.

Jack and Sharon Schwille have generously supported international students in many  ways. Here they help celebrate a new baby with parents Mamadou Baldé and his wife  Aminatou, who brought the warmth and culture of Guinea to campus.

Jack and Sharon Schwille have generously supported international students in many
ways. Here they help celebrate a new baby with parents Mamadou Baldé and his wife
Aminatou, who brought the warmth and culture of Guinea to campus.

Schwille invited international students to mingle with faculty and peers during monthly breakfasts in Erickson Hall, to gather for an annual college-wide breakfast at his home and even to join his family for Thanksgiving dinners. So many were welcomed to the Schwille’s house that the holidays often became standing-room-only occasions.

“Nobody was a stranger, no matter what their ethnicity was,” said Marlene Green, who was Schwille’s administrative assistant for 11 years. “He would talk to anyone and try to get to know them.”
And he made sure other faculty members got to know the international students, whom he regularly challenged and put in the spotlight.

“The experience that international scholars bring to the college is taken very seriously and used to enrich the experiences of others,” said Martial Dembélé, one of Schwille’s main collaborators who is originally from Burkina Faso in Africa and now an associate professor at the University of Montreal. “I felt that I gained an understanding not just of issues in the U.S. but in many parts of the world.”

The Schwilles are Snyder Society donors to MSU, having begun a legacy of giving to multiple areas across campus three decades ago. Jack and Sharon believe so much in supporting international students that they established a fellowship primarily for non-U.S. citizens attending the College of Education. Since 2001, their gift has provided tuition dollars to more than a dozen students selected based on academic potential and, not surprisingly, willingness to work with persons from diverse ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds.

International students outside the College of Education also have been influenced by Schwille. Juma Mmongoyo of Tanzania, for example, was a star secondary school student of Schwille’s son and daughter-in-law during their Peace Corp teaching days. When Schwille learned that Mmongoyo had gone on from his village school to receive a master’s degree in chemistry, he met with him in Tanzania and helped him compete successfully for a U.S. scholarship program in agricultural studies.

When Mmongoyo arrived in East Lansing last summer, he stayed with the Schwilles until he settled into his new surroundings and an apartment with international students in the College of Education—an Indonesian, a Mexican and a Palestinian from Israel. He is now studying food chemistry and toxicology as a PhD student in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition.

“You can have good qualifications, but it’s not always possible to get to an American university like this,” Mmongoyo said. “You need people to support you, and Jack is one of the reasons I am here.”

Grounded at MSU

Jack Schwille (far right) with fellow College of Education researchers who worked together over three decades ago, (from far left): Andrew Porter, William Schmidt, Lucy Bates-Byers and Robert Floden.

Jack Schwille (far right) with fellow College of Education researchers who worked together over three decades ago, (from far left): Andrew Porter, William Schmidt, Lucy Bates-Byers and Robert Floden.

Along the way, Schwille’s big heart and critical mind have helped make MSU and the College of Education a place where everyone is free and willing to explore the unfamiliar—whether you are talking about a different culture, another nation’s approach to education or a new theory about teaching and learning.

As Dean Donald Heller said, Schwille has shown “the kind of impact that one person can make is immense.”

Schwille has started writing a book about the college’s approach to fostering international engagement to be published by MSU Press. He also remains working on his latest development project, MSU’s cross-disciplinary effort to find new ways to improve well-being and sustainable living in two Tanzanian villages.

His thirst for exploration could have sent him sling-shotting around the globe to different jobs—and he certainly had opportunities. But he believes he has learned more about the world by staying grounded at MSU, taking journeys surrounded by the diverse, world-changing spirit of fellow Spartans.

“When push comes to shove, what matters most to me are people,” Schwille said at his retirement reception. “And here at MSU I have worked with the most stimulating, productive people I could ever hope for.”