All posts by Matthew Piercy

MATTHEW PIERCY is a middle school social studies teacher at International School Bangkok. His experiences in the classroom include every grade from 3rd to 11th. He also enjoyed a stint as an instructional coach. Prior to living in Thailand, Matthew worked in international and boarding schools for over twenty years. Tunisia, Ecuador, Hungary, Hawaii, along with the states of Colorado and Georgia all at some point were called “home.” Matthew also enjoys leading summer expeditions for National Geographic, to destinations like Iceland and Cambodia. A diverse pathway in life has led to Matthew’s passion for global mindedness and he constantly is searching for ways to enhance learning, meaning, and transference. His blog explores interconnection and purpose.

An Unwillingness to Hand Over Curiosity to Google

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.

Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

~Albert Einstein

At the beginning stages of a project on innovation, I conference with students. My conversation with Anthony was staccato, more detached than cut short.  

“Great, you want to see how gaming consoles have changed throughout time. As you begin to research, what are some questions you have?  Or, if you find out anything about gaming consoles, what do you wonder most?”

The response a dead end.

“Nothing.” 

A child void of wonder could be linked to a listless boat in harbor.  Not only captainless but tethered.  However, eternal optimism screams out, “The boat is still afloat!”

Unfortunately, the conversation with Anthony was not exclusive, others had played out over the years.  Dejected tones imbued in learned compliance.  Students comfortable with conforming to carousels of simple obedience and going through the motions traditionally called, school.  

In quiet reflection I question the myriad factors which might contribute to what appears to be an inverted approach to learning.  Specific to Anthony I wonder, “How often  in middle school has Anthony been given free reign to wonder?”  The normative approach possibly is one where teachers have over a hundred students and countless standards to “cover.” Systems of disempowerment where students are subjected to learning, as opposed to being agents of their own learning.  

Further contemplation led me to take a deeper dive into what research says about the nature of wonder and curiosity.  There is little if any scrutiny of the value of curiosity in learning.  Yet, there is artistry behind designing approaches that truly listen to learners and provide the right conditions for revelling in wonder.  To do so would not be noble but simply, humane.  Intentionally fueling, as opposed to extinguishing this lifeblood. Curiosity, a hallmark of our human experience.

Tomorrow is Already Today

The role of curiosity is essential as we step into a possible fickle future. In an article titled, “Why Curiosity Might Be the Most Important Skill for Recruiters,” John Vlastelica shares:

“My team and I at Recruiting Toolbox have worked with thousands of corporate recruiters and hiring managers inside many of the best known companies on earth. And as you uncover what makes a great recruiter great, you start to hear common themes across industries and geographies. Curiosity is not always explicitly called out, but it’s there — it’s like an underlying competency, that leads to the more visible competencies that talent leaders and business leaders tell us they want to see more of in their recruiters.”  

But it does not stop with curiosity.  So too is the need for context and razor sharp problem solving sets.  Kurt Reusser’s 1986 study, is in effect sadder than it is humorous. How Old is the Shepherd  posits, “There are 125 sheep and 5 dogs in a flock. How old is the shepherd?” Though absurd, researchers reported that  three quarters of schoolchildren were willing to offer a numerical answer to the shepherd problem.  Conditioned to calculate and not question, there is little wonder how passive learners were not confused by the word problem. They just needed to come up with a number.

Good news! This study was more than 40 years ago. Or is this really “good” news.  School curriculums have done anything but prune existing curriculums.  The time and space to develop intuition, explore, and question most likely has become even more confined. The pace of the world continues to quicken and students are expected to know and be able to do more, but seemingly in even less time. Racing as if there is soe sort of finish line. Further, consider the wieldy role of AI and algorithms.  Aimed at optimizing everything, algorithms increasingly are taking hold.  Their grip tightening as can be seen in the case of the “all knowing,” Google. “People Also Ask,” (PAA), previously known as “Related Searches,” appears after any word is typed into Google.  Only, no longer is this search all about knowledge and limited to generation of millions of results in less than a second.  Google also proffers a list of questions (PAA).  A list of what we might want to know.  The pivotal role of wonder shortcutted.  Users neither “have to” nor “get to” think of the questions.  Though under my brow for several years, only now am I conscious of the implications this feature may have on the future. The approach so seemingly sleight of hand. I am left with one dominant feeling. 

Gobsmacked.

If you look up “gobsmacked” on Google, the first enquiry in “People Also Ask” reads, “Is gobsmacked a bad word?” Impulsively, I click on the question and find “…it’s used for something that leaves you speechless, or otherwise stops you dead in your tracks.”

Exactly. I am speechless, stopped dead in my tracks.

This is because “Googling” is no longer solely about knowledge and answers.  It is also about questions. Conditioned to still question I do not intend to hand over this privilege to Google. But how many busy learners will?  Or, already do!  

Will Google revisit their mission and even rebrand themselves? This seems to be a matter of  subterfuge, as Google exceeds their  interest in, “organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful.” 

This all reminds me of shopping for a greeting card.  Of greater importance than the inflated price tag, the happy birthday or get-well-card, comes with a message already written for the consumer who toils with the words to honestly express their feelings.  Yet, according to an Atlantic article written nearly a decade ago, “Consumers are expected to spend $860 million on about 150 million Valentine’s Day cards this year.”  In essence paying a card company to express YOUR feelings!

What We Can Do?

Warren Berger, self proclaimed questionologist and best selling author of A More Beautiful Question, references how today’s work environments are entrepreneurial and in need of educational systems which value questioning. Personally I plan to begin by truly nurturing curiosity and intentionally affording time to question in the classroom.  I myself modeling inquisitiveness and improving the habit of verbalizing my questions.  I also aim to take inventory of the types of questions students are asking.  Thankfully, “Is this going to be on the test,” appears to have all but vanished. I plan to hold close to the following five steps by Berger to help my students become better questioners: 

1. Make It Safe
2. Make It “Cool”
3. Make It Fun
4. Make It Rewarding
5. Make It Stick 

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Invaluable Intangibles

As of late I find myself swirling, if not drowning, in acronyms. First SPACS and now most remarkable of all, NFTs. Non-fungible tokens.  Never one to be a laggard I took a deeper dive.. And to simply know what NTF stands for is not enough. More than “all the rage,” NFTs likey are the future. Clearly millennials grasp the concept of NFTs and are paving this somewhat ethereal and hard to conceive of future.  One where we may stray from the more traditional business model of stocks, bonds and mutual funds, but also dip into the entertainment industry.  Artists, athletes, and musicians are seemingly all rushing to create limited digital editions of their “goods.” 

In layman’s terms, digital items being bought and sold with digital money.  What is especially of significance is how authenticity is being guaranteed.  Each item stamped with a unique code and stored on a blockchain.  For more information on blockchain technology, there are a host of YouTube tutorials on the subject.  For now, just think Bitcoin. and where a distributed ledger system underlies blockchain technology. Meaning, the ledger or records, are spread across the whole network, making tampering difficult.  Further, it is encrypted, anonymous, and data added cannot be removed or altered. Everything is recorded.  The whole “story” intact.

Big Money

In the news you may have read how a band called the Kings of Leon garnered more than $2 million by auctioning a song.  Then, American football superstar Rob Grownkowski auctioned playing cards.  Many others followed but none matched the recent trade of a JPG digital piece of art which sold for $69.3 million.

The beauty in each sale is how the internet acts as a short of auction house, helping artists reap the benefits of their trade. The middle man cut out.  In the case of the near $70 million dollar graphic art sale of “Five Thousand Days,” graphic artist Mike Winkelmann, known under the pseudonym Beeple, profited from his 13 years of attention on the “masterpiece.”  

New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose posited in a March 24th article, “Why can’t a journalist join the NFT party, too?”  $558,134.50.  This was the result of Roose’s column purchased by a user named @3FMusic.  “The biggest perk of all, of course, is owning a piece of history,” Roose wrote in the column. The article is the first NFT in the New York Times’s almost 170-year history.  The column purchased is about what NFTs are all about. Now that is philosophical!

Shifting to professional sports, there is question of whether or not athletes will be able to fully represent themselves.  Or, will players be more like owned commodities?  Gronkowski’s NFT trading cards were auctioned for over $1.6 million.   Patrick Mahomes, another professional football star raked in $3.7 million. The 25-year old has a mission to “make the world a better place,” and proceeds were donated to his 15 and the Mahomies Foundation, as well as 40 different Boys & Girls Clubs in Kansas and Missouri. However, the National Football League is moving fast in hopes of cashing in on NFTs.  Recently a memo was sent to teams telling them that  league approval was needed and to not begin making their own agreements.  This is on the heels of the National Basketball Association establishing a partnership with Dapper Labs and development of NBA Top Shot.  This is a place where fans are able to buy, sell and trade official licensed digital cards. With an estimated market cap over $1.5 billion, this is a slam dunk for the league. 

But What Does All This Mean to Education?

A lot.

College admission is riddled with stories of fraud, cheating and inauthenticity.  The list is as long as it is wide. Implicated parties include organizations, universities, athletic departments, coaches, parents, and celebrities to name a few.  Centralization has permitted secrecy and scandal.  Timothy Collins, a financial adviser, recently shared how “the education industry could use NFTs to share and/or secure transcripts, letters of recommendations, standardized test scores, certifications, and diplomas.” What is being traded or shared as an NFT may be questionable.  However, the significance of adopting blockchain technology is certain.

The future of higher education, and I might argue the future of work, will make this shift.  This may even be considered old news, as nearly two years ago, “nine universities from around the world collaborated to create a trusted and shared infrastructure standard for issuing, storing, displaying, and verifying academic credentials.”  Amongst these was the University of California at Berkeley, MIT, Hasso Plattner Institute at the University of Potsdam in Germany, and the University of Toronto in Canada.

This is good news.  

Verification.

Authentication.

A Future of Great Possibility

The fashion apparel brand Supreme was a bit a bit ahead of the curve. Opened in 1994, Supreme was just that.  Supreme in its uniqueness and originality, possibly even items being limited in stock.  Yet, living in Asia has afforded me many lessons. One, is to not be fooled by a fake.  Ubiquitous are the markets where knock-offs are so well constructed, that only the price attests to imitation. Buyers ultimately chasing exclusivity.

Will education follow a similar trend? Hopefully not in exclusivity but in authenticity. As students “brand themselves” with credentials and accomplishments that ultimately can be attested to by a ledger.

The future holds great possibility. And I wonder where we might be in 10, five, or even three years.  Because I continue to try and wrap my head around how a piece of digital art, a JPG file, something not in the physical realm sold for nearly $70 million.  Purchased with digital money also not in the physical realm.

Do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do (The Twilight Zone Theme Song).

As Education Evolves, We Must Continue to Integrate Parents

Schooling and learning have changed. From passivity to authenticity. Transferability the clear goal.  An analogy that might help better understand this evolution is the user experience of shopping and how it has morphed, almost into an unrecognizable state. The advent of shopping catalogs can be traced back further back in history than one might assume, however we are but a couple generations removed from the “Golden-era of mail order.”  You may even have memories, fond or otherwise so, of the 1980’s when we saw the likes of Lands End, J. Crew, and Sears.  The retail catalog business  estimated at $164 billion in 1989.  Catalogs now are but a faded memory, yet they were the  building blocks for the budding behemoth, Amazon. Nowadays there is talk about the use of augmented reality to assist with virtual shopping.  Amazon being one such company utilizing patented mirror technology.  The evolution of shopping is an illustration of an undeniably different world than the one adults experienced as children. This is not unlike our schools and classroom.   Yet, unless you never left school, many adults today may not have realized this transformation.

One Question Remains

Before the turn of the millennium I started teaching in an urban school in a large city in the United States. Three quarters of the 8 and 9-year olds in my class would not share the end of the school year, as name tags would tirelessly be replaced with the incessant cycling in and out.  Transience was often a result of families being evicted from government subsidized housing.  Most headed by a single parent, always mothers.  The young women’s experience with education, negative more often than not. To get them to come for a parent night or conference was a stretch.  Families merely surviving.

Fast forward to another reality, teaching in Asia at a respected international school.  Standards, compliance, and well resourced; many students have help at home: maids, tutors, coaches, and extended family.  Two parent households the norm; both often highly educated.  Conference attendance is nearly 100 per cent.  Still, one question is worthy of asking. 

How well do parents really understand what school is today?

In both situations above, intentionality is essential. How are we welcoming parents in, helping educate them on how the world has changed, and how this translates to being a student today?  Unless we do so, the divide likely will remain.  A disconnect where seemingly a more scientific rather than artistic means of measuring wins out.  The quantifiable, hard and fast grades prioritized over the qualitative process of learning.  Commanding teachers as opposed to empowered students.  

Just Where Are We Now?

During the pandemic Zoom was used in more than 90,000 schools in 20 countries.   In effect, this meant that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of classrooms were opened to parents.  Sitting on the periphery, or in the case of younger students possibly directly in front of the screen with their child. Parents had an opportunity to be fully integrated, immersed in the learning even if virtual school was different.  Smeared or possibly even “broken,” it was a “window” nonetheless.  Zoom certainly required teachers to be vulnerable.  

Ted Dintersmith, author and film producer, of “What School Could Be” optimistically reveres the pandemic as a remarkable opportunity.  “Will we rush to go back to ‘normal,’ piling on the worksheets and fact-based exams? Or will we learn from what worked this past year and use these insights as a springboard for reimagining school??”  A component of this “reimagining” hopefully will be the critical role of parents.

Dr. Diana Hiatt-Michael, a professor of education at Pepperdine University for more than three decades, examined the historical role of parents in education.  Published by Academic Development Institute, “Parent Involvement in American Public Schools: A Historical Perspective 1642—2000,” attests to how the pendulum has swung back and forth. “From strong parent involvement in the home and community based schools of the agrarian seventeenth century to the bureaucratic factory model schools of the industrial revolution,” writes Dr. Hiatt-Michael.  What the impending Information and Experience Age propagates is still left to tell.  However, what is not in question, is the profound impact parental involvement has in a child’s education.  

However, hiring out or programming the lives of children is not call. Rather, the quiet strength in truly listening to children. As well, especially in the pre-teen and teenage years, maintaining trusting child-parent relationships where artful two-way conversation is a part of family’s home cultures.  This communication about friends, things a child may be excited or even nervous about, as well as what is being learned in school.  Parents and children alike never have expressed titillation from the generic deadend conversation that begins with, “How was school?”  

What We Can Do (3-2-1 A Common Technique in a Teacher’s Toolkit)

Parents play an integral role in assisting their child’s learning but how might we better facilitate this? Furthermore, how might we as students, parents, teachers, and schools have a more shared vision of what education can be?  Let us finish with some hopefully easily applicable ideas for paving a luminous path.

3 Things Teachers and Schools Can Do:

3 Invite families into the classroom to observe.  And not just once or twice a year.

2 Share regular “newsletters,” updates, or e-mails to help keep parents informed and involve .

1 Share recommended resources that can assist with building greater understanding of the world of children and education today.  As well, parenting wisdom.  For example, Madeline Levine’s Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World.”

2 Things Parents Can Do:

2  Set down your phones and create time daily to speak with your children.

1  Parents teaching parents:  volunteer to provide or attend a workshop.  Topics such as as self-management and finding balance with technology are often especially valuable.  

1 Thing Students Can Do:  

1 Do not wait for events like student-led conferences to share your learning and lives with adults.  

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Deserving Permission

Two bits recently grab my attention as I grapple to better understand each.  The first is simply a matter of syntax but the words I hear and choose to use clearly have an impact. The second is of much larger context and regards the commodification of education.  

“The self-talk you use regularly creates your reality and your destiny,” states Christopher Bergland in an article published in Psychology Today titled, “Scientists Find That a Single Word Can Alter Perceptions ~Language has the power to make the invisible appear real”.  Understanding this, two words seemingly have the power to raise the hackles on my hairless back.  

“Deserve.”

And “permission.”

Consciously I no longer use either, a disappearing act from within my lexicon.  The first, “deserve”, exudes entitlement. “Have a great break, you deserve it!” Or, “Go ahead and eat dessert.  You deserve it!”  

Caroline Myss, five-time New York Times bestselling author and internationally renowned speaker asserts, “The attitude of ‘deserve’, as a rule, is a one-way street.”  As if to say that the world and others are simply to revolve around an individual. Myss further adds, “Expectations do not get filled by themselves. Someone has to ‘make’ you happy; someone has to ‘provide’ security and safety; someone has to ‘provide’ love.”

The second, “permission”, appears especially out of place in the context of education.  A place where empowerment and innovation are essential.  Some these days even are proclaiming “fearless inquiry”.  Boldly questioning and willing to try everything. Yet, still hanging on are the enduring remnants of tradition and hierarchy.  A colleague in another school shared a pervasive example of a school community writhing in dysphoria.  “You have the permission to send Meghan to the office when she tells you to be quiet.”  A knee jerk reaction would surely need to be kept in check, a biting of the tongue just the same.  For surely there would be a desire to sarcastically respond, “Geez, thanks!”   Unfortunately this is not a stand alone example.  I have also overhead educators ardently disclose, “Jill (the principal) said we had permission to purchase supplemental materials with our PD funds.”  Like 7 and 8-year old children, professional practioners, those in the trenches, are so disempowered that they need to be given “permission.”  These examples are even more preposterous when we consider “teachers make over 1500 educational decisions every school day, a constant juggle of manager, content holder, master communicator, and support system.”

Occupying more of my thinking, at a 20,000 foot altitude is how might higher education be 10, 20, or 50 years from now.  Specifically, in the United States.  A proponent of alternative models and interested in learning from the past but also the pandemic present, a part of me is not entirely optimistic.  I have no sources to back my thinking, just experience.  

Last year, Forbes reported how student loan debt is just behind mortgage debt, a figure of $1.56 trillion.  Clearly a broken system, however with all the talk about the unsustainability of student loans, I posit “What would happen if we emptied the higher ed institutions of privilege?”  What if not a single American student attended the Yales, Harvards, and Princetons?  

A vacuum. 

That’s my prediction of what likely would see.  As true as gravity.  

A flood of F-1 student visas would result.  The elite from developing countries would fill the hallowed halls and desks up over night.  Education, a commodity bought up.  More than mere fad, attending such schools is a symbol.  Just as driving a fancy car, wearing certain designer clothes, or toting a $3000 purse.  In Bangkok, the city where I live, shopping is considered by some to be the nation’s favorite pastime.  With countless luxury malls, boutiques as well as upscale brands help fill a sort of void. Opulence a sort of addiction. Status but also appearance, the priority. 

Education is no different.  A commodity.  Only in much of Asia, education is rooted culturally, the pathway to success.  Therefore, what is considered the “best” or “first-tier” naturally is what is sought after. Not necessarily for better or worse.  An Ivy League sweatshirt worn with pride.

However, what is different is the messaging. A more progressive view wells up in the United States.  One example is the rampant rise in credentialing. This appears far more aligned with what it means to learn and work in the 21st century.  In the United States alone there are over 730,000 confirmed credentials.  According to Credential Engine, “Through an increasing array of credentials – such as degrees, licenses, badges and apprenticeships – job seekers, students, and workers have more options than ever to help them get ahead.”Again, I have just experience to make these claims.  Yet, for now my recommendation is to just give students “permission” to pursue an alternative approach.  Afterall, they “deserve” it!

Bridging The Worlds of Teachers and Students

“Put your hands up if you can name a YouTuber.”
“Two Youtubers?”
“Keep your hand up if you know three YouTubers.”
18.
Then, 11.
And finally, seven hands remain in the air.

“Hands down.  Now, raise your hand if you know what is going on in neighboring Myanmar.”
Two hands hesitatingly raise up.

This fantastical visual served as a reflection of the need for a call to action.  The necessity to bridge a divide between a students’ world and that of ours, adults. Generation Z, or Zoomers, have an ocean of information to swim in, right at their fingertips.  However, just as I wish that students begin paying closer attention to the world around them, I too should have much to gain from taking a deeper dive into  what captures their 12 and 13 year-old attention.  

Beginning With the “Why”

We may profess that we promote environments where students become caring global citizens, yet how might we move beyond mere words and into action? At the school where I teach, an intentional approach was taken to provide opportunities for students to speak, listen and learn about the world, ourselves, and what is currently taking place around us.  This mission was designed to help us maintain focus on why we do what we do.  Further, it is aligned with a three item list that is a header on our weekly meeting agendas.  To design with the following in mind:  agency (voice/choice); promote a robust array of opportunities to develop skills of reading, writing, speaking; and to prioritize meaningful learning that motivates and becomes transferable.  Furthermore, our aspirations as social studies teachers is further backed by our school’s vision statement:  “to enrich communities through the intellectual, humanitarian and creative thoughts and actions of our learners.” 

How A Teacher Might Get Started

One method of going about this is a robust current events integration.  This begins by our modeling of a presentation.  This year it was an event about Elon Musk and Space X.  Specifically how on average every two weeks of 2020 there was a commercial space launch. The Hong Kong protests was a close second.  After the presentation we invited students to comment positively and specifically.  Following this, we roll out the rubric.  Simplified, the one standard addresses communication and a students ability to engage in discussion on public issues.  The “discussion” is ultimately the passion a student is able to spearhead in class.  Can they proficiently speak loudly, clearly, and knowledgeably? Is a visual utilized to help guide the presentation?  And, is there a call to action? 

At a More Granular Level

Once students are on board, we invite students to a simple Google Doc calendar and they self-select.  Some think of their soccer games and upcoming band performances.  A few students usually are quick to sign up to be first stating that they are either excited or “just want to get it over with.”  Whereas, others assign themselves towards the end, in an effort to be wise and build off the learning from all those before them.  

A Google Slides presentation houses everyone’s presentation, to create a quasi archive in the making. Seven slides are intentionally placed at the start:

Now we make no claim that this is “the way” to do it.  Simply, we have found that it works for our students.  The directions for how to create the slides are explicit, yet allow breathing room for students to fill out with creativity. And they do!  

Directions are to select one current event article to focus the presentation. This should be something the student cares about or possibly just wants to know more about.  The first semester students selected everything from whale migration to Black Lives Matter protests.  After reading the article and familiarizing oneself with the event, some students possibly will research more, but this is up to the individual.  Next their three slides are crafted.  The only parameters for the slides are that no slide should have more than 5 words.  This engenders brevity but also leads to the creation of talking points, as opposed to turning and reading slides during the presentation.  Note: this sometimes is challenging as “Death by PowerPoint” presentations have taken root and been accepted for far too many years.  It’s time to bring back tht personality of a presentation.  Remember Show and Tell and how much fun that was?  Imagine a first grader reading a PowerPoint to tell about the item they are showing!

Further, students are invited to thoughtfully incorporate the use  of visuals on their slides.  A range often is selected; charts and graphs, often along with provoking images. Last, we highlight the importance of structure. To begin with a title that hooks and to conclude with a call to action. Also in the beginning, the inclusion of a map will help the audience with context.  From the start the “what” and “where” is already highlighted. Logically, next students will touch on who, when, and why.  The call to action, the “how.”  The conclusion one that hopefully will leave us empowered either to change a habit or behavior. Or maybe just interested in educating ourselves more.  Ostensibly, all 5 Ws and How are addressed in the presentation. For students who may require or desire a template for more structure, we provide a graphic organizer to help with planning.  

A hurdle every year is for students to trust themselves enough to present without the use of a script or cue cards in hand.  The expectation is to speak, as opposed to read.  However, with practice all students have demonstrated success in this.

Beaming at the End

The final step, a favorite, largely hinges on classroom culture. Applause usually ensues following a presentation.  Then, students have an opportunity to comment positively.  Hands often shoot up across the room and the presenter selects.  Observing amidst the “audience,” tears have welled up in my eyes on more than one occassion.  Kind and specific words spoken directly to another.  A boost in confidence noted on a child’s face, easily detected even though masked. 

Since the precursory, “Put your hands up if you can name a YouTuber,” I made the decision to educate myself and join the legions of youth.  To do so, I openly took the recommendations of students.  Quickly three YouTuber names surfaced: Try Guys, Dream, and MrBeast.  The first, Try Guys clearly is a niche unto themselves.  Their online streaming of comedy already has 10 seasons of content. With an even larger fan or following base, Dream has close to 20 million subscribers.  This YouTuber is known for producing Minecraft and speedrun content videos.  The third, MrBeast, is just that.  Offline, known as Jimmy Donaldson, MrBeast has more than 50 million subscribers. A number larger than the population of Spain!  His videos often are expensive stunts, which combine his skills as an entrepreneur, along with philanthropy.  For example, successfully raising 20 million dollars to plant 20 million trees.  Then, there is of course the video of his preposterous counting to 100,000.  Sped up, over 40 hours of MrBeast just sitting and counting is condensed to a full day. Nearly as asinine would be someone spending a day watching MrBeast count.  

Whose World?

Though I do not lay claim to have fully swung open the door to our student’s world, I feel positive to have begun to glimpse inside. In doing so, it is intriguing to observe how our teacher and student spheres can intersect, collide, or even casually orbit unto themselves. Yet, one thing I am certain. YouTubers have a magnitude of influence. Their style, wit, and communication patterns emerge in student projects, but also in day to day interactions. In a world still gripping with a pandemic and where officials launch lawsuits against a city’s board of education in order force opening of schools, it is refreshing to enter the world of our students. If even to watch a YouTuber pull off the painful stunt of completing a marathon in American size 40 shoes.

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Addendum:

Curated sources we encourage students to utilize can be seen below.  Some allow students to select their reading level which is a big help.  Additionally, we aim for our resources to be balanced and not necessarily promote any one country’s bias.

NewselaThe Good News NetworkDogonewsBBC– British Broadcasting CorporationTime for Kids
CBC Kids NewsKids News– Canadian Broadcasting CorporationKids News– AustraliaNews for KidsNewsbank
(our school database)

Leading as Opposed to Managing

Nearly four centuries ago samurai turned poet Matsuo Manefusa, or Bashō, gave us the gift of Haiku (The inspiration for the Haiku I created above). Similar to Haiku’s time-tested refined distillation of 17 syllables, Twitter constrained users to but 140 characters.  More practical than artistic, Twitter was initially designed as an SMS-based platform and 140 characters was the limit mobile carriers imposed. In both instances, paramount is getting in and out with intentionality.

If only all facets of life were streamlined. Imagine faculty meetings or even better, dentist visits! 

Probably much like you, I have a host of people I follow across social media platforms and frequent newsletters. However, none whom I follow parallels the unmistakable brevity and potency as Seth Godin.

If you do not already follow Godin, I suggest you check him out. Godin is an inspiration of what it means to be both purposeful and clear.  For more than thirty years, he has shared inspiration through his writing.  An author of 19 best sellers, his daily blog is in its eleventh year and imparts clever but also applicable messages that pollinate ideas across a spectrum of workplaces. For example, his top two all-time most popular posts are titled, “Don’t Shave That Yak!” and “Quality and Effort.”  

One constant of Godin’s style is his ability to succinctly convey his message, masterfully positioning us in the slipstream. Voice so present in his writing. Clear and in pure breviloquence, Godin’s posts are possibly two steps from Haiku and but one away from Twitter.  He imparts wisdom that is enduring but also especially transferable to the craft of education. For example in a recent post he commented on the power of more self-directed and project-based learning, “We can create a pattern of teaching people to be curious because curiosity is an engine for learning… it is less predictable but far more powerful than the current alternative: Creating a desire to get it over with, combined with the ability to believe whatever the person in power tells us to believe.”

Who could disagree with this? The difference between compliance and empowerment.

Just envisioning paths paved by curiosity but moreover what is possible, is the first logical step.  More difficult is the necessary next move. For adults; teachers, parents, and administrators to make a conscious effort to simply get out of students’ way.  Please do not take this as a recommendation for an anarchic melee. Instead, the motivation is more an invitation.  To allow students to genuinely take a front seat to their learning.  If not in the driver’s seat, at least to sit shotgun. Far too much chauffeuring of backseat passive non-learners has grown to be the default modus operandi.  A generation often labeled as bored, disengaged, and unfortunately ill-prepared graduates.   

This is not the first time I made the bold suggestion to step out of the way so students can get on with learning. So salient it crops up daily in my reflections, after and sometimes even amidst a lesson. Seemingly I keep having to learn this, as I forget, unlearn and relearn. Why?  My best non-guess is that it is a matter of control and of critical importance is to courageously let go. This I confess with equal parts honesty and vulnerability. Further, I am beginning to think it best to begin each lesson or unit plan with an overt intention to lead and not manage. Similar to coaching.  Or, what Godin references to what we don’t see in a music conductor’s success, “They have less power than it appears, and use their position to lead, not manage.” Ultimately musicians, athletes and all learners will find themself on a stage, field, or court.  Let them manage.  Let them play!

MASTERY MATTERS

“At our faculty meeting yesterday we spent too much time talking about how to give final exams so kids who are home don’t cheat.”  So began a Whatsapp message from a friend months ago, her frustration shared by many. COVID-19 caused more than a disruption to education.  However, it may be the catalyst that was needed in order for education to reach a more authentic approach.

“The vast majority of the things we don’t readily forget are all learned from experience and interaction, not from a curriculum or a test,” Tweeted Will Richardson, co-founder of the Big Questions Institute.  Nominated as a Top 5 “Edupreneur to Follow” by Forbes, Richardson’s tweet was aptly given the hashtag #justsayin.

The game has changed. We knew this as we broke into the 21st century and as the digitized world hurdled us all forward.  Long gone were the days of “sit and get” and text books.  Yet still “the institution” seemingly maintained some of its grip.  Control handed down by tighter or even more robust curriculums.  And of course the tests.  

The tests. The tests. The tests.

However, need we be reminded that the game has changed?

With greater clarity we are able to see eyes to see the broken systems but moreover what ultimately matters most.  The “end-all be-all” high stakes hallowed tests have fallen by the wayside.  According to Fairtest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, “More than two-thirds of 4-year colleges and universities in the U.S. will not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores for fall 2021 admission. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), which maintains a free, online master list, reports that more than 1,570 schools are now test-optional.”

The Phoenix Flaps Her Wings

An outdated education system akin to crumbling infrastructure or even political shambles, is in transition.  A re-birth of sorts.  One of purpose, authenticity, personalization, and empowerment.  Matt Miller, author and educator of “Ditch That Textbook” sums it up best by positing whether students rent or own their education.  The renters come to class out of compliance.  Whereas the owners are dedicated to caretaking for their own education.  And this makes sense because the global job market no longer is about clocking in and out.  Rather, it expects us to problem solve and proactively and passionately produce.

Getting students excited to have the keys to the car, their car ultimately, does however take educators to trust. “I struggled early on to accept that you couldn’t just convert your class to digital without making changes. I’ve only recently really started to embrace allowing students to own their own experiences,” reflected Jake Trinca in a recent post in response to Dr. John Spencer’s, “7 Big Ideas As You Shift Toward Online Teaching.”  

Letting Students Own Their Own Experiences

Talk about liberation, step back and allow students the space to discuss, grapple, and wonder.  Then, listen and remain flexible to the subtle and sometimes overt direction learning may meander, reminding yourself what this all is for.  Further, who this all is for?  

In “What School Could Be,” author Ted Dintersmith appeals for schools to do just this, by “prioritizing critical thinking, the scientific method, and the essentials of civil society — not high-stakes fact-based multiple choice exams.”  Dintersmith makes the bold claim that, “failure to do so imperils our democracy.”

And wouldn’t this approach in itself be more democratic?  Sitting eight hours a day, being talked at, and told what to do, not only is contrary to democracy and dehumanizing, but also counterproductive to any end goals we have related to student preparedness or empowerment.

A More Authentic Approach Moving Forward 

At the heart of this new, or in actuality old approach, is authenticity.  Proof in the power of apprenticeship is but one example.  A clearer but also brighter vision of the near future is one where education is focused on core competencies and their mastery.  What can students do?  Not on one test but as demonstrated with evidence through their school career. 

The Mastery Transcript Consortium® (MTC) officially launched in 2017 with a purpose of introducing a digital high school transcript. The intent to provide a venue for students to showcase their “unique strengths, abilities, interests, and histories fostered, understood, and celebrated.”  Ultimately, this is where we are.  The train HAS arrived.

This approach is not only possible but necessary because inherent in the design is authenticity but also accountability.  Google and Apple are but two of fifteen companies boasting how they hire individuals without a university degree.  Credentials and moreover “pedigree” are not necessarily the “golden ticket” that they maybe once were. This is because employers want to know and be able to see what an individual can do.  Increasingly, it is about evidence.  

“When you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people,” said Google’s former SVP of People Operations Laszlo Bock. 

Graduates with a mastery transcript not only have gone to school but also are able to demonstrate competence.  Much more telling than a fancy resume or high test score.  

Tony Wagner, a globally recognized expert in education, ironically has the initials M.A.T. and Ed.D.  attached to his name.  Both degrees are awarded through the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.  Yet, for more than a decade Wagner has exhorted how outdated the standardized framework for high school is.  Carnegie Units are essentially what students have to earn if they are to graduate and they merely are measures of how much time a student sits in class.  Doing time? Similar to prison. The uncanny resemblance even shows up architecturally.  You can test your luck in determining whether a building is a school or prison on a fun website even.  

Wagner shares how a mastery transcript goes beyond the knowledge and skills mastered.  “It will also include qualities of character that make their humanity visible and help admissions officers make better decisions when it comes to an applicant’s ‘fit.’”  Again, it’s all about authenticity.

Over the past few years The Mastery Transcript Consortium® (MTC) has developed into a network of 369 schools, a blend of public and private schools in the United States but across the globe. “That 99 percent of the high school transcripts follow an identical format is a vestige of an outdated industrial age,” asserts Scott Looney, Head of Hawken School.  

For now, mastery transcripts may be the exception, yet we can await the day when it is the norm.  

CULTURE MAPS, NOT GAPS

Atop my wish list for 2021 is a post pandemic world.  As it pertains to the field of education, I also hanker for increasing adroitness and understanding.  Dexterity if you will, amongst people and cultures.  Understanding ourselves and our identities as individuals and collective societies is preliminary.  Then, fittingly as international educators, we reflect how our school cultures blend, balance, or possibly even juxtapose with the host culture.  

Erin Meyer, author of “Culture Map” recently published another book alongside Netflix co-founder and CEO, Reed Hastings.  “No Rules Rules~Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention,” attests to the importance of freedom and responsibility.  Late in the book, cultural “maps” or charts are utilized to depict how countries compare one with another, along behavioral scales.  For example, communication tending to be high versus low context.  Or, leading being more egalitarian or hierarchical.  The results are revelatory. For example, when using the country mapping tool comparing the Netflix culture map with the the Singapore regional hub map, the results are nearly parallel.  The largest difference is in how time is scheduled.  Netflix has a bit more flexible rather than linear approach to time.  However, when Netflix and Japanese cultures are mapped, there is a near inversal relationship.  The most striking example is how in Japanese culture there is an avoidance of confrontation, whereas at Netflix it is considered disloyal to not express disagreement if your opinion differs. Netflix even socializes the idea of “farming for dissent.”  

Borrowed from: “No Rules Rules”

How fascinating but also worthwhile it might be if schools apply a similar approach?  To look at an institution’s values and compare it to the culture of the host culture.  In the school where I teach, what would various stakeholders say about the similarities but also possible glaring differences of our school values? In confidence the value of respect would likely be mapped the same.  But what about balance? Or, courage?  Would we similarly envision or even define these values?  

Enter innovation stage left.

Or quite possibly stage left, right, and center! With the continued shake-up felt around the world and increasing globalization, the role of innovation continues to be the loudest voice in the room. Whether wrench in the wheel or the necessary spark to the fire, innovation is more than mere buzz word.

However, how much ultimately has resulted from 21st century education and the declaratory driving force to be more innovative?  

How much remains just words?  

And is innovation embedded in our school cultures? If you live in Germany, Singapore, or Korea, innovation likely already has taken root in your host country and possibly is spilling into your schools. Arguably, it is also happening in pockets throughout districts and even schools. But truly embedded or a guiding principle that is realized?

Yong Zhao, Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas, cites a failure of education in its ability to catch up to technology. Moreover, professor Zhao attests to governments going at educational reform in an erroneous way.  The answers do not necessarily reside in curriculum, greater testing, school accountability, or even more educated teachers.  Rather, success hinges on creating environments where students own their learning.  

Within a school’s mission and vision, is there a tapping into the most powerful resource?  Students’ imagination, creativity, and joy.  Moreover, do teachers, families, school cultures and host cultures trust students?  By empowering students we ultimately will engage them in the magic that education can be.  

Flexibility and adaptability are often preached, and yet so, we hold fast to certainty.  And also control. Prolific is the desire to just tweak. A freshening up of the baby’s bath water, as to not let any water escape.  Yet, at Netflix a very different approach is taken; the water blithely thrown out.  Netflix’s heart beats from a place of trust, empowerment, risk and responsibility.   Are these same variables commonplace in our schools? Amongst our teachers but also learners?  And are they implicit in our school’s values?

Let’s have 2021 be the year of paradigm shift. 

Naturally, a first step would be to informally audit, or least reflect on who are as an institution.  So too is the importance of grappling explicitly with reality and the culture of the host nation. In international settings, this close examination is especially critical. Where are the matches?  Contradictions?  Furthermore, what is reconcilable? Respecting of cultures is paramount, but so too is the necessity to strategically plan for pathways of growth.

The goal to clearly see our culture maps while diminishing the culture gaps.

Getting Out of Students’ Way

Education often is steeped in compliance as a result of control.  How nourishing the experience can be, when instead of control, context is the driver.  In October two students asked if I might be willing to sponsor a club called, “Green Oceans.” 

The name was intriguing, as were the stickers already affixed to the computers of various sixth graders.  Instead of an ocean, the design featured a mountain. Come to find out that the mountains wished to convey a broader message of interconnectedness. The green referred to sustainability.  Needless to say, I gladly accepted the request to act as sponsor.

A week later, twenty-two motivated students filled the room.  

The club was born.  

Unbeknownst to me, the savvy pre-teens already were immersed in a digital platform called Discord.  They were quick to include and even assign me a “teacher’s chair.” Green Oceans already determined that the club’s two “founders” should help guide the decisions.  Further, two other students were quick to self-nominate to act as Green Ocean’s financial managers.  

“Financial managers for what?” I question.  We didn’t have any money!

Though I initially did not know several of the students, it is quite possible that unconsciously I was able to trust in the goodness to come.  This especially so, having students named  Birdie, Whale and Proud in the room.  In Thailand it is customary to have a nickname or “chue len.”  Literally translating to “play name,” in 80% of the cases the chue len is but one syllable. It certainly helps with pronunciation, as official Thai names can be especially long.  

At the heart of Green Oceans was an earnest desire to help spread awareness to take care of the oceans.  Furthermore, the club wanted to take action. Students were quick to decide that they should sell something.  One student already was recognized to have a talent for tye-dye, whereas another enjoyed making friendship bracelets.  The novelty of both would be customization.

Over the next month students were part of either the marketing or production team.  Marketing was responsible for creating posters to be hung around campus, as well as digital posters to be shared in both the middle and high school daily news bulletins.  Further, individuals on the marketing team learned how to develop Google Forms for collecting orders and spreadsheets were utilized for organizing payment and also for communicating with the designers.  

Just as quickly as the club was born, orders began to stream in.  The production team was all hands on deck, while marketing worked closely with “clients” (student speak) to collect payment and communicate the time and place orders could be picked up.  

All told, an equivalent of over $1000USD was sold. True service, not an assignment. The endeavor entirely student driven.  “My favorite thing about Green Ocean Club was we had a chance to lead the club.” A similar version of this comment was repeatedly made in a reflective survey. 

In initial club meetings, Green Oceans decided to piggyback on the relationship the school already had with an organization called, Phang Nga Coastal Fisheries, also known as “Turtle Heaven.”  Founded in 1985, Phang Nga Coastal Fisheries is located in Southwestern Thailand, along Thai Muang Beach. The Andaman Sea is home to four species of turtle and Green Ocean club’s monetary donation will specifically help support an effort to protect important nesting areas for both Hawksbill and Green sea turtles. 

Becoming a “sponsor” provided for a “guide on the side” approach.  As teachers we seemingly are quick to lead, maybe even control.  Getting out of students’ way may just be the panacea.  One which leads to greater empowerment but also success!  

Have you eaten?

Does the perfunctory “How are you doing?” really cut it anymore?

Traditionally, the Chinese inquired, “chī le ma?” Or, “chī fàn le ma?”  Literally translated as, “have you eaten?” One origin story points to the significance of the salutation being attached to people’s emotions through food.  Closer to home, here in Thailand, people in passing traditionally greet one another by asking, “bi nigh krup” or “bi nigh ka.”  Used in place of “hello,” it translates, “Where are you going?” The polite response, as ambiguous as automatic, “down the street.”

How are you doing? 

Four words.

At the doorway of my classroom and in the hallways, I might unwittingly string these four words together over a hundred times each day!

400 cheap words, the currency of little value. So, let me try this again.

How are you doing? I mean, how are you REALLY doing? The question, asked in English, goes back more than four centuries.  The actual verbiage being, “how art thou?” Syntactically, various versions of the common inquiry morphed throughout the ages.  The meaningfulness of the genuine salutation seemingly adulterated. Which brings us to today. The response an unauthentic knee jerk, “good.” For any who may contest, when was the last time you responded or heard another respond, “Terrible”?  Instead, the predictable exchange can be chalked up as one of life’s “near miss” exchanges.   Akin to handing off a bill and getting change at a toll both.  Mere pleasantries, if even.

With Social Emotional Learning (SEL) more than ever before on educators’ minds, it behooves us to successfully leverage ways we might more successfully and meaningfully connect with students, families, and colleagues.  SEL dubbed the non-cognitive skills which provide for an holistic and well-rounded education, might feel for some to be yet one more thing.  Yet, amidst a worldwide pandemic and inexorable uncertainty, truly getting to know individuals is vital.  Arguably even more so, in an increasingly virtual world.  A friend recently commented how a professor in an on-line course made the indelible assertion, “SEL is not one thing more on the plate. SEL IS THE PLATE.”  Touché.

So, if connecting with our students is important, becoming more deliberate in our salutations seems to be a sensible initial step. Thinking about what we ask, but also not settling for the generic, “good.”  Instead with compassion, might we look others in the eye, seeking to better understand how each is really doing.  Slowing down and taking a self-inventory to see if we are listening earnestly may also pay dividends.

Five years ago, “thinking routines” rightly were all the rage.  Maybe now, the time is ripe for “feeling routines.”  Challenging ourselves to not only learn more vocabulary but to truly get in touch with how we, they, and everyone is doing.  As we begin to hold ourselves more accountable for assessing the countless shifting tides of emotions, maybe then we can more fully honor and support students. But like all good teaching, first we must model. Additionally, creating space, building trust, developing vocabulary, and truly taking time to genuinely show we care, all are at the core. 

The result? 

Students who are likely to feel more connection, validation, and belonging.  In doing so, we stand a chance to truly bring out the humanity in this noble profession.