Category Archives: Nicholas Alchin

School Perspective on Reporting School Exam Grades

Every year we put some substantial effort into looking at our IB and IGCSE exam results – understanding patterns, seeing trends and considering where we can make improvements. Each department does an analysis, and we triangulate against our predictions, historic data and other schools. It’s a lot of work behind the scenes, and each year we get asked to reveal the fine details, department by department.  Each year we decline to do so; and I want to write to explain the thinking behind our approach.

Our academic results are, of course, very important. We recognise that they remain key determinants of acceptance to Higher Education, and offer current and prospective parents some insight into the quality of teaching and learning at UWCSEA. And we are very, very proud of what our students achieve.

So why don’t we share everything, and make a much bigger deal about the results? What follows are a number of overlapping points that explain the way we think about this important issue; there are three very broad points and then some detailed ones.

The first overarching point is that our Mission is about preparing young people to shape a better world. Examination success is a necessary but wholly insufficient measure here – but we know that this goes against the grain of many national systems. We fear that detailed reductionist discussions will be a distraction here, and lead us to focus away from the most important things.

The second one is that like so many schools, worldwide, we are concerned about student wellbeing. Rampant perfectionism, high expectations pervasively competitive environments are taking a toll on our young people (here’s just another article on this How Life became an Endless, Terrible Competition). Reducing any narrow numerical focus on grades is part of fighting this.

The third point is that data hides individual stories. While we are proud of those achieving 45 points (top marks available worldwide), we are just as proud of the students whose 24 point Diploma was hard-earned; or those with whatever score achieved against significant adverse circumstances (try taking exams when you have been recently bereaved, or are sick). Ranking these students via the numbers of the Diploma score misses the point – as any parent who has had a child go through the IB years will know.

Given these three points, it’s been suggested that we should not report on public exams data at all; that we should have the courage of our convictions and just focus on the other great outcomes our students have. While I have some sympathy for that position, I think we also have to recognise the world we live in – that is, the market. Not something educators like to talk about, but frankly, if we cannot persuade anyone to come to our school, the Mission becomes irrelevant. And there is a great deal about which to be proud – as long as the data is understood contextually and without over-simplistic conclusions being drawn. So here are a few thoughts on how to interpret these results.

Bear in mind that:

  • Our students have a broad, holistic learning programme focussed on developing them for an uncertain future, not on nailing public exams. They undertake Activities, Service, PSE and Outdoor education when it might be easy to cram instead – but we know that the long-term benefit it worth it.
  • We are not rigorously selective academically; we look for students who will make a broad contribution at school
  • All 550 of our students take IB courses, with 99% doing the full Diploma. Many other schools only allow the most academic students to take the Diploma. So if you want to compare our results with a school where the select cohort size is 100, you’d need to take our top 100. We’re not going to publish that (for the reasons outlined here) but it is several points higher than the overall average.
  • We allow students to follow their interests and aspirations in elements of coursework and in subject choices (eg you don’t need an A or A* at GCSE to take IBHL maths, like some schools). This allows them far more opportunity to develop creativity and autonomy that we know will serve them well – but it may not maximise their grades

So, all that said, what are the grades? Well, if you really care see here.

We’re really proud to take a broad range of academic aptitudes; that each year many excel at the 40+ end; and that many excel and the 30- end. This is a great place to be; we are a school for all.   We know we could easily add a few points to our Diploma average – but the cost of doing so would be too high. That’s not who we are.

  • Rather than encourage choice, we could limit subject offerings so that students had to study at IB level what they studied before. No new subjects would be offered, so effectively, choices at 14 would carry through at 16.  
  • Rather than allow students to follow creativity and interest, we could restrict the freedom with coursework and Extended Essays so that all students were writing on a narrower range of areas. We could then explicitly teach to these areas.
  • Rather than commit to all our grade 10 students, we could refuse grade 11 places to any students whom we thought would struggle with the Diploma Programme.  Or we could require specific grades to undertake specific subjects.
  • Rather than support all, and especially those who need it most, we could have an academic filter at the end of grade 11, and by various means ensure that struggling students do not take their Diploma with us.
  • Rather than accept students who we know will make a contribution to broad school life, we could make admissions choices on academics alone
  • Rather than allow students to learn independence and an amazing experience in their school-supported independent travel week at the end of grade 11, we could use that week to cram for exams.
  • Rather than require ongoing commitment to Activities and Service, we could allow grade 12s to drop this, and thereby focus on their academics.

So that’s why we share results in the way we do. We hope that in doing so we strike the balance between transparency and valuing the right things. We hope that as they are so quantifiable they will not draw attention to the wrong place; and that we will not attract families for whom they are the be-all and end-all of education; because that’s not what we offer.

Originally posted in blog here | Follow me on Twitter @nicholas_alchin

Kids: All Joy and No Fun

The title of this book is too good not to borrow for this blog post. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, by Jennifer Senior, is firstly a social history of parenting, secondly an examination of the effects of children on parents (we usually think about the reverse), and thirdly a prompt to reconsider our roles. I was struck by the title; I know it’s an exaggeration, but it seems to make most parents laugh and wince at the same time. Of course, Senior’s remarks are based on USA, and may not be transferrable. Nevertheless, they are thought provoking and I can also recommend her terrific TED talk.

As a child, I know I had little sense of my parents’ fallibility. I assumed they were following generations of wisdom and finely honed practices. My faith in a single absolute method was shaken when I saw the very different ways my friends’ families operated, and I can pinpoint the end of my faith as the time I looked at the starkly contradictory books on the shelves in bookshops. My own parenthood has certainly confirmed my skepticism about the possibility of getting it right, as I frequently tell my children, to their horror.

The truth is that for child-raising there is no folk wisdom in a multicultural, fast moving and rapidly evolving world, because the very meaning of the word parent has changed. Senior points out that for most of history, the parent-child relation was based on fair-exchange ‘with parents sheltering and feeding their children and children in return kicking something back into the family till’. Even until the late nineteenth century, children were more likely to work than the mothers, and boys often earned more than fathers. Post WWII the family system ‘became asymmetrical. Children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard. Children went from being our employees to being our bosses.’ [1] The mixing of the vocabularies of family and work may be jarring for us, but that’s only because we live in the last 70 years, when modern childhood was invented.

What might this mean for us? In 1977 Jerome Kagan remarked that the modern child cannot ‘point to a plowed field or full woodpile as a sign of his utility’. Hence Kagan predicted (with uncanny prescience) that children are ‘at risk of becoming overly dependent on praise and repeated declaration of love to build their confidence’ [2]. This seems to resonate with much modern research that suggests that parents and teachers who build children’s confidence by declaration, rather than by creating opportunities for achievement, are doing children no service. We need to give children demanding tasks, and support them to success, rather than give them empty praise for who they are. So, while love might be unconditional, praise should be tied to specific named things (in fact we need to tread very carefully with praise at all, but that’s a topic for another day).

What stood out in this fine book, however, was the way it made me re-consider my own beliefs regarding parenting. Sometimes, when I am at a loss to know what to do, it’s comforting to see that at one stage ‘parent’ was just a noun. We could just be parents. Then in 1970 it became a verb, and we now have to do it. For me that’s a problem (how I envy my parents!), because I can just about manage to be, but as I suggested above, I’m not always sure what I should be doing.

One thing, though, that I am sure about is that our children make us do different things. And that’s a wonder. Senior hits the nail on the head: ‘The dirty secret of adulthood is the sameness of it; its tireless adherence to routines and customs and norms. Small children may intensify this by virtue of the new routines, but they may also liberate.’ There’s truth there, and while we sometimes grumble about the demands of an intense parenting life, it probably overlooks the really profound effect that children have. That is, it’s easy to talk about the many, many practical daily demands of parenthood; far harder too remember that, new verb aside, parenthood has likely changed the very people we are; and probably for the better.

Senior again: ‘The vocabulary for aggravation is large; [that for gratitude smaller, and] the vocabulary for transcendence is elusive’. Children give us chances to be better than our daily selves; they create opportunities for us to be our best selves. That resonates with me, and I hope with you too.

[1] Senior, Jennifer (2014) All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting: Eco Press: 131

[2] Kagan, Jerome et al (1980): Infancy, Its Place in Human Development: Harvard University Press:

Start the School Year : What is our ‘why’? 

Last week we spoke with students and parents new to our school, many of whom were new to Singapore.  We started with the why – our school’s Mission:
The UWC movement makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.

This may seem obvious,  but schools differ a lot in the ‘why’

For those who were understandably wondering about new classes, friends, uniform and timetables, this may have seemed a lofty, distant ideal. But with so many very good schools available in Singapore, this lofty goal remains our defining characteristic. Or more precisely – because lofty goals are easy to write – how we put this into practice remains our defining characteristic, and I hope why families have chosen us.

I am very pleased, however, that it is no longer a very special goal – at least, not if we take special to mean rare. Go back fifty years and this kind of thinking was marginal, outlier, considered naïve and well off the mainstream. Today the idea that we should not settle for less for our children is absolutely mainstream, almost banal. The notion that education should narrowly focus on academics, without recognizing that children deserve more and need a higher purpose, is clinging on here and there, but it’s on its way out. There are two reasons behind this; they may seem to be quite different, but ultimately, they are mutually supportive.

Our ‘why’, the reason we do what we do, has twin tracks but unlike a road, they both head in the same direction

Firstly, there’s the realization that academics are not enough even for the world of work. In truth they never really were, but the changing nature of work means we are increasingly focused on what skills students possess, and what they can actually do. In the past, these may have been very tightly linked to what students know – but in the disrupted, AI-influenced economy we face, knowledge alone will be far from enough.  To be ready for tomorrow, today’s students will have to be increasingly adept in human skills and qualities, and ready to use them in real-world contexts on difficult and complex human problems  It’s not just educators saying this, but governments, businesses, NGOs, the OECD and others.  So the contexts provided by our focus on the peoples, nations and cultures part of our Mission is exactly how to prepare students for an uncertain future; because these are the areas that are the pressing challenges we face and that will not be automated,

Secondly, it’s important to place schools in a much broader social context.  And that context may be startling. Because despite the horrific events going on around the world, the world is a better place to live than it has ever been, in many significant ways.  Extreme poverty has been halved since 1990, childhood deaths are dropping, literacy is rising, the status of women and minorities around the world is improving.  Now let’s not be naïve here – tragedy, atrocity and grinding poverty are still real today. But the current trajectory is astonishingly positive, and where there is injustice, we are beginning to see outrage and social activism to address it – not consistently, but increasingly so. In the past where issues may have been ignored, we’re also seeing thought leaders take a lead.  That includes CEOs, and the US –  admittedly under extreme provocation from its administration – is leading the way here. CEOs have publicly come out against racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, climate change denial, and most recently, against the extreme right. At the same time, we’re seeing many high profile billionaires – including two of the most famous in Bill Gates and Warren Buffet – pledge half their wealth to philanthropic causes.  So there is a broader social move towards widening moral circles; and schools both reflect this and importantly, prepare students to continue down this path.  That’s where the peace and a sustainable future part of our Mission comes in, and why we weave the Mission so carefully throughout our Learning Programme.

There is no tension between the pragmatic necessity to prepare students for their future, and the idealistic opportunity to make whatever small contribution we can to the historic trend.   We intend, this year and forever, to do both to the best of our capacities.

Closing off, not closing down

We are approaching the long vacation and I have been giving thought to the rhythm of the school year.   Especially in today’s ‘disrupted‘ world, there are probably few institutions that have the same annual cycle that schools have, and I see the luxury of predictable cycles as one to cherish, not to take for granted, and to plan for, and to make the most of.

For us, that means approaching the holiday knowing that the long break is a rite of passage for students and colleagues, and to plan for it carefully and intentionally.  Just as we start the year with orienting students to the year ahead (planning the activities, deadlines, trips, exams etc) so we need to close off the year with equal care and attention.  I have been in schools where the two options have been either  (i) watching ‘fun’ videos and eating lots of chocolate for the last few days (ii) full speed ahead until the last minute.  Neither of these is what we now want; the former is profoundly disrespectful to everyone’s time, and suggests a mistaken view of learning and ‘fun’.  The latter misses an important opportunity to improve student learning for the current year overall, and indeed the next year to come.

We have a three-part approach to helping students and colleagues closes the year in a meaningful way – one that consolidates the progress that has been made, and focusses us on the things in ourselves that have allowed us to make progress.  It’s based on research from a very wide range of sources, and can be used at any point, wherever learning is wanted  – and therefore applicable far mode widely than schools of course.  The steps, as listed here, may sound rather abstract and vague; when I case across them I was skeptical about them.  But having used them over the years in class to end units, with leavers to frame graduation thinking, and with colleagues, I now see the power of devoting time to this process.

The first step is to be aware of what has happened to us over the year.  The question is: Considering your aspirations for the year, your experiences elsewhere, and the events of this year, how would you describe the year?

The second step is to analyse what we have become aware of.  The questions are: What have you done that you have been most pleased with?  What capacities in yourself were most important in your successes?

The third step is to see how the analysis can lead to application. The question is: What might be some of the most valuable things that you most want to remember for next year?

We believe that education for our children should be engaging, demanding, challenging and at times uncomfortable. There’s no denying that this can mean that it is also very intense; likely far more so than when we parents were at school. So ending the year well, making space to enter the vacation having ‘parked’ a lot of thinking, is an important process.  It provides closure, and marks a re-entry point for next year.  The power of carefully scaffolded, focsussed conversations is hard to overestimate, because even a slight increase in self-awareness or self-efficacy yields a hundredfold return or more.

Happy Holidays! My next post will be in August.

Graduation Address to the Class of 2017

What follows is a section from my Graduation Speech to the class of 2017.

….we have so many, many things we could say: but collectively they can all be summed up: thank you for your leadership, kindness, company and for the privilege of seeing you grow over the years….. whether you joined in grade 4, or grade 12. We’re more proud of you than we can say, and we look forward to seeing what you do with your lives.Parents – thank you for lending us your precious children… just to be clear – you can have them back now; it’s been good but Grad Trip is not on us – just sayin’!  But seriously, thank you . We’ve done our best for your wonderful children over these years; we have seen them grow into the remarkable young men and women we see here today, and we share your pride. We hope you see in them everything you had hoped when you entrusted them to us.

Graduates, I hope you will all look back on your High School years with great affection; the many alumni who have flown in to be here today, and the numbers who constantly visit us throughout the year suggest that this is so for many. But I also know that High School is no bed of roses – or put it another way, it’s a bed of roses but roses have thorns – and it can hurt.

I hope for all of you you are proud of your achievements – you should be – but I know they come at a cost – in time and effort at least; and for some, in other ways too. And we know that for a few of you, it has been really difficult. We’ve tried to be beside you all the way – supporting you, pushing you, pulling you, occasionally dragging you.  I hope it never felt like a kicking; and I hope we got it right; please forgive us when we did not – it wasn’t through lack of care, or effort.  Whatever the reason you found it hard – academic matters, emotional matters, personal matters, social matters, behavioural matters, family matters, and whether you told us or kept it private – you’ve come through it; you achieved despite your adverse situations, and we’re especially proud of you and your achievements today, and what you have done when it was tough. Know that we recognise especially you, and that we applaud especially you.

Now let me speak directly to the whole graduating class. Watch out. Here comes the advice, based on two stories.

Story 1 In 1983 a then-young aspiring musician, Dave Mustaine, was kicked out of his rock band, just as they were signing their first contract. Disappointment, yes. But he used it to drive his ambition and set about becoming the best rock star he could. He practiced, dedicated himself… and his new band, Megadeth, went on to sell 25 million albums.  Dave Mustaine is now a legend of rock. But my message here is not the obvious don’t give up; always follow your dreams.  No, it’s a different message – because the group Dave was was kicked out of went on to become Metallica – who have sold 180 million albums. And 180 million is a lot more than 25 million. In a rare intimate interview in 2003, Dave admits he sees himself as a failure. Close to tears, he said that despite everything he will always be the guy who got kicked out of Metallica. Despite his fame, his glory, his place in the Hall of Fame, Dave Mustaine sees himself as a failure.

So my advice is: find the right standards for success; don’t set yourself absurd targets that mean you’ll never be good enough. Allow yourself to be happy, even when you don’t get what you want. Don’t always compare yourself to others.  Comparison is the thief of joy.  It is tragic for Dave Mustaine that he cannot be happy with his success, and we see similar things on a smaller scale.  Two years ago a student told me he considered anything less than 45 IB points a failure. So with his 43, and a place at Oxford, he saw himself as an academic failure.  I fear for that young man!  When perfection is your only acceptable outcome, you are destined for unhappiness – in academics, in career, in relationships… in life. As writer Tim Minchin said Chasing perfection is the way to have your life pass you by; it keeps you focussed on the future, and out of the moment. It means you will miss small pleasures as you look for bigger ones in the future. It means you will not see the people in front of you because you are thinking about how useful they may be to you. Eventually, you may not even see your children right in front of you because you are looking for the child that does not, and will never, exist. The pursuit of perfection is a diversion from the messiness of real life. Close enough is often good enough and perfect is a myth that’s too costly, despite what modern culture will tell you.

Story 2 involves another danger that can arise even if you are happy with close enough and resist the perfection trap.

A few years ago, I was presenting something at a Primary School parents assembly, in another country, and I had to ask a couple of the seven-year-olds on stage what they wanted to do when they were grown up. One said ‘work in an ice-cream shop’. The other one, to the vast amusement of the audience said he wanted ‘to be a burglar’ (true story!) But in either case we smile because we know that the children are making a guess about what a good life might look like and what the details might be. A great many of our own wishes for the future have this character – they are guesses about what a good life looks like. And we smile because we know that with further experience, self-knowledge and maturity, the picture of a good life undergoes dramatic revision. Eleven years later, at graduation, the hypothesis of a flourishing life will be reoriented to filmmaking, medicine, finance, the law, the theatre, music, engineering, mountain climber, entrepreneur, public charity work and so on. These are still all guesses about what a good life looks like. And they may be more accurate than the ice-cream shop and the burglar (I hope so!) but are they correct?

That’s for you to say; it’s your life. But when I read the business press, look at some of my own friends, and observe the world of work, it seems to me that the notion of a good life seems to have been pushed to the margins –  a nice bonus if it happens, rather than the central life goal it should be. Work has become a job; sometimes a career, but only rarely a calling, a genuine belief in the value of what you do.  And the trouble with that is that even if you do it perfectly (which you should not) – then you will still have fallen short of what you could be; still have let yourself down.   Success in the wrong thing is something of a failure. As Lily Tomlin said Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.

That doesn’t mean that knowing what to do is easy; and it would be naive to ignore the realities of making a living. But if making a living is all you care about, you may miss making a life.  John Kotter wrote between the yellow brick road of naivete, and the muggers lane of cynicism, there is a narrow path, poorly, lit, hard to find, and even harder to stay on once found. And finding that is my second piece of advice here – Seek that path that makes a life and at the same time makes a living; stay on it; show it to others.

Both of these problems – the problem of seeking perfection, and the problem of seeking the wrong thing – are at some level the same problem: the ‘always problem’ that never goes away and that is, to my mind, the fundamental human problem: are you living your days to the best of your capacity, in ways that are aligned with your values, and in ways that you can look back on with pride, knowing that you served others as well as yourself? That’s what we teachers call an ‘exit question’. And this one you should ask yourself every year of your life at least once.  Today is also a good time to ask that question, and as I look back at what you have achieved in your short time with us, I believe the answer to that question has so far been a resounding ‘yes’.

Our UWCSEA goal is to educate individuals to embrace challenge and to take responsibility for shaping a better world. We’re so proud of you. I know I speak for the entire College when I say it has been a pleasure, and a privilege working with you. As well as the great hopes we have for you, we have even greater trust in you.

Like, get over it!

In 1680, the English King James told architect Christopher Wren that the newly-completed St Paul’s cathedral was “awful, artificial and amusing”. In 1680 ‘awful’ meant ‘awe-inspiring’; ‘artificial’ meant ‘artistically made’ and ‘amusing’ meant ‘amazing’.

The two graphics here illustrate a very similar point – and I am sure many of us have had similar experience, one way or another.

These flippant examples may seem a bit obscure – but a quick internet search for funny grammar images (here’s a good one) shows that the issue of correct or incorrect language raises strong emotions. And I was marking TOK essays from my grade 11 class last week, and wondering to what extent I should correct split infinitives, or allow sentences (like – ahem! – this one) to start with a conjunction. More importantly, I was wondering if examiners would see through informal writing to the genuinely profound ideas in the essays – and so perhaps there is a genuinely more serious point here. Outside of language acquisition course, there is nothing in most IB/IGCSE marking criteria about good grammar – and when we have so many students being examined in English as a second, third or fourth language, that’s got to be right. On the other hand, accuracy in communication is important, and grammar facilitates that. As a child I was always taught that ‘breaking the laws of grammar’ is a bad thing. So do these laws of grammar matter? I have come to think that the answer to this centres around what we think about the nature of laws, and I am reminded about how much we construct the world around us, rather than simply find it, already made. I think there’s actually a moral point here too.

We sometimes tend to think that breaking the laws of grammar is a little like breaking the laws of Singapore; if you go through a red traffic light then whatever your intention, you have broken the law – fact. Mrs. Eyegouger, my Primary School teacher, felt much the same about my errors with apostrophes. I have come to think differently, and that the laws of language are more akin to the laws of physics than the laws of the land. Suppose we found an object which hovered in mid-air, and did not fall when dropped; what would we do? We could declare the object illegal, lament and take appropriate punitive measures, (Mrs. Eyegouger) or we could revisit our understanding of the laws of physics. The latter seems more sensible. It’s impossible for an object to break the laws of physics (apologies to the warlocks among you) because the laws explain how things behave. Similarly with language – the laws of grammar are descriptions of how things are, not how we would like them to be.

So my visceral disgust at double negatives may not be without logical reason but the fact is that people do say “I ain’t done nothing wrong” and we all know what they mean, n’est-ce pas? Similarly, the word ‘like’ has recently evolved into an all purpose linguistic swiss-army knife, capable of remarkable flexibility (great article here). King James would have thought that was awful; to me, it’s awesome – and we both know what we are talking about. Languages change, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them. What’s more, language drift is a one-way current (for more on that see this wonderful book or watch this short TED talk).

As linguist Cukor-Avila said, “I tell my students, eventually all the people who hate this kind of thing are going to be dead, and the ones who use it are going to be in control.” While that may not the most uplifting sentiment, it is surely accurate.

Does that mean we don’t bother correcting students’ written work from infelicities? Of course not. Some styles are better suited to some occasions than others – and using “c u l8 r” in an English examination is a choice; probably not a very good one (texting is a fascinating dialect).  So we need to be aware of the various universes of discourse that are available to us. I have come to see that rather than correcting students’ work (which can be perilously close to telling them how to conform to arbitrary social mores – hardly the right message) I am seeking to sensitise them so they can make the right choice choose to convey their message to their audience. In most cases, that will look like traditional correcting, but I think there’s a world of difference. Literally.

I remain your humble servant / BFF (delete as appropriate)



By Nicholas Alchin | Twitter @nicholas_alchin

High School: Where the fallen angel meets the rising ape

I was recently at an under 9s boys football tournament, supporting one of our teams. These are high energy events, as you can imagine, with hundreds of small boys charging around in semi-controlled fashion; a triumph of enthusiasm and innocence. Our long-suffering Coach never flags during the four matches that each team plays, and constantly shouts what are, to me, cryptic messages like ‘Clear your lines boys, clear your lines!” During one recent tournament, our team had lost 8-0, 6-0 and 2-0; in the fourth match it was 0-0 with 3 minutes to go, and standing beside Coach, I noted he was quite agitated, as the ball had passed, for the first time, and only momentarily, into the opponents’ half. Amidst the “square ball, square ball, lads!” calls, one boy on our team ran up to Coach on the sidelines, saying “Coach! Coach!” Coach glanced away from the scrum (rugby and football being strikingly similar for this age group) and said, urgently, “Yes, what is it?”. The boy looked up, dreamily paused to admire the elegant curve of the wing of a bird high above the pitch, and the glint of sun in its eye, and then, pointing to his stomach said, in a slow and rather faraway voice “My shirt is a bit itchy here”. I walked away rapidly, biting my fist to stop myself laughing, and so regrettably did not catch coach’s comment, but I can confirm that it was concise and guttural. I was later told that the young man in question brings the same focus and commitment to his Tae-Kwon Do.


Last week I also had the great pleasure of welcoming back to school some of our first ever alumni, in whom we are so proud, who are now approaching the end of their initial University experiences. These wonderful young men and women have been speaking with confidence, experience and pride about what they are doing now – from National Service to NYU to Oxford and a dozen other places – and about how they want to establish a strong alumni network around the world, so that they can offer recent and detailed support to us. They have been generous, open and warm with their perspectives and advice, and we are grateful to them.

As a HS Principal, I find it very helpful to ponder the pre- and the post-HS life. As I watch our current HS students sitting exams, learning hard lessons about privacy in the digital age, getting ready to plan an independent trip around Asia, and dealing with the news that they have been accepted or rejected at University, the context helps.   Like all schools, we have students who have some tough moments to get through – and it helps to remember where they were, just a few years ago, and also where they will likely be very shortly.

The human condition is one where, in Terry Pratchett’s memorable phrase, the fallen angel meets the rising ape. Nowhere is this truer than in the High School years, and it’s good to have it mind whenever we face difficult times.


How do we think about our children?

 The Carpenter and the Gardener: Metaphor matters

It is instructive to imagine education and parenthood as one of these professions.

All parents know that having kids changes us in many ways; not just in the obvious things, but also in the profound assumptions we have of the world, and indeed of ourselves.  About the world, psychologist Alison Gopnick captures parental worries well when she writes  The day before you were born always looks like Eden, and the day after your children were born always looks like Mad Max, but it’s really on self-image that she is most interesting (Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun addresses the same ideas).

Gopnik starts by observing that to be a wife is not to engage in wifing; to be a friend is not to friend (Facebook notwithstanding); not do we child our parents…. but as parents we expect to parent our childen (there is a joke in there somewhere about husbandry, but I’ll steer clear).  So what was once simply a way of being, a thing that happened to us, has become a form of work.  Gopnik’s concern is that this work has come to be modelled on more formal types of work – with goals, objectives, KPIs and assessment measures.  Planned, executed and analysed with carefully gradated degrees of success and (social and academic) failure .  I think she’s write to lament; children and parents are all the poorer for this.

Gopnik’s book – The Gardener and the Carpenter uses two professions to explore this issue about the parent-child relationship.  She argues that to seek to parent a child  – that is, to see parenting as an activity, rather than a state – is to behave like a carpenter, chiselling away at something to achieve a particular end-goal – in this case, a certain kind of person. A carpenter starts with a plan to transform a block of wood into a chair; and as long as the plan is followed, the carpenter will get the outcome he or she wants.  The gardener, on the other hand, takes a different approach.  Gopnik argues that when we garden we do not believe we are the ones who single-handedly create the cabbages or the roses.  Rather, we toil to create the conditions in which plants have the best chance of flourishing. The gardener knows that plans will often be thwarted – the poppy comes up neon orange instead of pale pink … black spot and rust and aphids can never be defeated  – but still finds beauty in unexpected outcomes.  If parents are like gardeners, the aim is to create a protected space in which children can become themselves, rather than trying to mould them.

It would be a mistake to see this as the familiar conservative-liberal axis; the key point is whether to direct shaping the material or let it flower naturally.  Gopnik’s metaphor highlights something that all parents will recognise; the dilemma between knowing what (we think) is best for our kids, and letting them be themselves.  Recent books such as Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom – which was essentially a cultural argument in support of an extreme version of the carpenter – generated a huge response, both positive and negative.   And rightly so; the two visions here are not abstract ideas but central pillars in our vision of ourselves and our families.

Schools tend not to explicitly aligned themselves around carpentry or gardening, but it’s usually not hard to tell which is the dominant vision in a school culture.  Gopnik rightly notes that education is simply caring for children, broadly conceived and this highlights the issue: Is the care about carefully following the plan or carefully creating the conditions? In his essay on Modern Education and the Classics TS Eliot argues that… to think about the aims of Education is also to think about fundamental ends and purposes as human beings …to know what we want in general, we must derive our theory of education from our philosophy of Life and I think he’s absolutely correct.  So what do we want for our children?

My own personal view here is the unremarkable one that the best place to be is probably somewhere between the two extremes; that it may vary from child to child, and will certainly vary by age.  Pragmatically speaking, in the long-run, it may not matter; and no matter how hard we work to shape our children, to pass on our values, our kids will transform them into something else – institutions and values and norms fit for their own time.  For better or worse, regardless of our wishes, our children will be their own people just as we are our own people, and not pale reflection of our parents.  To me, this practical observation is as compelling as the moral point in favour of the gardener.

Elliot, TS (1936) Modern Education and the Classics in Essays, Ancient and Modern: London: Faber and Faber.

Gopnik, A (2016) The Carpenter and The Gardener


By Nicholas Alchin | Twitter @nicholas_alchin

Confused? I hope so.

I’ve been spending a fair bit of time in lessons this week – just dropping in and out of classes for a few minutes.  It’s good to see what’s happening in the various areas, to talk to students about how they are finding things and take the pulse of learning in High School.

But it’s not easy to do.  You might think that if the teaching is clear, and the students attentive, all should be well.  But in fact, that’s not always the case.  Learning is a very messy process, and hard to know about – not just because students vary, hormones intervene, blood sugar changes over the course of the day – but simply because while clear thinking is the goal for students, simple, precise and clear explanations are not always the best route to that end.  In fact, often the best sign of learning is that the students are puzzled and frustrated.

Confusing students in just the right way to eventually deepen their understanding is an art. The art of excellent teaching, no less.

This is not as counterintuitive as it sounds!   To see why, see this puzzle and then have a think about what will happen (best to do in a group if you can).  Then watch from the start to  1.10 of this video to see the answer, resist the temptation to watch further and observe your own mental state.  Most non-physicists are surprised; some students think it’s a hoax.  When this is shown in class, there is often confusion and debate, and disagreement.  The class can erupt into chaos and noise, with conversation stretching to other examples – birds, aeroplanes, javelins.  It’s interesting to contrast this with the traditional quiet, attentive class where the focus on the laws of motion (or whatever) is laser-like, and the students are hanging on the teacher’s every word.

 It’s hard to be sure, but my guess is that the latter lesson is not nearly as effective as the former.  And the reason is that, as Steve Kolowich puts it, we need to confuse students to help them learn.  Kolowich draws on a classic experiment where two instructional videos were made and shown to students.  The first featured an actor explaining a basic physics concept in a traditional way using drawings and animations.   The second was a video of a mock conversation between a teacher and student. The student initially struggled to understand the concept, and the tutor asked questions, but never actually explained the answer – which the student eventually got.  Students who watched the two videos said the first one was clear, concise, and easy to understand and the second was confusing.

But when students were tested on their understanding of the concept  – that is, on their actual learning, students who had watched the second one actually learned more – even though they did not feel that way!  So a little confusion can prompt students to think harder and improve their understanding of complex matters, even if it’s a bit uncomfortable for them.   That’s actually not a surprise – we know that learners construct meaning by making connections between knowledge and concepts.  That is, learning happens as a result of students making their own meaning – not being told it, or given it, or getting it by dictation, or copying.  And what better way to make  meaning than by being puzzled, confused and not being told the answer so you have to debate with your peers?

Of course total confusion is not a good thing – clarity around what we are doing, and why we are doing it is important.  But that’s instrumental – the really important intellectual clarity needs to be hard-won, and like so many valuable things, may come over time, through struggling with difficult ideas.


By Nicholas Alchin | Twitter @nicholas_alchin

The Professional Art of Conversation

With all the many great events that go on in schools – obviously lessons; also sports fixtures, music performances, drama productions, service trip, adventurous expeditions etc – it’s easy to get caught up in the tasks we all have to get through – the assignments to complete, the marking, the logistics, the children to drop off or pick up, and so on. And there was a time I thought these were the most important things for our children; that ticking off the tasks was what it was all about.

But I have in recent years come to see things a little differently. If all we are interested in is ourselves, individually, then perhaps the tasks are the things on which to focus. I may not need to talk to anyone if I am checking my bank statement; but that’s a simply closed task that’s totally within my control. Education is never like that; and the more open, complex and important roles of parents and teachers are always about someone else. That’s because as our children turn into adults, we are forced to move from control to influence. That’s a difficult and sometimes painful process for all concerned, because while we want to shape minds, beliefs, values and so on, we can only observe events and actions.

So if we focus for a moment on the shaping of minds, it seems obvious that we have to allow our students to change their own minds – we cannot do that for them; the best we can do is to prompt and offer. And then it follows, I think, that a crucial part of this must be through conversations – because no matter what books, videos, even experiences we have, they are almost always unpacked, developed and embedded – which is to say, understood – through conversations.

The art of conversation is too important to ignore.
The art of conversation is too important to ignore.

It seems strange, therefore, that we tend to take the art of conversation for granted; to simply plough through them as and when they arise without really giving them much care. Most conversations are intuitive, unstructured and unintentional. It’s hard to imagine any other important area of our lives that we give so little attention to! Planning even mundane events like, say, shopping, usually involves thinking ahead a few weeks, making a list, considering alternatives, planning a time, having a clear sense of purpose and so on. But we often just launch into important, even crucial conversations with no equivalent preparations. The more I think about it, the more remarkable I think this is.

Many have been making determined efforts to address this issue – indeed whole genres and new jobs (eg life coach) have sprung up as a result of this approach  There now exist many conversation maps – that is, routes proven to ensure that conversations lead to their goal – deeper, better thinking. It’s actually quite a complicated business – solet me give you a very simple specific conversational strategy I have come across and intend to try out – a simple strategy to do with ensuring we influence, not just control. The strategy, called motivational interviewing, was developed by Mike Pantalon at Yale University. It’s a two step process and follows a certain protocol. Let’s say I am trying to persuade a tardy student to meet deadlines. I ask “On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you do meet the deadline?” The reply might be, “Well, I have a lot of other things on, so I guess a 4.” Now a natural instinct might be to respond “Not good enough! Make it a 9!” but the protocol is to instead follow up with the rather counter-intuitive “So, you are a 4; now tell me why you didn’t choose a lower number?’

The point here is that the student has to explain – maybe for the first time – why he’s able to exceed the minimum; why he’s not at the bottom; and crucially, he is forced to examine his own motivation and find his own strengths. He’s not being confronted with the unpleasant sight of his own weaknesses, and the long road ahead of him to get from a 4 to a 10, but is able to look at where he already actually is, and why he is there. And that is, after all, where his journey has to start from.

This is a simple strategy; I confess I have yet to test it, but it does resonate with me. I imagine that the success of the conversation will be found not at the time, but over time, as it should support better thinking, not just better single actions. So this is a very simple example of perhaps an important truth; that we need to be letting our students and children find their own answers, and to grow out of our control (and into their own). Dan Pink (author of the brilliant Drive) describes it well: “As parents, as teachers, as entire organizations, our instinct is toward greater control. We think control is going to make something better. But people have only two reactions to control: They comply, or they defy. We don’t want defiant kids, but we also don’t want compliant kids. We want kids who are engaged. If you truly want to engage kids, you have to pull back on control and create the conditions in which they can tap their own inner motivations” (here he is talking about the strategy above – the first two and a half minutes are well worth a watch).

The upshot here is that many conversations are successes if, and only if, they promote, provoke or somehow encourage further thought. It’s worth bearing in mind that getting the conversations right may be the most important thing we can do for our children.


By Nicholas Alchin | Twitter @nicholas_alchin