Global book recommendations

As an adult I love reading teen and YA novels. There’s nothing better than curling up with Because of Winn-Dixie or The Library of Ever. But which new novels are coming out now? And what are they about? Here are some reviews to help educators put books in the hands of readers. Happy Reading!

Making Seakerby Karen Autio. It took me a while to figure out the meaning of the title but it is about the making of a small floating boat with GPS, called Seaker. Jamie has just moved to a new city and school. She is worried about making friends since she is not into sports. Jamie is a science nerd. She soon discovers that her new home town is also the home town of Paddle to the Sea, the wonderful classic written by Holling Clandy Holling. That story forms the bases of Jamie’s quest to retrace the journey, with her toy boat, from town to the sea through the Great Lakes using tracking equipment.  ISBN 978-1989-724095, Crwth Press

A very good website gives details on the making of the book, the equipment used for the boat as well as links to science sites:

This book is great to couple with The Exact Location of Home by Kate Messner which is based on a boy who loves geo-caching.

Warned: The Astrologer’s Prophecy by Mahtab Narsimhan is an exciting adventure set in India. Avi pleaded with his parents to let him stay with a friend but they insisted on him staying with his grandfather in Delhi while they work as doctors in Rajasthan. Now he is stuck in a crumbling mansion, no wifi, and with an old man whom he barely knows and a mysterious, scary caretaker. Who locked him into the attic? Can he trust the girl he meets from a different caste? The exotic location shines through in the sounds, scents and sights of India while the deliciously scary story takes you right into the midst of the chaos. Well written and highly recommended. ISBN Ebook: 978-1-7778318-0-6

Runner: Harry Jerome, World’s Fastest Man by Norma Charles is the fascinating true story of a boy who grew up in Manitoba, Canada. As a young boy Harry started running and never stopped. He trained at the University of Oregon and competed in three Olympic Games while setting an incredible seven world records. This novel explores who he was and what makes an athlete overcome obstacles, including prejudice for a boy with African-Canadian heritage. A great read for wanna-be Olympians. ISBN 978-0-889955-5-30, Red Deer Press

The Other Side by Heather Camlot is a page turner murder mystery. As twelve year old Liam visits his grandfather’s cottage by the lake, he discovers a body. Who was she? How did she get there and what happened? Intertwined with Liam’s relationship with his elderly grandfather who is dying in hospital and who spent his earlier life as a German soldier in World War II, the story is laced with intrigue about the murder as well as details on soccer’s World Cup.  ISBN 978-08899-5614-8, Red Deer Press

Margriet Ruurs writes fiction and nonfiction. She conducts author workshops at schools around the world.

Student Agency – Reflections on a TEDx with speaker Conrad Hughes

Conrad Hughes is a principal at Ecolint in Geneva, Switzerland. In Fall 2020 he founded the Coalition to Honour All Learning, a group of school leaders representing about 50 schools across the world, all interested in rethinking the high school transcript (and assessment in general). 

Here is a reflection on his TEDx talk, The Problem with Schools, from April 2021.

“We have a problem in schools. We have a big problem. And it’s the way that we assess students.”

I’ve argued elsewhere that we should indeed take a look at how often we assess, to what extent our assessments are comparisons of students used mostly to sort them into categories, and even the need for so much assessment in the first place. In practice, I’ve had a hand in creating three programs at an international school that de-emphasize summative grading in favor of frequent and informal feedback: the summer school, 5-week exploratory courses in the middle school, and high school courses which focus on 21st century skills first, traditional subject content second. 

So it’s no surprise, I guess, that Hughes’ TEDx caught my attention.

Hughes is particularly interested in how we report student learning, most importantly on the academic transcript. He believes that school reform, including the move towards a system that promotes creativity and passion, needs to focus squarely on how we report learning to universities. We’ve all heard someone say that what gets assessed gets taught. Hughes is saying that what gets reported is what gets taught. So let’s change the reporting.

Otherwise, so Hughes, we run a great risk of squeezing out valuable learning.

Hughes reports that students he talks to – and he makes it a point to talk to each and every student in his school – report that they have lots of things they like to do, but not enough time to do them. Those things not in the school curriculum get squeezed out. 

In the end, “we’ve created a system that drowns out creativity and passion.” And it only gets worse as students move through the grades, until “so much of what students want to do they can’t do anymore, because of the way that we’ve designed high school.”

Ultimately, Hughes warns that we need to be careful what message we are sending to students. To those we might call Curriculum Different due to their personal interests and creativity, be careful of sending the message: “This is not your place. Your star cannot shine here.”

Hughes has three recommended action items: “Redesign the high school transcript (see the Learner Passport), empower young people to take ownership of their learning, and spread the word (see the Coalition to Honour All Learning). 

Here is my contribution to his second action item, empower, which he also frames in terms of assessment. The credit system – our reporting system – needs to be constructed in a way that allows students to express themselves. How things get reported also influences what gets taught, because both what is reported and how it is reported affects the relative empowerment of students. So here’s an idea our research department has been playing with this year.

What if – and here I encourage you to think in terms of “yes and …” instead of “yes but …” at least part of the curriculum was built in such a manner that students had the time and energy to pursue their interests – those interests Hughes says so many students report they don’t have time for.*

Let faculty be available to support students – by listening to student ideas, asking questions, bringing students together, referring students to other teachers, and finding outside experts and resources to support students. But let the students do the work, explore, find their own deadends, network, learn how to learn, discover what learning is lifeworthy, collaborate with others… That’s what we ultimately want for them anyway, right? 

And then, and here is the gem we’ve been returning to again and again all year, once students have shown interest and learning and progress with a particular idea, project, or innovation, recognize that learning with a credit. In other words, turn our current process on its head. Instead of finding or thinking up a curriculum we think students might like, placing them in courses, and inviting (cajoling?) them to work on that curriculum, why not ask them to work on putting together their own curriculum (work that reflects their interests and strengths) and then, once that work seems to be coalescing into ongoing learning, granting it credit?

We don’t have a whole lot of traction yet, but we call our nascent effort Above & Beyond. We have a few students demonstrating that they can create their own learning. We have a student who extended her IB CAS project by teaching computer programming to others, a pastry chef continuing the business she created in a course two years ago, a student taking advantage of online medical school workshops, a couple of guys designing and selling hoodies, and a student who formed an investment club. I bet, if you are in a high school, you also have plenty of stories of students who are pursuing their own interests. 

Help them as much as you can. Give them some more space, some more time. And give them some credit for their effort. Even an official credit. Sure, they thought the curriculum up themselves, it wasn’t our plan for them. But isn’t that the nature of lifelong learning? Learning to pursue the things you think up yourself? Schools are a great place to practice that. Why not legitimize self-discovered learning in the same way we do with class content we select for students?

Keep the faith, Conrad. A coalition to honour all learning, indeed. Change the transcript. Change how we think about learning. Grant our students a whole lot more agency.

A special thanks to Andie Flett for conversations about turning the credit system on its head, and Andie, Steve Porter, and Tom Cosgrove for their work in Above & Beyond.

*There are of course schools who have gone all in with this philosophy. One of my favorites is Agora. Let us know of other examples in the comments.

Virus Variants

Image created by Shwetangna Chakrabarty on Canva

The virus mutates into many variants just to survive. Infact, viruses mutate constantly, at least that is what I learnt in high school Biology. Their genetic code is prone to changes called mutations that can change how the virus looks or attacks its hosts. The interesting thing is that viruses mutate depending on their host environment. They read the virus genetic code and replicate it, making more of the virus. A mechanism that teaches us a lot to adapt to new changes. Here I am trying to be positive and discuss what we can learn from a virus variant.

This is one of the biggest lessons the Covid19 pandemic has taught me and many others. To survive we have to mutate or in literal terms, we have to learn to change and adapt.

So what does change look like? In a recent recruitment fair, I was asked by an applicant when was the last time I experienced change? Even though I was a bit taken aback as I was the one supposed to be asking questions; I got asked this rather nervous and unsure question. It made me ponder on the whole cataclysm of change. The nervousness, the edginess, the uncertainty makes us question a lot of things. Everyone, everywhere in the world is experiencing this strange unsure variant feeling. It is nerve-wracking, any change big or small. It is a feeling that you are losing control over your life or you do not know what to do next or you hesitate to make big decisions… It forces you to rethink everything, it is merciless, it torments you till you act, think and become different. The essence of survival. We need to adapt to survive. 

To answer the question when is the last time I experienced change? For me, it is every day, I can truly say I learn through change. The way variants learn to adapt in a new environment, I have adapted to or forced myself into new environments to learn. Moving home, moving countries, moving jobs and moving friends and family has been the greatest educator. Moving away from an established home every time taught me resilience and reason for hopes and dreams. Moving away from a country has taught me to respect other peoples’ opinions, to immerse into cultures and celebrate diversity. Moving from jobs has helped me to unravel fifty shades of myself; I can be fierce, loving, ambitious, complacent, helpful, ruthless all at the same time. There is so much more to discover who I am? Moving away from friends and family is the hardest and the most bitter-sweet feeling. You need to move but you don’t want to. This has taught me to keep my faith and develop courage. Even in the darkest hour of leaving everything behind have the faith and courage to see the silver lining. 

In the recent past, the world has undergone a massive change. A decade down the line this specific time will be as important a phase in the history of the world as the Renaissance or the two World Wars, changing the world forever. Whether it is artificial intelligence or the space frontier, we are undergoing cataclysmic change. The virus variants should teach us to keep evolving till we have achieved our purpose in life, change is for the best teacher. Don’t wait for change, force it if you want to grow or survive. Teach for Change and Learn to Change. Be Your Own Best Variant


Stories reflect our history and show us who we are. Stories help us to understand others and share our own cultures. Here are voices from other places, stories worth sharing from around the world in picturebooks, in poetry and in nonfiction.

THAO: A Picture Book

Thao by Thao Lam is an autobiographical story by an illustrator. Her name was common in Vietnam but once she and her family came to live in Canada, she did not like having a name that no one could pronounce or spell properly. Why could her name not be Jennifer? But only Thao could eat yummy Vietnamese food…. The book is exquisitely illustrated in paper collage. A wonderful story to share with children who also have hard to pronounce names! ISBN 978-1-77147-4320-0, Owl Books

Burying the Moon

Burying The Moon by Andrée Poulin, with beautiful art by Sonali Zohra is the touching story of a 12 year old girl in India. The women in Latika’s village can only do their daily ‘business’ at night in a nearby field. Once girls reach puberty they can no longer go to school because the school nor the village have toilets. Latika is angry that boys don’t have these problems. Education doesn’t even seem important to them. Latika gathers her courage to speak out and make a change for all women in her village. A heartbreaking story, written in free verse, that sheds light on a huge problem around the world. I had no idea that half the world’s population has  no access to flush toilets. If, after reading this book, you want to make a difference, check out this website: ISBN 978-1-77306-604-2, Groundwood Books 

Ho'onani: Hula Warrior

Ho’Onani, Hula Warrior is a unique picture book about Hawaiian culture. Traditionally, boys can lead a Hula group. But why not a girl who loves to sing and dance? Ho’onani does not think of herself as ‘just a girl’ or ‘just a boy’. She is Ho’onani – strong, sure and steady. Through hard work and courage she achieves her dream and make her family and village proud of their heritage. ISBN 978-0-7352-6449-6, Tundra

Natsumi! by Susan Lendroth and Priscilla Burris is the story of Natsumi, who may be a Japanese girl but is not dainty nor quiet like other girls in her village. Everything Natsumi does, she does in a big way. Her family tells her that she is too fast, too loud. Discouraged, Natsumi’s grandfather knows what his granddaughter will be good at. On the day of the annual traditional Festival, dainty dancers perform, tea is served carefully and finally Natsumi can show her true self by being a powerful, traditional taiko drummer! ISBN 978-0-399-17090-4, G.P. Putnam’s Sons

I Have the Right to Culture

Part of a picture books series based on the UN Convention on the rights of the child, I Have The Right to Culture, by Alain Serres and Aurélia Fronty, the book celebrates all things art. From dance to film, from poetry to paintings, the book shows how cultures preserve and protect their heritage and how each person has the right to learn about the art from their country because ‘A child who never knew about.. sculptures or paintings… would as as sad as a thousand birds who never learned how to fly.’ Highly recommended especially for schools with diverse populations. ISBN 978-1-77306-490-1, Groundwood Books.

A sad but beautiful, and important, story is I Lost My Talk by Rita Joe, art by Pauline Young. It is the story of a child in residential school, forced to adopt a new language and new customs. As the child grows older and darkness folds away, colour returns to the pages as she slowly discovers the power of her own culture and extends a hand of friendship to others to help them understand. A beautifully executed picture book that works on many levels, for many ages. ISBN 978-1-77108-810-7, Nimbus Publishing

You Might Be Special!

So what if you have a common name and no special skills? Well… You Might Be Special by Kerri Kokias, illustrated by Marcus Cutler, puts you to the test. If you feel different from others you can take a quiz to make sure you are not a unicorn, or a dragon. And if you are none of these… then you are special because you are you! A fun book to share out loud with young readers who are special. ISBN 978-1-5253-0333-3, Kids Can Press

Margriet Ruurs is a Canadian author of over 40 books for children. She conducts author presentations at international schools and shares her travel stories here:

I Am Not a Moth and My Keys are Not Missing

Over thirty thousand people evacuated and a thousand homes ablaze in Colorado at the end of December? Difficult as it may be to believe, such impacts of climate change are predicted to be increasingly felt, unless we as a species move out of the heaving blackness and entrapment of the Anthropocene. That worldview which is dominated by a false dogma.  The one where drunken humans believe themselves to be at the very core of existence. Pivotal to the necessary upheaval and shift in human consciousness is a transcendence beyond activism and into action. 

The past few days, I coincidentally came across two very similar jokes. The first about a moth who goes into a podiatrist’s office. When asked about his problem, the response is a long-winded account of all of his troubles. Amongst these is tragic loss and cowardice.  The punchline comes when the doctor suggests the moth see a psychiatrist instead and asks why the moth came to a foot specialist. 

“Cause the light was on!” 

How many of us are similarly drawn to whatever glitters, speaks loudest, or successfully garners our attention? A currently trending stirring satirical film on Netflix called, “Don’t Look Up” does a fantastic job depicting this. The plot centers on how a planet-killing comet imminently hurtles toward earth and yet politics, economics, and society’s addiction to the frivolous divide the world.  Stall followed by avarice, are the only response offered.  Parallels might be drawn between the inappreciable ground gained (or lost!) since the 2015 Paris Climate Change talks.  

The second joke, actually stemming from a 13th century parable, also involves light.  A helpful police officer questions a man on all fours hunting for his lost keys under the streetlamp. “Are you sure you dropped your keys here?” 

“No, I am sure I lost them across the street.”

Dismayed, the officer inquires, “Then, why do you search here?”  

“Because the light is much better here.”

Doing Something Different

People’s propensity to search in easier places than those which are likely to honestly yield results being the crux of the joke.  Yet, laughter aside, both jokes contain truth at the core. In vulnerability, I consider my own experience. One which in the past may have been quick to step out on a ledge, even to select “adventurer” as one of three words to define myself. Yet, the moth in me began to be drawn into the known, the comfortable, and the compliant.  Foolery. Or, like the man in search of his keys I seemingly began to illogically camp under the light of a 20 watt bulb instead of under the myriad miracles of the skies.   ​

Obviously, I am not a moth and my keys are not missing.  Yet from time to time I think about how at one training a gong was struck, followed by a call to “do something different!” Anchored by an excitement for uncertainty and a wellspring of curiosity I am ready to do something different. Fussing over school standards or lunch duty responsibilities seemingly dilutes the larger sense of purpose I feel. Especially when I consider how indubitably countries, businesses, and schools are continually shifting. Human consciousness beginning to result in action.

Net-Zero Cannot Wait

Net-zero is a critical concept rightly abuzz. It occurs when the amount of greenhouse gas emitted is no greater than the amount removed from the atmosphere. Measuring carbon emissions is important because it has an effect on global warming.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported how a planetary warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius “would be an unacceptably high risk, potentially resulting in major extinctions, more severe droughts and hurricanes, a watery Arctic, and an increased toll on human health and well-being.”  See: Colorado fires at the start of this article. 

Many countries have committed to reaching “net-zero” by midcentury.  Indonesia and Saudi Arabia by 2060.  And India by 2070.  Not only does each lack a detailed plan for how to achieve this, a band-aid will not help resuscitate like an AED.  Thankfully, there are bolder approaches being taken. The Kingdom of Bhutan was ahead of the times when back in 2009, they achieved net-zero. Further the country promised to remain carbon neutral for time  immemorial but in effect progressed and became carbon negative. Little wonder exists if a correlation can be made between Bhutan’s love of the planet and the country’s choice to measure gross national happiness (GNH) as opposed to GDP.

After Secretary-General António Guterres called a, “code red for humanity,” many multinational corporations committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions.  The likes of Amazon and other companies vow to do more to protect the Earth.  Their goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions is 10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement goals. However, “greenwashing” or the process of conveying false impressions about a company becoming more environmentally sound, is legitimate.  This especially so after Jeff Bezos decision to add 300 metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere during a 180 second space odyssey.  A figure equivalent to nearly 3 million miles of automobile travel!  

Schools also are beginning to net-zero call. In October of 2021, Hawaii Preparatory Academy made a bold move in committing to eliminating its carbon emissions over the next nine years. In an official press release they pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2030. Colby College in Waterville, Maine paved the way in 2013 when it became the first  carbon neutral university. Nine other colleges and universities in the United States have similarly achieved this goal.

Ironically or not, it was the natural world and a snowstorm that extinguished Colorado’s wildfires. The influential writer Alice Walker suggested that the most important question in the world is, “Why is the child crying?” For the sake of this post, the Earth is this child. Pretending to not hear, only will offer up more piercing shrill and devastation. Fires, floods, and famine. The answers remain in the actions we take. Not in 2030 or 2070. Resolute must we be.



For more on how your school might begin to educate for a more sustainable future, click on Green Schools National Network.

World Economic Forum Video: “Incredibly, these countries absorb more carbon than they emit.”

Teacher Agency: Reflections on an Interview with A J Juliani

For the past decade, I’ve focused on supporting teacher and student agency at my school. For teachers, our motto is “Continually becoming the professionals we already are.” I’m realizing that for students we don’t have a particular motto. Help me out! What is a good student agency motto for a school?

Tim Logan, the host of the Future Learning Design podcast, recently interviewed A J Juliani about curriculum. Curriculum is so often developed before teachers even meet the students that we assume that’s a good idea. But is it? 

Future Learning Design

Tim and A J begin their talk with a mention of A J’s annual “failing report.” If I understood correctly, A J writes up his failures at the end of the year, presumably to see how much he has learned from them and how much he can continue to learn from them. Seems like a pretty good idea, actually. Is it a good or bad sign that I can immediately think of a number of things to put on my own list!

Juliani is an entrepreneur, and a list of failures is probably something entrepreneurs get quite adept at collecting. The ability to look that list straight in the eye and learn from it is for sure a trait of someone who has embraced entrepreneurial thinking. 

“We don’t think that everybody is going to have to be an entrepreneur when they graduate,” says Juliani. “But everyone is going to have to think like an entrepreneur.” So what might some entrepreneurial ways of thinking be and what might we question about the way we do school (if we want to get our students thinking entrepreneurially)?

Here’s a few ideas.

Maybe our adherence to tests as assessments could loosen a bit. Juliani asks point blank: “Who told politicians that tests work?” Well, they work for many things, but point taken. Tests have limits, over reliance on tests can form mindsets that might not be compatible with quality learning, and the way we tend to use tests doesn’t always encourage perseverance and grit (study-sit the test-get a mark in the gradebook-move on). 

So yes, we could look at assessment. Especially the ones that discourage risk taking (assuming there are some that don’t discourage risk taking). Ultimately, you want “to get students to care about the learning and not the grade. You don’t want kids just doing something for marks … we want them learning because they like learning.” 

Logan mentions a bit of a meme we’ve been seeing lately and something colleagues and I have written about: We should consider focusing on “a pull system instead of a push system. Everything gets pushed on kids, the master schedule, content, [it all] gets pushed on kids. And actually what we need to switch to is a pull system.”

This is a big ask for schools, since they are about the biggest push system around. I remember in grad school taking a curriculum course in which we worked on a needs assessment for several weeks. It seemed like a really good idea in the antiseptic setting of a grad course. But how many times since have I encountered a school context in which teachers had the luxury of time and flexibility to do a thorough needs assessment before jumping into the curriculum? At best it’s done for them. At worst it’s not done at all.

Juliani suggests three basic shifts in our thinking and practice:

  1. when planning the curriculum, “DON’T start with the standards – start with the reason for learning. You want to get interest and buy-in, not compliance;
  2. build a curriculum that has performance tasks … [as] assessment.” Don’t just give students one way to demonstrate learning. If the curriculum only has a test, then maybe you haven’t finished building the curriculum;
  3. We need to have windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors (see Rudine Sims Bishop) – in other words, the curriculum needs to be full of resources and materials that students relate to personally and that allow them to relate to the rest of the world, too.

Do that, so Juliani, “then your curriculum will be adaptable,” And maybe even reduce how often we push curriculum on students. Going further, “I really think that every community’s curriculum should look different.”

That’s a theme we can chew on for a long time. What would happen if the curriculum were different from community to community? Would society fall apart? Or might we be enriched as a whole through the interlocking weave of know-how? Might we even reach a heck of a lot more students by making many more local decisions, relevant to the folks right there in front of us?

Juliani claims that the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development found that locally created curriculum is more successful. Intuitively I can see this. Teachers can learn and adapt as they go, fit curriculum to the students they work with, and keep it alive. “They owned it, and they made it theirs, and they cared about it … They thought about instruction and assessment instead of just following a curriculum.”

This is an interesting question to pursue, since results that indicate the effectiveness of locally created curriculum calls into question a whole lot of currently accepted practices. More than likely, I suspect, there are good reasons for off-the-shelf curriculum and locally created curriculum to co-exist, depending on a slew of factors. That’s where it gets interesting. What are those factors and what blend of curriculum might be appropriate in all the various contexts in which we have teachers and learners? And if we’re aiming to develop entrepreneurial thinking, does a locally created curriculum serve us better?

A nice metaphor that Juliani and Logan pursue is the difference between “cooks and chefs.” 

Cooks follow a recipe given to them. Chefs experiment and put new things out there. They create, take risks, deal with failures, and hopefully learn from them. So the question is, how do we bend curriculum, and our approach to thinking about curriculum, to produce more teacher-chefs? And for that matter, more student-chefs?

Project based learning, genius hour, and choice are good starting points. Juliani points us to those themes in his own research. “We are going to lose our relevancy very quickly .. if we don’t shift much of our instruction, much of our assessment, to these types of practices.” 

And then he reminds us that we have to reconsider our assessment practices. Many current assessments, focused on content, will miss the benefits gained in inquiry based and project based learning. “If you take an inquiry based unit and then you test them in the same way as a traditional unit, I think that’s a flawed approach …”

Logan ends the interview by asking what positives there have been in the pandemic. 

Educators are flexible, but the curriculum doesn’t tend to be. People realized that our system of schooling is not flexible. Thank goodness we had people that were flexible …”

“We have a broken idea of what it means to learn, what it means to teach, and what it is to measure academic achievement.”

See to pursue these ideas further.

Student Agency: Reflections on Liam Printer’s Podcast “The Motivated Classroom”

For the past decade, I’ve focused on supporting teacher and student agency at my school. For a few years I had the pleasure of working with Liam Printer. His independent drive to be the best teacher and colleague possible was inspiring. Liam continues to inspire at the International School of Lausanne, where he is a Spanish teacher and the teaching and learning research lead, as well as the host of The Motivated Classroom podcast.

The Motivated Classroom

Liam Printer lays out a simple and compelling argument for motivation. Students – and I would add teachers, too – need self-determination to build intrinsic motivation, and building intrinsic motivation in our students – and again, our teachers – should be our goal, since intrinsically motivated learners are often those who learn more.

Light a fire, in other words. Enlist the help of those you want to teach by getting them so interested they not only learn, they keep learning, and they start to teach themselves through their own investment in the good feeling that accompanies good learning. 

Liam encountered Deci & Ryan’s self determination theory after speaking with his advisor about the success he was having with Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). My first encounter with Deci & Ryan goes back to the early 1990s, when my colleague and friend KimMarie Cole, at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, confided that she thought their theory was one of the most important things we had studied. It seems Liam agrees with KimMarie. It’s time, perhaps, to go back and do some more reading myself.

“It does come down to intrinsic motivation,” Liam says, and “we need to learn about how to motivate students and [about] what motivation is.”

Deci & Ryan lay out three conditions that need to be satisfied for a learner to experience self-determination, and through self-determination, intrinsic motivation:

  • autonomy;
  • competence; and
  • relatedness.

If these needs are met, then you are likely to have greater intrinsic motivation and the potential for greater and deeper learning.

Liam words it this way: You see intrinsic motivation when people are learning out of love and personal interest. You have extrinsic motivation when people are learning for awards or to avoid punishments. While both have a role to play, the goal is increased intrinsic motivation.

If we think about a good learning experience we’ve had, as Liam suggests we do, we will probably realize that we didn’t feel “externally controlled.” In fact, we probably felt good with what we were doing, energized by it even, and we probably had a good relationship with our teacher and colleagues as we were learning.

I love this line of thinking. A J Juliani (see my blog about his conversation with Tim Logan) mentions how lectures sometimes get a bad rap. A J points us in the same direction as Liam, saying that if we want to go to a lecture because we are fired up about the topic, then that lecture can be a great way to learn, because we are there in the context of intrinsic motivation. Why lectures get a bad rap is probably because they are often delivered to an audience that is not intrinsically motivated. In other words, learners will give us teachers a bit of leeway with the mode of instruction, IF they are intrinsically motivated.

Liam goes on to mention that intrinsic motivation seems to decline as our students get older. We tend to see eager elementary students, basically, and disengaged secondary students. Deci and Ryan’s explanation includes the possibility that schools are not creating the conditions that support autonomy, competence, and relatedness, i.e. self-determination. I think Liam might add that schools are less focused on autonomy, in particular, as students get older

In his third podcast, Liam starts by reassuring us that building autonomy into the classroom doesn’t mean a laissez-faire, anything goes approach. “It’s not just free choice and free rein,” he says. The teacher can still direct learning toward course goals while creating conditions for greater autonomy. Better said: the teacher can be more successful in reaching course goals because there is greater autonomy.

We all need “opportunities to behave according to one’s interests and values.” Think about this statement for a minute in your own context. Do you get opportunities to behave according to your own interests and values? Do you get enough of them? To what degree are those opportunities, and the rate at which you have them, related to your job satisfaction? 

Students need to have “a sense of ownership,” Liam continues. He recommends that we, when possible in our classrooms, make sure students aren’t forced into doing something or coerced to do something for rewards or punishment. If you get rid of those things, then you are raising autonomy.”

What I particularly like here is that Liam is saying that teachers can begin immediately to create more autonomy, and therefore a greater chance for intrinsic motivation. Though he recognizes that traditional instruction in the language classroom (and I would add, in many classrooms, and in curriculum and assessment in addition to instruction) tends to suppress autonomy, we can do something about it. In fact, with greater autonomy we can improve both our student results and our personal job satisfaction. Improving one will improve the other.

As an example, Liam cites assessments. Simply having a variety of manners through which students can demonstrate their learning introduces greater autonomy. This opportunity is open to every single teacher, today. Perhaps you can’t change a final test, but you can change a formative assessment leading up to that final test. You can also, as Liam did when he taught at my school, have short assessments at the end of a class period, using simple cards handed to you by the students as they leave the room. Ask them to write down one thing they learned, or one way in which instruction could be changed so they could learn better, or one question they have for the next class period. Simple to do … and yet introducing just that much more autonomy in the classroom experience of your students.

“I wish,” Liam concludes, that “we didn’t have such prescribed curriculum to work within,” but even if we do, we need to think “Is there a better way for me to get this across that has the students’ interests, students’ lives, their hobbies … all part of the learning?”

I mention parallels in Liam’s comments with an interview of A J Juliani. Listen to A J and host Tim Logan on the Future Learning Design podcast.

Liam mentions being introduced to TPRS by Grant Boulanger, a Spanish teacher, trainer, and potter from Minnesota. World language teachers in particular will enjoy learning more about Grant’s work.

Agency: Reflections on an Interview with Matt Barnes

For the past decade, I’ve focused on supporting teacher and student agency at my school.

Matt Barnes recently shared some of the thinking that led him to start the Global Education Movement, a bottom up organization with no less a goal than implementing a radically different vision of education. If you are a reformer at heart, but perhaps plagued by doubt in the context of so much inertia of the educational status quo, this is a podcast for you (Overthrowing Education).

Matt Barnes lays out the three central ideas of the Global Education Movement (GEM) this way:

  1. the parent’s role is central;
  2. student agency and autonomy are required as soon as possible; and
  3. we need a radical redefinition of educational success (focusing on one’s ability to learn).

The parent’s role is central for a couple of reasons. 

First, the dream is for education to be constructed by the student. A student should learn to create an individual learning plan in which they can pursue their own interests. The people who know the student best and can be the best advocate for the student are the parents. 

“Let’s explore the different areas of interest of your child and build a learning plan around that rather than a learning plan around getting to x, y, or z college.”

When you consider that school curriculum is determined before the teachers who work with that curriculum ever meet a single student they are going to teach, well, you can see where personalization isn’t the first priority of a school. Teachers may want to personalize, but they are highly constrained. Administrators may say they are all for personalization, but there you should push back. What exactly is going to be personalized? To what degree is that really personalization?

Secondly, the parent’s role is central because to actually affect change, teachers need to actively recruit parents to be champions for change. “Parents are going to win every time,” says Barnes. “If you want to really anger somebody, start to mess with their child in a way that they don’t think is right.” 

In other words, “the power lies in the parent,” so Barnes’ goal is “to get as many parents as possible to realize that there are ways that they can pursue some of what I’m addressing while still keeping their kids in the system … and that requires the parent to be activated in a way that most schools don’t actually want.”

Student agency and autonomy

Right at the top of the podcast Barnes presents two key questions:

  • what is the definition of success?
  • what is the definition of learning?

You might think it odd that many parents, teachers, and administrators don’t have an immediate  and clear answer to these questions. Perhaps you might forgive the parents, but certainly the educators should have a clear definition, right?

I assure you it’s not that easy. Will Richardson has been railing for years that schools need to start with their definition of learning. Why? Because a definition brings clarity – and because most schools don’t have one. Think Richardson doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Well then consider that the New England Association for Schools and Colleges, a major accreditor of schools, introduced an accreditation protocol in the last few years that starts with the requirement for any school looking for accreditation to create a definition of learning. Further, as a member of a school that has gone through this process, it’s neither easy nor is the end product universally accepted. It certainly isn’t rapidly adopted into the school’s culture, either. 

So parents, you’ve got to help your children forge their definition of success. By doing so, you are contributing to their sense of agency and their ability to take responsibility for their actions and to direct themselves. You are giving them an ability to learn how to learn – that skill that supersedes most others since it is broadly applicable across all circumstances one encounters.

Barnes believes that “by 12 years old, usually 11 or even 10 in some cases, the child can actually become so independent in their learning that they can begin to build their own learning plans.”

At home, I agree. My youngest, at 11 years old, is learning German and touch typing with apps, knows nearly as much about Harry Potter as Rowlings herself, thanks to endless YouTube videos, and cooks or bakes for us on Friday afternoons with her friends. She creates her own dance choreographies and trains for artistic gymnastics. She is the one who remembers her school schedule, what needs to be signed, and what homework and tests are coming up. I could go on, I’m the proud dad, of course, so more than a little biased. 

And I do have lots of contrary evidence at my school. Plenty of students 13 years and older routinely fail when given the space and time to self-regulate. They have lived command and control for so long that many of them don’t even realize they aren’t up to self-guided learning – at least in the school environment. I bet when they are at home on their own they are indeed able to pick up this or that and learn how to do new things. At school, though, they’ve been trained to wait for the teacher. This is a terrible thing to teach our young people.

So I try to create experiences at school that allow students to practice having the freedom of their own choices. And I have in the past done exactly what Barnes recommends: get the parents on my side by informing them exactly why we are doing what we are doing. 

“The parent can give the teacher cover,” in other words. Otherwise teachers who are trying to operate in a way that privileges a high degree of student agency will get negative feedback from the school itself (a strange outcome, but true) and quite possibly leave the system. Through doing so they perpetuate the command and control system they were working against.

A radical redefinition of educational success (focusing on one’s ability to learn)

Schools have a limited amount of time. (Actually, 12 years is massive, but it is at least a finite amount of time.) So to what degree should schools use that time to introduce as much content as possible versus focusing on a student’s ability to learn … well, to learn whatever?

Barnes reminds us that one hundred years ago, teachers had a certain amount of information in their heads that simply wasn’t available to students elsewhere. So they were teachers. Now that information is ubiquitous, students need coaches more than teachers. They need practice in separating knowledge from noise and they need folks who believe in them and ask questions about their work (see my blog about an interview with Sugata Mitra).

And this is what teachers want to do, according to Barnes. “I ask teachers all the time what they want, what is the dream environment for their learners … They want learners to be independent, they want learners to be excited about learning, curious, to be autonomous and have a high sense of agency. They want that. But the system they are in doesn’t. The system they are in is built to create dependent learners.”

Aargh! If that’s only partially true – that our schools are really very good vehicles for creating dependent learners – we have got a whole lot of work to do. Perhaps we can take solace in pinning our hopes to the content coverage – that knowing all that content will in fact lead to success. Well, ask yourself again what the definition of success should be. And imagine that Barnes is also right that universities are “actually not looking for the straight A / perfect SAT / volunteered at the Children’s Hospital type of student. They are looking for kids who actually know who they are, that have demonstrated that through their activities, that are creative and open and thinkers, not just rule followers. That’s what universities actually want.”

And if you are still holding out hope for that part of universities which IS looking for top grades, consider the extent to which a future boss is going to worry about top grades versus creative problem solving, ability to collaborate, and seeing another’s viewpoint. 

The host, Batsheva Frankel, ends the podcast by reminding Barnes about one of his own quotes. “Why normal is broken and you want to be weird.” Barnes restates the quote as “Normal is broken in schools; from now on weird wins.” Barnes defines weird kids as those “who don’t need an adult to hold their hand or look over their shoulder. Weird is about creating kids who fit [today’s world], not fit in schools from previous generations.”

“If your child’s school looks, feels, tastes, or smells like the school you attended when you were a child, then you have a big problem.”

Consider your child’s school – or your own, if you are a teacher – with this last nugget of wisdom in mind: “You never ever ever do for others that which they can do for themselves. Because the minute you do that you are creating a dependency.”

If you’d like to hear more from Matt Barnes, check out his interview with Tim Logan on Future Learning Design.

Spread Some holiday cheer

Image created by Shwetangna Chakrabarty on

This term too ended with a bittersweet feeling; since the last year and a half, every holiday has been the same: no travel plans, no duty-free shopping, no family dinners, no tight hugs, no gift exchanges, and no adventures with friends. On the last day of this semester, I had my students discuss holiday plans while sharing hot chocolate and gingerbread cookies. They all had the same bittersweet feeling; a long holiday but does not seem exciting. I felt a wave of sadness sweep over the class and I had to do something. Gulping down the hot chocolate helped as the sugar rush gave me extra adrenaline and a bit of warmth in the biting cold. I had to get rid of the cold air somehow for the sake of my own sanity and my students’ morale. After all, it is the time of the year to spread some cheer and happiness. I asked my students to list all the things that they usually did before the Covid19 restrict during the winter break. And then the next challenge was to come up with ideas that would be in the same spirit in the new paradigm of travel-less holidays. 

Here is the list of 10 activities for the holidays in the new paradigm by modifying regular holiday activities:

Holidays Before Covid19Holidays in the New Paradigm
1Draw holiday greetings for family members and give them during gatherings.Can’t meet family members so make digital cards for friends and families, create stunning digital cards with the many online applications. Explore your creativity.
2Buy and wrap gifts for friends and families and exchange them during gatherings.Buy and wrap gifts for homeless people, children in orphanages, elderly in the care homes and send them to respective charities or NGOs.
3Eat grandma’s delicious baked goodies.Cant meet grandma, get her recipe, try it yourself and send pictures to grandma.
4Go out for big family picnics and dinners.Organise a ‘Dine Online’ on the virtual platform with family members. Eat together while sharing stories over a video chat.
5Go on an adventure with friends and family.Adventure can be taking the risk of learning something new like cooking, painting, running, cycling or even meditation. Something you have never done before is always an adventure. Try to rope in a friend or family member to do something together like online yoga.
6Go to the movies.Organise a movie night over a video call and share screen with friends and family. Laugh and cry together over some popcorn that you don’t have to share!
7Go shopping to explore new markets.Organise an online market where you and your friend can exchange clothes, accessories without having to pay other than delivery. 
8Pack bags for travel.Pack unused items, clothes and shoes, donate or upcycle. Get rid of baggage.
9Unpack when you come back from a holidayUnpack all things that you have not used yet, like the travel mug you have been saving for a holiday, use it all, don’t fear unpacking. You can even do some unboxing and post it online.
10The tight hug when you first see your mum, dad or grandma or your loved ones after a long timeSave it for when you meet them after 2 years or more. Nothing comes to mind that can replace this feeling except giving a tight hug to people around you to spread the holiday cheer.

Try this activity with your family or friends or students – it will be a great way of spreading the holiday cheer, getting rid of the anxiety of the unknown. Not being able to travel during winter holidays or other long holidays can be painful. But we need to make the most of what we have; that is being true to the spirit of holidays. Spread some holiday cheer!

Ice cream, Astronomy and Leadership

I was watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with my friend’s daughter, Alegra. We were immersed in the magical land of sweet possibilities, having one of my favorite types of conversations that you can have with a child…the conversation of ”What ifs…” What if rivers were really made of chocolate? What if flowers were made of candy? etc. As the movie came to an end I told Alegra that my first job was working in an ice cream store. This news launched Alegra into a new series of questions. Alegra was filled with wonder and awe!

Photo by Harry Cunningham from Pexels

The next day my friend called me to tell me about the conversation she had with Alegra while tucking her into bed that night. The last thing Alegra said before falling asleep was, “why would Kristen ever leave her job at the ice cream store?” 

That question got me thinking about my dream job when I was a child. I desperately wanted to be an astronomer. I was so passionate about space. When I was in second grade the only thing I wanted for Christmas was the book Cosmos by Carl Sagan. I wanted to go to Cornell University so Carl Sagan could be my teacher.

I constantly sang:

 Twinkle twinkle little star, I know exactly what you are. If you wonder how I know, Carl Sagan told me so. Twinkle, Twinkle little star, I know exactly what you are.

Photo by Chris Leggat on Unsplash

How could a parent refuse the wish of a book? I got Cosmos for Christmas and spent hours looking through the amazing photographs trying to understand the words that went with the images. I still have the book 40 years later.

As a learner who struggled throughout school to understand mathematical concepts and barely made my way through physics I think back to my 8 year old self, who was desperate to be an astronomer, and wonder, “what was it that I thought an astronomer did?” because I am certain I did not think it involved any math.

I actually spent a lot of time thinking about that question this week after listening to an inspiring interview with America Ferrera on the Dare to Lead podcast where she was talking about her dream, as a kindergartner, to be a human rights lawyer.

My 8 year old self defined an astronomer as a person who looked at the sky and saw endless possibilities of what could be. An astronomer experienced wonder and awe every day as part of their work. Astronomers were curious. An astronomer was an explorer. A person who looked for places that no one had been before and tried to learn everything possible about that place whether it was a planet, a moon, a star, a black hole or a galaxy. An astronomer was a person who could see things in different ways through different types of powerful telescopes. An astronomer provided some direction for the astronauts so they knew where to go in space. Finally, Carl Sagan, who hosted of my favorite PBS show as a child, Cosmos, could take really complicated concepts and make them somewhat accessible or, at least, really interesting to an 8 year old girl and I admired that skill.

When I think about my 8 year old self’s definition of an astronomer, I think I captured the essence of my career dreams in my current leadership work in international schools. Living in different countries and learning about new cultures and ways of being inspires me- it helps feed my soul. I have a passion for gathering data, especially the kind of data that really helps me to understand how things work and how to improve systems or even rethink systems so they support everyone. Data sparks my curiosity and leads me to ask lots of questions. I deeply value different perspectives especially when I talk with someone who pushes my thinking and stops me in my tracks, resulting in those really meaningful aha moments that lead to new learning and professional growth. I also do my best to try and take complex concepts and break those ideas into meaningful, actionable steps. This process helps set a vision or course for our collective work, our discoveries in teaching and learning.

I may not be exploring the galaxy, but exploring the field of education, especially over the past two years, which has been filled with so much uncertainty, is unlocking new frontiers worthy of wonder and further learning.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? How did that dream inform your current practice?