The juggernaut of the e-mail part 1: incessance

E-mail was invented in the early 1970s as a means of accelerating communications through electronics. It only started to really hit the mainstream more than 20 years later.  Of all the major technological developments in the last 50 years, email is without a doubt among those that have reshaped the nature of communications and work the most substantively.

Whereas once upon a time people sent handwritten notes and met in person, got on a call or if they really wanted to flex some technology went to the trouble to send a fax, today’s world of work is dominated, overwhelmingly and massively, by email. Many office jobs seem to consist almost entirely of being stuck to a screen, to get through emails. 

I was reading a book the other day about an infamous educational administrator in the 1950s who, it was commented, “was rarely to be seen in his office”, this meaning that he was suspected of not doing his work. Nowadays, it’s the opposite, school leaders who are in their offices all the time are doing something wrong: they should be out and about, walking the corridors, dropping in to catch up with people, socialising and taking in the ambient culture. This is true, but when do they answer the dreaded emails that are piling up irrepressibly in their inboxes while they enjoy some face-to-face social contact?

Perhaps the expectation is that they do this at night, or over the weekend, or during public holidays, or in the small hours of the morning?

And of course, strolling through an organisation can lead to you being caught by a glare and the ominous statement: “did you get my email?”

Then there’s email addiction. The worst example is in meetings when people are reading their emails while someone else is speaking, only stopping when they have to give their own presentations to the person who was speaking earlier but is now reading their emails. Why are people online more important than those right in front of you? If you chair meetings and people are talking, make sure the others close their laptops. I call it “sharking” the laptops: “shark’em please!” It really is intolerable to give a presentation to an audience that is not looking at you.

A friend of mine once said that there is only one way to answer emails, it’s one by one as they come. I tried this but found it quite difficult since some are clearly more important and pressing than others and some require research, multiple action points and cannot be answered on the fly. When I saw him at a conference a few years later he had forgotten his earlier advice: now it was “I try to answer the important ones, and once in a while, to impress people, I’ll answer right away!” he said.

It feels a little like fighting a losing battle, or Sisyphus rolling his stone up the hill to see it go all the way back down again. Like the Nine Headed Hydra, if you answer one mail, another will grow in its place. You can’t win against emails, they creep up on you as Birnam wood comes to Macbeth, in a slow but unstoppable march: a moving forest of messages coming to get you. You wake up in a cold sweat, you were having a nightmare. To get to sleep you answer a few emails but before you know it it’s time to go to work, where more will be waiting for you. 

Teachers and students, people whose time is made up primarily of face-to-face contact, receive emails too. The more of them that pile up in their inboxes, the more difficult it is to find what little time there is left on either side of a full day to answer them.

The incessant flow of emails, the fact that they can be written so easily and fired off at all times of the day has meant, quite simply, that work has increased enormously, to bursting point. But has it become more meaningful?

What to do? I think there is only one solution: each of us has to practise it, individually: be kind when thinking about sending an email. As I’ve seen in some people’s email signatories, “do you really need to send this?”

Photo by 84 Video on Unsplash

A lesson on electrophilic addition reactions

In the TV series The Big Bang Theory, an atomic model of the helical structure of DNA, a structure of hundreds of plastic balls, stands in the background of the main set for several seasons until it finally, predictably, falls apart in a cascade of colorful balls that pour across the hardwood floor.

The models on the teacher’s desk are nowhere near as complex, but they are just as mysterious to me. They look neat, that’s all the further I get. The teacher holds one of them and in his excitement (yes, excitement) waves it around to underline the most important points of his explanation. He demonstrates how bromine is pushed to the side and the bromine becomes negative and floats away in an aqueous solution. There is an inductive effect, electrons are being lost, the plastic model soars back and forth, the teacher elicits the word carbocation (yes, I looked that up). 

The teacher places the plastic models on an empty desk and turns to the whiteboard. There in 2D marker is one of those diagrams that makes chemistry look like chemistry, Cs and Hs are connected with each other and sure enough the bromine, what else could Br be, looks to be leaving, just as we saw with the plastic model.

“Okay?” the teacher asks. Hats off to the students, they nod as one, they seem content, goodness gracious humans are good at learning stuff. There are only four human students here, kids in their last year of high school. Two want to go to medical school, one is interested in nuclear physics, the other in electrical engineering. How do they know this at 18 years of age?

The teacher passes out plastic models, gives the students a task, and they set to work taking Hs and Cs apart by breaking bonds. “Where does the bromine go?” asks the teacher as the students hold up their models. “Thank god you got different answers,” he adds, “because this is what I’m teaching today.” 

1870. Markovnikov’s Rule. One student has heard of him, a student from Poland. The teacher celebrates. “Yes!” He continues, almost thinking aloud: “Why is it that schools in the former Soviet Union were so good at teaching chemistry? Perhaps because the periodic table was part of the proud heritage of Russian thought. And by the way, why were the Soviets less interested in biology? Because Darwin’s theory of evolution didn’t fit so well with the communist message. And you think science is just facts?” 

So Markovnikov’s Rule. The teacher shares the English idiom about the rich getting richer. He relates it to Matthew 13:12: For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance. An abundance of hydrogen attracts more hydrogen, I think that is his point. The information is coming fast and furious and I can hardly keep up. This is chemistry, but also history and philosophy. It’s been so long, but there were Kuhn and Popper in college, and the unsettling realization that at the top of our human fields of understanding there is a whole lot of debate about how to go about understanding. 

The performance today is masterful. We are watching 25 years of experience compressed into 45 minutes. 

The teacher looks at the pre-med hopefuls. “Do you know the number one reason med students don’t make it through med school?” 

The students laugh. “Organic chemistry?” 

“Right,” says the teacher. “But one time I asked my doctor how much organic chemistry he actually used. You know what?  He rolled his eyes, my doctor, and said ‘not much.’”

He shrugs, a non-verbal it-is what-it-is, the world is sometimes hard to explain. Then he tells the students that he will be on duty in the residential hall this weekend. 

“Come and get free tutoring,” he advises. He walks to the back of the room and sits down behind his desk. I can almost feel the curtains meeting in the middle of the stage, the house lights coming up. There will be an encore tomorrow.

Spectroscopes and What We See

I’ve arrived to the physics class late. I was talking with a biology teacher who offered me a cup of tea, one of those nice moments in a hectic school day.

The students are standing, looking through a prism or something to do with spectra, I missed the introduction. Whatever they are doing, it involves their phones, and I believe the instruments they are holding are splitting the light into pieces. This is discovery, they mill about, drawing their own conclusions. I think we call this activating prior knowledge. It’s a hook, basically. He’s getting the students interested in what is to come.

The teacher has already got them thinking about the color of light. Inside the room, the lights in the ceiling: what color are they? A student answers, “White.” The teacher points out the window, another student answers, “White.” The teacher pauses. 

“Really?” Longer pause. “If you were in art class painting the sun, what color paint would you use. “Yellow.” “OK,” says the teacher, so …. “ The students start using their simple spectral light splitters, looking at the wavelength of the sun and whatever chemicals there are in the suspended lights in the class. The sunlight is an almost continuous spectrum, the classroom lights are not, spectroscopy, spectrographs … 

As usual with science, I’m both interested and lost. 

But not entirely lost. The teacher has discharge tubes set up in different parts of the room, high voltage stuff. Each tube is a near vacuum with gas of a single element inside. I think. The students are going to determine, by using their spectrographs and mobile phones, what gases are in these tubes. (I’ll check all that with the teacher later, but I think I’ve got it.)

He turns off the lights, the students spread out around the room and go to work.

“Oh, and don’t touch the apparatus,” the teacher warns. “That one gave me a shock. I don’t know if the other ones will do the same.”

Next to me a student gets a good image on his phone, the light is split, bands of light in a particular pattern associated with that particular gas. He takes several pictures, capturing the gas’s signature. (Again, I’ll have to check this with the teacher.)

Now we have a periodic table projected on the screen. You can click the element to see its atomic spectrum. Aha, match your picture with the picture of an element … detective work. I wonder if they have to go to every element? What patterns are hidden behind the periodic table in these patterns of light? How does this physics teacher see the period table differently than I do? Me? Just a list of abbreviations that I once memorized with my high school friend Shawn. AU is gold. Ow! Gold hurts if you hit your head with it. Au! The teacher sees more – patterns, connections, and perhaps these spectra lurking there, behind the letters. Mr. Pibb tastes like lead. Pb. Was it my grade 11 chemistry teacher that failed me, or my way of seeing the world that failed my teacher?

The teacher explains why looking for spectra was so interesting, for a time, in science. If you found a new spectrum, well, you may have found a new element. That’s pretty exciting. Where does it fit in the table? Better: What does it say about our understanding of the world? What if a new element didn’t fit in the periodic table? And … you might get to name the new element after yourself. Magnomium. Sounds nice.

We live in the same world, but we all see the world differently. I’m a bit in awe of this teacher, how he must see things, how the world reveals itself to him, how he is able to pull the curtain on a stage inaccessible to me. 

GLOBAL BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS

In this column I feature books that I recommend. Books specifically suited to use as read-alouds or to support the curriculum. These books often reflect a global lifestyle. But books also need to be plain funny and entertaining, demonstrating the power of imagination and encouraging children to become readers. Today’s books are great examples of that. World Read Aloud Day is in February so celebrate by reading aloud to any grade level! Happy reading!

Cinderella With Dogs by Linda Bailey, with art by Freya Hartas is a frolicking romp through a dog park! Like fractured fairytales, this one shows us a Cinderella who loves dogs. When – unexpectedly – her fairy dog mother shows up instead of a god mother, Cinderella is thrilled. When she mentions a… ball, the dog is very excited. Together they chase squirrels and end up at the royal palace where people are shocked. But the prince is thrilled to find someone who loves dogs as much as he does. Not only is this a wonderful spin on a well known tale, it also shows readers how to use your imagination and create new stories. ISBN 978-1-9848-1382-4, Tundra Books/Penguin

Our Cat Cuddles by Gervase Phinn is a wonderful rhyming story that will be fun to share out loud with preschoolers to Grade One. It’s a perfect story to talk about predicating a plot. What do you think might happen? What kind of cat will this family end up with when they visit the animal shelter? Each family is looking for different qualities in a cat. Will they be able to agree on a kitten? With a surprise ending, this is a great story with good rhyme. Illustrations by Amanda Montgomery-Higham. ISBN 978-0859538640, Child’s Play

The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet by Carmen Agra Deedy, with art by Eugene Yelchin is a brilliant story about a small but noisy village. Cars, dogs, children – everything makes noise. When Don Pepe runs for mayor, he promises quiet – nice and quiet. So everyone votes for him. At first it’s nice. But soon more and more laws come into effect. No more singing, no more whistling, no more talking. Some people move away but the village stays deadly quiet. Until, one day a loud rooster crows. He and the mayor have a stand off. But the rooster will not be quiet. Even behind bars, even when his family is taken away. The little rooster shows everyone that a song is stronger than the biggest bully and cannot be taken away. This book can be used with young children but is especially effective with high school students to discuss oppression, dictatorship and freedom of speech. ISBN 978-0-545-72288-9, Scholastic. 

Mixed Beasts by Wallace Edwards, with verses by Kenyon Cox, is a book of ‘Rare and Fantastic Creatures’ compiled by Professor Julius Duckworth O’Hare. This studious hare can be spotted throughout the large illustrations as he observes the creatures he studies. There is the Rhinocerostrich, the busy Bumblebeaver, the loud Kangarooster and, my favourite, Creampuffin among many other. Not only are the black and white drawings of each ‘beast’ almost believable, the full page colour illustrations are full of other, smaller creatures to spot. A back page is an index of animals like horsefly, fowl balls and fruit bats that are hilarious. What a fun activity to follow up reading and studying this book with inviting students of all ages to create their own ‘mixed beasts’. ISBN 978-1553-377-962, Kids Can Press

And if you got carried away by those fantastical beasts and want to meet more, there is Unnatural Selections, a collection of more beasts composed of two, three or even four different animal parts. In these pages you will meet, almost seemingly possible, animals like the Whalephant, a black and white cowaconda and a Shardunk (combination shark, duck and skunk!). This is a book to have endless fun, alone or with a group, to study the detailed illustrations, spot more beasts and then draw and write about your own creations. ISBN 978-1-4598-0555-2, Orca Book Publishers

Margriet Ruurs conducts author visits to international schools, writes books and believes in using your imagination.

www.margrietruurs.com

We all went through it

I recently responded to a couple of my online students – early career teachers – about classroom management. Instead of focusing on tips, I thought I’d focus on the relative confusion I felt in those first years.

Dear Teacher,

I once taught German to native English speakers at a private school. The students were grades 6-8 and wild – out of control, basically. I tried things that didn’t work and some that maybe weren’t totally wrong.

1. I told them I would just wait until they got under control. Nope.

2. I brought fortune cookies and awarded them prizes if they were under control. Really bad idea.

3. I ran around outside the school with them to burn off some energy. Fun, but still out of control, and it was German class, not PE.

4. I ignored some of them who weren’t paying attention but weren’t causing a problem. Well, partial solution, but they weren’t learning German.

5. I called the parents. You’d think this was a good idea … maybe it helped?

6. I changed the seating. That helped some. 

7. I got them back up out of those seats and started doing active games that included German. This was better – at least I couldn’t tell they were out of control because running around and moving was built in.

8. We learned boisterous songs together, using call and response. This worked. Unfortunately I chose German drinking songs from Oktoberfest and that did not fit into the Waldorf curriculum.

9. I wondered a lot why this particular group of students should be learning German in the first place. Good question, but it did nothing for the behavior problems.

I don’t really remember how I got through the two years I was there – but I did. Pretty sure they didn’t learn much German. Sigh.

With all of that I’d like to say that as young teachers sometimes things seem really unclear – sort of a fog of “what is happening and why?!” that is pretty hard to see through. It gets better with time. You learn to create classroom management through the activities you are choosing and through developing rapport, individually and collectively, with the class. You can start to conduct like in front of an orchestra, where you don’t always have to be looking at everyone, where the music becomes a focus for everyone, where sometimes it’s the violas that need all the attention.

But this isn’t easy. It takes time and patience. It takes experimenting. Give yourself lots of time for that.

And … decide right now that what you will never do is yell at the students or shame any of them to exert your will. What you might gain for a moment you’ve lost for the rest of the year.

So don’t be hard on yourself. But experiment, ask others, observe classes when you can, get to know the students, don’t be afraid to have a laugh. You’ll get there.

Triumphs and Trials: A Teacher-Mother’s Journey with an International School Student

Triumphs and Trials. Photo taken by Shwetangna Chakrabarty in Tanzania

The moment was heart-stopping: my son, the captain of his school’s varsity football team, leaped to save a critical goal in the tournament final, only to land with a head injury. The impact was severe, a head injury just four days before his final International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma exams. As a mother and his teacher at an international school, the fear and uncertainty of that moment were overwhelming. Yet, what followed was a testament to resilience, dedication, and the transformative power of education within a diverse and supportive environment.

Balancing the dual roles of teacher and mother to a graduating IB student is a journey fraught with unique triumphs and trials. Witnessing my son’s journey through the rigorous IB Diploma Programme, I’ve seen firsthand the sacrifices required and the competencies honed—critical thinking, time management, and a positive mindset, to name a few. His achievement of an almost perfect IB score of 44 out of 45 is a beacon of his hard work and the high-quality education provided by our international school setting.

Upon reflecting on my son’s journey, I have learned to be a better teacher. I have learned that learning happens when students are supported emotionally and cognitively. Another learning is the positive impact of diversity in international schools on student achievement. Students from varied cultural backgrounds come together, to teach each other the life skills that extend beyond academics. For my son, it wasn’t just about mastering the subjects to secure those 7s in all his subjects (Mathematics AA, Physics, Chemistry, English L&L all at higher level and French LA, Business Management at standard level); it was about learning to navigate and thrive in a dynamic, multicultural world. This environment, underpinned by the right expectations, personal ambition, and guidance, fosters empathy, adaptability, and a broadened perspective—qualities that are as crucial in the classroom, on the sports field, and in life.

Speaking of sports, my son’s role as the captain of the football, basketball, and volleyball teams—each clinching major championships—further amplifies the invaluable life lessons he learned and I witnessed from team sports: leadership, collaboration, resilience, and the spirit of fair play. These experiences prepared him for unforeseen challenges that he had not imagined.

He earned the International Major Entrance Scholarship (IMES) from the University of British Columbia (UBC) Canada recognizing not just his academic prowess but his all-around excellence in sports, community service, and music. As a mother and a teacher, I experienced the joy of success for a student who never gave up and believed in the good of academic pursuits and team spirit.

However, this journey was not without its sacrifices. The head injury before his final exams was a stark reminder of the thin line between success and setback. The days that followed were tense, filled with doctors’ visits, rest, and uncertainty. Yet, the resilience my son demonstrated, fueled by his dedication and the competencies developed through the IB program, saw him through. He not only sat for his exams but excelled, a testament to his strength and determination.

Even after earning offers from many universities and scholarship offers from top universities in the world, my son could not get to his university on time. He had to miss an entire term waiting for his Canadian study permit to be approved. This was probably more painful than the stitches he had to endure during his head injury. He applied for the visa in April 2023 and only got it in November 2023. Missing the first term of his Engineering course. He had declined all the other offers as he was confident he would continue at UBC as the place that valued his talents. I witnessed his breakdown and frustration due to uncertainty and missing out on important life events: first day at uni; course selection day; activities sign-up day; varsity tryouts; scholarship recognition awards day and much more. The teacher in me would counsel him and motivate him to remain hopeful but the mother in me cried in pain to see him suffer. My son and I reflected on our situation multiple times to come out of it stronger due to the wonderful friendships that we had experienced. The support he got from teachers, friends, and family was the strength that kept us going and helped us understand that true joy comes from genuine relationships and friendships. That is our true success!

This experience has been enlightening for me, both professionally and personally. As a teacher, it has reinforced the value of fostering a supportive, diverse, and challenging learning environment. As a mother, it has been a journey of pride, worry, and ultimately, immense joy in seeing my son overcome obstacles and strengthen his trust in friendships and people. This trust helped him to settle into university all by himself when he went to UBC in December 2023!

In reflecting on this journey, it’s clear that the challenges we face, whether in the classroom, on the sports field, or in life, are growth opportunities. The diverse and rich atmosphere of an international school, coupled with the right intention and guidance, can transform these challenges into stepping stones for success. As my son steps into the next chapter of his life, I am confident that the lessons learned and the qualities honed during his time in an international school moving many times across continents will serve him well.

As for me, I am grateful for the dual perspective this journey has afforded me, enriching my understanding of the profound impact of teaching, guiding, supporting, caring, and educating to shape young minds and futures.

Good to GREAT

Picture this:
When it comes to learning, what makes a student ‘good’ at it?
Now….What makes them ‘great’?

From another lens, when you think about what makes a student well and how they cope, what makes a student ‘okay’? Now….What makes them ‘well-balanced’?

I pose these questions to get us thinking about the difference between being ‘average’ to being ‘good’ to, eventually, becoming ‘GREAT’! We may all agree that we want those students of ours who have struggled academically for some time to reach a point of greatness. We want them to find their personal best and thrive. But how do we support the learner who has not found their footing in their path towards greatness?

The Power of Curiosity
As educators and leaders, I imagine how we might promote students in reaching their potential. In thinking about how we might use curiosity to promote greatness, we might consider its connection to supportive risk taking.

Greatness is cultivated when students experience conditions of safety, permission to take risks, and are encouraged to engage in perspective sharing. They are given space to pose questions that might challenge their peers and in some instances, their teachers. What an incredible way to support students in developing this superpower of greatness!

Risk Taker, as noted as one of the key features of the IB Learner Profile, is arguably one the most catalytic characteristics of a very interconnected profile. Risk taking is the beginning of a student answering a question out loud or solving a problem in front of their peers for the first time this academic year. It can also be the ominous cloud of doubt in one’s abilities, while trying to navigate the self talk.

As adults, in support of students, we might push students to go down paths that are highlighted, better-defined, and in most cases, predictable… but…in risk taking, and encouraging the road less traveled, we can promote and contribute to our students’ greatness. The next generation of learners deserve to become not just good, but rather great!

GLOBAL BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS

From elephants to sea turtles, from caterpillars to owls, here are some fabulous (new) books for children – and nature lovers of all ages – to learn more about the natural environment. I have included fictional and nonfiction texts, both picturebooks and novels.

The Smallest Owlet, written and illustrated by Georgia Graham, is my new favourite nonfiction picture book with gorgeous art. It is an intimate look at day by day life of a pair of Great Horned owls. As we follow the hatching of eggs and growing of young, we learn about diet, growth and dangers faced by these majestic birds. Did you know that Great Horned Owls do not have eye balls? Or that the ‘ears’ on their head are not ears but feather tufts? A fascinating look at all things owl that shows readers how impressive nature has designed the smallest details. A beautiful book for owl lovers of all ages.

ISBN  978-1554556144, Fitzhenry & Whiteside

Coco and the Caterpillars by Geraldo Valério has wonderful paper collage images. My favourite character is Coco the chicken, who has a mind of her own. While a little boy studies books about plants, bugs and flowers, Coco is busy pulling tasty worms from the soil. While the boy discovers butterfly eggs underneath a leaf, Coco is chasing insects to eat. The boy can’t wait to see what kind of butterflies will come from the eggs and is careful not to show Coco. But when he goes to find her more chicken treats, Coco finds and devours most of the newly hatched caterpillars. And then she has a tummy ache. Luckily she did not eat all caterpillar and some turn into beautiful monarch butterflies. And while the boy studies their beautiful wings, Coco tries to catch them but they are too big for her now! 

If you have ever used The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle in your classroom, this will be a valuable addition to your lesson plan about gardens and insects.

ISBN 978-1-77306-798-8, Groundwood Books

Written by science writer Dr. Wayne Lynch, the book Bears, Bears, Bears for Kids is the ultimate guide to all things bear. Not only does it include information on polar bears, grizzlies and black bears, but also on sun bears, sloth bears and many more. The informative text is full of fascinating facts. The photos give an intimate look into the lives of bears, what they eat, how they survive, and much more. A must-have bear guide for every classroom.

ISBN 978-1554556137, Fitzhenry & Whiteside

Little Bull, Growing Up in Africa’s Elephant Kingdom by Ellen Foley James is an older picturebook but so beautiful that I hope you can still find a (used) copy for your students. Through perfect text and photos, the author share the magic and the facts about a baby elephant, his environment, his family and his herd’s life. The book touches on lifespan and challenges faces by elephants, including drought, enemies and food. The photos are gorgeous and are a great reflection of the reality of Africa’s plains in the shadow of mount Kilimanjaro. Using a baby elephant makes the book very relatable for kids. 

ISBN 0-8069-2098-X, Sterling Publishing Co.

We The Sea Turtles by Michelle Kadarusman is a wonderful collections of short stories featuring turtles around the globe. Each chapter is placed in a different place: Australia, Florida, Indonesia and many more. Each story is a complete and interesting tale, always focusing on a turtle and its importance to man and nature. Stories deal with environmental issues, endangered species and global warming. This book is a must for any turtle lover and works for readers of all ages. Highly recommended for pleasure reading as well as adding value to curriculum content.

Use a world map to pinpoint the different locations, research the variety of turtles mentioned and discuss what you can do to help protect this amazing species.

ISBN 978-1772782851, Pajama Press

Margriet Ruurs is a Canadian author of many books for children. She conducts author presentations and writing workshops at International Schools anywhere.

www.margrietruurs.com

An education for human flourishing

Anyone who studies the sociology of education knows that for hundreds of years it has been considered part of an economic vision of human behaviour. Consider the language used to describe assessment: “value added”, “rates”, “distinction”, “grade averages”, “results”, “promotion” and so on.

This is because the structure of assessment, largely derived from 19th century econometricians like Francis Galton with a heavy dose of statistical analysis (which really starts to dominate the world of assessment through classical test theory) emerges from classical economics in which the ideas of Adam Smith are concentrated on the notion that labour creates wealth.

Human Capital Theory

This way of looking at human life as linked to productivity is called human capital theory, elaborated in the 1960s by Gary Becker and Theodore Schultz. It has dominated, and continues to dominate, global belief systems about education. The idea is that human beings invest in education because there will be economic returns.  If you spend money sending children to school, they will develop skills to become productive, graduate from school and enter the workplace where they will make more money than if they never went to school. This is why people are willing to invest in education.

Is it true that going to school makes you more economically productive? Basically, yes it does.

Signalling

There’s an interesting theory rooted in evolutionary biology that was narrowed down to economics by Michael Spence in the 1970s called signalling. Here the idea is that people go to school (and university) not because the experience of schooling will allow them to gain more earnings, but because of the brand value of the diploma. Job candidates with certificates and degrees are seen as a “safe bet” since, they have proved that they can pass at school or get into a competitive university. If someone wants to go to a top tier university, it should be because they want a quality education, but signalling theory states that it not really for that reason, in fact it’s to have that university on their CV, since this is what employers are looking for. This is why people are prepared to pay so much to get into these universities, because the simple brand value of the degree is much more likely to produce a return on investment.

Human Flourishing

It’s time to look beyond both of these theories. It’s true that education is an investment, that it prepares for the workplace (although more and more professions are actually calling on competences that aren’t developed in the narrow repertoire of academic skills of school assessment) and the brand value of a degree is something that is highly sought after. However, there is so much more to what it means to be educated.

The type of education we should be developing is not just certificate proving productivity or capital earning potential. Education teaches you subtlety, how to appreciate complexity and detail, the intricacies of history, culture and art. A good education should thrust you into wonderful discussions with great minds, open your mind, teach you to see and love beauty and help you make important existential decisions in life. A great education helps develop compassion, appreciation of others, and gratitude. These competences are neither “capital”, nor are they “signals”, they are keys to a more tranquil, spiritual and mindful life, whether employers see that or not.

One would hope they would, and that organisations would build themselves up by recruiting people who carry these values rather than sheer marketplace efficiency. As long as education is seen as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself, it will be narrowed, cheapened and will, ultimately, be a missed opportunity. It’s sad when parents put pressure on their children not to follow what they love but what the parents think is high status. What inner joy, resilience and character will come from that?

This is why at the coalition to honour all learning we continue to work together for alternative assessment systems, away from excessively high stakes, narrow zero-sum game competitions breeding aggressive individualism and, instead, towards a system-wide revolution where schools, higher education institutions and employers look for gifts, competences and collective goods for a more inclusive, peaceful and sustainable world in which passion for learning and happiness flourish in diverse learning societies.

Go!

Go!

I read a social media post that implored us not to give up on direct instruction, that it, too, is useful. I agree. And I saw a science teacher last week masterfully weave direct instruction and quick moments of student group work together. My reservation, though, is that we depend on direct instruction, in a teacher-tells-student kind of way, too heavily and too often.

So it was with a lot of interest that I went to the Innovation Lab yesterday, to see how the teacher was running the class. I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be direct instruction.

______________

It’s five minutes into class here in the Innovation Lab, a large space with drills and saws and screws and hammers and tape. I’m sitting in the couch area, I’m not sure what the teacher calls it, but it’s an area with four couches and some chairs and a chess board made with a 3D printer on a wooden table that someone else made. There’s a big screen, too, with whiteboards that fold out. On one white board there’s a list of student names – individuals, pairs, or threesomes – and the project they are working on. I believe you could call that the syllabus: just the projects the students chose. 

Curriculum Lite. When I was young Miller Lite ran a string of commercials with the tagline “Tastes great. Less filling.” This lab tastes great. And it is indeed less filling, in the sense that the approach isn’t the filling of a bucket, but rather the fanning of a fire, to paraphrase the popular quote. 

The lesson plan today is as light as the curriculum. After introducing me and my colleague, a professor of education, the teacher says, “Go!” And the students went. The teacher’s role here is to move from group to group, individual to individual. I just heard him ask a student: “What can you do while you are waiting?” So add coaching to the teacher’s role. Coaching the type of skills that transcend any particular class. 

I can’t just sit here in the corner with all this independent action going on. I’m going to ask students what they like about the Innovation Lab.

“I like figuring stuff out by myself,” says the student nearest me. “When I get stuck I get to figure things out myself.”

“There’s not a lot of homework, we get to do projects, and there are a lot of resources here,” say three young boys sitting in a row on a couch. Huey, Dewey, and Louie, I think to myself. One of them is holding a lego car with an EV3, which allows them to actually drive the car. They are on the Lego website, searching for something.

“You basically get to build whatever you want. You create whatever you want,” This from a boy making a guitar out of wood. The body looks good, if a little uneven around the edges. He’s going to attach a neck he removed from a broken guitar. 

“Hanging around next to my best friend,” a girl answers, with a glance at the girl next to her. A third girl says “Learning new skills, like I learned how to sew.” I look past her to a row of Bernina sewing machines. Like the previous student said, there are plenty of resources here.

The last group I talk to are three boys modifying a pair of old skis. “We get to make stuff.” I prod just a little, asking if class always runs this way, with the teacher saying “Go!” and everyone getting to work. “We had to have a plan first, like an image or something on a Google doc,” one boy answers. “The teacher needs to know what we plan on doing.” I notice they are the ones telling the teacher what their project will be. Nice.

The time has flown, the luthier (heck, when else do you get to use that word specifically for someone building a string instrument?) and another boy I didn’t manage to talk to are using hand vacs to clean up their work area. The teacher is walking past students reminding them to leave enough time to clean up. Students crisscross the room, returning tools, hanging things up, storing their projects below the work tables.

My colleague, the visitor from the university, asked me before class if we’d be seeing project based learning. Not really, I told him, more like learning while doing projects. It’s not what educators might identify as PBL. I’m not sure what education term would be appropriate for this class. Maybe people working in makerspaces have a term for it. 

The Lego car drives into my foot. Lego is from the Danish leg godt meaning “play well.” Maybe we could call this type of learning something along the lines of good playing. For example: “Free play with power tools.” Makerspace folks, what do you call this?

Leg godt!

Sharing stories, expertise, and experiences from international educators around the world. In the spirit of amplifying diverse voices. TIE's blog space is not subject to editorial oversight. TIE bloggers have a long history in various aspects of international education and share their thoughts and insights based on personal experiences.