Recalibration of Truth

In our rapidly changing digital age, the idea of truth is undergoing a significant change. In the past, truth was often taken from shared experiences and clear agreements. Today, truth often is manipulated by social media, algorithmic biases, polarization, organizations, companies, and in more instances governments,  fueling the algorithms that influence what we see, hear, and believe.

I refer to this as a recalibration of truth. This new landscape requires us to navigate the complexities of deep fakes: video and voice, misinformation, and the algorithmically curated digital environments that condition our understanding of what is real and true.

Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” reminds us, ” Each one of us, of course, is now being trained, deliberately, not to act independently.”  Written in 1932, this quote resonates for me, in a world where we are tethered to our devices, influencing and amplifying our wishes and perceptions, often unconsciously. The world we live in has become a digital ecosystem that curates 24/7 our understanding of the world around us, guiding not just our hopes and dreams but also our understanding of truth.

Throughout history, the concept of truth has always been complex, with each era having its own unique ways of curating information. There was a time, not too long ago when agreements and truths were often established through a handshake or verbal agreement. Nowadays, our point of reference is formal contracts and notarized documents. This in many ways is a natural shift of our time in how we understand and evaluate truth. The digital age has only accelerated this shift, flooding us with a constant stream of feeds and push notifications. The overabundance of information and our ability to process it has led to what Maryanne Wolf, author of Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital Age, calls ‘skim reading.’ The act of ‘skim reading” dilutes our attention span and reduces our capacity to fully engage with information, affecting our ability to pause, analyze, and read critically and deeply.

The recalibration of truth today involves more than just the weakening of the traditional concept of truth; it involves understanding truth’s new tools and architecture. The accelerated presence of artificial intelligence and the widespread influence of algorithmic curation challenge us to engage with information in entirely new ways. The emergence of synthetic media, such as deep fakes, further complicates our ability to trust what we see, hear, and feel, causing us to question the reliability of our senses.

Schools and educators play a critical role in addressing this recalibration of truth. The abundance of information available to us and our students is seamless and frictionless, yet its accuracy is often questionable, highlighting the vital importance of teaching digital and information literacy. These skills are and will continue to be, essential for evaluating information, cross-referencing sources, and understanding the mechanics and algorithms of the digital content we interact with.

As we navigate this new landscape, we need to be open to reevaluating our priorities, focusing on the development of critical thinking, ethics, and empathy. It’s about being willing to break away from the past and being comfortable to explore new resources, professional learning, and dispositions to navigate the challenges brought about by a recalibrated notion of truth. This underlines the importance of developing learning pathways focused on digital and information literacy, ensuring that our students have the skills and critical thinking agility to live in a world where truths are continually recalibrated.

I believe that as educators and schools, we have a responsibility to ensure our students are not merely passive consumers of edutainment but rather critical thinkers skilled at navigating the complexities of this recalibrated truth in the digital age

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”  Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”

Sources and Resources to further explore: 

“Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.” Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5129.Brave_New_World

Wolf, Maryanne. “Reader, Come Home – HarperCollins.” HarperCollins Publishers, https://www.harpercollins.com/products/reader-come-home-maryanne-wolf?variant=32128334594082

Reading behavior in the digital environment: Changes in reading behavior over the past ten years: https://litmedmod.ca/sites/default/files/pdf/liu_2005_lecture_numerique_competences_comportements.pdf

Updates ‹ AI + Ethics Curriculum for Middle School — MIT Media Lab
https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/ai-ethics-for-middle-school/updates 

Carlsson, Ulla. “Understanding Media and Information Literacy (MIL) in the Digital Age.” UNESCO, https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/gmw2019_understanding_mil_ulla_carlsson.pdf

How deep fakes may shape the future
https://theglassroom.org/en/misinformation-edition/exhibits/how-deepfake-may-shape-the-future

FAKE or REAL? Misinformation Edition
https://fake-or-real.theglassroom.org/#/ 

John Spencer: Rethinking Information Literacy in an Age of AI. https://spencerauthor.com/ai-infoliteracy/.

AI Digital Literacy: Strategies for Educators in the Age of Artificial Intelligence https://blog.profjim.com/ai-digital-literacy-citizenship-best-practices/ 

GLOBAL BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS

Books are much like moccasins – they allow you to walk a mile in someone else’s footsteps; to experience life from someone else’s viewpoint. Books share stories from other cultures and countries. Here are some beautiful new titles to enrich any (classroom) library.

Waci! Dance! is an indigenous celebration of dance and life. Written by Sage Speidel and illustrated by Leah Dorion, the art dances off the pages in this picturebook as a small child is dressed and gets ready to join her elders in a festive dance to drums. The indigenous words are explained in a glossary in the back. This beautiful, happy story invites any reader to join in dancing and drumming to celebrate Mother Earth.

ISBN 978-0889957275, Red Deer Press

Look! Look! has been written by Uma Krishnaswami and illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy. 

Water is one of earth’s most precious resources. In India people used to have wells and catchment systems. But often these ancient sources have became covered by soil while weeds grow and the land dries up. In this colourful picturebook, a child looks closely and notices a grey stone under the dirt. Working together with others, the people uncover steps leading to an ancient well. And when the rains come, the uncovered well once again fills up to provide precious water for the earth and the people. A nice reminder of the value of historic resources and the power of a child. ISBN 978-1773069326, Groundwood Books

We Belong Here, written by Frieda Wishinsky and illustrated by Ruth Ohi is set in the 1950’s. Even though many countries are a melting pot of different cultures, it can still be difficult to make a new country your home. Eve and Mark are each part of a family of newcomers to a new land. They often get teased or called names. Mark’s father even loses his job due to discrimination. But the children help their families to be stronger and better by working together. When Mark’s father uses his carpentry skills, the whole neighbourhood agrees that everything is better in the renovated delicatessen store.  ISBN 978-1-4431-9403-7, Scholastic

Taming Papa by Mylène Goupil is a tender, thought provoking novel for young readers. Mélie didn’t even know she had a father when her mother receives word that he is coming to join them in their country. Mélie wasn’t told about him because he was in prison in his home country, where everyone has to agree and say the same things or they get put in prison. Something her father couldn’t do. When he actually joins them, he doesn’t speak the same language. There are many barriers to overcome for shy, introvert Mélie. But with the help of a kind, former teacher and his new baby, and the help of a new, lost kitten, Mélie learns to understand her father in more ways than just with words. All the while she searches for, and finds the answer to her question ‘what is a real family?’ 

Children of immigrant families who struggle with similar problems, will love this gentle, beautifully written novel. ISBN 978-1-77306-723-0, Groundwood Books

Margriet Ruurs writes books for children in Canada and visits international schools around the world. Book now for the 2024/25 school year: www.margrietruurs.com

The difficulty of reintegrating into the world as you once knew it after an international education

I have often heard this argument: graduates of international schools struggle to adapt to non-international environments, including their own. After years in a type of international bubble, the transition to a local reality can be difficult.

The thought that stands out to me is the whole idea of adaptation to life after school. In fact – and this is what I am going to argue in this piece – that process being difficult might actually be a good thing.  

What if a great education causes a certain defamiliarisation by dint of the new concepts it evokes in the learner, the thresholds crossed, making it impossible to turn back to earlier pastures with the same views and feelings as one had in an earlier life, a little the way an adult returns to a childhood playground only to find that it is much smaller and fragile than what was in the imaginary prolongation of its existence in the memory? 

As we learn, we deconstruct, we go back over and open up (“analysis”  – literally in Greek “lysis” – to open  up, “ana” – backwards), we discover and rediscover in ways that cause us to become strangers in our own lands, whether we physically leave those places or not. 

I think of Jean Paul Sartre’s troublesome centre of consciousness Antoine Roquentin in his phenomenological (and, to me, his best) 1938 novel Nausea: it is a profound awakening in Roquentin which suddenly creeps up on him, meaning that he can no longer go about even the most banal tasks, like turning a door knob or turning the page of a book, without the action feeling different, as if he is now living his life through a different consciousness, outside of himself. 

My interpretation of the book is that Sartre is communicating the idea of learning powerful and profound new concepts. We start by seeing things as absolute, with an inner meaning, a “thing in itself”, which is pleasing and comforting, secure and peacefully simple; then a great teacher, or an extraordinary book (for me it was Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I read at 17), or perhaps some profound experience, shakes our foundation, enlightens us, breaks down – even shatters – the mirror we had been looking at all along and leaves in the broken shards a world to be recreated, pieced together with difficulty.

This seminal conversion – like Siddhartha becoming the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree – is when we turn the page from the easy plenum of ignorance to the difficult path of knowledge. It’s a turning point.

And this is when a true education starts: we understand that the world might be noumenal, it might have its inner truths, but no one can get inside them, we will forever be outside of them. We can no longer stand on the side lines and judge the world with the naiveté of a child who lives in binary oversimplifications. Nothing is simple anymore. Nothing is as it was.

It’s a bit like a student discovering what historiography means and what it implies; or when students are first taught Plato’s allegory of the cave (and what a privilege to be the teacher who gets to take them into that place!): these learnings are levers that propel students into an entirely new understanding of just about everything. Threshold concepts are irreversible and transformative, integrative and mind changing.

So, yes, an international education does defamiliarise students from the world as it was before. It will be slightly strange to go back home after a powerful educational experience, whether it is international or not (the international dimension is really that phenomenon of defamiliarisation cast over questions of culture and identity). This is not a bad thing, it’s a beautiful, strange, painful and intriguing thing all at once. Let’s not forget, after all, the etymology of the word educate: ex-ducere – to lead out of. As we learn, we are led out of our former selves into our new selves, leaving the old self and the world as it appeared to that old self, behind.

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Rose-colored glasses – and beige and magenta …

I have been posting a series of classroom observations in a style I haven’t seen – a stream of consciousness reflection of what I think as I watch class unfold. Let me know if you’ve run across this type of observation before.

Waiting for students to arrive at class. The teacher plays an orchestral version of a popular Mexican pop song through speakers on his desk. Soft, welcoming. 

I know the lesson today is going to be about looking at literature through different perspectives, different lenses, as the teacher has told me. I think of rose colored glasses, that is, seeing everything in a positive light, perhaps a bit naively. That’s not exactly what this lesson is about, I know, but our thoughts sort of bring us where they want to bring us. Like a Max Frisch quote from Homo Faber that I memorized once when I was learning German, something like: “Ich sage nicht was ich will, sondern was die Sprache will.” (I don’t say what I want to, but rather what the language wants to.) So yeah, I’m thinking of rose colored glasses, and then about Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, which leads my thoughts to beige colored glasses, and maroon, and magenta, and taupe. I’m now hearing the musical in my head. Donny Osmond, specifically, who played Joseph.

After the last students take a seat the teacher fades the music and sounds a gong, a bowl actually, an object and an act that makes me think of Tibet or Nepal. The reverberations are calming, centering. I leave Donny and the dreamcoat, I’m here for literature analysis.

The students are going to choose a famous fairy tale, or a popular movie, to deconstruct. They are going to apply a lens, a particular perspective, a way to analyze the stories. 

This is a grade 12 English class. The example text is The Three Little Pigs, their straw, wood, and brick houses. This teacher is good. Not everyone could get away using stories for children for these young adults. For that matter, not everyone can get away starting class with a moment of bowl-ringing mindfulness. 

“What’s the moral of the story?” he asks the class.

“Instead of playing, you should build a better house,” says a student from Azerbaijan. “Work over pleasure,” adds another student from across the room. The teacher has them thinking, all he has to do is nod. Students call out more possible morals. 

And then we’re watching an advertisement for the British newspaper, The Guardian. A spoof on the story of the three little pigs. Police in combat gear raid their houses. We see the three little pigs in court. The wolves seem to have the upper hand at city hall. They have control of the story, it doesn’t look good for the pigs. They are accused of insurance fraud. The destruction of their houses at the hands of the wolf is, in fact, the fault of the pigs. Of course it is, when the wolf has the loudest voice.

We are thinking of the story differently.

“Let’s switch gears,” says the teacher. “Now we are going to consider the story of the pigs with a semiotic lens.” He projects a slide that asks How are the wolf and each pig polysemic? Semiotics is the study of signs. I remember Charles Sanders Peirce, the American philosopher. Polysemic is then multiple signs, more or less. The wolf represents more than one thing, as do the pigs. A simple story, but as the students suggest multiple interpretations it gets complex, fast. Parallels with Marxism, the working class. Reference to manufacturing consent. Do fairy tales use fear to force kids into line, to get them to think a certain way? Innocent-seeming stories that serve to brainwash?

“And now what about a feminist lens?” the teacher asks. What might change? What do we notice?” I can’t hear the students well, they are discussing in pairs and small groups. So I tune them out and think about The Three Little Pigs through a feminist lens.

What is it to be a feminist? To notice oppression, to notice inequality, to raise up women, to make the experience of being a woman normal? Or extraordinary? I realize I don’t know what a feminist is. Is it a stretch to analyze the story in this way? Of course, perhaps that is the point – to push how we think about stories over some sort of boundary we had assumed was common sense. To consider a story from a feminist point of view, to think about what a story might have to say about race, relationships, religion, power structures, social mores is to challenge ourselves, to widen our view. Literature helps us understand our world. Literature class helps us expand what we get out of literature. 

The teacher switches slides. Now Miss Piggy is looking at us from the screen, the Jim Henson muppet. The first line on the slide says: The absence of female characters in The Three Little Pigs reflects a traditional patriarchal narrative where women are often …

I can hear this conversation echoing in the high ceilinged rooms of ivy covered stone buildings, English majors and students of liberal arts getting passionate, strident. And I can hear at the same time the conversation being dismissed as nonsense. I picture a derisive group of old men sitting around their regular table at the donut shop, holding their coffee cups with both hands, MAGA hats, John Deere hats, suspenders. “Liberal nonsense!” they all agree, nodding, scratching. I’m an awful repository of prejudice.

Students select a story now, for further analysis. Goldilocks, Cinderella, Popeye the Sailorman, The Tortoise and the Hare. Well known stories, at least in America. Mulan and Shrek.

“Consider each story through these literary lenses. What do they tell you about you, us about us?”

While they do that I have the opportunity to interview two students. The teacher sends me out of the room with them both. A Russian student, a boy, says he thinks the lenses are almost too much. I think about my reaction to the feminist lens. “Like the feminist lens,” he says, as if reading my mind. “It’s not always applicable. But the lenses help me know how to respond to literature for the final exam. It’s important I score high, the universities I applied to are looking for a high score.”

The other student, a girl from Poland, never mentions the final exam. “It’s amazing,” she says. “The class is amazing. Looking at literature from multiple perspectives helps me really understand the authors better, and the authors’ intent.”

And does seeing things from another’s perspective help you think better in general?

“Oh,” she says, with refreshing honesty, particularly in someone so obviously intelligent. “I hadn’t thought of that. But yes. Definitely.”

Mr. Slope Guy

Classrooms are different now. I mean, similar, too. Desks, a display at the front, the teachers explaining, the students taking notes. But the teacher in this math classroom stands in the back, writing on his iPad, the results visible at the front of the room on a screen, and the students are mostly taking notes on laptops. So it’s different, but the same.

The teacher is explaining slopes with equations and graphs. He’s going over exercises from the homework before giving the students a new problem to work on. 

Behind the students across the room are a couple of posters. One is Mr. Slope Guy, which I don’t get at first, but after studying another poster to the right, titled The 4 Types of Slopes, I understand. Mr. Slope Guy is a face made out of:

  • a positive slope (his left eyebrow), under which is a + for the left eye,
  • a negative slope (his right eyebrow), under which is a – for right eye,
  • an undefined slope (a vertical line) for his nose, and
  • a zero slope (a horizontal line). 

The result is a sort of pensive face, winking at me, perhaps, as if we are sharing a secret. Maybe we are. Namely, he knows that I don’t remember much about slope. That whatever long term benefit I have from four years of high school math doesn’t rest in the actual facts, but rather any habits of good thinking I developed, if indeed I did.

I focus back on the board. An example.

y = x4 – 12x2

The students are looking for maximums and minimums and showing that what they know with an equation. The teacher gets them working independently again and then answers questions of individual students as they have them. The clacking of my typing grows noticeable as the students drop into thought, one with a pencil, one with an iPad, the others with their computers. Math class that is both the same and different since we’ve been having math class. 

The teacher warns students that they have just a minute left, then he will go through the problem step by step.

Another poster on the wall states its version of maximum and minimum. Wrong is Wrong, even if everyone is doing it, and Right is Right, even if no one is doing it. This is not about slope. Perhaps it expresses a personal conviction that is meaningful to the teacher. It is meaningful to me and for a time I’m lost in thought, thinking how we do school, all of us, and wondering if the adage on the poster has anything to say to us.

When I refocus on the class I see that the teacher has, as promised, gone through the problem step by step. His iPad-penned notes are there in front of the class, a student asks a follow up question. As far as I can tell they are all tracking. The teacher invites them to work on some additional problems. 

From his spot on the wall, Mr. Slope Guy observes all of us, forever winking. Maybe he doesn’t take himself too seriously. I wink back at him and smile. 

GLOBAL BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS

Walking… it might be as beneficial as reading! So here are some wonderful reads about walking: walking people, walking animals, even walking trees. They include brand-new as well as long-loved titles. There are other wonderful books about the importance of walking, some of which I reviewed for this TIE column before, including A Long Walk for Water by Linda Sue Parks and Walking Home by Eric Walters.

Follow up reading one of these books by going for a classroom walk!

The Cat Who Walked The Camino, written and illustrated by Kate Spencer is a wonderful story for anyone who has walked, or hopes to walk, the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It’s a great book to help children understand the history and significance of this popular long distance trail but also a fun story based on a true event. A hiker sets off for Santiago and encounters a kitten who ends up traveling the length of the world’s most famous hiking trail with her. Told in the voice of the kitten, we meet a variety of people walking the trail. We also learn about of the most interesting points along the trail: the church of Santo Domingo and its chicken legend, the Cruz de Hierro where pilgrims leave a stone behind, and of course the Cathedral at the end of the walk. With lovely illustrations as well as a map of the entire trail, this is a perfect story to share with children, whether you plan this epic hike or not.

ISBN 97982-1811-9119. Order from Amazon, wholesale from Ingram Spark, or inquire through the author via Facebook Message: https://www.facebook.com/kate.spencer.1293

Walking Trees by Marie-Louise Gay was inspired by a true event in The Netherlands were an art project used movable trees to bring green space to different parts of a city. When it’s Lily’s birthday she asks for a small tree to put on her balcony. Then she decides to take it for a walk around the neighborhood, with the potted tree in her wagon. Soon, people love the shade her tree brings. They talk about global warming and how much we need trees and shade and green. Soon, others follow her example and create green spaces all over the city.

Not only is this a fun story to share and to find information online about the original project (called Bosk) but also to follow it up by planting school trees, in the ground or in movable pots.

ISBN 978-1-77306-976-0, Groundwood Books

The Armadillo from Amarillo by Lynne Cherry is the intricately illustrated story of an armadillo who sets off on foot to explore the state of Texas. Along the way he learns many things and makes new friends. He sees cities and deserts and forests. He meets many different kinds of animals and, thanks to a Golden Eagle, even sees the earth from a different perspective. And all along, he mails postcards back to his armadillo friend in the zoo. The rich illustrations are full of facts and information. A great book to share and to follow up by sending postcards around the country or around the world.

ISBN 0-15-200359-2, Harcourt Brace

The Boy Who Walked Backward by Ben Sures, illustrated by Nicole Marie Burton, is a beautifully told, yet heartbreaking, story of residential school. Leo and his family live in the traditional Ojibway manner. Their language, food and way of life are steeped in tradition. But one day a truck comes to collect the children who now have to leave their families to go to school. No longer are they allowed to speak their own language. They even have to cut their hair. When Christmas finally comes, the children are able to see their families and to spend time in their own homes again. And when the holidays are over, Leo invents a clever way to avoid going back to school. Using skills he has long learned, he uses his beloved forest to hide and wait until the truck has left.

ISBN 978-1-927849-49-1, Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre.

The Camino Club by Kevin Craig. I read this teen novel as an e-book. It is a very realistic account of a group of juvenile delinquents – reminiscent of Ben Mikaelson’s Spirit Bear but for older students –  whose punishment for a variety of crimes, is to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain with counsellors. Since the real experience is transforming, the fictional teens, too, are transformed by confronting each other, by confessing sins, by meeting new people and by the very act of walking a long distance trail. The teens’ foul language may be realistic in this setting but it almost turned me off of reading on. I’m glad I did, though, as the story gets gripping and you do want to know what happens to each teen in the end.  

ISBN 978-1945053979, Duet Books

Walking For Water, How One Boy Stood Up for Gender Equality by Susan Hughes, illustrated by Nicole Miles is a wonderful story inspired by true events in Malawi. Victor and Linesi are twins. They love going to school but at some point Lenesi is the one who can’t go anymore because she has to fetch water for the family. In school, the new teacher tells the children about gender equality. Soon Victor sees the unfairness of this and has a plan: he and his sister take turns going to class and fetching water. The changes have a ripple effect so that, soon, equality becomes not just something that is only talked about but practised as well.  ISBN 978-1-5253-0249-7, Kids Can Press

Margriet Ruurs is a Canadian author of over 40 books. She has walked part of the Camino de Santiago and will travel anywhere in the world for author presentations at International Schools. www.margrietruurs.com

Finding Success

So recently I have been incredibly inspired by our students, across all of our divisions, and it has left me smiling from ear to ear. You see, over the past few weeks I have watched our students compete on the soccer field, in the pool, on the volleyball and badminton courts, on stage in the fantastic grade 7 and elementary school drama performances, and in the ISTA festival, MRISA junior football tournament, and Vex robotics showcases that we hosted here on campus. I have also seen them practicing in the music room for our highly anticipated talent show, and in classrooms as they learned, debated, presented, collaborated and practiced for their upcoming student-led conferences…wow!

All in all, I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of young people over that time finding success due to the multitude of opportunities that they have had to showcase their talents all over the school.These opportunities have enabled them to grow and develop in immeasurable ways, in areas both inside and outside of the classroom. For me, that’s where the idea of student success ultimately lies, in that magical balance between activities that highlight the academic side of things and ones that highlight the physical, artistic, and social-emotional side of things. Individual student success often comes from a strong marriage of both, knowing that each one can strongly enhance the other.

These recent events have me thinking yet again about how we measure success in schools, and the importance of finding ways as educators to ensure that each student has an outlet or a pathway to develop a particular spark or a passion. These success pathways will ultimately help to shape their identity, facilitate their growth, and strengthen their self-esteem. I guess for me, the idea or measure of success cannot be simplified down to a single thing. The idea of student success incorporates so many different aspects of a young person’s life, and it should take into account the many variables that go into what positively shapes a young person’s being and character.

This past week I decided to ask a bunch of middle school kids the question, “What does it mean to be successful in school?”, and not surprisingly for many of them the answers went straight to grades and academic achievement. But, I was pleasantly surprised by the large number of kids who talked about success being measured by strong friendships and relationships, by learning from their mistakes, by being respected by their teachers and peers, being happy, and being seen for their individual and unique talents, whatever those may be.

I think we need to be careful as adults and educators not to place too much of a priority on any one aspect of a student’s growth or achievement, and look to develop and celebrate the areas where a student is able to find success in their lives right now. All kids, as you know, go through various stages of maturation and development, and a student’s “time” may not be in Middle School, or High School, or University for that matter. It’s no secret to the people who really know me, that I was very much a late bloomer when it came to academic success, but I did find success socially and in athletics, which set me up for the person that I’ve eventually become. 

I guess the true measure of success is whether or not a student is constantly growing and learning, and for us that means asking questions like, is this student getting better academically? socially? as a teammate? as a person? Are they failing forward? And If so, then we need to find ways to celebrate these successes with each individual student as often as we can. I think we do a really good job of that here at SSIS, but it’s important to keep looking for areas where we can enhance our current models. We can’t rest until every student is finding success in one way or another, and being recognized for it.

I cannot wait to speak with the kids tomorrow who participated this weekend in their sports tournaments, the elementary drama performance, and the debate competition that was held here on campus. They will have all shown courage, teamwork, personal growth, resilience, determination and self confidence, and to me, that’s what true student success ultimately looks like. Have a great final week before the April holiday everyone, and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the Week – 

The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows – Sydney J. Harris

Related Articles –

Happy Schools

Motivated Students

Happiness and Connection

A Well Rounded Education

Inspiring Videos – 

8 Year Old Trendsetter

Assume That I Can 

Mr. Bill’s Village

Auburn Basketball

Ted Talk – 

Winning and Succeeding

De structura renum

Adam Bradford, IB Biology

Two students come into biology class. No, that sounds like the start of a joke. I’ll start over.

I’m sitting in the back of the biology class, next to a sink and a counter with some stains from a previous experiment.

One of the two students who arrived early sees that they will be working with a kidney today. A dissection. The teacher jokes that afterwards they might get to have kidney pie. The student asks; “Would you ever eat human?”

We like provocative questions in education. Usually we fancy that we the teachers are the ones to ask them. But in the spirit of student agency, here we go. The teacher doesn’t miss a beat. 

“Well it depends, I suppose. If you are stranded somewhere, stuck, nothing to eat …”

This teacher has a nice sense of humor. On the screen he’s projected the cross section of a large kidney. He is showing the students what to look for during the dissection, what they should label.

Three additional bullets for them to consider are:

  • the saltiest part?
  • the smelliest part?
  • the tastiest part?

Very nice. He snuck that last bullet in to keep the joke going.

Dissection is one of the things I remember from grade 10. Not particularly well, though, mostly just the smell. What I really remember from grade 10 biology is the teacher, a small, wiry guy who walked on his toes with as much up and down as forward. He wore corduroy pants, maybe from the kids section. He told us one day that we are all constantly sloughing off an enormous amount of dead skin cells, that he never wore the same pair of pants two days in a row so that he could wash out those dead skin cells. A bane of knowing too much, perhaps.

That’s why I remember his pants. I pictured the teacher stuffing his pants in the washing machine, standing there in his briefs. It made him far too human. It made me focus on his pants. Different every day, true to his word.

The students have managed to open up their pig kidneys, they each have one. The teacher points out a few things. The kidney nephron, for example, with parts like Bowman’s Capsule and the Loop of Henle. 

Sir William Bowman described this initial phase of filtration of the blood in the 1800s. His name still has to be memorized by students like these high schoolers as they learn about kidneys now in 2024. The term to memorize should probably have been Shumlansky’s Capsule, after the Ukranian student who described this same part of the kidney nephron in his 1782 doctoral thesis, De Structura Renum. But for a quirk of history, Shumlansky might be far better known. Maybe writing in English gave Bowman a leg up. 

German anatomist Friedrich Gustav Jakob Henle is the namesake of the Loop of Henle, and as far as I can tell, legitimately so. Though who knows, really. Discoveries are often the work of multiple people, even if not directly collaborating. Discoveries open themselves as areas of study become possible and interesting to pursue. Sort of like opening these pig kidneys with a butterfly cut, leaving us two halves to peer into, capsules and loops exposed.

What does an instructional coach do?

Source: https://alplearn.com/story/six-reasons-why-you-need-an-instructional-coach/

A colleague of mine was hired by an international school in Spain to be an instructional coach. Sounds interesting, I told her. I realized I was probably making up in my own head, however, what the term instructional coach actually meant. So I asked if we could do a short interview. I am recreating the conversation here, the words are not directly hers, but the meaning is. (And I ran this text past her to make sure it was accurate.) She had been working in the position for a year-and-a-half when we talked.

Let’s start at the beginning. What exactly is your school’s understanding of an  “instructional coach?”

My main job is to help teachers develop inquiry questions for their own continuing development. I help them with their question, the thing they want to learn more about. Then we get into a coaching cycle. 

A coaching cycle?

We have an initial meeting, I observe in the classroom, we meet together, we talk about strategies for learning more, what the teacher wants to do next. It all depends on the teacher. I might help with resources, I might model in the classroom, perhaps we look at student work together or I help make connections between teachers. 

A coach is not an evaluator, a coach is looking for strengths. We call this asset based coaching. We look for the positive. We are not trying to fix teachers, but rather leverage their strengths.

So you avoid mixing the role of evaluation and support.

Absolutely. We get better as a whole when there is trust. We are built on trust.

Does that mean what you do isn’t reported to a supervisor?

Oh no. We couldn’t do that. That would change everything. The inquiry questions that the teachers come up with are transparent. But the communication between the coach and the teacher is confidential.

How many teachers do you work with at one time?

There are officially 12 teachers who work with me but another six are people who I’ve been working with since last year or who I’m working with on a project on the side, like for action research or unit planning.

I meet with about five teachers a week, so in three weeks time, maybe four weeks, I’ve worked with everyone. Some teachers want more attention, some less. You have to respond to what they need.

Do you know enough about each of their questions to be helpful?

Well, it can feel a bit overwhelming. They all have different topics and of course I’m not an expert in every topic. To be a good coach, though, you don’t need to know everything, you need to know how to listen to people, to be supportive and uplifting.

Of course, I’m not the only instructional coach. When we get the inquiry questions from the teacher we do a bit of sorting based on our expertise and interest as coaches. We try to work with the projects we understand best so we can help the teachers as much as possible.

What sort of projects come up often?

Lots of teachers want to work on classroom management. Usually I try to help them switch to a particular topic in teaching and learning. If the students are engaged and learning, then classroom management isn’t so much of an issue. I think they might gravitate to classroom management because they aren’t sure about how to improve the learning environment, but that is of course more interesting.

I like best the inquiry questions that deal with student autonomy, how to help them manage themselves. Their material, their space. Lots and lots of voice and choice. 

And how do you know if you are being effective?

Well, we look at how the students are learning. Whether or not they are learning. That’s the goal of all of this, after all. 

In one science class the teachers worked with scrum, teaching the students how to work effectively as a group. Because the students learned to organize themselves better, because they could direct their own learning to a pretty good degree, the teacher had more time to watch and listen to know how to help the students better. Just as an example.

I love that example. The students learned how to be autonomous … and the teacher was able to help more effectively with content.

Oh yeah. They learn a lot. I learn a lot. I learn so much. 

How do you know if teachers are into it?

They start to invite me. Instead of me reaching out to them, they start to invite me to class. They are excited about what they are working on and want to share it with someone, they want to take a moment to be proud of what they are doing, or they want to ask questions about next steps. Then I know they have bought in.

This only comes with trust, though, and I’d say that for many of the teachers I work with it took that first year to build the trust relationship. That doesn’t happen quickly.

And one last question. For someone wanting to be an instructional coach, what would you recommend they practice doing?

Make sure you keep evaluation and support for learning separate. That’s the whole reason you need an instructional coach. The communication to teachers about a coach’s role and an administrator’s role should be clear.

Then be an active listener. Really hear what teachers are saying, make sure you are understanding where they are in their thinking, not just where you are. 

And finally, you  have to be an active learner as well. You have to be interested in learning with the teachers you are coaching. You are not fixing, you are not judging. You are getting genuinely interested in what the teacher is interested in. You are learning together. You are standing side by side looking at the possibilities out there ahead of you, looking at the successes behind you.

____________

I looked at a job description of this instructional coach – one that they created themselves. The first line reads: 

“Collaborate with teachers and teams to establish and grow healthy, productive, trusting partnerships to grow strong instructional practices that impact student learning.”

That made me smile. There is nothing here about which instructional practices, just ones that impact student learning. And there is everything here about relationships. Partnerships. Healthy, productive, and trusting ones. 

One further infographic, probably a poster for the teacher lounge or a flier given out during orientation, reiterates this same theme:

“As coaches we believe in the power of learning that values ownership, choice, and agency.” That is exactly what we teachers want to be modeling for students. And that is exactly the kind of school that I’d like to work in.

AI-written or human-authored?

Image source: DALL-E, OpenAI. “An image to portray whether a text is AI-written or human-authored? in the style of the artist M F Hussain..” 2024. OpenAI.

As the Editor of TIE, I have recently been reading a lot of submissions that were written, and/or co-authored by AI. I am extremely thankful to those authors who cite the AI-created work and make it easier for the readers including me to understand the narrative and the context. I find it challenging to determine whether a text is written by an AI or a human without specific context. This is the same when I am marking students’ work. I teach IB Business Management and Mathematics so if you are a teacher you will relate to my predicament!

I thought, how do I create a checklist to measure the authenticity of the text? Is it even possible? I started putting together several indicators that might suggest it could be authored by AI or humans. Here’s a breakdown of factors that could point in either direction:

AI-Written Indicators

  • Depth and Nuance: While the text is detailed and covers a broad range of ideas related to the topic, it lacks the nuanced personal anecdotes or depth of emotion that a human writer might include for example, narratives based on lived experiences are very much written by humans.
  • Structure and Coherence: The text is well-structured and coherent, which can indicate both AI and skilled human writers. However, AI tends to produce particularly well-structured texts due to its access to vast data of written material. It is also a matter of voice; the voice changes when the structure is too accurate and coherent almost like writing on a fixed template.
  • Repetition and Patterns: The text occasionally repeats themes or phrases (e.g., references to a specific resource or concept over and over) in a way that might suggest a patterned approach to writing, which is common in AI-generated texts. Almost all sentences start with a verb, for example, ‘demonstrating…; elucidating…; navigating…
  • Left Brain Approach: Scientific research informs us that the left brain controls our language and logical decisions. AI has been able to learn all about language and logic from the online data hence one of the indicators of AI-written work is the logical approach to a narrative, unlike a storytelling approach.

Human-Written Indicators

  • Personal Perspective: The text is usually written from a first-person perspective, discussing personal reflections and experiences. This could suggest a human author, especially if there are specific references to the author’s background, experiences, and roles.
  • Complex Ideas: The exploration of complex emotional and psychological concepts, such as vulnerability and empathy, and their application to the narrative, could indicate a human author with personal experience and theoretical knowledge in these areas.
  • Specific References: The text includes references to specific organizations and individuals, for example in international education I find a lot of references to the Principals’ Training Center (PTC), The International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO), Association for International Educators and Leaders of Color (AIELOC), and some named individuals. This use of proper names and acronyms is more commonly found in human-authored texts.
  • Right Brain Approach: Science also tells us that the right brain controls our creativity and instinct. AI will find it challenging to learn creativity and make a human decision based on instinct or intuition. Hence the human-written work usually is a narrative similar to storytelling.

The Way Forward

If the source of the text is not indicated it becomes extremely difficult to classify the text as AI-written or human-authored. Let us take the example of the image in this blog, I mentioned the source hence the context of the abstract art and repetitive design is relatable. Another important observation, since it is a creative piece of work one can almost immediately recognize it is AI-generated! The dilemma with text is it will have qualities that could be attributed to both. The way forward isn’t to make a clear distinction as that is almost impossible, considering how much AI is evolving each day. But the way forward is to start valuing human-written content as it paves the way to originality, innovation, and creativity. A left brain vs right brain conundrum, maybe the way forward is synergy between both AI-written and human-authored!

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.