The histories that we learn

Moving house

When I was about 17, in my final years of schooling in Eswatini, during the summer holidays, given that we were moving house from one part of Johannesburg to the other, and I had to throw piles of school documentation that I had been hoarding out of my bedroom, I found myself rummaging through artefacts from my earlier years of schooling in South Africa. 

Among the childish art projects and textbooks I came across was my history notebook from my Primary School. On the first page my own clumsily formatted 8 year old handwriting spoke to the maturing young person I had become. The trembling, awkward letters carried much of the sadness and solitude I had experienced as a child: looking at my own handwriting almost created a sense of pity in me for my earlier self.

But it was less the form and more the content of what I read that struck a strange, dissonant chord within:

“South African history started in 1488 when Bartholomew Diaz planted a stone cross at Kwaaihoek”.

This was when South African history was to begin. The next sentence jumped forward over 100 years:

“On the 6th of April, 1652, Jan Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape of Good Hope”.

The next pages of my notebook, the contents of which had been copied off the blackboard word for word, spoke of how the Cape was empty and how Dutch settlers simply moved in and took over. My notes also mentioned how the climate in the Cape was “Mediterranean”.

Early Days

The notebook took me back to the classroom of my former all boys, almost exclusively white school. This was a place where you would get the cane if you stepped out of line. The history lessons were highly formatted pieces of propaganda, singing the praises of Afrikaaner nationalism, the heroes of the Boer War, with caricatural representations of Zulu chiefs such as Chaka and Dingaan.

My teacher, who taught us Afrikaans as well as humanities, was a terrifying little man with piercing blue eyes, a thick moustache, burly tanned, hairy forearms and a sickeningly sweet smell of musk perfume mixed with cigarette smoke that would trail behind him. He was well known for his use of the cane, in fact he called it “bliksem”, which means lightning in Afrikaans. Beating us was clearly a pleasure for him, as was teaching us how white settlers roamed into a garden of paradise where, conveniently, there was no one to stop them before they were attacked unfairly by aggressive Zulu warriors.

Waterford

My life changed when I relocated to Eswatini (then Swaziland) to attend a United World College, Waterford Kamhlaba, which was also an established anti-Apartheid school. Here I learned shoulder to shoulder with the children and grandchildren of Nelson Mandela, Albert Sisulu, Mosiuoa Lekota and Desmond Tutu.

My history teacher here was completely different: he was passionate about South African history and we learnt about it. However, the core of our learning was about Apartheid, from the 1930s all the way through to the 1990s. We learnt every Apartheid law, massacre and injustice. As my learning of my own history deepened, so did the unlearning of what I was told before. In my old school, the so-called “great trek” (white settlers exodusing the Cape to travel to Johannesburg) was presented as a Moses-out-of-Israel type fleeing from British persecution; at Waterford our teacher explained that it was because the settlers refused to abolish slavery, which had become illegal; in my old school, the earliest Cape Settlers had to defend their property from marauding thieves, at Waterford we learnt how they would shoot down locals who dared to walk across their land.

Understanding the past to understand the present

And the history lessons were not just about the past, they were about the present too. Each holiday, when I would travel back to South Africa, I would be confronted with my friends and even family who were still wallowing in the lie of Apartheid education, not knowing their own history, not even being able to name some of the most foundational Apartheid laws, facts and figures.

It was at Waterford that for the very first time I saw a picture of Nelson Mandela. He was a banned person in South Africa and it was impossible to see any images of him. The picture is a famous one of him in London, young, bearded, looking wisely but somehow mournfully into the middle distance. At Waterford, because of my history classes, the invisible was made visible.

None of this was easy to learn. I would find myself sitting in classes with friends from different African countries feeling deeply ashamed to be a white South African, having to endure in front of everybody what people like me were doing. When we put on a school play about South Africa, there was a riot scene and students were needed to play the soldiers who would open fire on the crowd. Everybody turned to look at me. I volunteered reluctantly.

We also studied the holocaust at Waterford. I remember having nightmares for several nights consecutively after seeing the black and white footage of bodies being discovered in the camps. Knowing that the early architects of Apartheid were Nazis connected the two quite seamlessly: it was part of the same vicious cruelty.

David Olusoga and Shashi Tharoor

A few years ago, as part of the extraordinary Guest Speakers Series that we run at the International School of Geneva, I was lucky enough to meet with the softly spoken, dashing and consistently poignant British historian David Olusoga. He addressed our students on British history with a focus on the experience from the point of view of Black people. I was familiar with his work on German concentration camps in Namibia ( The Kaiser’s Holocaust) and his television documentary Black and British: A Forgotten History.

Some months later a colleague lent me a book by Shashi Tharoor, An Era of Darkness, about the British colonial empire in India, the resources that were exploited and the financial reparations that amending this might imply.

I had learnt about British colonialism at school, Cecil John Rhodes’ dream of a train line from the Cape to Cairo, the “jewel in the crown” that was India for the British Empire, the Opium Wars and so on. However, these anecdotes were not particularly well developed and there seemed to be more emphasis on abolitionism, the suffragettes, Common Law, the Bill of Rights, extraordinary inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell, Michael Faraday and so on. In other words, British history was presented more as a series of Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution positive contributions to humanity and science than the slave trade and colonisation. It was only after coming into contact with these pointed, detailed and harrowing accounts by Olusoga and Tharoor that some of the more shocking facts became fully available to me. Notably:

  • The 1837 slave compensation act in which 20 million pounds were paid to slave owners and their families up until 2015
  • That the slave trade was financed directly by British monarchy 
  • Over a period of 200 years, the British East India Company and the British Raj syphoned out at least $44.6 trillion worth of resources from India, which is more than 17 years gross domestic product of modern day Britain 
  • Over a span of 40 years, leading up to 1920, between 50 and 100 million Indians were killed because of policies under the British Empire in India, more than all the “famines in the Soviet Union, Maoist China and North Korea combined”

The list goes on.

How much of this is widely accepted and taught in schools? In the late 1930s, the Trinidadian scholar Eric Williams’ thesis Capitalism and Slavery substantiated the huge benefits slavery had brought to industrialisation in Britain, something that has since been reiterated by economists such as Thomas Picketty. However, he would have to wait more than 20 years before finding a publisher. This was because he was accused of understating the role Britain had played in abolitionism. It was only last year that the book was published by a mainstream group (Penguin) to become a best-seller.

Even today, according to the British academic Kehinde Andrews:

“The orthodoxy of the history of the Industrial Revolution is that slavery wasn’t important. If you go to most universities, most academics will say that and they’ll dismiss the book – because they just cannot accept that the Industrial Revolution could not have happened without slavery” (Feguson, 2022).

In  2022 article, Sean Matiluko says that British Schools have “whitewashed history”, leaving out important annals describing the contributions of Black people to British history and the extent of racial exploitation that built up Britain’s economy.

Since teaching Britain’s role in colonisation, or the transatlantic slave trade was not compulsory, a 2021  petition was signed in parliament with over 260 000 signatures requesting this. The response was mitigated: a School minister rejected the outcome, claiming that such a programme would “lower standards”.  

So the question is, when will the teaching of British history face the past squarely with all the facts? The same questions can be asked for a number of national history narratives: there are too many to mention, Britain is merely an example.

It takes courage to look much more critically at the histories of global powers whose legacies are taught partially, emphasising the positive and leaving out the painful stories of colonialism and slavery. There have been several genocides, and they must be known.

There is a diversion tactic which consists in the discourse of saying that things have changed and such historical facts are water under the bridge now. But are they? How can such important chapters of history not be taught and then treated as already forgotten when evoked? It is by bringing them into public discourse and problematising them that society will become more sensitive and aware. If the historical inequities behind the current dispensation are taught clearly and formally in school, it also allows younger generations to embrace questions of inclusion and social justice more openly. If not, any discussion on equity becomes a quarrel, a painful and humiliating one at that for those who have lost out historically because of systemic racism and exploitation. It should not be for these groups to have to fight their way into a space of representation, that work should be done by schools.

The histories that we learn must be true, and it becomes increasingly difficult to hide skeletons in the cupboard when the world wide web makes research readily available to the public. Those writing history textbooks need to understand that if we do not relate the whole story, no matter how shameful and painful it is, no matter how much it becomes a thorn in the side of nationalist, imperialistic and romanticised discourse about nation state history, the more dangerous it is, for those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

My textbook 

I toss the textbook into the rubbish bin. I’m not looking for things to hang on to as we move house, since we are down-sizing, and I can’t see the purpose of hanging onto a historically incorrect, propaganda-glazed set of notes from my pre-adolescence.

As I throw the book away though, in particular because I know the history of my country and feel part of it, I am reminded where I come from and, perhaps more importantly, the responsibility I have as an educator to tell it.

The histories that we learn should not be ideological narratives or partial stories, they should not be a crafted story to influence minds and shape opinions, they should aim to do one thing and one thing only: tell the whole story.

Ferguson, D. (2022). Groundbreaking work on slave economy finally back on UK shelves. The Guardian.    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/23/eighty-years-late-groundbreaking-work-on-slave-economy-is-finally-published-in-uk 

What to Read in 2023

So it’s that time of the year again when I get to order books for my birthday, which is my favorite gift ever because it keeps on giving for months and months and months. The deal is that I have to finish reading all of last year’s books before I get to order new ones, and I’m excited about ordering the list below in the next few days.
As usual, I’m encouraging you all to take a few minutes this week to look through these titles, and to order one (or five) that resonate with you…or, do your own research and share those titles with me so I can add them to this list. The suggestions below revolve around the themes of education, leadership, creativity, innovation and culture building, with an overarching focus on becoming a better person and educator for our world. 
Anyway, take a look and happy reading in 2023! Enjoy the week ahead everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other. 

The Half Known Life – Pico Iyer
Attention Span – Gloria Mark
A Creative Act – Rick Rubin
Fool Proof – Tess Wilkinson-Ryan
Psych – Paul Bloom
Magic Words – Jonah Berger
The Real Work – Adam Gopnik
Awaken Your Genius – Ozan Varol
Anatomy of a Breakthrough – Adam Alter
The Perfection Trap – Thomas Curran
Disruptable – Allan Young
The Good Life – Robert Waldinger, Marc Schulz

Artificial intelligence and education

The hype around ChatGPT is palpable: schools are racing to have staff meetings on it, share resources, and react quickly. After decades of being steadily and collectively formatted by a technology-driven economy and the resultant positivist ideology, peppered with our schizoid relationship with artificial intelligence (the pendulum swings from the feeling that we have to get ahead with artificial intelligence at all costs, to the other extreme of fear and reactivity), ChatGPT leaps out at us as from the dystopian sea of Deep Blue the “big data” craze and the robot Sophia. Remember the excitement and panic around Google search engines and Wikipedia and how much it would change everything? Here we go again … One can expect references to ChatGPT in conference keynotes for the next few months, speakers having grown tired of videos of robots or fun statistics about computing processing power.

And with these waves of advances in machine learning come the habitual rather hackneyed warnings of how this will change the face of employment, education and even what it means to be human. Such crystal-ball gazing can be quite serious, but it can also become ridiculous, always couched in norms and generalisations. There is the idea that educators should be doing something about it, changing something, getting ready for the future, or accepting that the future has already happened, and this needs to be done quickly and so on.

I don’t mean to denigrate the serious challenges and opportunities that technology creates (and always has as it has evolved historically), I write about it at length and seriously in Educating for the Twenty-First Century: Seven Global Challenges, but I do think that a pinch of salt here and there is not a bad thing either. 

Here are my four thoughts on ChatGPT at this early stage:

  1. Artificial intelligence should be where thinking starts, not where it ends. (that phrase comes from my colleague Yoni Osman). Those who still hang on to the idea of banning technology in schools are fighting a losing battle. I once heard a rather sad story of a child being told off by a teacher for correcting him in class having accessed Google on her phone to verify what was said. Is the goal to access knowledge or to hide it? Curriculum has to be relevant, and the world we are living in is assisted by technology. Sometimes I wonder if cell phones have not replaced parts of our neocortical architecture. It might not be what we want to see happening to us as humans, but trying to create a romantic garden where there is no technology and algorithms such as ChatGPT are closed is absurd. On the contrary, algorithms save time. This does not mean that we should stop reading or doing research, it just means that such arcane intellectual and academic pursuits need to be accompanied with technology in more colourful ways. Students can use ChatGPT for certain in-class supervised tasks, they can ask it to give feedback on the occasional essay, but they need to use their faculties of discernment to discuss what is being created. 
  2. The death of the search engine. One can imagine that ChatGPT will replace Google searches. Unfortunately, most users of search engines skim quickly through the first items that appear, so having artificial intelligence spew the answer out to you or create a narrative to your question instead is merely an accentuation of the same linearity. Discerning scholars might sieve through search engine responses, using their background knowledge and critical thinking to select the best sources, and they will have to do the same with ChatGPT, scrutinising it.
  3. The sterility of the artificial voice. As powerful as ChatGPT might be, and we should not underestimate its deep learning capacity (in a few months it will be much more powerful), when you read the texts it produces, somewhere, in the distant recesses of the prose, is a slightly flat monotonous machine-like sterility, resonant of the computer Hal’s metallic, depressed voice in Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. ChatGPT might sound human, but in that case, it sounds like a fairly dull human. And there are errors of course because of the automaticity of its understanding of semantics. Ultimately, expression is about style and voice, which is what I encourage in my philosophy students’ writing: give personal anecdotes, let the reader hear your voice. Perhaps it is a good thing that artificial intelligence is competing with us, it pushes us to bring out more vivacity, originality and personality in what we say. 
  4. Plagiarism is only as big a threat as we allow it to be. One obvious reaction to this development in technology is to fear that students will no longer bother to write essays at home, or even design projects, since they will simply ask ChatGPT to do it for them. This merely reinforces the problem of extended pieces of homework. As soon as we ask students to do substantive pieces of work at home, there are a host of ways of plagiarising, getting others to do the work, using pre-packaged prompts and so on. I  always have my students write every essay in class. At home they read and revise. Teachers who are fond of giving important and lengthy homework to students might have to rethink that strategy. And let’s not forget the Pandora’s box of assessment reliability problems that homework releases anyway, including issues of unequal work conditions at home: one of the reasons why schools exist in the first place is to create fair and equal learning conditions for all students. For coursework assignments, students might plagiarise and plagiarism-detection software will not pick it up. However, the irony of ironies is that ChatGPT cannot lie, so all we need to do is ask it if it wrote the piece of writing in question, and it will tell us.

All in all, the purpose of education is to live a better life, and this is achieved through the development of  knowledge, aesthetics and virtues. Using artificial intelligence to accelerate processes and find solutions should not be a problem, but it will be our fault if we let artificial intelligence carve out the end of our thinking and not the beginning. All the texts in the world written by ChatGPT will not make us any wiser, and we have to teach our students to integrate words, ideas and values for themselves, for it is with this truly natural, inner language that they will define and understand the world, and the world will be as interesting as the depth of concepts are to describe it, no more, no less. As the great Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. May those limits be the ones we choose, not the ones chosen for us by an algorithm.

A New Year’s Mindset

So here we are already a couple of weeks into 2023, and we are already speeding through the month of January. I really enjoy the start of a new year actually, because it provides us a natural opportunity to think about where we are in our lives both personally and professionally, as well as providing us a chance to set goals or to make resolutions to do better, to be better, and feel better about where we currently are. The problem that often comes with these “resolutions” however, is that they are usually framed in the negative, and often set people up for failure. They tend to lean toward what’s currently wrong in our lives, and toward areas of life that aren’t currently worth celebrating. 

Honestly, making resolutions hasn’t felt quite right for me recently, because I found myself always starting the new year in a negative mindset. I was focusing on things that I wasn’t doing well, or doing at all, and this ultimately made me feel bad about myself. I’m sure many of you have gone through a similar experience, and maybe you’re feeling that way right now. Well, this year again I’m taking a different approach to the new year, and I’m entering into 2023 with a different and positive mindset, which so far feels really good.  
 
During this past holiday break I purposely re-read a post that I shared a few years ago. I had shared in that particular post that I used to start a new year by beating myself up for needing to eat better and exercise more, to drink less and spend more time with my family, and all the rest. I remember catching myself starting to get a bit depressed when January hit and frankly, a little sad. I wrote about how one New Year’s Eve not that long ago, when I was getting a little overwhelmed by the changes that I “needed” to make, I started looking around and I saw my two amazing kids, my beautiful wife, and this incredible New Year’s light show, and that’s when I challenged myself flip the script so to speak, and to start thinking about all that’s right with my life, and not about all that I perceived to be wrong with it. 
 
This mindset shift has allowed me to focus on all that was great about the previous year, and all that is going well in my life both personally and professionally. I now take all the good things that are working, and that are making me happy, and I carry them over into the new year…a new year’s carry over has now become my new year’s resolution. Of course over the next few weeks and even months I’ll try to eat better and exercise more, like I do after every extended holiday, and I will find new ways and new things to learn because I’m passionate about learning, but I guess my point is this…instead of beating yourself up about the person that you currently aren’t, and all the work that you need to do to feel better about yourself, change your mindset…even if it’s just a little, and begin the year focusing on the positive. 
 
Try to take stock in all that’s right about your life, and all that’s great about who you are as a person, and start 2023 by celebrating that! Begin the year feeling good about yourself instead of bad, and you know what, I bet that this positive energy and outlook will be a better foundation and starting point to achieve any goals that you might have for the upcoming year. I’m willing to bet that if you begin from a place of celebration and gratitude that any changes that you want to make will be more sustainable in the long run. You see, if we look closely enough, I bet all of us have areas in our lives that we are proud of and happy with…carry them over and make those positive aspects your focal point as we speed through January. Anyway, happy new year everyone and I truly hope that 2023 is your best year to date! Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other. 

Life I am the New Year.
I am an unspoiled page in your book of time.
I am your next chance at the art of living.
I am your opportunity to practice what you have learned about a life of reflection and giving.

All that you sought and didn’t find is hidden in me,
waiting for you to search it out with more determination.
All the good that you tried for and didn’t achieve
is mine to grant when you have fewer conflicting desires.
All that you dreamed but didn’t dare to do, all that you hoped but did not will,
All the faith that you claimed but did not have —
these slumber lightly, waiting to be awakened
by the touch of a strong purpose.

I am your opportunity
to renew your allegiance to a life fulfilled
I am the New Year.

— Author Unknown

Quote of the Week…
Celebrate what you want to see more of
-Tom Peters

Related Articles – 
Goals Instead of Resolutions
Make It and Keep It
Smart Tips
Start the Year Off Right
Goal Setting Strategies

Inspiring Videos – 
On The Road – A Year in Review
A Child With a Dream
10 Things That Made Us Smile This Year
The Kindness of a Stranger
A Special Gift

A New Era of “Reading”

How fast does a person think?

Read?

More than a decade before President John F. Kennedy was touted to read the entire New York Times newspaper in 10 minutes flat, a school teacher named Evelyn Wood would develop speed reading techniques to improve the lives of troubled girls. Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics Speed Reading courses would set the stage for what today is considered the largest and most trusted provider of speed-reading training, a company called Iris. Their trademark is, “Reading at the speed of thought.” The average person can read about 200-250 words per minute (wpm). With proper training, it is not uncommon for individuals to engage in super speed reading, 3x faster than the norm (1000wpm).  

But what about listening?

How fast might a person be able to listen with accuracy? According to research by B.J Kemp, an auditory stimulus takes only 8–10 ms to reach the brain, whereas a visual stimulus takes 20-40 ms. This in effect means we can listen more than twice as fast as we can read. 

But just how fast?

Demand for Listening Continues to Grow

Many university students during the pandemic grew accustomed to speeding up the lectures of their professors. In a new paper published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, researchers concluded that some asynchronous learning formats, like recorded lectures, prove to be much more efficient. Further, there was no major difference in performance between students who watched a lecture at normal speed versus those who watched a lecture at 1.5X or 2X speed. However, a recoil back to in-person lectures may have students twiddling their thumbs. Like waiting for that endless joke’s punchline. 

Audiobooks are the fastest-growing format in publishing and are predicted to become a $19 billion industry by 2027. January likely will be the 11th straight year, the Audio Publishers Association reports a double-digit increase in audiobook sales. Further, consider the out-of-orbit escalation of podcasts. It is hard to believe podcasts were an enigma a mere twenty years ago. In June 2022, Daniel Ruby’s analytics reported the existence of over 2.4 million podcasts. If you are reading this, you have likely listened to a podcast, book, or maybe both. Possibly even the speed was accelerated 1.5x, or even 2x for more efficiency, or if the narrator possibly read too deliberately.  You may have also selected “Intelligent Speed,” which in effect shortens silences!

You Can Argue With History…but You’ll Probably Lose

Yuval Noah Harari, the bestselling author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, claims that history is ultimately a complex network of stories. Stories which were not dependent on the written word, but instead passed through oral history. Some  likely told with intent to entertain, whereas others were of a more critical nature.  Stories which passed on the knowledge and wisdom necessary for survival. Stories which in effect activated sensory centers in the brains of our ancestors. Neuroscientists at Princeton University continue to uncover the connections, literally the neurological connections in our brains, demonstrating how stories play a pivotal role in the development of such emotions as  compassion and empathy.

Marvin Harris author of Our Kind and Merlin Donald author of Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition believe Homo sapiens fully developed speech and a complex oral culture by at least 45,000 years ago. That means we have been telling stories for some time. Besides having an unequal ratio of ear to mouth, two to one, the printed word is a much more recent invention than the tens of thousands of years we have practiced speaking and listening. “When we’re reading, we’re using parts of the brain that evolved for other purposes, and we’re MacGyvering them so they can be applied to the cognitive task of reading,” explains Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Raising Kids Who Read

Fantastically, according to the Human Journey, “About 6,000 sounds represent the spoken languages around the world and babies can recognize all of them.” In effect, some might claim that we are hard-wired to listen. Contrast this with learning to read, an ability that is not innate. Unesco details “despite the steady rise in literacy rates over the past 50 years, there are still 773 million illiterate adults around the world, most of whom are women.” That is close to a billion human beings without access to the written word! 

Where Might We Go From Here?

In a world seemingly built on acceleration, it is hard to imagine doing anything at 10x speed. However, meet the podfasters, a subset of podcast obsessives who listen to upward of 50 episodes a week. For $2.99 an app first released in 2016, called Rightspeed allows one to train their brain to listen to podcasts and audiobooks at speeds as high as 10x. For this to sound any different than chipmunks on amphetamines, requires dedicated training. A training regime to rival that of Evelyn Wood. Wood reportedly could read at a rate of 2700 wpm which means she would have turned the pages of Melville’s classic “Moby Dick” (209,117 words) in approximately 77 minutes. Or, take YOU. A future you who could “read” this article in 30 seconds!

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Learning From Giants

Learning From Giants

I’ve had four very successful international school headships over the past two decades.  I’m fortunate to be able to say I hold the longest serving tenure as a school head at two of those schools, while I provided successful leadership during political, economic, and labor crises, a sexual abuse crisis, a natural disaster, and a school start up situation at the other two schools, not to mention the varied challenges of the past couple of years around the world and in Myanmar in particular.  There are a number of factors I can point to that have contributed to this success.  I’ve had some incredible colleagues who have shared the same vision for education that have worked with me at different schools, I’ve had the opportunity to support some amazing teachers who have been adaptable and flexible in providing incredible learning opportunities in the classroom, and, of course, at international schools we work with a student and parent population that is committed and motivated to be successful.  However, the one thing that stands out for me above all else is the respect I hold for those giants who came before me as international school heads and the lessons their experience and knowledge provide.

Early in my career, I had the opportunity to get to know a very successful head of school, someone who had gone into a school that had a troubling history of rotating through heads every couple of years.  Yet this head went to this school and survived for a number of years.  At about his fifth year I connected with him and had an opportunity to chat with him.  I asked him why he felt he had been successful when so many others had not.  He said to me, “Greg, I never forget who I work for.”  This was an interesting comment.  As a head of school, we have many constituencies – students, faculty, staff, parents.  Yet, there is one group our contracts clearly state we are responsible to – the board or ownership of the school.  This comment really helped to instill in me the importance of working with the Board or ownership of the school that employs me to make sure we have an understanding of each other and are pursuing a similar vision for the school.  I once commented that I see my most important role in a school is working with the Board / ownership to maintain that focus and ensure I am in sync with those I work for.  If I can do that, everything else can fall into place and the whole school can focus on learning and a conducive climate for students.  

Similarly, about this point in time I ran into another head of school who had recently left a school he had been head of for over a decade.  I remember that his departure was a shock to many in the international school community as his name had become synonymous with the school he led.  I asked him a similar question, inquiring what had led to his departure.  His response was very thoughtful as he explained he had become overly confident in his position and had come to believe the school couldn’t survive without him.  One day he was in a board meeting where the Board was making a decision different from what he recommended.  He told them that if they made that decision he would resign from the school.  He really expected them to back down, but instead they called his bluff and accepted his resignation.  In explaining this to me he said there were many times during his career he was tempted to resign on principle, but this was not one of them.  He indicated he regretted his actions.

This second situation has really stuck with me over the years.  There have been many times that I have been worn out, torn in many directions, and felt completely exhausted by everything I am juggling and then had a board member / owner come along and throw a curveball in my direction that left me gasping and wanting to threaten to walk out the door.  In those situations I’ve stopped and thought about that head of school and the regret he felt.  I then ask myself if this current situation is the one I’m willing to sacrifice it all for?  When I think about everything we are doing for students, the learning taking place, the programs we’ve developed, is this the issue that I believe all of that needs to be given up for?  In two decades as a head of school the answer to those questions has only been “yes” one time.  And, that one time occurred only after having walked away from the situation and spent a full summer thinking about it.  Fortunately, after that amount of time, the board chair ended up agreeing with me and it worked out in the end.  This is an important lesson I learned from that head though, and it has guided me through many difficult challenges and decisions.

Back when I was teaching I had the opportunity to work for some very good school heads.  One in particular provided some guidance for me in my future career in school administration.  He was an extremely level headed individual who always appeared calm and composed.  I asked him about that one time, and he explained that when things were challenging he always grounded himself by remembering what it is about education that gets his juices flowing, in other words, why is he in education to begin with?  He told me that when he puts that question out there, and checks himself to make sure he is remaining true to that purpose, then he can be comfortable with the decisions he is making.  This is another one of those axioms that has guided me through some incredibly difficult times.

Another time I went to this same head of school and told him about some rumors I had heard about the school at a recent social event I had attended.  He explained to me he believed there was nothing wrong with a rumor.  Talking about things is how people process new information, changes, or things they question.  He told me that until an issue actually shows up at your door, it is simply a rumor and needs to be left alone.  Besides, he once said, sometimes silence is one of the most effective tools we have.

When I decided to make the jump into administration, I received a lot of guidance as I sought that first job.  My natural tendency was to apply for everything I saw, assuming I could adapt myself to any role.  Instead, I was encouraged to think about my skill set and to really question schools about their needs to determine if it was a match for my me.  I was told that nothing cuts a career shorter than a head in a position that isn’t a match for them.  For example, I have a few skills that I believe I’m really good at.  One time I interviewed for a really top notch school.  However, with a clear sense of my skill set I quickly realized the school and I were not a match and I pulled out of the running.  That’s another thing I think we sometimes forget.  The interview process needs to go both ways.  Just as the school wants to make sure they are getting the best match for the school, we need to make sure we are checking out the school to make sure it is the best match for us.

Another thing I’ve learned along the way, but can’t remember who from, is the idea that schools go through cycles.  At different times in the life cycle of a school it needs different leadership with different skill sets.  As a school head, it is important to recognize when our skill set is a match for a school, but just as importantly, is to recognize when our skill set no longer fits a school.  It is always better to realize that and make our own decision to seek something new with glowing references than to overstay our welcome and have to leave at an undesirable time.

I sat in a workshop at a conference one time and listened to a presenter I had a lot of respect for talk about the idea of having the right people on the bus.  There is a lot to be said for that concept, while right along with it is making sure that within that group of people we have people who can do the things we can’t.  I once sat in an interview for a headship where I talked about the things I saw that needed to be addressed during the period of my interview visit.  One of the board members commented, “that’s a pretty big list, how can you have the skills and knowledge to do all of that?”  I responded that I don’t, but I have the skills and knowledge to hire the people who can, and then provide the oversight to get it done.  I ended up getting that job.  Several years later, when that board member was leaving the school, she reminded me of that statement and commented that she could now clearly see that this was a skill that had contributed to me being successful as head of that school.

Finally, as I prepared for my first headship I spoke to a consultant who has long been a mentor to me.  He told me that my spouse should rightfully always be my best friend, but that close behind should be my board chair.  That is probably one of the most important pieces of advice I’ve ever received.  I’ve been very fortunate to have had some amazing board chairs.  Every single one has become a good friend.  During times of crisis, I have found myself having daily conversations with them, seeking advice, talking over options.  At other times we check in with each other, they help me to frame and reframe the issues, and I keep them apprised of the things I am doing.  I believe the board / ownership should never be surprised or caught off guard by anything.  This is doubly important with the chair / owner, and in this way they are best able to support me and the school.

I once read that being the head of a school is one of the most challenging positions that exists as there are so many constituents who need to be looked after.  One head I know once stated that on any given evening a head of school can rest assured there is some dinner table in their community where their name is being mentioned as a part of the dinner conversation.  Thinking about this makes the job seem incredibly daunting.  However, there are many giants who have led schools successfully before us.  I believe that by listening to them, observing them, and learning from them, we all have the ability to improve the odds of our own success. 

You can find more posts on my blog  Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

What’s New This Year?

Photograph taken by Shwetangna Chakrabarty in Guangzhou, China.

Happy New Year 2023!

Did you make your resolutions for 2023? Did you consider changes that are on the horizon? Are you prepared for what the year has to offer? Especially in international education? Do you know What’s New This Year?

The 2023 Buzz in International Education

  1. ChatGPT: The AI revolution happening in academia creates opportunities as well as poses challenges. ChatGPT is a controversial chatbot that claims and aims to refine language learning. While there are some benefits for those who genuinely want to test their language skills, it can also write essays and answers to prompts fed into the application. Since its launch in November students all over the world have been using it to generate essays to complete writing assignments. Schools have not yet figured out a way to detect this kind of cheating. Though there have been some software applications developed to identify assignments completed by ChatGPT, they are still not full proof. Finally, it comes down to the school teacher’s vigilance to detect anomalies in the style of writing. Some universities are taking this very seriously, they have developed systems to detect essays written by ChatGPT. Here are a few resources you can check to learn more about AI encroachment in academia.
  2. University Applications 2023: It seems getting into university in 2023 has become increasingly competitive. The first reason is the rebound in applications due to reducing Covid restrictions and the other reason is the test-optional strategy adopted by top universities. Post Covid, students who had deferred their entry are also applying for university admissions along with the class of 2023. According to Forbes, Common App has seen a 26% rise in applications to the US. Since the applicant pool this year is larger, it is naturally stronger, hence the early applications will be filled out quickly which means the regular decision round will be more competitive. Here are a few useful insights into admissions 2023
  3. Inclusion: The year will see a lot of changes in school policies, strategies, and practices. With most of the international education conversation focusing on inclusion, it is no longer an option to ignore diversity in its true avatar. Not just limited to international mindedness or global citizenship but truly focusing on enhancing workplace culture to be all-inclusive. Setting up support systems, and safe spaces for all learners has to be the priority of all schools. I strongly advise schools to include safe spaces and inclusion in their mission and vision statement to keep it real and focused on specific objectives. Creating a safe space ensures students develop a sense of belonging and hence learn better. Having a framework or standards of practice that provide guidance for achieving inclusion will be the number one priority for all schools in 2023. The post-Covid world is less forgiving and more aware, hence our students and parents won’t settle for lip service, they will need strategies, policies, and procedures in place to ensure their child feels safe, accepted, and valued. One example of such standards in education is the TIE Standards of Practice.

Time to buckle up, put on your seat belts and prepare for a smooth or rough ride ahead, depending on what your school values and prioritizes in 2023.

Chatbots

Chatbot
Dialog with chatbot. Artificial intelligence reply to question. Tech support, instant messaging, hotline operator. AI assistant. Client bot consultant. Vector isolated concept metaphor illustration. Source: 12470219_Wavy_Tech-01_Single-08.jpg

As educators, we are always looking for ways to improve the learning experience for our students. One potential solution that has garnered a lot of attention in recent years is the use of chatbots, and more specifically, chatbots powered by the GPT (Generative Pre-training Transformer) model.

The GPT model is a type of artificial intelligence (AI) that is designed to generate human-like text. This technology has the potential to revolutionize the way we approach teaching and learning in international schools. Here’s why:

  1. Personalized learning: Chatbots powered by the GPT model can provide personalized learning experiences for students. For example, a chatbot could ask a student questions about their interests and learning style, and then use that information to tailor the content and pacing of the lesson to their specific needs. This kind of personalized learning has been shown to be more effective than traditional, one-size-fits-all approaches to education.
  2. 24/7 availability: One of the biggest advantages of chatbots is that they are available 24/7. This means that students can access learning materials and receive help with their assignments at any time of day or night. This can be especially useful for students who have busy schedules or who live in different time zones.
  3. Language learning: International schools often have students from a variety of different linguistic backgrounds. Chatbots powered by the GPT model can help with language learning by providing personalized feedback and practice exercises to students learning a new language.
  4. Adaptive learning: Chatbots can adapt to a student’s needs in real-time by adjusting the difficulty of the material based on their performance. This can help to keep students engaged and motivated, as they are presented with challenges that are appropriately matched to their skill level.
  5. Immediate feedback: One of the challenges of traditional education is the time lag between when a student submits an assignment and when they receive feedback from their teacher. Chatbots can provide immediate feedback, which can help students learn more efficiently and effectively.
  6. Scalability: Another benefit of chatbots is that they can scale to meet the needs of a large number of students. This can be particularly useful in international schools where there may be a high demand for language-learning resources or where there is a shortage of qualified teachers.
  7. Cost-effectiveness: Using chatbots to supplement or replace traditional teaching methods can be more cost-effective than hiring additional teachers. This could potentially free up resources that could be used to invest in other areas of the school, such as technology or extracurricular activities.

However, it’s important to note that chatbots are not a replacement for human teachers. They can be an effective supplement to traditional teaching methods, but they cannot fully replicate the experience of interacting with a knowledgeable and caring human instructor.


Excuse me for just a little trickery here. Up to now the text you read was created by ChatGPT. Of all the thoughts I’ve had about it recently, one was: am I done as a blogger? But I like blogging! I gave ChatGPT the following prompt and I changed nothing about it above (except for deleting its final paragraph, a frightfully banal conclusion): Write a 500 word blog for an audience of educators about how ChatGPT may change our approach to teaching and learning in international schools.

Did you notice it wasn’t me writing?

Realizing the Powers of Optimism and Responsibility in 2023

A handful of years have passed since I set ablaze an effigy. Tis’ the season of Año Viejo in Ecuador, a cremation ceremony meant to signify purification and a goodbye to the past.  An opportunity to allow for regeneration in the coming year. Though undetermined exactly when this tradition began, the origins are likely a combination of religious, political, and sanitary factors. Here in the middle of the world along city sidewalks, three monigotes (rag dolls) dominate as representatives of 2022.  

A politician, a professional athlete, and a pandemic.

President Lasso, Lionel Messi, and the Coronavirus.

If I had my choice, we would be burning something to signify industrialization. More specifically, a schoolhouse to symbolize a quick goodbye to the crumbling educational systems of disempowerment we have accepted for far too long. However, as the broken system seemingly slowly decays, I consider the critical importance of optimism and responsibility.

A Vision of the Future

Joe Dispenza, a neuroscientist, researcher, and New York Times bestselling author imparts, “We are either defined by a vision of the future or the memories of the past.”  Though the close of a year results in reflection of the past 365 days, it is our “visioning” of the future that holds the greatest of powers.  What do we want? Accepting that the world is a very different place than when “school” was designed, it seems logical that learning is not the same as it was two hundred years ago.  Part of education’s “overhaul” must be empowerment and responsibility.  

The Phoenix awaits, as the old schoolhouses turn to ash. Yet, even if new beginnings are exciting, they are not always easy. Author Nicole Sobon’s advice is fitting, “Sometimes the hardest part isn’t letting go but rather learning to start over.” I think to myself how letting go, surely would be a lot easier, if the thing we were letting go of was in a heap of ashes, especially considering how our species seemingly has a knack of rebounding back to old forms.  And 2023 requires more than a “form” focus. To reform or even transform may just not be sufficient. Instead, might we direct our energies towards the formation of new and creative pathways.  Paths laid down by learners themselves.  To do so, requires the empowerment, trust, and agency of students.  An approach unlike the traditional passive, inflexible, and hierarchical approach towards learning.

A Future Up For Grabs

This past semester I heard an array of excuses but documented six, indiscriminate of validity.

  1. “I was at  a swimming competition last weekend and was sick last week and this Monday.”
  2. “I was unwell this last week with a throat infection that paralyzed me in the neck. I was on antibiotics and I was unwell. I didn’t see the assignment.”
  3. “I might fall behind on some of the work. There is a family emergency and we’ve been quite busy traveling.” 
  4. “I was sick for 4 days and missed an additional day for an out of school activity.”
  5. I don’t know if you heard but there’s a tropical storm passing through and slowly turning into Category 1.”
  6. “I’m not sure what happened but I didn’t see any reply from my Zoom partner. We now have an issue with wifi and electricity in my neighborhood because one of the power stations was hit by lightning or something.”

Besides being enamored by the creativity, especially the one about “paralysis,” I found myself pondering the need to address one core competency in 2023 and beyond.  “Reflect on and take responsibility for your learning and that of others.”

Jared Diamond, a geographer, historian, anthropologist, and best-selling author maintains optimism, regarding our human abilities to solve the problems we have caused. Diamond cites how we should balance hope for the future with a need to be careful and in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed writes, “The future is up for grabs, lying in our own hands.” World-renowned historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari shares a sentiment similar to Diamond’s. Optimism is evident in the dedication of his most recent book,  Unstoppable Us, Volume 1: How Humans Took Over the World, penned for middle school students.  “To all beings — those gone, those living and those still to come. Our ancestors made the world what it is. We can decide what the world will become.”   

Stop Making Excuses

Books like Harari’s have a message students need to hear. Tightly woven into the very fabric is a challenge for ingenuity and also an appeal to assume responsibility. No one speaks with greater passion about the urgency of responsibility than Jocko Willink, retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer and co-author of a #1 New York Times bestseller. A comment on Jocko’s YouTube TEDx video reads, “Jocko wasn’t born, he was tactically deployed.” Further, author Blake Stilwill described Willink’s intensity as an understatement. “Like calling Mount Everest “big” or Antarctica “cold.” Whatever the case, Jocko emboldens a new mindset. Ultimately centered on what he refers to as “extreme ownership.” “Once people stop making excuses. Stop blaming others and take ownership of everything in their lives, they are compelled to take action to solve their problems.” 

Seeing the Light Always

Simon Sinek’s outlook on optimism is not unlike Diamond or Harari’s. Sinek, a famed author and inspirational speaker has created a business out of optimism. He shares  how great leaders are optimists. “This is not the same as being positive. Positive is finding the light in the now; optimists see the light always,” says Sinek. Educators and parents alike surely see this light daily in children. Remaining optimistic ultimately is a choice, akin to making the choice to stop making excuses. Both require strident action. 

This is more exciting than enthralling. Almost alchemical!  To think of the power that might be realized in 2023, if we choose a path of greater responsibility and optimism.  

Leaping into 2023

Though a bit rainy this New Year’s eve, effigies still burn on many a street corner. Where I stand, the fully clothed rag doll packed with sawdust glows. The firelight however lessens as I stand transfixed by the flame.  Before being reduced to a pile of ash, I contemplate all that the new year may bring, but also what I may be able to bring to it!  Cognizant of responsibility and optimism’s omnipotence.

Tradition in Ecuador dictates how you can ensure happiness and prosperity in the coming year if you jump over the fire twelve times. For good measure I leap thirteen times.

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Surfing and Education: Three Lessons

The sky is a pale blue and my daughter and I are bobbing peacefully on the lull of the Atlantic. A dozen metres away, a large silver fish thrashes out of the water, arching its back into the sea. We spot a set of beautifully stacked waves in the distance. The set approaches us calmly yet resolutely. We let the first and second wave pass under us, bobbed up by the enormous power of the ocean. Then, as the third approaches, we angle our boards towards the shore, paddle a few hard strokes to catch up with the swell and in that split second when we are synchronised with the wind’s fetch, when the time feels right, we both pop up to land squarely on our boards, our feet straddled across the smooth perspex, gripped by the wax. Our boards drop into the wave and race along the ocean’s back, the roar of the surging water all around us: past, present and future coalesced into a moment of flow, the dazzle of the sun, the solitary cloud and the line of golden beach whirled into a twirling psychic kaleidoscope.

Anthropologists say that surfing goes back to at least the 12th Century in Polynesia: it was considered training for warriors to determine who would lead the group. Others describe forms of surfing in Peru hundreds of years earlier. When exactly it started, who “invented” it and what its original purpose was are teleologically quaint scholarly questions, but ultimately, what does it matter? One thing I believe any surfer would agree with, no matter how experienced, is that it is not simply a sport or a hobby, it has a deeper meaning, an expression of some archetypal yearning that we have as humans to be connected with the cosmos.

To me, surfing teaches us three life lessons that are at the core of what an education means:

  1. Courage

Surfing does not come without danger. From having a board fin cut open your head, being dumped onto rocks or pulled across sharp coral, sucked into a powerful wave and held under water, colliding with another surfer, being pulled into a rip tide, drowning, not to mention attacks by sharks, stingrays or jellyfish, the perils are many! For some, the idea of braving the ocean’s waves is too overwhelming to entertain. Even the strongest surfer is never exempt from some form of danger, and the stronger the surfer, the larger the waves and, therefore, the higher the danger. It takes courage to surf. 

Schools should be safe spaces where students flourish, are happy and know that there are trusted adults to supervise them and protect them from harm. However, schools are also places where students are being formed to deal with the trials and tribulations of life: as adults, they will need to be brave in unforeseen circumstances and know how to take risky decisions in order to advance. Nothing great can be achieved without some courage, especially in the face of bullies who pry on fear. We need to build up our students’ and children’s backbones, give them the confidence they need to catch the wave when the time is right rather than resent the lost opportunity and the fear that drove them to inaction. Teaching for courage is not easy, it requires role-modelling, ongoing moral fortification and messaging.

  1. Patience

Much of the time that a surfer spends on the waters is not surfing but waiting for waves, and this only when the conditions are good enough for surfing in the first place. Like ancient human activities linked to the elements (farming and astrology for instance), surfing involves great patience. As one lies on the board with the salt water lapping softly on either side, a great peace descends upon the mind and life seems slow and simple, time stands still and in the blink of an eye, hours can evaporate. It takes patience to wait for the right wave, it is an art. And during the wait, it isn’t possible to be on your iPhone, you simply wait in silence, under the immensity of the heavens. The contrast of the timelessness in the ocean with the hustle and bustle of life on land is enormous.

There is another dimension to the question of patience. It takes time to improve as a surfer. Increments come in important thresholds: learning how to pop up, learning how to drop into a wave, learning how to cut back and so on. It takes hours and hours of practice and mental preparation before one is ready: “imagine catching the wave before you go to sleep at night” a coach once told me. But the victory of achieving a new threshold is all the sweeter when it comes because the work towards it was so serious and drawn out. This is how it is with all significant leaps in learning: they do not come overnight, they take time and resilience, practice, hard work and patience. This is how we become stronger. 

So much of modern schooling is plagued by hyperactivity, stress, cognitive overload, a sandwiched timetable that sends everybody rushing from one unit of time to the next. Parents are tempted to overmanage their children, or to ask schools for an ongoing commentary on their children’s performance (the reporting structure is not enough, we want to know on a daily basis what is happening!), multiplying pressure on their children and their children’s teachers. In many schools, teachers are squeezed like lemons by managers to produce more and more, often leading to resignation or burnout.

The consumer culture we have built around young people has become a ruthless and incessant stream of quick entertainment. The 70 odd gigabytes of information hitting us daily and the dopamine they release leave us reeling by day and tossing and turning by night. Until we have learned to slow the clock down and enjoy the emptiness of a minute of time, we will be forever lost in chasing something we will never catch. 

Patience is a virtue and schools can help with this by creating mindfulness programmes, moments of silence in group gatherings, in-class reading and classes away from technology. Above all, schools can send the message out to students and parents that what they are looking for will come, maybe not immediately, maybe not even today, but tomorrow or the day after. All things come to those who wait.

  1. Respect

Surfers come from different social backgrounds, different walks of life. The age difference on the waves can be quite staggering, from teenagers whipping up and down waves to athletes in the prime of their age cutting through barrels to more senior surfers coasting along their longboards with a smile on their faces. There is an etiquette among them and an understanding of who should take priority on a wave. The stronger surfers will go further back to take the larger waves, the weaker ones stay closer to the shore and agree to move out of the trajectory of the former. The world of surfers, which can easily fall into Hollywood clichés of blonde-haired hippies, tends to be synonymous with convictions about life and the environment connected to sustainability and peace. The world of surfers is not predicated on blaming, shaming, mistrust and labelling, it is predicated on a deep sense of unity.

However, the greatest respect, the respect that bonds all surfers, is that of the ocean. This vast blue covering of more than 70 percent of the globe, the giver of life itself, is respected profoundly, and with this respect comes a love of nature, the creatures of the sea, the cleanliness of the beach, the song of dolphins.

Although we look to schools for literacy and technical learning, the two greatest planetary challenges that all educational systems must turn to are the environment and learning to live together peacefully. What better way to teach sustainability than through a love of nature, a real reverence and respect for its majesty and the gift of life on earth that it gives us? Sustainability objectives in schools should not only reduce our carbon footprint, but put young people in contact with nature as they do in the forest school systems, allowing them to appreciate their deep atavistic connection with nature.

And schools are the places where young people learn to socialise with one another, where social codes are understood and nurtured. Education for peace programmes, such as the Model United Nations system, community service and restorative practices must be strengthened across school systems and the history lessons that we teach should move from the traditional glorification of war to the celebration of inclusion, peace and humanity. Above all, schools should be places where we learn to listen to each other, to celebrate who we are and to be happy through our common humanity, not divided through our differences.

My daughter and I decide to head back to the shore: our arms are tired from the paddling and our souls have been filled with the courage, patience and respect needed to leave the water feeling replenished. There is a vague frustration that we could have caught a bigger wave, that we might have been steadier in managing another, but that comes with the experience, for it is not meant to be perfect, it is a microcosm of life itself, and at the end of the day, you can only do your best. That is the deeper lesson any education teaches us, the one lesson nobody sees – that is nobody but yourself, in the private eye of your soul, for in truth the real responsibility to learn lies with no one else.

On the beach, with the firm sand under our feet and the boards tucked under our arms, we make our way back to land, looking forward to the next day when we will connect once more with the ocean and with ourselves. May our next day at school be much like this one at sea.