All posts by Mike Simpson

MIKE SIMPSON is the Elementary School Principal at The International School Yangon. Originally a lawyer from New Zealand, Mike has also worked in schools in Qatar, Venezuela, and Lesotho. Mike has a particular interest in the development of collaborative and innovative learning communities. He hopes that his blog might be of interest to other teachers and school leaders as they nurture these communities in their own schools.

Big Ideas

Once a week in their Culture and Communication classes, our students in Grades 2 to 5 read a chapter of The Odyssey – the Ancient Greek tale of hero Odysseus and his men trying to get home after the Trojan War. 

The story itself is very entertaining but the students are also asked to use the story to think about some very big ideas. Every lesson we record the wisdom of our students and I thought I would share some of that wisdom with you:

On Beauty 

  • ‘Different people think different things are beautiful so that means beauty is an opinion and we can’t judge it.’

On Happiness

  • ‘How do you even know you are happy if you are not sad sometimes?’

On Rules

  • ‘It is hard to write rules for every little thing and it is sometimes hard to say what is right and what is wrong. It would be easier if there was only one rule – care about others.’

On Forgiveness

  • ‘It is silly to punish someone who already knows they did something wrong and have learned not to do it again.’

On Reasoning With Others

  • ‘It is better to help people understand what you are saying than to just tell them that they are wrong.’

In thinking about these really big ideas, students practice critical and creative thinking techniques and develop a belief that everyone’s thinking has value – including their own. These techniques can be applied to any problem or any subject and their ability to apply these techniques is strengthened by their belief that their ideas are valuable. All cultures have big stories like The Odyssey that students can read and think about big ideas. The more big stories they read the better!

Step back. step up. step in

The International School of Yangon is the first school I have worked in that has a performance culture in which everyone is focused on getting better than they are now

Given that I have only ever worked in good schools, that statement might rub a few ex-colleagues up the wrong way. But the reality is that for everyone to be focused on getting better than they are now, everyone needs to accept that they have a performance gap. 

If there is one thing that the 2020-2021 school year has given (and will continue to give) all of us, it is a performance gap. This is a gift that we all have received by virtue of being asked to perform in ways we have never been asked to perform before. We all have different performance gaps but we are connected by the circumstances that have caused them. 

It is the gift of performance gaps that have created a performance culture that I have never experienced before and I do not think we will ever experience again unless we can replicate the pressure that we are facing now. I’m not sure that we want to do that anytime soon so I think we should go into the second half of this year accepting that we will still be under pressure but trusting that our performance will continue to improve. But we will only continue to improve if we do not get overwhelmed by our peformance gaps and that is very hard to avoid when you are under pressure. 

‘Fight or Flight’ is a common phrase used to describe a person’s options when overwhelmed by pressure. People either become aggressive or just walk away. Now, given that teachers will generally do anything to avoid conflict and their sense of responsibility to their students will not let them walk away, we need another option – ‘Freeze.’

People that have frozen do not fight and they still turn up but they cannot contribute and perform as they usually would. Rather than being an active member of a team, pressure makes them passive. They might go through the motions in a way that suggests contribution and performance but really they are just trying to get by without drawing attention to themselves. 

We have all had our moments but we have all handled the pressure of the last few months exceptionally well and this is what our performance culture is based on. I am just wary of the fact that the end of 2020 does not mean that the pressure is off. It might even increase in 2021. So I have been reading up on how to handle pressure and would like to share a mental movement that I picked up from the book referenced below. It is called Step Back. Step Up. Step In.

Step Back: Gain Emotional Control

When faced with a challenging situation that has the potential to cause you to Fight, Fly, or Freeze, step back to think about your own state of mind. This has direct links to an Adaptive Schools’ Norm of Collaboration: Pay attention to yourself (and others). Thinking about your state of mind activates your powerful metacognition function (thinking about thinking) and is the first step in pushing through the urge to Fight, Fly, or Freeze. You are now ready to think about how you are going to face the challenge.

Step Up: Look for Better Options

Every challenge you face provides you with a performance gap. Challenges are challenging because you need to improve your level of performance to overcome them. And before you set out to improve your performance, you need to figure out what your options are to do that. Adaptive Schools’ would suggest that you take a ‘Balcony View’ of the challenge. By stepping up onto the balcony and looking down on the challenge without you in it, you will be able to see the challenge from multiple perspectives and determine a more objective best option to improve your performance.

Step In: Take the Initiative

Once you have established your best option to improve your performance to meet a challenge, you need to take the initiative to do whatever it takes to implement that option. Importantly, that does not mean you need to improve your performance alone. Taking the initiative in this sense might be as simple as asking for help or sharing an idea with a colleague. 

Asking for help and sharing ideas has defined our year so far and created a performance culture that will get us through the rest of it. As long as we do not let the pressure overwhelm us, we will meet every challenge that comes our way. I am sure that there will be plenty! 

EVANS, CERI. PERFORM UNDER PRESSURE: Change the Way You Feel, Think and Act under Pressure. THORSONS, 2019.


Recently, at the end of a comprehensive WASC reaccreditation and self-study process, our school was commended by WASC for engaging in long term relationships with outside providers that can support and sustain the work in development, implementation, and continual revision of desired initiatives. This commendation referred to our work with experts who believe in our compassionate Mission and Vision, and related strategic themes and objectives. 

Dr. Linda Henke is one of these experts. Linda is passionate about developing inclusive schools and has particular interests and expertise in early childhood education that aligns with our purpose of developing compassionate global citizens, lifelong learners, and agents for positive change. Linda began working with our Early Elementary team in November last year. This was pre-COVID and Linda was able to visit our campus. 

At this time we were right in the middle of our whole school WASC self-study process and Linda met with our Early Elementary team in a room that was being used to record and display that process. The walls of the room were plastered with sticky notes on posters to record what we felt we needed to do to achieve three overarching goals that we had set ourselves:

  1. All students will be able to apply their knowledge and skills to adapt and contribute to an uncertain or unknown future.
  2. All students will develop the self-efficacy and agency necessary to drive their own learning, control their own lives and positively influence the lives of others.
  3. The ISY teaching faculty will feel connected and collectively capable in meeting the needs of ISY students.

Linda saw our thinking on the wall and invited me to present it at the first Convening of the Transformational Leadership Initiative (TLI) in St. Louis, Missouri. TLI is a partnership between Washington University in St. Louis and the Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership which Linda founded and directs. 

The convening was an opportunity for educators to share their school’s compelling purpose and how this was guiding their work in developing a culture of deeper learning. I was invited because our purpose was clear to Linda in her work with our Early Elementary team and in what she read on our walls. Our purpose comes directly from our Mission and Vision and the three goals we had set for ourselves were an expression of this purpose.

Linda introduced me to TLI’s Human-Centered School Transformation Model to develop a culture of deeper learning. The model was new to me but it’s call for high level collaboration, shared leadership, creativity and courage, empathy and compassion, and a growth mindset echoed what we had also identified as important to achieving our purpose.

I shared our thinking using TLI’s model and after two days of conversations with a very diverse group of educators all working towards their compelling purpose, I left St. Louis with a deeper understanding of our purpose and what we now needed to do and why we needed to do it. 

When I left for St. Louis, no-one was really talking about COVID. When I returned to Yangon at the end of January 2020, everyone was talking about it. On March 18, we closed our campus and moved all teaching and learning online. We prepared the best we could prior to moving online and worked incredibly hard to replicate learning experiences that we had planned to deliver to students on campus. 

COVID was not on anyone’s radar when we decided upon the first of our three goals but we had already decided that we needed to prepare our students for the unforeseen. We had imagined an interdisciplinary teaching and learning framework to do that and we had the beginnings of an action plan to develop and implement it over a 2-3 year period. 

It soon became very clear to exhausted teachers, understandably frustrated parents and increasingly disengaged students that replicating what we had been doing prior to the pandemic will not get us through it. With no end in sight to the crisis as we neared the end of the school year, we made the choice to transform teaching and learning at ISY over a 2-3 month period. 

In the last few weeks of the school year, we experimented with interdisciplinary units to get a feel for what we were about to spend our summer developing. These also gave our students and families a taste of what was coming their way in the new year. 

Immediately after we finished the year, we started planning for this one. Teachers spent all summer planning interdisciplinary, multi-grade level units. We had no time to scaffold this process for those who were not familiar with what we were asking them to do. We put teachers in teams, provided a planning structure, a (very tight) timeline and asked them to come up with units that could be delivered to students in classrooms, synchronously online, and asynchronously online. Not only did we need to develop new units, we needed to develop three different learning platforms to cater for students who were spread out around the world in different time zones. All of this was compounded by the fact that almost half of our teachers were also in different time zones and those of us still in Myanmar could not get in the same room. 

From the outset, we were very upfront with our teachers as to what we were asking them to do – cram 2-3 years worth of work into 2-3 months. How we were able to present to our community a new interdisciplinary teaching and learning framework on three different platforms weeks before the school year started is hard to explain. We proved that it was not impossible but it sure felt like it to all of us at some point along the way. 

It helped that we had the beginnings of a plan to transform teaching and learning at our school. It was a plan with a purpose as articulated in our three goals but it was not until COVID happened that our purpose became compelling. We had to act immediately – not just to get through this crisis but so our students will be able to adapt and contribute to an uncertain or unknown post-COVID world.

We also had to act immediately to earn the trust of our families. We did that by acknowledging their need for us to develop something different and working hard to meet that need. We were then very deliberate in over communicating to them that while our new units and platforms will get us through COVID, they are part of a framework that was imagined prior to COVID to get their children through anything that the future throws at them. 

As communities all around the world continue to struggle and suffer through COVID, we do not take for granted that we are in a position to prepare our students for a post-COVID world. COVID made our purpose compelling, forced us to act, and our actions earned the trust of our community. We know that we are not doing everything right yet. But schools are not transformed by people trying to do everything right. Schools are transformed by people trying to do the right thing and COVID has allowed us to define what that is for our community. 

The longer we are online, the more our community wants us to get better at what we are doing now. They no longer want us to go back to ‘normal’ and they expect us to keep adapting to make sure their children are prepared to learn and thrive in an uncertain future. That was our purpose prior to COVID. As we navigate through and beyond COVID, our purpose now compels us to act and our community to trust us. 

It is wrong to say that COVID will make us a better school. It is our commitment to our purpose that will make us a better school and our transformative response to COVID just proves that point. It takes a lot of creativity and courage to transform a school and these attributes are developed through partnerships with other schools. Our partnership with Linda and TLI is relatively new but we could not have connected at a better time. In times of uncertainty, it is important to fully commit to your purpose and try your best to do what is right. That was the message I left the St. Louis convening with that is what our school continues to do.

Self-Compassion: Putting on your own mask first

The International School Yangon is a community of compassionate global citizens: We aim to develop lifelong learners who will be a force for positive change in the world.

In the face of a global pandemic, our teachers have personified our Mission and Vision through their commitment to our students and a willingness to professionally and personally rise to uncomfortable, unfamiliar or previously unknown challenges. As our teachers continue to meet these professional and personal challenges, I, along with several other teachers and administrators, have been participating in an online Mindful Schools: Mindfulness Fundamentals course. Two readings from this course continue to resonate with me as I wonder how teachers can continue to sustain themselves in these uncertain times. Both of these readings explore the concept of self-compassion.

Kristin Neff (2009) has defined self-compassion as having three main components. These three components as described by Neff are useful in applying the discussion of a 2015 study of the impact of self-compassion on the psychological health of Australian psychologists (Finlay-Jones AL, Rees CS, Kane RT, 2015) to the teaching profession. I believe that the discussion in this 2015 study is particularly relevant to teachers if one considers teaching to be a caring profession (which it is!).

1. Self-Kindness versus Self-Judgment

Self-kindness refers to the tendency to be caring and understanding with oneself rather than being harshly critical or judgmental (Neff, p.212).’

Psychologists who are self-compassionate are more likely to think about their struggles, mistakes or failures more objectively. They are less likely to judge themselves harshly or catastrophize events. They are more able to see difficult experiences as a normal part of their professional (and personal) life and are able to adaptively respond (Finlay-Jones AL, Rees CS, Kane RT).

Teaching is every bit as complex as psychology. Preparing students for an uncertain and unknown future (in a very uncertain present) requires teachers to at times take leaps of faith in their practices without any real confidence that their skills and knowledge will see them and their students land safely. This sounds terrifying but it is a reality that all teachers face each day. However, a lack of confidence in one’s skills or knowledge is not fatal if one can substitute self-criticism with self-compassion. Teachers should always reflect on their practice but they must do so with an understanding that missteps are inevitable. If teachers are trying to do the right thing, it doesn’t matter if they are not doing it right all of the time.

2. A Sense of Common Humanity versus Isolation

Common humanity involves recognizing that all humans are imperfect, fail, and make mistakes. It connects one’s own flawed condition to shared human condition so that greater perspective is taken towards personal shortcomings and difficulties (Neff, p.212).’

Finlay-Jones, Rees, and Kane propose that the ‘sense of common humanity engendered by the self-compassionate mindset (p.11)’ may work to reduce the reactivity of psychologists in dealing with difficult clients or situations. A sense of connectedness to other psychologists reduces a psychologist’s feeling of isolation in their role and also supports their understanding that mistakes are an inevitable part of practicing psychology.

Our school has identified the need for teachers to feel collectively capable and connected in meeting the needs of our students. This study of psychologists would suggest that teachers who understand that their shortcomings actually connect them to their colleagues are better placed to accept these shortcomings and ask for help in improving their practice to meet the needs of our students. I wonder if this sense of common humanity might be a more reliable indicator of positive student outcomes than a traditional focus on ‘best practice.’

3. Mindfulness versus Overidentification

Mindfulness…involves being aware of one’s present moment experience in a clear and balanced manner so that one neither ignores nor ruminates on disliked aspects of oneself or one’s life (Neff, p.212).’

Finlay-Jones, Rees, and Kane believe that ‘psychologists who are more self-compassionate are less likely to base their personal or professional self-worth on positive therapeutic outcomes or favourable reactions from clients (p.11).’ Therefore, they are less likely to view professional challenges or difficulties in their work as inherent in that work as opposed to being an indicator of personal failure or incompetence.

Teaching, like psychology, is very difficult. Teachers need to be mindful of this as they reflect on their practice. All teachers have aspects of their practice that they know need to be worked on and it is their responsibility to work on them once they have been identified. But teachers must be careful to keep in mind that good practice does not always lead to good results. Athletes understand that a loss might not mean that you have played badly and teachers would do well to remember this analogy as they strive to meet the needs of their students.

Our teachers are good, compassionate people and the way they all stepped up to the challenge of online learning to meet the needs of their students is testament to this. This challenge underlined to me the fact that teaching is a complex task carried out in an uncertain present to prepare students for an uncertain future. I am not sure that the task itself can be simplified to the point where compassionate teachers can be shielded from occupational syndromes such as imposter syndrome, compassion fatigue, or burn out. If self-compassion is an antidote to these ills it would surely warrant a place in any teacher training or professional development program.

To use an oft-used analogy that seems more poignant than it would have two or three months ago, one might view teachers practicing self-compassion as them putting on their own masks first so that they can then help others. The ISY community is very proud of their teachers and is committed to helping them find ways to sustain themselves in meeting the needs of our students. And not just in times of crisis.

Finlay-Jones, Amy L., et al. “Self-Compassion, Emotion Regulation and Stress among Australian Psychologists: Testing an Emotion Regulation Model of Self-Compassion Using Structural Equation Modeling.” Plos One, vol. 10, no. 7, 2015, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0133481.

Neff, Kristin D. “The Role of Self-Compassion in Development: A Healthier Way to Relate to Oneself.” Human Development, vol. 52, no. 4, 2009, pp. 211–214., doi:10.1159/000215071.

Make it Stick: Learning to teach and teaching to learn

In his book, The Barcelona Way, Professor Damian Hughes promotes The Mad Men Method (named after the show of the same name) as a way to improve our working lives. The basic premise is to stop and think about what we are doing (or not doing) now that our grandchildren will find ridiculous fifty years from now.

This is what Hughes stopped and thought about:

I think our grandchildren will look back and say, back in 2018, when leaders wanted their people to learn how to change, they didn’t bother teaching them the most important part: how the learning machine actually works. What the heck were those people thinking?

Right now, leaders in our society focus their attention on teaching the material, getting through the curriculum. This is the equivalent of trying to train athletes without informing them that muscles exist. It’s like teaching nutrition without mentioning vegetables or vitamins. We feverishly cram our classrooms with whiz-bang technology, but fail to teach the kids how their own internal circuitry is built to operate.

It’s all completely understandable, of course. Our parenting and teaching practices evolved in an industrial age, when we presumed potential was innate. Brains were fixed. It’s another assumption we should have moved past – as we have with smoking being healthy and three-martini lunches being normal – but haven’t. In fact, you could argue that teaching a child how their brain works is not just an educational strategy – it’s closer to a human right.

Through the work of Carol Dweck and others, I believe we have moved past the assumption that potential is innate. The many teachers that I admire certainly have. However, if our vision is to develop lifelong learners, it is our students that need to understand how their brains work and the science behind successful learning. Isn’t it ridiculous that our students could spend well over a decade in formal learning without being let in on the ‘secrets’ of how they learn best!?

This year the teaching faculty at The International School of Yangon (ISY) will be reading Make it Stick. It is not a particularly new book and the science and ideas in it are not particularly new either. But old ideas are not necessarily bad ideas. And new ideas are not necessarily good ideas. Schools must keep abreast of new ideas but they must put their energy and resources into those that are proven to work for the students that they teach. This is what ISY intends to do in relation to the science of successful learning.

Reading Make it Stick will make us better teachers. It will provide us with a common understanding and conversation builder around the science of successful learning. But it won’t be until we share this understanding with our students that we will be teaching them how to learn.

Performance: A poor proxy for future success


I have just finished reading Professor Damian Hughes’ The Barcelona Way. I believe that many parallels can be drawn between sport and education. This certainly rang true as I read this entertaining and insightful analysis of the winning culture of one of the world’s most successful football teams.

FC Barcelona takes great pride in fostering a power-base among home-grown players and that means identifying and investing in talent from a very early age. In a culture where many, many young boys grow up dreaming of playing for FC Barcelona, how does the club know who will be the ones that will win games for the club 10 or 15 years down the track?

Logic would surely suggest that current performance is the most reliable indicator of future performance. But this logic is flawed and Hughes provides us with an excellent illustration of this:

Take the National Football League (NFL), for instance, which represents the zenith of talent-identification science. At the pre-draft NFL ‘combine,’ teams exhaustively test players in every physical and mental capacity known to science: strength, agility, explosiveness, intelligence. They look at miles of game film. They analyse every piece of evidence available data. And each year, they manage to get it absolutely wrong. In fact, out of the forty top-rated combine performers over the past four years, only half are still in the league, never mind the star performers.

A lot of smart people have been thinking about why this happens, and they’ve decided the problem is not that the measures are wrong – the problem is that measuring performance is the wrong way to approach talent identification.

According to much of this new work, what matters is not current performance, but rather growth potential – the complex, multi-faceted qualities that help someone learn and keep on learning, to work past inevitable plateaus, to adapt and be resourceful and keep improving.

This can’t be measured with a stopwatch or a tape measure. It’s more subtle and complex. Which means that instead of looking at performance, you look for signs, subtle indicators. In other words, you have to close your eyes, ignore the dazzle of current performance and instead try to detect the presence of a few key characteristics.

FC Barcelona is ‘more than a club’ in the way that it represents Catalonia and strives to play a certain style of football. But its success is still measured in games and trophies won and depends on developing players that can deliver those wins and trophies.

The International School of Yangon (ISY) is a community of compassionate global citizens. ISY’s Vision is to develop lifelong learners who will be a force for positive change in the world. Instead of developing players to win football games, ISY is striving to develop students who can change the world for the better and the success of the school will be measured in these terms.

Before identifying the key characteristics that must be present in a student for them to go on to make a positive difference to the world, we must be clear that these characteristics are not replacements for academic performance. While not all change agents are academics or even professionals in the traditional sense, academic performance is the most effective way to position oneself to make a positive difference. After all, those young football players in the NFL combine got their opportunity through their performances. Hughes’ point was that those performances could not be taken as indicators of future success in the absence of some key characteristics or attributes.

ISY’s compassionate Mission and Vision were confirmed just over a year ago and we are currently reviewing our Schoolwide Learner Outcomes (SLOs) to ensure that what we expect of our students (and faculty) align with the Mission and Vision. SLOs is the term used by The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), our accrediting authority.

After a collaborative process to identify the current and future needs of our students in light of our Mission and Vision, we reviewed the research and frameworks of educational authorities such as WASC, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, Center for Curriculum Redesign, and The International Baccalaureate. Seven ISY Attributes have been preliminarily identified as being essential for the success of our students, in addition to academic performance:

  • Courage
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Compassion
  • Reflection

Hughes himself identified ‘early ownership’ as a key to the success of FC Barcelona’s best players:

As psychologist Marjie Elferink-Gemser’s work shows, one trend among successful athletes begins when they’re thirteen or so, and develop a sense of ownership of their training. For the ones that succeed, this age is when they decide that it’s not enough to simply be an obedient cog in the development machine – they begin to go further, reaching beyond the programme, deciding for themselves what their workouts will be augmenting and customizing and addressing their weaknesses on their own.

Hughes is essentially describing student agency – the capacity and propensity of students to take purposeful initiative.

The development of student agency and the ability to apply knowledge and skills to unfamiliar or unknown contexts (crucial for FC Barcelona players) have been identified as pressing current and future needs of our students at ISY.

We believe that the explicit integration of the seven ISY Attributes into our curriculum, pedagogy, and extra-curricular program will develop the agency and application needs of our students. It is then our hope that our students will meet the needs of the world in which they will live and make a decent and happy life for themselves in doing so. Some of them might even get a trophy.

Hughes, Damian. The Barcelona Way: Unlocking the DNA of a Winning Culture. Macmillan, 2018.

Yes but… Syndrome

Suggestion Box

I like this cartoon. It dispels a myth and confirms a truth.

The myth is that good ideas are born that way. The truth is that imagination generates new ideas and judgement determines whether they are good or not. To ignore these two steps is to ignore the laws of thinking.

The best way to have a good idea is to have many ideas and that is a logical advantage to us working in groups. However, that advantage is lost if we ignore the laws of thinking. The laws of thinking require us to suspend judgement until the idea has been imagined. It is impossible for us to fully imagine an idea and judge it simultaneously and to try is symptomatic of ‘Yes but… Syndrome (YBS).’

As individuals and in groups, YBS prevents us from consistently generating and maximizing the potential of good ideas for the benefit of our students. I speak from experience.

As an individual, until relatively recently, I suffered from YBS. I would spend more time judging my ideas than imagining them. Yes but it will be probably be too much work. Yes but it has probably been done before. Yes but it will probably be too expensive. Yes but it probably will not work. Any one of these internal judgments would prevent me from fully imagining an idea and would certainly prevent me from sharing it. Upon reflection, what I was really doing was predicting how other people would judge them. This in itself was quite irrational given that I have always had the pleasure of working with very open minded people who have positively encouraged those ideas that somehow slipped out.

Every now and then, I have a relapse of YBS but an understanding of the laws of thinking and two significant mind shifts have allowed me to manage it. Both of these mind shifts are connected and grounded in two Adaptive Schools’ Norms of Collaboration: Presuming Positive Intentions and Putting Ideas on the Table.

Presuming Positive Intentions

Members of effective collaborative groups consistently presume positive intentions in the thinking and actions of their colleagues. Presuming that an idea has been put forward to help the group allows members to welcome, listen to and inquire into an idea. I have never had any issue presuming positive intentions in those that I work with. I welcome the ideas of others in the belief that these ideas are shared for the benefit of the group and ultimately our students. Presuming that others will also welcome my ideas in this way has helped me to overcome YBS as has the knowledge that I am sharing ideas for the good of the group and our students. In this sense, presuming positive intentions in myself is my antidote to YBS.

Putting Ideas on the Table

Presuming positive intentions in myself allows me to fully imagine and share my ideas. Distancing myself from my ideas once I have put them on the table is what allows me to suspend judgement. Bob Garmston, founder of Adaptive Schools, often talks about not getting up on the table with your idea. I interpret this to mean that once you have shared an idea, it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the group. It is then the responsibility of the group to inquire into it, refine it, and ultimately, judge it. Absolving myself of this responsibility to judge my own ideas has enabled me to share my ideas more freely. It is not for me to say whether my ideas are good or bad and if my ideas turn out to be bad, it is not for me to defend them. The best way to have a good idea is to have many ideas and an understanding of this law of thinking, coupled with my positive intent in sharing my ideas, keeps me off the table so the group can judge them.

YBS is not suffered from alone. Groups also suffer from YBS and group members and leaders must be cognizant of this. As it is for individuals, Group YBS is avoidable and Adaptive Schools describes some practical strategies that can ensure group efficacy is not undermined by it.

Dialogue v Discussion

It is very important that all members of a group are clear as to whether the group is imagining or judging ideas. If some members of a group are imagining ideas while others are simultaneously judging them, ideas will not be fully imagined. An understanding of the distinction between dialogue and discussion as described by Adaptive Schools is useful in this situation. Dialogue is employed to fully understand an idea and discussion refers to what occurs when a decision is being made. Facilitators and meeting agendas that make explicit reference to when dialogue and discussion are to be entered into will allow ideas to be fully imagined and effectively judged.

Exploratory Language

I am sure that it is clear by now that ‘Who has a good idea?’ might not be the best question to ask of those suffering from YBS. To encourage the sharing of as many ideas as possible, a skilled facilitator or group member will use exploratory language. Instead of asking ‘How can we raise reading scores?’ a better way to frame that question might be, ‘Given our experience as teachers of reading, what might be some things that we could try to raise reading scores?’ The question remains the same but the use of exploratory language (might, could) implies that there is more than one answer and the more ideas we have on the table, the better our chances of raising reading scores.

To some degree, we all live with YBS and if our students are the ultimate beneficiaries of our ideas, it is very important that we manage it.

*This post was inspired by my learning from On Strategy: What Managers Can Learn From Philosophy



This post was born at a point in an after-school run where I was just clicking over from thinking about work to getting a song stuck in my head.

I was thinking about the school that we are fundraising to build in partnership with United World Schools (UWS). Our partnership with UWS was confirmed in August and we reached our financial goal to get the school started at the end of April. It has been a huge community effort to raise the money and as we near our goal of having the school built, the community’s focus is now understandably turning to how our students will contribute to and benefit from the partnership.

The school is in a remote part of northern Myanmar and from what I understand, we are the only UWS sponsor school in partnership with a school in the same country. An important condition of the partnership is that our faculty and students will be able to directly interact and work with the school as it develops.

Our school is a community of compassionate global citizens. That is our Mission. Our Vision is to develop lifelong learners that will be a force for positive change in the world. For us to live our Mission and Vision, compassion must be central to everything that we do inside and outside the classroom and working alongside our UWS partner school will provide a context for our students to develop the self-belief and skills to be a force for positive change in the world.

I love our Mission and Vision. They are direct and aspirational statements. We will make the world better. I feel good knowing that this is what I get to work towards everyday. Our Mission and Vision are supported by eight strategic themes that provide direction. Service learning is one of those themes and our partnership with UWS came out of an identified need to provide authentic service learning opportunities for our students. Notwithstanding our overriding commitment to our Mission, Vision and students, we see our partnership with UWS as exactly that – a partnership.

And this is the point where the song kicked in….

David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ popped into my head. No idea why. It could have been worse. My son is five.

Once the school is built, we could definitely choose to be heroes. We could send some students up there and build them a library out of clay. Our students have done that for another school already this year. We could send some students up there to talk about gender equality. We have a very active group of students who have been promoting this for years. We could send some students up there and set up a composting system. They could definitely do that. We could send some students up there to help set up their learning spaces. Our elementary students just designed their own playground and our new campus in Nay Pyi Taw is about to go through a similar process. We could send some students up there to calculate the school’s carbon footprint. We will be carbon neutral in four years and our students are leading that. We could even have some students set up a couple of solar panels on the roof to heat water and power fans.

Our students have the knowledge and skills to do all of these things and more by virtue of what they have learned and experienced in class, on trips, or in after school activities. We can get started right away.

We can be heroes, just for one day…

Being a hero feels good. But where I am from, being called a hero is not necessarily a good thing. It can be used in a derogatory way to describe someone who does something for the sole purpose of making themselves look and feel good with no genuine compassion for those that they want to be seen to be helping. To develop compassion for other people we must be able to understand their perspective and that can take time when those other people have a very different perspective of the world than ours.

Service learning is grounded in compassion. The first of the five stages of service learning is investigation. This stage includes identifying and justifying a need for service. In our partnership with UWS, any need must be identified with our UWS partner school and their community with a common understanding of the issues that the school and community need help addressing. There will be some needs and accompanying actions that will be immediately obvious and our students can get to work on those straight away. However, some issues are more complex and will require a great deal of communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity before effective action can be taken. Action will make us feel and look good but we need to be careful that we are addressing issues that our UWS partner school and community needs addressing in a way that they want it addressed. Otherwise, any real positive difference made will be fleeting at best.

We can be heroes, forever and ever…

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address many of the issues that our UWS partnership will be addressing – poverty, gender equality, quality education, clean water and sanitation, sustainable cities and communities, affordable and clean energy, and eleven more. This is one major reason why this week our school decided to adopt the seventeen SDGs as transdisciplinary themes through which all teaching and learning will be filtered.

We want our students to serve and learn alongside our UWS partners and we want that service and learning to stay with them for the rest of their lives. We are entering into service learning partnerships to develop lifelong learners who will be a force for positive change in the world. For this to happen, our students will need to apply what they learn once they leave us. And for this to happen, our students will need a very concrete understanding of the issues facing our world.

A focus on the SDGs will provide this understanding and we are looking forward to strengthening our partnership with UWS to help achieve some of the ambitious targets laid out by the SDGs. Ours is a small partnership in the bigger scheme of things but it promises to be one that will produce some real heroes that make a positive difference well into the future and hopefully all around the world.

If you are going to be anything, be compassionate

The Mission

This post was written on March 16.

Yesterday will go down as one of New Zealand’s darkest days.

My mother back in Christchurch messaged me to check the news. I had a hundred and one things to do at school that day, most of which remain on my to-do list. I was shocked and saddened by what had just happened in my hometown and my mind was elsewhere.

In an international community like the one I live and work in, on any one day someone in our community will be shocked and saddened by something that is happening in their home country. Yesterday was the turn of the New Zealanders and the way that it stopped my wife and I got me thinking. If we all took on each other’s shock and sadness, we would all be paralyzed and incapable of helping each other. And we need to help each other.

We need to act with compassion. Which I have learned is different from empathy which is different from sympathy.

Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling and sympathymeans that you can understand what the person is feeling. As much as it saddens me to think about those caught up in this nightmare, it is impossible for me feel their pain. And given that I have never had a loved one taken by an act of violence, been victimized for who I am or what I believe in, or had another person’s life in my hands, I do not think I can even begin to understand.

Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another person. You do not need to feel or even understand someone’s suffering to relieve them of it. In fact, in many cases, it would be better if you did not. If a psychiatrist felt the pain of each client, she would be of no use to anyone.

Because compassion does not rely on personal experience, we can develop it in a classroom. It is very important that we do so if we are to expect our children to confront the ecological, sociological and technological problems that threaten our very existence. The solutions to those problems call for people that are able to see beyond themselves and those like them. They call for people that are willing and able to support and be supported by others.

For our children to be able to act intelligently, compassionately and with strength, we need to infuse academic challenges with the following global competencies:

  • the use of concepts, knowledge, skills and languages of various disciplines to research current global issues;
  • the understanding of economic, political, technological, environmental, and social systems worldwide;
  • the understanding of multiple perspectives; the valuing of diversity;
  • the ability to communicate with multilingual skills, through fluency in reading, writing, speaking, and listening and through the use of technologies;
  • engaging in responsible action and service to improve conditions both locally and globally; and
  • the ability to function effectively in an interdependent world.

We have high expectations of our students and they will achieve academically. And our message to them must be: If you are going to be a scientist, be a compassionate one. If you are going to be a lawyer, be a compassionate one. If you are going to be a soldier, be a compassionate one. If you are going to be a politician, be a compassionate one.

If you are going to be anything, be compassionate. Our future more than likely depends upon it.

Bloom, Paul. Against Empathy: the Case for Rational Compassion. Vintage, 2018.

WASC Focus on Learning International Edition

The difference between winning and succeeding

Coach Wooden

This week I have been thinking and reading a lot about competition and whether or not it has a place in education.

In 1986, Alfie Kohn wrote No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Kohn needs no introduction as an American academic who studies and writes extensively on human behavior, education, and parenting. He believes that competition, which he defines as one person succeeding at the expense of another, is always unnecessary and inappropriate at school, at play, and at home. Kohn makes very persuasive arguments against competition and rewards that continue to be widely discussed and debated.

I believe that there is a difference between winning and success and I looked up definitions of both words. Kohn also makes a distinction between winning and success. Here are the Cambridge Dictionary’s definitions of both words:

Win – to achieve first position and/or get a prize in a competition, election, fight, etc

Succeed – to achieve something that you have been aiming for

While I was searching for definitions, I stumbled across a wonderful TED Talk by John Wooden. Wooden was a very successful basketball coach. He is regarded as one of the greatest coaches, of any sport, ever. Needless to say, his teams won a lot.

Wooden’s TED Talk, The Difference Between Winning and Succeeding, has some absolute pearls of wisdom from a man who shunned many of the conventions of competition to win more NCAA championships than any other college basketball coach.

Wooden developed his own definition of success as a peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable. He felt that he needed to develop his own definition to make him a better teacher and coach and to give his students something to aspire to other than a grade or a score.

Wooden developed his definition from beliefs that were grounded in the teachings of his parents and his own experience. I have reproduced these beliefs in Wooden’s own words:

  • Never try to be better than someone else. Always learn from others. Never cease trying to be the best you can be. That’s under your control. If you get too engrossed and involved and concerned in regard to the things over which you have no control, it will adversely affect the things over which you have control.
  • If you make the effort to do the best of which you’re capable, trying to improve the situation that exists for you, I think that’s success, and I don’t think others can judge that.
  • I believe that we must believe, truly believe. Not just give it word service, believe that things will work out as they should, providing we do what we should. I think our tendency is to hope things will turn out the way we want them to much of the time, but we don’t do the things that are necessary to make those things become reality.
  • You never heard me mention winning. Never mention winning. My idea is that you can lose when you outscore somebody in a game, and you can win when you’re outscored. I’ve felt that way on certain occasions, at various times. And I just wanted them to be able to hold their head up after a game. I used to say that when a game is over, and you see somebody that didn’t know the outcome, I hope they couldn’t tell by your actions whether you outscored an opponent or the opponent outscored you.
  • If you make an effort to do the best you can regularly, the results will be about what they should be. Not necessarily what you’d want them to be but they’ll be about what they should. I wanted the score of a game to be the by-product of these other things, and not the end itself.

If we can develop Wooden’s peace of mind in our children, arguments for or against competition in education become moot. Regardless of the context, competitive or uncompetitive, our children will be able to take control and succeed – win or lose.