All posts by Nicholas Alchin

Nicholas Alchin (@nicholas_alchin) is Head at United World College of SE Asia, East Campus. A sino-celtic Brit who drifted into working on building sites, drifted into the actuarial world, then chose education, he has lived and taught in values-based schools in UK, Switzerland, Kenya and Singapore. He has also held a number of roles with the IB and writes, speaks and advises widely on educational matters. He enjoyed travelling with wife Ellie, and kids; also running, reading, writing, and baking bread.

Schools, Russia, Education: What to do?

The world is reacting to the war in Ukraine in an unprecedented manner.  Moral condemnation, political outrage and commercial isolation of Russia is overwhelming (though not yet unanimous; and there are disturbing questions to ask about why this conflict is being treated differently to, say, the conflicts in Yemen, South Sudan, Ethiopia, South Sudan or Nigeria).   Abhorrence of unfolding events is widespread and I know many have made personal contributions to, for example, the Red Cross or other charities supporting Ukraine.  Organisations and individuals of all sorts are moving to action  – which has to be a good thing.   What might this mean for schools?  Here I want to argue that hard as it may be, not picking sides is the right thing to do

As a College, we have educated for peace for 50 years, and the way we do it is woven into our curriculum (see this white paper for details) But what should this look like today?  I have a great deal of respect for the view that we should, as a school, be asking students to wear Ukrainian colours, posting support on our Instagram feeds, condemning aggression.  These immediate and visible manifestations come from a place of solidarity and support – excellent.  I wonder, though, if there are other considerations at play.

We have been asked about getting each of our PS, MS, HS schools (each under 1000 for Singapore social distancing still!) into the plaza for a show of solidarity, and pictures.  I can imagine some striking images there – with our iconic globe in the centre – and it would have been a strong symbol.  And there is certainly a place for symbolism (see this lovely piece from our College President, for example) but it can be hard to distinguish between symbols and token gestures, and I worry that events organised by teachers, where students come in groups that are too big for meaningful discussion, can indeed be tokenistic.  I would worry that students attend these because everyone is attending; and that they would feel good they have “done something” and made statements, without due attention to understanding events or learning about complexity.  The analogy with fundraising for a disaster is apt; we never simply pass a bucket around and ask people to chip in a few dollars; we look for understanding before meaningful action.  Similarly, in this case we need to do more than ask for specific – even mandated – action.

The most worrying aspect of adult-run events is that they run the risk of presenting adults’ answers; they ask students to turn up and follow a predetermined course.  These events can avoid the need for students to think for themselves, and to show the initiative needed to do something themselves.  Our Mission is to educate for peace  – not to demonstrate, lobby or post on social media for peace.  So while demonstrations, lobbying and posts may emerge, they are not our goal as a College.  Most importantly, we want students doing these things from a sense of internal conviction. 

If we want to teach students to think for themselves, to be aware of the pressures on them to think one way or another, to think morally and critically then we need to resist the temptation to tell students what to think, no matter how strongly we feel (and just to be clear, I think we can all feel pretty strongly here).  Anything else would be to set students up, in the long term, for lives of compliance, conformity and submission  – which is not, in the long run, likely to lead to the  positive peace we seek.  Of course, exactly the same events, organised by well-informed, caring and determined students, have a completely different feel and message.  They aren’t just things they have to turn up to; they are then substantive and authentic expressions of commitment to peace, and we are 100% behind the various ideas that have emerged from students and which will appear in the student-led focus week being organised.  So while there are some things we choose not to do as teachers, we do encourage and support pretty much whatever students want to do for peace (without breaking any local laws)

 What, then, does the College response look like?  

1We’ll look after the children and adults in our care.

David Sobel famously argued ‘no tragedies before fourth grade’.  He was talking about climate change, but the principle applies more generally and the underlying message is clear: first and foremost, do no harm.  We need to look at the individuals in front of us; consider how they are reacting and plan in light of that – and that’s not just for our youngest students.  We do not want to send anyone into disarray; so we’ll tread carefully, avoid the social-media lure of live-streamed disaster feeds, avoid crass national stereotyping; and monitor the mental health of our students.  This is our first moral imperative.

2 We’ll educate ourselves and our students about the situation

If students are to stand for something, they cannot fall for anything.  No one has a monopoly on truth, so we won’t be telling students what to think, or parroting any countries’ propaganda.  We’ll draw on a range of sources and help them make informed, principled conclusions.  We’ll examine traditional and social media critically; we will resist easy and self-serving moral outrage.  That doesn’t mean automatically taking a neutral position (neutrality is a definite judgement that the evidence in a particular case is equally balanced on both sides – that’s not the case here) but any position needs to be an outcome from, not an input to any discussion.  And in any case, picking a side is not educating for peace.

3 We’ll make education a force to unite people… for peace

If  students feel safe (step 1)  and the “What?” question has been answered (step 2) and then experience shows that there will be responses to “So what?” – which is to say, action.  These may be statements, fundraising, collections, letter-writing, demonstrations, contact with schools in affected countries…  all driven by students who want to enact the Mission, not just be told about it by adults.

So, to support all this to happen, we’ve constructed this document – Learning about Complex Issues in Current Events across the K-12 Continuum to scaffold teachers to open discussions in structured, intentional ways with the  individuals in front of them (parents can use these too).  It answers the question in the title of this post: What to do – by educating for Peace.

With thanks to many colleagues especially Gemma Dawson, Damian Bacchoo, Carla Marschall and Ellie Alchin for conversations here.


Solnit, R. (2014) Men Explain Things to Me. Haymarket Books.

constellations of care

Learning to teach can be a scary business.  Parents will know the difficulties with one or two children, so the first time you face 30 or so, all of whom can sense your beginner’s nerves… well, you can imagine. 

I vividly remember one of my teaching practices.  I had been with one specific class for three months, and we had experienced a few rocky moments.  I was learning the craft, and while some lessons worked, others did not.  My lack of competence was sometimes as painfully clear to them as it was to me, but I worked hard, stuck at it, and gradually things settled.  By the end of term, learning was reasonable and we had settled into a good routine.   After my final lesson, the regular teacher debriefed the class when I was not there, to get straight feedback for me.  The class (16 year olds) said something along the lines of  “We really didn’t like him at the start, and we didn’t always understand what he was trying to say but he was trying so hard, and was so serious about helping us even when he was obviously really nervous, that we could really tell he cared”.

All part of caring in schools, and also outcomes from caring in schools. 
How to operationalise?      source

The teacher, close to retirement, coached me through a discussion about what had gone well, and I asked him what advice he had for me, on the basis of what he had seen.  And it’s funny, because though I do not remember really thinking much of his advice at the time, I can still remember his precise words, where he was standing, and the look on his face as he said  You know, Nick, look at what they are saying, and what it tell you – at its core, teaching is all about the relationship between you and the students.  The younger me, full of tripartite lesson plans, assessment objectives and National Curriculum Class Mappings, worried about passing my teaching training had never really thought of this; I was so focused on mastering the technical ‘delivery’ parts of a lesson that I hadn’t ever really of the broader relationship piece.  But what’s really interesting is that this class saw through my bumbling performance and could see that I did really care – and that my care manifested in great attention to detail, and a visible genuine commitment to their achievement.  

The story came to mind when I was watching some lessons this week, and saw a teacher stand at the doorway, warmly greeting each student by name and in several cases banter with individuals about some out-of-class matter (drama rehearsals, the new spiderman movie, upcoming break).  The students responded with smiles and warmth.  In another class, the teacher entered after all the students were there, raised his arm in what was clearly an agreed class routine to get silence and started with three minutes of breathing exercises, explaining that this would bring calm and peace to anyone who was feeling any stress about anything.  The class followed that teacher with trust and affection.
As I watched these master teachers, two things came to mind.  
Firstly, I was reminded about how caring for students is something that emerges in no one single place, but from collective commitment in what researchers have called a constellation of encounters.   What’s interesting here is that in all the examples, the care manifested in different ways, for different teachers, and would have been experienced by students in different ways; some would have loved the banter with a teacher, others would have cringed.  Some would  have been calmed by the breathing exercises, others bored.  Some would have been touched by my diligence, others felt cramped.

And secondly, watching these teachers brings to mind the ever-present organisational dilemma about standardizing practices and allowing individual flexibility and agency.  Of course, we want to be maximally effective but we certainly don’t want everyone squeezing their individuality out of lessons and teaching in the same way.  As well as being desperate dull for students, pushing everyone to adopt the same practices in this area just won’t work – it comes back to the advice from all those years ago – you know, Nick, look at what they are saying, and what it tells you – at its core, teaching is all about the relationship between you and the students. So the most effective practices can often depend on the individual characters in the room, and the precise mix of experience, context and chemistry.  That’s not to say there are no principles to draw on, but we need consistency of outcome, not consistency of practice.  Children need to feel cared for, but that can, should (and frankly will) happen in many ways.  That’s old wisdom that is as true for teachers as it is for parents.  In my teaching practice, I got there more by accident than design but we are far more intentional about these things today.

With thanks to Adam Steele and Ellie Alchin for the conversations that lead to this blog

Care . Noun or verb?

Speaking with some prospective parents, I was asked what is your school’s pastoral care like? As I began to describe the systems and structures we have – mentors, counselors, wellbeing centres, personal and social education curriculum, clinics, safeguarding protocols and so on – I could see their eyes glaze over and I realised I had fallen into the trap of making ‘care’ a noun instead of a verb; a thing, rather than something that humans do for each other.

All the systems mentioned are important – but it would be perfectly possible, even within such systems, for a child to feel uncared for; so they cannot be the whole story.   They are not, at the heart of it, the most important thing – which is that the adults really do care and act on that care. It seems so obvious that it is vulnerable to sounding simplistic or trite; and as educational researcher (and alum 💪) Nomisha Kurian has written sociologists have noted that care can become a romanticised ideal and a ‘platitude’ rather than a ‘meaningful professional stance’. Just like ‘wellbeing’, the term ‘care’ is susceptible to being reduced to a fuzzy or feel-good concept, which demands clarity in conceptualisation.

This lovely phrase captures an important aspect of caring….

The idea that ‘care’ needs proper investigation would have seemed counter -intuitive to me a few years ago – don’t we all know what it means? But I have come to see the word being used very differently by different families with different, sometimes cultural, expectations. This is a well-explored theme – sociologist Max Van Manen has argued that the word ‘caring’ is overused by social work, medical, legal, educational, and counseling professionals. So we’ve been very much aware of this over recent years, and explored a good deal of research to identify three areas that we want to work on to support caring in practice.  The first thing is connection – we’re not just giving information to students; we are seeking to have meetings of minds, and personal relationships with them (it’s not an accident that we remain in touch with so many alumni who are now friends). The second is working on students’ competence – because competence (social, emotional, academic, artistic, sporting etc) is a very tangible outcome from that caring. And the third is agency – because supporting students’ growth and move to a flourishing independent adulthood is care made visible.

Implementing these three aspects is no simple matter; and it doesn’t happen in any one place – it emerges from everywhere (it takes a village to raise a child). It happens when adults like children, and children’s company. So as I started to speak to those parents about ‘care’ as a verb, we could see teachers and children smiling and waving as they passed each other, stopping to talk and laughing together. These were visible manifestations of what other researchers have called a constellation of encounters. And I told them about how we seek to have relaxed classes where teachers as well as students are free to make mistakes, so we can all learn together – what other researchers have called a pedagogy of vulnerability. These harder-to-describe measures, as much as the systems, are really what caring is all about.


  • Culshaw S. and Kurian, N. (2021) Love as the lifeblood of being-well: a call for care for teachers in England’s schools, Pastoral Care in Education
  • Goldstein, L. (1998a). More than gentle smiles and warm hugs: Applying the ethic of care to early childhood education. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 12(2), 244–261
  • Goldstein, L. (1998b). Taking caring seriously: The ethic of care in classroom life. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (San Diego, CA) April 13-2017.
  • McKenna, M., & Brantmeier, E. (2019). Pedagogy of Vulnerability. Information Age.
  • Noddings, N. (2005). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press.Van Manen, M. (1990). Researching Lived Experience: Human Science for an Action Sensitive Pedagogy. London: Aithouse Press

High Expectations, Student Conformity or Clipping Wings?

Stories can be wonderful pedagogical tools; their openness and ambiguity can draw students into deep and rich conversation; and an appreciation of the ideas of others.

Stories can be wonderful pedagogical tools

I recently came across a tale that has stayed with me, and that now hovers in the back of mind when I interpret a situation.  I’m going to share it with a class, to see what they make of it.   It’s from Sufi thinker Idries Shah’s stories about Nasrudin, the 13th century Iranian philosopher-comic, and is a typical mix of his humour and wisdom:

Nasrudin found a weary falcon sitting one day on his window-sill. He had never seen a bird like this before.

“You poor thing”, he said, “how ever were you to allowed to get into this state?” He clipped the falcon’s talons and cut its beak straight, and trimmed its feathers.

 “Now you look more like a bird”, said Nasrudin.

The more I think about this, the more there seems to be in this story – about knowing when to act and when not to; about recognising our own needs for control and order; about understanding nature; about helping others be the best they can be; and about living with messiness.  But the most powerful message to me comes from knowing that without its clipped talons and straight beak, the bird cannot hunt; and with its feathers trimmed it cannot fly.  That message is that sometimes our expectations can lead us to damage the very things we love.

This famous image is usually applied to success.   But it’s much more widely applicable.

I have been thinking about this as I have been watching my own children this term. They are making many choices, not all entirely to my liking.  But they are their choices. I don’t want to be a laissez-faire anything goes parent; but nor do I want to hammer the messy knot of their reality into the over-simplified linear arrow of my expectations.   So when to intervene?  The question is easy to pose; but easy answers are hard to come by.  I have tried a few general principles to guide me (when it’s a matter of safety or when it involves other people or when there is danger of upsetting someone or when it is inconsiderate) but none of these guidelines ever really fully work across the board, and each situation seems to raise its own complexities.

The same applies, perhaps more forcefully, to general school life.  For organisational management, for reasons of equity, and pragmatic safety concerns when we schools have so many students, we cannot always allow every individual to be totally individual.  Of course, learning about living in groups is an important skill in itself, so there is a gain as well as a loss here, and having clipped talons may be necessary in a community.  There is, furthermore, a great deal to be said for high expectations –  but one person’s high is another’s absurd.  My own take away here is that as we develop policy and procedures, we should remain mindful of Nasrudin, and how much damage he did with his steps to bring the thing he loved in line with his expectations.


Shah, I.(1985) The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin. London: Octagon Press



By Nicholas Alchin | Twitter @nicholas_alchin

Why It CAN BE better to take the oblique Approach

Economist John Kay tells the story of arriving at Paddington train station, London to visit friends whose nearest underground (subway) station was Lancaster Gate.  Kay followed the standard London Underground map, taking two stops on the Circle line, changing lines at Notting Hill Gate, and two further stops on the Central Line, as you can see here. 

His friends found this hilarious; knowing the area well, they had the following map, which shows that in reality, the walk from Paddington to Lancaster Gate would only have taken a couple of minutes.

Kay’s point is an obvious one – that all maps are better for specific purposes than others (a geographically accurate map of the London Underground is possible, but less useful, generally).    In his rather brilliant Obliquity – which is in praise of seeking things indirectly – he uses this and many other examples to argue that we often get attached to mental maps, or models, and use them to guide our actions when we would be better of without them.  He is particularly scathing on the way we take a high level objective (get to friends’ house) and then break it down into plausible-sounding but misguided plans (use the underground) and metrics based on these bad models.  

Now in this case, there’s a pretty good argument that if he simply had the right map, he’d have been fine – because in this case there is a ‘correct’ map to be found.  Alas most of the time our maps and models are mental constructions, not representation of the real world; in these cases there simply is no ‘true’ map.  The trick in these cases is to use our maps, but remain aware that they are maps, and be open to adjusting them.  
Some time ago, some friends of mine were seeking their dream home (high level objective).  They started off by listing the non-negotiables – size, number of bedrooms, districts, etc.  The list had some functional requirements (eg size of garden) as well as stylistic ones (eg no leaded windows), and they used this list (map of requirements) to check that they only viewed suitable properties.   This was an eminently sensible approach; how else to narrow down the thousands of options?

After seeing many houses that met all the criteria, but were somehow not quite right, they found one that they thought was perfect; as soon as they entered, they could feel that it was what they wanted.  They went ahead with a purchase, and have been living very happily there for some 14 years.  

What’s most interesting is that their estate agent had, either by accident or design, shown them a house which did not meet their criteria (it actually had the wrong type of garden and leaded windows).  But it was the right house anyway.  By sticking to their carefully formulated strategy, with the specific objectives, my friends would have missed their dream home.

This rather mundane story shows an important truth – that most difficult and/or important situations do not have a clear description; that while we can try to force them into a rational decision-making framework, – things are in fact more complex than we can generally capture.  The map is not the territory, as the saying goes, and in the process of solving problems we learn not just about how to meet our high-level objectives but about the limitations of the objectives themselves.  Kay’s most compelling point concerns the way we constrain our thinking by looking to rigidly measure our progress.  He argues that once you attach a metric to an objective, hundreds of once-possible imaginative solutions to your problem become invisible.  In our results-driven climate, this is a profoundly challenging point, and I’ve been thinking about this in relation to all the conversations I am having with our senior students about their plans for applying to Universities in countries all across the world.  One rather brilliant British student was not excited by the obvious top choices anywhere she had looked.  Her initial mental model been the usual English-speaking countries, or the even narrower common-but-misguided Oxbridge, Ivy League or bust – but these were not exciting or energising for her.   Through some excellent advice, and lucky discussions she’s found a fabulous place in France – and she’ll learn French to go there, despite this never ever being on her initial personal map for the next few years.  In this case, her high level objective get a great College education was for a time hi-jacked by the narrow metric of this place, this place or that place.  I am delighted that she threw away these poor metrics and found a better way to meet her objective.

This point is also important as we head into recruitment season for new teachers.  We look at what we know makes a great teacher, what our departments need, and what specific skills are required.  We form a map of what’s needed, and by and large we follow it.  Of course we need a good sense of what we’re looking for so we can advertise and interview and appoint – but I’m wondering if we should hold this lightly, remain open to change, be more open to diverse candidates  and certainly avoid reductive ticklists.  

Kay’s overall point reflects two versions of rationality.  Are good decisions at work, at home, in life,  for us and for our families, always a product of a carefully structured process?   Or can carefully structured processes sometimes crowd out the room for luck, chance, and an oblique approach?


Kay, J (2012) Obliquity: Why our Goals are best achieved Indirectly. Profile Books.

School Perspective on Reporting School Exam Grades

Every year we put some substantial effort into looking at our IB and IGCSE exam results – understanding patterns, seeing trends and considering where we can make improvements. Each department does an analysis, and we triangulate against our predictions, historic data and other schools. It’s a lot of work behind the scenes, and each year we get asked to reveal the fine details, department by department.  Each year we decline to do so; and I want to write to explain the thinking behind our approach.

Our academic results are, of course, very important. We recognise that they remain key determinants of acceptance to Higher Education, and offer current and prospective parents some insight into the quality of teaching and learning at UWCSEA. And we are very, very proud of what our students achieve.

So why don’t we share everything, and make a much bigger deal about the results? What follows are a number of overlapping points that explain the way we think about this important issue; there are three very broad points and then some detailed ones.

The first overarching point is that our Mission is about preparing young people to shape a better world. Examination success is a necessary but wholly insufficient measure here – but we know that this goes against the grain of many national systems. We fear that detailed reductionist discussions will be a distraction here, and lead us to focus away from the most important things.

The second one is that like so many schools, worldwide, we are concerned about student wellbeing. Rampant perfectionism, high expectations pervasively competitive environments are taking a toll on our young people (here’s just another article on this How Life became an Endless, Terrible Competition). Reducing any narrow numerical focus on grades is part of fighting this.

The third point is that data hides individual stories. While we are proud of those achieving 45 points (top marks available worldwide), we are just as proud of the students whose 24 point Diploma was hard-earned; or those with whatever score achieved against significant adverse circumstances (try taking exams when you have been recently bereaved, or are sick). Ranking these students via the numbers of the Diploma score misses the point – as any parent who has had a child go through the IB years will know.

Given these three points, it’s been suggested that we should not report on public exams data at all; that we should have the courage of our convictions and just focus on the other great outcomes our students have. While I have some sympathy for that position, I think we also have to recognise the world we live in – that is, the market. Not something educators like to talk about, but frankly, if we cannot persuade anyone to come to our school, the Mission becomes irrelevant. And there is a great deal about which to be proud – as long as the data is understood contextually and without over-simplistic conclusions being drawn. So here are a few thoughts on how to interpret these results.

Bear in mind that:

  • Our students have a broad, holistic learning programme focussed on developing them for an uncertain future, not on nailing public exams. They undertake Activities, Service, PSE and Outdoor education when it might be easy to cram instead – but we know that the long-term benefit it worth it.
  • We are not rigorously selective academically; we look for students who will make a broad contribution at school
  • All 550 of our students take IB courses, with 99% doing the full Diploma. Many other schools only allow the most academic students to take the Diploma. So if you want to compare our results with a school where the select cohort size is 100, you’d need to take our top 100. We’re not going to publish that (for the reasons outlined here) but it is several points higher than the overall average.
  • We allow students to follow their interests and aspirations in elements of coursework and in subject choices (eg you don’t need an A or A* at GCSE to take IBHL maths, like some schools). This allows them far more opportunity to develop creativity and autonomy that we know will serve them well – but it may not maximise their grades

So, all that said, what are the grades? Well, if you really care see here.

We’re really proud to take a broad range of academic aptitudes; that each year many excel at the 40+ end; and that many excel and the 30- end. This is a great place to be; we are a school for all.   We know we could easily add a few points to our Diploma average – but the cost of doing so would be too high. That’s not who we are.

  • Rather than encourage choice, we could limit subject offerings so that students had to study at IB level what they studied before. No new subjects would be offered, so effectively, choices at 14 would carry through at 16.  
  • Rather than allow students to follow creativity and interest, we could restrict the freedom with coursework and Extended Essays so that all students were writing on a narrower range of areas. We could then explicitly teach to these areas.
  • Rather than commit to all our grade 10 students, we could refuse grade 11 places to any students whom we thought would struggle with the Diploma Programme.  Or we could require specific grades to undertake specific subjects.
  • Rather than support all, and especially those who need it most, we could have an academic filter at the end of grade 11, and by various means ensure that struggling students do not take their Diploma with us.
  • Rather than accept students who we know will make a contribution to broad school life, we could make admissions choices on academics alone
  • Rather than allow students to learn independence and an amazing experience in their school-supported independent travel week at the end of grade 11, we could use that week to cram for exams.
  • Rather than require ongoing commitment to Activities and Service, we could allow grade 12s to drop this, and thereby focus on their academics.

So that’s why we share results in the way we do. We hope that in doing so we strike the balance between transparency and valuing the right things. We hope that as they are so quantifiable they will not draw attention to the wrong place; and that we will not attract families for whom they are the be-all and end-all of education; because that’s not what we offer.

Originally posted in blog here | Follow me on Twitter @nicholas_alchin

Teaching – how hard can it be?

When I was a student I used to trampoline a bit.  When I got to the stage of twisting somersaults, I used to get a bit lost up there in the air, and land in rather distressing ways (to both me and anyone watching).  Our guru, the wonderfully elegant and controlled Pete (also an o-so glamorous PhD student), worried about my safety, stepped in and offered a demo. I watched a few moves; and then asked him to talk me though it.  “It’s easy” he said – bounce – “watch this next twist” – bounce – “all you do is take it up”  – bounce – “and wrap it” – bounce and twisting straightback somersault, flawlessly landed.   Of course I was none-the wiser; what sounds so simple in words is impossible to master or even really grasp without spending deep and extensive time on the details of the task.  What does “wrap it” mean?  What does it mean for the rate of rotation, the straightness of the back, the thrust of the hips, the direction of sight, and the throw of the arms?

Much the same can be said of many things.  Of course I am thinking about teaching.  I am often asked by people thinking of joining the profession if I can recommend courses, which I willingly do.  Occasionally though, I get a request from someone who asks if I can consider their experience in programming, or finance, or manufacturing, as equivalent to certification and experience.  That seems to me to be like a skilled footballer thinking he can join a trampoline team because he can play a blinder in midfield (of course it goes in other directions too – a teacher thinking his years with grade 9 make him ready to place derivative trades in emerging Namibian Bio-tech would be equally mistaken).

Drawing a deer.  
How hard can it be – there are only four steps, right?
Teaching is much the same.

So this is a plea for recognition – because teaching sounds relatively easy. And we’ve all been to school, so we know a bit about it right?  But I suggest that the term teaching is very much like wrap it. Simple sounding – but when you look at “teaching students” and unpack it, you end up asking things like: Where do I stand when they enter?  With what tone and body stance do I greet them?  How do I create a supportive but demanding atmosphere?  How much should I recap the previous lesson?  How do I cater for the student with limited English?  Or the one whose parents are splitting up?  Or the one whose tutor taught the topic to him yesterday?  How do I address the one who did not do her homework in a way that signals to others that that’s not OK, bit that is also supportive?  What about the one whose mental health is a worry, and who was away last lesson?  When someone arrives late, do I help them, ignoring the others, or just let them flounder for a bit? And what’s the best way of crafting an activity to get at the difference between validity and truth? (one that allows access to the strugglers, but stretches the swiftest)?

And that’s only thinking about the what to actually do; it get’s even harder when you actually think about the sheer pace of teaching.  In a 2013 Slate article, teacher Ryan Fuller wrote as an engineer, I dealt with very complex design problems, but before I decided how to solve them, I had a chance to think, research, and reflect for hours, days, or even weeks. I also had many opportunities to consult colleagues for advice before making any decisions. As a teacher, I have seconds to decide how to solve several problems at once, for hours at a time, without any real break, and with no other adults in the room to support them. There are days of teaching that make a day in the office seem like a vacation. (As an ex-NASA engineer, he could title the article with authority – Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science. It’s Harder).

And then of course, there’s the human element of the job – which is actually the central part.  Ryan again: A teacher must simultaneously explain the content correctly, make the material interesting, ensure that students are staying on task and understanding the material, and be ready to deal with the curve balls that will be thrown at her every 15 seconds—without flinching—for five hours. If, for some reason, she is not able to inspire, educate, and relate to 30 students at once, she has to be ready to get them back on track, because no matter what students say or do to detract from the lesson, they want structure, they want to learn, and they want to be prepared for life.

When it’s going well, Ryan explain that he experience[s] more failure every five minutes of teaching than [he] experienced in an entire week as an engineer, and poignantly explains that a difficult moment in engineering involves a customer in a big meeting pointing out a design problem that I hadn’t considered. The customer’s concerns can be eased with a carefully crafted statement along the lines of, “You’re right. We’ll look into it.” A difficult moment in teaching involves a student—one who has a history of being bullied and having suicidal thoughts—telling me that she is pregnant 30 seconds before class starts. What carefully crafted statement will help her?

This blog is written, therefore, to all those teachers out there, who wrap it day in, day out, who are always there for their kids, who are more skilled than they themselves realise, and who, more than any technology, curriculum or policy, are what makes education magic for students around the world.


Fuller R. (2013) Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science. It’s Harder. Slate Magazine

Willingham, D., (2013) Why Americans stink at Maths. Science & Education.

Words to Class of 2018 in final assembly

When I was 21, I spent a year backpacking around China. It was thirty years ago, and I don’t remember everything, but there was a moment among the many that I often think about. I was on a long train ride – and when I say long I mean 36 hours; trains were slower then. It was hot afternoon, with the sun low and a warm glow in the air. The train had stopped for no obvious reason; and I was looking out of the window at a man, probably about as old as I am now, working in the rice-fields through which the train passed. He was, I guess, only about 20 yards away, and I could see him very well – he was wearing long trousers, and a t-shirt. I don’t remember exactly what he was doing, but I watched him for, I guess, 15 minutes. He was not aware of me. Then the train jolted into motion, and he looked up, and we met each others eyes. As the train moved away he did not wave, but we both nodded to each other, and held each others eyes for 30 second until the track curved away. The train pulled on. I have never seen this man again, and never will – if I did I would not know him, even if he is still alive. He would certainly not recognise me.

But I have often wondered about him: Did he have a family? Was he happy? What were his hopes and dreams? Did he achieve them? What was his home like? Did he work for himself or someone else? Did he enjoy his work? Did he read?  Had we ever read the same books? Would we enjoy each other’s company? Would we make each other laugh if we ever met? Was he satisfied with a life well lived?

And I realised, as I have thought about tis over the years, that these questions are questions we most often ask only about ourselves, or family or close friends. We do not ask them, or even consider them, about most people. If fact, we rarely see others as even having interests like the ones these questions address; we tend to see most others as just minor characters in the plays in which we have the leading roles. But the questions still matter. And then a recent graduate wrote to me and mentioned a word that summed up what was quite an important moment for me, all those years ago:

Sonder:  the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own (here’s quite a good short video on the topic)

We tend to forget this.  We forget that each person in this room is living a life as vivid and complex as our own. We tend to think that people around us somehow owe us, or that their purpose is to somehow make our lives easier.  Of course parents and to some extent schools do play that role – but as we grow up, less and less so.
So days like today, where we are celebrating our Leavers –  give us the chance to recall that everyone’s going through the same thing as we are; we are all living our lives, trying to do the best we can – we are all alike in this.

You may know sonder with your friends and family, but it’s with people who are very different to you where you will actually learn the most – perhaps people from a different culture, perhaps grandparents, or with service partners, or some of our cleaners if you have had the privilege of getting to know them. You’ll gain a great deal from them – with the elderly, for example, you’ll see that their present, is a way of looking into your own, distant futures.

So I would ask us to consider this realisation that everyone is living a life as vivid and complex as our own. And to remember that our perspective is one of, in this room alone, less than a thousand individuals.  All these individuals live a life that is equally valuable, with equally valuable concerns, cares, loves, worries, hopes and dreams,

We need to remember that, when we need to – which is precisely when it is hardest.  And that brings us back to leaving, where in an understandable excitement we can be caught up in our own perspectives, and forget that others matter.  I want to remind you of that; if everyones’ perspectives counts as much as our own, then we need to be mindful of others when we leave.

So, Grade 12, leave well. Be remembered for your ingenuity, your sense of fun, your sense of inclusion. Be remembered for being kind – not just to your friends; that’s easy – but also to the people who have made everything you have done here possible – support staff, facilities staff, cleaners and teachers; and also the people you may not have gotton along with, or whom you may have fallen out with. Remember sonder, that these people have just the same inner lives as you do; and they deserve the same respect as you do. One mark of a grown-up is the ability to give and receive apologies in good grace; so close your time here ensuring you have mended any fences that need mending. If you can do that, if you can laugh withpeople, not at people, you will be creating something that enhances, not diminishes, the reputation you have worked so hard over the years to establish. Most of all, you will be remembered for your generosity of spirit and for the kindness of your consideration.

So Grade 12 and all other leavers; leave well.

Let me close by acknowledging what we teachers know, what your parents know, what future employers will know, and what research tells us: that your futures are not determined by your exam results; that your rich inner lives, your hopes and dreams, are not determined by the next few weeks. Your success will be measured in the kindness and integrity of your actions, your ability to see other perspectives, the quality of your thinking, and the strengths of your friendships; not in an academic qualification.

I say that to Grade 12, but really, the message is for us all – that the really important successes or failures in our lives do not happen at discrete points, but throughout our daily lives; they are in our control everyday.

We wish you all the very best.

Kids: All Joy and No Fun

The title of this book is too good not to borrow for this blog post. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, by Jennifer Senior, is firstly a social history of parenting, secondly an examination of the effects of children on parents (we usually think about the reverse), and thirdly a prompt to reconsider our roles. I was struck by the title; I know it’s an exaggeration, but it seems to make most parents laugh and wince at the same time. Of course, Senior’s remarks are based on USA, and may not be transferrable. Nevertheless, they are thought provoking and I can also recommend her terrific TED talk.

As a child, I know I had little sense of my parents’ fallibility. I assumed they were following generations of wisdom and finely honed practices. My faith in a single absolute method was shaken when I saw the very different ways my friends’ families operated, and I can pinpoint the end of my faith as the time I looked at the starkly contradictory books on the shelves in bookshops. My own parenthood has certainly confirmed my skepticism about the possibility of getting it right, as I frequently tell my children, to their horror.

The truth is that for child-raising there is no folk wisdom in a multicultural, fast moving and rapidly evolving world, because the very meaning of the word parent has changed. Senior points out that for most of history, the parent-child relation was based on fair-exchange ‘with parents sheltering and feeding their children and children in return kicking something back into the family till’. Even until the late nineteenth century, children were more likely to work than the mothers, and boys often earned more than fathers. Post WWII the family system ‘became asymmetrical. Children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard. Children went from being our employees to being our bosses.’ [1] The mixing of the vocabularies of family and work may be jarring for us, but that’s only because we live in the last 70 years, when modern childhood was invented.

What might this mean for us? In 1977 Jerome Kagan remarked that the modern child cannot ‘point to a plowed field or full woodpile as a sign of his utility’. Hence Kagan predicted (with uncanny prescience) that children are ‘at risk of becoming overly dependent on praise and repeated declaration of love to build their confidence’ [2]. This seems to resonate with much modern research that suggests that parents and teachers who build children’s confidence by declaration, rather than by creating opportunities for achievement, are doing children no service. We need to give children demanding tasks, and support them to success, rather than give them empty praise for who they are. So, while love might be unconditional, praise should be tied to specific named things (in fact we need to tread very carefully with praise at all, but that’s a topic for another day).

What stood out in this fine book, however, was the way it made me re-consider my own beliefs regarding parenting. Sometimes, when I am at a loss to know what to do, it’s comforting to see that at one stage ‘parent’ was just a noun. We could just be parents. Then in 1970 it became a verb, and we now have to do it. For me that’s a problem (how I envy my parents!), because I can just about manage to be, but as I suggested above, I’m not always sure what I should be doing.

One thing, though, that I am sure about is that our children make us do different things. And that’s a wonder. Senior hits the nail on the head: ‘The dirty secret of adulthood is the sameness of it; its tireless adherence to routines and customs and norms. Small children may intensify this by virtue of the new routines, but they may also liberate.’ There’s truth there, and while we sometimes grumble about the demands of an intense parenting life, it probably overlooks the really profound effect that children have. That is, it’s easy to talk about the many, many practical daily demands of parenthood; far harder too remember that, new verb aside, parenthood has likely changed the very people we are; and probably for the better.

Senior again: ‘The vocabulary for aggravation is large; [that for gratitude smaller, and] the vocabulary for transcendence is elusive’. Children give us chances to be better than our daily selves; they create opportunities for us to be our best selves. That resonates with me, and I hope with you too.

[1] Senior, Jennifer (2014) All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting: Eco Press: 131

[2] Kagan, Jerome et al (1980): Infancy, Its Place in Human Development: Harvard University Press:

Start the School Year : What is our ‘why’? 

Last week we spoke with students and parents new to our school, many of whom were new to Singapore.  We started with the why – our school’s Mission:
The UWC movement makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.

This may seem obvious,  but schools differ a lot in the ‘why’

For those who were understandably wondering about new classes, friends, uniform and timetables, this may have seemed a lofty, distant ideal. But with so many very good schools available in Singapore, this lofty goal remains our defining characteristic. Or more precisely – because lofty goals are easy to write – how we put this into practice remains our defining characteristic, and I hope why families have chosen us.

I am very pleased, however, that it is no longer a very special goal – at least, not if we take special to mean rare. Go back fifty years and this kind of thinking was marginal, outlier, considered naïve and well off the mainstream. Today the idea that we should not settle for less for our children is absolutely mainstream, almost banal. The notion that education should narrowly focus on academics, without recognizing that children deserve more and need a higher purpose, is clinging on here and there, but it’s on its way out. There are two reasons behind this; they may seem to be quite different, but ultimately, they are mutually supportive.

Our ‘why’, the reason we do what we do, has twin tracks but unlike a road, they both head in the same direction

Firstly, there’s the realization that academics are not enough even for the world of work. In truth they never really were, but the changing nature of work means we are increasingly focused on what skills students possess, and what they can actually do. In the past, these may have been very tightly linked to what students know – but in the disrupted, AI-influenced economy we face, knowledge alone will be far from enough.  To be ready for tomorrow, today’s students will have to be increasingly adept in human skills and qualities, and ready to use them in real-world contexts on difficult and complex human problems  It’s not just educators saying this, but governments, businesses, NGOs, the OECD and others.  So the contexts provided by our focus on the peoples, nations and cultures part of our Mission is exactly how to prepare students for an uncertain future; because these are the areas that are the pressing challenges we face and that will not be automated,

Secondly, it’s important to place schools in a much broader social context.  And that context may be startling. Because despite the horrific events going on around the world, the world is a better place to live than it has ever been, in many significant ways.  Extreme poverty has been halved since 1990, childhood deaths are dropping, literacy is rising, the status of women and minorities around the world is improving.  Now let’s not be naïve here – tragedy, atrocity and grinding poverty are still real today. But the current trajectory is astonishingly positive, and where there is injustice, we are beginning to see outrage and social activism to address it – not consistently, but increasingly so. In the past where issues may have been ignored, we’re also seeing thought leaders take a lead.  That includes CEOs, and the US –  admittedly under extreme provocation from its administration – is leading the way here. CEOs have publicly come out against racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, climate change denial, and most recently, against the extreme right. At the same time, we’re seeing many high profile billionaires – including two of the most famous in Bill Gates and Warren Buffet – pledge half their wealth to philanthropic causes.  So there is a broader social move towards widening moral circles; and schools both reflect this and importantly, prepare students to continue down this path.  That’s where the peace and a sustainable future part of our Mission comes in, and why we weave the Mission so carefully throughout our Learning Programme.

There is no tension between the pragmatic necessity to prepare students for their future, and the idealistic opportunity to make whatever small contribution we can to the historic trend.   We intend, this year and forever, to do both to the best of our capacities.