All posts by Paul Magnuson

Several years ago, Paul Magnuson founded a research center at the high school level in collaboration with colleagues at Leysin American School. The center supports professional learning through a variety of programs, including year-long action research projects by faculty who receive competitive resident scholarships. In addition, the center works with schools and universities around the world, hosting 10 to 15 visiting scholars annually, and consulting and presenting at schools and other organizations. Paul has created a number of tools and programs, including classroom observation schemes, language immersion summer camps, the middle school at LAS, and most recently, edge, a high school program which offers an alternative to traditional school through greatly increased student agency. His current interests are the documentation of edge, pulling agile into education, and self-regulation for both students and teachers.

Schools of the Future

Recently I went back to the Schools of the Future report by the World Economic Forum (WEF). It’s dated January 2020. If you haven’t had a chance to take a look at their recommendations and the exemplary programs they chose to highlight, you probably should take a minute to do that now. I won’t be offended.

If you want a preview, here are my takeaways.

The report recommends shifting the learning experiences we educators provide our students. They encourage teaching and learning to look like this:

  • Personalized and self-paced learning;
  • Problem-based and collaborative learning; and
  • Lifelong and student-driven learning. 

To better understand the need for a shift, we could ask ourselves what we are shifting away from. So let’s imagine the opposite. I’m going to overstate the contrast here a bit, but I think my list is a good discussion starter. In short, the WEF is recommending we do less of this:

  • Depersonalized learning that maintains the myth of students learning in sync;
  • Focus on recall and the insistence of “eyes on your own paper” / “do your own work;” and
  • Content from a worn out canon determined by institutional inertia, which limits the creativity of schools and teachers.

Does this second list describe too much of the way we go about education? Does it describe what you see and hear, what you perhaps feel pulled into more often than you would like? 

Do systems like off-the-shelf and/or standardized curricula, bell schedules, assessment regimes, curriculum mapping, over-reliance on rubrics and other accepted teaching practices pull us toward the second list, the list of WEF opposites? 

And what are we to do about it?

The authors of the report note that “Much work is being done by private sector chief human resource officers on customizing work experiences to enable lifelong learning and integrating alternative work models to improve flexibility” (Schools of the Future, 2020 p. 11). They refer to a table in an earlier WEF publication (Shaping People Strategie in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, 2019) about the “changing nature of how learning is approached in an organization” (p. 18). They report again on a shift:

From Know-it-all mindset … to Learn-it-all mindset

From Planned learning programs … to Lifelong learning culture

FromPeriodic learning … to Continuous learning

From Company-directed learning … to Self-driven learning

From Homogenous learning … to Personalized learning

Are we doing our part by preparing students for an adult life characterized by the right hand column above? I’m frankly worried that it is too easy to make parallels between much of our current teaching and learning with the column on the left. For starters:

We as teachers may not feel comfortable in an environment where we are not the expert, limiting the chances we provide to explore with students, to allow them to teach us, to be learners side by side. Our assessments reinforce this know-it-all mindset because they are overwhelmingly about being right or wrong, black or white, true or false. (See Elon Musk’s entrance exam to his school, Ad Astra, for a refreshing contrast.)

Further, our curriculum and instruction is full of planned learning, in quite specific and predictable periods (grade 10 biology, grade 11 chemistry, grade 12 physics – sound familiar?), overwhelmingly decided by the “company” and certainly favoring a particular style of learning at a predetermined pace. 

Companies are shifting. I believe schools are trying to shift, too. In schools, however, there is less fear of shareholders, competition, and going bust. There is perhaps too much room to be cautious, changing perhaps so slowly that it’s hard to notice much change at all.

Self-paced, student-driven, collaborative learning that creates lifelong learners is not unattainable if we let go of the assumptions and practices that constrain us most. Be courageous to identify those assumptions and practices and to openly question them. If you are a teacher, create the conditions the WEF is recommending, when and where you can. If you are an administrator, avoid the temptation to sound smart by reciting yesterday’s “knowns.” They are safe, yes. But they are hamstringing us, and worse, our students. When you can, be bold. Be just a bit more outspoken about how teaching and learning can fulfill the promise of self-regulated learners. 

Or, I suppose, let companies re-educate adults who didn’t get the right hand column from us when they were students.

World Economic Forum. (2020). Schools of the Future: Defining New Models of Education for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Geneva, Switzerland.

World Economic Forum. (2019). WHR4.0: Shaping People Strategies in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Geneva, Switzerland.

A semantic difficulty for school reform

Paul is working with ScrumAlliance on the first agile certification specifically for educators: the Agile Certified Educator. 

For the better part of a year I’ve been working with a small group on a new approach to teaching and learning. At least, we believe it is new. But sometimes we question ourselves.

Here’s the issue.

As we move away from the norm – away from our regular experience with education – we start introducing more and more new terminology to describe our vision. It doesn’t take long before what we’ve written isn’t terribly clear, because of the new terminology. We then rewrite using terminology more familiar to us as educators. Then the text is clearer, but … we find that it is clearer because readers relate with the text by understanding it as their regular experience with education. And that’s not the goal.

This in turns introduces a new level of concern for us. Originally we were worried that using language common to education would impede readers understanding the unique quality of what we are proposing. So we introduced new terms, which make what we are saying hard to understand, leading us back to common terminology, which waters down our vision. As we continued working, we began sliding back and forth along this continuum.

Now we have to ask ourselves if our vision may simply not be all that grandiose a departure from our regular experience of education because of our ability to move back and forth on a continuum. If on one end of our semantic continuum we are able to describe in words familiar to educators what is already familiar in practice, is the other end of the continuum, expressed in unfamiliar terms, actually different in practice? Are we really breaking new ground or are we just renaming things? (We believe we are going beyond renaming.)

I imagine this is a common problem with new ideas. Namely, there isn’t quite the right words to describe them. New terms sound contrived and are hard to understand. Current terms reinforce current understandings, which isn’t really the point. Arriving at any understanding tends to mean arriving at current understanding. Again, not the point.

Maybe this is what folks mean when they say they can’t describe something, but they’ll know it when they see it. And maybe that provides a bit of the answer to the problem. We need more people actually seeing the different teaching and learning we are writing about. We may need examples of what this new manner of teaching and learning is before we try so hard to describe it. Short of actually experiencing it, perhaps we move forward by describing real examples more and the theory less. Then with time the terminology may come.

Interested in pulling agility into education? Contact Paul at pmagnuson@las.ch.


Are we helping students get comfortable with change? Part 2

with Bill Tihen, Software Developer at Garaio, Bern, and former teacher and IT director at LAS 

See Part 1 with this same title, in which Bill and I point out the irony that our busy academic schedules, created and driven by our push to cover lots of material efficiently, squeeze out exploration and making mistakes. If our argument is correct – that not having space for exploration may contribute to lower quality learning – well, we have a problem. Maybe we’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot for so long that we don’t even notice the pain we’re causing.

Practice with trial and error, mistakes, and deadends

To address the lack of exposure to setbacks and mistakes that characterize many traditional classrooms, I, Bill, adopted a routine that is both manageable (i.e. not so new to students that it throws them for a serious loop) and likely to create a culture that can start changing their school-created aversion to mistakes.

For example, in a STEAM class, I like to check-in with student groups in the first five to ten minutes of class by asking them about their next steps. I don’t want to tell them what to do next, but I do want to know what they are planning to do next so I can plan whereI might be needed most during class.

Similarly, I like students to finish their self-guided work five to ten minutes before the end of class so they have time to tell me what they discovered and what they are planning to do next class period. I do this by talking with each student work group. We focus on talking about mistakes as learning opportunities, because they are part of the discovery. Mistakes are expected. We learn from them. That message has to get across.

“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

Bill Gates [source]

Students need to stop and reflect regularly in order to adjust their plans. Although this seems obvious, it is crazy rare among students. They have very little practice making their own plans, let alone refining their plans as they work. Like we’ve argued above, students have internalized an expectation that the teacher should provide all the guidance. We shouldn’t wonder too long why students focus on being right and being efficient instead of learning and improving. The way we do school has taught them over and over that right and efficient equals success.

Bill tries to counter this “follower” mindset by encouraging students to identify (and act) on these things: 

  • their most important success and their most important problem;
  • the conditions that are supporting their progress;
  • the conditions that are creating a current problem or a likely future problem; and
  • the things that will help them the most, e.g. what is their plan to make current good work better and to deal with challenges.

I mentioned that as students leave class they share with me their action plan for the next class. In this manner they can arrive at the next class with their plan in mind so they can start without direction from me. 

They tell me what they will do during the next class. This might be about their group dynamics, but it should also touch on the next small step of their work. Since it doesn’t come naturally to students who are used to waiting for the teacher to direct their work, students need practice. 

I set up their practice with three guidelines for an action plan: 

  • it should be an experiment. Students should be able to say what they will do, and for how long – preferably in a short cycle;
  • it should be a small bet (meaning it is no a big deal if it doesn’t work); and
  • It should pass the “live” test and fail the “dead” test.

This last requirement needs a little more explanation. 

The live person test means that whatever their action plan is, it must be something that a live – a real – person can actually do, without superhero powers. It must be something reasonable to do.

At the same time, their plan must fail the dead person test, meaning it must be something that a dead person cannot do! For example, a group of middle schoolers might say that their action plan is to fight less. But that isn’t valid, because it fails the dead person test. While it’s a good idea, dead people don’t fight either, so they need to reframe their action plan into what they will actually do when they disagree.

Do this with a regular rhythm, with a visual checklist that both teachers and students readily see, and the students will get quite good at learning the basics of self-regulation.

Are we helping students get comfortable with change? Part 1

with Bill Tihen, Software Developer at Garaio, Bern, and former teacher and IT director at LAS 

We want – or we should want – to give our students safe experiences to deal with change, whether it is changing their approach, changing the way they perceive things, or changing themselves. Because if there is one thing we can predict they are going to have to be good at, it’s dealing with change. 

“Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.” – John Wooden [source]

If you aren’t sure that you agree, think about the last time you were working with colleagues who have difficulty changing their approach, their perception, or themselves. When we think of  recent examples in our own work lives, our  shoulders stiffen and feelings of stress well up inside. You probably have a similar reaction. But then ask yourself: how often did our schooling focus on getting comfortable with change?

The message to students we have historically sent – and continue to send – is to “get it right the first time,” not because we don’t believe in teaching about change, but because the curriculum is a list of things to learn. It’s a checklist of content for a particular subject (multiplied by 6 or 7 to cover the traditional subject areas). This checklist approach to content crowds out a focus on skills, e.g. learning to deal with change, to grow from change, and to accept that change is constant. 

Buy in through choice

Students will get practice dealing with change if we build the need for change into our instruction. Instead of trying to be efficient, which tends to make us avoid student exploration, we might be well served to ease up a bit and give them time for discovery.

But they won’t just start doing this without our help. 

First, with our focus on speed, coverage, quantity, right answers, assessment, and rankings, we’ve trained students not to explore. Mistakes = bad, right answer = good. In perhaps one of the biggest educational ironies imaginable, what we might include in best practice might actually reduce student thinking. Imagine if that’s really the case.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” –Thomas Edison [source]

Second, we will have to work on school culture, not just content goals, to build a safe environment in which to explore. Exploration means making mistakes, which means freedom to make those mistakes, which comes with safety and trust.

And third, we’ll have to include in that culture a desire to persevere, to work through setbacks. Mistakes need to be motivating, not demotivating.

To do this, students must be engaged, which is often easiest if students have a real and significant choice in setting their own goals. We have unfortunately made choice difficult, what with our long list of adult-determined goals. Where is there room for students to learn to set their own goals, relevant to their own drive?

We clearly have work to do. 

Some thoughts on what that might look like in the next blog …

Unschool

Like so many parents across the world, I’ve been watching, and occasionally helping, my 9-year old navigate online learning. I have it pretty easy, with all of the resources one needs, a fourth grade curriculum that isn’t too demanding, a spouse that is doing a greater share of the work than me, and a wonderful, progressive teacher. I’m also observing a child who is confident, self-motivated, eager to learn, and willing to go with the flow. 

So I’ve got it really easy.

I also had the unique chance to watch her move from face to face school, to an online version of that school, and into a two-week spring break. What an opportunity amidst all the uncertainty and suffering. A bit of a silver lining.

What I’ve noticed is that there is no clear difference in Chloé’s learning behaviors when school is in session and when it’s not. With online school, she is busy for perhaps an hour per day, on average. We print some materials, lend our phones for her to make videos, sometimes sit next to her. And when spring break came and there were no longer any school assignments, not too much really changed. 

One of those days during spring break went like this.

Chloé woke up late. She joined me in the living room and read Harry Potter for a good stretch of time. Then I made breakfast.

Because I was working from home, after breakfast she was able to join me at the table. She had recently started a touch typing tutorial (typingclub.com). Together we typed, side by side. In hindsight I was modeling by doing email and the usual sort of writing tasks one does. I didn’t give any instruction, but every now and then she told me of a success with a new letter or a new fastest speed. This went on well over an hour.

We took a break to play our newest sport: hacky sack. No soccer clubs will be calling, there are no YouTube videos in our future. But we laugh and celebrate small successes. 

She tinkers afterwards with a combination of hobbies, playing the piano and using a composition tool I’ve been experimenting with (noteflight.com). She doesn’t have regular piano lessons, but now and again my sister, a professional music teacher, listens to her play over Skype. Because I was writing some piano pieces, Chloé wrote one, too. A question about different keys had become a full on music theory lesson a few nights before. Now she wanted to use Noteflight to write down her original song. I gave her my computer. Chloé began writing and moving back and forth from the table to the piano. Together we learned more about how Noteflight works. (It’s pretty slick.) 

That evening she helped make dinner and set the table. We ate as a family (all too rare when life was “normal,” a sobering thought), and then we played a board game, as a family. The offline activities are a welcome balance to the various online options. Chloé has learned Settlers of Catan, adopting a preference for the ore and development card strategy, if you are familiar with the game. We cannot cut her any slack, she wins now a fair amount of time.

To fall asleep we read together, she more of Harry Potter, me something else. She filled me in on the latest plot twists. She shared a passage that she found funny. 

That day was not atypical. It was like all of them during that two-week break, though her focus moved between different activities. (Currently she’s been drawing with Art for Kids Hub, on YouTube). I didn’t homeschool. I didn’t monitor learning. There were no assessments, at least not in the way we think of school assessments. There wasn’t vertical or horizontal alignment of curriculum, classroom hours, balanced subjects, test preparation, none of that. There wasn’t teaching, at least how we commonly think of it with school. 

But there was learning. Not learning I could predict, at least not exactly. She reads. I figure she’ll read. When she wants to. She’s curious about the piano. Whether she plays or not is up to her. Learning about music composition – well that’s neat. We’ll share that interest as I prepare for a class I agreed to teach next school year. Touch typing? Great skill, why not!

And hacky sack? Not really part of the school curriculum. One could make it so by talking about physical coordination and number of required kicks and how to use the knee and top of the foot and then an assessment… no, let’s not go there.

This was Chloé’s Unschool. Yes, I recognize again all the affordances in her favor. But still … Weaned from several hours of school a day to just one hour, and then to none during spring break, did not stop learning. It opened learning up. What it stopped was school. Learning became more individual, more self-regulated, more pertinent, more enjoyable, more relaxed, more exploratory. 

Now just as I finish writing this, Chloé has completed a project for online school, which started again this week. She has prepared the traditional Swiss Birchermuesli, by herself. Compliments to her teacher for the assignment – and for Chloé for doing this activity just like all the others during her “break” – independently, joyfully.

There are lessons here for us that we don’t want to forget post-pandemic. I’m going to think about that – after I try the Birchermuesli. 

Why Kanban?

In the previous post I mentioned that my daughter Emma’s Kanban board was demonstrating three basic Kanban principles. These are making work visual, limiting the amount of work you are doing at one time, and managing workflow.

Making work visual

I’m chuckling as I write this because it seems like putting all the work you intend to do in one spot might bring on a whole lot of stress! Perhaps if all our tasks were just an unordered collection (or even a long To Do list?), stress might well be the outcome.

But the Kanban board neatly shows which work is at what stage. Much work is there, but only some is getting worked on. Other work might be waiting for someone else, so it’s not something you need to worry about now. And of course, some work is done, a nice reminder that tasks waiting to be started will indeed be Done one day. 

Seeing all the work at once also removes the sense that you are forgetting something – that something is going to sneak up on you and upset the apple cart. It’s all there, there’s an order to things, there’s an invitation to get started on …

Limiting work in progress

… one thing. You can see the whole work load, but you are probably most effective when you work on one thing at a time, in the moment, with focus. The simple structure of the Kanban board invites you to pull a task into the Doing column only after you have finished the previous task. Now the board is giving you the right to quit thinking about the previous task and to start thinking about the new task. You’ve chosen it, now commit to just that task until it can be moved to a new status. 

In practice, limiting yourself to one task needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But the general principle is sound: limit the number of tasks that feel active, pressing, and required right now. It’ll make you feel much better and you may see both your process and product jump a bit in quality.

In sum, The Kanban board let’s you see your workload, gives you permission to work on one thing at a time, and the process it’s supporting …

Managing workflow

… allows you to manage your workflow. You know what tasks are out there waiting for your attention, which you are working on now, and which are finished. You also have a tool for quick prioritization (and re-prioritization) of your tasks, because you only have one To Do item per sticky note. Reordering them is a snap. 

Communicating your workflow to others is also easy. My friend and mentor Bill Tihen liked to tell a story of his boss rushing into the office with a new project that was “top priority.” Bill walked him to the Kanban board and said, “OK. Which of these other tasks in the TO DO or DOING column should I take off the board?” “No, no,” the boss exclaimed, “those are all top priority, too.” “But that doesn’t work,” Bill answered, pointing at the board. “There’s a limit to what we can work on at one time. You’ll have to choose the top top-priority.”

In teacher workshops when I ask if they’ve ever experienced anything similar, everyone nods. I’m sure anyone, in any job, has had this feeling. Having a simple tool to manage this feeling (and the reality of how you go about getting things done) seems pretty worthwhile.

Chloé’s first Kanban board

Here’s an example from my younger daughter, Chloé. She has seen examples of Kanban in my office and, most recently, in her sister’s room. So she went and made one for herself. I wrote out her first tasks (on the pink speech bubble stickies) and she did the rest. The three colors at the bottom, she explained, are the type of stickies she is going to use for each of those three areas of her life: school, gym(nastics), and other, once she’s used up the pink ones I made. Color coding is, in fact, a common Kanban process. Chloé has also included a column here that I find very stress-relieving, the column called Stuck. I use it for tasks that I have completed up to the point where someone else now needs to act before I can continue. Those tasks are done, but only temporarily. It’s easy to occasionally scan the stickies in the Stuck column and to send reminders to colleagues that I’m waiting on them. Then when they’ve completed what they needed to do, the task is unstuck and I can move it back to TO DO, waiting for when I have time, directly to DOING, or if there is nothing more required of me, right to DONE. Simple.

Now, I just need to go talk to Chloé about including both” Harry Potter” and “Bike Ride” in the TO DO column at the same time …

Kanban

For several years now we’ve been talking about agility at Leysin American School. There is just something so compelling about managing your work, either alone or with a team, in an easy, visible way. A simple Kanban board (or scrum board) is a great place to start.

The simplest version has columns for tasks you want to do, tasks you are working on, and tasks that are completed. You can think of this as a “To Do” list with some easily added features. 

First, “Doing” is not found on a simple list, which is usually a column of items that are not crossed off (To Do) or crossed off (Done). The Doing column matters because it helps you focus. In general, you pull only one task from the To Do column into Doing at a time. It helps you avoid trying to work on many tasks at once. Pick one and focus.

Second, a To Do list with one item per sticky note allows you to prioritize what task is next, and next after that, and so on. When you create your To Do list, you take your best guess at what is going to be a logical order to complete tasks. Then when you have space in your Doing column, you pull the next logical task over. Of course, you may change your mind about the logical order of tasks. No problem – just reorder the sticky notes. In this manner you’ll find that you always have a plan as well as an easy way to update the plan. 

Third, you don’t lose the satisfaction of crossing off completed items. You move them over to Done as a record of work accomplished. Unlike a simple checklist of tasks, some items in your Done column might be tasks you need to do again in the future. The sticky is ready … just move it back into the To Do column.

The Kanban board shown here was made by my daughter, Emma. She chose to include three different categories: school work, extended essay and CAS, and other. These three categories, represented in lanes on the board, are important to her because they help separate classes from other school work, and everything related with school from her personal life.

She made the board with tape and sticky notes, next to her desk. 

Kanban has only six basic rules. Emma is demonstrating the first three of them here. I’ll go into those three – and how this simple process addresses them, in the next blog.

Emma Magnuson is a junior at Leysin American School. She began using Kanban in eighth grade.

Does Changing Assessment Improve Instruction?

In 2015-2016 we planned a new middle school, with a minimalistic standards based grading system. In the same year, a math teacher piloted standards based grading in one of her grade 10 classes. The success of these two experiences led to whole school work on assessment in 2017-2018, culminating with an inservice by Ken O’Connor, based on our interest in his book A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades. A coordinator was hired to lead the process in 2018-2019, which happened to coincide with a new PowerSchool administrator, and in Fall 2019 we launched standards based grading across the entire school.

Not without some issues, of course. 

But the issues haven’t given rise to any serious roadblocks, even if at times parents aren’t sure what grades mean and we teachers are left scratching our heads over how our inputs produced this or that Powerschool output. 

All in all I think we can say the transition has gone well. 

Faculty are indeed a bit weary of talking about assessment. It’s been multiple years now that this has been our school focus, so the creeping fatigue is understandable. Departments aren’t all on the same page and standards, though written, aren’t necessarily part of the school’s DNA. But we’ve successfully abandoned A-F grades. We’ve successfully separated course content from behavior – no longer is a student’s grade lowered because of a uniform violation or late work, things not directly associated with demonstrated student knowledge in a particular academic discipline. We report less by type of assessment and more by what is learned. And we are slowly aligning school privileges and identifying tutoring needs based on real need. Plus, the stage is set for a culture of students revising subpar work, or even good but not great work, to cyclically continue to improve. All good stuff.

But. You knew there was a but. And there is. 

But can we say that instruction has actually changed for the better? To what degree have we assimilated the changes, as teachers, in a way that supersedes reporting, interfacing with PowerSchool, toeing the new line, and so on. The big question:

Are students likely to learn more due to our new assessment system? This was our hope.

So far it’s hard to say. And it’s hard to research. First, our scale has changed from A-F to 1-7, differently defined. We can’t compare one to the other to see if more learning is going on. And as our assessment leader pointed out, which group of teachers should we work with to see if we’re making a difference? The early adopters who have been operating quite close to our intended design? Or the early adopters who have been more liberal in their adoption? Or the late adopters who may be on the right track, but don’t have much experience yet? Or the late not-quite adopters who need more time to get on board? 

And there’s one other interesting question, at least from the point of us research-practitioners. If we research instructional change and student outcomes based on any instructional changes due to the new assessment system too early, and find no change, are we damaging the potential for the new assessment practices to bring about change? Is it actually wisest not to ask ourselves yet if it’s “working?” 

But. When will be the right time?

Visiting Scholars

Our school has been hosting visiting scholars for the past six years. To date nearly fifty graduate students, business people, teachers, and professors have lived and worked with our faculty on curriculum, research, and other projects. 

As I write, one scholar, now on her third visit, is taking the train to visit a student in the hospital. He recently interviewed her in front of several classes – the day before, in fact, the ski accident that landed him in the hospital. In front of me are the preparations for two additional visiting scholars, arriving this weekend. One is on sabbatical from his teaching position, here to learn how we use technology at our school, the other is contributing her knowledge to our ongoing studies of research about the climate crisis.

This past week I interviewed some former visiting scholars for a publication that four of us are working on – three past visiting scholars and me. The interviews were the first time in six years that I’ve reached out to visiting scholars to learn about the experience from their perspective. (From my perspective their visits are incredible. I learn from them and with them and get glimpses into their cultural points-of-view. My colleagues connect with our visitors, many form ongoing friendships which sometimes lead to travel, presentations, and additional projects.)

So while we plan to write up what we learn from our interviews in a more formal publication, I don’t have the patience to wait before sharing some of the things I’ve heard in the first three interviews. From Australia and Northern Europe, here is what they said.

Alys shared that she had strong feelings of accomplishment while with us and that she gained personal confidence. As a PhD student at the time, being treated as an expert, and given the chance to make useful contributions to our faculty members, helped her develop into the academic she is today. She enjoyed the creativity, the chance to work directly with students, and all the conversations and reflections with those she met at our school. 

Alys remembers in particular the drama teacher that she met during one of her visits and how he appreciated having someone outside the school observe his lesson. She enjoyed being a presenter at our annual student conference, and publishing a piece about the curriculum we developed for that conference. She also made at least three further connections through our research center, connecting with administrators and visiting their schools in Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

Alma stayed with us once, for nearly eight weeks, during which time we developed and taught a curriculum unit on the rights of the child. We published a piece about it following her visit and I still use the curriculum in teacher workshops I lead now and again.

Alma was chiefly looking for a quiet place to do her own work. She found it here among the Alps, in our quiet village. She rearranged her room so that the desk faced out across the valley, enjoying the view while she read and wrote. 

While she enjoyed her experience, she reflected afterwards – and she recommends for future visiting scholars – that it’s good to get involved with the school and it’s valuable to spend time with the children. She reflected on her own time in boarding school, at roughly the same age as our students, and how children face more or less the same issues that she faced. 

Alma also mentioned that through the visiting scholar experience here in Switzerland she got to know one of her own colleagues, Baldur, from their university.

Baldur stayed for a shorter visit than Alma, but like Alma, enjoyed the ability to concentrate, away from the phone calls and meetings of university life. He read and wrote and enjoyed the inspiration of our school’s setting, particularly after he realized that we didn’t expect him to prepare a report or achieve any particular results. He felt he could just care for himself and adopt a rhythm which allowed him to catch up on reading and writing that he had been waiting to get to for a long time.

Baldur is proud that an initiative he started, a student led writing center, has turned into an ongoing project supported by both librarians. His university has in fact provided online training for one of our student writing tutors, and as our writing centers grow we intend to lean on Baldur and his expertise even more. 

Baldur also felt he grew a bit personally as he watched the faculty and students of an international school, from more than forty nationalities, interact on a daily basis. The international nature of the curriculum and the constant infusion of global issues differs from his experience at home. Luckily he attended an event led by a group of university students during his stay – an event that we were bringing students to, so we took Baldur along. That night we all simulated the negotiations of the Paris Climate Agreement in the basement of a hotel, as representatives from various countries across the world. 

Summary

Jumping into whatever activities the school happens to be involved with is a hallmark of the visiting scholar experience. As Baldur said about the grill party in our community garden, with chickens running between us pecking for fallen scraps of food, “I loved it.” 

Each of these visiting scholars mentioned the beauty of Leysin, the view, and the ability to focus (even while living in the middle of a boarding school). They all three mentioned meeting colleagues from around the world, particularly in the cafeteria, and all the conversations they had, whether about their own research or other teaching and learning going on at the school.

And as is evident, they all stayed connected with our school, and they all hope to come for another visit (and we would love to have them spend more time with us). It’s a beautiful thing to grow an interwoven community of practice across institutions and countries, and even more gratifying when the scholars become lifelong friends who invite us from Leysin to come visit them in their homes and spend time at their schools and universities. We are a truly lucky school.

During the 2019-2020 school year, over 20 visiting scholars have visited LAS. We thank them for sharing their time with us and invite you to contact us if you are interested in learning more about the program.

Demos and feedback: Students learning from each other

This the fourth and final blog post in a series of reflections with Bill Tihen. I am pleased that, just as we finish processing Bill’s notes from his November visit with LAS visiting scholar Bret Thayer, Bill has scheduled a new visit to attend the ECIS STEAM conference we are hosting March 6-7.

Students must learn to give, hear, and accept feedback. Bill suggests that there are four general steps to make feedback effective. 

  1. Students plan and present a demonstration of their work, keeping the requirement for feedback in mind. Ideally students share their work for other students (and faculty members). Before presenting their work, students predict what sort of feedback they are likely to receive – both positive comments as well as suggestions for improvement.
  1. After students have presented their work, they receive feedback. When students receive feedback they keep it safe for those giving them feedback by restricting themselves to listening and taking notes. Students learn to resist the urge to challenge the feedback, clarify misunderstandings, or justify themselves. In this manner, students and faculty giving feedback do so in a safe environment – and the students receiving the feedback actually hear it. 
  1. Giving feedback entails:

(1) commenting on those aspects of the work that are well-liked and how the demonstration shows movement toward the end goal; and

(2) commenting on what would make the work even better. For those things that might need to be addressed, an acceptable formulation of constructive criticism might be: “I like the [whatever it is] and think it might be even better if you [did this, changed this, considered this alternative, etc.]

  1. And finally, working with the feedback requires clearly using one or more suggestions received from the group. Students give credit for the origin of the idea and explain how they made the suggestion their own and integrated it into their work. Work completed without adopting and adapting ideas from others is incomplete.

These four steps from Bill can lead to great use of feedback – or not. We’ve seen both results, so it’s probably fair to say that these may be necessary but not sufficient conditions in Bill’s framework. Other factors, like having the time and space to work without constant adult interruption, having an atmosphere of trust, and so on, are also important.

As I reflect on Bill’s four steps, two interesting parallels jump out. First, how similar his suggestions for receiving feedback are to student feedback sessions of LEINN International at the University of Mondragon. Second, how refreshing it is to hear someone require students to incorporate each other’s ideas. 

LEINN International is an undergraduate program for future entrepreneurs. (LEINN stands for Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation. It is managed by a highly creative company, Tazebaez, which is itself a product of the parent LEINN program.) The day I visited, a cohort of freshmen were giving each other feedback. They sat in a circle. The student receiving feedback took notes and limited his responses to a “thank you” for both positive and constructive comments from each colleague. I was amazed at how frank the feedback was, how carefully presented by the students, and how gracious those receiving feedback seemed. In hindsight, they were doing nothing other than what Bill suggests in (2) above, something we’ve adopted for our alternative 9th and 10th grade program at my school.

Requiring students to use the ideas of other students contradicts a lot of common practice in schools. How often have we heard teachers admonish students to “do your own work” and “keep your eyes on your own paper?” Bill is doing the opposite, requiring students to get and use feedback from other students, and above all else, not to try to go it alone. Please, please look at other students’ papers (plans, projects, models), he is saying. Learn from each other, exchange ideas. And then give credit where credit is due. What a refreshing take on learning.

Thanks, Bill, for the years of collaboration, the experimental classes, and the debriefings that continue when we get together, most recently in this series of blog posts. You are amazing to work with.