Category Archives: Conrad Hughes

Visual Arts and Education: understanding history and context

A recent trip to Venice was an immersive experience in some of the works of the great Italian Renaissance artists, notably Tintoretto and Bellini, whose extraordinary paintings adorn several churches throughout the city.

Seeing their works in churches is an authentic experience that links one to the historical continuity of the initial inception of the paintings: this is how they were intended to be seen, and it is a privilege to be able to still do this, although non-Venetians have to pay more or less systematically at every church, unlike in Rome where it is still possible to see Caravaggio’s work for free in churches as many did for hundreds of years before the globalisation of tourism.

Why might it be important to view artworks in the settings for which they were originally conceptualised? 

After all, the works are less well lit in churches, one has to stand in the slightly stiff and cold silence and the overall atmosphere of the museum is replaced by the austerity of a place of worship. Furthermore, frescoes on interior walls and ceilings can be difficult to see, especially when compared to well-lit works perched at eye level in an art gallery.

However, this is how these works should be viewed and appreciated. In the hauntingly simple and gorgeous church of the Madonna dell’Orto in Venice for example, where Tintoretto served as a chaplain, his grave lies right next to his dramatic panel of the last judgement: the spiritual purpose of Tintoretto’s work, embroiled with the existential anxiety it expresses are unified by the palpable and very moving traces of the artist’s life. One senses the significance of the place of composition which is much more than a backdrop to the art, it is a vital part of the art.

The way we encounter art today, and this has been the case since at least the late 1700s or early 1800s when the most famous European museums, such as the Louvre, Uffici and Prado were opened to the public, is in exhibitions. Hundreds of paintings and sculptures sit alongside one another in an industrial concentration that is difficult to seriously contemplate and digest. Rather than spending time at each painting, visitors shuffle from one famous painting to the next, walking past dozens if not hundreds of paintings composed by less well known artists. I’ve always felt that it is futile trying to view too much in an art museum, and prefer to appreciate one or two floors. How much art can one take in in two hours anyway?

There is another problem with the decontextualised positioning of such works, which is the ethics behind the curatorship of the works themselves, most especially concerning ancient art. For example, almost all Ancient Egyptian works viewed outside of Egypt (in Turin, Paris, Berlin and London for example) found their way to these places under the questionable policies of Napoleon Bonaparte whose emissaries either traded for them in an unscrupulous manner or simply stole them. Understanding how obelisks appeared in Paris, Rome and London or the Elgin Marbles ended up in the British Museum allows for a fuller understanding of the journey behind the art works, their political and cultural imprint, which is part of their story.

On the other hand, walking through the forest of columns at Karnak, or standing before the Colossi at Memnon in Egypt, one is irremediably drawn to the religious significance of these monuments: portrayals of the power of the sun, giver of life and light. A little understanding of obelisks will have you know that they were intended to always be grouped in pairs, standing on either side of the entrance to a temple. So the fact that the famous Luxor Obelisk stands alone while her sister is at the Place de la Concorde in Paris is not just an aesthetic incongruity, not a mere act of material theft, but a disruption of a sacred symbolic placement, thousands of years old. Indeed, by uprooting works of art from their original contexts and displaying them for decorative purposes, the metaphysics of an ancient belief system are destroyed. In fact, most of the obelisks one sees in their natural setting in Egypt today stand asymmetrically alone on one side of a temple entrance, leaving a gaping wound open on the other side, where the twin was literally uprooted and shipped to an English, Italian, French or even American city.

If one is to enjoy the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, it is equally necessary to travel to Athens to look upon the empty spaces at the Acropolis from where they were amputated. This is how we can fully connect the historical journey behind them.

What are the implications for all of this on education? Quite simply to give our students the historical depth of understanding to appreciate art fully so that they might have not only a critical perspective but a richer reckoning of the original purpose of art. Seeing a work as “beautiful” or well composed” is an incomplete analysis since there is almost always a strong sociopolitical context to understand in order to fully contemplate the work, feel its character and presence, its identity. 

Whereas art and humanities teachers should always look to embellish students’ knowledge of the historical context of the works they are studying, mathematics and science teachers should do the same, explaining to students that while we might look at arithmetic in a functional, pragmatic sense today, for the Ancients, numbers were sacred symbols with magical, transformational  power. Having some inkling of the Egyptian and Babylonian origins of mathematics helps us appreciate how ancient mathematicians such as Pythagoras and his lineage of Chaldeans  were numerologists, attributing sacred properties to numbers such as 9 or Pi. And why is this important? Because it reinforces the mysterious allure of mathematical elegance, its abstract, magnetic power and, therefore, the central role it has always played alongside philosophy and religion in several cultures as a key to a deeper meaning and series of hidden truths. For the Ancients, maths was not invented, it was discovered.

So the next time you’re in an art museum, or viewing an artwork in its original context, or you’re in a teaching moment where you have the privilege to sensitise your students to great works of art, like those of Frida Kahlo, Katsushika Hokusai or Jacopo Tintoretto, or should you be teaching any other construct for that matter, be sure to expand upon the context and history as much as the plastic composition, for therein lies a story worth telling.

2024 Resolutions

For those who follow the Gregorian calendar, we move to 2024. The New Year brings with it a chance for each of us to commit to personal and professional resolutions. What are yours? For me, there are three (I tend to relate to the power of three as a trinity of purpose, cadenced by a ternary rhythm and the depth that seeking beyond one or two goals brings – the third will often be the one that requires more searching whereas the first two appear at the surface of the mind as givens).

First, not forgetting the “big rock” of innovation. It is far too easy to forget about the broader purpose of our work and to fall into the quicksand of “business as usual” and in so doing, to inadvertently cause the organisation we are leading to stagnate to an inward-looking, grinding halt. Education has the power to shape the future and if we do not actively and intentionally move the needle of necessary curriculum reform towards global citizenship education with a pronounced, forward looking position on technology, particularly artificial intelligence, it simply will not happen. Answering emails must be done, and administrative humdrum needs to be managed, but pulling away from this to look at the whole from a 10 000 foot view is essential, and when we do this, we are reminded that much needs to be reformed and dynamised.

Second, to consistently look at the students in our care and the adults we are serving through the lens of human flourishing. By this I mean using the spirit and methods of coaching to seek gifts in people and to do what we can to convert those gifts into talents. This involves the principles of gifted education, faculty-led growth conversations and feedback (including working on building a culture of psychological safety for feedback to be constructive and honest). In every person there are gifts, and the mind needs to be brought back to this notion before writing others off, judging them or labelling them as incapable or incompetent. We are all on a journey of self becoming.

Finally, kindness. With the horrors of war raging across the world, increased related social tension and polarisation in communities at different scales and levels, we can lapse into blaming and shaming, bitterness and aggression. Sometimes, paradoxically, people are treated inhumanely in the name of something humane. If we believe in transparency, justice, equity, peace or togetherness, then these cannot merely be words brandished in a type of virtue signalling while the actual behaviour beneath the words speaking up for these causes is poisonous. Leaders have to be compassionate, to be understanding, and to convert the negative into the positive, the will to hurt into the wish to heal. It’s easy to stand on the side lines and curse others, no matter what high and mighty principle is used as an excuse for this behaviour, but it is much harder, and much more the responsibility of the true leader not to sink to these depths and, instead, to seek solutions. This is not easy and we should not pretend to have the key to unlock the doors of negativity that close off our common humanity, but we must try, every day and in every action, to look to the light of kindness, especially when enshrouded in the darkness of hatred.

Whether it is looking to resolutions for the New Year, luck and prosperity in the Lunar New Year in February, exchanging wishes among the family for Nowruz in March, Rosh Hashanah in September, Al Hijri in July or other cultural celebrations of regeneration and change, some commitment to values helps keep us focussed on becoming better human beings.

May your resolutions lift your sites to tomorrow for the development of individual, common and public goods.

History through Cinema

Most history teachers would rightly wince at the idea of learning history through films. Similarly, few good literature teachers will ever accept a film as a proxy for a novel or play. The condensation, vulgarisation, artistic licence all oversimplify the facts and frequently misguide audiences into understandings of history that are wholly inaccurate and sometimes damagingly so. 

As such, the clichéd post WW2 Hollywood productions of Biblical and Egyptian historical themes have impregnated minds with blonde Jesuses, white Cleopatras and Pharaohs. Worse, the earlier phenomenon of minstrelsy, which informed the first expressions of American cinema, created violent anti-Black stereotypes that for historians such as David Olusoga, were archetypal engines for racial prejudice. Similarly, glorified images of John Wayne shooting his way through Native Americans have drawn up a global collective unconscious of American history based on harmful stereotypes. 

Life imitates art as Oscar Wilde once said. The truth of the matter is that while classroom and textbook efforts to educate students about history are important and formative, most people will have ideas about the past that come from movies they have seen, and few will be able to tell what is factual from imaginary.  While historians and academics pore over manuscripts and archives, publishing articles on pedantic details of historical facts, the person on the street’s head is filled with a romanticised cinematic portrayal of the past: Russel Crowe, Colin Farrell and Joaquin Phoenix have written the popular history books.

We can fight against this truism, but where will that lead to? What if referring to popular media rather than ignoring it was a way of broadening education and understanding of the world? If our students are learning about the world through popular media, surely we should scaffold learning around that?  

Recently I watched the Netflix series African Queens: Njinga  by Jada Pinkett Smith. This documentary is about the mythic Ndongo Queen Njinga who resisted Portuguese slavery for decades in the early 17th Century. The documentary is based on academic research from Angolan Archives and the work of scholars from reputed universities. Importantly, the academic source material is from African and Black scholars, this being part of Pinkett Smith’s design to reappropriate Black history.

What struck me in watching the documentary was the tenacity, violence, greed and dishonesty of slave traders in the 1600s in Africa, who systematically and ruthlessly broke oaths and contracts, and the devastating impact on Angola of what they did. The Slave Trade remains a dramatically undertaught subject in history lessons. Worse, in some American states, such as Florida, the so-called benefits of slavery are being taught in the history standards. Relativists will compare it to other forms of slavery, pointing out that there are more slaves today than ever (there always have been but we have greater access to information today, that’s the difference).  Make no mistake, up to 20 million people (probably more) were killed or displaced through one of the worst episodes of human history, and the scars remain. Films like Njinga are important, and should be watched as they relay the emotional and social violence of the times.

At the same time, I experienced a parallel biopic encounter with Napoleon, portrayed by Ridley Scott through a lens of sweeping frescoes like paintings by Jacques-Louis David. Here was a quite different experience, unlike Njinga, the untold story upon which light would be shone, here was a famous “great man” of history being narrated in an established blockbuster format much in the vein of traditional Hollywood depictions of the well beaten path. What struck me was less what was told (famous and heavily recounted events such as Napoleon’s coronation, his relationship with Josephine, the battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo) but more what was not told (pillaging of artworks across Italy, known as “i furti napoleonici”; grand scale theft of Egyptian treasures and his 1802 reinstatement of slavery). And at the same time, there was the contemporary obsession in biopics to deconstruct “heroes” by exploring Freudian or Jungian personality themes – all these “great men”, it would appear, suffered from some sort of narcissism, sexual frustration or neuroticism. Is this not more of the cult of the personality, drenched in postmodern psycho-sociological dogma?  

The Brazilian pedagogue and philosopher Paulo Freire pointed out in his 1968 masterpiece  Pedagogy of the Oppressed that historical narratives would change through time but would ultimately have to be rescued by a humane discourse that would almost certainly come from the oppressed themselves, who would reappropriate their own narratives. He also advocated for an educational journey that would take place outside of classrooms, in households and community centres. This is where the popular narrative would form a world view. 

Watching Njinga, and reflecting on Napoleon, makes one think about what we teach, why we teach it, which stories should be told, through which media and why, and what representing the past means for the present and the future. 

(image from wallpapers.com)

Lead by the rules … but kindly

Rules and regulations are essential guardrails to prevent abuse and malpractice. Rules guarantee consistency, fairness and objectivity.

But is it through the rules alone that we will create a humane culture?

Morally corrupt rules

There are two problems to consider: first, what if the rules are morally wrong? What was disturbing about the Eichmann trial in Israel, in 1961, was that the Nazi henchman  Eichmann was not a spectacular monster but a nondescript, slightly effaced bureaucrat who believed, in committing acts of atrocity, that he was simply following orders. 

The 1961 Stanley Milgram experiment, in which participants were told to authorise the administering of electric shocks to a subject by actors looking like doctors, showed, with alarming conclusiveness, that people are capable of harming others, to the point of killing them, if told to do so by authority figures. Just as the Asch conformity experiments (where participants were placed in groups that were following a script to give wrong answers, hereby influencing the unknowing participant to follow them and also give a wrong answer) show that we buckle easily under peer pressure and rarely have the courage to stand up for what is true and right if the crowd is promoting what is wrong, 

This explains behaviours under morally corrupt governments or leadership systems where those perpetrating harm are simply following the rules and doing what they are told. It’s easy to judge those that act this way, but it isn’t easy to stand up to a crowd and even less so to break the law. Some of the great freedom fighters of history were standing up to morally defunct systems of governance, and putting themselves at risk in doing so so it is understandable that not everyone has the courage to do this.

Disingenuous interpretation of rules

The second problem is more subtle, it is a question of intent. Rules, regulations and bylaws were often created to allow certain liberties to be exercised and/or to prevent certain abuses from taking place. However, they can be used for ulterior purposes: to block someone’s freedom, to ostracise or silence, attack or harm. This is precisely why there are legal battles, because people interpret the law and in ways that are not always philanthropic to say the least. In essence, it’s not because the rules allow you to do something that you should necessarily do it: a zealously legalistic approach to leadership will quickly create a nightmarish climate of hostility where the phrase that wins the day is “the regulations say I can do this”. This explains why in some environments there is such a disparity between statutes and vision statements and what happens on the ground. Concepts like “freedom” can actually mean cultural imperialism and “transparency” a witch hunt. The truth is that if you don’t like someone, you can use the rules to hurt them.

Moral discernment

Moral discernment is needed to judge the spirit of an action, over and above its technical alignment with the rules and regulations. To give a perhaps trite example, if a tennis umpire decides to disqualify a player based on an interpretation of “unsportsmanlike behaviour”, it is technically possible for the umpire to make such a decision based on their own whims and prejudices and basically punish the player because she or he does not like him or her, using the vague idea of unsportsmanlike behaviour liberally and, therefore, abusively. In this example, the rules are being followed, but what is being done is morally wrong.

For the great 4th Century BCE Chinese philosopher Confucius, ruling by laws and punishments is ineffective because it infantilises subjects, not creating within them any agency or desire to own and solve problems. On the contrary, leaders should use the principle of ren as a guiding light: a higher moral principle based on kindness and compassion. This, for Confucius, will instil values in people an that is what is important rather than blindly following rules.

So at the end of the day, and especially in terms of our goal as educators across the world striving for a future which is not only inclusive and sustainable but humane too, it is the higher order moral imperative that should trump the miserly following of rules. Rules must be respected, but they can be interpreted, and the overarching question should be if what is being done through the rules is lifting people up or damaging them. If it’s the latter, it’s either not a good rule or it is being implemented disingenuously.

To follow the spirit of the law, to think before applying what is allowed and to always frame decisions ethically is what is needed for human flourishing. Remember that harm is not always done by caricatural evil-looking wrong doers, but on the contrary by little grey men following the rules quietly, unethically and viciously.   

And if you are a leader, next time you implement the rules in such a way that someone is being hurt, think twice. You might be doing what is technically permissible, but are you doing the right thing?

Psychological Safety and Education

In the 1950s, the educational psychologist Carl Rogers coined the term psychological safety. By this, he meant an environment in which people can explore their creative potential, take risks, not be afraid of failure, express themselves freely and essentially feel secure in that safe space that allows them to be themselves.

The concept might go back to the 1950s, but we still need to be reminded of it today.

For decades educational systems have been built on the wrong ideas: premised on shouting at children, threatening them, hitting and humiliating them while creating a stifling, stern atmosphere wrought with fear and power hierarchy. Unfortunately this Victorian model is still in force in some institutions, practices and households today.

What this type of behaviour does is it pushes students into their reptilian brains, shredding any sense of confidence in them and, ultimately, as it models symbolic and physical violence, it reproduces this in students who will not know any better than to copy the unpleasant behaviour they have been subjected to and exact it on others.

A good school looks at students in the exact opposite way: we are here to make sure that the classroom is a place where you want to be,where your self belief is built up every day by acts of validation, kindness, recognition, gift spotting and encouragement.

Unfortunately, some of the remnants of the Victorian past still make their way into what might look like enlightened classrooms through seemingly innocuous but potentially damaging throw away comments, sarcasm, damning reports and, quite simply, an inability to be generous enough to see someone’s potential and to say it. Giving a student a bad grade can be enormously hurtful to their inner core, and it should be scaffolded carefully and sensitively, not done with a sense of impatience or superciliousness. 

When students are starved of the feedback they need to garner that quantum of confidence to grow out of their shells, it can be demeaning or worse. This is all the more so since children need the validation of their teachers, in many ways it counts for more than that which comes from families and friends because it is institutional and less tinged by favouritism: it’s the first exposure to the outside world and whether that place will be friendly or hostile.

If we really want creativity, critical thinking, interpersonal sensitivity, multi literateness and human flourishing, then we have to keep reminding ourselves of the idea of psychological safety and should not be misguided into thinking that harshness, coldness, negative feedback and emotional cruelty bring out the best in students.

Some people, already down a track of mastery, already confident and thirsty to go from good to great, might actually seek out this type of “tough love”, the clichéd draconian sports coach type of relationship with their teacher, but these are exceptions and should be understood as such.

Finally, psychological safety, like so many  socio-psychological concepts, is not only educational, it speaks to the professional world too. We all know how tough it is to have a supervisor who never lifts you up, loses their temper, shuts you down and tries to make you afraid: they are lost in the same Victorian illusion and are not bringing out your creative potential. 

You might not be able to change that, but you can control the way you deal with your supervisees, so create a space for them to flourish and give your people what they need to thrive: a feeling that with you, they are safe, they can grow, they can fly. 

 (photograph: Ali Kazal)

The neurocircuitry of prejudice

I wrote my EdD some years ago on prejudice and the different ways that we might consider mitigating it through pedagogic strategies. It was a fascinating journey into the labyrinth of social psychology and neuroscience (here’s the publication if you’d like to go deeper). As my research deepened, it became clear to me that prejudice cannot be eradicated, only reduced, and with great difficulty at that.

What is it that causes prejudice? Well, there’s certainly no simple answer to that – as it means, literally, to prejudge a person, to make up your mind about them before knowing them, before giving them a chance and without deliberately controlling that impulse to judge. And often prejudice hardens too: we cherry pick evidence to reinforce the original position we have taken, to substantiate the judgement, discounting counter-evidence. Trying to undo all of that in our dense psychological framework is asking a lot.

One thing that researchers have known for decades, going all the way back to some of the first social experiments that were run just after WW2, is that when the context flares up (war, economic depression, political tension), fear sets in and, almost automatically, outgrouping increases, stereotypes are rekindled and prejudicial beliefs are exacerbated. When fear sets in, the amygdala – a subcortical “emotional brain” as it were, which regulates instinctive behaviours – plays a central and all-encompassing role in dominating thinking, pushing us into “fright or flight” or “reptilian brain” mode (these terms are layperson shorthand and are actually technically contested, but they will do for now by means of a short cut).

In short, the dark thunderclouds send us into panic and we react by minimising other people, casting them as friend or foe and, of course, this can lead to discrimination and worse. 

The next time someone attacks you, judges you, labels you, realise that they are probably acting, subconsciously, from a place of fear.

Hence, one of the core goals of an education is to help us become aware of the alarming ease with which we can lapse into prejudice and to equip us with the means to make intentional, metacognitively aware decisions that are counterintuitive, and cut against bias.

Rather than lapsing into the comfort of labelling other people, painting them as outgroup villains while wallowing in the warm illusion of belonging to a fictitiously homogenous ingroup; we have to train ourselves, as incommodious as it might be, to walk away from that intuitive prejudicial thinking and to turn to the more difficult work of reconsidering people as individuals and not as groups, listening to what is said and not judging because of who is saying it, and judging after, not before the fact. 

In fact, if education is to move to its highest force, so as to extend consciousness to cosmic, spiritual realms, this would mean not judging another person at all but seeking empathy and likeness. After all, in 99.5% of cases, we share the exact same DNA.

Easier said than done, but if there is one place where the higher and narrower road of compassion and understanding can be built, it is in the classroom. 

(Shoutout to Melanie Wasser for the photograph)

The Springbok Rugby Team: Three Educational Lessons

“Rugby is a hooligans sport played by gentleman” the saying goes (as opposed to football, which is the opposite). Hyperbole aside, there is something remarkable about the camaraderie one finds between rugby fans: there are never crowd incidents and a deontological code of respect transcends not only the discipline players have in accepting the referees’ decisions, but the whole culture of rugby, which, despite the surface violence of the game itself, is built on peace and friendship.

This year’s rugby World Cup saw South Africa win for the fourth time in a nail-biting final against the mythic All Blacks. In following the team, three concepts came to mind which can help us in our reflections about the potential effect of an education:

  1. Unity

There was nothing individualistic about the squad. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the team was that the “bench” (the substitutes) was essentially as important as the starting players. The coach’s strategy was to use the substitutes strategically rather than merely to replace tired players. When interviewed on the victory, the charismatic captain Siya Kholosi spoke of a fleet of birds flying in a V formation – when one drops out, another automatically takes the position that has been left vacant. Assessments, projects, and general learning environments that draw on the collective and understand that learning is a social, team effort are more successful than cultures built on individualism. When students support each other, learning gains are stronger. 

  1. Relevance and purpose

The players kept coming back to the importance of this win for South Africa, a country that has been ravaged by iniquity and violence but at the same time in which there is an extraordinary human spirit. During the apartheid years, rugby was an entirely white sport but over the years it has come to be more multiracial and today the whole nation celebrates the Springboks’ victory. The players were clearly motivated by a higher purpose – the lift that this would give people at home – and this brought out the best in them. Our curricula must be relevant to the needs of society and the planet, not dry intellectual abstractions. This is all the more important in a world where climate change, political upheaval and globalisation are particularly virulent sources of change and impact. Curriculum relevance is about serving students with an education that makes sense to them and equips them for social realities.

  1. Self-belief

The Springboks beat France, England and New Zealand in the Quarterfinals, Semifinals and Finals by one point in each match! Every single detail mattered and on each occasion it came down to the accuracy of a kick, the precision of a tackle on the try line or the discipline of a scrum. To win like that, down to the wire with your back against the wall, takes not only courage but a razor sharp mentality that will not waver from a belief that victory is inevitable. We teach our students subjects, skills and dispositions. Self-belief, confidence, mindset are vital and should feature strongly in curriculum design and the hidden curriculum. Our students are entering a fairly daunting world where there will be no shortage of challenges, and they will be successful if equipped with that deep-seated belief that they are capable of something exceptional. This is an educational value that comes down to parenting as much as teaching.

In a world divided by war, let the beauty of sports continue to inspire us to work together as a team and, at the end of the day, to come together as friends. There is tremendous value in sports as I’ve written before, and the exhilarating Springboks reminded us of the power that it has to lift the spirits of millions of people. 

How might international schools position themselves in times of armed conflict?

For those of us who have the privilege to live away from the shadow of terrible human suffering that we see in the world, what position should we take when it comes to armed conflicts?

This is not a simple question, and one that many would probably rather avoid altogether, but we cannot because the reality that is around us engulfs the minds and experiences of our communities and students, either directly or vicariously through social media.

International Schools, in general, are beholden by a set of values around peaceful cooperation, critical thinking and social custodianship. In times of armed conflict, these four core principles might help you navigate your way:

  1. An international school is a place of learning and not a political organisation or national government – while all those working in international schools should deplore all forms of conflict, especially those that contravene international law, the purpose of an international school is not to publicly condemn nation states or governments, individuals or groups, nor is it to encourage our students to take sides, it is always to stand on the side of peace. While individuals might have their own positions, the school represents several nationalities and does not pick and choose a position that the whole organisation is expected to stand by.
  1. In times of extreme emotional turmoil, such as that which armed conflict creates, as educators we must not forget the vital importance of remaining focussed on being critical thinkers, not swayed by any form of propaganda and not assuming, most especially in the middle of such conflict, that information is unbiased or depoliticised, complete or not charged with complex details of context. Therefore, encouraging listening, learning, reflection, questioning and suspending judgement should be centred. 
  1. Students, parents and staff may be traumatised by events and schools will clearly therefore do what they can to be supportive, allowing members of the community who are affected to feel safe and using pastoral and human resources teams to give care and moral support to the community. 
  1. Armed conflict leads to several forms of real but also symbolic violence and we must be attentive to the dangers of overgeneralisation, prejudice, stereotyping and in-grouping or out-grouping that occur. Staff should be attentive to this and ensure that no one in their school community is ostracised because of the country they come from, their religion, culture or political orientation.

The bottom line is that international schools, and perhaps all schools for that matter, should never allow the armed conflict of the outside world to enter the classroom. 

Four principles, therefore, in these terrible and difficult times:

  • Stand on the side of peace
  • Think independently and critically
  • Love and care
  • Be wary of prejudice

An education for human rights: working from the ground up 

Tracing back the origins of some sort of declaration of human rights is not that simple. Some situate it at least 2600 years ago in the Akkadian Cyrus Cylinder, declaring racial equality, others the Edicts of Ashoka in the 2500 BCE Maurya Empire, which sets out a deontological code. The late 1700s French  Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen, outlining principles of unalienable natural rights and sovereignty paved the way for other Enlightenment statements such as the soaring American Declaration of Independence and, later, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The latter is a powerful set of normative statements that should be a reference in every school and organisation. 

Behind the actual writing of these remarkable historic statements are people, and it is commonly known that the driving force behind the Declaration of Human Rights was the chair of the Human Rights Commission at the time, the visionary and deeply ethical  Eleanor Rooseveld, a truly wonderful and inspiring woman. It was her unflagging passion and dedication to the project that marked those around her and in a way it’s not surprising, writing something as significant as a declaration of human rights for all of humanity is enough to make someone give their everything! That is a key for reflection.

The problem with these normative statements is that once  they have been drawn up, they remain at the lofty level of the deontological code, a type of 10 commandments that look down on us from a higher place. One might gaze at the words and statements in awe and even be asked to abide by them, but since they were written by someone else, the fundamental pedagogical act of integrating and owning information by shaping it oneself which creates great productive energy, cannot be harnessed. The statements are somehow inert, pre-baked, off the shelf.

And history has shown us that there is a difference between saying something and doing it. The Cyrus Cylinder declares forward-looking tolerance but Cyrus was no angel, and the French Rights of Man, like so many other Enlightenment ethical treatises, applies to some and not others, most especially those who bore the yoke of European slavery and expansion across much of the planet at the time. Where were their rights?

Perhaps committing to a series of statements as a community is a way of consolidating not only what we think is important, but of galvanising us to live actively by those statements: precisely because they are our own.

This is why at our school, we decided to embark on a collaborative project whereby staff and students would brainstorm the types of behaviours that we wish to see in ourselves and others, to then vote for the statements that emerged and to use these statements as our guidelines. It does not mean that these supersede other moral imperatives, but it does mean that these statements were created by the community creatively and collaboratively, and that there’s some ownership involved.

The statements themselves are quite concrete and simple, and perhaps in that tangible simplicity there is a power that one loses in abstract, general and universalist claims: it’s a call to action and an invitation to live out human rights (and, of course, responsibilities!) every day!

In fact, one of the precepts of The United Nations Office of Human Rights, who are working with the International School of Geneva on a Global Citizenship Education course, is to bring human rights down to earth, into the corridors of the school, into each classroom, the playground and workspace. It is in these spaces where simple decisions lay out the type of respect we truly show for one another.

If you haven’t already done so, I would recommend a bottom-up approach to some normative moral statements by your community and for your community, much the way  teachers would agree on norms with students at the beginning of a school year.  It engages the community and shows us what’s important to us here and now, in this precious moment we share together alive on planet earth.  

The problem of not reading

Critical thinking is widely considered to be a core educational goal and is rightly appreciated for its central educational importance. There are different ways of viewing criticality, from a narrow reckoning of it as logical, syllogistic thinking to a more inclusive appreciation of academic and intellectual honesty, deep listening and reflection rather than immediate hard-nosed scepticism. The American academic and father of philosophy for children, Matthew Lippman, spoke of “caring thinking” as one of the dispositional attributes of the critical thinker as he had noticed that a narrow definition based on argumentation could actually promote fairly unpleasant ways of being and interacting with others and it was necessary to place criticality within a broader perspective of humane and kind behaviour.

It is not without irony that in a world where scientific inquiry has never been more advanced, access to information and knowledge more democratised and literacy rates more widespread, there seems to be a dearth, and an increasing one at that, of critical thinking. With the recent surge of artificial intelligence, the need to actively and deliberately teach students to navigate information with discernment has become especially important.

However, it is only partly ironic: the more readily available information is and the easier it is to generate information online without checks and balances (such as publishing houses, review and vetting systems or similar checks and balances that filter what is produced on a mass scale), the easier it is to publish a whole range of personal opinions from speculation and conjecture to unsubstantiated theory to tenuous if not spurious claims to downright garbage, nonsense and, as we approach the far end of the spectrum, misinformation and lies. More recently we have seen false information generated by artificial intelligence  affect the stock exchange. 

There are obvious and blatant examples of postulates, policies and widely held opinions that are erroneous, sometimes dangerously so. These vary from history textbooks denying the existence of countries because of national propaganda, works of literature being censored or rewritten to make them more palatable and internet-spawned  mumbo-jumbo on conspiracy theories, aliens, secret “systems” and so on.

The question, quite clearly, is how to promote and nurture critical thinking. As a Theory of Knowledge teacher, this year I will take some time with my students to unpack the essential vocabulary of knowledge: words like certainty, evidence, truth, explanation, interpretation,  objectivity, perspective, culture, power, responsibility and values. In the lower years, my colleagues will be having Philosophy for Children discussions with students so as to habituate them to make points in a  careful, responsible and measured fashion.    

However, I find that a more subtle, pernicious and pervasive attack on critical thinking is very simply a lack of reading. I don’t mean by this an inability to read, but a lack of effort to do so: not reading reports but having an opinion on them, referring to unread studies, piggy-backing on second, third or fourth hand condensations of original material that seems to have been digested by few if any people at all. 

Recently UNESCO published its annual Global Education Monitoring Report . It is a hefty 418 page document that explains, quite rightly, how complex the dilemma of technology in education is. In discussing the effect of devices on concentration, the report points out that

 Student use of devices beyond a moderate threshold may have a negative impact on academic performance. The use of smartphones and computers disrupts classroom and home learning activity. A meta-analysis of research on the relationship between student mobile phone use and educational outcomes covering students from pre-primary to higher education in 14 countries found a small negative effect, which was larger at the university level. (p.81)

The report then goes on to explain, with some nuance, that

Banning technology from schools can be legitimate if technology integration does not improve learning or if it worsens student well-being. Yet, working with technology in schools, and the accompanying risks, may require something more than banning. First, policies should be clear on what is and is not permitted in schools. Students cannot be punished if there is no clarity or transparency on their required behaviour. Decisions in these areas need conversations supported by sound evidence and involve all those with a stake in students’ learning. Second, there should be clarity on the role these new technologies play in learning and on their responsible use by and within schools. Third, students need to learn the risks and opportunities that come with technology, develop critical skills, and understand to live with and without technology. Shielding students from new and innovative technology can put them at a disadvantage. It is important to look at these issues with an eye on the future and be ready to adjust and adapt as the world changes. (p. 157)

Importantly, the report describes how smartphones were a lifeline to the curriculum and learning during Covid, even if evidence of the benefits is “mixed” (p. 33). 

However, only days after the report was issued, well established newspapers claimed that “Unesco calls for global ban on smartphones in schools”. As is so often the case with information in the “knowledge economy”, this headline went viral, many people, including educators, re-posted it and a whole range of other media outlets parroted the headline. A few days after that, friends and colleagues were sharing this headline with me.

The problem is that this is not what the report says. Classroom use of smartphones is problematised, and we might go so far as to say that banning is suggested, but to say that it is a call to ban smartphones is ridiculous, it’s an example of faulty understanding driven by a lack of reading in the first place. 

Now, whether smartphones should be banned or not in schools is another question, and merits its own discussion. I happen to agree with UNESCO (to actually quote the report accurately!), that “working with technology in schools, and the accompanying risks, may require something more than banning” (p. 157). This is just an example of how misunderstandings are circulated and amplified by social media. The problem is, to debunk such a statement, one would have to read the 418 page report, and who exactly is going to do that?

Unfortunately, and ironically (and this time it is deeply ironic), the world of educational theory is particularly rife with misinterpretation of theory, from brain gym to learning styles, neurotrash to the Mozart effect, multiple intelligences, techniques that “work” because of effect size analysis on meta-analyses to the infamous and widely misunderstood 10 000 hour rule. These soundbites are based on misguided, popularised and unsubstantiated shorthand that unfortunately, unless teachers read the research first hand (and recognise the tentative nature of much educational research in the first place), can find itself in the classroom with students as the undeserving Guinea pigs.

Next time you read a newspaper headline, or a tweet, a post, a statement, especially one that goes “viral”, ask yourself what the source is and who has read the research. The truth might not be as exciting to read as a dazzling affirmative or damning soundbite, but it needs to be respected.

Furthermore, let’s commit to reading the original of what we cite, ensure that our students read set texts  from cover to cover, insist that board and committee papers are read and not settle for lazy thinking based on skimming through headlines: it’s a slippery slope.