Category Archives: Matthew Piercy

MATTHEW PIERCY is a middle school social studies teacher at International School Bangkok. His experiences in the classroom include every grade from 3rd to 11th. He also enjoyed a stint as an instructional coach. Prior to living in Thailand, Matthew worked in international and boarding schools for over twenty years. Tunisia, Ecuador, Hungary, Hawaii, along with the states of Colorado and Georgia all at some point were called “home.” Matthew also enjoys leading summer expeditions for National Geographic, to destinations like Iceland and Cambodia. A diverse pathway in life has led to Matthew’s passion for global mindedness and he constantly is searching for ways to enhance learning, meaning, and transference. His blog explores interconnection and purpose.

Peeling Back the Layers of Teacher Appreciation

Are educators really appreciated? Tomorrow, May 10, marks the end of Teacher Appreciation Week. In the early years, appreciation can be quite pervasive, little ones sharing handwritten notes with big hearts and occasionally there is the parent who shares a thank you note. Oftentimes for just a day, or sometimes for a week, schools recognize Teacher Appreciation to celebrate and honor teachers for their dedication and hard work. A nice gesture and yet as a career educator, I cannot help but ponder the true value society pays to teachers.

Until 2013 no one was measuring teacher status.  Enter the Varkey Foundation and its mission to improve standards of education and also raise the status and capacity of teachers throughout the world.  The measurement tool they developed is called the Global Teacher Status Index (GTSI). The GTSI is a score between 0 and 100 and the number summarizes information from teacher surveys using Principal Component Analysis. China scored the highest with a perfect score of 100.  Really China?  Whereas Brazil and Israel were at the other end of the spectrum at just 1 and 6.5 respectively. The United States fell somewhere in the middle with a score of 39. Since the Varkey Foundation’s origins, GTSI is now being used with 35 countries. Interestingly enough, key findings in the United States report include:

  • The U.S. public believes teachers are not paid a fair wage and should earn at least $7500 more annually
  • 50% of respondents also believe teachers should earn based on student performance
  • 78% believe teachers are influential, the fourth highest of all countries surveyed
  • When US respondents were asked to rank 14 professions including doctors, nurses, librarians, and social workers in order of respect (with 14 being the highest and 1 the lowest), headteachers were ranked the 6th lowest of all the countries surveyed

So, there is evidence of how the status of teachers in the United States can improve. 

Recognition Runs the Gamut

Having taught every grade from three to twelve, in public and private, rural and urban settings, as well as in three States and four countries outside of the United States, it is a bit surprising how teacher appreciation is similarly experienced. Even across the decades. Appreciation or recognition is a sort of hit or miss. Imperative is that we as educators have it within ourselves. Appreciation.  For ourselves and the not only noble but extremely impactful profession. I say “hit or miss” because the experience is largely dependent on administration and parent committees.  Even at the same school, a teacher could have a completely different feel from one year to the next. In one school I taught, teacher appreciation simply meant the delivery of a typed form letter in our mailbox from our principal. Completely impersonal. At another school, with a legion of teachers, we all received a plastic baggie of homemade, albeit stale, cookies. I’ve received Starbucks gift cards for $10.  A delicious array of food for a luncheon one year. A the same school, the very next year, a masseuse was at school all day and we could sign up for 20-minute chair massages. In another school, a last-minute attempt was made to put on a lunch, barely a step up from the cafeteria. One year I remember how teachers were able to select two gifts from a wide array of offerings. I chose the $20 gift card to my favorite local coffee shop and a bottle of whiskey. Yep, there was an assortment of hard liquors. Teacher appreciation and recognition run the gamut. Far from standardization and absolutely a reflection of a school’s culture. Possibly a small act or even a big effort, however as a teacher I would venture to guess that  I am not alone in stating that it does mean something to us.

Whatever is done, if anything, what is important is that teachers truly feel appreciated. That was definitely not the case at the school where the mediocre lunch was served. To top it off, the first people in the lunch line were not even teachers!

Insights from a Hybrid Educator

In person I facilitate one section of grade 12 capstone. During the pandemic and ever since, I have enjoyed teaching two courses for an online school as well. In a certain sense, this hybrid role allows me to sit on the periphery of traditional mainstream education. Almost like a meteorologist, I see the storms coming, often how they make landfall, and yet I never get “wet.” Keen always to learn, when I hear about opportunities in education or they cross my screen, I want to know more. One such example that recently appeared as a recommendation on my LinkedIn feed, led me to to reflect more on this topic of teacher status and appreciation. Curiously I looked at the job description and how this “leading ed-tech company” was helping districts and schools address staffing shortages and also expanding school’s course offerings. They were looking for a part-time teacher who would be on a 1099 contract. This means there are no benefits and in effect a large percentage would end up being paid in taxes. The role was to teach grade 9-12 students AP courses via Zoom. A prospective applicant could appreciate how they explicitly outline the expected time commitments. “In a typical week for one section, online teachers can anticipate their core work as teaching (four hours) and planning/grading (about two hours). Online teachers also engage in coaching, professional development, and recurring team meetings (typically one hour on average per week, though varies week-to-week) for a total weekly commitment of six to seven hours.”  The pay? $40 an hour. That means approximately $300 a week. Or, post taxes more like $200.  I don’t know about you and where you live but $200 does not cover a whole lot. Is this a reflection of the low status of educators? Possibly a mere glimpse of the true value not being “paid” to teachers.

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Approaching the “Finish Line”: Lessons from Reflectors, Savings, and Hawaii

What might I share that will be worth your time to read? For many teachers (and students!) energies and attention right now are being funneled into the finish of yet another academic year. Though there is so much still to be wrapped up, the end will likely come quickly. In an effort to finish the year strong, let us look more closely with wisdom at what appear to be three completely unrelated items: reflectors, savings, and Hawaii.  Hopefully not only a connection becomes clear but also an understanding of the necessity to prioritize a vision of the future tempered with an intention to live in the here and now.

What If I told You a Reflector Could Save Your Life?

While I was in university, one outdoor outing particularly stood out. As I traipsed across a snowy mountainside, not a care in the world, in an instant I found myself facing nature’s wrath in a battle for survival. Underfoot, an unstable mass of snow broke free, followed by a deafening roar. The cloud of snow and ice hurtled to catch me, faster than 320 kilometers (200 miles) per hour. Scientists calculate a fully developed avalanche can potentially weigh as much as a million tons. This feeling of despair or race against time might be parallel to a teacher’s experience. We would hope not, but what did Orwell say about reality? That it exists in the human mind, and nowhere else! In the mountains of the western United States alone, there are approximately 100,000 avalanches each year. I would argue, that across our myriad of classrooms, we witness many more “avalanches.” Where time is lost to all meaning, consumed by the suffocating weight of “snow” or “to-dos”.

But, what if…

“What if” is a powerful phrase. Emboldened by infinite possibility, it invites us to explore alternative realities. Those Orwellian possibilities maybe existing in our minds and nowhere else. But, what if, by design, our schools, classrooms, and all that we experience in education were backed in trust? This ultimately comes down to the essentials of establishing strong and meaningful relationships. For outdoors people this may be a “relationship” with their gear, a testament to the saying that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. More than 150 brands of outdoor gear utilize a patented reflector (RECCO®) as a rescue technology to help find people lost in the outdoors or buried by avalanches. If something so tiny as a reflector has the potential to save someone’s life, or moreover build trust, what might this say about the potential inherent in our schools and amongst us as educators? The “avalanches” we perceive are far from being unstoppable juggernauts. We have this!

16x is a Lot

Bestselling author James Clear asserts, “Most people need consistency more than they need intensity.” He reflects on how consistency is what ultimately leads to progress. A difference in intensity and consistency is compared to going out to run a marathon versus not missing a workout for two years. Or, jumping cold turkey into a silent meditation retreat as opposed to finding silence daily. Such consistency has a level of patience and also requires discipline. Virtues in a sense and both are also steeped in vision. Recently I was dismayed to read how according to Northwestern Mutual, Americans think they will need $1.46 million to retire. Yet, they have on average only saved $88,000. That is 16x under what they think they need. Sixteen times!  Imagine having sixteen times more students. A few years back I felt overwhelmed teaching 104 students. That number would now be 1,664 students! Or, what if we lived 16x longer? 73.4 years would mean 1174.4. 

So, ultimately besides consistency, patience, and discipline, a bit of vision is necessary. As educators hopefully, we can see the “finish line.” Some maybe are even preflecting on how they may begin the next academic year. Yet, what we do with today is critical. We cannot afford to miss the here and now.  The fact is, the future depends on it! 

Determine Your Truth

Though I feel fortunate to call Hawai’i my home, I am not proud to share how the beauty and fragility of resources are largely unprotected.  According to the Department of Land and Natural Resources, “As of 2023, Hawai‘i only invests $9 per tourist back in the environment, and less than 1% of the state budget goes towards conservation. We currently face an estimated conservation funding gap of $360 million per year.” Though this example has elements of both reflectors and savings, we consider it  for another reason. Ultimately, it is about protection. A friend recently waxed poetically on what he  terms the “underbelly” of conservation. Though the word “conservation” has its roots in the Latin “conservationem,” meaning “a keeping, preserving, conserving,” might the word have taken on a different meaning in reality? One with emphasis on “con.”  Where charisma, deception, or opportunism are what ultimately courses through the veins. A truth painted by lies. 

And how might this relate to us as educators?

As we continue to drown in information, artificial or not, we are being summoned to think. To read and watch widely and to listen to learn. One mandatory course within The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme (DP) to support this is the Theory of Knowledge (TOK). Students take TOK to develop critical thinking skills by analyzing knowledge claims and to gain interdisciplinary understanding by exploring connections between different subjects. Within the context of the College Board, the Advanced Placement (AP) Seminar is similar to TOK, seeking for students to develop critical thinking, research, and communication through interdisciplinary exploration of complex topics. Regardless of the curriculum, a school subscribes to, the intention is for students to be able to determine truth. Their truth. This is only possible if we take time to reflect critically on not only what we might know or think we know. It also requires us to pay close attention to the diverse ways of knowing and a multitude of perceptions. 

So, slow down. Listen a little harder and look. Though the “finish line” is in full sight, go slow to go fast. And enjoy the “ride.”

Our Mindset and Actions are Omnipotent

As we navigate the tumultuous currents and possibly perceived “avalanches” of education, let us not overlook the significance of reflection but also a deep understanding of the necessity to prioritize a vision of the future tempered with an intention to live in the here and now. Building trust, fostering consistency, and embracing patience are all necessary ingredients to this recipe we call “education.” Just as a tiny reflector embedded in our jacket (RECCO®) has the potential to save our lives, our mindsets and actions are omnipotent. Instead of counting down the days, might we delve into the depths of critical thinking with students, and embrace the moments we have left with absolute intentionality and purpose?  “Your mission (insert your name), should you choose to accept it, is to serve as a beacon of guidance, inspiring those you teach to navigate the complexities of the world with purpose, integrity, and joy.” 

I accept.

In the Rhythm of Nature: Embracing Patience in Everyday Life

“Place-based education? We have it all,” a colleague recently quipped. Though I agree, I am not so declarative. Instead, I seemingly find myself routinely in quiet appreciative contemplation of the place I live. Fittingly, this past week a friend shared an invitation to attend a storytelling event titled, “Where I Live.” Several eloquent stories were told and afterward, I was left considering my own stories. 

As much of the world transitions out of Winter and into Spring, central to “my story” is the role of patience. Akin to deciduous trees which lose their leaves and go into a sort of hibernation, the changing of seasons even in the Tropics, provides us an opportunity to become more aware, grounded, and maybe even grateful. So long as we are patient. Years ago I gave up the snow and cold, so trees shedding their leaves is no longer a part of my autumn-to-winter experience. Instead, winter now signifies whales, waves, and wind. “The original www (World Wide Web),” I kid. 

Learning from Great Masters

I awaken exhilarated not from the deep rest but by visions of how the Pacific stretches in the early morning unwrinkled, illuminated in various hues of blue. Paddling out on my 11-foot board I often stand alone, watching whales. Humpback whales to be precise. Approximately 10,000 whales make the 10,000-mile sojourn each year. More will leave than arrive, as these warm waters are for breeding. The whales will eat nothing while here. Yet, upon their return to polar waters, they can consume up to 3,000 pounds of food daily! Though such facts intrigue me, it is the humpbacks’ size and grace that motivates me to paddle out and wait. Rebecca Giggs, author of “In Fathoms: The World in the Whale,” she describes whales as complex and enormous, with lives and abilities that make them masters of the seas. To see a whale is to feel veneration.

Some days I see no whales. Yet, I paddle out whenever possible, pleased to patiently wait. Usually, there is complete silence until I hear air being expelled, sometimes the blow results in a cascade of mist. Legally, one is not allowed to get closer than 100 yards from a whale. Atop a 3-inch table of epoxy, nor would not be wise to be aside the hulking mass of 60,000 pounds. However, there have been times when an utter sense of awe rivaled my patience, and whales have approached me. Gliding beneath and sometimes aside me, more than one whale has risen, rolled on her side, and met my stare. To look into the eye of a whale ensues much emotion and, primordial connection. It is patience, the wait for such encounters that allows for such reverence. 

Waves are Nature’s Patience Test

Just as winter means whales, the season also brings world-class waves to the isles. During December, January, and February storms brew far north in the Pacific, sending long, rolling swells. Waves sometimes towering over 20 feet high, crash onto the north and west shores. A common refrain from Civil Defense is “Heed all advice from ocean safety officials. When in doubt, don’t go out.” Yet, it is times like these that resonate most with a surfer’s heart, maybe even speeding it up a beat. High surf is more invitation than warning. Regardless of how active the ocean is, surfing requires patience. At least surfing the “right wave.” Either prostrate or sitting atop an even smaller board, many factors are taken into consideration. The wave’s shape and size are a priority. Also how the crest peels is important, so it is not too steep. Speed is weighed in, fast but not too fast, or maintaining balance may be difficult. To ride a wave is often a fleeting moment, followed by a great deal of work paddling back out and through crashing waves. World class South African Surfer, Shaun Tomson says it best, “Surfing teaches patience. On land, surfers cannot will a swell to appear. They have to wait for nature to make the call. So surfers wait. They keep their eyes on the horizon and they wait.” Sitting astride my board, staring as far as my eyes can see, the sun sinking low. These moments in wait are sometimes as enjoyable as gliding atop the wave. 

Chilled by the Wind and Rain of Kīpuʻupuʻu 

Where I live, over two thousand feet above the ocean, the weather can be described as windy or windier. There is no happenstance that the mascot of the school where I teach is kamakani, “wind” in Hawaiian. Trade winds, blowing from NE to ENE direction account for 70% of all winds in Hawaii. The origins of the name “trade winds” date back to the mid-15th century to the mid-17th century and what is called, the Age of Exploration and Overseas Expansion. Sailors recognized the trade winds as a reliable way to navigate and they used the predictable easterly winds for westward voyages across the open oceans. Though summer months may in effect be even windier, it is the type of wind that has me equate winter with wind. Kīpuʻupuʻu, one of at least 58 names for the different winds of Hawai‘i Island, is specific to this place high in the hills and means “chilly wind and rain.” These winds and rain are known for their side-sweeping direction. Patience has a role when Kīpuʻupuʻu winds and rain prevail. One must not imagine hard, knowing how verdant and sweeping hills will illuminate and birds will fill the air in song. 

Asked to Change the Rules of the Game

Telling “my story,” I think about how place plays a pivotal position. So too does patience. A lifelong lover of basketball, I helped coach “women’s” basketball this past winter. “Women’s” is wrapped in quotes because it is yet another “w”. Several moments stand out from the season and yet one is indelibly etched as “to be remembered.” A moment that required patience. A player challenged, “If we just hit the top corner of the box, can we count that?” The question, asked honestly, came amidst a drill where players kept missing what is termed “the easiest shot in basketball,” standing 45 degrees and just three feet from the basket. This was a lesson ultimately based on geometric laws. An example of compound motion which combines vertical and horizontal motion. The ball is heaved, follows a three-dimensional trajectory, bounces off the backboard, and goes through the rim and eventually the net. Two points. If only you use the backboard, the keys being the angle of incidence and angle of reflection. Mastering this shot, called a “bank shot” requires a bit of understanding of angles, distance, and also timing. Yet, true mastery comes through repetition and muscle memory. This very drill might just have been “the magic” behind why shooting averages improved so much. 

However, at this penultimate practice, the player whether earnestly or entitled asked, “If we just hit the top corner of the box, can we count that?” yearned to shortcut not only the rules of the game but the very essence of geometry itself. My dumbfoundedness resulted in the space for players to ask about spin, height, ball pressure, etc., and how these all might need to be factored in. True, true, and true. And yet, counting a basket meant scoring it. So, “NO! We could not just hit the top corner of the box and count it!” Though I wanted to scream, “Just do the drill,” I calmly bit my bottom lip; somehow, somewhere finding the necessary level of patience to listen, respond kindly, and refocus players’ attention on the mechanics necessary to score.

Letting Patience Be a Unifying Force

Basketball season is over, the winds are settling down, the waves waning, and the whales are all headed north and eastward. I sit contemplatively, reflecting on a life deeply connected to nature’s rhythms. Patience emerges as a guiding principle and I will it blossom. Already I am excited to await another winter and the majestic return of whales and exhilarating waves. Patience is a necessity. The Kīpuʻupuʻu sweeping across the hills and the moments on the basketball court helped me realize the value of this patience. My understanding but also hope, is to understand how every experience shapes a distinct narrative, and how it is patience that holds the potential to serve as a unifying force. If we can be comfortable, if even for just a little while, to step aside, wait, listen, and learn. Only then will places be in a prime position to teach us. 

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An End to Gatekeeping as We Soar into 2024

My final article of last year was a contemplation of the need for a radical shift in education, advocating for a departure from traditional structures. One focused on responsibility and an optimistic mindset. Without focused intention, I seemingly then followed up by writing about the underpinning importance of spirit and the value of authenticity. At midnight tonight, we will welcome 2024 and I am curious what the year ahead holds in store. My best guess? An increasing awareness and an availing of oneself in an age where gatekeeping no longer has a place. The word “gatekeeper” may just be the quintessence of 2024. 

The Continual Changing Landscape of Education

The past week on several occasions the word “gatekeeper” surfaced. It is highly sensical too when we consider how anyone is now able to self-publish. Consider the ubiquity of not only social media but how an individual can reach over 160 million people/followers on a platform like TikTok. Or, how Tik Tok now has over 1 billion subscribers! Further, consider the rise of the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and how it continues to revolutionize content creation. Not only is it faster and more efficient, but it also is becoming more accurate. The point is, if you have something to share, you not only have an audience but are free to share.

Essentially, gatekeeping is defined as the practice in which a hierarchy of power holds power and can limit access. My initial understanding of how the world was changing in a very practical sense occurred as I traipsed the world back in 2011. Irrespective of location, be it in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco or the Amazonian River Basin of Ecuador the response to, “How did you learn English?” was always the same. “English” could be substituted for beekeeping, dancing, cooking, or any other skill, and yet the response was always…

“YouTube.”  

Long gone are the days when an institution, course, or teacher is necessary. Nor is the cost of learning a deterrent. An internet connection and time are all that are required. Individuals with the will to learn something, anything, have been doing it for more than a decade. This second millennium allows us the opportunity to move through time and space differently. Access, not gatekeeping is where we are now. And access even to what is considered “the best.” For example, Yale no is longer limited to just Yale students. “In recent years, Yale has expanded its offering, including the online Coursera classes which are estimated to have over one-and-a-half million students in 2023.”  Specific to education, the term gatekeeping is about controlling the rate at which students progress to more advanced levels of study in the academic setting. Thankfully, learning as we know it, is no longer limited to institutional settings. Not only can we learn anything, from anyone, anywhere, and at any time, but we are also free to progress at the most fitting rate. 

Technology’s Influence Unveils a World of Choice

One might go so far as to say there is amovement” underway. One rooted in choices. Just consider how we continue to see an upswell in such choices as this abbreviated list:

  • Online Learning Platforms: Platforms like Coursera, Udemy, and Khan Academy
  • Micro-Credentials and Badges
  • Homeschooling and Unschooling 
  • MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses
  • Gamified Learning 

*Note: Udemy alone registered 870 million course enrollments as of June 2023

Inherent in each is the removal of the traditional gatekeeper. Such choices have however elicited a question concerning credentials and their verification. James Mattiace expounds in The Global Credentialing Landscape: Messy, Massive and Meaningful, “The world is getting more complex. Different countries are adapting their educational and professional certification programs and there is a proliferation of fraudulent credentials, which will likely get worse before it gets better as we enter an increasingly AI-infused world.” Whatever the case, we need not be reminded that there continues to be great value in access to non-traditional, credit and non-credit learning experiences continues to increase. 

Education’s Real-World Power

It might serve us to follow the mindset of influential worldwide leader, Jeff Bezos. On more than one occasion he shared, “I have learned to use the word ‘impossible’ with great caution.” 2024 is about possibility. Not only are all things possible, but quite probable. A look at the “real world” tells us so. As part of my formal training as an educator we were assigned to read Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Though the book had a profound impact on me, it was minimal in comparison to what I learned from my practicums and working in a diversity of settings. Settings that were very different from the theoretical university classroom or that which I had experienced growing up. Over the course of a year, I would experience four 3-month rotations in settings where I would be with children growing up oppressed. In schools where students were the sons and daughters of seasonal migrant workers, in schools where 100% of the students received free lunch (and often breakfast too!), and also in schools where I would support severely and differently-abled students who were mainstreamed. This was the “real world”. The best teacher would be the setting and the children, in accordance with what Freire believed education to be. An education that he quoted as “freedom.” Not the formal school curriculum which he distrusted. This quote, “Education is freedom” is as timeless as it applies to today. A learning which supersedes the heads and hearts of academics, but is more about the hands and feet on the ground. It is about doing the work now. A clear realization and also trust that all that is needed already exists. Pivotal in this is the reality of humanity’s resilience. To attempt to hold this back, or in other words “gatekeep” is misguided.

 Answers Not in Dollars but in “Sense” 

“You hear that Mr. Anderson?” is a memorable line from The Matrix that many readers might remember. The query comes as Agent Smith holds Neo’s (Mr. Anderson) hand on the train track. The sound of the train thunders towards them. “That is the sound of inevitability!” threatens Smith. Yet, Neo defies the odds and does not succumb to death. His strength is akin to what is held in store for today’s youth. Africa’s youth but one possessor of the palpability of power, wisdom, and resilience. Such spirit can be seen in Ugandan children’s dancing. The video is not meant to be tokenism nor reductionist but simply showcase the electrified sense of vibrancy, life, and possibility. The children soon will be part of Africa’s working force. I hope that the remnants of colonialism will not act as gatekeepers. 

By the late 2030s, sub-Saharan Africa’s working-age population will reach 1 billion. Though India overtook China this past year, both with nearly one and a half billion people, sub-Saharan Africa’s population will soon outrank both.  What might this mean? Hopefully a compelling sense of urgency to invest educationally. And yet, how this might look, might require a bit more imagination or possibly radical simplification. A desire to color outside the lines, and not necessarily abide by unsustainable practices traditionally attempting to place band-aids on gaping wounds. Instead, how might we create choices within communities? Tap into the expertise and wisdom of elders. The answers are not in dollars but in sense. The sense of inside out and not outside in. An understanding that everything needed already exists. 

Might 2024 not only be a decline in gatekeeping but also a greater realization the world over, of our greatness. The Master Persian Poet Rumi said it best:

“You were born with greatness. You were born with wings. You are not meant for crawling, so don’t. You have wings. Learn to use them and fly.” 

So, let us soar into 2024.

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“Urgent” COP28 and Education: Between Illusion and Imperative

Just yesterday I was asked by a student’s parent, “If you could wave a magic wand at anything in education, what would it be?” Being in a continual state of reflection of all-things-education, I did not hesitate to answer on a more global scale. What tops the “in need of a magic wand” list for me is authenticity. This includes the overemphasis on standardized testing (high-stakes college admissions tests too!), as well as the need for education to serve as a mechanism for “real world” applications. After our conversation, I thought back on an article I wrote in April of 2021 for Getting Smart titled, “Transforming the Landscape of Education”. In it, I alluded to “personalization, authenticity, and transferability”. As I attempted to make more sense of all I observed on a recent visit to Dubai, I used the same “trifocal” lens.

The point of a December visit to Dubai was to attend COP28 and the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The fact that Dubai hosted COP28 was not only ironic but may have added insult to injury. Past summits have not exactly resulted in an active addressing of global climate change. The need to “walk the talk” is entirely relatable to educational rhetoric. A close friend of mine is increasingly growing impatient with dialogue. He shared the proverb “ready, fire, aim,” a reminder to not delay any longer in taking action. It is likely to fare even better than planned action. There may even be truth behind the devil smiling when we sit and make plans. Besides, don’t we already know enough about the problems, to know what to do?

A past colleague shared recently how the director of his school boldly decided to add Capstone and Advanced Placement (AP) curricula to their existing International Baccalaureate program. Not because it was best for students but because the school, the director used the word “business,” is in a “saturated market.” Keeping up with the Joneses and a dependency on economic models may not be the best strategy for the long game and is not in the best interest of preparing learners for the exciting and uncertain times we already face. Rather, the nexus is in providing students with pathways of personalization. Where the learning they do makes a difference today and prepares them for tomorrow. Albeit, as tangible as growing vegetables or doing interview projects with the elderly. Approaches akin to this are about inclusivity and equity. Not exactly a pervasive feeling in Dubai, where upon arrival at the airport the taxi driver professed, “Dubai is for rich people.” This was a sensible claim after my near interrogation and uncovering how he works 10 months a year, 7 days a week, and 12 hours a day. On a purely commission basis and in a country with no minimum wage, if my Math was correct, his annual earnings are around $14,000.  

Stripping Away All Pretense

Though I was in Dubai for just a week, I came away feeling like it could be summed up in a single word. Mirage. A rather ostentatious one too. Though it is clean, an international business hub, and virtually faces none of the social ills such as homelessness and drug abuse plaguing so many cities in the United States, I quickly brushed up against a reality not congruent with the facade. A city of superlatives. The world’s tallest building, biggest fountain, etc., etc. Skin-deep appearances are to be kept. Handbags which cost thousands of dollars, possibly as much as the annual salary of a taxi driver, and flashy sports cars. Dubai is about a mortgaging of the future and an incessant development of Herculean scale. The United Arab Emirates is an immigrant nation, where just 12% of the population is Emirati. A nation built literally out of the sand in just five decades. Income inequality and labor rights remain chief concerns. Head wounds that seldom even receive bandaids. One must not dig deep to learn more about how powerful and profitable construction companies are.  As well as their omnipotence. Often, the businesses and the government are one. 

Before this year’s climate talks, there were already reports of labor rights abuses at the very site of COP28. Built to host EXPO 2020, the European Parliament boycotted the event and called on Member States to not participate because of human rights abuses. Even with an abundance of glitz and glamor, a visitor need not strain their eyes to see inequity. Lining the highways are labor camps, and concrete housing structures more resembling prisons than homes. Yet, employers who have 50 or more employees and pay less than AED 1,500 per month (approximately $400) are required to offer housing. There are even more labor camps out of sight and surely out of mind. After all, most visitors to Dubai are here to see what they want to see. Nonetheless, the city skyline, technological advancements, and recent sustainable labels attached to nearly everything are marked by contradiction. In a twisted manner, sustainability is being employed. “Political and business leaders in the UAE understand that burnishing environmental credentials are incredibly important for presenting the country and cities like Dubai as modern,” says Professor Natalie Koch, a specialist in political geography at Syracuse University. Regardless of whether or not the truth is being told and/or sold, there are two things humanity is unable to run from. They are truth and the future. 

What the future holds for the United Arab Emirates appears to be precarious. Even more so, as “development” shows no intention of decelerating. Sands shifting is a very real phenomenon, even if left undisturbed, “sands are in constant motion” determined by a recent study published in Nature Communications. What might this say about cities springing out of the desert in such a short time? The impact of millions of people has the sands unfathomably shifting. Ecological disruption, waste, extreme temperatures, and water scarcity are as “authentic” as the sun’s morning rays. The extremes one would expect of a desert are ignored, attention being directed toward the world’s largest artificial islands, colossal shopping malls, or a top-rated water park. Some of which have the gall to be marked “sustainable” even. How long this delusion might last is only a matter of time. One cannot help but marvel at how befitting 19th-century poet Percy Shelley’s words were in “Ozymandias”. A visionary depiction of collapse. Inevitable decline where the unethical smacking of “sustainable” and other “green” labels is merely pretense.  

Breaking the Hostage State: Climate Talks, Education, and Action

In education I often find myself asking, “What is normal”? The education system we currently know has been around for only 150 years. A system designed for control and mechanization, we often are encrusted in yesterday’s ways of thinking. Much bolder approaches must be taken. Where there is not only inspiration but aspiration. Where we gladly throw out the bath water to save “the baby.” The design of choices IS ABSOLUTELY POSSIBLE and can happen quite quickly. Consider how in my lifetime humanity has burned 80% of all the fossil fuels ever burnt. Humanity can consume what it wants…and fast!  

Climate talks and education are riddled in politics. Commonplace traditional schooling is not being addressed to scale, similar to the accelerated rate the earth is heating up. Neither education nor COP are fully responding. Though the science is clear, how can we applaud the slowing down of burning fossil fuels? A much more immediate plan with actions to stop burning fossil fuels is what is needed. Professor Daniela Schmidt of the University of Bristol sums up the necessary immediacy in action, “The time for talking is over. Delaying change further is indefensible. Pretending that reducing emissions by 2050 is enough and ignores the dangerous, life-threatening consequences of our anthropogenic heating of the planet.” Similarly, it is crucial to prioritize the designing of optimal learning experiences for students NOW, rather than focusing solely on a distant future. United World College is pioneering a course in partnership with the International Baccalaureate called, The Systems Transformation Pathway. It is divided into three components (Core curriculum, Enquiry into impact areas, and Impact area specialization). Though a stand-alone course, the Systems Transformation Pathway is a beginning. One bent on action orientation and focused on authentic real-world learning instead of being classroom-based and exam centered.

The framing of climate talks and movements forward in education must be free of politics. 2500 oil lobbyists at this year’s COP28, a number far more than the indigenous representation, was counterproductive and was purely a positioning for argument. Abolitionist and orator, Frederick Douglass said it best, “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.” Could there be more irony that a nation built on oil wealth, spearheading discussions on sustainability and environmental preservation? If that is not scorching enough, consider how COP29 is set to be in a city (Baku, Azerbaijan) where one of the world’s first oil fields developed 1,200 years ago! A coming home or maybe an origin story of sorts, as climate talks bent on transitioning away from fossil fuels are hosted by a nation where oil and gas account for 90% of their exports.

Just as nations face a transformative imperative, shifting from fossil fuels, so too must education. Where we embrace personalization, authenticity, and transferability. Climate talks and the future of education can no longer be held in a “hostage” state. A situation where there is almost a spellbound freezing in one’s tracks. Or worse yet, a dishonest celebration leading to a plan of even more far-flung crisis. Nor can we tolerate any longer the diversionary wag-the-dog approach, where there is an amalgam of calculating, “If others do not act, I don’t have to either.” This is not only self-destructive but devastating to humanity. The time for truth and action is now.

Could COP, “Conference of the Parties,” be a “Championing Of Planet” or might it remain a “Center of Pantomime”? The choice is ours.

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The Intersection of Nepotism, AI, and Human Intelligence: No Shortcuts

Face it, we live in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA). Even here in Hawaii, a place where much of the world thinks of as paradise. There is an increasing necessity to not only look at the facts but to apply our HI. No, not HI as in the abbreviated form of Hawaii. Rather, HI as in Human Intelligence.  To think for oneself. Not to kid oneself either. Legislation in Hawaii passed in 2010 a requirement that single-family dwellings being built must have solar water heaters. Four years later, all single-use plastic carryout bags were prohibited. As we come upon the tenth anniversary of this ban, we still need to focus and see the forest through the trees. Much remains to be done in Hawaii if we are to truly become more sustainable. The photo above, taken from my home, is but one example. Seeing the whole picture is necessary. A beautiful coastline, open space, and yet the neon green arrow points to where diesel oil burns for energy. A shortcut of sorts. 

Education in the AI Era: Shortcuts and Consequences

Recently a colleague encouraged me to install Brisk and Origins as Chrome extensions to detect the misuse of AI and plagiarism. To catch out students who opt for shortcuts. Ultimately though, my energies are more into teaching how to use AI as a thought partner of sorts as from personal experience I’ve garnered an understanding of how AI has the potential to create deeper learning. Surprisingly, however, I have found that many students are reluctant to utilize AI. Though initially drawn to it, students have shared how if used ethically, AI often creates more work. More work? Or, more learning?  

An invitation for more “work” is not one usually accepted. Increasingly this appears to be true. As students juggle academics, athletics, the fine arts, and all else whirling in their busy lives I sometimes marvel at the choices being made. For example, many students today have a much more “unique” approach to reading than a few generations ago. Maybe you remember the time, PI (pre-internet), when just had the book and maybe a copy of Spark Notes you purchased in a physical book. Today with the ubiquity of resources, instead of delving into the depths of a book, more traditionally or straightforwardly, students resort to a cunning shortcut. But there are no shortcuts. Watching videos, reading websites, and doing everything BUT reading the book, is a search to reach comprehension without the hassle of exhaustive reading. Ionically this makes the process a whole lot more laborious than just sitting back and reading the book!

Similar to the clever game of intellectual maneuvering to “read” a book, these past months as students apply to universities, I have wondered to what degree students are being used by AI. Opting for the long and winding road, interested in mastering the art of shortcuts, is an inaccurate portrayal being demonstrated to admissions departments? A colleague of mine advises, “Reality will surely strike.” Universities are likely to feel the brunt of who students “really” are and what students can do themselves. AI might be a tool that helps a student jump through the hoop, but once admitted might they be ill-prepared? If so, what might this mean to the future workforce? 

The Shortcut Myth

The current conversations of AI and ethics remind me of the nepotism I confronted early in my international teaching career.  “But Matthew, Martin is a ​​Dueñas (surname),” chided the director of the school. I was unfamiliar with the power of a last name and had never experienced such favoritism.  “Matthew, the Dueñas never fail.” All I knew was that Martin had done nothing all year. He knew, his family knew, and the director knew. Yet, ultimately I would be asked to change his grade. I stood my ground and let the director know that it would have to be her to do such a thing, not me.

There is a Chinese saying that goes “Wealth does not last beyond three generations.” This can be likened to a similar belief depicted in the American expression, “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”. Later in my international teaching career I would have a chance to see this adage playing out and would once again confront nepotism. This time, however, in a different region of the world. The fading of generational wealth was evident as I was introduced to hard-working and determined grandparents who were the builders and first generation of wealth. Students’ parents often were the maintainers and were able to preserve the wealth. Yet, various students, the third generation, were either being pushed through their education or accustomed to taking shortcuts. Unaware that there are no shortcuts. Ultimately, they would be inheriting companies and positions of power in which they were ill-equipped to perform. In effect, they were on the path to becoming the squanders of the families’ wealth. 

Nepotism, seemingly in the DNA of many cultures and industries, shares a kinship with the advent of AI as a shortcut. They both illustrate a preference for the familiar over the uncharted. Nepotism prioritizes kinship over meritocracy, while AI prioritizes convenience over authenticity and understanding. I continue to be a proponent of AI, recognizing that it is here to stay. It can and should be used as a tool. Also, one of the elephants in the room is the “shortcut myth.” AI may be just as students report, “more work.” However, when leveraged with honesty, as a tool, an addition, not a replacement to our Human Intelligence, results may generate greater opportunities, broader perspectives, and deeper understanding. In contrast to the constraints of nepotism, possibilities loom.

Meanwhile, it may help if we remember, there are no shortcuts.

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MASTERING FIRE WITH WATER: A Lesson in Creating Educational Sparks

Many outdoorsy types, including boy and girl scouts, dream of successfully mastering the age-old art of igniting fire with nothing more than a magnifying glass. What if I told you I started a fire with water?  

Nurturing Trust and Agency: The Cornerstones of Inclusive Education

As educators, we invest copious amounts of time into planning for the school year and in the first few weeks intentionally creating community in our classrooms. At the forefront, is fostering an inclusive environment where every student’s voice is valued and respected. Listening and truly valuing one another is our hope. As is collaboration and providing multiple opportunities for students to build connections with one another. Yet, at the foundation of everything is a fundamental feeling of trust. A Harvard Business Publishing Education article suggests that activating positive emotions, including trust, among students helps students foster cooperative relationships, build resilience and persistence, and increase motivation. Further, trust is in many ways tethered to agency. Positive and effective learning environments should induce trust. Trust in teachers, classmates, and possibly even in the education system. Of course, however, trust must begin within the individual. Then, there is empowerment. Not being acted upon as if to say, “I am giving you the choice.” But from within. This subtle nuance is the spark. It is the sensing of control, “the world is at my doorstep.”   

But beyond trust and agency, what are the other necessary ingredients to creating optimal learning environments?

Learning Language, Breaking Barriers: The Role of Authenticity and Place

Recently I was in a high school language classroom and it took me back to my first experience learning Spanish. The class was held in a lecture hall where I sat passively amongst 200 other students as the professor stood up front and rattled on incomprehensibly. Feeling academically wounded, I would then limp over to the language lab. Here, a teacher’s assistant would open a sliding glass window to enquire about the module. Then, before pushing play on the cassette recorder she would hand over tight-fitting headphones, a #2 pencil, and a scantron sheet. Never was there the ability to pause, let alone stop. The “show” just went on. With a one in four chance, I would guess, weary to have too many Cs blackened. My confusion and being disheartened eventually lost out to a more pervasive feeling. One of repulsion. This is NOT the experience we ever endeavor to create for learners.

Oddly enough, a decade later I would be in the classroom teaching Spanish even though I questioned if language could be learned in a classroom. My sentiment is captured in a timeless parody called, “One Semester Spanish Love Song.”  When I last watched, the first comment below the video read, “I took Spanish all the way up to AP Spanish in high school. This song summarizes how much of it I remember.” Might this be because of relevance? Language often is learned by going somewhere. We learn it when we have a purpose. When it is authentic. Furthermore, might there be ties between place-based education and the learning of language? Certainly, a deeper understanding of local culture and environment is integral. This example of learning a language ultimately can be translated into what it means to learn anything. The importance of place, purpose, an individual’s motivation, and authenticity. Ultimately, getting out of the classroom and into much more boundless spaces of learning.

Even if the reality for many teachers remains within four walls, we know learning is like breathing. Students will learn no matter what. So, let’s keep the “air” as clean as possible.

The Container: Creating the Right Conditions

So I did really light a fire with water. I share this because it showcases what is possible with just the right conditions. Might we as educators intentionally create such similar conditions? Where there is a spark and then a fervent fire for learning. Countless times in the past I have filled a gallon glass jug with water and set it in the sun to allow for dechlorination. Recently, I errantly placed it against a dry wooden stump where in the days to come I would water saplings. 18 hours after filling the jug I received a text from our tenant saying, “There was a small brush fire at a tree stump in the front of the house, all put out now and heavily watered down. It was caused by science and a glass water jug which magnified the sun…” He was being generous, the fire was caused by ME! Well, my negligence along with heat, dryness, powerful morning sun rays, and the water’s reflection. Never in my wildest dreams would I have considered the gallon jar of water a fire hazard. Besides being grateful to have learned the lesson the easy way, I thought about how this example speaks volumes about what is possible. What is possible with the right conditions? 

So, venture forth to continue to spark inspiration and kindle the flames blazing within your classrooms!

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How to Rekindle the Runner’s Spirit: From Last Place to a Fresh Start

Life’s rhythm these past few months has resembled more staccato than flow. However, after more than three decades, I find myself on the familiar yet uncharted path of rediscovering my love for running. In turn, I notice an improved sense of joy, creativity, and legato-like feel to life. Smooth and steady. This fits with education as such exercise has brain-changing effects. 

Up until six weeks ago, I would admit to running, only if I were being chased. However, it has not always been this way. I was fueled by the boundless energy and curiosity of childhood and could often be found running in the forests, across the hills, and through Mill Creek. I exchanged my football helmet and pads Freshman year for running shoes and surprised even myself by joining the cross country team. I had never run three miles in my life and now we were warming up with this. The training stands out as a vivid memory, yet one particular cross-country competition especially remains unforgettable. It was a chilly autumn afternoon when Coach Wilson moved me up to run in the Varsity match, surrounded by probably two hundred other eager runners. The race was fierce, with every stride carrying the weight of expectations and determination. I wish I could say I became lost on the course but the truth was I started too fast and ran out of gas. I ended up being at the back. The very back. Once I could see the finish line, the supporters could see me too. And on that final stretch, I could see one other lone boy in a blue jersey just ahead of me. The absolute tail to this whale of a race. As we approached the finish line, the atmosphere grew electric. I suppose this is when my brain had the most changing effects! To this day I wonder if the cheer for the last runners sometimes rivals the 1st place finisher. For most of the race, I had been trailing far behind, lost in my struggle against the course. But, in the final stretch, when I spotted the second-to-last place runner, I summoned every ounce of strength left. Sprinting with all my might, I closed the gap. It was an all-or-nothing effort, and my parched mouth was seemingly whetted by this small victory. To not be the last runner. This however would not be the case, for as we reached the finish chute, the blue in blue abruptly veered in front, stealing my chance at redemption. I crossed the finish line dead last. The first, but also the last time this ever would happen.

Battling Shin Splints in Military Boots, Barefoot Adventures, and Blistered Feet

Fast forward four years and I picked up running again. Only this time my fancy shoes were traded out for leather combat boots. I was part of a Ranger team in the ROTC program at university. The distance tripled and a 40-pound rucksack now weighed heavily on my shoulders. This was an experience that left its mark—quite literally. Brain-changing, to say the least! Those rugged boots pounding against the unforgiving terrain eventually gave rise to the nemesis of every soldier: shin splints. I continued to run, the discomfort growing until I was hobbled. Decades would pass before I would even trot again.   

Then in 2013, I came across a book called, “Spark.” The author Dr. John J. Ratey explores how exercise has a profound impact on the brain. I read convincingly about how aerobic exercise has the power to transform one’s health. Something I knew from experience. And nowhere did it indicate one must run. Shortly thereafter a friend recommended I read, “Born to Run.” Christopher McDougall, the book’s author, shares how he overcame injury by running barefoot with an indigenous people in Mexico who were recognized for their abilities to run long distances with huaraches on their feet. Not the huarache of Mexican street food folklore, made of masa and topped with refried beans, meat, cheese, and salsa. No, these huaraches are simple flat sandals, one continuous strap that attaches to the bed of the sandal between the first and second toe. I dabbled in a version of barefoot running, once even running barefoot high in the hills above our house. The result was blood blisters stretching the entire length of the bottom of both feet. And my shin splints from years ago still flared up. Once again, I stepped away from running.

Exercise and Change the Trajectory of Your Life for the Better

Running seemingly became a distant memory until recently when I was inspired during a high school cross-country race. I stood at the edge of the course, the young runners crept and clawed up the steep 8% grade hill. I could almost feel the burn in their legs and the determination in their hearts. Some managed to run the whole way, many walked, and some even maneuvered with their hands pulling at the earth. For some reason running suddenly appealed to me. Maybe because I told myself, “I bet I can run this hill without stopping.” After the race, a colleague randomly shared a TED video of Wendy Suzuki. She is a neuroscientist at New York University. When I looked at the number of viewers, over 16 million, I felt a little like I did in crossing the finish line last. How had I not seen this video? In it, she shares how study after study shows how we benefit from exercise. Before closing she imparts, “I want to leave you with one last thought. And that is, bringing exercise into your life will not only give you a happier, more protective life today, but it will protect your brain from incurable diseases. And in this way, it will change the trajectory of your life for the better.” Convinced, I bought a new pair of running shoes and registered for a 10km run to benefit a local Dry Forest.

Embracing a Healthier Rhythm of Life

A newfound perspective on running has since rekindled the flames of passion for the timeless sport. Yet, choosing to exercise for the benefit of your brain does not have to be limited to running. I invite you to join me on your odyssey, as you remain motivated to move your body. You may even experience greater flow, legato in the place of staccato! Inattention, tiredness, and brain fog shelved for a higher vibration and healthier rhythm of life. 

7 Tips For Success
#1 Start slow and keep mileage low so as not to overdo it
#2 Get professionally fitted shoes, creating peace of mind that what you have on your feet is best
#3 Recruit a partner to be your “running partner”
#4 Be creative and change routes for your eyes and body to experience the scenery and terrain
#5 Sign up for an event so you have a goal to work towards
#6 If there is a day you don’t feel like running, take a walk
#7 If you don’t feel like running (or walking!) do something that is active and provides you with joy

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From Yesterday to Tomorrow: Embracing Education’s Changing Landscape

The emergence of innovative teaching methodologies continues to reshape the way we prepare the leaders of tomorrow. Though numerous events and ways of learning are unfolding, a sound seemingly rings out. One that is ubiquitous, a symphonic and synchronous echo full of hope, reminding me of the value of holding fast to what it might mean to be progressive. Global Online Academy, more flexible scheduling, Hunter and Gatherer Education, and Khan Academy all naturally command my focus.

Fostering Independence: The Teacher’s Path to Becoming Unnecessary

This semester I am teaching two courses for Global Online Academy, an “institution” predating COVID-19 by nearly a decade. With a mission “to reimagine learning to empower students and educators to thrive in a globally networked society,” GOA is about reimagining learning. Currently, enrollment is at its highest, welcoming 14,000 students these past weeks. Students often are curious about the frequency of Zooms. For some there are memories, possibly not so positive, of 2020 when many schools just transferred classrooms to online, expecting students to be glued to their screens in a more traditional lecture approach. What students however quickly learn through experience and the bi-weekly Zoom usually is what is reflected upon as bringing so much connection and joy. Students from across the globe meet, are offered differing perspectives, and both provide and receive valuable feedback. Sometimes I am present and can help guide the session. Other times, students simply record the Zoom and share it with me. I have found that when I intentionally get out of students’ way, some of the deepest learning occurs. This is progressive. Educational theorist Thomas Carruthers was on to something when he shared how a teacher is “one who makes himself progressively unnecessary”. 

The Four-Day School Week: A Bold Step Towards Greater Flexibility

Similar to GOA’s reimagining learning, businesses are beginning to entertain envisioning a different look to the work week. One which increases flexibility in new and different ways. A March 10, 2023 article in the World Economic Forum attests to the success of a pilot project where a 4-day work week was tried. Of the 61 UK companies taking part, ninety percent kept the shortened week going even after the trial period ended. Furthermore, 30 percent committed to a permanent 4-day workweek change. Similar results were found in the “world’s biggest trial of the four-day workweek.”  

Might schools be so bold?

Over 2,000 schools in 26 states have already made the switch to a four-day school week. Usually, the choice is either fiscally related or moral boosting for teachers and students alike. Researchers share how no statistically significant detriment evidence is found of four-day school week achievement impacts. Though it still may be too early to tell, the bigger “reveal” that behooves us to understand is that learning is not something that just happens in places we call schools. Case in point, hunter and gatherer education.

Reconnecting with Our Roots: The Role of Balance and Play

In the past two generations, we have witnessed a winnowing of children’s outdoor playtime. Screen time is one factor, as is a move towards greater urbanization and also adults structuring children’s play life. Oddly enough there sometimes is an almost overt convincing regarding the importance of children spending time outdoors. Are we so separated from nature? Annie Murphy Paul’s profound book, “The Extended Mind,” alludes to how humans are wired to thrive outdoors and that it is more than just enjoyment. Paul states that being in natural, outdoor environments helps to relieve stress and balances our equilibrium, which in turn makes our thinking more effective. Makes sense. We spent thousands of years outdoors and but a bit more than a century locked up in schools and workplaces!

Peter Gray, an American psychology researcher and scholar, makes a case for how childhood was better in the days of hunting and gathering. Gray purports that we should design learning environments around such values as autonomy and sharing. Furthermore, play has a very important role in that it is preparation for learning and life. “Gray has long appreciated how spontaneous, unsupervised play aids self-directed learning and self-assurance in children.” Dr Nikhil Chaudhary shares in an article in Science Daily how “Hunter-gatherer childhoods may offer clues to improving education and wellbeing in developed countries.” Around the globe, emphasis is not only being placed on improving learning but also on student well-being. Looking back to our origins, we have a lot to learn from hunter-gatherer societies. One such fact is how rare instructive teaching is. Instead, Chaudhary cites how children from around the age of two, spend large portions of the day in mixed-age (2-16) ‘playgroups’ without adult supervision. Play and exploration are integral, as children they learn from one another, acquiring skills and knowledge collaboratively. Strangely, I can see a resemblance to the Zooms my students have without me “in the room.” Yet, even more critical is the need to highlight the role of the unconventional. One analogous approach could be the respected paragon of outdoor wear, Patagonia. How Patagonia does business is anything but “usual.”  Patagonia prioritizes balance between work and play and the company values flexibility. A testament to this is their, “Let My People Go Surfing” flexitime policy which allows employees to “catch a good swell, go bouldering for an afternoon, pursue an education, or get home in time to greet the kids when they come down from the school bus”. A far cry from a world caught up in traffic, tests, and stress. A read of Cal Newport’s, “What Hunter-Gatherers Can Teach Us About the Frustrations of Modern Work,” alludes to lessons about improving jobs (and schools) today.

Redefining Mastery: Exploring Alternative Paths to Success

Last, evidence is increasingly abundant for how alternative pathways are becoming less and less “the alternative.” Just ask Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, an organization incorporated as a 501c(3) nonprofit back in 2008, a signature year in technology as Google Chrome entered the browser business. His mission? To accelerate learning for students of all ages. Khan’s free courses, test prep, and tutoring are now being utilized by more than 152 million users. Moreover, a recent precedent was set by the prestigious Caltech. Some students have not had access to required courses such as calculus, physics, and chemistry. In response to possible admission barriers, one alternative path is to take Khan Academy‘s free, online classes and score 90% or higher on a certification test. Permitting an alternative to prove mastery of the material is equitable and also a testament that quality education need not be constricted by tradition. 

Countless Promising Opportunities on the Horizon

The future has arrived. Many moves are being made. Global Online Academy, is an example of connection but also the possibility of learning with anyone, anywhere, and at any time. New structures such as the 4-day school week are being piloted, often in places where we might least expect progressiveness. We too are reminded of the millennia spent as hunters and gatherers. Might this inform the role of greater balance and play? And finally, the likes of Khan Academy illustrate a gaining of momentum for alternative pathways. Steve Jobs concluded his commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005 with the advice, “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” And so might we, stay hungry and foolish, as the anticipation builds. Numerous are the promising opportunities that lie ahead.

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Forward Reflections: The Essence of Belonging in the Journey Ahead

Sometimes I am guilty of stating the obvious. To steer clear of this, I instead wish to provoke the reader with a few questions. As summer comes to an end and a new academic year looms on the horizon, how might summer’s final quiet moments of deep reflection result in action? Further, are you taking time to consider ways in which classrooms and entire school communities can be impregnated by a critical and omnipotent sense of belonging?  

Education: A Crucible for Molding Minds and Shaping the Future

For many, August is the new September as school will start well before Labor Day. Regardless of timing, the next month surely will witness a coming back to life for schools. Regardless of the preparation on the part of teachers and administration, it will be students who ultimately breathe life back into the shells we call school. Bustling hallways, the clamor of youthful footsteps, and hopefully an echoing of far more questions than answers. Discovery. Pervasive in schools and society, but also paradoxical, is an elusive treasure: belonging. More than a feeling, belonging need not be like a hidden oasis in an arid desert, for it holds the power to quench the parched spirit and genius to soon step into our schools. Torrents of uncertainty and the biting winds of isolation can be quelled. Yet, it won’t just happen. We, as educators, must deliberately set the stage. Taylor Mali’s slam poetry performance, “What Difference Does a Teach Make,” remains gospel as there is no space for the self-deprecating claim, “I’m just a teacher.” 

Education has, does, and will always serve as a crucible for molding minds and shaping the future. Definitely not a role to be underestimated. In this molding and shaping, a sense of belonging must be the lifeblood of all we do. Belonging naturally courses through the veins of learning but also the fragile tendrils of what it means to live. Though there are countless studies of belonging across multiple disciplines, including education, sociology, and psychology, we know, no proof is necessary to support the idea that belonging is an innate and essential human need. Before the “gates” open and students pour into school, it serves us well to not only consider but make a plan for how we might create a greater sense of belonging in our school communities.  

Three Strategies to Develop Belonging

  1. Know Your Students: Create opportunities for students to share their unique stories. President Theodore Roosevelt said it best, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Take an honest interest in students and foster inclusivity and diversity, modeling care so students similarly take a genuine interest in not only knowing but appreciating each other. Considering Betsy Butler’s, “11 Tried and True Strategies for Getting to Know Your Studentsas a sort of a la carte menu may help foster connections.
  1. Deliberately Design Learning Which Integrates Community: Encourage collaboration not just between students but also across the entire community. Communicate with parents and invite others in, but also consider how students’ learning might be able to make a positive impact on the larger community. One such school that navigated this paradigmatic shift is Iowa BIG. One example is their half-day option for juniors and seniors from three districts to conduct community-connected projects for core credit. For more on this, see feature and podcast
  1. Provide Support and Resources: Aside from dedicated student support services, integrate peer-to-peer tutoring and encourage participation in a range of extracurricular and club activities. Don’t leave it to counseling centers alone to support students with self-esteem, stress management, and building healthy relationships. By providing the support students need, there will be a strengthening of being valued and truly feeling like one belongs. Veteran teacher Tim Smyth shares in, “The Truth About SEL. It Works,” the importance of connecting with students on a human-to-human level. “We’re all going through something, every one of us, especially teenagers. They have a right to be mad, have a right to be sad, a right to be joyful.”

Ultimately, schools must foster a profound sense of belonging among students, faculty, and families. This does not just happen but requires intentional practices that nurture inclusivity, connection, and support. Deliberate actions are necessary for the seeds of belonging to be sown. Seeds to be watered, sunned, and shaded; allowing students to flourish and thrive within the nurturing embrace of their educational community.

WELL Certification: Building for Health and Wellness

So, who already is setting the stage for creating spaces that lend themselves to greater belonging? Jeff Platenberg, Assistant Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) shared, “Safety and well-being of our students and staff is our top priority. Ensuring that our buildings are optimized to provide a healthy learning and work environment is a critical part of that effort.” FCPS in turn earned the WELL Health-Safety Rating. LEED, standing for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is well known the world over and is a certification focusing on environmental impact and sustainability. One requirement to become certified involves the integration of healthy, sustainable construction practices. Green Business Certification Incorporation (GBCI) administers the LEED certification program and in July 2020, developed WELL Certification. WELL takes it one step further, and focuses on people’s health and wellness. It is “a performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and wellbeing, through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind.” Hundreds of experts across academia, public health, medicine, government, and real estate provided input, and now schools, startups, and Fortune 500s are utilizing the certification as a seal of prioritization. When we recognize a student will spend more than 15,000 hours at school in their lifetime, it behooves us to create more healthy environments.  

Forward Ho! Lovers of Truth and Good!”

In the tapestry of education, tolerance and welcoming are no longer enough. Appreciation and belonging are what will weave the threads of connection, understanding, inclusion, and empathy. Threads that will create a foundation where students can grow, flourish, and find their place in this vast world. Poet and playwright Charles Harpur said it best in “Forward Ho!” 

And doubt not, the earth that has grown old in sorrow

Shall grow young again in the light of that morrow.

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