Agency: Reflections on an Interview with Sugata Mitra

For the past decade, I’ve focused on supporting teacher agency at my school. In the early years, our motto was “Continually becoming the professionals we already are.” 

Tim Logan, the host of the Future Learning Design podcast, recently interviewed Sugata Mitra, Professor Emeritus at NIIT University. Mitra has advocated for much less teaching in favor of much more self-organized learning since at least 20 years ago, when his Hole in the Wall experiments first garnered international interest.

Future Learning Design


I met Sugata Mitra at an ECIS Conference several years ago. After his keynote, I followed him to his breakout session that was, predictably, in the largest conference room available, with twenty or more tables that each sat eight people.

He started the session by presenting a problem to all of us in the audience. He told us we would have the entire session to wrestle work on our solutions. He added that we could use anything at our disposal, that we could switch groups if we thought it best, and that at the end of the session we would be able to share some of our solutions. Then he sat down. 

And didn’t speak. Just sat there. Quietly. I loved it.

About self-organization

My colleagues and I have frequent conversations about teach and student agency. We do so because we are working together with a set of creative elective courses within our traditional school. We call our program Edge, because it is a bit on the fringe, perhaps even a little edgy. There are no grades and we let the students self-organize. 

Well, mostly. Often we get a little uncomfortable as we watch our students struggle to self-organize. They don’t take the opportunities given to them (at least from our perspective) and instead seem to waste a heck of a lot of time. I’ve argued elsewhere that this time isn’t necessarily wasted and that slack time, as we’ve grown to call it, is needed for students to learn agency. My reasoning is that students can’t learn agency if we show them what to do every step of the way. They actually need to discover and practice agency themselves. 

But we teachers sometimes still go a little crazy watching this process. 

It is therefore something of a relief to reconnect with Mitra’s thinking and his gentle way of doing – or not doing. Learning (certainly he means some kinds of learning?) has to be undirected, he claims. Like when he put computers in poor areas of India and just watched what happened. (Learning happened, by the way, although I’m pretty sure you are already familiar with his Hole in the Wall projects.) 

Mitra remains very confident that students need the space and time – like the teachers needed the space and time in his workshop at ECIS so many years ago – to work things out for themselves. They need to get all the way back to self-organization as a starting condition to work on developing agency. I like to picture children when they are not in school, say on a Saturday at home with friends. They are often quite good at practicing self-organization then, because we leave them on their own and are happy when they work things out themselves. 

Maybe there is something artificial about our approach to learning during the school day. Mitra’s genius is his ability to make us worry about that possibility.


Speaking about curriculum, Mitra suggests that knowing why one is learning something is a necessary step in the process. If you think we already do this in school, well, here’s something to try. Roleplay a doubting, persistent student and a teacher from any subject. The person playing the student role should ask “Why is this necessary to learn?” The person playing the teacher should try to give good answers. Is it easy for the teacher? Do any of the answers ring a little hollow?

“When we make a curriculum … we have to tell the children WHY we had to learn this. It’s not okay to answer “You will understand when you grow up… or because it’s good for you.” So what do we really answer?

I think it might be interesting as well to ask the person playing the student role to bring up subjects that are not taught in school and ask “Why don’t we teach this?” Can the person playing the teacher give a good answer? Hint: Answering “Because that hasn’t been in the curriculum before” is not an allowable answer. “Because it’s good for you” neither.


Mitra also raises questions about our underlying mindset about what school is. “Within a school, unfortunately, people don’t really admire children’s ability to learn. It is often the reverse. The system seems geared towards pointing out to children what they need to improve in.”

Ouch. Are we doing that? I’m immediately reminded of those times I’ve heard, as a student or a colleague of a teacher, the speech at the beginning of the semester that goes something like this: “You all have an A right now. It’s yours to lose.” And I think of worksheets and papers and rubrics (some that I used just this morning as a teacher) which may encourage us (me) to find things that are wrong so that not everyone gets an A. In fact, I recently heard the admonition that not all students can get the highest score so their work shouldn’t all be graded at the highest level, even in the context of a rubric which allows unlimited redos in order to get the highest score. Are we in fact geared mostly to pointing out what needs to be improved and not lifting up what is good and interesting and insightful? 

I think again about when we leave our own children alone to self-organize their play (their learning, really). When we observe them for a minute our tendency is to comment on what is going well, what is interesting, and what is fun. Do we too readily swap that mentality when we enter the context of school, where a mindset of pointing out errors takes over? 

Mitra continues by noting that we tend to have students practice the stuff that is hard or not going well or is, to the students, less interesting. He muses that if our focus is often the hard and uninteresting stuff, the eventual result can be students who are not interested even in the stuff that was originally interesting to them.

In short: “If you admire children, they start doing better at the things they are really good at, just to show off. So I thought, can I get someone to admire them ….”

For Mitra this led to a program of volunteers called “the Granny Cloud.” Their purpose was not to teach, but simply to ask and be interested in what the students were doing. This sounds like a breath of fresh air. Wouldn’t it be fun to imagine your relationship with students along those lines? And if you already do – well, more power to you.


And a few words about assessment.

“If you allow students to use the internet during an exam, then that is called cheating … if you use Google Maps while driving, that is not called cheating.”

Indeed. The world of information has shifted faster than schools have kept up. I don’t see that as the problem. It’s just a statement of what has happened. What might be more problematic is recognizing the fundamental recalibration and not addressing it seriously. Yes, we can get away with slow change (or even digging our heels in), mostly because there are so many other slow changers to hang out with. But is that the right thing to do?

Mitra is telling us, like many are telling us, that we need a switch from what students remember to how students use the tools that are out there in order to actually do something. So he suggests we give the students their cell phones back and measure just three things:

  1. do they comprehend the material;
  2. can they transfer that understanding to another person; and
  3. can they use the internet well in order “to be able to figure out when it is leading you astray.”

Maybe his advice sets the stage for some backwards design planning on a very global scale. As a thought experiment, imagine that your school, your district, or your region adopted Mitra’s three areas to measure. Now work backwards to how the curriculum and instruction would need to change. For the curriculum, what stays and what goes? For instruction, what might learning look like?

In a nutshell, Mitra is telling us to do this: “Instead of saying solve this equation, change it to: how would you go about finding the solution to this equation?” 

And then sit down.

Knowing What You Don’t Know

So I’ve read a number of great books so far this year, and one of them has resonated so profoundly with me that I feel compelled to talk about it this week in the hopes that you decide to pick it up for yourselves…you won’t be disappointed. The book is called, Think Again, written by an organizational psychologist, speaker and writer named Adam Grant, and in my opinion, it might just be the most important book that you read all year. 

This book is the perfect book for all of us right now, because we live in a world where it is so easy to be blinded and blanketed by our own confirmation and implicit biases. Our social media platforms love to feed us what we want to hear and see, and that coupled with the entrenched belief that we know what we know, means we don’t always show up with an open mind when confronted with a difference of opinion. In fact, we are often so convinced that we are right in our views and opinions that we preach and prosecute without listening or questioning or considering at all…and that can be a dangerous roadblock in the search for truth, fact and common ground.

This book implores us to constantly think like a scientist, so we refuse to let our ideas become ideologies, and so we are daring enough to disagree with our own arguments. Grant says that, “thinking like a scientist involves more than just reacting with an open mind, it means being actively open minded. It requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong, and not for reasons why we might be right, and actively revising our views based on what we learn”. 

This book is a necessary reminder that it is essential that we all learn how to unlearn, and how to re-think, and to think again…rethinking is a skillset and a mindset, and something that I would argue we can all get better at. Grant talks about how our ways of thinking can often weigh us down, and we don’t bother to question them until it’s too late. Further to this, he discusses why it’s so hard for us to re-think…because it’s scary. Questioning ourselves not only makes the world more unpredictable, it also requires that the facts that we once thought were true may have changed, and what we once thought was right may now be wrong. 

Grant says that, “reconsidering something that we believe in deeply can threaten our identities, making it feel like we are losing a part of ourselves”, and “when a core belief of ours is questioned, we tend to shut down rather than open up”. I know that I am and have been guilty of this at times in my life, and reading this book it gave me the push that I needed to get in the habit of re-evaluating, reflecting, opening up, and really listening to the other side of an argument, especially when I know the other person is “wrong”. 

Anyway, do yourself a favor…no, do the world a favor and read this book. It’s a fantastic mix of rich storytelling and current research, and it will open up your mind to your own confirmation biases, as well as to the implicit biases that have sneakily become a part of who you are…like I said, you won’t be disappointed. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other. 

Quote of the Week…

The Curse of knowledge is that it closes our minds to what we don’t know. 

– Adam Grant

Related Articles –

Do You Know What You Don’t Know?

Languishing

Persuading the Unpersuadable

Reasoning With Unreasonable People

Even Over Zoom

Inspiring Videos – 

High School Baseball

Daddy’s Girl

The Reverse Selfie 

366 Nights

A Made-Up Word

Adam Grant – Think Again

Armchair Expert Podcast – Adam Grant Returns (Think Again)

2020-21 A Punctuated School Year

You can sum up this school year in a variety of ways. However, please don’t use the word “unprecedented.” The challenge isn’t what to say about the past 7 or 8 months – the challenge is how will we end it. Punctuation marks might be the best way to frame this finish.

.

Over and done. We came, we saw, we conquered.  Signed, sealed, and delivered. A year like none other and thank goodness it is finally over.  Full stop 

!

I can’t breathe with this mask on! Hybrid model of education, I didn’t sign up for this!  Two more months, you got this! Summer time!

,

A pause, however continuation as next year is not going to be much different, and this situation/sentence will just continue to go on.

?

How will we start in the Fall? But what about graduation ceremonies? How might we go about really getting closure to the year What are the effects for children being in front of computer screens for so many hours? I never did understand, how is it sanitary for students to pass a football but not share a pencil? Do the footballs have an anti-bacterial coating?

A case can be made for the fittingness of each form of punctuation. Yet, a lesser known, unusual mark might top them all.  The ellipsis.  And maybe that is because ellipses do the opposite of what punctuation usually attempts; indicating relationship between ideas.

Ellipsis

The “dot, dot, dot,” usually  is used either for omitting text, for pausing or trailing off in speech or thought.

Perfect.  Even more so, considering the advent of the ellipsis can be traced back to the drama of the 16th century. “Drama was ‘especially important’ in the evolution of the ellipsis,” says Dr. Anne Toner a Cambridge academic. 

Our parents and grandparents may have profited or toiled from the Roaring 20s and Great Depression. Unarguably very dramatic times. But, in our own lives, what has caused more stir than COVID-19? No better punctuation mark seemingly lends itself to the drama of the past year (or year and a half!) more than an ellipsis.  

How we end the 2020-21 academic year is of our choosing.  

The “rain” has fallen.  I only hope we subscribe to American singer-songwriter Johnny Nash’s optimism, “Look straight ahead, nothing but blue skies.”

Because bright, bright sun shiny days are surely ahead.

To be continued

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GLOBAL BOOK REVIEWS

Books truly can be a window to the world. While reading, you can live in another country, learn what life is like in a different culture while discovering both the world and yourself. The following books shed light on a variety of settings and situations and help to create awareness.

111 Trees, How One Village Celebrates the Birth of Each Girl, Rina Singh, Marianne Ferrer A wonderful true story from India, this book shows how one person can change the world. Traditionally, people in Sundar’s village had welcomed boy babies but not celebrated the birth of a girl. After the loss of his mother and a daughter, Sundar changes the minds of the villagers when he shows them how the earth needs to be replenished by planting trees. The parched earth recovers, it brings water and food to the village. Now his village plants 111 trees each time a girl is born and life has much improved for everyone. Sundar has changed his village and sent a message to other places around the world, encouraging eco-feminism. ISBN 978-1-5253-0120-9

One Hen, Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes. This is one of my all-time favorite books on the topic of service learning. So simple, yet so brilliant. Based on the true story of Kojo in Ghana, this book shows how one little thing can grow in a big one. Kojo starts borrowed money and buys one hen. Now Kojo and his mom can eat an egg and soon he has enough to sell some. Carefully he saves his money to pay off his loan, then he saves until he can buy another hen. Eventually Kojo can afford to attend school by selling eggs. Read this book with any grade level and you can enrich it by saving up $25.- to extend a loan to someone in need through KIVA.org – online micro lending. Your students can select a country and the person they wish to help.  ISBN 978-1-55453-028-1 Teaching guides: http://www.onehen.org/

See Where We Come From by Scot Ritchie takes a group of friends, all with different ethnic backgrounds. They prepare for their school’s Heritage Fair. Martin shares music and food from Japan, Sally brings smoked salmon and a cedar bark basket. Football from Brazil and koshary from Egypt help to celebrate a wide variety of customs and tradtitions. In the end pages, the book encourages family stories and shows how to make a Heritage box of treasures ISBN 978-1-5253-0497-2.

Gift Days by Kari-Lynn Winters, is a picture book for ages 8 up. This is the touching story of Nassali who longs to learn to read and write like her brother, Baaba. But since her mother’s death, Nassali is responsible for looking after her younger siblings and running the household. There is no time for books and learning. But one day she wakes up to discover that her chores have already been done. It is her first gift day. From that day on, once a week, Baaba gives Nassali the gift of time so that she can pursue her dream of an education, just as her mother would have wanted. The book itself is also raising money for the charity. Through the organization I am a Girl, which focuses on education and women’s rights, money has been raised to send girls to school in Uganda for a full year.  ISBN-10 1554551927; ISBN-13 9781554551927 Check out: http://kariwinters.com/gift-days

The International Day of the Girl, Jessica Dee Humphreys and Rona Ambrose, illustrated by Simone Shin. What happens if half a garden does not get tended, watered and gets trampled? This is the comparison made in an important new picture book that explains the need for, and origins of, the United Nations’ International Day of the Girl. Through real stories of girls around the world, the book shows the importance of education and nurturing skills in girls. It also emphasizes how men and boys can make a difference, contribute to and benefit from the well -being of half of the earth’s population. ISBN 978-1-5253-0058-5

Walking for Water – How One Boy Stood Up For Gender Equality, by Susan Hughes, illustrated by Nicole Miles Victor loves going to school in his village in Malawi. But when they turn eight, his twin sister Linesi has to do what women and girls have always done: bring much needed water to the village. When Victor’s teacher talks about equality, he realizes that this is not happening. Slowly he finds ways to help and change both the way things were always done and the minds of other boys in town. Based on a true story, the book offers words in Chichewa, as well as information on support organizations. ISBN 978-1-5253-0249-7

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. Also based on a true story but written for older students, this novel is the skillfully told tale of two African children who face hardships. A boy, Salva, is one of the ‘lost boys’ of Sudan. One day while in class, shooting starts as rebel forces reach his village. He walks and walks and walks in hopes of reaching safety, a new land where he can face a new future. A girl, Nya, lives in Sudan many years later. She, too, has to walk and walk. Eight hours a day to gather water for her family. She cannot go to school because the need for water is greater.

The two parallel stories intertwine when Salva, now with an American college degree, comes back to Sudan to build wells with the aid of Rotary International. This changes the lives of many Sudanese. A great story for all ages to share and discuss in the classroom. One of my local schools holds an annual Walk for Water day, educating students and raising funds to help build more wells in Africa. A picture book, to use with younger students to tie into the same theme is Hope Springs by Eric Walters. ISBN 978-0-547-57731-9

Amanda in Holland: Missing in Action by Darlene Foster. This book is the latest in a series of action/travel novels about Amanda. Each one is set in a different, real location and shares details about that country. In Holland, Amanda and her best friend Leah, see all the popular sights: tulips, canals, Anne Frank House, windmills, and even a wooden shoe factory. They learn about customs and traditional dishes. But Amanda is also here to discover what happened to her great uncle, who never returned to Canada after World War II. In the midst of her adventures, following clues about her uncle, she rescues an abandoned puppy. While trying to find him a home, she meets a Dutch boy who offers to help, a suspicious gardener and a strange woman on a bicycle. Upper elementary and middle school readers will enjoy following young traveler Amanda around Holland as she encounters danger and intrigue while trying to solve another mystery in a foreign country. Other locations in this series of print and ebooks include the Danube, New Mexico, Alberta, Spain, England and more. ASIN: B07L9LVK4J

Margriet Ruurs is a Canadian author who conducts author talks and writing workshops for international schools, in person and via ZOOM.

As If A Pandemic Wasn’t Enough…

We were feeling pretty good about things the last weekend in January.  Enrollment had gradually increased through the fall.  Though it was still not at pre-COVID levels, it was not as bad as we had feared.  This was partially due to a successful effort back in August to get faculty back into Myanmar before that option was closed off to teachers when the government announced all schools in the country shut for physical in class learning.  It was also due to a process we had put in place starting in December of what we called Transition Days, in which only two or three grades came on campus per day.  The idea was a gradual transition back to face-to-face learning, and it looked like we were heading toward that happening.  Finally, there was just a general sense that all was going well in the country.  The number of COVID cases had drastically declined, vaccinations had begun, and there were rumors the airport would fully reopen soon.  It really did seem we were on the right track to a return to some semblance of normality soon.

As a result, the morning of Monday, February 1 was a complete shock to the system.  I awoke at 5:00 AM to a phone call from our Director of HSSE informing me a military coup had occurred just a few hours earlier.  I remember taking my phone from my ear at the end of the call in a state of disbelief.  Dealing with COVID had been an incredible challenge as it had been for schools around the world.  To be honest, at times I had wondered if I could make it through the challenges coming my way leading a school through COVID.  Now this?  What do you do during a coup, especially in the midst of a pandemic?  I sat on the edge of my bed for a moment thinking.  Then I stood up, called our Director of Communications and Marketing, and asked him to put out a message that school was canceled for the day.  Simultaneously, I asked him to reach out to the leadership team, asking them to meet me at 8:00 AM at school.  I wasn’t at all clear yet what needed to be done, but felt these were good first steps.

There are eight members of our leadership team.  We began by going around and having each person speak.  The idea was to hear about their thoughts and concerns, any information or rumors they had heard about what was happening, and finally, what did each of them believe our immediate steps needed to be.  During the course of this discussion some key points began to emerge.  First, we believed we needed the school to remain a safe place for our community, especially all of our students.  Second, we realized that for the first to happen ISY needed to remain neutral in the current political situation.  While we might have feelings about the situation, the school itself needed to be seen as neutral.  Finally, we also determined that we needed to be a point of stability for our community.  As much as possible, we needed to pursue a course that provided stability and continuity for students with minimal disruptions.  Once we had these key concepts, we determined we needed to call faculty together to give them a sense of security, as well as to provide direction moving forward.  We put out word we would be meeting later that morning.  Finally, several times during all of this I called our Board Chair.  I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of this relationship.  I kept her up to speed on the discussions taking place, permitting her to support my decisions publicly.  Beyond that, the fact we had developed a strong relationship over time meant that in this time of crisis I was able to count on her, consult with her, and trust in her to be a support in the tough times ahead.

The weeks that followed reflected a constantly evolving situation.  The first week of February was incredibly quiet.  Everyone seemed in a state of disbelief.  It was almost like people were in mourning.  During this period, I remember that every time I looked at my assistant she would look like she was about to break out crying.  There were many people like this.  Then, the weekend came and with it began massive demonstrations.  Literally millions of people took to the streets to demonstrate, taking on the three-finger symbol of resistance from The Hunger Games as their own.  There was almost a carnival type atmosphere during this period along with a renewed sense of hope.  This came crushing down the following weekend when the internet was shut down for several days and phone communication went out briefly.  During this period the response to demonstrations began to be aggressive with people being shot and killed.  At this point, mobile demonstrations began with people demonstrating in one area, and then moving to another when the police arrived.  The regime began shutting down the internet every evening, with mobile internet shut down indefinitely, while night raids and detentions began.  The response was a descent into battle zone type scenario with barricades erected in neighborhoods to prevent raids, and the people starting to respond aggressively using Molotov cocktails, sling shots, arson, and small bombs in response to the ongoing aggression and violence from the military regime.  As the situation continually evolved, we found ourselves constantly making plans, and then re-planning in response to the rapidly changing situation and the needs of our community.

I would say the biggest challenge for us as school leaders was the constant pivot we needed to do as we assessed the changing needs of our community, and then provided the support needed.  Our students were at the top of our list of concerns, which was confounded by the fact that school continued to be online.  Early in February, our students were looking for the school to make a statement about the events, or at the very least provide an avenue for them to discuss what was happening around them.  Some of our seniors put together a petition on this.  We realized we needed to support them, while also helping them understand the challenges the situation presented.  We ended up inviting students to meet with us, and worked with them to identify ways we could better support them.  This included changes in our communications process.  It also led to the creation of discussion guidelines for teachers who felt comfortable leading discussions on the events in Myanmar.  We also found the needs of our local students to be different in many ways from those of our international students.  For example, many of our local students want to be a part of demonstrations and were trying to balance this with school responsibilities, while many expat students wanted to engage in some way, but were unsure how to do this.  As a school, we strived to find ways to support our students while still trying to walk that fine line of neutrality.

Supporting our parents and organizational community during this time was also very challenging.  Expectations were very polarized.  In the same day I would receive emails from parents encouraging me to continue with Transition Days in an effort to provide continuity for students, while others felt I was placing people’s lives at risk by having anything happen on campus.   Still others felt we were indirectly making a statement of support for the regime if we held classes on campus.  This was compounded by different organizations and embassies putting out public security statements and / or calling us to advocate for different decisions from the school. In addition, we had parents from our local community being detained and felt a need to support those students, plus, we were increasingly needing to support refugees from organizations we work with who had been displaced.  I found myself often struggling with decisions as I tried to balance out these various needs.  Our board chair was fantastic in helping me weigh through decisions.  At one point, in trying to make a decision, she asked how I would want to have decided when I look back on the situation in ten years.  I explained what I thought, saying I believed it to be the ethical and moral way to go.  She said to me, “looks like you have your decision.” 

At this point, I want to discuss our faculty.  I cannot speak highly enough about our faculty.  All through the COVID pandemic they have continually arisen to the occasion to make sure our students have routine, have quality learning opportunities, and that are community is supported. With the sudden addition of the coup, our faculty were suddenly experiencing a sense of loss and uncertainty that bordered on depression for many.  Yet, through it all they continued to focus on supporting students and learning, never wavering in their commitment to the school community.  In an effort to support our faculty we made use of Adaptive Schools protocols to provide a way for teachers to discuss and explore what they were feeling.  We put in place alternative communication plans to use when phones and the internet went out, and began to meet weekly to share the constantly evolving and changing plans being dictated by the reality of the situation.  We also tried to provide guidance as they sought ways to further support students and their families, and to create some semblance of routine.  Eventually, following guidance from several embassies, as well as an increase in violence from the regime, we decided to organize a charter and evacuate ex-pat teachers.  In doing this, two members of our leadership team joined me in deciding to stay behind and support our local community. 

Our local, Myanmar staff, have probably suffered the most during this situation.  I’ve already mentioned the incredible sense of loss they were experiencing.  They had been so proud of their young democracy and so engaged in the process, and now it disappeared in one brief moment.  Many of them participated in demonstrations, some have been displaced and are now living with their families on our campus.  At least one of our staff have been detained.  We’ve had several meetings to address their needs.  Early on, I was asked to state if I supported them.  I explained that as a school we are neutral, and as an ex-pat living in Myanmar I need to be publicly neutral.  However, I explained that I support each of them in their aspirations for the future.  Later that day, our leadership team determined that though the school is neutral, our support for our staff would be evident in our actions.  I think this was most clearly stated when three of us decided to stay back from the evacuation.  After meeting with our local staff to share the evacuation plans, several came up to me afterward and were crying as they expressed their appreciation for not abandoning them.  There is a belief that as the foreigners leave things will get worse for the local population.  There was an incredible sense of relief that we were not all leaving at once.

At this point, it is unclear what the future holds for Myanmar.  The outcome of the current situation is in no way certain.  This has had an impact on the school.  Moving forward we are anticipating a very large decline in enrollment for the next school year. This has led to a decision to put in place a reduction in force amongst our teaching faculty.  As a result, in the two weeks leading up to the evacuation flight we met with every teacher to let them know their status for the next school year.  I was incredibly impressed with how teachers responded.  Though some were saddened or disappointed, all of those who were told they would not be returning indicated an understanding it was what was needed for the school and expressed their ongoing support for our school community. Similarly, we’ve also committed to keeping all of our local staff employed through the next school year, recognizing the need to provide continued support to them during this time.

As mentioned, this situation in Myanmar is no where near complete.  I’m sure we will have continual challenges and opportunities for meaningful reflection.  However, in reflecting on the time since February 1st, I can say there are a few leadership lessons that have crystalized in my mind.  These include –

  • The important role of communication.  This includes tone, timing, transparency, and regularity.  I’m lucky we have a fantastic Director of Communications and Marketing.  Together, we’ve evaluated every word and every sentence we put out to make sure we communicate the right message.  I can’t say we always got it right, but we strived to communicate a consistent message of supporting our community.
  • The importance of the board chair / head relationship.  There have been times I’ve needed to call upon our board chair several times in a day – sometimes just to have a listening ear.  I can’t express more strongly how important this relationship has been.
  • Keep key individuals informed.  Before communicating any major decisions, we informed all board members, the embassy, and other individuals and organizations in an effort to avoid surprises and to ensure support.  This proved essential when decisions were controversial.
  • Plans are important, but be prepared to constantly change them.
  • Be flexible!
  • Avoid personalizing the things people say.  We’re in a situation that is highly emotionally charged.  Unfortunately, some of those emotions are directed toward the school.  I’ve really had to learn to step back and not take things personally.
  • Stay true to a set of core beliefs.
  • Recognize that leading is about making decisions and realize many people want someone else to make the difficult decisions for them.
  • Trust in your leadership team.  I am fortunate in that I am surround by an amazing group of people.  Trusting in them makes my job easier and means I’m not alone.

Finally, in closing, I need to express my appreciation for the international schools’ community.  The number of people who have reached out with voices of support has been amazing. 

You can find more posts on my blog  Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

LGBTQ+ Intent vs impact in schools

EMILY (she/her): Creating the Anti-Racism Impact Vs. Intent deck together helped to organize our thoughts on common mistakes that White educators (like myself) make when attempting to be inclusive and equitable, but then how we miss the mark because we are centering ourselves rather than POC.

In my practice as an LGBTQ+ consultant for international schools (and as a cis, pan person), I found myself looking for something similar to illustrate the concepts I work on with schools and, when I couldn’t find it, I naturally thought: let’s call Daniel and we’ll make one.

DANIEL (he/him): So glad you did. Being cishet and an LGBTQ+ ally, but currently doing more work in the area of Anti-Racism, I’ve greatly benefited from your expertise and experience as we’ve crafted this deck– and found some blindspots in my own mindsets, attitudes, language, and actions. This work has also helped me look at the environments and structures I inhabit through the same lens and critically analyze how aligned intention and impact are in these spaces.

So what patterns have you noticed in common, perhaps well-intentioned, LGBTQ+ allyship that indicate the need for deeper understanding of actual impact on LGBTQ+ individuals?

EMILY: I’ve run into a lot of folks who mistakenly believe that their internal acceptance of LGBTQ+ people is sufficient for inclusion. Kids can’t read teachers’ minds, however, so a classroom without LGBTQ+ representation looks uninviting, regardless of the teacher’s internal feelings.

Lots of educators will say that all students are safe and welcome in school, but when learning spaces ignore or erase LGBTQ+ people, it doesn’t feel safe and welcome. We need to actively and deliberately include LGBTQ+ students in order to cultivate equitable schools. Staying silent maintains the status quo of LGBTQ+ exclusion.

DANIEL: And that’s where Intent vs. Impact comes in! While educators might have supportive intentions, we need to take a deeper look at how our environments, practices, perceptions, language, policies, and decisions actually impact LGBTQ+ community members. It’s more than just believing in something– it’s about making sure that truly inclusive, equitable, and empowering outcomes really happen.

In creating this deck with you, I noticed that there are many common practices, phrases, and mindsets that (perhaps unintentionally) signal to LGBTQ+ individuals that their identities are invalid and unwelcome. How can these kinds of damaging signals affect LGBTQ+ youth, their identity development, and their lives?

EMILY: The research on this is really clear: LGBTQ+ children who grow up in contexts that provide support for their identity development, that nurture their healthy growth, and that affirm their sense of self are far more likely to thrive than LGBTQ+ children who do not see themselves reflected in a positive way[1][2][3]. Unfortunately, LGBTQ+ youth are at much higher risk than their cishet peers for a number of mental health issues and negative outcomes, such as suicidality, depression, anxiety, substance use, disordered eating, and declining school performance[4][5]. The good news is that these health disparities can be positively impacted by adjusting the context around the child, such as by cultivating safe, welcoming, and loving homes, communities, peer groups, and schools[6][7][8]. This cultivation must be deliberate and visible, however – the impact matters more than the intent.

DANIEL: I believe that this kind of deliberate self-analysis comes through in the LGBTQ+ Intent vs. Impact deck we’ve created, which outlines common well-intentioned actions or mindsets that actually have a negative impact on LGBTQ+ individuals.

Our hope is that fellow educators use these infographics– not as a checklist– but as an opportunity for brave, meaningful, and sustained self-reflection and ongoing growth. All of us, especially cishet allies like myself, should be constantly working to understand the depth and nuance within LGBTQ+ identities, shining light on our own blind spots, modifying our language and practices, and pushing for more inclusive and supportive policies– all of which will have a long-term positive impact on our LGBTQ+ community members.

The LGBTQ+ Intent Vs. Impact infographic introduces the concept, and the rest of the deck with specific examples will be rolled out on Twitter and in our online gallery.

Follow us on Twitter:
@DanielWickner                                                       @EmilyMeadowsOrg

Emily Meadows is an LGBTQ+ consultant for international schools. For LGBTQ+ inclusive policy support and faculty professional development, please contact Emily at: EmilyMeadows@gmail.com


[1] Hatzenbuehler, M. L. & Pachankis, J. E. (2016). Stigma and minority stress as social determinants of health among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth: Research evidence and clinical implications. Pediatric Clinics of North America,63(6), 985-997.

[2] Russell, S.T., Pollitt, A.Am., Li, G., & Grossman, A.H. (2018). Chosen name use is linked to reduced depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behaviour among transgender youth. Journal of Adolescent Health, 63, 503-505.

[3] Murchison, G. R., Agenor, M., Reisner, S. L., & Watson, R. J. (2019). School restroom and locker room restrictions and sexual assault risk among transgender youth. Pediatrics, 143(6), DOI: 10.1542/peds.2018-2901

[4] Becerra-Culqui, T. A., Liu, Y., Nash, R., Cromwell, L., Flanders, W. D., Getahun, D., Giammettei, S. V…. & Goodman, M. (2018). Mental health of transgender and gender nonconforming youth compared with their peers. Pediatrics, DOI: 10.1542/peds.2017-384.

[5] Duffy, M. E., Henkel, K. E., & Joiner, T. E., (2019). Prevalence of self-injurious thoughts and behaviors in transgender individuals with eating disorders: A national study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 64(4), 461-466.

[6] Hatzenbuehler, M. L., Birkett, M., Van Wagenen, A., & Meyer, I. H. (2014). Protective School Climates and Reduced Risk for Suicide Ideation in Sexual Minority Youths. American Journal of Public Health, 104(2), 279-286

[7] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (2016). Out in the open: Education sector responses to violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Paris, France: UNESCO.

[8] Poquiz, J. L., Coyne, C. A., Garofalo, R., & Chen, D. (2020). Comparison of gender minority stress and resilience among transmasculine, transfeminine, and nonbinary adolescents and young adults. Journal of Adolescent Health, 104.

Agency: Reflections on an Interview with Jennifer Groff

For the past decade, I’ve focused on supporting teacher agency at my school. In the early years, our motto was “Continually becoming the professionals we already are.” 

Tim Logan, the host of the Future Learning Design podcast, recently interviewed Jennifer Groff, Innovation Fellow at WISE (QATAR Foundation). She advocates for both teacher and student agency, and since Tim ends each of his podcasts with the invitation to continue the conversation, let’s do just that.

Future Learning Design

___________

“There’s just so much about the old model that doesn’t work and hasn’t worked for quite some time. By ‘work’ I really mean that there isn’t research to support [the old model], in fact, there’s a lot of research to support  that many of the common structures that we just assume are fine … are actually rather problematic.” 

Jennifer Groff, Innovation Fellow at WISE and experienced school reformer, is convinced our traditional model of education is not adequate. The world is changing far more rapidly than our approach to getting students ready for the world.

“The world that they are entering into, the world that they are in now, requires such a different education than we have largely structured for them.”

I think most of us who listen to Tim’s podcasts would agree. After all, a podcast about the future design of learning attracts those who aspire to something new, not to maintaining the status quo. (In fact, I’d like to challenge Tim to interview a few folks who are convinced that our education model should stay as it is. Tim? Up for the challenge?) It’s time that we concentrate on showing real examples of the change we are talking about, as well as stories about how we have moved away from the old model (what Groff refers to as a “burning platform” of education) to new models.

Their discussion does hint at systemic conditions that will provide the space for change. First, they agree that change initiatives have to be “embedded in the structure” of school, so that they “cannot be pulled out.” Innovation, in other words, cannot be an add-on for when there is time or it is otherwise convenient. Innovation must be planned and cared for just like curriculum and assessment. Tim alludes to the difficulty of getting more agile while still in the box, yet that is exactly what needs to happen. However one understands the box, it is there, and that’s where innovation leading to reform needs to be embedded in a manner that “cannot be pulled out.” Otherwise, as any reader can recall from direct experience, promising reform initiatives are quickly winnowed by the inflexible sides of the box.

And how do you get agile in the box? For teachers, Groff recommends creating a culture of quick data collection, leading to quick designs and constant piloting of new ideas. That immediately sounds like an interesting place to work, doesn’t it? Much more so than a culture which claims we shouldn’t experiment on our students – which is complete hogwash because good teachers are constantly experimenting with new ways of teaching better – and that teachers should follow outside experts who train on the implementation of the latest method or software. 

Not that the latest method or software is necessarily subpar. It’s just that teachers need agency to come to their own conclusions about how they teach. Telling only goes so far. 

What Groff is proposing has an easy parallel with business agility, in which one develops new ideas in short iterations with plenty of feedback so that bad ideas are quickly discarded and good ideas are made better. Incidentally, this hints at a solution to a problem posed in an earlier Future Learning Design podcast that I reflected on, with Andreas Schleicher of the OECD. He suggested that in education we are not good at getting rid of bad ideas and unfortunately equally not good at adopting good ideas. The opposite of agile. Groff’s solution? Get teachers working in quick action research cycles and sharing what they learn with others, debriefing (and prebriefing?) as they go. 

I’m happy to think that at Leysin American School we’ve been helping support action research cycles for several years through the support of teacher-driven projects. Our application deadline for 2021-2022 just passed. We’re set to review and hopefully approve nine new projects for next school year. That’s about 15% percent of our teachers who would like to formalize their learning and experimenting with support from the research center.


Agency isn’t just for teachers. Teachers can model and help create the right culture for students, who, according to Groff and many others, need much more agency than the old model has provided.

“It really is about student agency, it really is about getting the kids hand on the wheel and them driving the bus, which is really scary for a lot of schools …”

Having the kids drive the buses would indeed be a little scary, but of course she isn’t speaking literally. Having the kids drive the curriculum and instruction is perhaps just as scary – and one of the reasons we continually build systems that downplay student agency. But there are consequences. When do students learn to approach learning independently, without the handholding? 

Groff: “When you spend 12 years thinking that the world is chopped up into linear bits and there’s a right answer that’s that short … you are doing immense damage to these kids. They don’t know how to handle the complexity of the world.” The damage comes because we aren’t teaching in manners that build student agency, but rather “sending them out into this complex world without the agency and the self direction to navigate it.” 

Ouch. But yes. Picture a class of students at the beginning of the hour, as the teacher enters the room. What are they doing? They are waiting. Waiting for directions. Waiting to find out what is going to happen for the next 45, 60, 90 minutes. Waiting to find out what they are going to learn, and how they are going to do it, and probably whether the work will be done individually or in pairs or groups. Why is this model so universal? This is the platform that Groff suggests is burning.

“I could very easily, with a research base the size of a mountain behind me, go look at a traditional school model and say that none of this is working…” Schools “have many things that need redefining and addressing, there’s … just loads of evidence to support that.”

So there’s work to be done. Starting with a cultural shift to greater teacher agency makes good sense to me. Just remember, as Groff chuckles at the end of the interview, reforming our education models “is not for the faint of heart.”

Nothing micro about microaggressions

Image created by Shwetangna Chakrabarty on canva.com

Microaggression is an attitude of silent aggression, apathy, hate, discrimination towards minority or lesser represented communities. These silent acts are mostly non-verbal; talking in a different language to exclude people of a certain minority; ridiculing people with an accent; never acknowledging the success of people of colour. It is also verbal in the form of racial insults, culturally biased comments, and derogatory comments about citizenship and nationality. 

Microaggressions are like dementors, from the Harry Potter series, they suck away the happiness, ambition and zeal to succeed, from the people of colour and minority. This silent killer leaves them with no other option than to perish silently, never raising a voice or even trying to make a difference. In fact, it is such a silent killer that it has become an accepted norm across the world to call it ‘systemic racism’ and completely ignore the root cause. Unfortunately and dangerously the attitude currently is, “yes it exists, deal with it”!

Being a woman, and a woman of colour I have learnt to recognise microaggressions. Here are a few types of microaggressions that I have experienced.

Gender biased microaggressions: Professional development is always prioritised for men as “they need it more”, this is a classic case of silent gender-biased microaggression. Another classic example is the office dress code that mandates the length of the skirt, type of shoe, ‘no spaghetti tops’ etc only for women. While for any other gender it is limited to ‘dress formally’. Women are labelled desperate, needy and narcissists if they post about themselves or their achievements on social media, but men are rewarded with words like great communicator, successful, positive networker and very active on social media. The same act has different connotations for different genders. 

Culturally biased microaggressions: People of colour or minority are often asked this question, “How long have you lived abroad?” This clearly indicates the presumption that people of colour or of different religion do not or cannot belong to the same country as they look different or have different beliefs. Recruiting people of colour in international organisations is still a distant dream, even further away is the reality of having leaders of colour. I say this as microaggressions throttle the very desire, right at the beginning, they snatch away the pleasure of having ambitions and dreams and leave people of colour or minority with no desire to compete.

Racially biased microaggression: When a racially different person enters a public space, they are always asked for an ID. There is an assumption that people of a different race can be criminals or have an ulterior purpose to be in public space. Recent episodes of racially biased xenophobia is a very good example of underlying microaggressions. In the most developed countries of the world, we saw Asians being attacked, black lives being taken away, foreigners being segregated, children being alienated and yet we keep quiet. All of this is happening openly and the perpetrators are finding ways to exhibit their microaggressions violently under the pretext of nationalism and economic stability.

I consider microaggressions the most crucial link in the fight against inequality and discrimination. It is the very root of all issues in the world. As educators, we have to eliminate the root cause. We need to teach our students to avoid microaggressions. As educators, we can check for microaggressions and nip it in the bud.

Educators themselves have to audit their microaggressions, do not preach or practice bias. For example, I remember a teacher refusing to participate in Remembrance Day as it is a western tradition; a Head of School making a remark that Indian sweets will ensure a visit to the dentist; a PE teacher forcing a student to swim during Ramadaan. We need to face our insecurities and biases so that we do not make the mistake of harbouring microaggressions and passing them on to the youth. They will model what they witness.

Educate students to check for microaggressions and reduce them. Discourage bias, encourage brevity to stand up against bias. The trauma students endure due to the segregation by nationality intentionally or unintentionally needs to be checked as it further manifests into racism and apathy. 

Overall, there are many ways to reduce microaggressions; the difference lies in the intent. The lack of intent is the most dominant problem and this needs to change. Remember there is nothing micro about microaggressions.

BOOKS FOR EARTH DAY

April 21 is Earth Day. It will be celebrated around the world by planting seeds, picking garbage, starting a recycle program or in many other ways of being kind to the earth. In addition to projects, you can also celebrate Earth Day through those wonderful books.

My Ocean is Blue by Darren Leboeuf, illustrated by Ashley Barron is a picture book with poetic text that looks at all characteristics of the ocean – from shallow to deep, from quiet to loud. A lovely read with the youngest readers. And a good incentive to collect shells and pebbles for an ocean display in the classroom. ISBN 978-1-52530143-8

Beginning scientists will love That’s No Dino! by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Marie-Eve Tremblay. This book shows how new research determines the characteristics of dinosaurs. From such extinct creatures as Platyhystrix (not a dinosaur!) to Velociraptor (yup! A dinosaur.) the book has lots of information, humour and a check list for budding dinosaur lovers. ISBN 978-1-5253-0023-3

Kids in grades 2 – 6 will likely love this gross book: Extremely Gross Animals by Claire Eamer. You’ll need a strong stomach to read this book but you will learn many unusual, fascinating facts like how fish can spit prey out of the air, how birds use vomit as self defence and about many other slimy, smelly adaptions that help animals survive. ISBN 978-1-5253-0337-1

Ashley Spires wrote a fun graphic novel about the power of bugs: Burt The Beetle Doesn’t Bite! The humorous text is a dialogue between the book’s narrator and the June bug who feels he has no super powers like other bugs which can use smell, webs, strength or flight. But June bug does redeem himself in the end. A fun book to read out loud or to encourage young readers to read by themselves. ISBN 978-1-5253-0146-9

For older readers, Flush by Carl Hiaasen is a good book about the environment and what kids can do to help. In this fictional novel, Noah wants to help his father in proving that someone is dumping raw sewage into the ocean. A fast paced, exciting read for anyone who loves the earth as well as reading. ISBN 978-0375861253, Grade 4 and up.

Margriet Ruurs loves the environment and has written many books about nature, including AMAZING ANIMALS, WILD BABIES and IN MY BACKYARD.

Agency: Reflections on an Interview with Andreas Schleicher

Agency: Reflections on an Interview with Andreas Schleicher

For the past decade, I’ve focused on supporting teacher agency at my school. In the early years, our motto was “Continually becoming the professionals we already are.” While we originally focused on teachers, lately we’ve been able to directly impact students, from supporting individual passion projects to creating entire programs.

Yet I feel we’ve only just started to touch on teacher and student agency and I’m a little plagued by the thought that we might only be tinkering. What if we are so stuck in legacy thinking that we can’t even see future possibilities?

So I keep my ears open for those who have something to say about agency. Tim Logan, the host of the Future Learning Design podcast, is introducing many of us to the ideas of influential thinkers in this area. He ends each podcast with the wish that we continue the conversation. So let’s do that.

Future Learning Design


“You are not going to see student agency without having teacher agency,” says Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Exactly! Telling students they need to think and act independently, while not creating a school environment in which teachers benefit from autonomy and self-direction, is by no means ideal. Do as I say, not as I do. Yet if teachers feel their hands are tied, they are justified. There are so many constraints on teachers, including inflexible curricula, demands for grading, teacher evaluations … I don’t even care to try to think about the factors we could include here. 

So teachers need to feel and experience real agency so that students can do the same. Fair enough. Even in our traditional conceptualization of school we can find room for more teacher agency. I know that the set of alternative electives we’ve created at my school have given us teachers a significant level of space and time to practice our own agency. This is a good step forward. 

Schleicher cautions, though, that supporting teacher agency requires an environment where teachers know what is best, and just don’t suppose they know what is best based on individual feelings and beliefs. As he puts it, “The professional needs to do what they know is right, based on evidence …” Our school’s support of teacher-initiated, year-long action research projects comes into play here, as does the school’s acknowledgment that we value teachers who are constantly trying out new ways of supporting student learning. Have you ever heard someone say, derisively even, that “we don’t experiment on kids?” Well, we do. We believe all good teachers do. And we do it because we want our teachers to do what is best based on their own research and the feedback they get from others.


Often the debate between content and skills is framed exactly that way – one focus pitted against the other. Content versus skills. For Schleicher, that’s framing the problem far too simply. Both content and skills are important, one supports the other. “We shouldn’t treat knowledge and skills as two ends on a spectrum … one without the other is of very little value.” Indeed. It’s just that it seems we are so completely enamored with content. Content determines how we name our courses, hire our teachers, fashion our assessments, and report to our stakeholders. 

Perhaps Schleicher shares our bias that skills don’t get even close to equal billing with content. He mentions, as others have when reflecting on teaching during a pandemic, that “those students that succeeded were the ones … who could live with themselves, who could live with others, who could have the discipline to organize their learning independently, who could structure their learning, who could access a wide range of learning resources.” Student agency is out there, in other words, but not universally. To what extent are our students able to pick up the reins when the teacher isn’t present? Should they have to wait for the teacher to be absent to pick up the reins? Do we give them adequate time to learn how to self-direct? Are we holding their hands much too firmly?


But a word of caution: “… it’s not about less structure, it’s about an enabling structure rather than a constraining one.” Right. We want more agency for both teachers and students, but we won’t get there by pulling away all the structure. In fact, it could be that the less structure there is the more demanding the task is for teachers. How do we create the right climate for agency to thrive?

Schleicher: “You do need very carefully crafted curricula.” But these are different types of curricula he is talking about. Not the big plan before the year begins, nor the blow by blow, lesson by lesson. “It’s not about packaging exactly what you should be teaching in what hour, but it’s about providing some structure and good guidance for teachers; how to develop those kinds of thinking and reasoning skills that are of enduring relevance …” For many this will be a very different notion of curriculum. By no means is it a list of content items to cover.

And Schleicher’s use of the phrase enduring relevance makes me think of David Perkins and his suggestion that we teach lifeworthy content and skills. Content and skills of enduring relevance. That also requires a healthy reimagination of our curricula. I’m wondering if the notion of enduring relevance doesn’t also demand quite a bit of choice on the part of the student. We adults might be clever enough to select enduring skills: collaboration, innovation, and the like. But are we clever enough to imagine what content will have enduring relevance for students? Is it maybe even more complicated than just being clever? Endurance may well include a healthy dose of self-selection, choice, or as I learned in Spanish, ganas – that which you really want and what really drives you. 


Just thinking about innovation. How many of our school mission statements include innovation in one form or another? And how do we foster innovation?

“It’s about professional autonomy in a collaborative culture. And that collaborative culture in my view really depends on a good accountability system.” There he goes again, full of the pragmatism that comes with expertise. “If you are amazingly innovative in your own classroom and nobody else knows about it, that innovation will dissipate very quickly.”

This is true. And now think about our general education model. Would you say it’s default state is teacher-collaborative or teacher-alone-in-the-classroom? 

“Perhaps we should think more about lateral accountability,” he continues, so that teaching “becomes more of a public process rather than a private process – something that is actually visible to your colleagues.” I pause the podcast here to think. How much lateral accountability have we built into my school? We’ve tried with our faculty evaluation. We have some professional development that requires peer observation and feedback. We’ve even had some classes with two teachers … but it didn’t last. Teaching is still by and large an individual endeavor.


A caution and a reason for hope to wind up with. 

“We need to make sure that good ideas spread in scale and also that bad ideas disappear … we are not doing well on either side.” Ouch. We know that our current way of doing school is quite entrenched. Attempts to move away from the classic school model (kids move in groups, between rooms with one teacher, each with a desk, whiteboard at the front, not too much time for individual student input, eyes on your own paper, homework at night) are often squelched. The structure of school just isn’t set up to support much beside school as we know it. 

Might this be why good ideas are hard to spread? Because good ideas tend to fall outside the current closed circle of what works? We should have a very open conversation about what “works” means, I suspect. We are perhaps stuck in the eddy of a strange attractor that keeps school the same year after year (and even more telling, after a global pandemic), giving bad ideas a longer shelf life than reasonable, even as good ideas are pulled back to the mediocre.

But there is hope, foreshadowed in the podcast by Schleicher’s earlier comment about lateral accountability. The future of teaching and learning, he thinks, likes in lateral instead of vertical relationships. Those of us pulling agile into school thought will resonate with this sentiment, as will anyone tired of top down, carrot and stick management. “I think that the future is not command and control but about collaboration … and I believe that has a lot to do about how we educate young people.”

I’m thrilled to hear this from a person uniquely situated to have a truly international perspective on education.

And for those of us in the trenches, who might be just a little uneasy about radical change, consider these final sentiments from the interview:

“If your role is really to develop human beings rather than just to transmit a specific piece of a subject, I think the role for teachers will be far more rewarding, not to speak of more effective.”

Absolutely.