An education for human flourishing

Anyone who studies the sociology of education knows that for hundreds of years it has been considered part of an economic vision of human behaviour. Consider the language used to describe assessment: “value added”, “rates”, “distinction”, “grade averages”, “results”, “promotion” and so on.

This is because the structure of assessment, largely derived from 19th century econometricians like Francis Galton with a heavy dose of statistical analysis (which really starts to dominate the world of assessment through classical test theory) emerges from classical economics in which the ideas of Adam Smith are concentrated on the notion that labour creates wealth.

Human Capital Theory

This way of looking at human life as linked to productivity is called human capital theory, elaborated in the 1960s by Gary Becker and Theodore Schultz. It has dominated, and continues to dominate, global belief systems about education. The idea is that human beings invest in education because there will be economic returns.  If you spend money sending children to school, they will develop skills to become productive, graduate from school and enter the workplace where they will make more money than if they never went to school. This is why people are willing to invest in education.

Is it true that going to school makes you more economically productive? Basically, yes it does.


There’s an interesting theory rooted in evolutionary biology that was narrowed down to economics by Michael Spence in the 1970s called signalling. Here the idea is that people go to school (and university) not because the experience of schooling will allow them to gain more earnings, but because of the brand value of the diploma. Job candidates with certificates and degrees are seen as a “safe bet” since, they have proved that they can pass at school or get into a competitive university. If someone wants to go to a top tier university, it should be because they want a quality education, but signalling theory states that it not really for that reason, in fact it’s to have that university on their CV, since this is what employers are looking for. This is why people are prepared to pay so much to get into these universities, because the simple brand value of the degree is much more likely to produce a return on investment.

Human Flourishing

It’s time to look beyond both of these theories. It’s true that education is an investment, that it prepares for the workplace (although more and more professions are actually calling on competences that aren’t developed in the narrow repertoire of academic skills of school assessment) and the brand value of a degree is something that is highly sought after. However, there is so much more to what it means to be educated.

The type of education we should be developing is not just certificate proving productivity or capital earning potential. Education teaches you subtlety, how to appreciate complexity and detail, the intricacies of history, culture and art. A good education should thrust you into wonderful discussions with great minds, open your mind, teach you to see and love beauty and help you make important existential decisions in life. A great education helps develop compassion, appreciation of others, and gratitude. These competences are neither “capital”, nor are they “signals”, they are keys to a more tranquil, spiritual and mindful life, whether employers see that or not.

One would hope they would, and that organisations would build themselves up by recruiting people who carry these values rather than sheer marketplace efficiency. As long as education is seen as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself, it will be narrowed, cheapened and will, ultimately, be a missed opportunity. It’s sad when parents put pressure on their children not to follow what they love but what the parents think is high status. What inner joy, resilience and character will come from that?

This is why at the coalition to honour all learning we continue to work together for alternative assessment systems, away from excessively high stakes, narrow zero-sum game competitions breeding aggressive individualism and, instead, towards a system-wide revolution where schools, higher education institutions and employers look for gifts, competences and collective goods for a more inclusive, peaceful and sustainable world in which passion for learning and happiness flourish in diverse learning societies.



I read a social media post that implored us not to give up on direct instruction, that it, too, is useful. I agree. And I saw a science teacher last week masterfully weave direct instruction and quick moments of student group work together. My reservation, though, is that we depend on direct instruction, in a teacher-tells-student kind of way, too heavily and too often.

So it was with a lot of interest that I went to the Innovation Lab yesterday, to see how the teacher was running the class. I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be direct instruction.


It’s five minutes into class here in the Innovation Lab, a large space with drills and saws and screws and hammers and tape. I’m sitting in the couch area, I’m not sure what the teacher calls it, but it’s an area with four couches and some chairs and a chess board made with a 3D printer on a wooden table that someone else made. There’s a big screen, too, with whiteboards that fold out. On one white board there’s a list of student names – individuals, pairs, or threesomes – and the project they are working on. I believe you could call that the syllabus: just the projects the students chose. 

Curriculum Lite. When I was young Miller Lite ran a string of commercials with the tagline “Tastes great. Less filling.” This lab tastes great. And it is indeed less filling, in the sense that the approach isn’t the filling of a bucket, but rather the fanning of a fire, to paraphrase the popular quote. 

The lesson plan today is as light as the curriculum. After introducing me and my colleague, a professor of education, the teacher says, “Go!” And the students went. The teacher’s role here is to move from group to group, individual to individual. I just heard him ask a student: “What can you do while you are waiting?” So add coaching to the teacher’s role. Coaching the type of skills that transcend any particular class. 

I can’t just sit here in the corner with all this independent action going on. I’m going to ask students what they like about the Innovation Lab.

“I like figuring stuff out by myself,” says the student nearest me. “When I get stuck I get to figure things out myself.”

“There’s not a lot of homework, we get to do projects, and there are a lot of resources here,” say three young boys sitting in a row on a couch. Huey, Dewey, and Louie, I think to myself. One of them is holding a lego car with an EV3, which allows them to actually drive the car. They are on the Lego website, searching for something.

“You basically get to build whatever you want. You create whatever you want,” This from a boy making a guitar out of wood. The body looks good, if a little uneven around the edges. He’s going to attach a neck he removed from a broken guitar. 

“Hanging around next to my best friend,” a girl answers, with a glance at the girl next to her. A third girl says “Learning new skills, like I learned how to sew.” I look past her to a row of Bernina sewing machines. Like the previous student said, there are plenty of resources here.

The last group I talk to are three boys modifying a pair of old skis. “We get to make stuff.” I prod just a little, asking if class always runs this way, with the teacher saying “Go!” and everyone getting to work. “We had to have a plan first, like an image or something on a Google doc,” one boy answers. “The teacher needs to know what we plan on doing.” I notice they are the ones telling the teacher what their project will be. Nice.

The time has flown, the luthier (heck, when else do you get to use that word specifically for someone building a string instrument?) and another boy I didn’t manage to talk to are using hand vacs to clean up their work area. The teacher is walking past students reminding them to leave enough time to clean up. Students crisscross the room, returning tools, hanging things up, storing their projects below the work tables.

My colleague, the visitor from the university, asked me before class if we’d be seeing project based learning. Not really, I told him, more like learning while doing projects. It’s not what educators might identify as PBL. I’m not sure what education term would be appropriate for this class. Maybe people working in makerspaces have a term for it. 

The Lego car drives into my foot. Lego is from the Danish leg godt meaning “play well.” Maybe we could call this type of learning something along the lines of good playing. For example: “Free play with power tools.” Makerspace folks, what do you call this?

Leg godt!

I Love Your Smile

So a good friend of mine, and an outstanding teacher leader at our school, Nick Haywood, started our 2nd semester full faculty meeting a couple of weeks ago with a reminder about the power and importance of “connection before content” in our daily interactions with kids. It was a beautiful message and It resonated deeply with all of us, and It got me thinking yet again about the marvelously contagious qualities of a smile, or an attitude, and how a person’s mood can directly impact the lives of others around them. There have been so many interesting studies conducted over the years which highlight the magic and power of a single smile, and I love that something so seemingly simple and effortless can inspire, affect, and set the tone of a person’s day. 

As you all know by now, I’m a staunch school climate and culture guy, and I believe strongly that the positive ethos of a faculty is the cornerstone of any great school. I also believe that a huge part of that strong foundation is built upon who we are as people, not just educators, and the strengthening of that strong foundation can often depend on  the simplest of things, like a smile. You see, a smile breaks down barriers, it diffuses tense or contentious situations, it fosters positive intent, and it inspires a student’s or colleague’s perception of who you are and how you feel about them.

One of my favorite all-time song lyrics comes from Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s, “Wooden Ships”, which goes, “if you smile at me I will understand, because that is something everybody, everywhere does in the same language”, and that rings particularly true for our diverse international school environment. When you start the day with a smile you positively affect an entire class of kids, and their day, and their approach to learning. Your smile is contagious, and if you take a moment at the beginning of every school day to really look around you, with your eyes truly open, then you’ll see that it’s almost impossible to not smile at something. 

I love to start my days greeting the kids as they come to school in the mornings, and I love to watch their faces light up when they see their friends. It makes me smile when they wish me good morning and react to the goofy comments that I make as they pass me by. Our students are such beautiful young people for our world, and glorious works in progress, who are trying their best to find their way, and if that doesn’t inspire you or make you smile then I don’t know what will.

With that in mind, you should know that we had a few prospective family tours this past week, and I made a point of asking them how they enjoyed their experience touring through the school. Every single one of them, both kids and parents alike, commented on how friendly and happy everyone seemed to be, and that made me so proud to know that the environment that we’ve all created here together is one of smiles, happiness, support, and kindness. I want to make it clear to everyone that I’m writing this week about smiles NOT because I feel like we are lacking in this area, but because I really want to celebrate how pervasive the smiles seem to be all throughout our community.

I want to thank you for the positive attitudes that you bring to work everyday, and for the effort that you’re all making to give our beautiful kids happy and healthy experiences. Our moods and our attitudes really are infectious, and so are the smiles that we share, and the absolute truth is that a student’s relationship with school and their approach to learning is directly related to, and affected by, the way that we interact with them every single day… connection before content indeed.

So keep smiling everyone, and keep searching for those silver linings. The silver linings that make it easy to find joy in our daily lives, and the ones that put those bright smiles on our faces. It’s been a great start to 2024 so let’s keep focused on the positive moments that are easily and readily found in each and every school day, and look for inspiration in the beauty that’s all around us all the time. It’s in the faces and hearts of our kids that’s for sure, and if you take a second or two to look around, I guarantee that you’ll find a smile or ten that will make your day, and remind you of why you love to teach. Remember, smiles are contagious and their power is truly immense, and even just one little smile can change a person’s day for the better…and yours too! Have a great week everyone and remember to be great for our kids and good to each other.

Quote of the Week – 

If you smile at me, I will understand, as that is something everybody, everywhere does in the same language – Crosby, Still and Nash

Related Articles – 

10 Reasons to Smile

Smile More Often

A Smile Can Change the World

Smiling is Contagious

Culture Matters

Inspiring Videos – 

Taking Flight

On The Road Stories – 2023

Inspiring On The Road Stories – Through the Years

TED Talk – The Hidden Power of Smiling

10 Things That Made Us Smile

TED Talks to Make You Smile

I’m treated like I’m an adult

Image by upklyak on Freepik

In an email exchange with a friend, I ask about his kids, his new job, the usual catching up. His response appears in my inbox. I begin reading and catch my breath on one short paragraph. It’s about his new job, the first time in decades he isn’t in a classroom.

So different from teaching, as you  know. I’m treated as if I’m an adult – trusted – as if I’m an adult. And the work feels good. Have you seen the legislation I’m executing?

What’s that? I sit back in my chair and reread.

I’m treated as if I’m an adult – trusted – as if I’m an adult.

This is a teacher approaching 50 years old. His first teaching experience was with me when he was 22. He’s been in multiple schools, a variety of roles, worked as a trainer, presents at conferences, was once a finalist for national teacher of the year in his subject speciality. And he had to leave teaching for a bureaucratic job with the State in order to feel trusted? What is going on?

I wonder if those outside of schools know that trust, mostly the lack of it, is an issue shared by many in the teaching profession. Or at least the perception of not being trusted. You can bet feeling untrusted affects how your children are being educated. Learning from a teacher who is looking over their shoulder, who doesn’t feel fully in charge, who is on their heels, well, you should expect that the mood in the classroom is different. That instruction is affected. 

And certainly don’t expect much out-of-the-box creativity. A non-trusting environment tends to make us crawl into the box, not get out of it.

For those of us inside education, my colleague’s new sense of freedom (in a state bureaucracy, no less) in comparison to his previous experience as a school teacher may not be all that much of a surprise. Attendance is taken at faculty meetings, classroom observations often feel like oversight more than professional development, we have to submit lesson plans, schemes of work, documents that show alignments with standards. We live in a highly hierarchical environment, controlled by department heads and a number of layers up to the principal. We get assigned to bathroom duty, hallway duty, bus duty, we’re asked to chaperone dances, all with little choice. Often there is also little choice about what you are teaching and how you are teaching, depending on the curriculum and the philosophical bent of your school. All the while students are weighing in with surveys or other mechanisms, some that teachers see, some perhaps that they don’t. (I’ve heard of anonymous reporting of teachers in both academics and other areas). 

So no, teachers might not be too surprised that changing professions might be accompanied by a sudden feeling of freedom, self-direction, and trust. If you agree with me that teachers who are not experiencing a sense of freedom, self-direction, and trust may find it difficult to be effective in the classroom, we should perhaps also agree to do something about it. Even if the performance of untrusted teachers (or those feeling untrusted, there is little difference) in the classroom is not affected (but it is), anybody in a job feeling low trust is likely to look for something else to do. Those who can find a different way to earn a living will. And so we lose phenomenal teachers to other jobs. 

Last year, in fact, I read a book written by a teacher working in the same metropolitan area as the friend I was corresponding with. The author was very fired up about being a teacher. He worked with all sorts of kids with all sorts of issues. He took on those issues, he described how hard he worked, he sent a strong message of “buck up, everyone” to his readers.  I was inspired and worried. Was his full on approach sustainable?

His contact information was in the book. I emailed him. He wrote back with a short message that he was no longer teaching, but thanks for reading the book. Was it a trust issue? Was it just “regular” burnout? Can we afford to see these teachers become bureaucrats, programmers, real estate agents?

I am happy for my colleague personally.  I’m not happy that there is a better place for high quality teachers to be than in a classroom with kids. And I’m convinced we should be actively developing environments for teaching and learning that treats teachers as adults. Kudos to those of you who are.

What to Read in 2024!

So it’s that time of the year again when I get to order books for my birthday, which is my favorite gift ever because it keeps on giving for months and months and months. The deal is that I have to finish reading all of last year’s books before I get to order new ones, and I’m excited about ordering the list below in the next few days.

As usual, I’m encouraging you all to take a few minutes this week to look through these titles, and to order one (or five) that resonate with you. Or, do your own research and share those titles with me so I can add them to this list. The suggestions below revolve around the themes of education, leadership, creativity, innovation and culture building, with an overarching focus on becoming a better person and educator for our world. 

Anyway, take a look at the 15 titles and links below, and happy reading in 2024! I’ve had a blast scouring through book stores and websites over the past month and I’m really excited about this year’s list. Okay, enjoy the week ahead everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

The Goodwill Jar – Nick Rowe

The Setback Cycle – Amy Shoenthal

Slow Down – Kohei Saito

Hidden Potential – Adam Grant

Optimal – Daniel Goleman & Cary Cherniss

Cultures of Growth – Mary Murphy

The Good Life – Robert Waldinger & Mark Schulz

Open Talent – John Winsor & Jin Paik

Passion Struck – John Miles 

Supercommunicators – Charles Duhigg

Undistracted – Bob Goff

The Catalyst – Jonah Berger

Range – David Epstein

Clear Thinking – Shane Parrish

Get It Done – Ayelet Fishbach


Books can help children understand the world around them. Nonfiction information or fictional stories can help a reader make sense of his own or others’ situations. Books can be tools to deal with life. These new titles are good examples of stories as tools.

All Our Love

All Our Love by Kari-Lynn Winters is a beautiful picturebook about love within a family. Written as a welcome letter to the new baby, with loving illustrations by Scot Ritchie, the story is told in Sofia’s words. Sofia’s dad always told her that their family was just right after she came along. But now a new baby is coming and Sofia worries that all might not be so perfect anymore. Will her parents like the new baby better? Will Sofia like being a big sister? Will the baby want everything to be just perfect, too?

Sofia helps to prepare the baby’s crib. And one day her dad picks her up from school. Together they go to the hospital where the other daddy is waiting with the new baby. And Sofia just knows that their family will be even more perfect now that he has joined them.

ISBN 978-1-4431-9880-6, North Winds Press/Scholastic

Still My Tessa

Still My Tessa, written by Sylv Chiang and illustrated by Mathias Ball, is a picture book in which non-binary students will recognize themselves. Evelyn misses her older sibling when Tessa hides in her room. But once she understands that Tessa does not want to be defined as her older sister or brother, Evelyn gets it. It only takes her a week to change pronouns when referring to Tessa. And soon their parents, and new neighbors, get the message too. They all accept Tessa for the person behind the labels. And that makes Tessa smile.

ISBN 978-1-4431-9623-9, North Winds Press/Scholastic

José Speaks Out

José Speaks Out is the speech given by José Mujica, former president of Uruguay. He gave this speech to the Un and focused on how we can reduce consumerism and cut down on the production of so much stuff we don’t need. “We should stop making diSposable things,” he told the UN, “use ful things could end world poverty.” The back of the book offers discussion points and explanations, making this a perfect text for high school students to ponder. This book is one of a series of famous speeches, including those made by Severn Suzuki and Malala Yousafzai.

ISBN 978-177-3067-254, Groundwood Books

Make Your Mark, Make a Difference: A Kid's Guide to Standing Up for People, Animals, and the Planet

Make Your Mark, Make A Difference by Joan Marie Galat is a kid’s guide to standing up for people, animals and the planet. This 340 page book is a pretty comprehensive guide to activism for kids. The book examines issues like inequality, literacy or environmental issues and looks closely at how kids can make a difference by creating awareness and taking action. Which actions are most effective? How can you initiate sustainable change? Activism can range from raising funds to organizing protests and changing laws. The book carefully guides a young reader through the process of researching a concern, planning action and seeing it through. The guide can be a very useful tool for any young activist and should be in every (school) library to guide those wanting to make the world a better place. 

ISBN 978-1-6659-2931-8, Aladdin/Beyond Words

Margriet Ruurs is a Canadian author of over 40 books for children. She conducts presentations at international schools around the world.

Student Voices: Talking Education in the Swiss Alps

A sleepy morning starts another day of school in the Swiss Alps.

Nine students in their final semester of high school, the teacher, a visitor to the school, and me, seated around tables that make a rectangle in the room.

The teacher invited us, the visitor and me, because he knows we’re interested in how we do school. That’s the topic today. The students have watched a film about homeschooling. The teacher suggests an open discussion, an informal Socratic Seminar. We’ll see how it goes.

We start with the tried and true. Homeschooling might be good for academics but might not be so good for socializing. I can almost hear homeschoolers the world over starting to protest, but that is often the discussion, isn’t it? The either/or mentality we often get trapped in. But these students are just warming up.

A girl to the right of me suggests there should be more time outside of the classroom. Time literally outside, outside the building. Not inside “like traditional schools.” The school offers two cultural trips, one week each, during the academic year. She says these trips are great, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a weekly something or other that is outside, that is in the community. Ahhh, indeed. I think about how challenging it would be for most schools to make this adjustment. Being outside just doesn’t fit the schedule, the rules, the syllabus. You’d have to tear a few things down to make way for a new build, so to speak.

And then the student to the left of me makes the argument that students need to be given the experience to work by themselves, to do their own labs, to be in charge. She is singing my tune. She compares her experience now to what she remembers from her previous school, where students weren’t given much freedom, where the teacher was an authority figure beyond reproach.

The teacher in this class has heard students making comparisons to their previous schools before.  He picks up on this theme. “How is it different here?” A student jumps in quickly. “It’s a thousand times better.” He lists the variety of experiences that are available, he mentions the benefit of boarding school. Another student confirms that there are a number of academic choices. He mentions, however, that the international standardized curriculum, in this case the International Baccalaureate, can be limiting, too. “You have to follow the given curriculum that every student has to do.” The room gets quieter and some students nod thoughtfully.

I love how the teacher listens to the students. All three of us teachers in the room have been doing a good job of staying silent. The teacher often responds to a long comment with a “Mmmm.” This invites the students to keep the conversation going. “The system is made to keep you as a sheep,” one student comments about her school experience in her home country. She relates how mistakes, at this school, are opportunities to learn. How this school is opening up lots of possibilities. She is thinking about jobs and future choices. If I asked her, I bet she would also say that the day-to-day options are much more fluid here. A student from another European country lists the classes that aren’t offered in her country, there are new opportunities here.

We move on to assessment, or perhaps we return to the idea of learning through making mistakes. Teachers here allow students to redo work to get a better grade. Why not, after all? I imagine a teacher saying “No, you can’t redo that work, please stop learning.” I can also think of teachers that would argue that students need to learn to get things right the first time, that they need to learn discipline, yada yada in my opinion, to be frank. But there are plenty of teachers out there who think like this, and there is merit in that line of thought.

It’s so rewarding to listen to a good student discussion (and its complement, to watch teachers keep themselves out of the conversation). When we hear students voice their opinions we learn about them, from them, and with them. As I’m thinking about this, the teacher mentions a student survey from the past. Some students wanted more time to talk, probably like class today. And some wanted the teacher to talk more. 

I’m reminded of the study at MIT, if I remember correctly, in which students professed they learned more from lecture, but, in a controlled study, those same students actually learned more in groups. Perhaps a certain number of students would like the teacher to talk more to take the responsibility for learning off their own shoulders? Is lecture the easier path, one that requires less heavy lifting, and therefore preferred? Or do we have a bias for the expertise of the teacher over our peers? One of my university students once audibly groaned when I introduced a new topic by having students share in groups what they already knew, what their own experiences were. She wanted to hear it from me. 

“I wish we could vote on the books we have to read,” says one student. “If we were given a list and we could choose as a class.” Well yeah! Why not?! (Ok, I know about syllabi and teacher planning and inertia and all that.) But really, why not set up learning with more student choice? We’d have to adjust how we structure things, but we might get more motivation … and more learning. Isn’t that what we’re after? 

“How do you grade art?” Ah, that’s so nicely provocative. I would add “Why do you grade art?” A student extends my thinking with a laugh: “Then maybe you can’t grade English.” I love these students. Why do we grade English? How much is inertia, how much is supporting learning, how much is passing the buck? (“The universities want grades.”) I’m so interested here I want to jump into the conversation. The words are sticking in my throat, I feel them, I clear my throat in fact. I start bouncing my knees. But the teacher is so good at keeping himself out of this, who am I to jump in? And as I contain this feeling a student who hadn’t contributed to the conversation yet lays out a new argument. Brilliant of him. I almost stepped in and took that opportunity away. Close call. I just keep bouncing my knees, but now I’m feeling a little smug.

The conversation about art, and how you evaluate it, has gotten philosophical. We are still collectively wondering about how one grades art. We’ve talked less about the purpose of grading. It would be nice to hear more about that. Our visitor contributes for the first time. A student loses no time in disagreeing with her, followed by another student who disagrees with the disagreeing student. All very polite. Respectful. 

I’m going to end with these questions for you:

How would you grade this 45-minute conversation the students just had? Would it be appropriate to grade? There has been a lot of learning, I’m sure of it, and I bet the students and teachers would agree there has been a lot of learning. But assigning this experience a grade? What do you think?

Visual Arts and Education: understanding history and context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simulating to get real

Ceci n’est pas une pipe. 

I’ve been working with a teacher for two or maybe even three years now. He invites me to his class when he is running simulations. We’ve done some joint planning, some joint debriefing. This school year he is getting financial support from the school to further his work. He has presented his work at two conferences. I’m ready to support him with writing and publishing. He’s ready.

A student asks what a pipe looks like, so the teacher projects images of pipes. One of the photos of pipes is the Treachery of Images, painted by René Magritte in 1929. 

This is not a pipe.

What a perfect way to think about a simulation. These students are not really shipping goods from England to the colonies in the New World. There is no ocean here, no ships, no money. There is a certain treachery, because everything is make-believe. But because of the treachery, this trickery, the learning will be, in fact, very real. We simulate to get real. These students are, I predict, going to feel this lesson emotionally. That is, they will be trying to make (fake) money with (fake) exports, in competition with each other. 

The teacher just announced there are going to be times when he introduces Breaking News. This is his method of making the simulation more interesting, of including more historical context. And of incidental English teaching. 

Breaking news! Britain is distracted by wars back in Europe including an English Civil War (1642-1651). They’re happy with the wealth they are gaining from the colonies, but take a hands off approach to working with them. This is known as “Salutary Neglect.”


  1. What does “hands off” mean?
  2. What are “colonies?”

Brilliant. There was history teaching there, just what was needed to support the simulation. And there was English teaching there, none of the students here are native speakers of English. “Colonies” is subject specific, but there isn’t getting around needing to learn that word. So teach it. “Hands off” transcends any particular class. Fantastic.

He helps each group allocate some of their initial money. They are playing a game. They are getting ready. And then he steps back and explains the context of what was going on, historically. More of the history lesson, embedded in the game. He’s onto something here. He’s making history real, through all this deception.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

So I mentioned there is no water here, we are in a classroom. But! The teacher plays a video of waves hitting the beach. He turns up the volume and asks the students to shut their eyes and smell the salt in the air. They are getting ready to set sail. He explains how they are going to sell their products. They have a sheet to keep track of their transactions. I’m not sure I understand what they are going to do, but the students seem comfortable. They begin rolling in order to know how much money they make. Some get good rolls, some less good. A roll of 6 is celebrated, they get a premium price for their goods. A roll of 1, well, it was a long trip across that ocean to make so little money.

Now the students have to sail back to England, back to France or the Netherlands. But, the teacher explains, it would be terrible business to sail back with empty holds. Instead they load up with materials. He plays the video of the waves hitting the beach. I smell the salt, feel some sand between my toes. We sail back to Europe.

Breaking news! The English civil war is coming to an end. This means the Crown has more resources to start making sure taxes are paid. There is a slight risk to do business with the Dutch or the French.

What does this mean for you? 

  1. To do business in the Netherlands or France, you must smuggle.
  2. What does smuggle mean?

So the students choose whether they sail to England, for lower prices, but with lower risk, or if they sail to France or the Netherlands, where the prices will be higher but, as smugglers, there is greater risk. 

Two groups choose to sail to the UK. One group accepts the risk and sails to the Netherlands. The teacher puts up the prices. If our smugglers are successful, they’ll make nearly twice as much as the other groups. But, of course, they could lose it all, too.

There are things to work on here. We’ll be able to make things better, or “more intuitive,” as the teacher says. Exactly. That’s why the school is supporting his use of simulations. By trial and error, over multiple iterations, the simulation will get better and better, more effective. The job of the school administrator, Justin Reich of MIT says, is to give teachers space to try things out and to talk to other teachers about what they are trying out. I wish Reich were here, I want to share this moment with someone who gets it. 

The group in port in the Netherlands rolls the dice. Oops, bad luck. They have been caught smuggling. They lose their load, they’ve lost a lot of money. The two groups that chose safe trading in England look a little smug. 

Teaching and learning can be very creative. History can be lived. A bit of context, the sound of waves on the beach, the desire to win a game, all providing context to learn terms like salutary neglect. Faking it in order to understand trade across the Atlantic in the 1600s, to learn transferable expressions in English. No one had their head on the table, no one asked to go to the bathroom, no one snuck a look at the phone or checked their GPA on their computer.

This is not a pipe (dream)!


A new year! Time for new books! And maybe some wonderful older ones… Wishing you a good year and hope every teacher’s resolution is to read more books in the classroom!

Miss Malarkey Leaves No Reader Behind, Judy Finchler and Kevin O’Malley. This picture book is the story of a kid who does not like reading. He loves video games but not books. But when his school sets out to to read 1,000 books this year, his librarian tries her best to make readers of all students. Slowly, most kids end up with their nose in a book, because who can resist these great books. No matter how much he does not like reading, Miss Malarkey eventually manages to put the perfect book in his hands and the school principal has to dye his hair purple! ISBN 0-8027-8084-9, Walker & Company

Class Trip is a new title by the indefatigable Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko. Stephanie and Sean and their entire class embark on a trip to the museum. The guide shows them chicken eggs that are about to hatch and, indeed, they watch a little chick come out of its shell. “Fantastic,” say the kids, “do you have any bigger eggs?” As the size of the eggs increases, so do the things that hatch. Until they are shown an enormous shell in the museum’s basement. Will a teacher fit in a shell? And how can eggs do math? A fun, new read-aloud in typical Munsch style with lots of repetition and an unexpected ending. ISBN 978-1-0397-0224-0, Scholastic Canada

What I Like! by Gervase Phinn British author Gervase Phinn has written fun picturebooks for kids, including What I Like!, a collection of poems for the very young. Ranging from food to pets to runaway trains these poems are great for sharing out loud in Kindergarten. They include rhymes as well as tongue twisters and guessing games. ISBN 978-1904-5501-29, Child’s Play

Raina Telgemeier wrote successful graphic novels that kids love, like Ghosts, Smile and Drama. How do writers and illustrators use their own life to come up with great stories? In Share Your Smile, she shows readers, and kids who like to doodle, how to create the best stories from real experiences. Losing a tooth as a kid, may not be fun. But writing and drawing about it, turning it into a universal story, can help yourself as well as others. Telgemeier takes the reader through all steps of remembering, recording, and sketching stories. A great book to encourage others to write your own story. ISBN 978-1-338-35384-6, Scholastic Graphix

Margriet Ruurs loves reading. She also writes books for children and conducts author visits at schools around the world.

Sharing stories, expertise, and experiences from international educators around the world. In the spirit of amplifying diverse voices. TIE's blog space is not subject to editorial oversight. TIE bloggers have a long history in various aspects of international education and share their thoughts and insights based on personal experiences.