Totally Inclusive School Cultures

From the slides of Angeline Aow, keynote, Outstanding Schools Europe, London, February 28, 2023

This week I’m attending Outstanding Schools Europe, a two-day conference in London. Keynoter Angeline Aow shared the carrot metaphor below in her morning keynote.

Metaphors can be worth their weight in gold. For example this one.

“Picture a carrot,” Angeline Aow says to us, and we all picture, I am fairly sure, the same thing. In fact, she projects a child’s drawing of a carrot that is exactly what I was picturing. A stretched isosceles triangle with rounded corners, colored orange, and a nice tuft of leafy green. 

Then she projects some other carrots, bunches of well-formed vegetables in different colors, carrots you might find at the health food store. A bit different, but not too different, still something you could find at the store. And then she projects a photo of carrots how they really come out of the ground, at least some of them. Carrots that look like they have two legs, carrots that are wrapped around each other.

“It was hard to find this image of carrots,” Angeline tells us. When you google images of carrots, you get the Platonic ideal of the carrot again and again. (Try it, I did.) She tells us that she had to google “deformed carrot” to get the image she shared with us. (Try this, too. There are lots of varieties of carrots in their natural state.)

Now the metaphor. You are probably ahead of me. Carrots, as they grow, have to deal with the environment they are growing in. They have to grow around obstacles. They have to deal with other carrots in their proximity. They have to deal with variances in the environment. So not all carrots look alike, not by a long shot. Not all people look alike, not by a long shot. Not all people are alike.

But. The image of a carrot that we imagine when asked to think about a carrot tends to be the same. Not being the typical carrot makes you invisible. A powerful metaphor. 

As it turns out, carrots that don’t fit the mold don’t make it to the grocery store. They don’t sell. And therefore the idea of carrotness is reinforced for all of us: the orange, elongated isosceles triangle with rounded corners and the nice leafy top. The carrots we encounter are not representative of all carrots. Some carrots have become invisible. 

To take the metaphor one step further, Angeline projects a package of baby carrots. California carrot farmer Mike Yurosek found he couldn’t sell carrots that didn’t fit the ideal, so he invented a method to shave off the parts that made them impossible to sell. He rounded off the bits that made them individual. He got rid of the evidence of their struggle to survive, of their unique histories. He made them all look the same. Commendable, as far as wasting less food. Powerful (and painful) as a metaphor. Is this what so many individuals have to do to fit in? Let what makes them unique be rounded off in order to be included? To be seen? We cannot be okay with that. What should we do about that?

Pause > Reset > Play

painting by Sir John Laverly

This week I’m attending Outstanding Schools Europe, a two-day conference in London. Ger Graus gave the opening keynote with the full title: Pause > Reset > Play: Reimagining Education 2023: Views Through a Different Lens

About 150 educators from England and Europe convene in a rectangular conference room in a building across the Thames from Big Ben. It’s time to start, our host introduces Ger Graus ( 

I worry that we’re going to hear that education needs to be reimagined, but that we’re not going to hear too much about how to go about doing that. But I’m pleasantly surprised. Despite the keynote format, there are plenty of How-Tos along the way. Here are a few of them.

Starting from Graus’s conclusions: “Children aspire to what they know exists, and you are in charge of showing them what exists.” Graus backs this up with research data collected through KidZania. KidZania is a location for children ages four to 14, a place to play with a range of adult jobs. Children are encouraged to role play, free of direction by adults. At KidZania, Graus deadpans, “adults are to be seen and not heard.” Children are free to choose what they want to play.

Graus and others recognized a unique chance to collect data on children’s preferences and biases vis-a-vis adult professions, since the operators can keep track of where students play in the KidZania environment. Combining their preferences and demographics yielded several interesting insights, based on a sample of more than half a million children in several countries.

Data indicate that the  life experience of children influences the first KidZania activity they choose to pursue. Children (and I’m sure adults) gravitate to what they know. Therefore we, the educators, are in charge of showing children what exists, what is out there. Our job is to stretch them, to open up additional experiences. This is particularly important because the KidZania data show that girls tend to choose activities under their age level, boys at or above their age level. On average, girls play nurse, boys play doctor. Presumably the same phenomenon is happening along other demographic lines as well. And there doesn’t seem to be a difference in the data across the age spectrum, four to 14. 

Showing students what exists means presenting students with role models that look like them. Graus references the three sources from which students learn, according to Reggio Emilio: adults, peers, and the environment. Teachers and parents, their friends and classmates, and what is around them. “Our job is to open windows and doors.” We need to show them more doors, we need to expand their environment. They need to see that the doors we show them are indeed there for them because they’ve been opened to other people who look like them. It’s our job to show children what exists.

I think about how much time students spend in a classroom and I cringe. In classrooms that all look terribly similar. More cringing. It’s harder to open doors in those four walls.

Graus has a bit of a response to my unspoken thoughts. He says: “Use ‘for example’ a lot, because that’s like taking someone on a trip, isn’t it?” Yes, if you must stay in a classroom, tell stories that at least take the childrens’ thinking outside the classroom. Better yet, get the students out of the classroom. This is something concrete we can do. If it is only the hallway that is currently possible, use the hallway. If it is the school library, then go there. If it is the school grounds, go there. If it is connecting with the world through technology, great. If it is pretending to be outside the classroom through a simulation, that counts for a lot, too.

On another tack, Graus mentioned how obsessed we are with the mistakes that students make. He mentions a student essay as an example, a well-written, thoughtful piece, on which the teacher has marked mistakes in red. Why mark the mistakes? Why not mention the overwhelming amount of work that is good? Graus: “I think, oh my god, is that really what we do?” Well, yes, that is often what we do. We look for indicators that we can use to sort students across our grading schemes. If we weren’t, we’d give them all the same grade – and if we were going to give them all the same grade, we would just get rid of grades and work with their individual strengths and weaknesses. But to a large extent, we haven’t done that, have we?

And then a related comment. Graus: “Quit serving the system and serve the students instead.” This veers a bit to the type of keynote meant to inspire more than provide a How-To, nothing wrong with that, but I’m surprised again. Our speaker is not out of suggestions.

Graus projects a slide with the words Heroes and Sheroes. “Kids need heroes and sheroes.” They need people they can look up to. People, again, people that look like them. He didn’t spell this out, but I think it was clear to all of us. We need the notion of heroes and sheroes across the gender spectrum, and we need the equivalent across similar spectrums of race, wealth, sexual orientation, and more.

The name of this conference is Outstanding Schools. Graus, as one of the first trained Ofsted inspectors back in 1992, mentions that outstanding, as a rating in schools, can too easily be co-opted to mean very good at compliance. This is not what he is suggesting for our children, nor a goal for our teaching, nor an outcome for this conference. He mentions Greta Thunberg, which makes me chuckle. As teachers, we’d like to imagine we help create the type of student agency that Thunberg embodies, an agency of course that took her and thousands of other children out of school. 

I’ll conclude with another slide Graus shared with us, a three-year-old in a dance pose, emulating a painting of the dancer Anna Pavlova. The painting is by Sir John Laverly and hangs in a museum in Glasgow. The young girl is in the same dance pose as the figure in the painting, arms thrown back, toes pointed, all grace and beauty and power. She has found a role model in that moment, someone she could follow and learn from. This, Graus leaves us with, is our role. Show them what exists so they can aspire to it.


“People are status-seeking monkeys,” purports Eugen Wei, former product leader at Amazon, Hulu, and Oculus. This status-seeking links with an understanding that identity is a fundamental aspect of our very human nature. An evolution of identity all around that begets a moment of preponderance for those in the world of education.

How well do schools know themselves?” 

Sensibly, we expect to find shoes sold in a shoe store, not bananas. Many models, brands, and sizes of shoes and yet all still in the shape of a shoe. However, schools often seem to brand themselves as flea markets. Everything to all people. The ethics of this approach might be questionable, and one might also be left to wonder if programs become diluted as a result of being out of focus. Further, some wondering might be whether there is any intersection between a school’s strengths, attributes, values, mission, and vision? And their website, what might it suggest and is it truly aligned?

As a school are we athletics focused?  Sustainability driven? Place-based? International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB) Programme or Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum focused?  Interdisciplinary project-based?  

We Can Have It All

As of late, I’ve given a bit of thought to “yes/and,” as opposed to “either/or.” Though there is something certainly to be said for a school having a clear identity, they need not pigeonhole themselves into one single initiative or monocular focus. Especially if interests are not competing. Sustainability can funnel down and through everything in a school. Athletics too can be tied to sustainability and individual health. While interdisciplinary projects can be place-based. Advanced Placement or the International Baccalaureate can be an opt-in for students. None of this is a stretch. In fact, it attests to flexibility and opportunity. A multiple pathway approach.

The Omnipotence of Culture

Identity includes culture and this culture is a bit like breathing. It just happens. For better or worse. I like to think, for the better. However, because of this, it behooves us to intentionally design cultures. So learning is optimal. And so, as schools we are ethical, ultimately doing that which we claim. Conscious and deliberate creation as opposed to letting culture just happen. Schools mustn’t play the reactive “game” of Whac-A-Mole, where the “gophers” (dealing with parent and teacher concerns, managing budgets and resources, hiring personnel as a result of high attrition, etc.) take precedence over engaging in work that improves teaching and student learning. The development of culture requires vision and the wisdom to leverage knowledge and experience. A consideration but also a plan for where a school wants to be in 5, 10 years, or even the turn of the 22nd century!

I would argue schools are wise to intentionally design learning for multiple pathways. Equally, I caution that we do not kid ourselves. With several foci, not everything is likely to be done well by all students. This realistic notion is one of balance but also acceptance of perfection in process. Contrary to this, however, is the importance of a school’s due diligence to create cultures of excellence. Defining what excellence looks and sounds like should be at the foundation. Following this, students must have explicit opportunities to see this “bar,” and then be encouraged to push the bar, setting new and higher standards of excellence.  

Not Sacrificing Excellence for Authenticity

Though there may be many pathways, the destination of a high school student is graduation and preparation for the world beyond. A Senior level thesis or capstone course can serve as a sort of rite of passage, an important stage in a young person’s life. An invitation to engage in a year-long process, to create something meaningful. To demonstrate competency, reflect throughout a process, and then showcase what is known but also what is able to be done.  

This is powerful.

Authenticity could appear at odds with excellence. Failure is an authentic and simply sometimes can be a difficult reality. However, a student should not fail in putting the “crowning jewel” upon their high school career. To ensure this does not happen, sincere consideration must be given to competencies. Competencies are defined as the knowledge, behaviors, attitudes, and skills which lead to a student being able to do something successfully. Schools will serve learners well when these competencies are clearly articulated horizontally and vertically throughout the curriculum. Such conversations are the kindling of culture and are hopefully guided by two questions: 

~What competencies get assessed?

~How and when might these competencies be demonstrated best?

Inherent in these conversations is one single driver, PURPOSE. School is to prepare students for a future we do know not yet. 

So when “school’s out,” teachers let more than “status-seeking monkeys” out!


Gifted Education

You know those stories about revelations: threshold concepts that change the way you see the world, like the day you were on your way to work and you realised that it’s not about what you teach, it’s about what the students learn? I had one of those powerful shifts in perception and belief some 10 years ago when I went on a training course run by Unlocking the World on Gifted Education. The course was a one week, 40 hour deep dive into gifted education theory and practice and it basically changed the way I looked at students from then on.

As I’m licensed to train teachers in gifted education, I took a whole school’s staff through the exact same course some years later, because I wanted them to see things the way I had been brought to see them, to unlock the world in each learner. It remains a passion today and I invite all educators to consider this mind-shifting approach to human intelligence, and therefore, to teaching.

The revelation

I used to think that the whole world of gifted education was a somewhat exaggerated and potentially damaging elitist exercise in labelling. To me, everyone was gifted in some way and it seemed crude to decide that some were and others not, not to mention all sorts of problems around criteria, cut off points and separate programmes running alongside mainstream programmes. However, I was misguided and ill-informed as the course taught me. Not everybody is gifted but more are than we might initially think, often gifted people are not recognised, and you can use the principles of gifted education to enhance all learning. Here are four powerful concepts embedded in gifted education that are worth careful consideration:

  1. There are different types of giftedness: you can be moderately or profoundly gifted and gifted in at least six domains (see the 2015 research of Betts & Neihart). Gifted people are not necessarily high achievers academically, that is just one type of giftedness. In fact, many go under the radar because educators have not been trained in identifying them. Bad schools ignore gifted students to the point that they become dropouts or even delinquents, since the enormous creative energy they have has simply been neglected. 
  2. Often gifted people are twice exceptional. This means that their gifts are accompanied by some form of neurodiversity. When you are gifted, you see things differently and that is not always understood and recognised by standard types of intelligence screening. In fact, and most unfortunately, often learning needs mask gifts. This can mean that untrained educators will treat a gifted student through a deficit approach, via the learning need and without compensating for the gifts. For example, a student might be dyslexic but highly creative, or might become restless when not challenged. The dyslexia and the attention deficit that should be looked at in isolation, they should be understood in the context of the gifts: they go together.
  3. Gifted people often experience asynchronous development (Silverman, 1997). The hyper development of their cognitive or intrapersonal abilities means that they are not necessarily in tune with the social behaviours of their age peers. The factory line admissions approach (stamped by date of production) we have socialised over the last century and a half assumes that children of the same age grow up better together. This might be true for a majority of students, but gifted students often prefer the company of older peers and struggle to assimilate the codes of the group given the asynchrony between those codes and the gifted person’s sense of humour, conversation preference, interest and passions.
  4. Gifted students are often neglected. Schools often spend a lot of energy on helping the students struggling to integrate the curriculum. However, the students who are performing well – so those who are academically gifted (which, again, is only one type of giftedness) – are seen as not needing help when, in fact, if they were helped, they would go even further.

  What to do?

Here are three steps I would encourage schools to consider in order to accommodate gifted students and create conditions for them to flourish.

  1. Ensure that you have the right checklist to identify gifts. Kanevsky’s brilliant behaviours are based on behaviours that can be observed and interpreted. Gifted students often have beyond age-peer sensitivities, an original sense of humour, quicker processing speed and higher spontaneous information recall capacity. Please don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a single quantitative assessment, even a well-established psychometric test, will identify giftedness, it simply loses too many gifts and is a very narrow yet blunt instrument to assume any pertinent diagnosis. Careful attention to behaviour while knowing what you are looking for will tell a more truthful story. The observation of peers and parents can be useful to build up an accurate picture too.
  2. Recognise, don’t label. When you see a gifted student in action, it’s a powerful, mind-opening moment, and it gives educators a renewed responsibility to differentiate carefully, to allow for enrichment and extension options on assignments, to consider acceleration and to engage the learner in a scaffolded manner. However, openly labelling students as gifted or running gifted programmes for some students and not others is a mistake because it leads to stigmatising, pressured expectations and, invariably, artificial cut-off criteria. Only when students are exceptionally and profoundly gifted should measures beyond differentiation be considered, the first being acceleration.
  3. Don’t punish students for being gifted. An unimaginative educator will simply give fast finishers extra work, or ask students who understand concepts quickly to teach the other students. Worse, they will become defensive when students are easily bored and challenge parents who might believe their children have gifts by looking to test scores, as if the only way to be gifted is through academics. An open-minded educator will see the restlessness, the etiolated behaviours and the unusually high processing speed of a learner as a challenge to ensure that in all curriculum planning, enrichment and extension work, qualitatively differentiated items, choice of assignment and other varied techniques (essentially, inverting Bloom’s Taxonomy so as to allow some students opportunities to deepen higher order thinking skills at entry point) are used.

Our role as educators is to see the gifts in learners and to make those gifts grow into socially recognised talents. 

Next time you are challenged by a student who is underperforming, is restless, does not get on well with their peers, seems to be looking for something else, consider that they might be gifted and look at them not through a deficit model created by a rigid assessment model, but through a world of possibilities.

A Year of Resilience

24th February 2023 marked a year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has been a year of extreme resilience for the people of Ukraine and their leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In the words of Zelenskyy, “We have become one family …” this should become the definition of global citizenship in international education. Exactly a year ago the Ukraine war started amidst one of the worst events in the recent history-the pandemic. Yet, the tiny nation of Ukraine demonstrated mighty resilience and taught us some important lessons. International schools can use some of these strategies to fight the war on discrimination by being one family believing in one goal-education without discrimination.

Here are a few key lessons the Ukraine war taught us in a year of resilience. These are humane approaches, and people-centric leadership traits that build resilience and unite us as a community.

  1. Never assume: It was assumed that a stronger, more powerful force like Russia will defeat the small country of Ukraine within days. Quite the contrary, resilience prevailed, and assumptions are long buried. Lesson learned-never assume that stronger voices make the largest impact, it is in fact the most resilient voice that makes a meaningful change. Let your voice be the most resilient one in the fight against discrimination in international education. Privilege and supremacy can be defeated by overcoming assumptions. Power is not mighty, resilience is!
  2. Unthinkable is possible: A year earlier it is unthinkable that Ukraine would hold out against nuclear threats and the catastrophic war. The country’s resilience has catapulted the idea that the unthinkable is possible. Lesson learned-imagine the impossible and work towards it. If you are marginalized, alienated, diminished, belittled, and dismissed, rise against all odds, challenge the perpetrators, dismantle their systems, and bring down systemic discrimination. Global citizenship will not just be a goal it will be a reality. Imagine a better world to create a better world!
  3. Unite to counter: As exclaimed by Zelenskyy: ““We have become one family …”, resilience is strengthened by unity. Unity is a primal force to counterattack. United in objectives and hearts can counter acts of aggression. Lesson learned-international educators must come together, and unite under a common objective of equity and inclusion. We must empower our students to choose unity over choosing a gun to solve their problems. Unite to counter passive or massive aggressions!

In the above analogies, my objective is to focus on the resilience of Ukraine as an important lesson for educators. This by no means is to glorify the war. Hence this idea to use the Ukraine crisis as an example should not be read as idolizing war or conflict, it should be read to bring together communities in times of crisis. It is a time of crisis for the world of international education with rising conflicts, extremism, and intolerance. Hence it is time to be united to be resilient against the persistent storms, lessons learned from an important year in the history of the world.

Our Greatest Teachers

So over the past couple of years we have made it a top priority to ensure that students have a stronger and more impactful voice in all aspects of our school organization. One example of this priority can be seen in our current curriculum committee structure. Several students are now an integral part of this committee and honestly, it might just be one of the best decisions that we have ever made as a leadership team. Listening to students engage in really important conversations around assessment, growth and feedback models, and student agency has already had a transformative effect on us as a team and community, and I always leave these conversations impressed, inspired, and with a much richer perspective on what is actually best for students and student learning. 
The latest curriculum committee meeting last week reminded me of a post that I shared six or seven years ago, where I talked about the beauty and wisdom of our students. You see, If you really think about it, it’s children (from 3 year olds up until our graduating seniors) who are in many ways our greatest teachers. As educators, most of us got into this amazing profession because we wanted to make a positive impact in the lives of kids. We wanted to play our part in shaping and inspiring their individual futures, as well as the future of our world, and you know what, we do this everyday. Teachers work incredibly hard and they are easily my favorite adults on the planet, and they deserve to be recognized way more than they are but here’s the thing…it might just be that the best part of being a teacher, and the true secret behind why we love it so much is that we probably get more out of this vocation then we put in. Here’s what I mean…
When I think about how much I’ve given to kids over the past 25 years or so, all over the world and all across the grade levels, I honestly don’t think it adds up to what my students have given to me. If I think of all the incredible life lessons that I’ve learned over the years, and all of the magical moments in my life, and the best belly laughs, and the person and leader and father that I’ve become, it’s mostly because of what I’ve learned from children. I’ve learned from their innocence and honesty, their willingness to shake off mistakes and to try again, their ten-foot tall and bulletproof approach to life, their ability to live truly in the present, and how they absolutely exude and represent all of the things that go into making a beautiful life…it’s all just so magical. Educators get a chance to learn from kids every second of every day, and this learning inspires us to live this way ourselves, and to be this way for others…it absolutely has done that for me over the years. 
I don’t think we recognize enough the immense and immeasurable and beautiful contribution that children give to our lives, and the positive effect that they have on us as adults. I think we all too often see ourselves as the keepers of the knowledge, and the ones who are going to make everything okay in the world but we might just be getting this backwards.With that in mind, I think that every school in the world should plan a student appreciation week for next year, much like our annual teacher appreciation weeks, where we spend 5 days (not nearly enough) doing nothing but thanking, celebrating, and recognizing all that our students give to us! It wouldn’t be hard at all to plan, and it would be super fun to get creative with it, but the message would be the right one to send. Field days, pizza parties, teachers serving kids breakfast and lunch, giving kids loads of time to research and share their passions during the day, and a beginning and end of the week assembly to bookend this incredible week…it’s crazy that we haven’t been doing this all along.
So, as we’re planning next year’s calendar, let’s take a second to think about who really and truly needs to be celebrated in our communities…the kids! Just like I suggested several years ago, let’s set aside some time to give them what they deserve. We don’t do this enough and there’s no better time to start than now. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the Week…
Education is not just about putting information in. We have forgotten that it, in fact, begins in the child’s heart – Vince Gowmon

Inspiring Videos –
Inspiring Caregivers
An Anonymous Act of Kindness
10 Things That Made Us Smile This Week
On the Road – Inspiration

Related Articles – 
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Before biting into a protein bar the other day, I contemplated how the very thing I was about to eat was analogous to schools. The front of the wrapper was not the image of an athlete. Nor full of color or fancy font.  Rather it was simple.  A list.  The ingredients I was about to eat: 3 egg whites, 6 almonds, 4 cashews, 2 dates, and no B.S. “We tell you what’s on the inside on the outside,” is their tagline. What if schools were as transparent? 

Some readers may have played the game, “Shop for School.” Either for your own children or possibly as an educator. I know I have played various times over the years, keen to note the long list of “ingredients” on school “wrappers.” Websites and promotional materials touting ideals and maybe even unknowingly a bit unethical and deceptive.  Surely, however, with the best of intentions. The modus operandi tends to lend itself to “we can be everything to everyone.” A lack of focus and where more, very likely results in less. Such simplicity four ingredients, and “no B.S.” seemingly doesn’t exist in the educational world. Rather, it is common for schools to have mission and vision statements, values, attributes, and sometimes even definitions of learning. One precursory search resulted in the following, and what’s scary, is that this “story” is not unique to this district or school. It is the norm. Further, the reality is, this example is far more streamlined than many others. 

At _________(fill in the blank), a students’ educational experience focuses upon:

  • 21st Century Skills (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity/ innovation), global citizenship, and cultural competency.
  • Athletics, extra-curricular activities, leadership, and community service 
  • External & Internal Values: Culturally Competent Citizens
  • Healthy in Mind & Body

The school’s mission and vision are purposefully not added to this list for a few reasons. Chief amongst these is the sheer irony. Though there might be nobility in genuinely attempting to create environments of care, the long laundry lists of “who we are,” “what we are about,” and “what we impress upon children” inevitable creates pressure cookers.  

Following and Fulfilling Mission Statements 

Truly creating “Cultures of Care” will be most evident when we throw up our hands and say, “enough is enough.” Only so much food can be piled up on a plate before it spilleth over! Further, I would argue, it is hard to cultivate a love of learning if we are instead fashioning stress-filled experiences filled under the guise of preparedness. This very real pressure students are feeling is nothing new. In 2013 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a poll that resulted in nearly 40 percent of parents sharing that their high school student experienced a lot of stress from school. Another survey even a few years earlier, of students themselves, conducted by the American Psychological Association, found that nearly half of all teens — 45 percent — said they were stressed by school pressures.

And it isn’t like the pandemic alleviated any stress. 

The CDC reported how more than a third (37%) of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, what is it going to take to truly create school communities of care? A more streamlined and focused approach surely would not hurt. This does not mean that values, attributes, skills, etc. fall by the wayside. Rather, simplify. For the sake of following and fulfilling mission statements where students are at the center.

Fancy infographics sometimes seek to do this work of simplification and yet, ultimately there is no easy way to disentangle the fabricated mess. Smiling faces from a diversity of backgrounds also might beguile when in effect, if the schools were protein bars, their ingredients would more resemble this:  

Do we even know what these ingredients are? And if so, are we willing to put synthetically created ingredients, passed off as food, into our bodies?  

What about our children? Are we okay with them marching off (or us sending them!) to schools where there is a nonsensical, juggling act of 99 balls in the air? Even if 90 balls stayed afloat in the air, the environment would be imbued by insincere complexity and a constant rush to catch the next ball.  

A situation not unlike what our students feel in schools across the globe. Tails chasing dogs. An answer? Or, maybe THE answer?

Simply begin to focus!

The Puppet Master

“How foolish I was when I was a puppet.” These wise and likely not unfamiliar words were spoken by the 19th-century fictional protagonist, Pinocchio. Some could argue that our current system of education has us similarly by the strings (note: our 21st-century education is not much different than Pinocchio’s days!), Caught up in busyness. Happy to add one thing more. And one thing more. And yet another thing. Strings.

Strings that then control us.

Whilst adding and adding, little consideration is given to what might be substituted. Something needs to give. Might we possibly begin to discuss what could be refined?  

An End to “Busyness as Usual”

Schools are a bit like improper fractions.  


What if we simplified and reduced it?


Imagine, instead of 36 things to focus upon, schools radically reduced themselves. Say, to four ingredients and no B.S. This entails “cutting” some strings. Possibly from the puppet master him/herself and “busyness as usual”.

Not everything can nor should be a priority. 


The histories that we learn

Moving house

When I was about 17, in my final years of schooling in Eswatini, during the summer holidays, given that we were moving house from one part of Johannesburg to the other, and I had to throw piles of school documentation that I had been hoarding out of my bedroom, I found myself rummaging through artefacts from my earlier years of schooling in South Africa. 

Among the childish art projects and textbooks I came across was my history notebook from my Primary School. On the first page my own clumsily formatted 8 year old handwriting spoke to the maturing young person I had become. The trembling, awkward letters carried much of the sadness and solitude I had experienced as a child: looking at my own handwriting almost created a sense of pity in me for my earlier self.

But it was less the form and more the content of what I read that struck a strange, dissonant chord within:

“South African history started in 1488 when Bartholomew Diaz planted a stone cross at Kwaaihoek”.

This was when South African history was to begin. The next sentence jumped forward over 100 years:

“On the 6th of April, 1652, Jan Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape of Good Hope”.

The next pages of my notebook, the contents of which had been copied off the blackboard word for word, spoke of how the Cape was empty and how Dutch settlers simply moved in and took over. My notes also mentioned how the climate in the Cape was “Mediterranean”.

Early Days

The notebook took me back to the classroom of my former all boys, almost exclusively white school. This was a place where you would get the cane if you stepped out of line. The history lessons were highly formatted pieces of propaganda, singing the praises of Afrikaaner nationalism, the heroes of the Boer War, with caricatural representations of Zulu chiefs such as Chaka and Dingaan.

My teacher, who taught us Afrikaans as well as humanities, was a terrifying little man with piercing blue eyes, a thick moustache, burly tanned, hairy forearms and a sickeningly sweet smell of musk perfume mixed with cigarette smoke that would trail behind him. He was well known for his use of the cane, in fact he called it “bliksem”, which means lightning in Afrikaans. Beating us was clearly a pleasure for him, as was teaching us how white settlers roamed into a garden of paradise where, conveniently, there was no one to stop them before they were attacked unfairly by aggressive Zulu warriors.


My life changed when I relocated to Eswatini (then Swaziland) to attend a United World College, Waterford Kamhlaba, which was also an established anti-Apartheid school. Here I learned shoulder to shoulder with the children and grandchildren of Nelson Mandela, Albert Sisulu, Mosiuoa Lekota and Desmond Tutu.

My history teacher here was completely different: he was passionate about South African history and we learnt about it. However, the core of our learning was about Apartheid, from the 1930s all the way through to the 1990s. We learnt every Apartheid law, massacre and injustice. As my learning of my own history deepened, so did the unlearning of what I was told before. In my old school, the so-called “great trek” (white settlers exodusing the Cape to travel to Johannesburg) was presented as a Moses-out-of-Israel type fleeing from British persecution; at Waterford our teacher explained that it was because the settlers refused to abolish slavery, which had become illegal; in my old school, the earliest Cape Settlers had to defend their property from marauding thieves, at Waterford we learnt how they would shoot down locals who dared to walk across their land.

Understanding the past to understand the present

And the history lessons were not just about the past, they were about the present too. Each holiday, when I would travel back to South Africa, I would be confronted with my friends and even family who were still wallowing in the lie of Apartheid education, not knowing their own history, not even being able to name some of the most foundational Apartheid laws, facts and figures.

It was at Waterford that for the very first time I saw a picture of Nelson Mandela. He was a banned person in South Africa and it was impossible to see any images of him. The picture is a famous one of him in London, young, bearded, looking wisely but somehow mournfully into the middle distance. At Waterford, because of my history classes, the invisible was made visible.

None of this was easy to learn. I would find myself sitting in classes with friends from different African countries feeling deeply ashamed to be a white South African, having to endure in front of everybody what people like me were doing. When we put on a school play about South Africa, there was a riot scene and students were needed to play the soldiers who would open fire on the crowd. Everybody turned to look at me. I volunteered reluctantly.

We also studied the holocaust at Waterford. I remember having nightmares for several nights consecutively after seeing the black and white footage of bodies being discovered in the camps. Knowing that the early architects of Apartheid were Nazis connected the two quite seamlessly: it was part of the same vicious cruelty.

David Olusoga and Shashi Tharoor

A few years ago, as part of the extraordinary Guest Speakers Series that we run at the International School of Geneva, I was lucky enough to meet with the softly spoken, dashing and consistently poignant British historian David Olusoga. He addressed our students on British history with a focus on the experience from the point of view of Black people. I was familiar with his work on German concentration camps in Namibia ( The Kaiser’s Holocaust) and his television documentary Black and British: A Forgotten History.

Some months later a colleague lent me a book by Shashi Tharoor, An Era of Darkness, about the British colonial empire in India, the resources that were exploited and the financial reparations that amending this might imply.

I had learnt about British colonialism at school, Cecil John Rhodes’ dream of a train line from the Cape to Cairo, the “jewel in the crown” that was India for the British Empire, the Opium Wars and so on. However, these anecdotes were not particularly well developed and there seemed to be more emphasis on abolitionism, the suffragettes, Common Law, the Bill of Rights, extraordinary inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell, Michael Faraday and so on. In other words, British history was presented more as a series of Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution positive contributions to humanity and science than the slave trade and colonisation. It was only after coming into contact with these pointed, detailed and harrowing accounts by Olusoga and Tharoor that some of the more shocking facts became fully available to me. Notably:

  • The 1837 slave compensation act in which 20 million pounds were paid to slave owners and their families up until 2015
  • That the slave trade was financed directly by British monarchy 
  • Over a period of 200 years, the British East India Company and the British Raj syphoned out at least $44.6 trillion worth of resources from India, which is more than 17 years gross domestic product of modern day Britain 
  • Over a span of 40 years, leading up to 1920, between 50 and 100 million Indians were killed because of policies under the British Empire in India, more than all the “famines in the Soviet Union, Maoist China and North Korea combined”

The list goes on.

How much of this is widely accepted and taught in schools? In the late 1930s, the Trinidadian scholar Eric Williams’ thesis Capitalism and Slavery substantiated the huge benefits slavery had brought to industrialisation in Britain, something that has since been reiterated by economists such as Thomas Picketty. However, he would have to wait more than 20 years before finding a publisher. This was because he was accused of understating the role Britain had played in abolitionism. It was only last year that the book was published by a mainstream group (Penguin) to become a best-seller.

Even today, according to the British academic Kehinde Andrews:

“The orthodoxy of the history of the Industrial Revolution is that slavery wasn’t important. If you go to most universities, most academics will say that and they’ll dismiss the book – because they just cannot accept that the Industrial Revolution could not have happened without slavery” (Feguson, 2022).

In  2022 article, Sean Matiluko says that British Schools have “whitewashed history”, leaving out important annals describing the contributions of Black people to British history and the extent of racial exploitation that built up Britain’s economy.

Since teaching Britain’s role in colonisation, or the transatlantic slave trade was not compulsory, a 2021  petition was signed in parliament with over 260 000 signatures requesting this. The response was mitigated: a School minister rejected the outcome, claiming that such a programme would “lower standards”.  

So the question is, when will the teaching of British history face the past squarely with all the facts? The same questions can be asked for a number of national history narratives: there are too many to mention, Britain is merely an example.

It takes courage to look much more critically at the histories of global powers whose legacies are taught partially, emphasising the positive and leaving out the painful stories of colonialism and slavery. There have been several genocides, and they must be known.

There is a diversion tactic which consists in the discourse of saying that things have changed and such historical facts are water under the bridge now. But are they? How can such important chapters of history not be taught and then treated as already forgotten when evoked? It is by bringing them into public discourse and problematising them that society will become more sensitive and aware. If the historical inequities behind the current dispensation are taught clearly and formally in school, it also allows younger generations to embrace questions of inclusion and social justice more openly. If not, any discussion on equity becomes a quarrel, a painful and humiliating one at that for those who have lost out historically because of systemic racism and exploitation. It should not be for these groups to have to fight their way into a space of representation, that work should be done by schools.

The histories that we learn must be true, and it becomes increasingly difficult to hide skeletons in the cupboard when the world wide web makes research readily available to the public. Those writing history textbooks need to understand that if we do not relate the whole story, no matter how shameful and painful it is, no matter how much it becomes a thorn in the side of nationalist, imperialistic and romanticised discourse about nation state history, the more dangerous it is, for those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

My textbook 

I toss the textbook into the rubbish bin. I’m not looking for things to hang on to as we move house, since we are down-sizing, and I can’t see the purpose of hanging onto a historically incorrect, propaganda-glazed set of notes from my pre-adolescence.

As I throw the book away though, in particular because I know the history of my country and feel part of it, I am reminded where I come from and, perhaps more importantly, the responsibility I have as an educator to tell it.

The histories that we learn should not be ideological narratives or partial stories, they should not be a crafted story to influence minds and shape opinions, they should aim to do one thing and one thing only: tell the whole story.

Ferguson, D. (2022). Groundbreaking work on slave economy finally back on UK shelves. The Guardian. 

What to Read in 2023

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 and happy reading in 2023! Enjoy the week ahead everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other. 

The Half Known Life – Pico Iyer
Attention Span – Gloria Mark
A Creative Act – Rick Rubin
Fool Proof – Tess Wilkinson-Ryan
Psych – Paul Bloom
Magic Words – Jonah Berger
The Real Work – Adam Gopnik
Awaken Your Genius – Ozan Varol
Anatomy of a Breakthrough – Adam Alter
The Perfection Trap – Thomas Curran
Disruptable – Allan Young
The Good Life – Robert Waldinger, Marc Schulz

Artificial intelligence and education

The hype around ChatGPT is palpable: schools are racing to have staff meetings on it, share resources, and react quickly. After decades of being steadily and collectively formatted by a technology-driven economy and the resultant positivist ideology, peppered with our schizoid relationship with artificial intelligence (the pendulum swings from the feeling that we have to get ahead with artificial intelligence at all costs, to the other extreme of fear and reactivity), ChatGPT leaps out at us as from the dystopian sea of Deep Blue the “big data” craze and the robot Sophia. Remember the excitement and panic around Google search engines and Wikipedia and how much it would change everything? Here we go again … One can expect references to ChatGPT in conference keynotes for the next few months, speakers having grown tired of videos of robots or fun statistics about computing processing power.

And with these waves of advances in machine learning come the habitual rather hackneyed warnings of how this will change the face of employment, education and even what it means to be human. Such crystal-ball gazing can be quite serious, but it can also become ridiculous, always couched in norms and generalisations. There is the idea that educators should be doing something about it, changing something, getting ready for the future, or accepting that the future has already happened, and this needs to be done quickly and so on.

I don’t mean to denigrate the serious challenges and opportunities that technology creates (and always has as it has evolved historically), I write about it at length and seriously in Educating for the Twenty-First Century: Seven Global Challenges, but I do think that a pinch of salt here and there is not a bad thing either. 

Here are my four thoughts on ChatGPT at this early stage:

  1. Artificial intelligence should be where thinking starts, not where it ends. (that phrase comes from my colleague Yoni Osman). Those who still hang on to the idea of banning technology in schools are fighting a losing battle. I once heard a rather sad story of a child being told off by a teacher for correcting him in class having accessed Google on her phone to verify what was said. Is the goal to access knowledge or to hide it? Curriculum has to be relevant, and the world we are living in is assisted by technology. Sometimes I wonder if cell phones have not replaced parts of our neocortical architecture. It might not be what we want to see happening to us as humans, but trying to create a romantic garden where there is no technology and algorithms such as ChatGPT are closed is absurd. On the contrary, algorithms save time. This does not mean that we should stop reading or doing research, it just means that such arcane intellectual and academic pursuits need to be accompanied with technology in more colourful ways. Students can use ChatGPT for certain in-class supervised tasks, they can ask it to give feedback on the occasional essay, but they need to use their faculties of discernment to discuss what is being created. 
  2. The death of the search engine. One can imagine that ChatGPT will replace Google searches. Unfortunately, most users of search engines skim quickly through the first items that appear, so having artificial intelligence spew the answer out to you or create a narrative to your question instead is merely an accentuation of the same linearity. Discerning scholars might sieve through search engine responses, using their background knowledge and critical thinking to select the best sources, and they will have to do the same with ChatGPT, scrutinising it.
  3. The sterility of the artificial voice. As powerful as ChatGPT might be, and we should not underestimate its deep learning capacity (in a few months it will be much more powerful), when you read the texts it produces, somewhere, in the distant recesses of the prose, is a slightly flat monotonous machine-like sterility, resonant of the computer Hal’s metallic, depressed voice in Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. ChatGPT might sound human, but in that case, it sounds like a fairly dull human. And there are errors of course because of the automaticity of its understanding of semantics. Ultimately, expression is about style and voice, which is what I encourage in my philosophy students’ writing: give personal anecdotes, let the reader hear your voice. Perhaps it is a good thing that artificial intelligence is competing with us, it pushes us to bring out more vivacity, originality and personality in what we say. 
  4. Plagiarism is only as big a threat as we allow it to be. One obvious reaction to this development in technology is to fear that students will no longer bother to write essays at home, or even design projects, since they will simply ask ChatGPT to do it for them. This merely reinforces the problem of extended pieces of homework. As soon as we ask students to do substantive pieces of work at home, there are a host of ways of plagiarising, getting others to do the work, using pre-packaged prompts and so on. I  always have my students write every essay in class. At home they read and revise. Teachers who are fond of giving important and lengthy homework to students might have to rethink that strategy. And let’s not forget the Pandora’s box of assessment reliability problems that homework releases anyway, including issues of unequal work conditions at home: one of the reasons why schools exist in the first place is to create fair and equal learning conditions for all students. For coursework assignments, students might plagiarise and plagiarism-detection software will not pick it up. However, the irony of ironies is that ChatGPT cannot lie, so all we need to do is ask it if it wrote the piece of writing in question, and it will tell us.

All in all, the purpose of education is to live a better life, and this is achieved through the development of  knowledge, aesthetics and virtues. Using artificial intelligence to accelerate processes and find solutions should not be a problem, but it will be our fault if we let artificial intelligence carve out the end of our thinking and not the beginning. All the texts in the world written by ChatGPT will not make us any wiser, and we have to teach our students to integrate words, ideas and values for themselves, for it is with this truly natural, inner language that they will define and understand the world, and the world will be as interesting as the depth of concepts are to describe it, no more, no less. As the great Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. May those limits be the ones we choose, not the ones chosen for us by an algorithm.