Tag Archives: learning

More Than Words

Learners inspiring learners to be inquisitive in life, principled in character, and bold in vision.

A little over a year ago, our community embarked on a journey of reflection and self-examination as we conducted a review of our school’s mission statement and associated core documents. As with most meaningful endeavors, it was recognized at the start that the learning from this process was arguably as important, if not more important, than the final product. To that end, the yearlong review included the involvement of parents, students, and teachers through surveys, focus group discussions, retreats, review committees, and a school improvement team. At the end of this process, the American School of Brasilia’s (EAB) Board of Directors, who were also active participants, were presented with a proposed new mission statement, which was approved. As we look to the current year and years ahead, there is excitement surrounding the opportunity and challenge to make the new mission statement come alive.


To avoid lengthy discussions and potential misunderstands regarding terminology, our School Improvement Team (SIT) agreed to not let the strict definitions and debates associated with the words mission and vision take way from the review process. SIT agreed on a basic definition of mission as “who we are” and vision, with an emphasis on the future, as “where we are going” and, more subtly, “how we will get there”. While not perfect, this was enough to move us forward.

As part of the reflection process, we literally reviewed hundreds of mission statements from schools around the world, fortune 500 companies, and internationally recognized not-for-profit organizations, with the goal of establishing criteria associated with an ideal mission statement structure. This process was helpful and led us to the following criteria:

  1. Accurately reflect our community and school
  2. Be short and concise, such that it could be easily memorized
  3. Avoid lofty language that sounds impressive but has little practicality
  4. Avoid a statement that encompasses everything but says very little
  5. Provide a framework to clarify who we are and what we value
  6. A blend of realism and optimism
  7. Strive for language that is accessible to all student ages in addition to community members whose first language is not English.

It was also agreed that the descriptor statement about the school would be removed from the mission and listed as a separate statement called “Our School”.

Our School: We are a diverse community that provides an English-language based pre-K through Grade 12 education. We are an International Baccalaureate World School with U.S. and Brazilian accreditation.

The remainder of the process focused on identifying and articulating the key components associated with our school’s identity. As those who have participated in similar processes, this is not an easy task but is at the very heart of establishing a new mission statement.

Looking back on the process, a key moment in the discussions occurred during the review of mission statements from other organizations, when someone highlighted the Ritz-Carlton motto:

We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.

This statement is not only elegant in its simplicity and content and easy to remember, but also acts as an effective and inspiring guide for everyone who works at the Ritz-Carlton.

New Mission Statement

There is no doubt that the Ritz-Carlton motto influenced the key aspect of EAB’s new mission statement, which articulates that we are a community of learners, adults and students alike, working together on an educational journey. It is EAB’s conviction that student learning is only maximized when all members of our community are also engaged in the learning process. It is this focus which led to the first words in EAB’s new mission and also serves as the new motto:

Learners inspiring learners

Education has fundamentally changed and continues to change, specifically in terms of who controls the flow of information. It is, therefore, of fundamental importance that schools be designed in an adaptable manner, such that they are positioned to take advantage of the current and future changes associated with learning. It was hoped that the concept of “learners inspiring learners” would capture these concepts in terms of how everyone in our community is always learning, adapting, and growing. Given that the control of information has shifted from teachers to students, we must then expect that parents, teachers, and school communities must also be continuous learners or we risk becoming irrelevant in the learning process.

With the first three words of the new mission statement established, the remaining parts of the mission emerged quickly, with the following result:

PREVIOUS Mission Statement:

The American School of Brasilia serves the International and Brazilian communities by providing a U.S. and Brazilian accredited pre-K through 12th grade program and International Baccalaureate Diploma in a culturally diverse atmosphere. Our English- language school develops and supports the whole child in achieving his or her own potential. Through a differentiated, innovative learning experience, we cultivate responsible and contributing citizens, leaders, and environmental stewards with a strong foundation of academic excellence.

NEW Mission Statement:

Learners inspiring learners to be inquisitive in life, principled in character, and bold in vision.

As stated, “Learners Inspiring Learners” highlights that we are all life long learners, learning together. “Inquisitive in Life” is about a focus on academic learning. However, learning should always take pace within the framework of character, ethics, and acceptable values. It is this belief in a whole child approach to learning that resulted in an emphasis on character: “Principled in Character” is about being a good person and making good decisions. Yet, it can then be argued that we have a moral imperative to use our learning and character to make a positive difference: “Bold in Vision” is focused on channeling our creative and innovative energies towards making a positive difference in the world.

In summary, after a yearlong review process, it is believed that the new mission meets the criteria set at the start of the process. The statement accurately reflects our community’s beliefs, is sufficiently short and concise such that it can be memorized, and avoids lofty language and jargon. It is also believed that the statement further articulates our values within the context of a blend of realism and optimism for the future.

We are excited to officially introduce EAB’s new mission statement. The next step is to ensure that the mission guides everything we do in addition to finding ways to make the mission come alive at our school.

Featured image: cc licensed (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) flickr photo by Muha… https://www.flickr.com/photos/alpstedt/13339786034

Profile: I am currently working as the Head of School at the American School of Brasilia and publish a blog at www.barrydequanne.com (Twitter: @dequanne)

What Counts?

This year, I have been lucky enough to work with a talented group of educators who have helped me process, plan, deliberate, challenge, and fail. That last one is of course what I’m holding right now as I push myself up off the floor.

Failing is what we say we want to be open to, and yet when you are in it, you can’t help but think “I don’t want to do this again. Thanks, but no.” It is how you hold, describe and live inside “the fail” that allows you to learn from it. So here goes…

Learning how to be a leader has allowed me to continually modify what I think leadership should look like. There are times when the image I see in my mind is that of a ship’s captain, at the bow, telescope out, checking the horizon for storms, pirates, or land.

While that leader is brave and secure, in control and courageous, he or she is also the only one with the looking glass, the only one with vision and sight.

That type of leadership is not only lonely, it is probably highly ineffective. Why? Because as the sole person responsible for deciding the path, that leader then must tell people what to do and how to do it rather than utilize the collaborative energy and strength of the team “mates” around her. There is no ownership for the others on board, and there is no shared sense of purpose with or for the leader.

Luckily, I’ve had a recent and very different experience. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a team of people who are smart yet open, passionate yet cautious and always ready to lean-in to work collaboratively on a task.

As a group, we have wrestled with big questions around who we are as a school and how we can best serve the children in our care. Our backgrounds are different; two of us are directly from the US, while the others have taught internationally for years. We have different views on what should be, but a collective idea that schools are here to serve the needs of the children within them.

So how did we fail exactly?

The team failed in execution, not in the process. The work we embarked on required a system for discussion, analysis, and thoughtful planning. On that journey, minds were made up; then minds were changed. The individuals in the group were willing to stretch because the group itself was working toward a common collaborative purpose: “How can we serve the children in our care?” Together we made some difficult recommendations. Recommendations we felt best for those children.

However, those recommendations were not heeded and a very different path was taken. Which left the team questioning our purpose, our goals, and even, our own beliefs. (Collaboratively and individually.)

The toughest part of my leadership journey has been these severe right turns. When what we had been working on is suddenly and inexplicitly changed. Often, without developing the understanding of those that have been working through or living the experience every day.

However, knowing that this failure is a result of the outcome and not in the collaborative process itself is what encourages me to continue. To move forward, this team needs to go back to and reaffirm the good, human work they presented. The stage is set up for this team to try again.

As I leave this school and job for a new one next year, it is the experience with this particular team that I will take with me and grow from. I’ve learned that while you can go all-in, the outcome still might flop. However, it isn’t the failure that counts. What counts, is showing up and trying to do what’s right, while working to really understand the people next to you.

Everyday. Again and again.

Culture and Learning

Imagine being part of a large family whose members are from fifty different countries and with each member’s unique experiences, norms, and value systems contributing to form a rich cultural tapestry. While there is no doubt that this family will likely face some significant challenges and conflicts due to their inherent differences, a diverse family of this nature also represents a special opportunity to learn from other cultures and expand our understanding of ourselves, our communities, and the world around us. How fortunate we are then to be part of an extended family like the American School of Brasilia where this hypothetical family structure is a reality.Our globe

In the landmark book, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, culture is defined as the, “collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another” (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010, p. 6). A less academic definition may be to view culture as consisting of the, “unwritten rules of the social game” (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010, p. 6). In what is arguably one of the most comprehensive studies of culture ever conducted, the authors go on to highlight the statistical analysis of responses to questions in the GLOBE project about values, which revealed how countries used different solutions to address similar problems. Specifically, the data revealed differences in the areas of social inequality and authority (power distance), the relationship between the individual and the group (individualism vs. collectivism), the social implications of having been born as a boy or a girl (femininity and masculinity), and how people deal with uncertainty (uncertainty avoidance) (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010).
The statistical data from the study resulted in a set of indices for each country linking the focus areas mentioned above. This data has since been proven to be statistically valid and, perhaps more importantly, to be very helpful in understanding differences among cultures. By way of example, we can examine Uncertainty Avoidance in more detail. The authors of Cultures and Organization define Uncertainty Avoidance as, “the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations and try to avoid such situations. This feeling is, among other things, expressed through nervous stress and in a need for predictability: a need for written and unwritten rules” (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010, p. 191). The indices associated with Uncertainty Avoidance range from a rating of 112 for Greece, where uncertainty is more of an accepted part of life, to a rating of 8 for Singapore, where uncertainty is a cause of stress and subjective feelings of anxiety. The rating for Brazil is 76 while the USA received a rating of 46, representing a fairly significant difference in how the two countries view uncertainty. Translating this into education, the study implies that teachers in countries with a high uncertainty rating are more likely to feel comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” in response to student questions, as compared to a low uncertainty rating country where teachers are expected to have all of the answers.

The data for individualism and collectivism was particularly interesting. Again, the authors define Individualism as pertaining to, “societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family. Collectivism as its opposite pertains to societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, which throughout people’s lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty” (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010, p. 92).

On the scale of indices associated with individualism ranging from a high of 91 to a low of 6, Brazil has a rating of 38, while the USA has the highest rating of all participating countries at 91. Translating this data back to schools, the authors state that students in a collectivist tend to learn to think more in terms of “we”, as compared to students in an individualist society who tend to learn to think more in terms of “I”. This may be a little contentious but is, nevertheless, an important focus for debate and reflection.

So, what should parents and educators take away from this research? If culture is learned from our social environment and is not inherited, then what is the impact on the cultural development of students who are raised in an American-international school environment? Values, which are directly linked to culture, are among the first things children implicitly learn. If it is true that most children have their value systems firmly in place by the age of ten, as is the belief of development psychologists, then how does living in a multicultural environment influence the values of children (recognizing that values are usually primarily established in the home)? While these are, undoubtedly, difficult questions to answer, though there does seem to be agreement that living in an international, multicultural setting offers students substantial and important developmental benefits.

As we reflect on the American School of Brasilia’s Character Counts week and this Saturday’s culminating Sábado Legal eventi, it is important to consider EAB’s core values. Specifically, it is essential to remind ourselves of how we – students, faculty, staff, and parents – are all responsible for doing our best to live up to the ideals associated with EAB’s core values of caring, citizenship, fairness, respect, responsibility, and trustworthiness. It is also important to remember how cultural norms, such as individualism and uncertainty avoidance, represent important factors, which are connected to these values, and that it is normal to experience some level of culture shock when encountering other cultures. The authors of Cultures and Organizations state that, “studying culture without experiencing culture shock is like practicing swimming without water” (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010, p. XIV).

There are indeed challenging but important issues for schools and communities. While clear answers may not be readily available, Dr. Michael Thompson once shared some helpful advice. During a professional development session, Dr. Thompson was asked to define a “moral school”. He responded by quoting another author (whose name I cannot recall) who stated something to the effect of, “a moral school is a school that is always talking about what it means to be a moral school.” It is an accepted fact that we do not have all of the answers all of the time but what we do have is the opportunity to always engage in deep and meaningful conversations about key issues that will hopefully make a difference in the lives of our students, our families, and our communities.

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind : Intercultural Cooperation and its Importance for Survival (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Featured image: cc licensed (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) flickr photo by Fredrik Alpstedt https://www.flickr.com/photos/alpstedt/13339786034


Profile: I am currently working as the Head of School at the American School of Brasilia and publish a weekly blog at www.barrydequanne.com (Twitter: @dequanne)

Success in School and Life

How would you answer the following question: What are the factors that most influence how children achieve success in school and life?

Several EAB teachers are currently attending the annual AASSA teachers’ conference with a focus, in part, on answering this essential question. To that end, our teachers are spending three days engaging with professional colleagues and internationally renowned educational specialists. Two of the specialists, Dr. Michael Thompson and Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, both highly recommended authors, have offered insights towards answering this question.9580068088_02ced873c8_o1

The psychologist, Michael Thompson, challenges adults to remember what school is actually like to better understand the psychological journey that students experience during their K3-12 school years. Thompson argues that children are constantly searching for three things: connection, recognition, and a sense of power and highlights that children are able to find these three needs in a variety of ways within the life of a school.

Thompson further describes the different student needs by elaborating on the “three types of children in school:
I. those whose journeys are characterized mostly by success,
II. those whose journeys are characterized by a chronic but manageable struggle,
III. those whose journeys are characterized by fury and despair.
Each journey has its own different pressures. Every child is constantly developing strategies for coping with the pressures that he or she feels.”

Thompson uses the metaphor of a person preparing for a long hike and the importance of finding just the right shoe “fit” to facilitate the hike and avoid painful blisters. While there is an important element of resilience and persistence associated with the learning process, the shoe metaphor challenges schools to find the right educational program to “fit” student needs so that the three types of children in schools are not subject to unnecessary “blisters” and are able to achieve personal success.

Returning to the need of children for connection, recognition, and a sense of power, Catherine Steiner-Adair’s book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, addresses the impact technology has on the relationships between children and adults. While Steiner-Adair advocates for the use of technology and the benefits to be gained, she also shares research findings that highlight how the ubiquitous presence of technology in our lives can result in serious negative implications for our relationships. Steiner-Adair offers insights and advice that can help parents and educators to determine how best to integrate technology in our daily lives without diminishing our personal connections. She asks us to question how we interact with technology when engaging with children (e.g. Do we give children our undivided attention when they are speaking with us or are we continuously looking at our cell phones?) and how our need to access technological devices frames our days and lives.

If we are to respond to each child’s need for connection, recognition, and a sense of power, then we must not only question how well our educational program is addressing these needs, but also review the degree to which technology may be adversely affecting our relationships with students and adults alike. The further integration of technology into our lives is a reality that will not go away. Therefore, it is our responsibility to control how technology affects our lives to ensure that we are taking advantage of the tremendous benefits and available opportunities that technology provides, while also addressing the inherent challenges to our relationships and overall wellbeing.

Profile: I am currently working as the Head of School at the American School of Brasilia and publish a weekly blog at www.barrydequanne.com (Twitter: @dequanne)

Featured image: cc licensed (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) flickr photo by Matt https://www.flickr.com/photos/d35ign/9580068088

Mentor ME

How can you help your leader get better at his/her job?

Have you ever been asked that question? If you have been, and if you made suggestions, were they used? Did the leader in question actually improve his/her craft? Did you help support or coach that person on the journey?

While recent research points to the importance teacher mentoring has on improving instructional practice, what I feel is less often considered is the need for developing high-quality administrators. How many of our leaders have a mentor, a coach, or another active way to be supported in their growth?

Four years ago, as an instructional coach, it was my job to respond to and help teachers improve their practice. Sometimes my efforts were mandated. However, many, many more times my work with teachers was desired. They wanted to get better, appreciated the support, and were willing to learn.

The funny thing about that time in my life was that there was never a coach for me. I wasn’t getting feedback on my craft. I didn’t receive much training. I wanted it, but there was not a model in my school. I fell into that void where counselors, librarians and sometimes other leaders fall where feedback is often less frequent and hardly ever followed up with coaching.

What I got, I had to go get. So, Mr. Kindle, Mrs. Twitter, and various blogs became my central teachers.

Currently, as an administrator, I still have to find the time to sharpen my own saw. While on-the-job training is part of being an administrator, it shouldn’t be confused with real training. For myself and others, I know, beginning your admin career is more often a “trial by fire” (on a daily basis). Not a learning cycle where you decide what you want to work on, practice it, and get feedback.

Part of the problem is time. Administrators struggle to fit it all in, just like the rest of the folks in our organizations. Believe me, if I had to choose between my own PD and providing it to others through observations, facilitation work or even leading sessions, I feel duty-bound to support rather than receive.

Another is about perception. Although we often say we are schools where everyone is learning, it is another thing entirely for the leaders of a school to be accepted as, not having the skills or answers- but learning them. Many aren’t comfortable saying they don’t know how to do something, because saying it might cause others to wonder about their ability to lead.

The last issue is our lack of a network. I’m one of those people whose career is internationally grounded. I grew up (literally and professionally) over here- in our schools. I have never benefited from a “district office” or a cohort of comrades who I’ve been able to move with, together, through a school system since our early teaching years. The network I do have isn’t necessarily HERE.  My feedback angels are not easy to collect together because they are in different countries and at different schools. I can’t utilize them as a sounding board for a problem I’m facing or to ask them to watch and comment on how I’m running a meeting or communicating with staff or parents.

So, here is what I’m looking for- from you. From us.

Can we use technology to expand our feedback network across schools? Can we make time at regional conferences for case studies of current principal and administrative practice. Can we come together within our buildings, to find ways to gather feedback for our administrators, and then follow it up with active coaching?

Can we find the courage to ask for and receive quality feedback (not simply an anonymous survey at the end of year) and make the time to support every learner- even our leaders-  get better?

Photo Credit: http://beyouonlybetter.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/mentor-corkboard.jpg

Tough (but necessary) Stuff

The thought of packing and leaving for a regional conference is always a bit daunting for me. It is time taken away from my daily J-O-B duties. It is time on a plane, traveling a considerable distance and dealing with the jet lag that comes with it. It is time away from my family and important life-events like Halloween. I always end up having a moment when I think- Can’t I just get this from the internet in the comfort of my house? However, as has been proven again and again, no, I really can’t get the same learning or have the same experience.

So, on my return home from the EARCOS Leadership Conference in Kota Kinabalu Malaysia this weekend, I would like to share a snapshot of my learning.

Jennifer Abrams- Having Hard Conversations

I attended the following sessions with Jennifer: Having Hard Conversations, Aspiring Leaders, and Being Generationally Savvy. All were eye-opening and applicable.

First of all, Jennifer’s stories about hard conversations, and the right and wrong way to handle them was especially relevant because Jennifer was a teacher, just like me. She brought that teacher-thing to her talk. She reminded me of my best education friends- funny, accurate, ready to call it as she sees it. In short, I followed her from session to session because she made me believe I could learn to do a better job. Her message, though challenging (hard conversations are hard!) is attainable for me as a learner.

Her make-and-take workshop gift? A framework to work through, which can help keep the hard conversation focused. The framework provides a path for pre-thinking and planning before diving in and having the conversation. Not only does that focus improve your ability to be clear, it also helps with sorting out the emotions that always follow these kinds of events.

Hard conversations are always hard. Jennifer can’t show us how to make that go away. However, she challenged us to have them because they are professionally necessary and simply the right thing to do. (And in education sometimes- we don’t-because it doesn’t fit in with the nurturing, hand-holding, everyone-deserves-a-chance belief we have about learning.) With Jennifer’s words ringing in my ears “you aren’t less nice just because you ask someone to do their job” I find I’m ready to become better at something so very difficult. So, I’ve bought her book and plan to sign up for her Ecourse. From there, I aim to practice. That’s the final thing I learned, this is a skill you build up, over time, and get better at.

What a relief. I’m ready to do the heavy lifting.

Jane and Jim Hulbert: Crisis 101: You Have a Crisis Are You Prepared?

Other sessions I attended from The Jane Group include: “Is That Thing On?” “What Keeps You Up at Night?” “The Role of the Board in a Crisis.”

Sitting in my second of these sessions, a Director from a school leaned over to me and said, “If you are here is it because you are interested in being a school director?” “No. No.” I said. I’m interested in being prepared and not being the reason my school’s message gets messed up. I’m here because I’m interested in not making a bad situation worse. Can you imagine being that person? Well, I can.

Originally I hadn’t planned to attend Jane’s workshops. However, as happens at these things, I was in the lobby, waiting for another colleague when I sat next to Jane and started chit chatting. Next thing you know, we are an hour into conversations about our lives, our kids, and our jobs. When Jane’s husband and co-presenter Jim joined us, I knew I needed to follow them around over the weekend too.

Key takeaways? First of all, if ever approached by the media, I have rights. While it isn’t that I didn’t think I did, I had never fully thought through how I would handle being approached. Jane had us practice being in a media ambush. She taught us how to politely navigate the question bombs. How to tell the truth without saying anything potentially damaging, and offered some questions we can ask back to actually find out more about what is going on given the chance we are blindsided and don’t have a clue. While I learned a lot, I know I’m still far from being comfortable with being chased to my car and peppered with questions I don’t know how to answer.

From there, Jane and Jim talked at length about how our schools can plan for and deal with a crisis like the recent international school sexual abuse scandals. To me, the most interesting thing about those sessions was how the climate in the room changed, and my colleagues and I became increasingly uncomfortable with the whole conversation. Knowing that is the reaction, it is even more important to me as a leader and as a member of any school community to make sure we have clear guidelines for protecting our community. These must include hiring and vetting policies and procedures and staff education around how to spot issues of abuse.

The idea I will end on (because it is the most powerful and simple shift they recommended) is to ask this question when interviewing all potential candidates: Have you ever been accused by a school or an individual of inappropriately touching a child? This question lets everyone know we are on the lookout for possible predators. It might just give enough notice to someone hoping to hide in our schools- that we don’t offer that option.

Vienna sausage and the arts

Okay, on second thought the title should have led with Vienna arts instead of sausage. But it would not have been as much fun. I just wrapped up a spring break from school and had a rejuvinating time in Vienna visiting friends, consuming schnitzel, sausage, and of course absorbing the arts. And if you are a fan of both, the best sausage shack in town is right behind the Vienna Opera House outside of the Albertina museum. Incroyable!


But I digest.

When I roamed the fabulous corridors of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, I found myself as absorbed in the stories of the famous creations as the art itself. Did Rubens really have that much pain in his hands from rheumatoid arthritis that he depicted gnarled hands in several of his portraits? I became fascinated with the stories of the artists, the lives of the characters and the story behind the scenes in the paintings as I did the finished work. Process and product. Of course you know where this is going…

And then I saw this.


And not just one person trying to copy a masterpiece, but lots of people. Have you seen this? It seems to be a fairly new phenomenon and can be quite interesting when you watch these people work, trying to painstakingly mimic the masters. Wow it’s hard to paint people, copy or not! I stood behind this woman above for over ten minutes as she touched up her strokes, carefully adjusted tone, and most of all stared at what she would do next. All in the hopes of creating what had already been created. Now I am not criticizing her efforts one bit. I cannot imagine the hours it takes to copy a masterpiece and have it look half decent. And these looked really good. What I was thinking about was the purpose of the product. What influenced her desire to finish other than to have it look like something else? The artists who created these works had something completely different in mind. They were creating. They were, in many cases, suffering as they brought their work to life. Process. It was so human and so interesting that it engaged me much more than the fascination with how they managed to get brush strokes to look so real.

As we head into the final stretches of spring, with the product of IB testing on the horizon, do we think of the process of our students (the artists?) Do we appreciate and engage their suffering as they seek to create, to learn and to bring their art to life or are they standing with an aisle, trying to copy something that has already been done?

I contemplated this as I stood outside this beautiful building, consuming the meat product of a process I am probably glad I knew little about. But with a fresh baked bun and plenty of mustard, it tasted so good.

Welcome back from break (or have a good one of you haven’t already). And keep in mind the process of those amazing artists in front of you.

Let’s wrap up this “AHA” moment with an all time AHA classic.

On Average

It’s Saturday and night and I am writing letters…the same kind of letters that so many heads and principals in international schools are writing… letters of recommendation for just about anyone we have ever worked with who wants a new job. And of course this is a valuable ‘report card’ for the schools seeking to fill vacancies. It’s a reasonable practice, if all involved remain thoughtful and ethical.

But what is NOT reasonable is the double standard that we are asked to apply to teachers versus students in this teacher form of a ‘summative’ report card.

Despite the now long standing practice of working from standards- based curriculum, that final ‘report card’ for kids is all too often an ‘average’ – be it numerical or narrative- of the learning over a whole reporting period…and sometimes over an entire year. I think we all know what averaging is; it combines evidence from the beginning of a period of learning with where they eventually arrived and everywhere along the way. It is one of those practices which NEVER should have been established, NEVER made sense and yet still today grips whole schools – even ‘enlightened’ international schools!

We in the learning business know better than anyone that learning is a process – a process of connecting the unfamiliar to the familiar, determining contexts in which those connections matter, practicing within those contexts, ‘failing’ many times, and making the new learning a routine part of our repertoire. It is a process which unfolds at a personal pace, odd and unpredictable intervals, sometimes as an ‘ah-ha’, sometimes bit by bit. -NONE of these match the ingredients needed to make averaging useful.

Averaging is not just an outdated process; it is actually inaccurate and even unethical, particularly now that learning standards are the norm. Surely we have the obligation to assist the learner in knowing to what extent a standard has been achieved, deemphasizing for the most part how long or how many times it took achieve it.

Serial ‘averagers’, (particularly those in secondary school) have a difficult time letting go. Somehow it is not ‘fair’ to those who learn early and well to allow one who learns more slowly – who EVENTUALLY learns and learns well- to end up with the same ‘grade’. Averaging values the ‘early’, more than the ‘well’. It seems more about ‘equity’ and comparing kids to others than about progress in learning. Essentially, averaging holds kids hostage to early learning attempts and teaches them that failure to learn RIGHT AWAY is a serious offense that they will pay for over and over.

I find the ritual of writing recommendation letters the quintessential opportunity to help teachers better understand why this practice of averaging MUST be fully eliminated. Pretty simple really. To those still wedded to the averaging process for kids, I reply: Yes, I will write you a letter. And it will describe the ‘average’ of the teacher you were in the first year together with all the other years -NOT the brilliant teacher you actually were when we finished our work together. Still want the letter?

Resisting our way to irrelevance?

Just about every day now I read a blog or a get an email or are a posting on face book or twitter that reminds us that ‘ schools are preparing kids for the 20th century living’’; or ‘did you know that your grandmother would be very much at home in the classrooms of today?’  etc.

Virtually EVERYONE agrees that much of what we practice as ‘schooling’ today is, at the very least, outdated and,   at its extreme, could have dire long term consequences for society.  Both those who hire new graduates, as well professors of first year university students consistently complain about poor communication skills (speaking AND writing) , poor work ethic (sense of entitlement) , and little to no critical and creative  thinking. And innovation…well, seems that only lives in mission statements.

Despite our lofty rhetoric and those mission statements, we are still doing pretty much what we have always done and – surprise- we are still getting what we have gotten for the past many decades.  And I could not agree more…in fact I have been a co-conspirator in the spreading of those messages…for most of my 30+ years in education.

So why are we STILL hearing it, now 13 years into the century?   Just about every other industry or collective human endeavor has responded fairly rigorously to the changing landscape of human activity and civilization -and many industries have actually CREATED the 21st century skills.  So what’s up with education?  The ONE industry that, in theory, all the others depend on?

Why are we in school apparently so resistant? Why do we continue to engage in practices that we actually know don’t’ work and teach a curriculum that we –and all of society – know is outdated and ill-equipping our kids?

A few of my ‘whys’:

1.      The parent trap.  Everyone is an expert in education because they had one once… unlike technology, or medicine, or telecommunications, parents have been to school.  They have been primary ‘users’ of the place called school and the thinking goes… ‘I turned out pretty much ok, didn’t I’ (they think) – so just keep doing what you did when I was in school.’   Familiarity as a design principle for schooling actually breeds complacency.

2.      Chicken- hearted.   Accountability is only for the ‘real’ world.  Despite all the rhetoric, even in private, international schools, we do not hold ourselves accountable for the actual bottom line of our work…learning.  It is stunning that the schooling industry STILL manages to sell the notion that teachers should in no way be evaluated on how their students learn, or whether they learn.  How can any reputable, worthy effort NOT be measured by the one thing it is designed to produce?  The data on the effect of teachers on learning are strong and clear.  We seem afraid, very afraid, to hold our own feet to the fire… and we get away with it.

3.      No proof. And no way to get it.  This one is a killer.  We don’t want to make a guinea pig out of any kid – it’s SO much better to continue using methodologies that we KNOW don’t work!  Far be it from any school to ‘experiment’.  We need proof…lots of proof…that something works before we consider it.  So who starts? Where are the R and D departments in schools?  And by the way, we could list right here ten things we already know about learning that we do not see routinely in schools…because of the ‘selective ’proof approach so many of us take.

4.      Universities…the albatross? Probably a good 80% of what we do in K12 schools is rationalized with…’but that’s’ what universities expect and far be it from us to, again, jeopardize any kid’s chances’. Course-based rather than competency-based curriculum; 180 days of seat time; grading schemes, essay writing, exams…what’s a school to do? That’s what they want so we must comply. Could it be that just maybe it’s not all their fault? That our education industry has failed to fully engage in the right, ongoing conversation between k12 and higher education.

And finally…

5.      Wimpy leaders. Yes, it true.  While we have many well-intentioned, organized, learning-centered school leaders, far too many – I go out on a limb and say most- won’t/don’t get out of the proverbial box.  In our international schools, we are typically INDEPENDENT of restrictive bureaucracy and run our schools in organizational environments where we able to turn on dime – but we don’t…at least not often enough.  Could it be leadership capitulates all too often to the parent trap or chicken-heartedness, plays the ‘proof’ card or hides behind the university albatross?

Worth wondering as we approach ever closer to the cliff of irrelevance.