Wayfinder Learning Lab

"Learning is about living, and as such is lifelong." Elkjaer.


Global Contexts & Avoiding the ‘Single Story’

This last couple of weeks we’ve been busy preparing faculty PD on the Global Contexts and their role in developing International Mindedness & Global Engagement (IMaGE) in our students. It has been a lot of work, but as we kicked off the sequence (3 x 1hr PD sessions) this week, the discussions began on some real areas of interest.

Key to the discussion was an excerpt from Chimamanda Adichie‘s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” (thanks @LizDK for suggesting it!). We played the first 6 minutes, with the follow-up question “could her college room-mate have been a CA graduate?

So far, so interesting. I’ll follow up this post later once the sequence is completed. Next steps: taking action in the curriculum, teaching & learning.


Educate for hope, not despair, for a fair and sustainable world.

I wrote this post in 2014, but come back to it often. See edits and additions below the main body. We tread a delicate line between hope and despair; between student action for change and not overwhelming our young learners with the pressure of a future that was shaped by others.  


We’ve wrecked the world.

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 10.29.23 AM

Californian Blue Whales are almost back to historical levels after whaling bans in their range [Image: Getty, free for education].

Inequality, environmental destruction, outbreaks of disease, terrorism and economic collapse. We are (we think) aware of the problems we face – and the message can be one of hopelessness. Do we risk passing on global ignorance to our students – a connected, compassionate generation who are plugged into a media-rich stream of (mis)information?

As we try to bring global issues into the classroom, there is a danger that we promote a message that all is lost; a message reinforced by media reporting on the same issues and clouded by prejudices and emotion? This is something I worry about in international curriculum design and often think about how a globally-informed curriculum can also be a hopeful one.

We can fix it.

We can choose to educate for hope. The solutions to many of problems are out there, or on the cusp of being realised – the technological age is well established and we are reaping the rewards. Now it’s time to recognise the importance of the psychological age. George Monbiot writes that if we terrify people, they will focus on saving themselves, not others; a feeling of hopelessness that accompanies awareness of global issues is unhelpful. Yet if the focus is on the concrete and the hopeful – the actions that we can take to make a difference – then we might affect a more positive outcome.

I would love to see an international school curriculum that produces graduates who are globally literate (as in Hans Rosling’s Ignorance Project) and who are hopeful, compassionate and active ‘fixers of the future‘. With the IB Programmes we have the framework – the ‘heavy lifting’ of the elements of an excellent education has been done for us. As schools we can choose to use that framework to build an inspirational experience.

Edit 2018: Rosling’s posthumously-published book (Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think) is out. Here is an excerpt in the Guardian.

We can start with simple actions

Blue whales are recovering and we can re-grow rainforests – so we can reclaim hope in the curriculum with simple actions:

  1. Design units that connect to Global Contexts in authentic ways.
  2. Evaluate our own understandings of the global issues we’re addressing before we teach them.
  3. Use student research and examples to highlight both the reality of of the situation and the actions that can (and are) being taken to make a positive difference.
    • MYP Sciences, Criterion D – I’m looking at you. And you too while we’re at it, and Design Cycle.
  4. Discuss how these actions and our knowledge can be connected to meaningful action.

We want to create a realistic hope – not ignorance, boredom or hopelessness.

We can do it.


Update Dec 2017: Blue Planet’s Back! 

“We want children to love nature so that they protect it in the future.”

(Patagonia “Family Business” Raising the Next Generation)

Read this post from June 2017 on the Patagonia blog, about the Great Pacific Child Development Center and their studies and efforts to connect kids to nature. Similarly, we can reflect on the kinds of experiences and media that promote positive feelings towards environmental stewardship in our kids. Shows like Blue Planet II and Planet Earth stimulate fantastic conversations in our house and inspire our kids whilst also informing them of the human impacts. They’re not afraid, but they care.


Update April 2018: International Contexts

“We do not see ecological grief as submitting to despair, and neither does it justify ‘switching off’ from the many environmental problems that confront humanity. Instead, we find great hope in the responses ecological grief is likely to invoke.”

Read this excellent post from the TheConversation/TerraMar Project,Ecological Grief: Understanding Hope & Despair in the Anthropocene.” As you read the piece, think about the psychological impacts of environmental change. What can we do about them? How might you use “Why Them? Why There? Why Then?” in connection with the article to develop IMaGE?


Update January 2019: #Factfulness & Global Ignorance

Screen Shot 2019-04-21 at 8.05.01 AMAnyone who follows me on Twitter will know how much I love Factfulness by Hans Rosling & family. I have a growing LibGuide full of connected resources for the global ignorance project and data-informed inquiry here. I presented it recently at ACAMIS Tech 2018, and will run an extended session at Learning 2.019 in Nanjing in November.


Update March 2019: Global Thinking Toolkit

PZ Global Competence Model A3 Portrait Graphics (@sjtylr)The Global Thinking Routines from Veronica Boix-Mansilla’s (@VBoixMansillaGlobal Thinking Bundle, are a set of project zero resources that can help focus classroom action and inquiry. Click here to read the full Global Thinking guide, and here for her piece in Educational Leadership Magazine on How To Be A Global Thinker. I also love her IB blog post on “bringing international mindedness to life” with portraiture.

See this post for more graphics and links.


Update April 2019: #OurPlanet!

Attenborough & team are back… on Netflix. The new series, Our Planet, does a great job of teaching for hope, not despair, without white-washing the issues. After George Monbiot’s scathing criticism of the more recent series, Our Planet shares the beauty, highlights the issues and show real and inspiring examples of how human actions are already making a positive impact. They have a great website of resources & clips here.




A pragmatic approach to inquiry: my article in IS magazine

Click to read.

Click to read.

This article, “(Re)defining inquiry for international education,” is based on a thread of thought started with my “MYP: Mind the Gapconference presentation and continued with an MA assignment. It was published in the most recent issue (Autumn | Spring 2014) of International School Magazine, edited by University of Bath tutors and international education gurus Mary Hayden and Jeff Thompson.

In the article “(re)defining” refers to clarifying the meaning of the term inquiry, so that we can give access to high-quality inquiry learning to students through the whole continuum. It builds on anecdotal experiences in discussions that ‘inquiry’ has been framed from one end as a weak, free-for-all alternative to teaching and critical reasoning. This is a misinterpretation, and the article advocates for a reminder of what inquiry is and a working definition of inquiry as critical reflective thought (after Elkjaer & Dewey) that is future-oriented, but based on strong foundation of effectively-taught skills and knowledge (after Vygotsky, Hattie…). From the other end, it is important to understand that inquiry looks and feels very different as disciplinary studies become deeper and more authentic.

This is of particular importance to IB schools. Stakeholders need to understand that an inquiry-based framework is not a knowledge-free curriculum, and that a high-stakes test-based assessment at one end is no excuse to crush the exploration out of the learning process.

In essence: we create an outstanding curriculum that gives students knowledge and skills to work with and has lots of room for them to put them to use in critical, creative and reflective problem-solving. Use high-impact strategies to teach those skills and that knowledge, to avoid misconception and to ensure that these critical thinkers have a solid foundation of raw materials for future learning.


Read the full article on IS Magazine’s website here, or download the magazine (pdf) here (or just the article pdf here).

Click to read my article on Inquiry in the Autumn | Spring issue of International School magazine.

Click to read my article on Inquiry in the Autumn | Spring issue of International School magazine.


Are IB Schools Trivium21C Schools?

Update (Dec 2018): This is a really old post now, but something I reflect on regularly. I have some related posts at the bottom. Since this review in 2014, Edutwitter seems more divided, which is a shame; we all want the very best learning for our kids, and our contexts can be dramatically different. The more I see this, the more I’m convinced that truly creating a culture of thinking is what can unite contrasting viewpoints, transcend programmes and help focus on quality implementation. 

Since this post was originally written, a lot of new resources have come out around learning science, which are also really useful. There is a greater push in the IB world towards learner agency and I’m now working in a school making some really bold moves towards the future of learning. These ideas are not mutually exclusive and they have a lot to complement each other. It is our privileged position to build models of what they could be and share the journey as we go. 

The body text is unedited from 2014, except where strikethroughs indicate change. 



I was lucky enough to get this for a pound on Amazon, but it is worth more. Trivium 21C by Martin Robinson.

I recently finished Martin Robinson’s (@SurrealAnarchy – now @Trivium21C) excellent Trivium 21C: Preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past, the author’s journey through the history of education to find the inspiration for the education he wants for his young daughter. As I read I became more and more convinced that he was essentially describing a high-performing International Baccalaureate education, combining a well-taught, high-quality curriculum (the Grammar), with the development of skills and wisdom to really inquire through critical reflective thought (the Dialectic). With the grammar aligning with a more traditionalist view of education and the dialectic with a more progressive set of methods, Robinson’s book hits very close to my own views and ideals on education and where I want it to go: a set of principles and practices that combine the best of both worlds. The third element of the Trivium, the Rhetoric, is the capacity and engagement of the student in performance, communication, discussion, presentation and participation in authentic and meaningful (global) communities.

Along the way, Robinson takes us through the history of education, from the ancient Greeks to now, at each step highlighting the competing paradigms of learning. It seems as though the progressive vs traditional debate mud-fight has been raging since long before the written word! He interviews leading educational thinkers on both sides of the progressive/traditional divide and my thoughts on Ken Robinson’s TED Talks agree generally with his – we do need content in our curriculum, but we need to ensure it is the right stuff, taught well. What is the culture we want to preserve into the future?

What does a Trivium 21C education look like?

Robinson describes the grammar and dialectic as cyclic in nature, the grammar (content) giving the raw materials for the dialectic (inquiry). The rhetoric is ongoing, connecting the student’s learning to the wider world through communication. The diagram below is my attempt to summarize Trivium 21C in one graphic.

My attempt to represent Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21C in a graphic. Can you see the connections here between the Trivium and a well-implemented IB continuum of programmes?


Is an IB Education a Trivium Education?

Robinson’s descriptions of his Trivium 21C align very closely with the principles and practices of a well-implemented continuum of an IB education. Although an IB education is inquiry-based, we need to be careful to define this inquiry as critical reflective thought; guided inquiry based on a strong curricular and pedagogical foundation. Inquiry in the PYP may well be open-ended and student-directed, but the rigorous planning and careful, responsive teaching that takes place are exemplary to all teachers. The assessment descriptors of the MYP, as well as the broad and balanced, concept-based approach to the student’s total curriculum give a rounded and challenging experience. Founded on strong unit planning and vertical and horizontal articulation of curriculum, there should be room for inquiry, as well as effective preparation for the higher-tension IB Diploma. In the Diploma itself we see the broad and balanced approach remain as students study not only six subjects, but really exercise their dialectic and rhetoric muscles through the Theory of Knowledge, 4,000-word Extended Essay and challenging learning outcomes of Service (MYP) and Creativity, Action and Service (IBDP).

IB Learner Profile

The IB Learner Profile – or the Philosopher Kid? Click through to read more.

IB Learner ProfileThe philosopher kid of Robinson’s Trivium21C is the embodiment of the IB’s Learner Profile. Towards the end of the book, Robinson makes mention of the IB’s programmes, referring to the dialectic and rhetorical nature of the Theory of Knowledge course in IBDP, the criterion-related assessment of the MYP and the rhetorical (participatory) elements of Creativity Action and Service.

The hierarchical nature of assessment descriptors in the MYP and DP highlights the content-first (Grammar) approach to teaching, learning and assessment. Students can experience success with a good level of content knowledge, but to really excel they must put it to action, with the higher-order command terms driving the higher achievement levels (explain, analyse, evaluate, design, for example).

On paper, an IB education would seem to have all that Robinson seeks in the Trivium 21C, but even within this globalized framework for an international education there is a high degree of variability. This is key – a well-implemented IB continuum of programmes has it all. A poorly-implemented programme may lack in one or more elements of the Trivium; however the frequent and constructive programme evaluation processes in place with the IB should help schools improve.


Recommending the Book

I highly recommend reading this book, though it is not a quick read by any means; you may well need a note-pad. It has a cast of characters greater than Game of Thrones, yet you’ll feel less soiled once finishing (and none of the ideas are killed off in such gruesome ways as GRRM does his creations). It is quite high-altitude, and though I’d like to recommend it to new teachers, it might not be the practical volume they need to survive. It is an excellent provocation for school leaders and coordinators, as well as those studying curriculum development and educational policy at a more academic level. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who places themself on either side of the progressive/traditional education debate.


Personal Reflection

Both Robinson and I share many values and ideas on the education we want for our children. I have the deep privilege of not only being able to choose it for my own kids, but of being in a position where I can help shape it through an IB education. I want my kids and the learners in my school to be excited, globally aware and motivated to learn more, following purposeful lines of inquiry, built on solid foundations.

Over the last couple of many years, my thinking on education has matured, largely as a result of experience in teaching coordination and curriculum development, but also as a result of taking a more academic approach to learning through my MA studies.


The following selection of blog posts are related: 



Some alternative versions of the graphic

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Defining Inquiry: A Pragmatic Approach


Content & Inquiry in a Google World

Edit (March 2018): This is an old post (2014) now, but the meme below keeps running. A lot has been written about inquiry and technology in the last four years, so I’ll leave some notes in [green]. Some related posts, if you’re coming new to this blog. For context, I work in international education.  


Content & Inquiry in a Google World

If you’re an educator on Twitter, you have seen this graphorism doing the rounds, included in this post on Larry Ferlazzo’s blog, which in turn reproduces brain-based education guru Eric Jensen’s Education Week Teacher article Boosting Student Learning. 


There’s nothing quite like a cute graphorism to get people chucking stones on Twitter. Click for Larry Ferlazzo’s post.


Sweet. We’ve got 1:1 and access to Google and a bunch of hyperlinks. Job done. Well, not quite. Within context I agree with the other four of Jensen’s responses, but this image has been bugging me a bit, being tweeted and retweeted without the full article or argument attached.


Before going ahead*, I recommend reading Larry Ferlazzo’s (@LarryFerlazzoResponses series on the ‘five best practices’ that teachers can do to help their students become better learners’. There are some really useful quotes in there, representing a range of perspectives on what makes ‘effective’ student learning and what builds effective learners.

*As always on this blog, the links are way better than the post ;> 


tL;dr Version

I don’t know anyone who can successfully teach ‘content-free’ in middle-high school, even when students are in charge of the learning. We do need to ensure that we teach good content: relevant, current, useful, interesting. We need to teach that content well, using effective methods for our own students, knowing our impact and ensuring as much as we can that we don’t reinforce misconception. Google is a tool, not a teacher, and a teacher who could be replaced by a search engine should be. At the same time, we can’t crowd out the opportunities for creative, critical reflective thought (inquiry). We need to help students make connections and the selection (and teaching) of content is crucial in building conceptual and transferable understandings. We need to ensure that students know enough to be able to ask good questions. 


 Content’s role in an inquiry-focused, connected education

This list represented my  mindset regarding content, curriculum and pedagogy in 2014. They are written from the perspective of an international IB practitioner in a secondary science classroom (MYP & DP), and as a programme coordinator (MYP) and MA International Education nerd. Some of this treads similar ground to my MA assignment on MYP: Mind the Gap, much has been covered by others.

1. Strong inquiry teachers DO teach content. All teachers teach content. When we teach a student a fact or a skill – whether it’s just in time or just in case – and think it’s worth teaching to others, and then we make a note of it and save it for later… it’s content. Yet these same strong teachers recognise that not all content is equal, and that students come first – they’re the reason we’re employed.

[2018: I think that teacher content mastery – which is not the same as “knowing everything” – is critically important in a student-driven inquiry curriculum.]

2. Strong inquiry teachers put curriculum before pedagogy, making sure that – to the best of their ability – the content, skills and concepts of the unit are worth learning in the first place. They then focus on how to best cause learning in their own students, in the ways that work best for them. It can be hard to let go of favourite content (or to adapt to new circumstances), but there is little point in honing excellent pedagogy founded on weak curriculum. Otherwise our students will know less valuable (or dangerously wrong) stuff – but they’ll know it really well.

[2018: This becomes ever more important in the move to greater student agency and control of the curriculum. How do we keep the productive struggle going, for each student (or team) as they navigate the many options open to them? A command of the “need to knows and where to go’s” moves curriculum from calendar to compass, which requires a teacher to have a lot at their fingertips.]

3. Strong inquiry teachers check the understandings of their students with regard to conceptual and factual accuracy – and then take explicit action on this information. This aims to reduce the interference effect on future learning of misconceptions formed from poor prior learning. If it is content worth teaching it is content worth remembering – and using to build future schema. If we want students to grasp a concept, we will explicitly plan to teach it using factually accurate content. This doesn’t mean and exhausting list of facts, but a rock-solid foundation of knowledge and skills, based on solid formative assessment principles and vigilance for misconception. [2018: This may well prove to be harder in an student-owned classroom than a standardised one, as the differing paths reach different content checkpoints at different times as a result of different experiences. There may be an opportunity here for some worthwhile edtech development. I highly recommend “What does this look like in the classroom” for up-to-date research-to-practice for secure foundations.]

And so…

Lynn Erickson’s 3D Model of Concept-based Learning – founded on facts and skills.

4. Strong inquiry teaching recognises that a concept-based curriculum is still a content-founded curriculum. The effective selection of skills and content (facts), combined with strong pedagogy and metacognition, allow students to build the over-arching ‘concepts’ that should be more transferable. Although transfer is hard, we have Transfer skills in the ATL Framework. See Ilja van Weringh’s recent posts on a PD weekend with Lynn Erickson for more useful quotes & tips.

5. Strong inquiry teaching activates inquiry as creative, critical reflective thought – and this needs high-quality raw materials. A strong educational experience uses a foundation of good content knowledge and skills and doesn’t just allow students to develop their learning from there – it forces them to engage, think critically and evaluate their own learning. This is critical pedagogy, and it causes inquiry. Students need to know enough to be able to ask good questions, otherwise it is enquiry in the weak simple-questions sense, not inquiry in the critical and reflective sense.

[2018: Just take a look at the MYP descriptors for Levels 7-8 in the subjects or 6-7 for overall grades. They are very aspirational, impossible to achieve without age-appropriate subject-level (and ATL) mastery, and require sophisticated thinking.]

6. All strong teachers DO connect learning; content-focused and inquiry-focused teachers alike.  Strong teachers know what the connections are between the content and emphasise these with students. Strong teachers love and recognise it when students make these – or entirely new – connections by themselves. See this post by Harry Webb on ‘who exactly is going around ‘disconnecting’ the facts?‘. [2018: In a modern, connected, inquiry-driven curriculum, does this make it more important for the teacher to be a connected learner in their own right?]

7. Strong teaching takes place within your own academic, social, political or cultural context. Almost all middle and high-school teacher have an outside curriculum influence that guides or dictates contentthis is curriculum as the snapshot of our culture. With this set of standards, benchmarks or assessment statements, we have  content. A good teacher will be creative, differentiated and engaging in how it is taught, but it is still content. [2018: These foundational documents, can act as a guidebook in the quest for learning as learning becomes more student-owned. Could a diverse classroom of learners be creating their own units drawing from standards sets of their home countries?]

8. Strong inquiry teachers recognise the role of content is changing due to technology, but not in the way that quote might suggest. Google is a tool that opens up a world of information, but information is not curriculum and not all information is born equal in terms of its value within curriculum. Not only must we now make sure that the content we are teaching students is correct and misconception-free, we need to also learn how to help students evaluate and appropriately apply the information they find in their own online inquiries. We need to learn to master a parallel curriculum – a set of content and skills of digital, media and information literacy. Good job we have some ATL clusters for those too, eh?

[2018: I still think this, and since the original post we have seen a huge shift in the use (and misuse) of information for political means. Furthermore, we have even more powerful tools for inquiry at our command, from data searches and Wolfram|Alpha to fantastic media resources, Gapminder and the SDG’s. Tech stands in position to amplify and transform a robust curriculum into something very special.]

9. Strong educational design and teaching should inspire students to want to know more. Strong teaching might help them aspire to greatness. But a strong teacher will also try to help students recognise that learning is hard, that significant effort is rewarded with greater learning and that the privilege of education is worth the sometimes uninspiring work of practice. Strong teachers care about their students and their students know this.

[2018: This sings to the core of being a modern teacher. We all get into this job with ideals at heart, and the emerging role of the connected international educator as a learning designer leads to new challenges – and amazing opportunities.]

10. I need a number 10. Maybe you can add one in the comments, or on Twitter.


What is the effect of ‘Googling’ on memory and is it a bad thing?

This paper (pdf) (summarized in the video below), outlines some studies on the externalisation of stored memory.

If students develop a dependence on search engines for recall of simple facts (or computation of simple maths facts), are they at a disadvantage to students who are able to recall and apply already automatized learning? Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow idea might suggest so – as we learn for automaticity and store information in the fast-thinking System I memory, we so free ‘cognitive load‘ for higher-order System II thought: inquiry as critical reflective thought.

If we activate effective learning of critical content through effective pedagogy, do we then help ensure the automaticity of this foundational knowledge, leading to more effective inquiry? Are students less likely to waste time (and cognitive load) on simple searches or computations? What would you think of an adult who had to constantly search simple facts or turn to calculator to make change?


Personal Reflection

[Updated March 2018]

I teach science in an international school and I’m IB to my core (MYP & DP, kids in PYP). I believe in school education for a better world, not just as a stepping-stone to university, but I’m a pragmatist at the same time. I have a job to do, and that’s to educate and to do so as well as I can. I want my students to be lifelong learners with useful skills, useful knowledge, empathy and global literacy. I also need to support this in my colleagues, in my various roles.

Around 2010-12ish, the pendulum of my beliefs on education swung more towards the quote than it does now. As the role of EdTech and 1:1 access to instant, broad, authentic and real-time information became more powerful as pedagogical tools opportunities the excitement of open inquiry threatened to overcome critical reflection on what would work. I was (and remain) a risk-taker in the classroom, but I never had the bravery to hand the subject guide to the students and tell them to ‘just Google it’ as a course plan. I’m glad now that I didn’t. I still do use a lot of tech in teaching, mainly for workflow, feedback and creating new opportunities for real learning. Much of it now is in GoogleApps, with other tools, but when the best learning can happen without a screen, we put them away!

When I built online resources like i-Biology.net and various internal systems I was trying to put the content in place to make room for exploration and inquiry; by setting up a system of what I deemed reliable and useful content, I thought I could ‘derail’ the learning process and ’empower every learner’ to grow at their own pace, in their own zone of proximal development (lots of conferencing). I have experimented with various on and offline project-based methods, from the open to the teacher-directed, and have found through the experience (and student feedback), that there is a need and a demand for the teacher’s effective and explicit intervention, but that this need is often unpredictable and dependent on a complex web of cause-effects. This has been confirmed through my MA and professional readings, most recently looking at the work of Hattie, Kahnemann, Willingham, Dewey, Vygotsky, Elkjaer and more.

We are employed as the expert in the room, the guiding hand that not only facilitates student learning but which activates it. We need to set up a culture of thinking and of measured academic risk, but we also need to be there to protect students from going (too far) down dead-ends. Productive struggle and (worthwhile) failure are important to learning, but we need to spot when this is starting to replace opportunities for learning. This is especially true when there are high-stakes terminal assessments looming. The strongest students would likely have done just as well under any set of classroom practices – perhaps despite rather than because of my choices. Those students less ready to control their own learning struggled more, fell behind and needed much more direct intervention. The path through this first decade and a half of my teaching career is littered with the fallen bodies (and vestigial webpages, documents and ideas) of schemes that didn’t make the grade.

So now I’m starting to be happy with how I’m getting things set up. I’m comfortable with the importance of my role as a teacher to bring students to meaningful inquiry and the centrality of (the right) content in getting us there. The coming years are an opportunity to put this into practice, to test and refine inquiry as creative critical reflective thought based on curriculum as a careful curation of connected content taught carefully and purposefully with pedagogy as a on ongoing feedback loop.

Having said all this, exam success often means taking a Vygotskyian approach to inquiry when I’m more Dewey at heart. This is heightened by the dreaded GPA, backwashing pedagogical/assessment demands, and I continue to seek ways to focus on learning over grades. I’m very much looking forward to a future of learning that effectively crosses the traditional-progressive divide and empowers learners in all attributes of the learner profile – including knowledgeable.


I wonder how many points this post could have scored on an edu-jargon bingo-card. Also, see this 2019 piece on “how to think without Googling.”

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Is “every experience a moving force” in our curriculum?

As I struggle through writer’s block (after a very intense couple of months of work and more), trying to organise and finish off this ULL assignment, I find myself pulled back into the literature, thinking about the quotes of educationalists past and present. Recent reading about Dewey and Vygostky has been stimulating, as I realise that we, educationalists, have been having these same conversations for a hundred years or more*.

This is quote from Dewey (1938’s Experience and Education (pdf)) makes me think a lot about the essence of my argument about MYP: Mind the Gap. Are we creating learners for the future, giving them a “moving force” of an educational experience, or are we limiting education to preparation for external exams? I like to think we’re getting the best of both worlds.


John Dewey on “Experience and Education.” Click through for a pdf.

*Actually thousands – I’m also reading Martin Robinson’s (@surrealanarchy) “Trivium 21C,” which traces the debates on how education ‘works’ back to Socrates and Aristotle.


This quote is a good reminder to stop drawing lines in the sand. We don’t need more ‘isms, we need better education for a better world. I don’t know the source of the cartoon, but hopefully someone can find it. I did try a GoogleImages reverse-search.


Defining Inquiry: “Critical Reflective Thinking”

I find this definition of educational inquiry useful enough to give it its own post (abridged from my An Inquiry Crossfader post). I would like all educators in an IB setting, especially with Next Chapter, to have a good understanding of inquiry as the process that allows students to learn and demonstrate their learning at a sophisticated level. 

The IB programmes emphasise inquiry, a word frequently used though perhaps oft-misunderstood. It does not mean a trivial and open-ended, free-for-all approach to learning (in this loose sense, “inquiry learning” ranks low on Hattie’s Visible Learning impacts [d=0.31]). The PYP describes its approach as “structured, purposeful inquiry” where students are invited to “investigate significant issues,” and in which the goal is “the active construction of meaning.”  (Making the PYP Happen, p29) This is no loose approach – despite the relative freedom of content and (hopefully) less rigid set of external pressures – and is wholly relevant in the MYP and DP.

My favourite educational definition of inquiry comes from Bente Elkjaer: “critical or reflective thinking.” In her chapter on pragmatism in Knud Illeris’ Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own words she qualifies the definition further, describing how it connects to experience and the pragmatic approach to learning.

Inquiry is “critical or reflective thinking [that] concerns consequences,” future-oriented approach (‘what-if’ rather than ‘if-then’) in which meaning is “identified by anticipating ‘what-if’ consequences to potential actions and conduct.

Paraphrased from Bente Elkjaer

This is a definition I am comfortable to use with critical and reflective adults and will aim to do so when working with teachers in the MYP and DP settings.

After all, we all want to create critical and reflective thinkers, right?



On inquiry vs enquiry

This might be splitting hairs, but my distinction has long been enquiry as asking a question, including the trivial, versus inquiry as the process of investigating more deeply (more in line with Elkjaer’s definition above). It turns out this might not be right:

From the Oxford English Dictionaries online:


Noun (plural inquiries): another term for enquiry. Definition in the US English dictionary.”

Ey up, I must have been internationaliszed somewhere along the way.


Related: An Inquiry Crossfader as part of thinking about MYP:Mind the Gap (tensions in transitions from MYP to DP), in which I think about how teachers can place themselves in ‘camps’ of either/or in terms of content/outcomes vs inquiry/concepts. We should aim for an appropriate and careful balance at all levels.



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“You teachers have it easy.”

My gas taps are more surprised at these attempts at wit than I am.

My gas taps are more surprised at these pithy comments than I am.

The summer has just begun. The students have left campus, I’m procrastinating cleaning up the lab… and we’re back to it again in two months.

If you’re a teacher, you’ll know someone who hates that fact enough to remind you of it, frequently, with a barely-concealed envy. If you are an international school teacher, it completely blows their mind.

“You teachers have it easy.”

“I wish I could muck about with kids all day.”

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

“I should get into teaching; I could really use the holidays.”

And you know what, that’s fine with me.

Life, as teaching, is all about choices.

Education is not something you can stick at if you have just fallen into it for lack of a better job prospect. It’s a vocation, a devotion and an inspiration. It’s a privilege and a challenge. Its the invitation to change. Change ourselves, change our students, change minds, attitudes and actions, change the future for the better. It is the opportunity to learn, grow, reflect, interact, laugh and have a good time with scores of young people every day who are dedicated to learning, growth, reflection, interaction, laughter and having a good time.

I am inspired by my students and the teachers that inspire them; the colleagues that do great things and those that want to do even greater things. There is energy in what we do – we are not stuck in a cubicle. I am inspired by mission and values, by international mindedness and thinking about global problems. I am inspired by the fact that so many people who have put good into the world can trace their inspiration back to a teacher or a mentor. I am inspired every single day about science in the world and think that yes, one day, one of my students will make a real difference.

Throughout all this, because of all this, life is good. My work as an international school teacher gives my family and I a life of significant privilege. We live together, close to work, with good people around us and good opportunities for the kids. I can be home each evening to put the kids to bed, a simple pleasure that so many working parents miss out on. We have friends from all over the world and a global world view. We speak two languages in the house and have a two year-old who is learning Japanese. Even on one wage we make a decent enough living. We’re not shackled by a mortgage or car payments; we can save a little and travel a lot.

And those holidays. We are officially working for about 38 weeks a year (although they may routinely be 60+ hours a week). The holidays are time to think, recharge and study; to bond, have fun and be a family. It’s time to reconnect with the family we leave behind to go overseas. I know teachers who are able to completely disconnect in the break though most, like me, choose to work for a good part of that time. It’s like Google’s 20% time in a great big chunk. Whatever we do, we come back better able to educate our students.

Find out more about how to become a teacher at the Times Education Supplement.

I would struggle to enjoy life without this freedom and inspiration and this feeling of putting something worthwhile into the world. I love seeing the work of my friends and contacts who are living the dream of NGO work, improving lives, being creative, traveling and making a difference. I also know many people who are ‘living the dream’ of the nine-to-five, with the house, the car, the debt and three weeks off a year. If they are fulfilled and enjoy their life then great. If not, I feel bad for them.

I understand their envy of teachers.

It’s not always perfect. Some times are tougher than others. Grading and reporting times tend to bottleneck the stress, but I don’t think we should complain. We do well and we need to keep perspective. I greatly admire, respect and am humbled by the teachers back home who to try to do all this and more: contending with decision after decision coming from the top down; with behavioural and funding problems, large classes, long commutes and excessive, often unrealistic, demands. They most certainly do not have it easy, and they deserve far more recognition and respect than they are given. Sure there are teachers who can do better – sometimes much better – but I am saddened by the lingering perception that teachers are “those who can’t.”

If anyone asked me if I would recommend teaching as a career, I would tell them without a doubt, certainly, yes – but only if they’re prepared to give it their all. This is doubly true if they have the opportunity or take the chance to go to a good international school. We work hard but we are well compensated – in fulfillment above all else.

So how will I respond when someone says we have it easy as educators?

“I’m happy with the choices I’ve made.” 

The tune above was made by a 16 year-old composer/producer, and to me is the perfect soundtrack to reflection on a sunny day. We work with inspired kids like this every single day. 


This video by Taylor Mali sums up a conversation between a teacher and a lawyer. It’s an old one, but a good one.

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You Are Not Special

Having given two Commencement Addresses* in my time at BIS – a nerve-wracking experience – and focusing on the positives* of graduation in each, this is a breath of fresh air. David McCullough Jr. has apparently landed a book deal based on this YouTube video of his address to the Wellesley High School Class of 2o12.

The Universe has no centre; therefore you cannot be it.”

We want to educate our students to be extraordinary for the right reasons – not give accolades for no reason. Watch the whole thing – it contains some great advice and messages about education.


The first was on ten life lessons to set you on your way (or something) and the second was on a guide to real life from Biology.

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How much should homework count?

I saw this on Twitter via @Mr_Abud, and it got me thinking: What is the role of homework in my class? Years ago I read Alfie Kohn’s (@AlfieKohn) Homework Myth and adjusted my practices (I think) accordingly. This tweet from Gary was timely as we’d just had a PD session on differentiation with Sandra Page, in which she played a video of Rick Wormeli (@RickWormeli) in one of his classes.

Here is Rick Wormeli on “How much should homework count?

There are more similar videos on the Stenhouse Publishers YouTube Channel.

Some key points from the video: 

  • Homework could be referred to as ‘practice’.
  • Homework, if given, should be differentiated.
  • Homework should be a ‘safe place’.
  • Homework is formative# in nature, so it is not appropriate to give a ‘homework’ report.
  • A student who aces assignments without doing homework still deserves the top grades for the criteria they are being assessed against. If they know it and can demonstrate this, why do they need to do the homework?
  • Weaving homework into a grade for an assignment or class is knowingly falsifying the grade.
  • Homework (incorporated into the grade) dilutes grade accuracy.


What is my philosophy? 

I don’t like homework for homework’s sake and try to make sure that what is assigned in my class is achievable, engaging and useful*. I ask students if they found a task worthwhile and how long it took**. There is a sign in my room that states “This is your office, these are your office hours,” with the understanding that we will do most of our work in the school day. 35 hours a week in school (plus extra-curriculars, plus travel) should be enough!

If a significant number of students are struggling to get their work up to standard – despite class and homework time – then that is more likely a reflection on me as their teacher.

  • Have I underestimated the time it would take?
  • Is there a problem in the instructions?
  • Is there, as can often be the case, a tech-related issue such as with Excel, blogs or other tools that needs to be remedied?

If so, we discuss it as a group and if needed re-set the deadline.

From cheezburger.com

There is still a need for (some? all?) students to work at home. This is often finishing an assignment, although some do come to work in my lab at lunch or after school. More recently ‘home-work’ has included reading resources, a video to watch or pre-question to prepare for class (a bit flippy). Pre-assessment of this can help in grouping for the lesson, or to see where the focus of our efforts needs to be. Homework is also consolidation – updating a GoogleSite page for IB Bio or completing a short formative Quia quiz – as a way of keeping track of where the student is with regard to the content, skill or concept.

The homework itself is checked but not graded (as in ‘counted for the final semester grade’). I do include scores for formative tasks such as Quia quizzes in PowerSchool as way of communicating with students (and their calendars), as well as admin and parents. We report ‘Learning Attitudes‘ in our school as descriptors separate from numerical achievement grades – keeping track of how self-directed a student is helps in writing this part of the report. I look for correlations between completion of formative ‘practice’ tasks and achievement in summative tasks when writing these Learning Attitudes comments.

If a student works well in class, is a good scientist, respects others, achieves highly in summative assessments but does not do the homework then the homework was probably no use to them. Why penalise?

Some students like to work at home, in their own space, making sense of the work in their own way. Others prefer to check out when they walk out. We try to make tasks engaging and differentiated, though we do need to meet the requirements of the criteria and prepare them well for IBDP or their terminal assessments. Some students get fed up of lab reports even if the lab itself was exciting – to what extent do they complete this at home or at school? How do we get the most ‘bang for our buck’ with instructional time?

Again, more questions than answers.


Some notes

*Emphasis on “try”. It doesn’t always work.

**Yup – some take ages on short tasks and a few really go to town on the biggies. Some students are true perfectionists or stressers and need coaching to stop burying themselves in work. They need to sleep! Others get so engaged in a project that they want to spend the time on it. I often find the learning resources teacher (SEN) a useful barometer for the students who need support and check up with him too.


#Check this out, too:


EDIT, Jun 10 2013

Here’s a vRant from Tom Stelling on Homework, and why he’ll give it but not grade it.

Also, here’s a interesting graphic based on reading Hattie’s Visible Learning. Overall, homework has an impact of d=0.29: pretty pointless. However, this is a mean impact; when the homework for elementary-aged students (d=0.15) is factored out, we are left with d=0.64 in secondary. This is an enhanced effect. Find out more about this with Tom Sherrington’s post: Great Teachers Give Great Homework.

Hattie Barometer: Homework. The notes underneath are for a #PYPChat session. There is no need to give homework in elementary, so why do it? As the father of a 6yo, I dread the day she comes home with a worksheet… unless she really wants to do it!