Wayfinder Learning Lab

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


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My Best Books, 2017-18

This year has been high on transition, anxiety and exhaustion, and very low on sleep. On the plus side, we’re feeling positive about the move to an amazing school, and the sleepless hours have meant even more reading than normal. Here is a selection of the books that have kept me going and inspired me over the past year.

Factfulness

“Please return your brain for a free upgrade.”

I really think all international educators should read this book by the wonderful Hans, Anna and Ola Rosling, of Gapminder. I’ve been a Han Rosling fanboy for many years over on i-Biology and this is the perfect tribute to him and summary of the important messages from years of research, action and TED Talks.

Buy it! It’s better in print than on Kindle, and on Gapminder you can try the global ignorance test and their Dollar Street project.

I’ve written a more complete review of Factfulness here, and have been tweeting about it with Friday #Factfulness.

 

The Binti Trilogy, Akata Witch & Akata Warrior

by Nnedi Okorafor

“Being in this place of diversity and movement was overwhelming, but I felt at home too… as long as I didn’t look at the ships.”

“Prepare to fall in love with Binti” says Neil Gaiman’s cover recommendation, and he couldn’t be more right. Nnedi Okorafor has created an outstanding body of work, with Binti as my introduction to her world-building, characters and afrofuturism. I won’t spoil it, but give Binti a go – it’s a quick read, packed with imagination an you could well be as hooked as I am. My own 11yo daughter loved it too. I immediately read Home, pre-ordered the trilogy finale, and got stuck into Akata Witch (and more recently finished Akata Warrior). The Akata books (Sunny) are renamed in the UK (here and here).

Okorafor is my new favourite author, and this short TEDx talk by her is well worth the nine minutes. I can see Binti becoming a great reader for MYP Lang Lit units of inquiry as it will resonate with Third Culture Kids (TCK’s).

 

Bold Moves for Schools

by Heidi Hayes Jacobs &  Marie Alcock

I’ve blogged about this before, and tweeted about it plenty. Reading this really resonated with who I am as an educator and curriculum/pedagogical leader. It is clear, provocative and practical, with lots of great ideas and suggestions encompassing curriculum, pedagogy, leadership and more. I had a great time at a Bootcamp with Marie earlier in the year, and it got me thinking a lot more about Webb’s DOK4 & Transfer. Well worth a look, especially if you’re looking to the future. Read more here. I also enjoyed Quest for Learning by Marie Alcock, Allison Zmuda and Michael Fisher (see here).

“Innovation requires courage coupled with a realistic sensibility to create new possibilities versus “edu-fantasies”. Moving boldly is not moving impulsively or for the sake of change. Moving boldly involves breaking barriers that need breaking.”

 

The John Catt Stable

These last few years, John Catt publishing in the UK have produced a range of great books on education. Back in 2014 I read and wrote about Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21C as a vision of a well-implemented IB Diploma Programme, and reviewed it for IS Magazine. This year I’ve read and loved all of the following, though my particular favourite has been “What does this look like in the classroom?” by Carl Hendrick and Robin MacPherson, illustrated by Oliver Caviglioli (reviewed and linked here).

These are the kinds of books educators should be reading in initial teacher training, as well as keeping as reminders of what works and why – particularly if you want to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater in a quest for dynamic learning. Other gooduns I’ve read this year (and there are more than this):

 

Reasons to Stay Alive

by Matt Haig

A wonderfully-written, honest and raw description of living with and through depression and anxiety, and great twitter account to follow. Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive is warm and funny whilst dealing with serious issues.

I look forward to reading his new follow-up, Notes On A Nervous Planet.

 

Recipes for Wonder

by Alom Shaha & Emily Robertson

This book is so beautiful I got three copies: one for us, one for my niece and one for the school library. Alom Shaha (@alomshaha) is on a mission to help parents become their child’s first science teacher and with this book, illustrated by Emily Robertson, he has a winner.

Books of “experiments at home” have been around for ages, but this goes far beyond: with personal stories, “the power of I don’t know”, inquiry questions and “Mr. Shaha says” explanations, it helps frame each activity through thinking as a scientist. Get it here, or in real shops.

 

The Idiot Brain

by Dean Burnett

Who knew brains could be so funny? Dean Burnett, neuroscientists did, and The Idiot Brain is a witty, readable and up-to-date primer on what we know about our brains, how they (kindof) work and how we know.

If you’re at all interested in how your jelly mass is ruling your life, and sometimes working against you, give this a go.

Grace of Kings

by Ken Liu

In summer 2016, a tweet from Saladin Ahmed sent me down a rabbit hole of rediscovering fantasy/sci-fi through nonwestern authors and stories. One of them, which I only got to in this year, was Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings. Epic, detailed and well-developed, the Dandelion Dynasty is a universe I’ll return to in the future.

And you know how it goes with Amazon recommendations connected to your “likes”…

Ember Quartet (Books 1-2) &  The Grisha Series

Excellent YA fantasy, the Ember novels by Sabaa Tahir and the Grisha novels by Leigh Bardugo are fast-paced, with rounded characters, solid arcs, darkness, humour and plenty to set them apart from traditional fantasy. Bardugo’s Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom are also a fun heist novels set in the Grisha world.

Authors like these have given me a renewed interest in a genre which I had abandoned years ago through boredom. I wasn’t aware of how much great stuff was out there.

 

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On my summer reading list (let’s see how many I get through):

 

So… what are you reading? Recommendations below, or find me on Twitter.

Happy holidays!

Stephen

 


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The Buoyant Force of Continuum Learning

There are no new ideas in this post, yet as I work on curriculum development across the subjects, I reflect on how easy it is for us to fall into the trap of backward mapping without considering the buoyant force of learners as they move up the continuum. 

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Starting with the end in mind – backward design (Wiggins & McTighe) – is critically important in making curriculum decisions. What are we aiming for at the end of this great journey? What do our learners need from us? This helps us design schemes, units, assessments and instructional resources that meet whatever standards or outcomes we need to address. A great backwards-designed curriculum is powerful and engaging. By knowing the desired outcomes we can see the pathways for differentiation, interest and flexibility; the learner’s journey is rich and varied and the learner becomes more than the sum of the (instructional) parts.

Backward Design, Not Backwashed Demands

Rubrics@sjtlyrInterpreting backwards design too inflexibly, however, runs the risk of stripping out the soul of the subject through a laser-focused aim on a narrow selection of terminal performance tasks:  “we need to get them ready for (exam/essay/other) by doing lots of (exam/essay/other) at every stage.”  Well-intentioned, though often stifling, “get them ready for…” creates the spectre of a future to worry about. As large-scale terminal assessments necessitate reliable (standardised) operations, they measure what can be measured easily – but do they get to its true heart? If we strip a subject down to the items on a list, what happens to disciplinary authenticity and deep inquiry over time?

Whilst keeping the end in mind, how can we really harness the present enthusiasm and inquiry and build on past excitement and learning to create the moving force of experience that carries learners upwards?

The Buoyant Force

The learners that walk into our schools are not blank slates. When they step into MYP from PYP, they are energised by PYPx and their many exciting experiences. If they step up from a strong PYP, they are already knowledgeable, enthusiastic inquirers. Similarly in the transition from MYP to DP, the tempered learner enters DP with a toolkit of ATL skills, disciplinary and interdisciplinary foundations. None of this is frivolous or superficial and they are not fixed empty vessels, waiting to be filled with a set amount of content.

bubblesThey are more like air bubbles racing to the surface of the water, expanding and accelerating as they go. When they hit the surface, they transition into the next phase: we launch them from school to the world. Along the way, however, there is the buoyant force, an upwards push that we can harness in curriculum design. It might sound cheesy, but run with it.

What are the opportunities and experiences that nucleate those bubbles? How can we catch the bubbles and keep those moving forces pushing upwards? When I reflect on things happening in our own context I think of a few examples:

  • The rapid evolution of our Design classes in many ways. Introducing 3D printers and Tinkercad was great – but even greater is that once the PYP kids got a hold of it, those initial MYP lessons have become redundant already. Now the young MYP designers are doing amazing things, with purpose and audience. The buoyant force of the early experience allowed for even more awesome things to happen later.
  • The revolution of PHE in MYP and the obvious and exciting enthusiasm of the learners as they move up the course. I’m stoked to see how they introduce more authentic data analysis and as a department they have created fantastic learning opportunities.
  • The young PYP writers, coming out of a workshop model into MYP are already equipped for mini-lessons, conferencing and lots of active output in authentic genres. They are ready to write, read and produce work for real audiences.

In every discipline, in all sections of the continuum, I see examples like this, and it is amazing. The buoyant force creates pressure on a backward-mapped curriculum. There is no surer way to burst a kid’s bubble than to approach curriculum with the view that “I know you can do [amazing thing], but we need to do [less amazing, but seemingly more ‘valid’ thing].

So as we develop vertically articulated curriculum, are we spending the care to think about the very best of what these learners know and can do already, and about how a rapidly evolving curriculum in the years below might precipitate a need for (r)evolution and reinvention in the years above? Do we think about it as a spiral, so that even if they encounter similar topics or concepts, they are truly building a stronger understanding through inquiring more deeply and with greater sophistication? Are we looking left and right for connections and experiences that can enhance the experience?

In the younger years are we thinking about how these bubbles nucleate, and how they connect to (and inspire) experiences in later years? When we teach a topic, are we taking care not to inflate the learner with misconceptions that rise with them?

When we deal with transitions, do we focus on communicating the very best of the learners’ experiences? Do we ask the teachers before us “how do we keep them excited?” Are we creating exhilaration for what comes next, rather than anxiety?

What are the buoyant forces in your continuum?

If your learners were to “live fully, now” how would that create a moving force that drives them through the next stage?

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Animations:


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Seven Reasons to be an #IBEN Site Visitor

Over the last couple of years I’ve started to get involved in #IBEN, the IB Educators’ Network, as part of the Middle Years Programme authorisation and evaluation process. After initial training as a School Visiting Team Member (SVTM), I was out on a visit as a team member for a synchronised visit (PYP, MYP, DP, CIS & NEASC). More recently I have been team leader (SVTL) for the MYP section of another synchronised visit, and have completed consultancy training, to be part of a process that supports candidate MYP schools in their journey towards authorisation. This has all been phenomenal PD – learning through authentic inquiry that can only help me in my programme leadership role at school. 

So… here are seven reasons you should join #IBEN

1. It’s a community

There are lots of venues to meet others in the same role – workshops, conferences, online – but this is one that has a special focus: to help the IB community grow around you. Someone has done it for your school, you can do it for others. Along the way, we realise that the community is human, that “the IB” is not a faceless auditor and that we can share the responsibility of bringing the IB’s mission to fruition in the region.

2. Bringing the Standards & Practices to life.

No really, wait, stop giggling.

The S&P’s are our quality-control guidance as a school, yet we probably don’t learn about them or engage with them as often as we could. Being in a room with a team of people picking through them and thinking about how they look and how they can be interpreted is powerful learning – and immediately applicable in your own context.

3. Being right up to date.

Training for these roles is delivered by the experts, with an oversight of all the most relevant challenges and updates. It’s a great opportunity to clear up misconceptions and to make sure your own approach is on point. Are we using the right guidance? Is our approach in line with the expectations? How have other schools taken on this challenge?

4. It’s a privilege

The Standards & Practices set the direction of a school and the feedback from readers, consultants and site visitors helps keep the school on course. To be able to do this effectively, we are given access to a lot of information about a school. There is a lot of trust and respect in the process. We all learn and we all work with the best intentions in mind: to give our students the best international education they could have.

5. Time to focus.

How often do you really get to focus on one job for your role? Being away for a few days, with a singular role, can be as energising as it is engaging and exhausting. Even the time in the airport can be time to clear some of your to-do list. IB visits are usually no more than three days, so they’re not going to set you too far behind (some other agencies are there a week).

6. It’s free.

If you’re invited for training or to go on a visit, it doesn’t cost you anything but time, so on the learning-per-dollar scale, it’s pretty high-impact for your school. Better still, you get a little honorarium. It won’t make you rich, but it will offset the guilt-gifts you buy your family in the airport on the way home.

7. It works for your school.

It is impossible to separate your learning about the process (or during a visit) from your own context. Are we doing this right? Would this work in my school? Hey, that’s a neat idea…

By taking a careful, analytical approach to the S&P’s, we are becoming more competent as coordinators. By finding out about a school from its many stakeholders we can be inspired to be better pedagogical leaders in our own contexts.

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So get involved! Find out more here. I’m not a workshop leader, but I hear those guys have a blast, too.


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Live Fully Now

I included this short clip, built on a short piece of a talk by philosopher Alan Watts, in my #GAFESummit session, Ready, Steady, Flow. There was some quiet contemplation (expected) and some tears (unexpected).

It had been doing the rounds on Twitter, and I felt it captured some of my feelings about education and the anxiety we can face as we “get them ready for XYZ.” It becomes all too easy to suck the joy out of learning, to focus on the grades, to get caught on the treadmill. We risk losing our creativity and spark in the process.

At the same time, we hear so much about ‘shift happens‘ and educating students for the future, for ‘jobs that don’t exist yet’ and trying to play crystal-balls about what knowledge and skills the big innovators want in their workforce. We can’t do that; we’re probably wasting our time if we try. But we can educate the kids we have now, with the knowledge we have now, the tools and research that we have now so that they’ll become “better” people nowand for the future.

What if, by making all of us love learning now, we can make our students balanced, motivated inquirers ready for what the future throws at them?

There’s a name for that job.

Teachers. 

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As a parent I watch it and worry – am I making the most of my own kids’ childhoods? Am I helping make memories that they will love? Am I living in the ‘now’ with them? Do I have the right career-life balance?

I’ve seen this video many times. Each time it gets me.


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

Californian Blue Whales are almost back to historical levels after whaling bans in their range.

Californian Blue Whales are almost back to historical levels after whaling bans in their range.

We’ve wrecked the world.

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.

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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.

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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?

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“You teachers have it easy.” Thankful for our choices.

This is an edited version of a post from last year.

Teachers. We're always on holiday - except when we're not.

Teachers. We’re always on holiday – except when we’re not.

“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.”

“All you have to do is tell kids the same easy stuff every year. I could do that.” 

It must be that time of year again…

Cue relief from face-booking teacher friends and ‘funny’ comments from non-teaching others. They used to bug me, but not any more; we have a lot to be thankful for.

Life, as teaching, is all about choices.

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.

Although I might do routine sixty-hour weeks in term time (the equivalent of fifty-seven 40-hour weeks), we get to spend time together as a family, traveling and learning together. We live, work and go to school together, and I’m home for bedtime every night. We have friends from all over the world and a global world view. We speak two languages in the house and the kids are learning Japanese. We could more money in a different career, for sure, but we can save a little and travel a lot.

And those holidays: we are officially working for about 38 weeks a year. The holidays are time to adventure, 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 from work in the breaks though most, like me, choose to work, study, learn or write for a good part of that time. Whatever we do, we come back better able to educate our students.

But holidays are not the sole reason to become a teacher. 

If you could draw up a list of dream benefits, what would you choose?

If you could draw up a list of dream benefits, what would you choose?

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. 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, repeating the same task day after endless day. 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.

It’s not always perfect; some times are tougher than others, especially when the work piles up and bottlenecks. But we do well and we need to keep perspective. This is particularly important for overseas teachers. 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, especially in the UK.

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

“We’re happy with the choices we’ve made.” 

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