Wayfinder Learning Lab

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


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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


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The Swallow, The Flock and The Writer’s Block

As the jumble of words in my head steadfastly refuse to flock together into a narrative on an assignment, I am finding it helpful to get back to the books, to sort the quotes again and think about the story they are telling.

I enjoyed this excerpt, from O.E. Mandelstam’s The Swallow, used in Lev Vygotsky’s Thought and Word and quoted here from Harry Daniels’ Vygostky and Pedagogy.

MandelstamSwallow_Vygotsky_iBiologyStephen

Link to original image. Link to quote.

It also reminds me of the challenges our learners face when they can’t articulate their thoughts in our ‘target language’ and the importance of us providing support and opportunities for them to create conceptual understandings even in spite of linguistic limitations.

I forgot the word I wanted to say,

And thought, unembodied,

Returns to the hall of shadows.

This is printed and on my door now.

Hopefully soon enough the thoughts will flock, forming something coherent and perhaps as beautiful as this murmuration of starlings.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/31158841″>Murmuration</a&gt; from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/islandsandrivers”>Islands &amp; Rivers</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>


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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.

JohnDewey_ExperienceMovingForce_iBiologyStephen

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.

JohnDewey_isms_iBiologyStephen

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.


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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. 

………..o0O0o………..

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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MYP Mind the Gap: Tensions in Transition from MYP to DP

UPDATE: March 31 2017

hackthemypI have just presented on #HackTheMYP at the IB Global Conference in Yokohama. At the conference there has been a lot of talk about Visible Learning. Since 2013, when I gave the Mind the Gap presentation, Visible Learning has really taken hold in international schools, as well as attracted some critics. Please read here for a review of Hattie’s more recent Visible Learning and the Science of How we Learn, as well as links to some critiques of the work.

Of course, since 2013 the MYP Next Chapter has taken place, and is now up and running. It is a great updated to the programme, and it is easy to put high-impact teaching practices to work to generate success in MYP… and send great learners up to DP.

I used the ideas in this presentation as the foundation for some assignments with the University of Bath, and in forming the pragmatic definition of inquiry. The rest of this post remains untouched and reflects my thinking back in 2013.

……….o0o0o………..

Reflection: March 2013

Last Saturday I led my first conference breakout session, at the IB Asia Pacific Regional Conference 2013. It was hugely nerve-wracking, yet thoroughly enjoyable and well worth doing. As James MacDonald said in his session on Creativity, there’s nothing like doing a presentation on a topic to make you learn a lot about it – quickly!

When I was preparing the session, I had a few aims in mind:

  1. Pick a topic of discussion that would generate interest and be relevant to everyone in the audience.
  2. Develop a resource that would be used beyond the conference session, giving something tangible that participants could take home and work on.
  3. Facilitate something interactive, rather than a one-way information dump.

Also, after reading more about the Hattie meta-analysis, I wanted to introduce this as a ‘lense’ for these discussions. Whichever side of the fence one may sit with regard to the MYP-DP transition, it is hard to argue with evidence-based teaching and learning. There are strong practices from the DP that can be used in the MYP, as well as strong practices from the PYP and MYP that DP teachers might appreciate more fully with the evidence base.

To (try to) achieve this, I built a wikispace for resources, along with a Prezi for the session and some Wallwishers to collect participant ideas. I was careful to choose tools that would be available to participants when they got home (thanks http://www.blockedinchina.net/), and would be easy to use in the session. This meant many, many hours of preparation.

The premise was simple: are there significant ‘gaps’ between MYP and DP, either real or perceived, what does the evidence say about them (based on the Hattie meta-analysis), and what can we do about them?

MYP Mind the Gap

MYP Mind the Gap: Click to go to the Prezi for my session.

I tried to classify some of the tensions into three main domains. The links take you to the wikispaces page for each.

In each domain, I summarised some of the key findings from the Hattie meta-analysis, and then provided a number of quotes and provocations for groups to discuss: this was an attempt at differentiation by interest, and as I circulated, I could see that there was a great diversity in the interests of the groups. Some groups diverged from the MYP-DP issues and got really into looking at the Hattie resources, which was fine by me – at least there was a take-home for them.

I was even able to include a shout-out to the #MYPChat and extend an invitation to all to join in.

The session turned out better than I had expected, and was worth the work.

The room was busy, with a couple of latecomers standing, and I tried to encourage a loud and collegial discussion. From the first stimulus question, people were engaged – it is clearly an issue that resonates with many schools. I joked at one point that I could just leave the room, but really I probably could have done. I was thrilled to see groups form that did not previously know each other, and one group near the front were lovely – some ladies from India, Indonesia and Malaysia who found they all faced similar challenges of national curricula as well as MYP-DP transitions. I hope they stay in touch with each other!

The hour flew by – which I expected – and I got the sense that the participants enjoyed it. The feedback I received after the session was very positive. Although we had some issues with connecting to the Wallwishers for posting ideas there was little need (that was probably a tech-step too far for some people), everyone received a paper ticket with the URL and QR code, so they can revisit the domains of tension in their own schools.

One comment I’ve had a couple of times is that there is enough material in this to develop a full workshop, which would be cool: taking an evidence-based view of teaching and learning across the transition to strengthen our practices. As the IB grows in its research base and strengthens its provision of pedagogical workshops, this might have a place.

So next year: MYP Mind the Gap, Part 2? [Edit 2017: I did propose this, but nope] 


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Inspired by our Students

Inspiration is not hard to find in a school… as long as you’re looking.

One of the great things about being a teacher in an international school is there is always so much going on, and that even if we’re feeling a bit challenged, a student or group of students will remind us what our vocation is all about. This last couple of weeks I have been inspired not by educational reading, MA work or my role as a pseudmin, but by the students in our school.

HS Students showing off their project – to residents, visitors and TV

Last Saturday, a group of high schoolers who had set up their own Biology club took part in a science fair run by the national school next door (a ‘Science Super School’). They took their work on biofuels and algal cultures and represented well: they were great ambassadors for our school and for student science, and they have been key in building a stronger relationship with our neighbours. The school next door is running some great projects, and now our students can be involved. But the key to their success is their ownership of the projects.

Last Friday the English department ran the annual speech contest, and some of our Grade 10 students inspired me to think more deeply. One student had me in tears of laughter with his speech on violent video games, while another made me think much more deeply about the effect that the ‘feminine ideal’ of the Disney Princesses could be having on my daughter. It led to a good discussion about feminism and Brave in class during the week.

The very same weekend, High School Drama put on Two Gentlemen Of Verona, which was funny, well-acted and produced and really entertaining. Seeing our students in a different light (and in character) gives a whole new perspective and appreciation for their talents.

Then last Sunday we went to see another of our students’ own projects – a photography exhibition hosted alongside an established French painter who lives locally, in a small tea-room gallery in Kobe. It was a great opportunity for her to show off her photos in this way, and I think she even sold some. This was an authentic outlet for her work, with a real and valuable audience. She used this as the basis of her personal project and you can tell that we was engaged and passionate about her work throughout.

Before the winter break I had a great time coaching the Middle School Girls’ Soccer team. As third coach I was responsible mainly for the grade 6 team and it was a blast. The change in gear from more serious HS Science and curriculum work to running about on a field with some hyper-enthusiastic kids is invigorating. Even now, 2 months later, I get daily squeals, hellos and waves-in-through-the-door. It puts a smile on may face and I hope they keep their energy when they reach High School!

There’s a never-ending parade of student-led projects, athletics and events going on in a school – too much to attend all of them – but it is great to see them in action. It is their energy that inspires me, so I need to keep mine up to do the same for them.

Student-centred‘ is an edu-term that gets slung around a lot: the IB programme models but the Learner in the centre, we claim that’s what we’re doing in class. As we review curriculum and pedagogy, we should remember this. What are we really doing to put the students and their learning at the centre? How can our curriculum and teaching facilitate this?

When is it best for us to just help them get set up and then get out of their way?


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Aspiring to Inspire: Inspiration vs Standardisation

As part of our teacher goals at CA this year we each set a professional growth goal based on an element from the student feedback surveys at the end of the 2011-12 year. With ‘inspired’ playing a key role in the school’s mission statement, I aimed to increase the proportion of students who respond with ‘my teacher inspires me‘. I may have sent myself on a fool’s errand, but it has given a lot to think about over the year. Other than that survey, I’m still not sure how inspiration can really be measured, which is probably part of the problem!

Last week I saw this TEDxVirginiaTech talk from John Boyer, AKA the Plaid Avenger (@PlaidAvenger), a professor at Virginia Tech who uses inspirational and innovative ways to teach his World Regions course to thousands of students. He has become a brand and an attractive force. I can see how is considered inspirational: he is funny, engaging and clearly knowledgable; he can keep an auditorium of hundreds entertained and attracts big-name guest-speakers; he gives students many ways to demonstrate their learning. The power of showmanship does a lot to inspire. So I watched this thinking about how these ideas would translate to our own small-class settings. Do we need to put on a show to inspire learners? Is empowering students more important?

Here’s the talk, give it a look:

………o0O0o………..

He defines inspiration as that “transcendent moment of clarity,” stating that inspirational teachers “crack the door that you are compelled to go through.” He argues that the top goals of teachers should be inspiration, creativity and passion; we should be renamed “inspiration specialists,” so that our students are driven to learn more on their own.

But you can’t standardize it! You can’t measure it! You can’t analyse it!

If you can’t count it, it doesn’t count.” (an Einstein paraphrase)

He then rails against standardisation: of curriculum, policies, teaching pedagogies, examinations. We need “more passion, less pedagogy; more inspiration, less standardisation.” He talk about the inspirational aspirations of nations to fire up generations of learners and the crushing effect of pushing standardised testing on younger and younger students. We need to aspire to inspire if we are to compete in the world with the emerging STEM juggernauts of India, South Korea and China.

It is very hard to disagree with the sentiments in his speech. He delivers it well, with passion and a hint of manic Will Ferrell. But it leaves me conflicted. I want to inspire. I aspire to inspire. But as a curriculum keener I want to know that we are teaching our students things that are worthwhile, in effective ways, that will allow them to go on to be successful; that we are building a model that will help all teachers inspire students to be in charge of their own learning and not to see inspiration as something done to them by the ‘teacher show’.

I’m against standardised testing at middle school and younger – I can’t see the point – but I do see the value of a recognised, high-quality post-16 international education such as the IB Diploma. I see the Middle Years Programme, if implemented well, as a great model for building inspired, global-minded learners; a framework that we can use to generate inspiration by design in our own school settings.

Now it’s time to inspire – take a deep breath – and think about where to go next: how to make my own classes better, to implement the frameworks in more effective and authentic ways and to lead the school through the challenges of the Next Chapter so that we emerge with a more effective curriculum and more inspired students.

……….o0O0o……….

Related to inspiration…

This week saw my i-Biology.net site pass 2 million views. I often get emails, comments and tweets of thanks for the resources and ‘inspiration’. These usually come from teachers and the occasional students stuck before an exam. This project inspires me, and I’m using it to raise money for my chosen charities. If you teach science, IB Biology or have friends or colleagues that do, please share this link with them and encourage them to leave a donation if they like what they use.