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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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Life Coaching & International Educators

A year ago we decided to move: the administrators’ timeline at our school is before summer for the year-after-next.

It was a very tough decision to leave behind a great school and this life that we love so much in Japan but the timing is right and although I find the current admin role rewarding, I’ve been missing students and the lab too much.

After seven years in amazing Kansai, and a middle -schooler on the horizon, we felt it was a good time to make a change.

Around about the same time, Sam Sherratt posted this. I completed the form, and didn’t think much more of it. I missed the podcast episode.

The summer was anxiety-ridden. I was looking for a return to a non-admin role and so knew it’d be months before anything was posted. In the unknown, I worried a lot about what I was doing to my family. Did I mention we’re at a really good school with a great quality of life in beautiful Japan? The anxiety was accented by the pressure from the Search associate to prioritise admin roles (even though I was looking to get out), as a single-income family.

Then I remembered Sam’s tweet and followed-up with a DM. He pointed me in the direction of Kavita Satwalekar (InnerSenseCoaching), a life coach used by ISHMC. I’ve been through Cognitive Coaching training with Ochan Powell and I think it opened me up to opening up. We got in touch and Kavita guided me through a dilemma coaching session, one of her first online. It helped unblock my thinking and get to grips with what I really needed. There was a sense of relief and I was able to ignore the admin jobs and focus on what was important.

Screen Shot 2018-05-04 at 22.21.27Luckily we’re in the visa process for a new life, but moving on is hard (did I mention Japan is awesome?), and it brought me back to the podcast. For the first time since the coaching session I listened to the episode featuring Kavita, and I recommend it to anyone on the recruiting trail, in transition or any school administrator with a heart.

Links: iTunesCastbox

If you have an hour, I recommend listening to the discussions between Sam, Cathy Brown, Chad Walsh and Kavita. Without spoiling it too much, listen out for conversations on:

  • Do we truly understand what stress is and how it interacts with us? Why do we need external forces to realise this?
  • How do we truly take care of others and ourselves in a  community where we’re in each others’ pockets? Who’s taking care of those who are taking care of you?
  • What can we learn from observing ourselves through ideas from the book “Don’t sweat the small stuff at work”?

I find it interesting that they discuss how the survey results suggested a strong desire for a (totally impartial) life coaching role in school communities. Personally I’m glad I followed the lead and invested in it.

If you’re coming up on recruiting and in a dilemma, give the podcast a listen and think about coaching. It might help. It did for me.


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Let’s All Meet Up In The Year 2000… (on #Factfulness)

… won’t it be strange when we’re all fully grown? 

November 1995: I’d just turned 15, Britpop was at its peak (who did you prefer, Oasis or Blur?) and Pulp released this singalong anthem. We loved it.

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I couldn’t predict the year 2000, even in 1995. I had no idea I’d be ringing in the new year behind a bar in Belfast while studying to be a marine biologist. The thought of living in Indonesia, Japan or China had never entered my mind, never mind the notion that I’d be raising a cross-culture family in international schools, or that so much of our lives would be shaped by travel and the internet. My barely-myelinated teen brain was busy enough navigating embarrassment-avoidance, dodgy hair and GCSE’s.

51kmdnvzmsl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Disco 2000 popped back into my head (and wouldn’t move, thank-you), as I was reading Hans Rosling’s wonderful #Factfulness. As we form our worldview, it is often shaped by early experience; genuine conceptual change takes some effort and cognitive dissonance.  I wondered how the world has changed since my own worldview had first formed, and how the countries I have lived in compare now to the UK back in 1995 or 2000.

The world we are in now is far from my 15 year-old reality and the future is possibly even more uncertain now than it was when I was singing along to Pulp: make sure you read Aloha’s post on the agile learner in the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world. As the Roslings state in their book, “the world can be both bad and better“. We can educate for hope, not despair, but we need to ensure that through factfulness, our programme frameworks and position of privilege we can help create the conditions for knowledge-rich inquiry that connects the Global Goals to sophisticated learning. We didn’t need to worry about this in 1995, did we?

Now we’re approaching 2020 these aren’t 21st Century skills, they are now skills. We can’t accurately predict the future, but we can temper our learners, developing wayfinding global citizens that maintain a positive outlook. Take the Global Ignorance Test here.

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Shifting Perspectives: The Four Levels

This is important learning from the Roslings’ work, helping to break the us/them, west/rest view of “otherness” that we can tend to in our world view. See also Dollar Street, an interactive way to develop IMaGE through peeking into the lives of others like us.

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Learning Forwards: #Factfulness in an international inquiry context.

I’m really looking forward to connecting with more IB educators on discussing this book. The presence of the word “fact” can cause a knee-jerk reaction in some, a misconception on the title perhaps, but this book is more about high-quality inquiry than many I have read.

In our positions of great privilege in international schools, we owe it to our learners to ensure they are not ignorant of the world. We can achieve this through factful inquiry: lines of inquiry that rely on data, real perspectives and avoiding the danger of the single story. We can move beyond stereotypes,

I want my own children to be empowered as knowledgable investigators, creative problem-solvers and open-minded wayfinders. We’re already using Dollar Street at home to look into lives aroud the world (comparing our “halves” of Indonesia and the UK, for example).

Check out Rosling’s statements on education at the end of the book. If you have read it and want to chat more, come on over to #Factfulness.


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Which Way Next?

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Weeman working out which way in Whinlatter. 

As hiring season begins for international schools, it is really starting to sink in that this will be our seventh and final year at CA and in Japan.

This conversation is happening all over the world right now as international educators decide if they will renew their contracts or stay on longer. In our cross-culture family, the search for a new adventure it is part of our DNA.

It’s exciting and terrifying in equal measure.

We really love Japan and all it has to offer families. The school is great and I’m proud of being a small part of its journey in recent years.

There’s so much we’ll miss, but the timing feels right as a family and professionally. At the crossroads between admin and the classroom, I can see paths heading in different directions.

So which way next? 


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Bath MA International Education: A Review

This year I successfully completed my MA Education (International Education) programme through the University of Bath. I really enjoyed it and recommend it to others in international schools, and I’ll be back in the summer for graduation. Here’s a wee review. 

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Why Bath? 

In 2011, after eight years in Indonesia and on the way to Japan, I decided to study further. I felt I had enough practical experience to be starting to dig into academics and although my PGCE from Exeter had MA credit, this had timed-out and it was back to the start. I was looking for a well-regarded UK programme that would be challenging and rewarding and was intrigued by the development of the IB Teacher Award. I wanted “International Education” in the title of my Masters degree, wanted somewhere within reach of home and was drawn to the department as a particularly strong example of international education research. I definitely made the right choices.

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Overview & Pacing

With five ‘taught’ units (30 credits, 5,000 word assignment) and one dissertation (15,000 words), and a time limit of five years, you can work at a reasonable pace alongside real life*. As I was completing the programme for personal and professional learning (and not for external forces), I took the full time allowed. This gave me time to think, process and make good use of the library for research and for professional uses. I found that I was most effective when blocking out periods of time for research and writing, rather than trying to do a little each week – with work and family this would have split my mind too many ways to be efficient.

*The last five years have included: moving countries, significantly changing roles, taking on a bit too much, family (I started when my kids were 4 and a newborn) and travel. I rarely felt over-stressed by the MA, though there were some crunch times. 

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My Units

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My weekend view.

I liked the balance provided by these options. As a new returnee to academic writing, I opted for the familiar Assessment as a first unit, though in hindsight it limited my choices later in the programme; I would also have liked to take Leading and Managing Educational Innovation for my role, and probably should have started with EIC to set the foundation for the pathway. Where my first assignments (Assesssment, Curriculum) were concerned with MYP: Next Chapter developments (pre-2014), ULL gave me a great focus on inquiry and the rest (EIC, RME, Dissertation) formed a thread on what it means to be an international school. The flexibility of the programme allowed for clear personal coherence.

Essential Units: Research Methods in Education, Dissertation

Int. Ed.  Pathway Essential Unit: Education in an International Context

Core Units: Understanding Learners & Learning

Optional Units:  Curriculum Studies, Assessment

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Teaching & Assessment Model

I can’t stand the required-participation model of some online courses, where you have to log on frequently and ‘contribute’ your comment to a discussion board and where grading tends towards compliance over quality. I much preferred the Bath MA model, with a good set of resources provided on the course Moodle and Wiki pages, some assignment prompts to get you going and then six months to produce a well-researched piece of writing. For most of the units, I negotiated a research question of personal interest with my tutor, providing motivation to power through and produce something of worth. Tutors provide decent feedback on a draft of your work and tend to be very personable and supportive. I did like the academic rigour of the assessment rubric, and once I tuned into what was required, I found the research to be stimulating and the writing enjoyable. Though I can see where the assessment bands describe success, I’ll still never fully understand where the percentages come from – but I think this is a university-wide system rather than the Department of Education. It certainly made for some lively discussion on the last day of the Assessment summer school ;>

Although I was initially drawn to the IB Teacher Award** element of the programme, I abandoned this as I found that their reflective questions pulled my writing in a more personal descriptive direction that seemed at odds with the critical analysis of theory and literature required by the higher-level assessment descriptors, and I simply struggled to get both done in 5,000 words. I might revisit the IBTA if a portfolio model becomes available.

**Now the IB Educator Certificate

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Summer Schools

Summer 2011, between Indonesia and Japan, I attended summer school for my first unit, Assessment. I’m super-glad I did as a way to get to know other students, faculty and the beautiful city of Bath. Fresh off the train at Bath Spa, I was looking for the bus to the university when I overheard an obvious reunion of classmates at Pizza Express. We’re still friends. Attendees at the summer schools come from all types of schools, but it was great to bond with others in similar positions and with diverse interests. The taught course at summer school gives a good foundation for the unit and a head-start on the assignment. In two subsequent summers, I attended the university for a week during summer school, but did not register for the class – instead I used the time to research in the library, write and get tutor support. For me, this was the ideal balance as I needed to make the most of time away from family with significant headway on the assignment.

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Faculty

If you read anything about international education, you will soon enough come across the Department of Education at the University of Bath: it is a brains trust of international education researchers and publications, and being able to work with and get feedback from them was a huge draw. To a person, from tutors to support staff, the Department are lovely, supportive and highly knowledgable. I really feel like my learning has been enhanced by their expertise and support, and I hope to keep contact with them in the future.

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Advice

If you’re keen, go for it. There are times when I overthought the task at hand and wished I’d got stuck in sooner. I found it helped to protect time from family and work (weekends or holidays), rather than try to do it during work weeks. “Tune in” to sample dissertations through the MA wiki. Keep in contact with your tutor and get drafts in early. Go old-school and print the important articles; it helps to highlight, annotate and gave me valuable time in the sun, off the screens. Write on issues of personal significance – the motivation helps, and I loved being able to connect a thread between assignments and the dissertation. Attend a couple of summer sessions, if only to meet people, use the library and feel like a student again. Write, write, write, then cut, cut, cut; writing to reach the word limit will tend towards fluff, but cutting words makes the writing more focused. Use a citation manager with discipline – my favourite by a mile is Paperpile for GoogleDocs.

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Personal Reflections

I’m sad that this is over and am really missing the library access, but to be honest I’m not missing the added load. Life and work are beyond busy right now, and it’s great to be done. There’s not much I’d have done differently, except maybe rearrange some units. Had it been available (and had I been able to afford the time and loss of income), I’d have loved to take the new pathway in International Education and Globalisation. Although I would love to continue to the doctorate level, I’m not sure that now is the right time as my kids are growing up way too fast. I’m certainly not keen on paying for it, but might keep my eyes open for future opportunities. The research has been useful in my professional roles and I am happy to have had some work published in IS Magazine as a result of the assignments.

Thank-you to the Department of Education at the University of Bath, in particular to Mary, Elisabeth and Kath for being awesome. I am looking forward to seeing friends and tutors again at graduation in the summer and of course visiting beautiful Bath one more time… this time with my family.