Beige

I think there is often pressure in international education to adopt systems that ‘everyone else’ is using.  Such imitation leads to a form of legitimacy and, by extension, recognition.   However, if we are all doing the same things, then I reckon this shows very little leadership.  Here is my thinking:

The first reason is because of the word ‘think’.  It is very easy to look around and just do what others are doing.  It gives you a sense of validation, among other things, but it is often a cognitive shortcut.

Secondly, if you think of international education as something of an ecosystem, then if we are all offering the same thing then we can’t cater to much diversity in terms of students’ learning needs.  It is better – from the perspective of the scope of student needs – to offer different types of education.

Another thing that can undermine leadership in international education is the accreditation process.  (I am praying I don’t get struck by lighting writing this here.)  It compels schools to fall within the boundaries of a certain framework and, while this is a great source of quality assurance, I can’t help but think we can all come out the other end a bit more beige than when we started.  Having said this, I think there is great merit to undergoing accreditation in terms of self improvement but we have to guard against blindly drinking the Koolaide it can represent.

I think our schools, and our leadership, need to dare to be different.  I realize no one wants to take risks when it comes to kids – and this is a correct orientation – but sometimes the status quo can be the most dangerous position of all, especially with all the change we see in our world today.

A fantastic mentor taught me that as educators we should give ourselves permission to do things differently as this can can lead to great things.  To be extraordinary you either have to do something different than everyone else, or do the same activities differently.  Otherwise, you may be good, even very good, but you will only ever be another shade of beige.  And life is too short for that, and our kids education is too important.

That vision thing…

In asking the question I posed a couple months ago via this blog about the role of the Head of School, one recurrent theme / word in the feedback was ‘vision’.  This got me thinking more about the term and what it means:  not only to me, but to everyone else as well.

I remember one of the first times I really thought about the term was when George Bush Sr. quipped that he wasn’t really into that ‘vision thing’ during a presidential election campaign.  It was a major slip up that stayed with him, the opposition seized upon it…and when Bill Clinton won the election the 1992, people pointed to Bush’s inability to articulate a proper vision as a key reason behind the loss.

One thing that is rather frustrating about the study of management and leadership is that while you can earn professional degrees in the area (like an MBA), it is not a profession like that of medicine or law.  While there is a movement afoot to try to establish professional guidelines for managers, and some have even been promoting a codified management oath for MBA’s, the reality is that management – as an academic discipline and profession – has not and probably will not reach the same level of professional stature as law and medicine.   This is important to point out because when a doctor refers to a certain medical condition, or a lawyer a legal principle, other professionals in the field will almost certainly share a high degree of common understanding about the topic.  However, in management, I think sometimes we think/assume everyone else has a common understanding but sometimes one word means subtly different things to the different people using it.  Vision, I think, is one of those words.  Don’t believe me?  Then just google ‘vision defined’ or something similar and see all the different experts sharing their thinking.  Clearly there are commonalities, but there is not one accepted definition of vision in terms of management/leadership.

As a Head of School, this is important to acknowledge because when someone uses the word ‘vision’ I shouldn’t assume I know what they mean;  likewise, when I use the term I should not automatically assume others know what I mean.

So what do I mean?  For me I think of a vision for a school as a storyline that connects and extends different initiatives and activities from the past and present into a shared future.   Okay, this is not the prettiest definition, but it works for me and let me explain a bit more.

Organizations, like individuals, tend to evolve over time.  We all have our story.  You have yours. I have mine.  And your school has its.  Leading thinkers about leadership believe stories are very effective ways of communicating, but are under-appreciated.  One of the reasons stories work well is because stories are cognitively sticky – our minds seem to be hardwired to remember things when presented as part of a story.  (Check out the book “Made to Stick“.   The first chapter tells an urban myth and it is remarkable how you can remember so many of the details after much time has passed.  In fact,  I have used this same story in class when teaching about effective presentations.)

So instead of vision, I reckon we should be thinking in terms of a story or narrative for our schools.  We all know what a story is and, for the most part, we all like hearing information being conveyed in this manner.  After all, life is one big ongoing story that we are all apart of.  Some chapters have been written while many others have yet to unfold.   And as chapters are written, characters are developed, plots thicken and settings evolve with the story.  But you can’t separate the past from the future – all is connected.  So, instead of that vision thing, why don’t we ask ourselves what is the next chapter in our story?

That’s what Bush Sr. should have done.

 

Why Schools Fail?

I am reading this great book right now call “Why Nations Fail“.  Why Nations Fail coverI suppose that when you are in international education, studying nations should probably go with the territory.  A theme of the book is that only those societies with inclusive institutions can grow beyond a certain point.  More specifically, the authors believe that ‘man-made political and economic institutions underlie economic success’, not ‘culture, weather, or geography’.  Without the proper institutions, so the argument goes, there will be ceiling to a nation’s grow.  Interesting stuff for a humanities class.

And also interesting stuff for all of us involved in education as our schools and classrooms could be considered small societies in and of themselves.  For example, can a classroom learning environment really thrive when learning isn’t an inclusive activity?  A teacher ruling over students will allow certain types of learning to take place, but it is unlikely that this sort of approach will allow students to ‘reach their full human potential’ as so many school mission statements aspire to.  Similarly, consider the school as an environment for educators: command and control leadership will only get you so far, and most great teachers I know are looking for schools where they can contribute and make a difference.  My take away from this book is that a challenge for school leaders is to create the sort of inclusive environment that allows people to thrive and, by doing so, ensure that our schools will constantly grow and develop.

Wow – that’s social networking!

There are close to 60 comments from my last post.  Wowsers….

Thanks to Kim for her help in generating the interest and all of those that shared their thoughts!  I really appreciate it.  Here are some themes I felt showed up:

1.  Vision is really important.  Is this different from 20 years ago?  Probably, as the pace of change has picked up.

2.  Modelling behaviour – we should lead like our kids learn.  This may not be new per ce, but since how learning is happening is taking on different forms so must leadership.

3.  Leaders should be visible learners, and visible leaders.  Not new, but in a digital age how this occurs is changes.

4.  With a good network, like Kim’s, can be much better than Google when looking for an answer!

I was surprised by a few things:

1.  Not everyone answered the question(s) as directly as I had hoped.

2. Edublogs limits how much information people outside of the edublog domain can share about their own blog addresses – very annoying.  This makes it hard for me to check the sites of those who commented (and hard not to regret starting with edublogs a couple years ago).

Thanks again everyone!  I am planning to go through and reply to some of the comments and check out some of your blogs soon.  And if you are interested, I promise to update this blog again before too long.  In the meantime, here is a great article I came across the other day on a related theme to my initial post.

Your help

So I have had this blog for quite awhile but being busy it has not been updated for quite some time.

But the other day I had a talk with one of my colleagues here at YIS, Kim Cofino.  Kim has been bugging me for some time to be more active on the blogging scene.  I know it sounds lame, but I am really busy as a head of school and if I am to add anything new in my schedule, it probably means I need to stop doing something else.  In other words, it is a question of priorities.

Our conversation ended with Kim making a great point that really this was about connecting and learning from others.  For me, blogging has no value in and of itself.  But connecting with others and learning are things I like to do anyway.  So….

With this in mind, I had an idea.  I am going to pose two questions and I am going to ask to Kim to send this around through her network.  And I would hasten to add, this isn’t something that is just theoretical, it is something I am grappling with myself.  I have also been talking to a lot people here about it these questions:   everyone from the board chair, to the leadership team to my teaching colleagues.

Here is the question(s):  what is the role of a Head of School in a modern international school?  More specifically how, if at all, is this different from 20 years ago?

And also it might help me if you could think broadly along three different categories in your response:  dispositions, activities and skills.

We all know that schools have and are changing but I don’t see much of discussion really focused upon the role of head of school.  (Keep in mind too, a head of school at an international school tends to be quite a different role than that of a principal/superintendent in government school.)

My challenge to Kim is to send this blog post (and the question) out to her network and see what answers are generated as a result.   If you could respond, I would be sincerely appreciative.

I look forward to learning from you.

Where is the content? What are we testing?

It has been awhile since my last post…but summer is here and I now have a bit of time to direct this way!  So here goes:

One thing I have been grappling with lately is the tension that seems to exist between content and approach, direct instruction and constructivism and all the grey areas in between.  I reckon many forward thinking educators are also struggling with this balance.  Here is what I have picked up in my readings and experience:

1.  Constructivism is great; but it is also risky.  It can take teachers years to get good at delivering curriculum in this way and before that, student achievement may well suffer in these classes.  Good constructivist practitioners take time to develop.
2.  When we talk about curriculum this used to be synonymous with content.  Now few talk about what the kids should actually be learning in terms of content, but rather the dialogue revolves around approaches to learning?  Have we lost some balance in this conversation?
3.  We still judge academic achievement largely through test scores.  And constructivist approaches can most certainly deliver great test scores too (notwithstanding the risks mentioned above).  But so can direct instruction.  Lost in this debate is the test themselves though.  Why isn’t there more talk about revising the tests to better reflect the learning needs of this generation of student?  If we want to change education, the Trojan Horse for doing so is the altering fundamentally of what the test looks like.   Don’t get rid of tests as they have role to play in assessment, but fundamentally change these tools and ensure they are truly evaluating the what we think it is important.

That’s it for now!

The Nurture Assumption

Judith Harris published an article in the mid-90’s that has had a profound effect upon the underlying thinking in the nature versus nurture debate. She doesn’t get into the debate on the division between the two, though acknowledges that the general consensus out there is that it is about half and half. Her impact was in challenging the assumption that the term nurture heavily involved the parents. She argues, instead, that the biggest influence upon kids growing up are not their parents. No, she says, it is their peer group; and the most important influence parents have on their kids is in putting them in environments that will determine their peer group. The one rationalization that really stands out to me is ‘why don’t immigrant kids ever pick up their parents’ accents’? Instead they sound like the other kids in the neighborhood. By extension then, according to Harris’ central idea, much of the value of an international education is derived from the putting kids around other international kids. Hmm….this actually makes some sense.

By the way, Harris’ path to intellectual glory is a really great story. Admittedly I read her book about decade ago so forgive me if my details aren’t entirely accurate, but she dropped out of a PhD program and then began writing introductory physc. textbooks for first year university students: from what I know of such things, this is roughly the academic equivalent to flipping intellectual burgers. Well as she is writing these textbooks and summarizing the research, something about the nature / nurture thing strikes her as being off. And then she come up with this idea about the influence of peer groups, gets published in one of the world’s leading psychology journals and rockets to intellectual stardom. (Off the top of my head, Pinker—who has written a collection of the most accessible and popular ‘brain research’ books you will probably find on the shelves—is a big fan. Harris’ theory even she got an honorable mention in Freakonmics if my memory serves me correctly.)

Anyway, if you are parent, don’t feel to proud or too guilty about your actions and how you kids have turned out. Your biggest role is probably picking their environment and the candidate pool of friends. If you are teacher, be mindful of who is hanging out with who—it really matters. If you were ever a kid, ask yourself: Who were your friends growing up…?

Curriculum Redefined

Curriculum is one of those great terms we throw around as educators yet, as anyone who has researched the term knows, there is no commonly accepted, single definition. Nonetheless, it has been my experience that most educators prefer a very broad interpretation of the word that includes both intended and unintended outcomes encompassing learning happening both inside and outside of the classroom. However, I think how we use the word nowadays may be changing our practical definition. Here’s why I think so.

‘Curriculum mapping’ is something that is increasingly common in our schools. (In fact, accreditation standards at most international schools now require articulated horizontal and vertical curriculum links and this has been a big focus in many schools lately.) Curriculum mapping, however, really only intends to map the formal, intended curriculum. Simplistically speaking, it doesn’t attempt to deal with some of the intangibles of education. Rather it focuses on mapping what the teacher is going to teach, how it will be taught, when lessons will be delivered and how learning is going to be measured. All this is done with view of allowing the aggregation of all the teachers’ mapping to comprise the school’s ‘mapped curriculum’.

With the term ‘curriculum mapping’ becoming an increasingly common in our schools, and with everyday conversations filled with people talking about mapping their ‘curriculum’, I think our practical interpretation of the word curriculum has changed. It has narrowed and today some teachers might assume that if it doesn’t show up on the curriculum map, then it is not ‘curriculum’. What I am suggesting then is that subtly our professional understanding of curriculum is changing.

And this is a problem. Schooling is much more than just the formal curriculum and we must guard against our focuses becoming too narrow.

I think instead we should be talking about programmes, of which ‘curriculum mapping’ becomes a subset. (While I would prefer we keep with the idea curriculum is broader than just what is mapped, I am conceding the current usage of the term makes this very problematic.) Programmes, at nowadays, may allow for a much broader interpretation and open us up to thinking about education more holistically. The use of the word ‘programme’ allow us to put extra and co-curricular activities, the hidden curriculum, values education, and many of the intangible elements that go into an international education back into the discussion. While I feel strongly that academics remain a foundational core activity for schools, this does not mean that our job starts and ends there. We should never let academic outcomes define us as international educators. Instead, all the ‘stuff’ happening outside of the formal curriculum that both attracted many of us to education in the first place and will define graduates of international schools well into the future should be receiving a lot of attention.

And on this note, if indeed much of the value of an international education is derived beyond the limits of formal, academic curriculum then might mapping be appropriate outside of the formal curriculum domain too? Are we not remiss if are we leaving this ‘stuff’ to chance and not applying the same rigor as we might with academics?

Is Little Johnny Drunk? Or just Tired?

Imagine for moment what a classroom would look like if all the students were legally intoxicated, having just consumed two alcoholic drinks before sitting down in their seats. This image (which hopefully requires some imagination for most educators to conjure up!) would likely produce a very negative reaction from most educators. Imagine again, if the same classroom and same students had the same impairment level, but caused by another factor? Would and should the reaction of be the same?

Research has shown that sleep is a critical component in brain development and learning. We all know that sleep is a biological imperative, affecting all humans.  It is a critical variable in people’s ability to function (Loehr and Schwartz, 2003: 55). Despite its importance, most educators tend to dismiss such factors as being outside of their control and beyond the jurisdiction of the school. Perhaps this view is correct, but it does not change the fact that a lack of sleep seriously impairs cognitive performance.  In fact, ’stay awake longer than 18 consecutive hours and your reaction speed, short-term and long-term memory, ability to focus, decision-making capacity, math processing, cognitive speed, and spatial orientation all start to suffer.’ (Fryer, 2006). Plenty of research also demonstrates how proper sleep cycles are essential of for memory consolidation and learning, as well as in helping to determine overall health and performance.

To understand the seriousness of sleep deprivation and its effects, it is insightful to compare the affects on the body of alcohol to sleep deprivation. Sleeping only 4-5 hours per night for a week, or going without any sleep for 24 hours, ‘induces an impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.1%’. (Fryer, 2006). International school teachers, especially those teaching in the high school, are probably familiar with such situations and have looked out on a class with sleepy students gazing back at them.

So why would we react so strongly if the kids were drinking, but dismiss impairment caused by other means?  Food for thought….

Wicked Problems!

This is post about problems. But not normal ones: wicked ones!

Back in 1973, two Berkley professors put forth the idea that certain types of social problems were ‘wicked problems’. They proposed 10 properties of wicked problems, and while these ten criteria to not provide mechanistic diagnosis of wicked problems, they do provide key insights into the degree and nature of social problems. The ten properties are:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one shot’ operation; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an exhaustively describable set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways.
  10. The planner has no right to be wrong.

Reading this, I though to myself: ‘So many of the problems and issues we deal with in schools share many of these characteristics’. And of course they should: schools are social organizations with social missions.  (By the way, wicked problems do not need to share all of these qualities: its a highly subjective business and is a matter of degree as much as anything).

Anyway, think of all the ‘problems’ (or issues) we have in international education. Off the top of my head:  What should the curriculum look like and how do we develop it? I would argue yes to 1-4, 8-10 and possibly some of the characteristics apply. And what about the role international education plays promoting world peace: one could maybe argue 2-8. On a different level, how do you attract and retain the ‘best’ staff. Make your own list, but this is subjective, difficult and imperative. And how best should a school strike the right balance between the pragmatic concerns (like test scores, finances and operational issues) and the ideological aspirations of international education.? 3, 4 and 10 spring immediately to mind for this one.

The next time you are facing a challenge or problem in your school, think about these characteristics. It may not solve the problem for you, but if may help contextualize the discussion and thinking and help to produce better decisions going forward. Good luck!