Sunday, March 26, 2017

Food for Thought: Back to our Mission

Dear all,

My goodness, if ever there has been a week where we demonstrated our growth as a school and seriously pushed the idea of being the best school in the universe, it has to be the last six days. MYP Personal Project exhibition followed by the Grade 4 and Grade 1 mini exhibitions demonstrated how well our students cannot only articulate their learning outcomes but also the processes they have been through whilst learning. The confidence with which 6 year old through to 15 year old students expressed themselves was very impressive. In addition to this we had awesome learning take place in classrooms all over the school, with students proud to show off their learning to the passing Head of School. GIN conferences to attend, hosting swimming tournament, football fixtures and SISAC local gymnastics tournaments. Definitely something for every student to get involved with in the school.

Whilst, working on the CIS accreditation for the past two weeks I thought that it might be good to return our minds to our school mission. 

As an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School, International School Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC) constructs a culture of achievement in an environment where students are energized, engaged and empowered to become active participants in their communities.

When you walk around the school it is obvious that the key action words in the mission, Energized, Engaged and Empowered are being emphasized and deliberately developed in our students. Behind these three words lies a foundation that when delivered well allows the three key action words to flourish in our classrooms. In this Food for Thought I would like to focus on one other word that is so important and drives the pedagogy around the school: constructs.

Thinking about our mission for CIS I returned to some notes that I made when I first came to ISHCMC in 2013 about constructivist teaching. The following paragraph was taken from, "Teaching for Understanding" by  Blumenfeld et al and is the conclusion to that section, page 869. Rereading it now it helps me put into context many of the changes that I now see around our school in our students, the classrooms and their public performances.  Please read the following as it is so relevant to who we are today and what we are aiming to do with our teaching and learning.  

"Recent insights from studies of everyday learning have resulted in new emphases on social rather than individual influences on learning. They have highlighted the cultural and situated nature of knowledge and of learning. Newer social constructivist theories have assured that understanding is contextualized and a function of social interaction with others. The tasks undertaken, the tools employed, and the immediate context that reflects the culture in which ideas are developed and used.
These approaches have not spawned a specific set of prescribed behaviors for teachers. Instead, there are some general guidelines that can be derived; consequently, classroom enactments might vary considerably and still be commensurate with the theory. The teacher’s role is like that of a master craftsman, creating a situation where the student apprentice is inducted into the ways of knowing in the discipline and its important ideas. The teacher helps create an environment and selects areas of inquiry for students to engage while investigating, solving problems, and exploring ideas using technological tools as aids. The emphasis is on discourse and collaboration so that students can learn from each other and from others with greater expertise. The teacher scaffolds learning via modelling cognitive processes, coaching, providing feedback, breaking down tasks and- as students gain proficiency- gradually releasing responsibility. The teacher assesses what students understand using alternatives to standardized short answer tests. The stress is on authenticity, on creating an environment where students must demonstrate mastery of concepts and of disciplinary ways of inquiry through various means such as public presentations or demonstrations which preferably have meaning beyond the confines of the classroom."

This all ties in beautifully with what Wiggins and McTighe promoted in their excellent article, Teaching for Understanding where they say,  “Students can only be said to have fully understood if they can apply their learning without someone telling them what to do and when to do it. In the real world, no teacher is there to direct and remind them about which lesson to plug in here or there. Transfer is about intelligently and effectively drawing from their repertoire, independently, to handle new contexts on their own”.

Quite simply this can be summed up as follows: 
  • Constructivism encourages us to see learning as an active, constructive process.
  • The learner is an information constructor. Learners actively construct or create their own subjective representations of reality.
  • New information is linked to prior knowledge thus mental representations are subjective.
  • Constructivists shift the focus from knowledge as a product to knowing as a process.
  • Constructivism recognizes that students bring with them a rich array of prior experiences, knowledge, and beliefs that they use in constructing new understandings. 
  • Allowing students to make meaning from their learning leads to greater student engagement
  • Teachers are encouraged to release the process of learning to their students
  • A constructivist approach engages and empowers the learner by valuing the part they play in creating meaning.
Finally, this links perfectly with what researchers are discovering more and more about how we all learn and how teaching should be delivered. This recent Tim Elmore post from , Growing Leaders, one of my daily reads, emphasizes in a short conversation with Britt Andreatta a thought leader in leadership and learning. this conversation again emphasizes the reduces role of the sage at the front of the class releasing the embedding of the learning to the students through carefully designed activities. It is clear that some cultures and individual students would prefer to be given all the information however we now know that this does not lead to embedded deeper learning and the growth in capacity of the student to truly learn and understand information and concepts.

Tim Elmore: In your first book, Wired to Grow, you explore the brain science of learning. So what are some of the key takeaways that you would offer from this book?
Britt Andreatta: What became clear to me was that learning actually occurs in three phases, and different parts of the brain play a role in each of these phases. The first phase is when we actually sit down to learn something. The hippocampus is the brain structure that takes what we are listening to or watching and puts it into our short-term memory. What is really interesting about the hippocampus is it needs to process content every 20 minutes or so to move it effectively into our memory.

The second phase is to remember. We have got to get the information into our long-term memory so that we can get back to it weeks or months or even years from now. There are actually very specific strategies we can use to do that. The most effective—and this is what good teachers learned how to do a long time ago— is when we attach it to something that the learner already knows or has experience in. The idea of attaching new information to a cluster of neural-wiring that already exists in the learner’s brain is called schemas. The other big “aha” moment was around the concept of retrievals. Back in the day, when we were younger, it was all about repetition. Keep doing those math problems, over and over. Keep writing, over and over. What we are learning is that to get it into long-term memory, it is really about pulling it back out again—retrieval. Quizzing yourself, retrieving the information, is kind of the sweet spot. It turns out that through three retrievals—spaced with sleep—is where the magic happens. So if you are a teacher, ask your students to summarize it or take a quiz on it so they have to reach back into their brain and pull it out. Three retrievals spaced with sleep is really the key element to getting things into long-term retention, long-term memory.
The third phase is to do, which is about changing behaviors. Most of professional learning today (which is where I am working these days) is about driving some specific behavior change. The research on how our brain forms a habit was what really informed me in this area. Turns out the brain structure is the basal ganglia, and when we repeat something over and over again, it’s what turns something into a habit. It takes about 40-50 repetitions of a new behavior before it really gets synced as a strong neural pathway or a habit.

Have a relaxing Sunday,


Friday, March 17, 2017

Food for Thought: Should we differentiate more for gender at ISHCMC?

Dear all,

Differentiation has become common place in our classrooms, so much so that it is hardly ever raised these days at job interviews and is taken as a non negotiable. However, I would like to raise the question through this week's Food for Thought in a different context, that of gender performance. There can be no argument that there is an increasing disparity between boys and girls performance at school, that this is impacting the work place and society in general. We come face to face with it every time we hold academic award ceremonies, as the clear majority of students winning awards for both achievement and engagement are girls. But what are we doing to address this increasingly important issue? Through this provocation my intent is not to initiate a gender war but rather to encourage us to think of strategies that will encourage all our students to be energized, engaged and empowered by their school experience.

Apart from our recent secondary awards ceremony which made the disparity very obvious, this topic was further ignited in my consciousness when I read this recent NY Times article which partially aligns the political support that Donald Trump received as a consequence of boys failing in education. As the article acknowledges, despite all the data about females increased position and power in the workforce there is still a disparity at the very top of the wealth and CEO charts in favour of males. Hopefully this will be addressed over time. However, it is what is taking place at lower levels in society that make this topic important for us in education as we prepare our students for their futures.

Across the Atlantic in this article from the Guardian newspaper in the UK, 'Our schools are failing boys, which is bad news for Britain,' Lincoln's MP Karl McCartney identifies the same trends and raises the question about why aren't schools doing more to address this issue.

"But there is hardly anything being done to tackle it. It was almost as though the problem had not permeated the Westminster or Whitehall “bubble”, even though it is clearly an equalities and fairness issue. Why has there been such little action on the issue? If the genders were reversed, I am almost certain this would not be the case. Indeed for well over 25 years, taxpayers’ money has welcomely and successfully been spent on encouraging female applications for science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses in higher education. Yet, there is no or little reciprocal focus on men becoming doctors (two in every three new GPs are female) or lawyers (over three in five trainees are female).
It is due to the lack of focus on this issue from successive governments of all colours, from policymakers and from the education sector, that I am leading a parliamentary debate today on the educational underperformance of boys and the gender education gap.
This gap in attainment is stark, starts young and is not new. At Key Stage 2 (in old money, 11 years old) the gap is six percentage points. For GCSEs, the gap for five A*-C grades, including English and Maths, is nine percentage points in England and more than seven in the other three home nations. Its impact is also stark. Annually 30,000 fewer boys than girls are becoming apprentices, 60,000 fewer go to university every year (460,000 fewer over the past decade) and more young men are not in education employment or training (NEETs). Fewer men are entering nearly all of the professions and between the ages of 22 and 29, young men earn less per hour on average than women, in both full-time and part-time roles."

Many years ago when I was preparing to give a workshop on gender differences in education I discovered  Philip Zimbardo 5 minutes TEDTalk about the demise of guys. Whilst writing this Food for Thought I found this newer and longer TED (24 minutes) in which he presents more research on the subject of boys failing and encourages us to think about what we can do to create a better future. There are some quite alarming statistics in this talk that need to be reflected upon if we are to develop the school experience to improve boys engagement. In the last third of the talk Zombardo gives plenty of strategies that can be evolved to help address some of these issues, some of which we are already touching on at ISHCMC

Here is another talk, shorter at 12 minutes, that raises some of the same issues that are emerging regarding boys and ends with a lovely story that involves John Lennon.

I don't think there is an easy solution for education and this recent trend in boys performance. Of course there has been much debate about single sex schools and how they are better or worse for boys and girls. This article from the Daily Telegraph captures this discussion very well, providing the pros and cons of both systems. However, for ISHCMC there are not any plans to become a single sex school so we have to look at how we can make our co-educational environment optimal for both genders. In my reading for this post I read a synopsis of an experiment that involved looking at gender performance in Math and Languages. It's conclusion perhaps points us in a direction that encourages gender differentiation in certain subjects and not others.

"In sum, single-sex schooling improves the performance of female students in mathematics classes but not in language classes, suggesting that reducing gender-based stereotype threat has real effects on academic performance. Moreover, female students who demonstrated high pre-existing ability on the entrance exam benefitted the most from single-sex classrooms, which underlines the relationship between the beneficial effects of all-girls schooling to the absence of gender-specific stereotype threats."

I hope this post has given you Food for Thought. There is obviously no easy solution to the trend of boys failing in school and the workplace. It is also clear that not all the solutions lie within schools and that parents and society in general have to play their part. The question for us is to listen to what researchers are saying and perhaps adjust what we are doing to assist both boys and girls fulfilling their full potential at ISHCMC.

Have a good weekend,


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Food for Thought: What should we be teaching our students?

Dear all,

Hope you are all having a wonderful weekend, This will be a relatively short post because last week I asked quite a bit of you all. I have just spent a few days away with our U14 girls football teams and it has been an interesting insight into how the malleable minds of this age group are being formed in, to them, a world of dramas which everyone feels obliged to get involved in whether in real time or through social media. I was quite surprised at their lack of social and emotional awareness and their failure to see problems as solvable challenges rather than threatening dramas.

Hence, this weeks Food for Thought focuses on the question what do we need to be teaching our students in school. This old rap song which I shared with you several years ago questions called "Don't Stay in School" by Boyinaband, is doing the rounds again and quite validly for most school's raises questions that are not being thought about or answered. This is further reinforced by PrinceEA, in his rap ballad, "I Just Sued the School System"again already shared in an earlier post. Being an IB school we have an advantage when it comes to adjusting the priorities of our curricular because the child sits in the middle of our model and thinking.

It has become clear to me that it is more and more important that we teach our students to be socially and emotionally aware. This article from TED Ideas, Should Emotions be Taught in school? encourages us to think more deeply about topic.

Who taught you how to identify and manage your emotions, how to recognize them when they arose and navigate your way through them? For many adults, the answer is: No one. You hacked your way through those confusing thickets on your own. Although navigating our inner landscape was not something that was taught to us in school, it should be, contend a number of researchers. They believe emotional skills should rank as high in importance in children’s educations as math, reading, history and science.

Why do emotions matter? Research has found that people who are emotionally skilled perform better in school, have better relationships, and engage less frequently in unhealthy behaviors. Plus, as more and more jobs are becoming mechanized, so-called soft skills — which include persistence, stress management and communication — are seen as a way to make humans irreplaceable by machine. There has been a growing effort in American schools to teach social and emotional learning (SEL), but these tend to emphasize interpersonal skills like cooperation and communication.

Kids are often taught to ignore or cover over their emotions. Many Western societies view emotions as an indulgence or distraction, says University of California-Santa Barbara sociologist Thomas Scheff, a proponent of emotional education. Our emotions can give us valuable information about the world, but we’re often taught or socialized not to listen to them. Just as dangerous, Scheff says, is the practice of hiding one emotion behind another. He has found that men, in particular, tend to hide feelings of shame under anger, aggression and, far too often, violence.

How does one go about teaching emotions? One of the most prominent school programs for teaching about emotions is RULER, developed in 2005 by Marc BrackettDavid Caruso and Robin Stern of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The multiyear program is used in more than 1,000 schools, in the US and abroad, across grades K-8. The name, RULER, is an acronym for its five goals: recognizing emotions in oneself and others; understanding the causes and consequences of emotions; labeling emotional experiences with an accurate and diverse vocabulary; and expressing and regulating emotions in ways that promote growth.

As a strategy, children are taught to focus on the underlying theme of an emotion rather than getting lost in trying to define it. When an emotion grips you, explains Stern, understanding its thematic contours can help “name it to tame it.” Even though anger is experienced differently by different people, she explains, “the theme underlying anger is the same. It’s injustice or unfairness. The theme that underlies disappointment is an unmet expectation. The theme that underlies frustration is feeling blocked on your way to a goal. Pinning down the theme can “help a person be seen and understood and met where she is,” says Stern.
RULER’s lessons are woven into all classes and subjects. So, for example, if “elated’ is the emotional vocabulary word under discussion, a teacher would ask students in an American history class to link “elated” to the voyage of Lewis and Clark. Instruction reaches beyond the classroom, too; kids are prompted to talk with their parents or caregivers about when they last felt elated. Researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has found RULER schools tend to see less-frequent bullying, lower anxiety and depression, more student leadership and higher grades. So why isn’t emotional education the norm rather than the exception?

Surprising fact: While scientists and educators agree on the need to teach emotions, they don’t agree on how many there are and what they are.RULER’s curriculum consists of hundreds of “feeling words,” including curious, ecstatic, hopeless, frustrated, jealous, relieved and embarrassed. Other scholars’ lists of emotions have ranged in number from two to eleven. Scheff suggests starting students out with six: grief, fear, anger, pride, shame and excessive fatigue.
While psychology began to be studied as a science more than a century ago, up to now it has focused more on identifying and treating disorders. Scheff, who has spent years studying one taboo emotion — shame — and its destructive impact on human actions, admits, “We don’t know much about emotions, even though we think we do, and that goes for the public and for researchers.” Or, as Virginia Woolf so beautifully put it, “The streets of London have their map; but our passions are uncharted.”

Parents can start to encourage their kids’ emotional awareness with a simple prompt “Tell me about some of your best moments,” a phrase Scheff has used to initiate discussions with his university students. But he and Stern agree that schools can’t wait until academics have sorted out the name and number of emotions before they act. “We know we have emotions all day long, whether we’re aware of them or not,” Stern points out. Let’s teach kids how to ride those moment-by-moment waves, instead of getting tossed around.

Whilst thinking about this topic and reading relevant posts I came upon this useful short video on Edutopia that discusses the 5 Keys to Social and Emotional Learning Success.

I would also recommend that you visit if you want to further your reading and the work you do with students as a advisory/ homeroom teacher. I believe it is more and more important that we all become skilled in SEL as an integral part of creating a safe environment in which our students can learn.

Have a good Sunday,


PS a great thing about blogs is that when someone sends something of additional  interest it can be added with a resend. I have just been sent this Atlas of Emotions which I hadn't seen before and think would be very interesting for advisers and homeroom teachers to introduce to their students.

"The Atlas of Emotions is an interactive tool designed to build emotional awareness. The site invites you to visualize, identify and explore five primary emotions (and their related feeling states, actions, triggers and moods) in order to gain a better understanding of how they influence our lives. Although we can’t always choose what emotions to feel or when to feel them, by building emotional awareness, it may be possible to choose how we respond to what we’re feeling. The Atlas began when the Dalai Lama asked prominent emotion researcher Paul Ekman to create a map of the emotions that could help people learn to have more constructive emotional experiences. Ekman, an expert in the field, had previously consulted on a wide range of emotion-related projects, including the popular Pixar film Inside Out. With his daughter, scholar Eve Ekman, he created the Atlas of Emotions in response to the Dalai Lama’s request."